Anatomy of an Infamous Army: Wellington at Waterloo


If one word has come to characterize the army that the Duke of Wellington led in the campaign that culminated in the Battle of Waterloo, that word is “infamous.” The description comes from the mouth of the Duke himself, and entered the popular vocabulary when novelist Georgette Heyer adopted it as the title for a Regency romance set against the backdrop of the campaign.

But what exactly did Wellington mean by this less-than-flattering description of his command, and to what extent was it valid? After all, Wellington’s men, along with Gebhard von Blücher’s Prussians, defeated Napoleon’s Armée du Nord, and British accounts emphasize the heroics of the foot guards at Hougoumont, the epic cavalry charges that smashed a French corps and captured two imperial Eagle standards, and the stoicism of the infantry squares in the face of massed French cuirassiers. Waterloo, in this traditional British telling, was a British victory. Blücher, the Prussian co-victor, wanted the battle to be known to history as Belle-Alliance, after the inn where he and Wellington met, but Wellington insisted on Waterloo after the village, some way to the rear of his position, where his overnight headquarters had been situated. This sort of pettiness reminds us that the alliance that was pulled together to defeat Napoleon was a fraught and uneasy one — until the return of the Emperor, the partners in the erstwhile Sixth Coalition who had exiled him to Elba were on the verge of coming to blows over the spoils of their victory. From the outset, personal, and national reputations played a part in how the battle was recorded and memorialized.

Thus, some British commentators, from the Duke himself onwards, have for their own reasons played down the multinational contribution in favor of a pro-British narrative. At the time, Britain was keen to stake her claim as a dominant power in the Low Countries. More recently, assigning credit to Germanic troops was problematic through two world wars and their aftermath. Even modern living history recreations have not been without their tensions due to the Brexit vote, as this writer can personally attest. It is therefore easy to take the “infamous” quote out of context, as a means of dismissing the non-British element.

Britain, to be fair, was not entirely alone in trying to lay sole, or at least significant, claim to the victory — after all, the lion monument that dominates the field today is primarily a tribute to the Prince of Orange and the Netherlands contribution — but from a historical perspective all of this has long outlived its usefulness. Unfortunately, attempts to re-set the record and emphasize the non-British contributions have sometimes gone too far the other way and discredited their own validity. Yet the fact remains that Wellington’s army was not a British army pure and simple. Historians now rightly recognize the contribution of the German and Netherlands contingents who together comfortably outnumbered the British redcoats. Looking at how this army was assembled, and why it was structured as it was, reveals a fascinating story of coalition building at both political and military levels that emphasizes the strengths and the weaknesses of the British military contribution to the Napoleonic Wars. In that any future European war will require coalition building and international cooperation, these lessons are also not without their relevance for the present day. Britain, it is true, is no longer in a position to take the lead as in 1815, but a new generation of great powers will find themselves just as much in need of allies and auxiliaries and the lessons remain to be drawn upon by those who care to look.



Building an Army

It is as well, however, to first consider Wellington’s quote in full. What he actually said, in a letter of May 8, 1815 to Lord Stewart, was “I have got an infamous army, very weak and Ill equipped, and a very inexperienced Staff.” Wellington then took issue with the lack of reinforcements from home, and the fact that the country was not on a war footing.

So, the complaint here was not about foreign allies, for all that some versions of the 1815 story have scapegoated them, but about Britain’s own contribution. It is true that Wellington, as his career progressed, developed something of a habit of getting his excuses in first as a guard against some setback that might tarnish his impressive laurels. Perhaps with an eye to future political aspirations, he needed to make sure that if he did meet a setback the blame would not fall to him. Nevertheless, in this instance there is a certain amount of validity in what Wellington had to say.

By the time of Napoleon’s first abdication, in April 1814, the British army’s manpower commitments were at breaking point. I have written at length on this topic elsewhere, but, in short, the political inability to introduce conscription and an inefficient system that delegated recruitment and manpower management to the individual regiments — great for creating esprit de corps, but otherwise with the potential to be wasteful — meant that Britain was running short of men and struggled to make best use of those it had. Peace in Europe came in the nick of time but was not matched by peace in North America, where the War of 1812 rumbled on until early 1815. Many of the most effective battalions from Wellington’s victorious Peninsular army were shipped across the Atlantic to fight the Americans and the majority did not make it back again in time to face Napoleon. British cavalry aplenty was available, but the core of Wellington’s British infantry came from the rump of a force that had been sent to the Low Countries in late 1813 and early 1814 under the command of Sir Thomas Graham to stake Britain’s claim to a say in the post-war settlement in that part of Europe.

