by John Downham
A Lancashire Infantry Museum Narrative History
On the morning of 18 June 1815 the armies of the Emperor Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington met on the field of Waterloo. The 30th and 40th Regiments played a notable part in the great battle which followed, one of the most decisive in world history.
Wellington made his stand on a gently sloping ridge, in front of which stood several walled farms, including La Haie Sainte in the centre, which he fortified. The greater part of his infantry were drawn up in column behind the ridge, where they had some protection from the French artillery and could deploy into square or line to meet attacks by cavalry or infantry.
The 30th Foot had already been marching and fighting, without food, for two days before the battle, and at Quatre Bras, 16 June, had earned high praise for beating off repeated charges by French cuirassiers. They were the only ‘Peninsular’ regiment of Halkett’s Brigade (30th, 33rd, 69th and 73rd) and fought throughout the day in the centre of the field under Wellington’s immediate eye.
The ‘Fighting Fortieth’ were, like the 30th, seasoned veterans of Wellington’s Spanish victories, and they had recently returned from campaigning in America. With the 4th (King’s Own) and the 27th Inniskillings, they formed Lambert’s brigade. After a forced march from Ghent, they had arrived near the village of Waterloo late in the evening of 17 June, and next morning were placed in reserve behind the centre of Wellington’s position.
The night before Waterloo had been particularly wet, and so it was about 11 o’clock before the ground was dry enough for Napoleon to launch his first attack. The Light Company of the 30th were in action from the start, skirmishing with the French tirailleurs, while at this time the 40th were held in reserve. Both Regiments were subjected to heavy cannonading.
At about 3 o’clock, following the repulse of a massed infantry attack on the Allied left centre, Wellington ordered Lambert’s brigade into the front line to defend the vital cross-roads behind La Haye Sainte. Shortly afterwards, mistaking allied redeployment on the ridge for signs of retreat, Napoleon launched eight and a half thousand of his superb cavalry, led by Marshal Ney, in an impetuous charge against the centre of the Allied line. The British regiments formed square and their disciplined musketry volleys felled the gallant horsemen in great numbers, but in the intervals between the cavalry assaults the close-ranked squares were devastated by the French artillery.
Over the next two hours the 30th beat off eleven charges by cuirassiers and lancers, but losses from the French guns mounted, and when at one point the Regiment closed to its left a perfect square of dead and wounded marked its former position.
The 40th also held their ground against repeated attacks by French cavalry, infantry and guns, sometimes combined and sometimes separately. At times they were engaged by several columns of infantry at once, and were frequently surrounded by French cavalry, who became more and more desperate as the battle developed. Their position, some three hundred yards from the farm buildings of La Haie Sainte, was particularly exposed when, at about 6.30 pm, the farm was captured by the enemy. A French break-through in Wellington’s centre appeared imminent, but despite the ferocity and persistence of the close-quarter infantry assaults, the constant and destructive cannonade of the enemy guns, and the fire of the French tirailleurs on the rising ground to their front, the Regiment yielded not a foot of ground.
Towards the close of the day the 30th had the honour, together with the 73rd Foot, of repulsing the Grenadiers of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, whom they routed with one volley. The Guard was Napoleon’s last reserve. Shortly after 7 o’clock the Duke of Wellington ordered a general advance, and a ringing cheer ran from right to left along the British line. The Duke galloped up to Lambert’s brigade and called out, ‘No cheering, my lads, but go on and complete your victory.’ With fixed bayonets the 40th dashed forward to sweep away the tirailleurs, rout the French columns to their front and recapture La Haie Sainte. The general advance continued until the men were so exhausted that they were forced to halt.
Both Regiments had suffered severely. At the time of the advance the 30th were commanded by the officer sixth in seniority, all his seniors having been killed or wounded, and Major Heyland, commanding the 40th, was shot dead during an attack by massed infantry. At the end of the day the 30th had lost about half its numbers, and around one in four of the 40th had fallen around their Colours, which were shot to ribbons. For their steadfastness, discipline and stubborn gallantry on this day the 30th and 40th Regiments of Foot were permitted to encircle their badges with a wreath of laurels, a tradition which is maintained to the present day.