Bloody Sunday:   Copenhagen and the Waterloo Campaign

I rode him throughout the rest of the war,
and mounted no other horse at Waterloo.

There may have been may faster horses, no doubt many handsomer,
but for bottom and endurance I never saw his fellow.

The Duke of Wellington,
about Copenhagen

Last week, I wrote about Copenhagen’s early life and his military career, leaving him under saddle, with Wellington up, on the road south from Brussels to meet Bonaparte and his Armée du Nord. This week, the tale of Copenhagen’s participation in the final campaign against Napoleon, which ended on that bloody Sunday, 18 June 1815.

Friday, 16 June 1815

Wellington and Copenhagen arrived at the cross-roads of Quatre Bras just after 10:00am on 16 June 1815. Wellington spent the first couple of hours conferring with his aides and his officers, giving Copenhagen a breather after the two-hour ride from Brussels. By about 1:00pm, the Duke and a few aides rode the six miles over to Blücher‘s headquarters, some of the Prussians riding out to meet the small party of Englishmen. They were fascinated by the fact that he rode a Hussar saddle and by the equipment which they saw strapped to it: a neatly rolled change of clothes behind his saddle and in the place of a pistol holster, a portfolio of pen, ink and paper. Once again, Copenhagen had a brief rest while the two commanders climbed a nearby windmill to view the area with their telescopes. Both saw Napoleon, employing his own telescope on the same area. It is entirely possible this was the one moment during the campaign when all three generals were looking at one another.

After spending some time talking with Blücher and his senior aides, Wellington and his staff rode back toward Quatre Bras. As they neared the cross-roads, they heard the booming of Napoleon’s cannon, which signaled the advance of his army on the Prussians at Ligny. The situation at Quatre Bras had deteriorated in Wellington’s absence and the battle was in danger of being lost. Wellington kicked Copenhagen into a gallop and rushed to the battlefield. By a series of rapid and daring counter-strokes he was able to deflect the French attack and eventually drive them off. Wellington seemed to be everywhere, barking orders and shouting encouragement to young troops in the line of fire for the first time. Later that day, Copenhagen’s strength and courage would save his master’s life.

Under a fierce onslaught from the French Chasseurs, in which the Duke of Brunswick was mortally wounded, both the Brunswickers and the Netherlanders broke ranks and fled the field. Their headlong flight left Wellington and his aide, Lord Fitzroy Somerset, caught in the open with a number of chasseurs hot on their heels, forcing them to gallop for their lives. The nearest refuge was the 92nd Gordon Highlanders, under the command of Sir Thomas Picton, in square. The infantry square was so effective against a cavalry charge because no horse with eyes would rush at multiple rows of sharp points leveled at them, regardless of how determinedly their rider urged them on. Nevertheless, Wellington put his spurs to Copenhagen’s flanks and rode straight at the 92nd’s square. Without hesitation, the gallant stallion, showing complete trust in his master, galloped headlong toward a wall of highlanders bristling with bayonets. The man on his back shouted, "Ninety-Second, lie down!" Moments later he leaped the chestnut stallion over the lowering heads, and rapidly retracted bayonets, of his own troops, with Somerset close behind. The square quickly reformed as the chasseurs galloped up. The Duke remained inside the square, calmly ordering volley after volley and the French attack was beaten off. Later, Fitzroy Somerset told a friend that had Wellington been riding a lesser horse he might not have made the jump and would have been cut down by the chasseurs. It should also be noted that had Wellington been a less athletic rider, it is very possible that incredible jump would have failed. Fortunately, all those long days in the hunting field meant man and mount were in peak condition and had complete faith in one another.

By 9:00pm that night, the battle of Quatre Bras had been fought to a tactical draw. Wellington had kept Ney‘s forces away from Blücher, but Ney’s attack had also prevented Wellington from sending troops to relieve the Prussians fighting at Ligny. Beaten back by the French, Blücher and his army retreated toward the small town of Wavre. Unaware of the Prussians defeat, Wellington and his staff officers left the battlefield and rode the three miles to Genappe, stopping at the Auberge (Inn) Roi d’espagne (King of Spain), where a meal and beds had been prepared for them. Upon arrival, the Duke got the first inkling of how badly mauled the Prussians had been. He ordered his trusted aide-de-camp, Colonel Sir Alexander Gordon, to reconnoitre, and Gordon’s initial report confirmed the Prussians were in retreat. Wellington was in bed by midnight, but up again by 3:00am. He called for Copenhagen and rode with all speed back to Quatre Bras, from where he dispatched Colonel Gordon again, this time to Ligny to get all the facts.

