On Friday 19 and Saturday 20 June this year I had the awesome experience of participating in the 200th anniversary reenactments of Waterloo. This I did as a cavalryman, in fact commanding the small British squadron of Light Dragoons, the 12th and 16th working together. I’m a member of the 16th.
I think I can safely say that I found the experience informative as a military historian. Indeed, one of my comrades, a Falklands veteran, reckoned that it was as close to the real thing as you could get without firing ball.
The first informative experience came in our very first engagement. We went down into the valley, past La Haye Sainte (a reconstruction) and charged up the other side into a huge, whirling mass of British heavy cavalry and French Lancers. I was out in front of my squadron and immediately engaged a couple of French. Then I looked around to see how my unit was doing. It had completely disappeared. Eventually I rounded up a few and we started back across the valley, with others joining in as we went. The last four joined us after we had been back and reformed for some five minutes or more.
On reflection, a few things contributed to this. The whole British cavalry amounted to little more than a real squadron, about 120. The Allied cavalry totaled about 170. The squadron was the smallest tactical unit and whilst I lost my dozen or so there were plenty of British cavalry around. With a trumpeter the whole would have been a lot easier to withdraw than a dozen mixed in with everyone else. That is to do with the nature of reenactment.
Turning to things that are related to reality rather than reenactment; the post 1812 British Light Dragoon uniform looks very French, the shako and epaulettes, its general style, make it difficult to pick out from other French cavalry, particularly in poor visibility.
Smoke was a major factor. The battlefield we had was huge, by reenactment standards, about a kilometre square. At times we could see right across it and watch the French, particularly during the deployment phase. At other times the smoke from the cannon and musketry reduced visibility to less than 50 metres. One friend of mine in a Prussian battalion told me they received a volley at 25 metres from a French battalion that they never saw. Another friend in a British unit told me that they had considerable difficulty identifying cavalry because in the smoke all colour disappeared and they could only go by shape. The French infantry and artillery could only be located by their muzzle flashes.
Both battles finished at ten o’clock at night and so a large portion happened as night was falling, which added to the general confusion and difficulties. It became harder and harder to identify the nationality of bodies of troops, particularly as the scale of the event meant that you were looking at a unit 200 metres away or more, rather than the more usual 50 metres in a reenactment.
Towards the end of the second battle all the British and most of the Allied cavalry were sitting quietly in line on top of the Allied ridge. Our horses were steaming and almost blown. Riding through the breast high wheat was tiring for them, as, I am reliably informed, it was for the infantry marching through it. As we sat there we watched a French infantry brigade march down into the valley and around our side of La Haye Sainte to try to take a Dutch Brigade in its flank. They were some 300 metres directly to our front. We were 120 in two ranks. We walked forward, we trotted down the hill, at about 100 metres from them we cantered. When we were about 25 metres from them they saw us coming! With the smoke, the confusion, the noise, their focus on the Dutch, I can only assume that they just didn’t see us sitting on the ridge or start our advance.
On another occasion my squadron went up the French side of the valley, unable to see what was waiting at the top. On coming over the brow of the slope and on to the top we were confronted by the flank of four ranks of French heavy cavalry, standing, waiting to counter-charge our heavy cavalry. There was absolutely nothing they could do about it as we went into them.
On one occasion, after fighting in the valley bottom in the smoke I looked up to find that I was looking 180 degrees opposite to the way I thought I was facing. That was extremely disconcerting for a moment.
I have mentioned the noise, at times it was deafening and command by shouting all but impossible.
Those are my thoughts about what might help me as a military historian who has not, thank goodness, seen real action, not that anyone living has seen action of that style. I now understand the fog of war in the black powder era, I understand how you can get lost on a battlefield. How the smoke can come and go. How you can’t see colour in the smoke and the gloom. How your vision can go from long distance to a few metres to just your immediate opponent in seconds. How disorientating it can all be.
I am extremely pleased to have been at Waterloo 200 and experienced something that approached reality more closely than anything else I have done.
My thanks to all the photographers, lots more, and the best, can be seen here;