by Michael Kirkby
Day break, 18th June 1815 the combined allied force under the command of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington is just waking up from a sodden night of continual rainfall on the ridge of Mont St Jean near the tiny Belgian hamlet of Waterloo. Across the landscape the French army under the command of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is also forming up for what would eventually the ultimate clash between Britain and France ending a war that had been waging for almost 24 years.
Wellington’s forces were busy getting ready to repulse the huge French army that faced them. His infantry and cavalry began moving into position, the artillery began setting up their batteries and the Guards units that were holding the fortified farmhouses of Hougoumont, La Haye Saint and Papellotte in preparation to repel the massed French army facing them. Wellington’s strategy was simple, funnel Napoleon’s troops through the gaps between the farmsteads and cut them to pieces so that by the time they met the main British force holding the ridge they would be exhausted and their numbers severely depleted. Matthew Clay from Blidworth, Mansfield was one of the troops stationed with the Light Company of the 3rd Regiment of Foot Guards (Scots Fusiliers) at Hougomont. Two days before his regiment had encountered the French at Quatre Bras where they had beaten back the French offensive but had then been forced to retreat. Whist his regiment was positioned to the right of Wellington’s flank, Clay’s company was placed into the Chateau of Hougoumont to add strength to the Guards units already there. The main French attack, rather than just march past the Chateau, turned and attacked directly. For twelve hours Clay was confined within the chateaus walls as the garrison fought desperately to prevent the French from entering. The chateau almost fell in the first attack when a giant French sapper identified as Sous-lieutenant (Junior lieutenant) Legros, smashed open the gates with his axe and forced his way in leading a stream of Frenchmen. Col. MacDonnell and his men managed to close the gates behind them and the garrison set about hunting out all of the Frenchmen who had worked their way in killing them to the last man bar one drummer boy. Throughout the day the battle raged on around Hougoumont with French attacks being repulsed, but gradually the defenders began to run out of ammunition.
At 3:30 on the afternoon of the 18th Napoleon directed howitzer fire onto Hougoumont which set the thatch roofs on fire. With the buildings burning down around them a message arrived for MacDonnell direct from Wellington ordering the troops to not withdraw but to retreat into the gardens and continue to fight the enemy. Despite being surrounded and their defences burning down around them the Guards and Hougoumont held out for the battle. Matthew Clay and his defenders had been holed up for twelve hours of continual fighting but had survived the French onslaught.
Following Waterloo he returned home with the regiment and promoted Corporal in 1818 and sergeant in 1822. He later fought again in Spain during their Carlist Wars and upon leaving the army he joined the Bedfordshire Militia. Matthew died in Bedfordshire in 1873.
In the same Regiment as Clay though with the main body of the regiment on Wellington’s right was Samuel Whitehead (1777 – 1870), an Ilkeston born soldier who had been fighting the French since the Duke of York’s ill-conceived plan to invade Holland in 1799. Whitehead had joined the regiment a year before aged only 20/1. Whitehead’s first active service almost ended in disaster when he caught fever and almost died, but making a good recovery he would go on to see action in Egypt, Germany and Copenhagen. His regiment was sent out to the Iberian Peninsula in 1808 where Whitehead saw action in the following years at Talavera, Busaco and Fuentes d’Onoro. Sadly at the latter battle he was wounded by a French artillery shot and didn’t see any further action until 1814 by which time he was promoted corporal. He was 38 when the 3rd Foot Guards were posted out to the Low Countries and saw much action at Quatre Bras where in records he stated that they spent most of the battle in the corn fields without much food but a large quantity of brandy! At Waterloo he spent the majority of the battle assisting the surgeons behind the lines. Whitehead was to witness one of the most important turning points of the battle as at 7:00 pm Napoleon ordered his beloved Imperial Guard, whom he had kept in reserve all the day to attack Wellington’s right flank. Up to 6000 of Napoleon’s elite troops were now marching on Wellington’s shattered lines that for the whole day had been battered by Napoleon’s 18pdr guns. Much of the regiments had been ordered to lie down to not attract the French artillery fire but seeing the French columns approach Wellington stood in his stirrups and called out to General Maitland, commander of the Guards units, “Now Maitland! Now’s your time!” The Imperial Guard, completely oblivious to the presence of the British line were suddenly faced with British soldiers springing up from the ground to pour well trained volley fire into their ranks before they even had time to react. The Imperial Guard, who had made a name for themselves as fierce soldiers, halted, wavered, and began to fall back. This symbolised the beginning of the end for Napoleon, and soon his army began to melt away from the field.
Following Waterloo, Whitehead remained in the army until 1818 when he returned to Ilkeston and opened a druggist shop.
Samuel Whitehead’s brother, Thomas Whitehead, also enjoyed a military career serving under Wellington. Born in 1783 he joined the Royal Horse Artillery in 1805 where during a 30 year career he was promoted from gunner to bombardier, corporal, sergeant and staff sergeant. He fought in the entire Iberian Peninsula from 1809-1914 and was present at the fall of Paris. As an artillery gunner in the Royal Horse Artillery, Thomas’s service was invaluable to The Duke of Wellington. Whilst the army was commanded by Wellington, the artillery was commanded by the Board of Ordnance who often conflicted with Wellington over military affairs. The Board often left Wellington short of supplies, resources and men, so what artillery was given to Wellington he had to make most of. As Royal Horse Artillery, Thomas was part of a mobile artillery unit that would get quite close to the enemy, unlimber, fire and then limber up and race off to other parts of the battlefield where necessary. At Waterloo the Royal Horse Artillery were armed with howitzers and 6pdr guns, and were responsible for taking the sting out of the French advance so they were weakened by the time they reached the British lines. Wellington came to rely so much on his artillery that he made it a flogging offence for gunners to engage in artillery duels with French guns. Following Waterloo, Thomas enjoyed a long service until invalided out in 1835 with poor eyesight and rheumatism.