Saturday, 17 June 1815

By 6:00am, Wellington rode out on Copenhagen to await Gordon’s report on the state of the Prussians. Despite the fact it was mid-June, the morning was cool and he paused near the bivouac of the 92nd Highlanders. "Ninety-second, I will be obliged to you for a little fire." The Highlanders lit a fire for him in a small hut made of branches which stood nearby, and were pleased with the Duke’s enthusiastic thanks. He interviewed a number of his staff officers in the hut, which the Highlanders had dubbed his "splendid Mansion," until Gordon’s arrival at about 7:30am, his horse heavily lathered. Gordon confirmed the Prussians had taken a hard pounding and were in retreat at Wavre. Blücher, himself, had had his prized dapple-grey war horse, a gift from the Prince Regent, killed under him and though alive, was badly bruised. Wellington knew he could not keep his own troops so far forward without the essential support of the Prussian army. He spent some time in the small hut, conferring with several of his senior officers. He then left the hut to pace before it, his left hand behind his back and a switch in his right. One of the Highlanders calculated his pace was close to four miles per hour, which he kept up for nearly an hour. Copenhagen stood nearby, alternately grazing and dozing. Shortly before 9:00am, Baron von Müffling arrived, and hard on his heels was a courier bearing a personal message from General Blücher. The seventy-three-year-old general reported his defeat of the previous day, but stated that he and his army were in great heart. What did Wellington intend for today? By 10:00am, Wellington ordered a retreat, to bring his army level with the Prussians, who were holding at Wavre.

Copenhagen’s morning respite was over. Wellington mounted him and rode forward to where he could survey both the Frasnes and Namur roads with his telescope. There was no sign of the French and he wondered, momentarily, if Ney were also in retreat. His own intuition warned him that could not be so, and with a screen of cavalry and artillery covering the movement of his army, the Allied troops marched north, to Waterloo. Wellington’s cheerful and carefree attitude during those hours did much to hearten his men. Between rides to survey the retreat, he took his ease on the grass, reading a London newspaper supplied by one of his officers and laughing at the society gossip in its pages. At one point, he rolled himself in his cloak and dozed for a short time, the pages of the Sun shading his face, while Copenhagen snoozed and grazed nearby. Soon the Duke was back in the saddle, looking for all the world as though everything was going to plan, which was of great encouragement to his many anxious officers. The Life Guards were the last to go. Once they were on the march, before turning to follow his retreating army, from Copenhagen’s back, Wellington once more swept the ground before Quatre Bras with his telescope. There, in the distance, was a single horseman silhouetted against the hills to the south. Captain Mercer, of the Royal Horse Artillery, pausing nearby and using his own spyglass, instantly recognized Napoleon Bonaparte. What Mercer could not know, though Wellington may well have suspected, was how astonished the French General was to discover his prey had flown Quatre Bras. The Duke could only be pleased that Boney would be denied his opportunity to tear apart Wellington’s army before mopping up what was left of the Prussians.

Within moments, a long line of flashing metal was seen coming along the road towards the rear-guard of the British troops. The lens of the telescope confirmed what most lingering in the wake of the retreating army already knew. The deadly French lancers were marching on them, a white cloud of dust roiling up behind them. The artillery were able to get off one round, before, with a thunderclap more deafening than the cannon, the heavens opened in a torrential downpour. Lord Uxbridge, in command of the rear-guard, gave the order for one more cannon volley and then ordered his troops to make a swift retreat before the intense deluge of rain turned the road into an impassible quagmire.

