Saturday, 16 July 2016

Hougoumont

The fight around the Chateau of Hougoumont is one of the best documented aspects of Waterloo.  It was also a self-contained tactical contest that went on all day.  But despite our knowledge of what took place, there remains some areas of doubt.

The site consisted of a small chateau surrounded by farm buildings:





But the buildings only represent a proportion of the overall estate, which included a wood, orchards and gardens:



This modern photograph has been adjusted to show how the estate would have looked in 1815:



The Siborne model shows how much the Hougoumont estate dominated the west of the battlefield:



Evidence from an earlier period suggests that the chateau had an extensive formal 18th Century garden:



By the time of Waterloo, this formal garden was reduced in size, but it still existed.  Victorian photographs show that the balustrade survived:


So far, so good, but two key questions arise: how damaged were the buildings by the fighting? and given that many were reduced by fire, what did they look like before the battle?

Denis Dighton is a reliable source, but two pictures of exactly the same location suggest that the roof just to the right of the farmer's dwelling was much more damaged in the second picture.  Is this perhaps some time later? The first picture must be immediately after the battle and shows two Prussian officers observing the dead being placed in a pit.  The second picture could be later because the bush to the left of the building looks bigger.



This picture suggests a similar location for the burial pit:
 
This picture from the British Museum is at a more oblique angle, so it is hard to tell what damage occurred to the roof:



Denis Dighton used the same view from a slightly greater distance to show the fight in front of the South Gate:



This picture shows the same location, but gets the line of the garden wall wrong:


This picture shows how difficult it was for the French to cross the field of fire:


To the right of the above scene is the long wall that runs from west to east.  This wall was loopholed by the British and we can assume that they built platforms to shoot from the top.  This turned the open ground between the wall and the trees into a killing zone.

This is a Victorian photograph of the wall:


Having failed in a direct assault, the French therefore exploited to the west of the Great Barn and it was here that Sergeant Frazer unhorsed Colonel Cubieres:


The action then moved to the North Gate, the closing of which was described by Wellington as the decisive act of the battle.


This Victorian picture shows the inside of the gate :


The interior of Hougoumont contained a number of interesting features, among which was the dovecote:


Which brings us to the areas of uncertainty.  The records show that the fire began in the haystack to the southwest of the south gate.  Wellington himself sensed the risk that the fire might transfer to the barns along the west side of the complex.  This risk was compounded by French howitzer fire which set light to the roof of the barns and then set the chateau itself alight.

These pictures illustrate the ensuing damage.  Early pictures suggest part of the Chateau survived:


As time went on, more of it fell down:




By the Victorian age, photographs show the remnants:




This famous painting of the North Gate was painted in the late Victorian period and shows the gate in the much the condition it would have looked in the late 19th Century:




Siborne's model indicates that nearly all the roofs burnt off, less those on the north side:



One possible explanation for the speed with which the fire communicated from the haystack to the barns is that they were roofed in thatch and not tiles.    Certainly, all the buildings to the west and north of the complex lost their roofs, as shown in these next four pictures:





One model in the Waterloo museum suggests they were thatched:



I find it hard to judge whether this might have been the case.  Certainly, the fire in the barns was fast and intensely hot and left nothing of the original roof, perhaps suggesting thatch.  But the roof of the chateau also burnt and that was obviously not thatched.  Was thatch a traditional local building material? Interestingly,  there is a sketch of La Haye Farm (not to be confused with La Haye Sainte) of 1894 made by the historian A.H. Kennedy-Herbert showing that its roof was still thatched at that date.

For those who visited Hougoumont a few years ago, and saw it in its dilapidated state, news that it was to be refurbished was indeed welcome.  The newly restored Hougoumont is a tremendous achievement, but is it a little over-done?  While removal of the Victorian annexe to the farmer's house is good news, the roof tiles look too new and the restored North Gate is too solid a construction when compared with the ramshackle evidence from Victorian photographs:



How then to portray Hougoumont?  Clearly, timing matters given that this was a battle that went on all day.  Some have chosen to show the chateau in near pristine condition at an early point in the fight.  These models are hugely impressive:



The Winchester model shows a later point in the day:









There is also a need to show as much of the complex action as possible (including the Allied contribution and events such the famous ammunition re-supply).






One of my earliest posts showed my Hougoumont model, which illustrates the complex after the fire had done its worst.  Before I proceed to put it on to scenario boards and populate it with troops, I'd be interested in your thoughts on whether my analysis is about right.







2 comments:

  1. This is a fantastic post. Thanks so much for the research and work involved!

    ReplyDelete