Recently The Royal Mail Service issued a series of commemorative stamps honoring the Scottish soldiers contributions during the Napoleonic Wars especially their actions on 15 and 17 June 1815 at the battle of Waterloo. While this might not seem remarkable in itself, it highlights the fact that the Scottish soldiers timely contributions were the sine quo non to The Duke of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo 200 years ago. Not to belittle the contributions of other British and Allied soldiers, it was the Scottish Highlander attitude and their uncanny ability to fight heroically against huge odds that actually won the battle at Waterloo.
After the battle, Wellington said that he had “an infamous army, very weak and ill-equipped, and a very inexperienced Staff”. His troops consisted of 67,000 men: 50,000 infantry, 11,000 cavalry, and 6,000 artillery with 150 guns. Of these, 25,000 were British. While the Scots composed 19% of the British Army they composed only 10% of the population. At Waterloo the Scottish contingent was about 5,000 men. It consisted of: 3rd Battalion of Foot -1st Regiment of Foot (The Coldstream Guards), 3rd Battalion of Foot - 2nd Regiment (The Scots Guards), The 1st Royal Scots (The Black Watch), the 2nd Regiment Dragoons (The Royal Scots Greys), 42nd Regiment of Foot (The Highland Light Infantry), the 71st Regiment of Foot (Frazier's Regiment,), the 73rd Regiment of Foot (later 2nd Black Watch), the 79th Regiment of Foot (The Queens’ Own Cameron Highlanders), and the 93rd Regiment of Foot (The Gordon Highlanders). The 91st Regiment of Foot (1st Argyll Highlanders) were guarding the road to Brussels and did not take an active part in the fighting.
Probably, the most famous participants were the Scots Greys. For most people it was their heroic cavalry “charge&sdquo; that finally thrust the French on the defensive leading to their ultimate defeat. But prior to the “Charge of the Scots Greys” it was another contingent of Scots who contributed significantly to the final victory. Two days prior to Waterloo, The 73rd, the 92nd Foot, the Gordon Highlanders and the 1st Royal Scots made a heroic stand in the rye field at Quatre Bras. Had they not held their ground, the later results would most likely been vastly different.
Quatre Bras was a crossroads south of Waterloo. Flanked a few miles to the east by Ligny and west was Houghoumont. This constituted Wellington’s first line of defense. His plan was to delay them until the bulk of his army arrived at Mont St. Jean a few miles south of
Waterloo. Wellington assembled his armies at the village of Mont-Saint-Jean a few miles north of Quatre Bras and just south of Brussels. (So the Battle of Waterloo was really fought at the Mont-Saint- Jean escarpment.) The Prussians eventually joined Wellington and together they faced the French advance on the combined allied armies at Waterloo.
Quatre Bras was held 8,000 troops of Wellington’s allies; The inexperienced Dutch and Belgians. While Ligny was held by The Prussians. Wellington was at Quatre Bras, but his troops were still marching in. When “Boney” as the British referred to Napoleon, discovered Wellington’s presence he changed his battle plans and did not attack for several hours. He was well aware of Wellington’s tactic of keeping his main force out of sight. So, it was Wellington’s reputation, not his troops, that held Quatre Bras throughout the morning.
When 22,000 French troops, led by Marshall Ney, attacked the outnumbered Dutch and Belgians, they fought valiantly but their in experience showed. Wavering under heavy pressure, they were on the verge of retreat when several elements of veteran Scottish troops arrived to steady their ranks - The 1st Royal Scots (The Black Watch), the 73rd Foot (The 2nd Black Watch) and the 92nd Foot (The Gordon Highlanders) led by a Welshman, Sir Thomas Picton, arrived. With bayonets attached and bagpipes swirling they joined the battle. As the Belgian and Dutch troops fell back the Scots took positions in the rye and barley fields on either side of their allies. Here, they slowed and finally stopped the French attack. However, the success came at a huge cost. All three units suffered heavy casualties approaching 35 %.
The next morning along with Wellington the 1st Royal Scots, the 73rd Foot and the 92nd Foot withdrew to Waterloo where they were to be held in reserve. The 1st Regiment of Foot - The Coldstream Guards served as a rear guard covering the retreat. The stand at Quatre Bras was very significant because the Prussians were driven out of Ligney by the French exposing Wellington’s left flank. If Quatre Bras fell “Boney” could attack the Allie’s center before there were sufficient troops to defend it. The Coldstream Guards suffered substantial casualties from French counter attracts. During the next day all three armies recovered and reorganized following their battles.
At the onset of the Battle at Waterloo, Wellington held two strategic positions straddling the road to Brussels; Hougoumont Chateau and Papelotte hamlet. From these positions if the French attacked up the road they would be subject to Enfilading fire from both sides. So it was important to them to capture and control both positions. Papelotte was held by a Prussian force from the Duchy of Nassau and although the French eventually won the hamlet, the Nassau brigade restored control and held it throughout the battle.