All things considered, the British retreat had been an extraordinarily efficient and skillful operation. The army had retired in good order, with very little loss of life or equipment. Wellington, on Copenhagen, with Fitzroy Somerset at his side, rode at a leisurely pace to the village of Waterloo. There, the Allied requisition officers had taken over a number of buildings for the use of the commanders. They chalked the names of each general on the door of the building which had been requisitioned for their use. "His Grace the Duke of Wellington" was scrawled in chalk on the door of the small inn, built in 1705, located in the center of the village, just across the square from the chapel. This small inn would remain Wellington’s headquarters for the duration of the Waterloo campaign. The inn, fortunately, had a stable, unlike some of the other buildings which housed the other commanders. Thus, Copenhagen would have a roof over his head against the pouring rain, a stall where he could lie down in some comfort to eat his well-earned dinner and get a much needed night’s rest. But did he?

Some years after Copenhagen’s death, Wellington told a tale of the night of 17 June 1815, which was never part of the official record of the campaign. He knew he could not face Napoleon without the support of the Prussians, and he had complete confidence in Blücher’s intention to support him. But he was keen to know the true state of the Prussian army after their drubbing. He was also well aware that the tough old general’s chief-of-staff, Graf von Gneisenau, did not trust him and suspected he would try to convince Blücher that Wellington had broken his promise to come to the aid of the Prussians at Ligny. Wellington had indeed promised to come to their aid, but only if his own army were not under attack, a fact which he knew Gneisenau would overlook. According to Wellington, before going to dinner at the Waterloo inn, he handed the stallion’s reins over to his groom and gave orders that Copenhagen was to be stabled and fed, but to be given no hay, only " … a few go-downs of chilled water, as much corn and beans as he had a mind for …" while Wellington had his own dinner. After a rather hasty meal, the Duke got Fitzroy Somerset out of the way on the pretext of an errand, knowing his aide would try to dissuade him from his purpose or demand to come along with him. Once Somerset was gone, Wellington ordered Copenhagen to be saddled again, and with his orderly riding behind, he rode the twelve miles to Wavre, in order to meet personally with Blücher. He arrived in Wavre to find Blücher had moved his headquarters out of the town itself and had to ride another two miles to find the Prussian general’s tent. According to Wellington " … I saw him, got the information I wanted from him, and made the best of my way homewards. Bad, however, was for the best; for, by Jove, it was so dark that I fell into a deepish dyke by the roadside; and if it had not been for my orderly’s assistance, I doubt if I ever should have got out. Thank God, there was no harm done to either horse or to man!"

This clandestine night ride, if it did happen, was never recorded in the military history of the Waterloo campaign and scholars argue over its veracity even today. The story was told many years after the fact, so the Duke’s recollection of that night was not fresh, and it is not known that he had ever told the tale before. It was also not written down by the man to whom the Duke told the tale until many years later. There is, however, another civilian corroboration of this same story, recorded a couple of years after it was first told, in which the essential facts remain the same. Did Copenhagen carry the Duke on the twenty-eight-mile round trip to Wavre and back, falling into a ditch on the return journey? All reports say it was pouring rain for nearly the entire night before the battle of Waterloo, yet Wellington makes no mention of riding through the rain, though it was well-known that he did not like getting wet. Perhaps Wellington rode over to confer with Blücher, on the previous night, after the battle of Ligny? No one will ever know for sure, but if the Duke and his horse did travel to Wavre the night before the great battle, then Copenhagen’s fortitude and endurance during the battle of Waterloo is only that much more impressive.

Sunday, 18 June 1815

Regardless of how much sleep he got that night, Wellington was up at 3:00am, writing letters. A number of his letters were to various military and political officials, but the last was to Lady Frances Webster, advising her to have her family ready to remove from Brussels at a moment’s notice, should he fail to stop Napoleon at Waterloo. Well before 6:00am, Wellington had breakfasted and was dressed for the day. No red uniform bristling with medals for him. He wore his usual battle attire, white buckskin breeches, black Hessian boots with short spurs, a white shirt and cravat with the gold knotted sash of a Spanish field-marshal under a blue coat. He also wore a dark blue cloak, which he would put on and off many times during the day ahead, at one point remarking, "I never get wet when I can help it." On his head he wore his usual cocked hat, unlike Napoleon, wearing his fore-and-aft fashion, and sporting the cockades of the countries in which he held the rank of Field-Marshal: Britain, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. Once again mounted on Copenhagen, he rode out of Waterloo village about a mile and a half south, to inspect the ridges where his forces were already taking up their positions. His demeanor was calm and genial, stopping here to chat with a cluster of men, there to share a cup of tea. The sight of "Old Nosey" mounted on the chestnut stallion and moving calmly among them, was like a tonic to the men. They might not adore him as the French troops did Bonaparte, but they respected and trusted him. If this battle could be won, Wellington was just the man to manage it.

