An Allied Cavalry Regiment at Waterloo – or not?
The Duke of Cumberland’s Hussars.
by Peter Duckers
It is well-known that the Duke of Wellington’s command in the Netherlands in the summer of 1815 was much more than an assemblage of British units. His was indeed a mixed force, comprising not only British regiments of all kinds (some of them veterans of the Peninsular War) but also Dutch and Belgian units and a number of contingents, large and small, from various German states, such as Brunswick and Nassau, and from British-ruled Hanover (or Hannover in German usage). The leading German formation under Wellington was the King’s German Legion (KGL), comprising artillery, cavalry and infantry. Raised largely from émigrés from Hanover serving under German and British officers, the KGL had earned a fine reputation as fighting soldiers in Spain and southern France.
It was common in late Victorian times – though not so earlier on – to denigrate or at least underplay the role of the non-British regiments under Wellington and concentrate attention on the activities of the British army itself, as if only British troops took the casualties and held the battlefield until Blucher arrived with the Prussians. In fact, of approx. 72,000 men under Wellington’s command actually on the battlefield, only about 36% were British; roughly 17% were Hanoverian, 13% were Dutch, 10% were KGL, 10% were from Nassau, another 8% were Brunswickers and 6% were from Belgium. Half of Wellington’s cavalry was not British. Modern accounts of the battle have gone a long way towards redressing the balance and now more accurately record the contribution made by all the Allied regiments under Wellington.
However, the reputation of one Allied cavalry regiment has never been rehabilitated following scathing attacks, at the time and ever since, made about its conduct on the day of the great battle. This was the Duke of Cumberland’s Hussars, who notoriously fled the field on the early evening of the 18th June and spread panic through Brussels as some of their number galloped though the city, loudly proclaiming that all was lost and that Napoleon was coming!
In many respects, the Cumberland Hussars was an unusual regiment – certainly amongst those gathered at Waterloo. Quite a number of the German regiments under Wellington were landwehr units – that is, local militias whose training was often poor and whose war experience was limited, to say the least. Wellington recognised that these regiments, if they were not simply to be kept in reserve or out of the severest action, needed to brigaded with more “reliable” or experienced units (usually British) to help preserve their morale and discipline under fire. On the whole, under those circumstances, they performed well enough; many of the German landwehr units, like those of Verden, Munden and Osnabruck, played a very creditable part in the long battle and sustained significant numbers of casualties without showing signs of panic.
Not so the Cumberland Hussars. This cavalry regiment, numbering approx. 30 officers and 470 men in four squadrons, commanded by Lt. Col. Adolphus von Hacke, was the only regiment of volunteer cavalry in Wellington’s army – something like a British yeomanry unit. It was famously said to be made up of fashionable “dandies” – wealthy young men who paid for their own uniforms, equipment and mounts, and (if contemporary sarcasm is correct) were more concerned to “look the part” of dashing cavalrymen than to actually fulfill a useful military roll. Founded in 1813, the regiment took its title from Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cumberland (1760-1850), son of George III and then Military Governor of Hanover; he became King of Hanover in 1837 when the British crown relinquished control of the state. The majority of the Cumberland Hussars had absolutely no experience of warfare, though they may well have had a few experienced officers and NCOs amongst their number. It is said that von Hacke, well aware of the unpreparedness of his regiment, did everything during its march to the Netherlands to secure their release from active service. Equally, its members did not seem to have much faith in their commander.
On the 7th June 1815, when writing to Wellington about the Hanoverian forces he would command, the Duke of Cambridge pointed out that the Cumberland Hussars were all volunteers, having had very little time for drill and serious field exercises. He relayed to Wellington their wish to be brigaded with their own countrymen, as they did not speak any English (though some officers certainly did). The reason for the request was that though the regiment was initially brigaded with the Bremen and Verden Hussars and the Prince Regent’s Hussars under Colonel Baron von Estorff, these two units had been detached to form part of the garrison at Hal, so that the Cumberland Hussars were actually attached to the 23rd (British) Light Dragoons. The request was, however, denied and for their whole time during the battle the Cumberland Hussars were positioned close to the 23rd Light Dragoons.
One writer, the distinguished Sir Harry Smith, records that they got off to a bad start even before the battle, during the retreat from Quatre Bras on 17th June :
“As we approached Brussels the next day [17th June], we met an orderly with a letter …to direct us to move on Quatre Bras. In the afternoon, after we passed Brussels, the scene of confusion, the flying of army, baggage, etc., was an awful novelty to us. We were directed by a subsequent order to halt at the village of Epinay, on the Brussels side of the forest of Soignies, a report having reached his Grace that the enemy’s cavalry were threatening our communication with Brussels…. The whole afternoon we were in a continued state of excitement. Once some rascals of the Cumberland Hussars, a new Corps of Hanoverians (not of the style of our noble and gallant old comrades, the 1st Hussars [i.e. KGL]), came galloping in, declaring they were pursued by Frenchmen. Our bugles were blowing in all directions, and our troops running to their alarm-posts in front of the village. I went to report to Sir John Lambert, who was just sitting quietly down to dinner … He says very coolly, “This is all nonsense; there is not a French soldier in the rear of his Grace, depend on it, and sit down to dinner.”” [Autobiography, 1860]
This implies a degree of panicky behaviour by the Cumberland Hussars even before they were subjected to a full-scale battle, but it does not seem to be recorded elsewhere and may be a case of Smith confusing the unit or the day.