These troops had been scraped together at very short notice, being in many cases the second battalions of their respective regiments. One might ask why this mattered, but the British regimental system was set up such that, ideally, a regiment would have two battalions of which the first would be a combat unit and the second would remain at home in a depot/garrison/training role. Men would be posted from the second battalion to keep the first up to strength, and the most experienced officers in each grade would also serve with the first battalion. Unfortunately, there were not enough battalions to meet the army’s needs. Thus, second battalions frequently had to serve overseas even though they were likely to be understrength and contain less experienced officers and men, and it was battalions of this sort that made up the majority of the infantry that Wellington inherited. True, the 2/30th and 2/44th had served in the earlier stages of the Peninsular War before being sent home to recruit up to strength, retaining therefore at least a cadre of veteran men, and the 2/73rd had made a good name for itself in North Germany in 1813, but at the other end of the scale the 3/14th (the 14th was one of a handful of regiments to field more than two battalions) had only been raised the previous year out of very young recruits.

Wellington’s field army for the 1815 campaign comprised six “British” divisions — however, five of these were actually Anglo-Hanoverian and it was by incorporating German troops that Wellington made up for the shortfalls of his British infantry. When Hanover fell to Napoleon’s forces in 1803, elements of the Hanoverian army fled to Britain to form the nucleus of the King’s German Legion in British pay, the King of Great Britain and the Elector of Hanover conveniently being one and the same person. The King’s German Legion eventually grew to 10 infantry battalions, five cavalry regiments, and supporting arms. In 1813, allied forces began to liberate Hanover and a new Hanoverian army was raised, and at the time of Napoleon’s return plans were afoot to transfer the Legion personnel to this new force. As a result, the bulk of the force — eight battalions and all the cavalry — was in the Low Countries and thus available to Wellington. So too was the bulk of the new Hanoverian regular army, backed up by elements of the electorate’s Landwehr or militia. Just as he had mixed British and Portuguese brigades to form the divisions of his old Peninsular army, Wellington now mixed Hanoverians, King’s German Legion, and British troops in his new command.

The 1st Division, alone, was all British, composed of two brigades of foot guards. Three of the four battalions came from Graham’s old command, and the fourth had served with Wellington in the Peninsula. However, transfers of officers and men between Guards battalions — including three ex-Peninsular battalions now back in London — meant that there was a good leavening of veterans across the division. The main weakness, in Wellington’s eyes at least, was its commander, George Cooke, who he had inherited from Graham and who was rather junior for his role. Wellington would have much preferred his divisions to be commanded by men who had served in the same role under him in Portugal and Spain, which is partly what he meant when complaining of an inexperienced staff. The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Divisions, on the other hand, were commanded by Peninsular veterans, but much of the British infantry – bar for a light infantry brigade in the 2nd Division – was either inherited from Graham or made up of equally inexperienced troops sent from home. To balance this, however, the two veteran King’s German Legion infantry brigades and the two brigades of regular Hanoverian infantry were incorporated into these formations. Conversely, when veteran Peninsular regiments, freshly returned from North America, began to arrive, they were used to form the 5th and 6th Divisions along with Hanoverian Landwehr. Thus, where the British were raw the Germans were veterans, and vice versa, giving each division a solid core of experienced troops. Although elements of the various divisions would falter at times during the fighting at Waterloo, no division as a whole ever collapsed and even the rawest of troops — British and German alike — performed well when they had to. The “young tinkers” of the 3/14th stood firm against the French cavalry, and it was a Hanoverian Landwehr battalion that captured Pierre Cambronne of the Imperial Guard Chasseurs, who, whether he actually said “the guard dies, it does not surrender” or something earthier, failed to live up to his words.

