King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
The nearest run thing you ever saw: the Battle of Waterloo

The British military library

Throughout the 19th century, periodicals were, as now, an extremely popular medium for the dissemination of knowledge and for keeping readers informed of scientific matters and other developments on a regular basis. The format suits a field of study, such as ‘military knowledge’ in which advances are made rapidly and where a debate and exchange of ideas can help to foster these advances.

This periodical was published when Europe was in the midst of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and the title acknowledges that the contents include selections from ‘foreign military publications’. With a belligerent France engaging European powers across the continent and beyond in naval and land battles, an evaluation of other European powers was eminently useful for Britain’s survival and defence of its imperial holdings.

Officers from the 42nd Regiment of Foot and the 76th Regiment of Foot in red uniforms and carrying swordsHighland Infantry Officers from the 42nd and 76th Regiments of FootIncluded in the volumes are accounts of such conflicts as the 1799 Battle of Alkmaar, fought between Anglo-Russian and Gallo-Batavian armies in north Holland, strategic advice on how to hold a bridge, musical notation for marching music and maps of battlefields.

Particularly relevant to the tactics of the British infantry at Waterloo is an analysis of ‘the square’, a tactic employed to defend against cavalry, in which men would line up four deep to create a square shape. The first two rows would raise bayonets to ward off rampaging horses, while the rear rows would fire muskets to drive them off.

Though it was a tactic employed by all infantry of the period, the steadfast nature of the British foot soldiers’ defensive squares at Waterloo has become legendary. The two images from the British military library or journal shown here, illustrate the uniforms and attire of two regiments who played significant roles in the battle.

The 42nd Regiment of Foot, a Scottish infantry regiment originally raised in 1739 to police the Highlands, from where it gained its title the ‘Black Watch’, fought at the Battle of Quatre Bras, two days before Waterloo, and then suffered heavy losses in the battle itself.

An Officer of the Second Regiment Life Guards in red uniform mounted on his horseSecond Regiment Life GuardsIt lined up on the east side of the front line with other Scottish regiments, the Cameron Highlanders, the Gordons and the First Royal Scots, and was involved in fierce close-quarter fighting. For its service at Quatre Bras and Waterloo, it was one of four regiments mentioned in despatches.

The Second Regiment of Life Guards, as part of the 1st Cavalry Brigade, took part in a famous and strategically important cavalry charge on the afternoon of the battle. With the French infantry advancing at La Haye Sainte and to the east, Lord Uxbridge led the British heavy cavalry charging into the French infantry.

Two symbolic eagle standards were captured and the French infantry halted, but as the British cavalry chased the French down, they became scattered and were themselves picked off by the fearsome cavalry of the French, the Cuirassiers, and suffered heavy losses. The Life Guards are today classified as the senior regiment of the British Army and the uniform shown here from 1799 includes the scarlet tunic and white chest strap, which are still part of the uniform today.

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