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The Cavalry That Broke Napoleon

Author
Richard Goldsbrough
First a declaration of interest. I have known the author for thirty years and we had next door troops when we joined the QDG. We remain close friends.

Second, some numbers. At around 2pm on Sunday 18th of June, 1815, the King’s Dragoon Guards mustered some 596 mounted men, (all ranks), as part of the Household Brigade in a valley just to the north west of La Haye Sainte. By seven in the evening the regiment mustered just 13. Yes, you read that right. The KDG suffered more killed and wounded at Waterloo than the entire Light Brigade suffered when they charged in Crimea. This book is the story of how that happened, written with the focus on the actions and experiences of one of the heavy cavalry regiments, the KDG.

Waterloo must be one of the most written about and debated battles in history; understandably so as at a strategic level it settled the history of Europe and at a tactical level the premier general of the era was comprehensively defeated. Those who have wargamed the battle often find it hard to get outcomes other than French triumph. This book goes some way to shedding light on how and why the Allies won.

In simple terms the battle of Waterloo comprises four main actions. The French kicked off with an attack on Wellington’s right at the chateau of Hougemont. Had they taken it the opportunity to take Wellington in the flank and roll the positon would have been easy. However they didn’t, and it became a bloody side show.
The next step was the attack on the Allied centre. At about 2pm, French Marshal D’Erlon led a corps attack with 18,000 infantry supported by several thousand cuirassiers (cavalry to the novice) and artillery. This attack was disrupted by the riflemen at La Haye Sainte and slowed by British infantry firing from the ridge road. It was then obliterated by the British heavy cavalry, which comprised two brigades of which total strength the KDG was about one quarter.

The Household and Union heavy cavalry brigades emerged from dead ground in of the valley to the north of the ridge. They crossed the sunken road, passed round allied infantry squares, smashed the French cuirassiers screen and then carried on to destroy what was left of D’Erlon’s infantry.

Unable or unwilling to regroup (like most of the other regiments in the charge), the KDG then carried on to the French artillery (and beyond), where they killed the artillerymen too before being the target of a counter attack by French lancers.

The survivors managed to regroup back where they had started. They then spent the rest of the afternoon supporting the allied infantry against firstly Ney’s cavalry attacks and subsequently against the final assault by Napoleon’s Imperial Guard.

The author does an excellent job in unscrambling what actually happened, largely from the accounts of the participants. The picture he portrays is of a desperate, increasingly chaotic action – which rings true. He also gently but firmly debunks the myths created by Lady Hamilton and Hollywood. But most of all, he enables the reader to understand one of the most decisive actions by British cavalry from the viewpoint of the KDG participant – be he trooper, sergeant or officer. It is no hagiography, but an accurate account of what happened. Did the KDG alone break Napoleon – no. But the charge of the heavy brigade certainly destroyed D’Erlon’s attack, buying Wellington precious time. In his dispatch from Waterloo, the Duke only mentioned three regiments – one of which was the KDG.

The prose is engaging, the maps adequate and the tale is worth the telling. The profit from the book will be used to create an appropriate memorial to the KDG at the Waterloo battlefield. Buy it.
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