Whilst Wellington’s infantry played an integral part to his success that day, Waterloo, owing to landscape was one of the only battles where Wellington could make full use of his cavalry to charge the French positions and harass their artillery. Wellington’s cavalry was commanded by Henry Paget, Earl Uxbridge who was also his second in command. Uxbridge, responsible for directing the cavalry attacks on d’Erlon’s Corps needed to ensure that his cavalry did not overstretch themselves as they were prone to doing after a charge. Carrying Uxbridge’s messages around the battlefield was Thomas Wildman, a young officer of dragoons acting as aide-de-camp to Uxbridge. Wildman joined the7th Light Dragoons in 1808 as a Cornet and later that same year was promoted to Lieutenant. Wildman’s role at Waterloo put him in certain danger of being hit by enemy fire and would bring him into close contact with the French positions. Towards the latter stage of the battle Uxbridge was hit below the knee by French artillery shot. Wildman was one of the first to attend him and helped to staunch the flow before carrying him to a surgeons post. Wildman’s bloodstained glove can be seen on display at the National Army Museum in London. Following Waterloo Wildman bought Newstead Abbey from his childhood friend Lord Byron in 1818, two years earlier he bought a Majority in the 2nd West India Regiment and then the 9th Light Dragoons. He became a Captain in the Nottinghamshire Yeomanry in 1828 and after being promoted to Colonel in 1837 and lt. Col of the 5th Dragoon Guards in 1840.
Another commander in Wellington’s cavalry at Waterloo was Sir Arthur Benjamin Clifton (1771-1869), of the revered local aristocracy, who was Lt. Col. of the 1st Royal Dragoons.
The 1st Royals already had experience of fighting the French and had landed in Portugal in 1809 where mostly for the time in the Iberia they skirmished with French cavalry patrols on the Spanish – Portuguese border. They were used to cover the army’s retreat to Busaco and Torres Vedras in 1810 and 1811 and again used to harass the French rear guard as they pulled back into Spain. Following the winter retreat of 1811 they then followed Wellington’s army as it advanced into the heart of Spain and took part in the engagements at Fuentes d’Onoro, Vittoria and the Pyrenees. Though present at the battle of Toulouse the regiment did not see action and following Napoleon’s abdication they sailed home for England. When Napoleon escaped from Elba the regiment was despatched to Belgium in May 1815. Though they saw no action at Quatre Bras they helped cover the retreat of the allied army back to Waterloo. On June 18th the 1st Royal Dragoons took part in the charge against d’Erlon’s corps, where Captain Clark and Corporal Styles succeeded in capturing a French eagle of the French 105th Regiment. The 1st Royals lost 97 men and 97 wounded at Waterloo. Following the battle they returned to Dover in January 1816. Sir Arthur Clifton, leading his regiment in their many charges that day also reputedly took command of the brigade late in the afternoon of 18th June after their commander was wounded.
Wellington’s heavy cavalry was split into two brigades at Waterloo, Somerset’s 1st cavalry brigade to which Clifton’s 1st Royal Dragoons belonged and Ponsonby’s 2nd cavalry brigade which comprised of the Lifeguards. It was within the ranks of the Lifeguards that John Shaw and Richard Waplington both hailing from Cossall were stationed. Known as the ‘Cossall Giants’ for their height and strength they both perished on the field that day in hand to hand conflict with Napoleon’s cuirassiers, their French cavalry equivalents . Shaw took six of the enemy cavalry with him, using his helmet as a club when his sword snapped, and Waplington was cut down from the saddle surrounded by enemy cavalry as he clung onto an enemy standard. Both were buried near the British stronghold of La Haye Saint after the battle. Another Cossall man, again serving in the cavalry at Waterloo was Thomas Wheatley, a light dragoon whose regiment acted as scouts for the army, reconnoitring the enemy positions and harassing enemy movements . Wheatley survived the battle and returned to England later to serve in the local militia. He was later buried in Cossall Churchyard and today a monument stands to all three Cossall men over his resting place.
Whilst Nottinghamshire men were busy engaged with the Napoleon’s army in Belgium, across the waters the 45th Nottinghamshire Regiment was in the process of boarding their troop transports in an Irish harbour to take them to the Low Countries. They were par t of an army that had been requested by the Duke of Wellington to fight the French tyrant but sadly were not to make the battle in time.
The 45th had enjoyed a varied military life fighting under Wellington in the Peninsula Campaign of 1808 – 1815. Fighting in nearly all his Peninsula campaigns, the 45th were amongst the first wave of troops to land at Mondego Bay, Portugal in 1808 and took part in almost all of his battles earning his respect as well as their nickname ‘The Old Stubborns.’ The 45th was one of the few Regiments to never return home throughout the Peninsula Campaign and after 7 years of fighting returned home in 1814 battered and exhausted when Napoleon was first defeated.
The named individuals in this article are by no means an exhaustive list of Nottinghamshire men who fought at Waterloo. They do however go to show that Nottingham made an imprint in one of the most prestigious battles recorded in British military history. Whether they were infantry, cavalry or artillery, each individual had their own integral part to play in ensuring that the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, met his fate and ended a 24 year long war between Britain and France, securing a new Europe.
Michael Kirkby will be delivering a series of talks and events this summer around Nottinghamshire locations to bring the story of Nottingham’s Waterloo heroes home.