If Waterloo was the pivotal moment of Napoleon’s return during the Hundred Days, then Hougoumont was linchpin of the Battle of Waterloo itself. The Duke of Wellington, commander of the Allied forces during the battle, later said “The success of the battle of Waterloo, however, turned upon the closing of the gates of Hougoumont.”
That focus was largely Wellington’s doing. Fearful that Napoleon, advancing from the south, would attempt to turn his right flank and force him to choose between being drawn away from his hurriedly arriving German reinforcements or having his lines of communication with the sea – and England – severed, Wellington stationed one of his few experienced British units at the farm – the Coldstream Guards.
Napoleon got a late start on the morning of the battle, giving the Guardsmen precious time to fortify the position. They found a fairly typical Belgian country estate: a château around which clustered two courtyards, barns, various smaller outbuildings, and a formal garden enclosed by a brick wall. Fields and trees lay around the position but, critically, 30 yards of open ground lay between the farm and a wood to the south, from which the French would approach. Commanded by positions at loopholes and from a hastily-constructed fire step behind the wall, that open ground would become a slaughterhouse for the French attackers.
They came just before noon, exactly where Wellington expected: Hougoumont.
Allied pickets in the woods to the south were quickly driven out by six thousand French infantry, but the French paid heavily in the open ground. Although their furthest advances reached the farmhouse walls, the outnumbered British defenders poured concentrated fire on them and quickly drove them back.
Realizing that a frontal assault was folly, the next French attack came from three sides. A massive Frenchman named Legros won through to the walls with 30 men and managed to smash through the north gate. The British commander, Lieutenant-Colonel James Macdonnell, quickly gathered a small group of soldiers and fought through the French penetration to secure the gate against further entry. Legros, and all those with him (about 30 soldiers from the 1st Legere), were annihilated in brutal hand-to-hand fighting apart from a young drummer boy, who was kept alive by the Coldstream Guards.
So continued the day at Hougoumont, a litany of violence punctuated by pauses while both sides attempted to reinforce. Eventually, the French realized the folly of hitting the fortified position without artillery preparation. Shells began to fall in and around the château, and by mid-afternoon many of the buildings were aflame, a hellish backdrop to the ceaseless combat.
In all, the French came at Hougoumont in at least seven distinct waves before the battle was concluded. The dead, on both sides, remain numberless, uncounted in the desperate confusion of the day.
And the farm itself, burnt and battered, remained in service. Generations of tenant farmers continued to work the land soaked in so much blood. By 2006, the farm was falling into disrepair.
Cognizant of the potential loss of the remains of such a crucial scene in history, Project Hougoumont was launched as a fund-raising effort to restore the position in time for the battle’s 200th anniversary in 2015. Today, thanks to that effort, the farm once again closely resembles the state it was left in at the end of fighting in 1815.