Wellington eventually brought Copenhagen to a halt under what would be his primary command post for the day, a great elm at Mont Saint-Jean, at the intersection of the Ohain and Brussels roads. The broad elm stood on one of the highest points of the ridge, near the center of his line. From here, he could also keep an eye on Hougoumont, his weaker, more exposed flank, though it also meant he was something of a target on that high ground. He paused here for a moment, taking tea with some of the riflemen, then rode out to make a tour of his lines. He rode over most of what would soon become the field of battle. Much of the ground was a morass of mud after the pouring rains of the night before and Bonaparte was in no rush to bring his forces into position. At 11:00am, Wellington paused at Hougoumont, where he decided more troops were needed and called up companies of both the Coldstream and Scots Guards. Finally, just before 11:30am, the French cannon boomed, with the British artillery immediately responding. Battle was engaged.

Wellington calmly rode Copenhagen back to his command post under the elm, to find a number of his generals had congregated nearby. He quickly dispersed them, remarking so many generals thick on the ground was an irresistible target to the enemy. For the next hour and a half, despite the stray bullets which occasionally whizzed past, Wellington kept an eye on the critical battle at Hougoumont, sending in additional reinforcements as needed. Various aides, couriers and commanders came and went from under the elm, delivering reports and getting new orders as the main battle progressed. In some cases, he gave his orders verbally. But if they had to be transmitted to a commander at some distance, he was obliged to write them down and entrust them to an ADC to deliver for him. These orders were not written on paper, as it was too fragile in such conditions, nor were his commands written with a quill and ink, a combination which was too cumbersome and inefficient to use anywhere but at a desk. The writing implements which the Prussians had seen strapped to Wellington’s saddle when he visited their camp near Quatre Bras two days before were for use in his quarters, to write letters and dispatches. On the battlefield, he carried a sheaf of specially-treated ass and goat skins. He could write on these with pencil and once the orders were read, the skins could be wiped clean, in readiness for a new set of orders. (Four of Wellington’s handwritten orders on ass or goat skin survived the battle of Waterloo and are now in the collection of the Wellington Museum in Apsley House.)

At about 1:00pm, shortly after Picton’s death, Wellington himself personally lead up the Life Guards, saying "Now, gentlemen, for the honour of the Household troops." The Guardsmen, 1,400 strong, charged, scattering the cuirassiers before them, then smashing into the French left flank. The Scots Greys charged shortly thereafter, and despite fierce fighting and heavy casualties, Wellington’s front was secure. He welcomed the Life Guards back to the line, raising his hat and saying, "Guards, I thank you." He then returned to his command post under the great elm.

By 3:45pm, Napoleon was aware that a least one contingent of Prussians were advancing toward the field of battle. His intent had always been to keep the two armies apart, dealing with them separately, since he knew he did not have the strength to take them on together. The approaching Prussians meant he must smash Wellington’s forces quickly, so that he could turn his attention to the Prussians. Therefore, he ordered Ney to take La Haye Saint, clearing the way for the main force to attack Wellington’s center.

