by COLONEL D.E. PEDDLE
Many may have seen Lady Butler’s or Stanley Berkeley’s well-known paintings depicting the famous combined charge of the Royal Scots Grey’s (then The Royal North British Dragoons) and the 92nd Highlanders (later 2nd Battalion, The Gordon Highlanders) at Waterloo. It has been said that, in order to come to grips more quickly with the enemy, many of the Gordons hung on to the Greys’ stirrups during the charge and this is depicted in Berkeley's painting. It is very doubtful whether a man on foot could hold on to the stirrup of a galloping horse without at least risking injury to himself, and research undertaken a few years ago by both the Scots Grey’s and the Gordons has debunked the whole idea. It remains nevertheless a nice bit of military mythology, originated and perpetuated by an impressionistic artist who was nowhere near the scene he portrayed — as is so often the case. It is believed too that, after Waterloo, some of the Scots Grey’s had the figures ‘92’ stamped on their stirrup-irons in commemoration of the charge but, from enquiries made recently at the Grey’s’ Regimental Museum in Edinburgh, it seems that this never became a custom in that regiment. The French eagle, captured during the charge by Sgt (later Ensign) Ewart of the Greys and which subsequently formed part of the Scots Grey’s badge, is now in the Scottish United Services Museum in the Castle at Edinburgh.
A less well-known fact concerning these two famous Scottish regiments is that, almost a century later, in September 1914, the Waterloo charge was re-enacted when two squadrons of the Greys and some men of the Gordon Highlanders together charged a German advance guard at St Quentin driving the British retreat from Belgium. Also little-known is that, during the Anglo-Boer War and in the early stages of World War I when they still fought as cavalry, the Scots Greys stained their famous grey horses brown to render them less conspicuous.
On 2 July 1971, The Royal Scots Greys and the 3rd Carabineers were amalgamated to form an armoured car regiment — The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (Carabineers and Greys) — and the last of Napoleon’s ‘ces terribles chevaux gris’ finally disappeared. Nevertheless, the link between this new regiment, which has retained many of the customs and traditions of the older regiments from which it was formed, and the Gordon Highlanders remains strong, and both celebrate ‘Waterloo Day’ on 18 June each year. There is much to be said for the preservation of regimental customs and traditions, and little against it that is valid.
The letter, a copy of which is published below, by kind permission of the Gordon Highlanders to whom grateful acknowledgment is made, was written a few years after Waterloo by Maj Robert Winchester. As a subaltern in No.9 Company of the 92nd Highlanders, Winchester took part in the charge. Soon after the battle he was promoted captain and given command of his company which then became known as ‘Winchester’s Company’, and is shown as such on the Gordon Highlanders’ Waterloo Medal Roll.
‘Sir — In reference to your letter of 6th inst. I beg to inform you that, towards the left of our position on the 18th June and immediately in front of where the 92nd was stationed at the commencement of the battle, was a grass field which went all the way from the hedge down to the Channel which divides the Valley between La-Haye-Sainte and La-Belle-Alliance and, indeed, I think the whole of the ground in front of our position from the road at La-Haye-Sainte to the enclosures at Papelotte was a grass field — the position to the left of the road which the troops stood upon previous to the battle commencing had had a crop of grain on it, but which had been cut down before we took up our ground on the afternoon of the 17th — to the rear of the left of our position where the 92nd stood was a clover field.
At the commencement of the action, 20 minutes to 11 a.m., a Corps of Belgians of from 8 000 to 10 000 men was formed in the line in front of the 5th Division, but soon after they were attacked and, their skirmishers driven in on their line, the whole of them retired through the action. After this the enemy made several attacks on the 5th Division — about 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon, a Column between 3 000 and 4 000 men advanced to the hedge at the roadside which leads from the main road near La-Haye-Sainte beyond the left of our position — previous to this, we had been lying down under cover of the position, when they were immediately ordered to stand to their arms, Major General Sir Denis Pack calling out at the same time ‘92nd everything has given way on your right and left, and you must charge this Column’, upon which he ordered four deep to be formed and closed in to the centre. The Regiment, which was then within about 20 yards of the Column, fired a volley into them. The enemy, on reaching the hedge on the other side of the road, had ordered arms and were in the act of shouldering them when they received the volley from the 92nd. The Scots Greys came up at this moment and, doubling round our flanks and through our centre where openings were made for them both Regiments charged together calling ‘Vive Scotland for ever’, and the Scots Greys actually walked over this Column and in less than three minutes it was totally destroyed —2 000, besides killed and wounded of them having been made prisoners and two of their Eagles captured. The grass field in which the enemy was formed, which was only the instant before as green and smooth as the 15 acres in the Phoenix Park, was in a few minutes covered with killed and wounded — knap-sacks and their contents, arms and accoutrements, etc. etc. so literally strewed over, that to avoid stepping on either one or other was quite impossible — in fact, one could hardly believe, had he not witnessed it, that such complete destruction could have been effected in so short a time — some of the French soldiers who were lying wounded were calling out, ‘Vive l'Empereur’, and others firing their musquets at our men who had advanced past them in pursuit of the flying enemy. The Regiment was then recalled and formed up on its former ground — soon afterwards the enemy commenced a cannonade and an attack with his infantry and Light Troops, supported by his Cavalry along our whole line, which continued without interruption until about the time he made his last great effort near La-Haye-Sainte, during the greater part of which time the 92nd was formed in Square.
When the Imperial Guards were advancing to attack the left centre (see Lord Wellington’s Disputes of the Battle of Waterloo) of our position near La-Haye-Sainte, the 92nd Highlanders, who were then near the extreme left of the line, were ordered up to the left of the main road near La-Haye-Sainte, they moved in a column at quarter distance and, when about half-way between the left and the road, a shell fell in the midst of the column — the Companies in rear of it faced about and doubled to the rear until it had burst, then faced about again and doubled up again to their proper distance from the leading divisions without any word of command having been given.
Just as we arrived at the left of the road, our Troops were in the act of charging the enemy and driving him from the crest of our position, which he had gained a short time before, the rush of the enemy was so great that it forced them, together with some of our guns (from which he had previously driven our gunners) into a sand-pit on the left of the road near La-Haye-Sainte — upon this, the enemy retired in great confusion lining the opposite side of the pit, the hedge and the farm of La-Haye-Sainte with their skirmishers. About this time (between 7 and 8 o’clock p.m.) the fire of the Prussians informed us of their advance from the wood upon the right of the enemy near Planchenoit. Soon after this I was wounded and obliged to quit the field.’
Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home pageSouth African Military History Society / email@example.com