Here's What You Need to Know: Scottish Highlanders contributed to the Anglo-Allied victory over Napoleon.
In the early morning of June 16, 1815, the city of Brussels awoke to the shriek of bagpipes and the throbbing tattoo of drums. The Anglo-Dutch army under Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, was assembling to combat French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s lightning invasion of Belgium. As the red-coated British soldiers got into ranks, Brussels citizens looked on with growing excitement. Even stolid Belgian peasants bringing in vegetables from outlying farms could not help but stop their wagons and gaze in awe.
Lieutenant Colonel Basil Jackson of the Royal Staff Corps had returned to Brussels about 4 am after delivering a dispatch to Wellington’s cavalry headquarters 15 miles away. Jackson rode down the Rue de la Madeleine at a leisurely pace until he came to the city’s magnificent Place Royale. There was a park nearby, and the noise of gathering soldiers stirred the colonel’s curiosity. His timing was perfect. At just that moment, General Sir Thomas Picton was reviewing his 5th Division. After the review, they would leave the city via the Porte de Namur gate.
Jackson drew rein, watched for a moment, then relocated outside the Hotel Bellevue to watch the division march past. The colonel recalled how fine the green-coated 94th Rifles and 28th Foot looked. But it was the Scottish Highlanders who made the most indelible impression. The 42nd Highlanders, celebrated in song and story as the Black Watch, came first, followed by the 79th Cameron Highlanders and the 92nd Gordons. To Jackson, the Scots embodied all the “pomp and circumstance of glorious war.”
The tough Highlanders were wearing their trademark kilts as they trudged through Brussels’ cobblestone streets. They did not wear sporrans, their distinctive goat’s hair purses, because sporrans were not allowed on active campaign. But diced “hummel” bonnets were perched on every head, festooned with black ostrich feathers. Jackson marveled that the 42nd Highlanders marched so steadily that the plumes of their bonnets scarcely vibrated as they stepped.
The Rebellious Highlanders
The Scots had a long history in the British Army. The 1st Regiment of Foot, or Royal Scots, was the oldest regiment in the king’s forces, with origins dating back to the 1630s. In fact, the 1st Foot had such seniority that it was nicknamed “Pontius Pilate’s Bodyguard.” But Scottish Highlanders were quite a different matter. Fierce, independent, and tough as the land that bred them, the Highlanders were loyal only to their clan chiefs. And all too often, the clan chiefs were loyal to the exiled Stuart dynasty. In 1715, there was an abortive uprising in Scotland to restore James, the Old Pretender, to the British throne.
The “Fifteen,” as it was called, failed, but in 1745 Prince Charles Edward Stuart, son of the Old Pretender, landed in Scotland, raised his standard, and called out the Highland clans again. Not all responded to his summons, but for a few months Charles—later celebrated in song and legend as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”—enjoyed spectacular success. Skirling bagpipes and the wild “Highland charge,” with claymore swords glittering in the sun, became known and feared throughout England.
The 1745 rising ended in defeat on the wind-swept, boggy fields of Culloden, where the Highlanders were slaughtered by massed musketry and cannon fire. Medieval weapons could not stand up to modern guns, even when wielded with strength and courage. The very name “Highlander” became associated with rebellion and treason. For a time, even the Highlanders’ kilts and bagpipes were outlawed.
The Highlanders Fight For Britain
Six years before Bonnie Prince Charlie, a Scottish regiment was formed that would give Highland soldiers a place in the regular British establishment. The 43rd Regiment of Foot—later renumbered the 42nd Highlanders—would become the famous Black Watch. By contrast, the 92nd Foot (Gordon Highlanders) was raised by Alexander, Duke of Gordon, as a patriotic gesture in 1794. Great Britain was just beginning its long struggle with France, and regiments were being raised all over Britain. Gordon took his first recruits from his own estates at Badenoch, Lochaber, and Strathspey, with a good portion hailing from Aberdeen.
After a time, the duke was having trouble filling the ranks. The year before, many men from his estates had joined the Gordon Fencibles, and finding new recruits was not easy. But Jean, Duchess of Gordon, came to the rescue. A handsome woman, she also had several beautiful grown daughters. They traveled throughout Scotland, going to fairs where men were certain to gather. Bedecked in regimental coats and feathered headdresses, the bevy of aristocratic beauties offered the equivalent of one day’s pay and a kiss for men who came forward and enlisted. The Gordon Highlanders soon had 1,000 men in the ranks.
