This account of the Battle of Waterloo was written by Lieutenant C.W. Short of the Coldstream Guards, aged 15 ½. This officer was also one of the celebrated crew that rowed from Oxford to London as described in The Brigade of Guards Magazine, December 1897. A grandson, Lieutenant Jenkins, is now [i.e. in 1898] serving in the 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards.
See the letter in our 200 Objects series.
June 19th 1815
My Dear Mother,
I hope you will excuse my not writing to you before, but since we left Enghien on Friday morning at three o’clock, I have not had the least opportunity. We received orders to march at one in the morning, in consequence of Bonaparte’s having crossed the Frontier and attacked the Prussians.
Colonel Woodford was at the Ball with Lord Wellington when the news came, and they all set off directly for their different posts and arrived at them about the time we were ordered to start, in their Ball dresses. We marched at three o’clock the 16th through Bruine-le-compte [sic], where we halted for about four hours, and then we went on towards Nivelle, and were going to bivouac when we heard cannon firing on the other side of Nivelle. We then marched forward and reached the place of action, Quatre Bras, at about half-past seven, having marched twenty-five miles since three in the morning. The men were very much fagged indeed. The 1st Brigade of Guards being in front went into action immediately, and in a very little time lost 500 men, and nearly thirty officers killed and wounded between two Battalions (promotion for Glanville at least ten steps or perhaps fifteen). Our brigade was drawn up on a road on the left of a thick wood (Bois de Bossie) to be ready to relieve the 1st Brigade, and about half-past eight we received orders to march through the wood in line and charge the French on the other side. However, they retired, beat throughout the day by the English, Brunswickers, and Dutch, though not half our army had arrived. The Belgians ran at the first shot. We then retired to our position, and I, being first for duty, went on the outlying picquet – it being the first time I ever was on duty, and nobody to direct me, I kept a sharp look out, and did the best I could, by placing my sentries to give the alarm in case any attack should be made. The night, however, passed off very well, although the groaning of the wounded was rather disagreeable or so, for the first time. I was very hungry next morning having had nothing to eat since ten o’clock the day before. I was called in about four o’clock. I then went to sleep and woke about half-past five, when I found Whitaker had sent me some bread and meat, and a bottle of brandy, which I assure you was a great comfort. Lord Wellington, who had not pulled off his ball dress, commanded, and we found it necessary to make a sort of retrograde movement, rather to the left to communicate with the Prussians, who had been also attacked, and beat the French back, but they made in the middle of the night a desperate charge with the whole of the Cavalry, and broke the Prussians who retreated in consequence. We also retreated (17th) to a position about eight miles the other side of Genappe, on the direct road to Brussels (the name of the place I do not know), you will see it in the Gazette, and it will be remembered in Europe, as long as Europe is Europe.
We had just arrived, pitched our blankets, and the men began to make themselves comfortable, when cannonading was heard, and the Rear-guard was engaged by the French. The Rear-guard was composed of Cavalry, who came up in the night. The French took up a position opposite ours. The right rested on a wood in which the Light Infantry of our Division was posted – it being most likely that would be the point the French would make their attack on. Our Brigade was on the right of the first line – on a hill above the wood; we were under arms the whole night expecting the attack, and it rained to that degree, that the field where we were was half-way up our legs in mud. Nobody, of course, could lie down – the ague got hold of some few men.
I, with another Officer, had a blanket; we kept up very well; we had only one fire, and you cannot conceive the state we were in. We formed a hollow square, and prepared to receive the Cavalry twice, but found it was a false alarm both times.
Soon after daylight, the Company sent up with the greatest difficulty some gin, and we found an old cart full of wet Rye loaves which we breakfasted upon. Everybody was in high spirits. We broke up the cart, got some dry wood and made some fine fires – got some straw and I went to sleep for a couple of hours. About ten we were formed, finding that the French were advancing to the attack – we opened some Artillery and checked them a little by shells, but soon after the light troops commenced the attack on the wood in which our Light Infantry were posted, and the firing commenced in fine style.
Some Belgian light troops were in the wood, and when ONE man was wounded, at least a dozen would carry him out, so that the chief of the work was left for our men. The French were too strong for us, and after a couple of hours, they succeeded in driving us back to a large farm-house in the wood, and the rest of our Battalion moved on to support the Light Infantry, when the two Rear Companies were ordered to remain with the Colors [sic] – General Byng thinking that the Battalion would be too much cut to pieces, as the firing was very rapid. The 7th and 8th Companies stopped with the Colors, and two Companies of each Battalion in our Division. I believe I told you in my last of my being appointed to the 7th Company.