The order was given for the Allied forces to prepare to receive cavalry, and the infantry regiments immediately formed square. The French cavalry broke against them, again and again. Each time Wellington saw an opening, he ordered his own cavalry to counter-attack. At twenty minutes past four, he gave Copenhagen a brief breather and turned to his aide-de-camp, Colonel James Stanhope, asking the time, then saying, "The battle is mine; and if the Prussians arrive soon, there will be an end of the war." Napoleon next threw Kellerman’s cavalry against Wellington. The Duke galloped Copenhagen along his front, strengthening his line where needed and calling encouragement to his men. He was moving constantly among his squares, ignoring the incoming shells and directing the battle as conditions changed. Eventually, Ney took La Haye Saint and then attacked the Allied line. But French cavalry could make little headway against the Allied squares, which stood fast under repeated attacks which went on for nearly two hours. Wellington continued to gallop back and forth along his line, shifting troops around to maintain a solid front, as French bullets continued to pepper the area. At one point, one of his gunners had Napoleon himself in his sights and requested permission to fire. Wellington was appalled, and refused, saying "No, no. Generals commanding armies have something else to do than shoot at one another." Professional courtesy or the honor of an English gentleman? Either way, Wellington would not take the cheap shot.

By 6:30pm, Wellington was growing seriously concerned, as his center was growing increasingly thin. He tried to hide his worry and the only outward sign of the strain was his increasingly ashen countenance. If Copenhagen felt the tension of the man on his back, he, too, did not show it, remaining as calm and steady as his rider. Though the Prussians could still be heard skirmishing in the distance, they had yet to arrive on the main battlefield. Wellington knew it was only a matter of time before Napoleon would send his Imperial Guard against him. The Duke ordered up all his remaining reserves to reinforce his center, including fresh battalions of Brunswickers and Nassauers, very young and untried. They broke and ran in fear almost immediately. Wellington urged Copenhagen into their midst to rally them and stop their flight. He soon turned them and they filled the gap in the line. But the green troops were not the only ones who needed Wellington’s reassurance by this point. Later writing to Lady Frances Webster that "The finger of Providence was upon me, …" Wellington repeatedly rode Copenhagen back and forth along the battered ridge of his center, reigning in here and there, where he thought the pressure was greatest, to speak words of encouragement or occasionally patience, to those who wished to charge into the fray. Bullets often whistled past, yet neither he, nor Copenhagen, were touched.

About 7:00pm, Napoleon’s Imperial Guard took the field. Wellington was astride Copenhagen at a point just to the right of his center, with Maitland‘s 1st Foot Guards. The Duke had earlier ordered them to lie down on the back side of the ridge, out of sight of the French. He noticed confusion in the ranks to his left, and galloped over to yet again rally the Brunswickers, who were once more in flight. Even though a few of them shot at him, Wellington rallied them once more. He ordered Major-General Sir John Vandeleur’s 4th Cavalry to their rear to "encourage" them to maintain their ranks and hold the line. Wellington then wheeled Copenhagen and galloped back to where the 1st Foot Guards were still lying below the ridge. "Now, Maitland, now’s your time!" he shouted. As the Imperial Guard came closer, the Duke commanded, "Stand up, Guards!" Instantly, over 1,500 armed men sprang to their feet, startling the French into a momentary halt. A punishing volley from the British brought down the first ranks of the Imperial Guard. Moments later, the 1st Foot saw something no one had ever seen before, the blue-coated backs of the Imperial Guard in retreat. Wellington personally ordered in the 95th Rifles, who began to cheer when he appeared. "No cheering, my lads, but forward and complete your victory!"

One of the Duke’s surviving aides-de-camp begged him to move away from such exposed positions, but he refused, saying he would see the French driven off first. When Lt. Colonel Colbourne, of the 52nd Foot, debated if he should continue to pursue the French, he suddenly found Wellington at his side. "Well done, Colborne! Well done! Go on. Never mind, go on, go on. Don’t give them time to rally. They won’t stand." The Duke gathered Copenhagen’s reins and galloped with Uxbridge back to his elm at Mont Saint-Jean. As it was mid-June and not yet 8:00pm, there was at least a half hour of daylight left, and Wellington’s army was now badly battered. The Duke knew Bonaparte still had some of his Old Guard in reserve and might very well rally those in retreat. If the Prussians did not come soon, defeat was still a very real possibility. From Copenhagen’s back, he swept the eastern hills with his telescope. He came up in his stirrups when he saw that the enemy’s right was under fire. Others on the battlefield saw the same thing, and all seemed to turn in unison toward the man under the elm, standing in his stirrups astride the chestnut stallion. The Prussians had finally arrived! A ray of light from the setting sun caught the Duke’s expression as he took in the sight. The men who saw him in that moment never forgot it. Every soldier on the field knew this was the decisive moment of the day. At his side, Uxbridge urged caution, but Wellington’s military instincts told him that would not do. "Oh, damn it! In for a penny, in for a pound." He took off his hat and waved it three times toward the French. His signal was instantly understood, and with a deafening cheer, his troops rushed onto the field in Wellington’s only offensive move of the day.