The 79th Regiment of Foot (Cameron Highlanders) was founded by Alan Cameron of Erracht in 1793. Originally, most of his men came from the area around Inverness, but as the war against Revolutionary France turned into the Napoleonic wars, Cameron took in lowlanders as well. All the regiments had to compromise because as the war went on there were the inevitable losses to battle and disease.
As the Napoleonic wars dragged on, more Highland regiments were raised, including the 78th Rosshire, 97th Strathspey, 98th (later 91st) Argyllshire, and the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders. In the early days, a Highlander joined a regiment in part to serve his clan chief. But with the inevitable dilution of real Highlanders in the ranks, bounties were offered to attract recruits. As a result, Highland regiments had not only Highlanders but lowlanders, English, Welsh, and even Irish members. Some regiments had a higher proportion of real Highlanders than others, but the main qualification was that a man act like a Highlander—brave, loyal, and resourceful in battle. Those attributes would serve them well in the coming days.
“Napoleon Has Humbugged Me, by God!”
Ahead of Wellington’s army lay Quatre Bras, a small but strategically located hamlet where two major roads crossed, the Charleroi-Brussels and Nivelles-Sombreffe thoroughfares. The intersection gave the village its name. (Quatre Bras means “four arms” in French.) A few hours earlier, Wellington had issued orders for the army to concentrate there. Much depended on his Prussian allies under Field Marshal Gebhard von Blucher, who were operating farther to the east. Wellington was anything but confident of Blucher’s abilities. “We shall not stop him there,” said Wellington of Napoleon, “and if so, we’ll fight him here.” The duke put his thumb on a map position marked “Waterloo.”
Napoleon’s plan for the 1815 campaign showed that he had lost none of his strategic brilliance. He concentrated his Armee du Nord, around 123,000 men, on the Franco-Belgian border just south of the junction point of Wellington’s Anglo-Allied army and Blucher’s Army of the Lower Rhine. If all went well, the French would smash through the thin screen of pickets and drive a wedge between the two Allied armies before they could unite. It was in keeping with Napoleon’s celebrated catchphrase, “Toujours l’audace [Audacity always].”
Once he gained momentum, Napoleon hoped to defeat Wellington or Blucher—his plan was still flexible—before pouncing on whichever one remained. Wellington was slow at first to realize what the French were doing. The duke was worried about his right flank and the line of communications that stretched to the seacoast and ultimately back to Britain. He was so concerned, in fact, that he had left 17,000 men at Hal to guard against a French move in that area.
But Wellington quickly took stock of the situation. “Napoleon has humbugged me, by God!” he exclaimed when the facts became clear. “He gained 24 hours’ march on me!” That was why Picton’s 5th Division, which included the Highland regiments, found itself trudging south toward Quatre Bras. Wellington’s reputation, not Allied numbers, maintained a tenuous hold on Quatre Bras. The crossroads was held by 7,000 Dutch-Belgian troops under the local command of General Prince Bernard of Saxe-Weimar. They were opposed by the French army’s left wing under the celebrated Marshal Michel Ney, Napoleon’s “Bravest of the Brave.” Ney’s spearhead was the II Corps under General Honore Reille: 19,000 men, 3,500 cavalry, and 64 guns. General Jean Drouet, Count d’Erlon, and the I Corps were coming up from behind, adding another 20,000 men to the total.
The Battle of Quatre Bras
Ney received orders from Napoleon to occupy the crossroads and prepare to push on to Brussels. Since there was nothing in the missive to indicate urgency, the marshal let his men cook and eat breakfast first. But there was more to it than that. Ney’s usually fiery disposition was dampened by caution. There were thick woods in the area, leafy screens that easily could hide enemy troops. Fields of corn and rye stood almost as tall as a man, perfect for concealment.
Besides crops and trees, there was also a ridge behind the Nivelle road that would be perfect for a Wellington-style defense position. The Iron Duke was known to place his troops behind reverse slopes, in part to shield against French artillery fire. In the end, Ney decided to wait until more troops could come up, a decision that was seconded by Reille. The experienced Reille, who had fought in the Peninsular War, agreed that it might be a battle, as in Spain, where Wellington would conceal many of his troops until the last moment.