Book Review:
Waterloo Letters

Edited by Major-General H.T. Siborne

Waterloo Letters : Major-General Siborne



This is a hefty tome - heavy enough to weight train with - and it is filled with more than 180 letters from eyewitnesses to the monumental Battle of Waterloo.

The collection covers all British branches of the army that ended Napoleon Bonaparte’s last bid to stay in power and includes some very interesting observations and personal experiences.

Take Colonel W Thornhill of the 7th Hussars and ADC to Lord Uxbridge in a note to General Sir Frederic Stovin:

“… I got into mighty bad company at the crest of the hill, being close to the Duke of Wellington and Lord Anglesey, when I was knocked off the perch by a cannon shot which carried off a portion of my neck, paralysed my right ear and right nostril and you will say the right side of my memory also.”

Colonel Sir Horace Seymour, Captain of the 60th Rifles and ADC to Lord Uxbridge, on being asked to locate musket ammunition to help the 3rd Guards defend Hougoumont:

“Fell in with a private of the Waggon Train in charge of a tumbril on the crest of that position. I merely pointed out to him where he was wanted, when he gallantly started his horses and drove down the hill to the farm, to the gate of which I saw him arrive. He must have lost his horses as there was a severe fire kept up on him. I feel convinced to that man’s service the Guards owe their ammunition.”

And he wrote about the death of Sir Thomas Picton.

“At the moment Sir Thomas Picton received the shot in the forehead that killed him, he was calling to me to rally the Highlanders, who were for the instant overpowered by the masses of French infantry who were moving up to their right of the high road.”

Major S Waymouth of the 2nd Life Guards states how a comrade of his described an affair between the Union Brigade and French cuirassiers.

“… the Brigade, and the Cuirassiers too, came to the shock like two walls, in the most perfect lines he ever saw; and I believe this line was maintained throughout. A short struggle enabled us to break through them, notwithstanding the great disadvantage arising  from our swords, which were full six inches shorter than those of the Cuirassiers, besides its being the custom of our Service to carry the swords in a very bad position while charging, the French carrying theirs in a manner much less fatiguing, and also much better for either attack or defence.”
Major J Luard, Lieutenant and Adjutant of the 16th Light Dragoons on the preparations for his regiment to join a counter-charge against French lancers.

“The fire now became tremendous, particularly of musketry. I had at this moment my horse shot in the head by a musketball and Lt Phillips of the 11th, while condoling with me on seeing me mounted on a troop horse, had his head shot off by a cannon-shot. The fire became every moment hotter, and from the rapid way in which it approached us, appeared as if the enemy was carrying the hill by which we were partially covered.”

The Royal Horse Artillery’s Lt-Colonel EY Walcott describes a French infantry attack that very nearly reached him.

“That magnificent order which directed the artillerymen, when from the closeness of the enemy they could no longer fire canister, to leave their guns in position and fall back in a line with the squares did not reach my ears.
“… I continued directing a gun of the troop, till looking up when it was ready, I found the skirmishers of the attacking column, French Imperial Guard – for they had not the cuirass and wore black fur tops – close upon me. Two of them convinced to upset me.”

“Soon after this attack a second, much more serious, was made by cavalry supported by infantry. On this occasion the same fine manouevre was resorted to. The French cavalry came right through the line of guns and so far to the rear as to kill and wound men and horse of the troops of artillery with the limbers and ammunition carriages of those guns in action non the crest of the hill. The French infantry followed quick the attack of the cavalry. The artillerymen fell back. The squares of infantry advanced and gloriously driving back the attacking columns, gave us the opportunity of playing over the heads of our own and into the retiring and beaten mass of the enemy.”

Brevet Major AC Mercer, Royal Artillery, Captain Royal Horse Artillery writes of how a French cavalry column of Grenadiers a Cheval and Cuirassiers was threatening them before his guns could deploy.

“There scarcely appeared time even to get into action and, if caught in column, of course we were lost. However the order was given to deploy and each gun as it came up immediately opened its fire.
Mercer adds that two loosely formed and shaky British squares of infantry began to also fire “but they were in such a state that I momentarily expected to see them disband”.

Despite the guns’ fire the French cavalry continued to close: “… at the very moment we expected to be overwhelmed those of the leading squadrons suddenly turning and endeavouring to may way to the rear, confusion took place and the whole broke into a disorderly crowd.

“Several minutes elapsed ere they succeeded in quitting the plateau, during which our fire was incessant and the consequent carnage frightful.

“Many, instead of seeking safety in retreat, wisely dashed through the intervals between our guns.”

There are many, many other fascinating descriptions of the field of this historic battle in Waterloo Letters and I think anyone remotely interested in the 100 Days Campaign will find themselves lost for hours within its pages.


- Richard Moore


Waterloo Letters, by Major-General H.T. Siborne.
Pen and Sword Books, ISBN: 9781526782144.
Pages: 464.
Illustrations: 16 black-and-white images.

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