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The fight for Hougoumont farm

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Hougoumont farm was the decisive battle of Waterloo. Château d'Hougoumont is a medium-sized manor complex on the battlefield's extreme western flank, at the base of the low ridge where the Duke of Wellington constructed his defensive line on June 18, 1815. Napoleon focused his forces on La Belle Alliance, an inn complex on a parallel ridge about a mile south of Wellington's line. The château, chapel, enormous barn, agricultural buildings, formal garden, and gardener's home were surrounded by stone walls. Though roughly a half-mile ahead of Wellington's line, the complex was an ideal strongpoint to anchor his right flank and saw some of Waterloo's fiercest fighting.

On the 18th, Napoléon's men first attacked Hougoumont at midday. The emperor wanted to pull Wellington's reserves to the British right flank and launch the French main offensive through the Allied center, immediately west of the Haye Sainte farmhouse. Light British guardsmen and their Hanoverian and Nassau allies initially defended Hougoumont. Coldstream Guards Lt. Col. James MacDonell K.C.B. commanded. The British lost most of the surrounding forests in the first attack, but the Royal Artillery helped them defeat the French.

A subsequent French attack reached the compound's north entrance, igniting one of the battle's most famous battles. After a stout French sous-lieutenant called Legros, known as l'Enfonceur ("the Smasher"), softened the barred gate with an ax, 30 French forces stormed the compound behind him. Macdonnell's guardsmen forced the gates closed. The defenders killed all the invaders except a French drummer boy. “The battle turned with the closure of the gates at Hougoumont,” Wellington said.

Each side added troops to the farmhouse conflict all day. Napoléon personally ordered his artillery to shell the main mansion to burn it down. Wellington sent a messenger to order its defenders to hold out. Hougoumont remained British despite French soldiers and cavalry. Wellington had 21 battalions defending the property and the narrow path to the Allied main line by day's end. Napoléon's diversion had turned into a long, costly conflict that absorbed 33 French battalions. Both armies lost about 6,000 at Hougoumont.

The 141-foot Lion's Mound, built in 1826, is roughly a quarter-mile from the Allied main position. The mound's 226 stairs offer great battlefield views. The bicentennial visitor center and interactive Memorial 1815 museum [waterloo1815.be] are at its base. Unfortunately, Wellington's line is mostly covered over, with petrol stations and shopping malls on either side.

Hougoumont is the most important battlefield feature. It was a working farm until the 20th century. The local historical trust bought the property in 2003, and volunteers led a major repair [projecthougoumont.com] backed by the Duke of Wellington, Bernard Cornwell, and Richard Holmes. Memorial plaques and explanatory markers describe significant battle events. A multimedia battle within a battle presentation is in the renovated Great Barn. Hougoumont was Waterloo's Little Round Top. Napoleon's brother Jerome Bonaparte's 6th Infantry Division attacked Hougoumont to distract Wellington and force him to send troops from his center to reinforce the farmstead's garrison. Four light companies of Wellington's Guards Brigade and the Hanoverian Brigade—German soldiers serving the British crown—defended Hougoumont and a short lane north of it. Coldstream Guards Lieutenant Colonel James Macdonnell took command.

Wellington ordered Macdonnell to “defend the position to the furthest extremity,” and the tenacious Allied resistance eventually drew the entire 6th Division, most of Marshal Honoré Charles Reille's II Corps, and a force of French cavalrymen, who slashed at the defenders outside the farmstead walls. Thus, Napoleon sent roughly 14,000 troops to Hougoumont, whereas Wellington sent 3,500.

After a devastating loss, the French attacked Hougoumont from multiple directions. A French lieutenant axed the north gate during an assault. 30 French soldiers stormed Hougoumont's courtyard, causing mayhem. Macdonnell and other British officers closed the gate and killed the Frenchmen. One French drummer lad survived. A gallant wagon driver brought supplies to Hougoumont's camp as ammunition ran low. Wellington observed the desperate attacks, which reached the Chateau's western flank. He added a Coldstream Guards battalion, another British brigade, a King's German Legion unit, and two Hanoverian battalions. While strengthening Hougoumont, he did not weaken his defensive line.

French infantry attacked Allied troops defending the farmstead, fields, and country lane throughout afternoon. British soldiers guarding the garden wall punched holes in the brick and fired at the French. Napoleon watched the fighting at Hougoumont and ordered his artillery to shell the chateau to set it on fire in the afternoon. The building and other structures burned down. Chapel alone survived. After nine hours of warfare, the Allies held Hougoumont. Napoleon focused on Wellington's center as the battle progressed. Over 7,500 French soldiers died in the "diversion" at Hougoumont. Hougoumont's fall would have endangered the Allies' right flank. Wellington said, "The result of the battle rested on the closure of the gates at Hougoumont" after Waterloo.

Killed at Hougoumont



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Categories: Battle of Waterloo