We were ordered to lie down on the road, the musket shots flying over us like peas – an officer next to me was hit in the cap, but not hurt, as it went through; another next to him was hit also, on the plate of the cap, but it went through also without hurting him. Two Sergeants that lay near me were hit in the knapsacks, and were not hurt besides other shots passing as near as possible.
I never saw such luck as we had. The Brigade Major was wounded by a cannon ball, which killed his horse and broke his arm; and General Byng was wounded slightly while standing opposite me about five paces. General Byng did not leave the field. Lord Wellington with his Ball dress was very active indeed, as well as Lord Uxbridge and the Prince of Orange, both severely wounded, the former having lost his leg and the latter being hit in the body. General Cooke, commanding our Division, lost his arm. The battle kept up all day in this wood where our Brigade was stationed. The farm-house was set on fire by shells, however we kept possession of it. The Cavalry came on about five o’clock, and attacked the rest of the line, when the Horse Guards and the other regiments behaved most gallantly. The French charged our hollow squares and were repulsed several times – the Imperial Guards with Napoleon at their head charged the 1st Guards, and the number of killed and wounded is extraordinary – they lie as thick as possible, one on top of the other.
They were repulsed in every attack, and about seven o’clock the whole French army made a general attack for their last effort, and we should have had very hard work to repulse them – when 25,000 Prussians came on, and we drove them like chaff before the wind, 20,000 getting into the midst of them played the Devil with them, and they took to flight in the greatest possible hurry. The baggage of Bonaparte was taken by the Prussians, and the last report that has been heard of the French says, that they have re-passed the frontier and gone by Charleroi hard pressed by the Prussians. The French say that this battle beats Leipsic [sic] hollow in the number of killed and wounded. Our Division suffered exceedingly. We are to follow on Thursday. Today we bivouac at Nivelles. Lord Wellington has thanked our Division through General Byng, and says, ‘that he never saw such gallant conduct in his life.’
The ——– behaved very badly on Saturday; they were ordered to charge the Polish Lancers, and when they got to them (the Lancers remaining steady) they turned about, and away they went. The Lancers then charged them; and the Horse Guards and Blues charging the Lancers, overthrew them and cut them nearly all to pieces.
The Horse Guards and the Blues have behaved famously. Lord Uxbridge would have been taken only for our Infantry, and he rode up to the Company and said, he owed his life to them.
I was on piquet that night, but the French were beyond the frontier before twelve o’clock at night.
There never was such a glorious day, everybody agrees – send me the GAZETTE, it will tell you more than I can. You must excuse all mistakes; I am in such a hurry; I will give a fuller account of some little things relative to myself and so on, when I have time. I had my horse killed; it was very beautiful to see the engagement, though horrid afterwards. The French killed a great number of our wounded soldiers. We have taken 120 pieces of cannon. The Prussians are coming up every hour and cheer us as they pass. I have a great deal more to say, but have no time. I must be back at the Camp by eight o’clock. All the baggage was sent to Antwerp in case we were defeated yesterday. The number of prisoners is immense. We have only two officers killed, but several severely wounded. My love to all. I have heard nothing of Major Hogg.
I remain your dutiful Son,
CHARLES WILLIAM SHORT
C.W.Short, born November 4th, 1799, died January 19th, 1857. Entered the Coldstream Guards October 14th, 1814.
This letter has been taken from The Household Brigade Magazine of 1898
There are several points of interest. The letter reminds us of just how limited was the perspective of each combatant, and accounts written this soon after the battle are particularly valuable because they make this limitation very clear. For example, Short has very little awareness of what had happened at Quatre Bras, other than within Bossu Wood, while Ligny amounted to no more than a night attack [!] which had driven the Prussians back. Similarly, although he was initially posted in the wood before Hougoumont and was then driven back into Hougoumont itself, he records nothing outside his immediate experience. What does emerge, though, is what it felt like to be in the battle, and that is the real value of letters like this.
When Short comments on events elsewhere, his limited perspective becomes even more obvious. Not only has be received no understanding of events at Ligny, he also talks about the Belgians running away at the first shot at Quatre Bras, showing ignorance of how long they had been under fire, and how tenaciously they had held their ground. He does give due praise to the Brunswickers and Dutch, though. Similarly, he has obviously been told something about the charge of the Union Brigade but in his version they charge lancers (whom he identified at Poles) rather than the French guns. He also refers twice to the Horse Guards and the Blues, who are of course the same regiment. Presumably, he means the Life Guards and the Blues. This is not to criticise a very young and inexperienced officer; rather it reminds us that all accounts should be treated with caution when they move on to events which the writer did not experience, and valued for what they do provide, an individual and personal response to a great event.
One last point which made me smile. Even as he comes to terms with the harrowing experiences he has witnessed, he can still think of someone’s promotion chances, a reminder of just how crucial promotion was to every officer!