It was not just Wellington’s veteran infantry that was still on the way back from North America though. His trusted quartermaster-general — de facto chief of staff — Sir George Murray did not get back from Canada in time for Waterloo, and his Peninsular adjutant-general, and brother-in-law, Sir Edward Pakenham, had been killed at New Orleans. Edward Barnes, a brigade commander in the Peninsula, stepped up admirably into the adjutant-general’s role, but Sir William de Lancey, Murray’s erstwhile deputy, may have been out of his depth filling his old chief’s shoes and elements of the army’s operational staff work in 1815 were not as slick as they might have been. De Lancey, famously and tragically, was mortally wounded at Waterloo and nursed in his last days by the young wife he had married during the brief peace. The army’s chief engineer, James Carmichael Smyth, was inherited from Graham’s old command where his over-optimism had contributed to failure at Antwerp and Bergen-op-Zoom.

Wellington was likewise without his first choice at the head of his cavalry, the mixed fortunes of which on the field of Waterloo may in part be attributed to an inadequate command structure. Wellington had wanted the command to go to Sir Stapleton Cotton, who had led his cavalry for most of the Peninsular War and who had recently been ennobled as Lord Combermere in recognition of that service. However, pressure from the Prince Regent meant that the command went to the more senior Henry Paget, Earl of Uxbridge. Uxbridge had commanded Sir John Moore’s cavalry in the Corunna campaign but had been senior to Wellington and so could not serve under him in the Peninsula. Only when Wellington was made a field marshal did Uxbridge become his junior, but there was an additional complication as in the meantime Uxbridge had run off with Wellington’s sister-in-law. Though he subsequently married her after both parties had divorced their original spouses, this hardly endeared him to the Duke.

There were seven brigades of British and King’s German Legion cavalry, plus a brigade of Hanoverian hussars. These, along with a powerful contingent of the Royal Horse Artillery, formed a cavalry corps under Uxbridge but there was no divisional echelon and all the brigadiers reported directly to Uxbridge — creating an unwieldy structure that meant it was impossible for a single commander to oversee them all. This nearly had disastrous consequences at Waterloo when Uxbridge threw his two heavy brigades against the first major French infantry attack, only for them to charge too far and risk being cut off. It took the initiative of Maj. Gen. John Vandeleur, who led his brigade of light dragoons down in support of the heavies without express orders to do so, to restore the situation and extricate the survivors. It is very probable that Wellington recognized the inadequacy of these command arrangements and had planned to change them before the expected opening of the campaign — particularly since another brigade of British heavy cavalry was expected to join the army, although it did not arrive until after Waterloo. Tellingly, he offered Maj. Gen. Henry Fane, home-based Inspector General of Cavalry, a field command in terms that suggested that Fane would lead multiple brigades. It is possible that he meant to create multiple cavalry divisions under Uxbridge, or, more likely, that he intended to attach portions of the cavalry to the corps into which his infantry was being divided and leave only a reserve under Uxbridge’s direct command.

Mention of corps, however, brings us to the other, more political, element of the army-building process. Wellington’s Peninsular army had had no permanent organizational echelon above the division, but in the later campaigns of that war trusted subordinates had been given informal multi-divisional commands. In 1815, however, a corps system had to be formalized in order to incorporate the army of the Kingdom of the Netherlands into the command structure. Not only did incorporating these troops — the disparaged Dutch-Belgians of many British accounts — represent a further piece of coalition-building, but the Netherlands Army was itself a new organization and a coalition in its own right. As part of its desire to see a friendly client state across the narrow seas and in control of the strategically vital Scheldt estuary, Britain had encouraged the return of the House of Orange to the Netherlands after the popular uprising there at the end of 1813 — that is partly what Graham and his redcoats were doing there — and had also encouraged the idea of a unification of the old Dutch Republic with what is now Belgium but which had previously been the Austrian Netherlands before being annexed to France. This shotgun marriage of territory created a Dutch-dominated Kingdom of the United Netherlands, with William VI of Orange becoming King William I. The new king’s son and heir, the Prince of Orange, was intended to wed Princess Charlotte, the heir to the British throne, but this fell apart when the young Prince failed to make a favorable impression on his prospective bride.

