History of War

THE IMPERIAL GUARD NAPOLEON'S ELITE

On the morning of 18 June 1815, Napoleon realised that Wellington was holding his ground and was ready to give battle. Delighted to be given the opportunity to strike a fatal blow, the French emperor said to General Foy, “I will launch my cavalry and will send my Old Guard forward.”

As always when positioning his forces, Napoleon ordered the Imperial Guard to remain in reserve. Before 4pm, Marshal Ney, who had been tasked with the capture of La Haye Sainte, mistook movements in British positions for the beginning of a retreat. Eager to exploit the situation, he ordered a cavalry charge to break Wellington’s centre. Despite its orders to stay put, the light cavalry of the Old Guard followed the charge.

Captain de Brach, a lancer of the Guard, later explained this controversial move: “Four horse regiments of the Guard, a division under Ney’s orders, did not split for the whole day and stayed close to the Nivelles road. They did not move until the assault… Four regiments were positioned on a single line, near the main road, the lancers on the right, and to their left the chasseurs, the dragoons and the grenadiers… The brigade of dragoons and grenadiers, waiting for an order, suddenly believed that they had been ordered to charge; we followed!” At 5pm, Napoleon sent the heavy cavalry of the Guard and squadrons led by Lefebvre-Desnouettes to support the effort. The French cavalry attack crashed on British infantry squares, causing little damage to them.

By 6pm, Napoleon had good reason to be worried. The French had been fighting the Battle of Waterloo for more than six hours against the armies of Wellington. Bülow’s IV Corps had arrived at 4.30pm near Plancenoit, not far from the rear of the French positions. The Duhesme Division of the Young Guard (3,000 men) had been dispatched to face the Prussians.

As Colonel Pontécoulant explained, the struggle was doomed from the beginning. The Young Guard

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