An eyewitness account

18/06/2015 11:53

Written by Antony Mason

© Joseph Jeanmart/Whybelgium.co.uk© Joseph Jeanmart/Whybelgium.co.uk

Rees Howell Gronow (1794–1865) was a 21-year-old Guards officer at Waterloo. Having joined the British army in 1813, he had served under the Duke of Wellington in Spain, and fought at Quatre-Bras. His vivid account of the Battle of Waterloo appeared in his memoir The Reminiscences of Captain Gronow (1862).

During the battle our squares presented a shocking sight. Inside we were nearly suffocated by the smoke and smell from burnt cartridges. It was impossible to move a yard without treading upon a wounded comrade, or upon the bodies of the dead; and the loud groans of the wounded and dying were most appalling. At four o’clock our square was a perfect hospital, being full of dead, dying, and mutilated soldiers. The charges of cavalry were in appearance very formidable, but in reality a great relief, as the artillery could no longer fire on us: the very earth shook under the enormous mass of men and horses. I never shall forget the strange noise our bullets made against the breastplates of Kellermann’s and Milhaud’s Cuirassiers, six or seven thousand in number, who attacked us with great fury.

I never shall forget the strange noise our bullets made against the breastplates of Kellermann’s and Milhaud’s Cuirassiers.

I can only compare it, with a somewhat homely simile, to the noise of a violent hail-storm beating upon panes of glass. The artillery did great execution, but our musketry did not at first seem to kill many men; though it brought down a large number of horses, and created indescribable confusion. The horses of the first rank of Cuirassiers, in spite of all the efforts of their riders, came to a stand-still, shaking and covered with foam, at about twenty yards’ distance from our squares, and generally resisted all attempts to force them to charge the line of serried steel. On one occasion, two gallant French officers forced their way into a gap momentarily created by the discharge of artillery: one was killed by [Colonel] Staples, the other by [Captain] Adair. Nothing could be more gallant than the behaviour of those veterans, many of whom had distinguished themselves on half the battlefields of Europe.

Nothing could be more gallant than the behaviour of those veterans, many of whom had distinguished themselves on half the battlefields of Europe.

In the midst of our terrible fire, their officers were seen as if on parade, keeping order in their ranks, and encouraging them. Unable to renew the charge, but unwilling to retreat, they brandished their swords with loud cries of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ and allowed themselves to be mowed down by hundreds rather than yield. Our men, who shot them down, could not help admiring the gallant bearing and heroic resignation of their enemies.

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