Orange nevertheless commanded the allied forces in the Netherlands until Wellington arrived, including the Anglo-German forces being assembled and the active elements of the new Netherlands army. This was itself still in a state of flux, with Dutch and Belgian — now North- and South-Netherlands — regiments being nailed together into a supposedly united army. Many of the Belgians, who had been French until 1814, had fought for Napoleon and were deemed untrustworthy by their new Dutch countrymen — notwithstanding the fact that many of them, too, had fought for the Emperor. Consequently, troops were mixed within the three divisions of infantry and one of cavalry so that there was no concentration of men from either nationality — an extra brigade was added by retaining in Europe Dutch troops who had been intended for colonial service. For an army so quickly thrown together, the Netherlands troops did well. A cavalry brigade was mishandled at Quatre Bras, it is true, but all three did unsung good work at Waterloo only to be mixed in popular memory with a Hanoverian volunteer cavalry outfit that panicked and fled the field. Willem van Bijlandt’s infantry brigade did break at Waterloo, but it can perhaps be forgiven for doing so after being gutted at Quatre Bras two days previously as it bought time for Wellington to concentrate. David Chassé, a Dutchman who had served with the French throughout the Peninsular War, surely got his revenge on an Emperor who had denied him promotion when his division put in a bayonet charge that helped smash Napoleon’s Imperial Guard.

Thanks in no small part to his having been made the villain in Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Waterloo, the Prince of Orange does not enjoy a good military reputation and this too does not help perceptions of his fellow countrymen. In reality, his accelerated military career was hardly unusual for a scion of royalty, just as Prince Jérome Bonaparte and Prince William of Prussia likewise held exalted commands in opposing and allied forces. His earlier time as a staff officer under Wellington in the Peninsula had given him a fairly decent grounding in the military arts, but as a full general at 22 he was out of his depth. His appointment as such, at the head of Wellington’s I Corps, was the price that had to be paid for the Netherlands forces coming under Wellington’s command. The alternative, of an independent Netherlands army operating alongside Wellington’s Anglo-Germans, would have been extremely hard to manage, harking back to the Peninsular difficulties when the British were repeatedly frustrated in their attempts to coordinate with the Spanish armies. Then, the eventual solution had been for the Spanish to accept Wellington’s overall command but their national forces had never been fully integrated with Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese. In 1815, however, Wellington was able to create two Anglo-Netherlands army corps — but that meant that if the trusted Lord Hill was permitted to command Netherlands forces in his II Corps so would Orange have to be given command of the Anglo-German 1st and 3rd Divisions as part of his I Corps. This situation was a political fudge, which Wellington to some extent was able to ignore when the fighting actually started. He kept the 5th and 6th Divisions as a reserve under his own direct command along with the division-sized contingent provided by the Duchy of Brunswick, and although major elements of Orange’s I Corps fought together at Quatre-Bras, with the Prince in command until Wellington reached the field, at Waterloo it was split up with divisions and even brigades distributed along the frontline. Orange still made some unwise tactical calls at unit and brigade level, but there was no chance of the inexperienced royal going rogue with a whole corps.

Lessons in Coalition Building

Ultimately, infamous or not, Wellington’s army emerged victorious from the Waterloo campaign alongside its Prussian allies. None of the three armies was the best that their nation fielded during the Napoleonic Wars, nor did any of the three commanders put in their best performance. That Britain was so short of troops, and shorter still of experienced ones, indicated that it had still not overcome the constraints of a manpower system that had struggled to cope with the demands of global war. However, that it was able to deploy political and financial leverage to make up the shortfall with troops from allies and clients also indicates the key strength of the British nation in the fight against Napoleon. In turn, the organizational abilities of the Duke of Wellington in molding such a disparate collection of troops into a single field army represent one of his most significant contributions to the eventual victory — two decades’ experience of making the best out of sometimes-unpromising material thoroughly paid off.



Dr. Andrew Bamford completed a Ph.D. at the University of Leeds in 2009 that looked at the operation of the British Army’s regimental system during the Napoleonic Wars. He has subsequently written extensively on British cavalry in that era as well as on Britain’s little-known campaign in the Low Countries during the five months prior to Napoleon’s first abdication in 1814. For many years editor of Helion and Company’s From Reason to Revolution series, which he founded, he now works as a freelance historian — currently primarily in the military museum sector.

Image: Anne S.K. Brown Collection