Wellington’s Foot Guards at Waterloo – the men who saved the day against Napoleon, Robert Burnham and Ron McGuigan

Wellington’s Foot Guards at Waterloo – the men who saved the day against Napoleon, Robert Burnham and Ron McGuigan

Four battalions from the three regiments of British Foot Guards were present during the Waterloo campaign, forming the only fully British division in Wellington’s army, the 1st Division (not the Guards Division – the first incarnation of that unit didn’t appear until the First World War). Three battalions were present in the British army that was formed in Belgium after Napoleon’s first abdication, and the book traces their experiences from the boredom of 1814 through the battles of Quatrre Bras and Waterloo and on to the march to Paris and their time in the Army of Occupation of France.  

The Guards Battalions were heavily involved in two key parts of the battle of Waterloo. First they provided a large part of the garrison of Hougoumont, which remained in allied hands despite repeated French assault, thus disrupting Napoleon’s plans on that part of the battlefield. Second they made up some of the infantry squares that survived repeated French cavalry attacks during Ney’s massive cavalry attack on the allied centre.

The first three chapters feel like they belong in the appendices more than the main text. The level of detail here is impressive, but not a terribly readable start to the book, and includes tables of heights, age and even hair colour! It’s worth reading chapter one in full as that gives us details of which battalions were present, how strong they were etc, but it wouldn’t hurt to skim the next two, dive straight into the narrative in chapter four, and come back to them for details later. 

Things pick up after that. A single chapter looks at the year of peace from April 1814 to March 1815, where the main problem was keeping the troops busy and preventing too many officers from returning home! In March 1815 Napoleon escaped from Elba, and it soon became clear that the army would have to fight once again. The next chapter looks at the division’s slow move to the front. 

After that there is a sudden change of pace. 16 June gets two full chapters, the retreat to Waterloo one and the battle itself five. These chapters are very detailed, giving us pretty much a blow-by-blow account of the fighting, but at the same time remain readable, giving us a coherent account of the fighting – not always something that this sort of very detailed book manage. For most of the Waterloo chapters the Guards were on the defensive, either in the Hougoumont chateau complex, where the dangers of fire were soon added to the dangers of battle, or in the squares under cavalry attack, and we get a real feel for how dangerous both positions were.

Overall this is unusually readable for a book that goes into this much detail, at least once the fighting begins, and perhaps because of the relatively static nature of the two main incidents involving the Guards I found that the authors managed to produce a detailed account that didn’t lose track of the overall picture. Although the main focus is of course on Waterloo itself, the sections on the period before and after the battle are also of great interest, and serve as a reminder that Waterloo didn’t stand in a vacuum.

1 – The Guards Battalions
2 – The Guards Officers
3 – The Enlisted Soldier
4 – April 1814 to March 1815 Inspections, Parades and Boredom
5 – March to June 1815 War Clouds on the Horizon
6 – 16 June 1815 The March to War
7 – 16 June 1815 Quatre Bras
8 – 17 June 1815 The Retreat to Waterloo
9 – 18 June 1815 The Morning of Waterloo
10 – 18 June 1815 Waterloo 11.00-13.30 Hours
11 – 18 June 1815 Waterloo 13.30-16.00 Hours
12 – 18 June 1815 Waterloo 16.00-20.00 Hours
13 – 18 June 1815 Waterloo 20.00-21.00 Hours
14 – The Night After Waterloo
15 – The March to Paris, the Siege of Peronné and the Army of Occupation of France
16 – What Happened to Them After Waterloo?

Author: Robert Burnham and Ron McGuigan
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: Frontline


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