Wellington spurred Copenhagen into the mêlée, calling on the most senior surviving officer of each regiment to lead them in their attack. Even as the Allied armies pushed forward, some pockets of French artillery were still firing from La Haye Saint. One of the last French balls fired passed between Wellington’s body and Copenhagen’s neck as they stood just below La Haye Saint. Lord Uxbridge, pausing just next to the Duke cried out, "By God! I’ve lost my leg!" Wellington continued to look through his telescope and absent-mindedly replied, "Have you, by God?" But then he looked down and realized the ball had shattered Uxbridge’s knee. He quickly reached over and supported his friend until help arrived to carry him off the field. The Duke then urged Copenhagen forward and followed his advancing men closely, ignoring the sporadic enemy fire. Yet again, he was admonished, this time by Colonel Felton Hervey, for taking unnecessary risks, but he calmly replied, "Never mind, let them fire away. The battle’s won, my life is of no consequence now."

It was nearly dark by 9:00pm, when Blücher and Wellington met one another by chance on the Brussels road near Napoleon’s abandoned headquarters of La Belle-Alliance. They dismounted and discussed the events of the day for a time, in French, the only language they had in common. Blücher and the Prussians then continued south, in pursuit of the fleeing French, while Wellington turned north, back to Waterloo, accompanied by only five of his staff. He was very quiet as he walked Copenhagen back through the now silent battlefield, lit by moonlight. The losses were worse even than his victory at Assaye. Sickened by the slaughter and drained by his own constant exertions throughout the campaign, he felt no comfort in his victory. It had been too costly in the lives of his men, many of them his friends. Weeks later he wrote to a friend about that long silent ride, " … while in the thick of it, I am too occupied to feel anything; but it is wretched just after. It is impossible to think of glory. Both mind and feelings are exhausted."

Though his rider was undoubtedly in a state of emotional shock, the faithful Copenhagen continued steadily on. They finally reached the Waterloo inn at about 11:00pm. Together, they had left that same inn before 6:00am that morning, nearly eighteen hours ago. Years later, the Duke told a friend, "Well, on reaching headquarters, and thinking how bravely my old horse had carried me all day, I could not help going up to his head to tell him so by a few caresses. But, hang me if, when I was giving him a slap of approbation on his hind-quarters, he did not fling out one of his hind legs with as much vigor as if he had been in the stable for a couple of days!" In his surprise at his master’s unexpected touch, Copenhagen very nearly achieved what the French had failed to do throughout that gruelling battle. But the Duke was quick enough to avoid that lethal hoof, the last danger he would face on that terrible day. His groom took the stallion’s reins and led him away for a well-deserved rub-down and rest. Man and mount had both fought their last battle.

Next week, Copenhagen’s life as a civilian and his retirement in England. Wherein shall be revealed what the Countess of Jersey paid to have stolen from him and an explanation for the confusion about his color, years after his passing.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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3 Responses to Bloody Sunday:   Copenhagen and the Waterloo Campaign

  1. Pingback: The Horse that Won the Battle of Waterloo…(OK – he had a little help!) « Cavalrytales Blog

  2. Kathryn Kane says:

    For those who might be interested, that great elm at Mont Saint-Jean, from under which Wellington directed much of the battle at Waterloo from Copenhagen’s back, was fated to once again enter the service of both Wellington and the British Crown just a few years later.

    In 1818, the elm was blasted by a lightening strike and had to be cut down. The wood was made into two chairs, one of which was presented to the Duke, and is even now at Apsley House. The other was given to King George IV, and is now kept at Windsor Castle.

  3. Pingback: Regency Bicentennial:   An Arm & A Leg — Part One | The Regency Redingote

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