The regiment joined Wellington’s army on the battlefield, positioned in reserve behind the centre of Wellington’s line, 400 yards behind the ridge. There is little direct evidence of what the Cumberland Hussars did for most of the battle, after its late start on the morning of 18th June. Located near Dornberg’s cavalry brigade (comprising 1st and 2nd Dragoons KGL, and 23rd (British) Light Dragoons), they were certainly recorded as taking casualties from over-shots during the initial and continued French artillery barrages, since they remained sitting on their horses in the open and, unlike the more experienced cavalry regiments nearby, did not dismount to minimise the risk. It was probably from this exposure that the regiment took most of its casualties, amounting to about 60 killed and wounded – about 12% of the whole, which is actually quite a high percentage.
As the battle developed towards its crisis point and French cavalry repeatedly charged the Allied infantry squares on the ridge, there developed a seesaw of counter charges by an ever-diminishing number of British heavy cavalry. Perhaps eleven or twelve British cavalry counter-charges were made, but every time more horses and men were lost and their numbers grew smaller and smaller. Just after 5.00 p.m., the French managed to position a battery of guns forward of La Haye Sainte, which threatened the centre of the Allied position. The King’s Dragoon Guards and the Blues were moved up and the Cumberland Hussars were ordered forward to join them. It has repeatedly been claimed that von Hacke actually had no intention of taking his men into battle, since when the request was made for him to support a cavalry charge, he delayed through unnecessary manoeuvring and eventually, when formally ordered by Wellington to move forward, decided that he and his men had had enough and the entire regiment began to move to the rear, away from the battle.
The British cavalry commander, the Marquis of Anglesey, was horrified at the sight and immediately sent his ADC, Capt. Horace Seymour, to order them back, but the entire regiment left the field. Seymour later recorded:
“Lord Anglesey, seeing [the regiment of Cumberland Hussars] moving to the rear (about five o’clock), desired me immediately to halt it. On delivering the order to the Colonel, he told me that he had no confidence in his men, that they were volunteers and the horses their own property. All this time the Regiment continued moving to the rear, in spite of my repeating the order to halt, and asking the Second-in-Command [Major O. F. von Meltzing] to save the character of the regiment by taking command and fronting them. I was unsuccessful, and in the exigence of the moment I laid hold of the bridle of the Colonel’s horse, and remarked what I thought of his conduct; but all to no purpose. [according to Dalton, Seymour used “a few words of plain Saxon”.]
I then returned to Lord Anglesey, and reported what had passed. I was again ordered to deliver the message to the commanding officer of the regiment, that if they would not resume their position in the line, he was to form them across the high road out of fire. They did not even obey this order, but went, as was reported, altogether to the rear.”
Shortly afterwards, Major Dawson – the Assistant Quartermaster General no less – on behalf of Wellington himself, personally urged von Hacke to take up a position behind the hamlet of Mont Saint Jean, out of danger, but even this request fell upon deaf ears and von Hacke led his men away, retreating towards the forest of Soignes. Some of his own officers, like Adjutant von Dachenhausen, Major von Meltzing and Captain von Landsberg all seem to have urged von Hacke to halt the regiment and return, but to no avail.
To continue the pressure on him to remain, Lt. Col. Sir Alexander Gordon, personal ADC to the Duke – and commander of the 3rd Guards – reminded von Hacke of his duty according to the formal regulations of warfare, while proposing that he could place his men in a safer place at the edge of the forest. Von Hacke refused even this and continued his retreat through the forest. It was here that an officer of the staff of the Prince of the Orange ordered von Hacke, in the name of the Prince, to return to the battlefield – again with no effect.
Finally, the divisional commander Major General von Kielmansegge sent his own orderly to find the Cumberland Hussars, but he failed to locate them until late that night, long after the battle had ended; this meeting like the others yielded no positive result. The main body of the Cumberland Hussars – apart from those who fled through Brussels spreading alarm – had finally taken up a position about 8 miles from the battlefield, in front of the gates of the city. On the grounds that he was suffering from the effects of a contusion, von Hacke vacated the command and was succeeded by Major von Meltzing.
In his final dispatch, Wellington praised all the German units under his direct command – as well as giving high praise to the Prussians – and did not single out any of them (including the Cumberland Hussars) for criticism. However, the subsequent employment of the regiment reflected a complete loss of trust in its morale and abilities. On 19th June, the regiment was assigned to the 3rd Division under von Kielmansegge but on 23rd June this was cancelled and the regiment was posted to a Dutch division observing Le Quesnoy. After that, the regiment was attached to the commissariat and split up into different detachments to provide escorts to forage details – an inglorious duty. In his famous Journal, Captain Cavalie Mercer, commander of G Troop, RHA, records having some of them under his command (escorting his forage train) en route to Paris and records that they were very obstreperous and unhappy with their lot, complaining that as “gentlemen” the work was beneath them. Effectively, the Cumberland Hussars ceased to act as a coherent cavalry unit and an effective part of the Allied army in the strictest sense of the term.
Despite Wellington’s lack of direct criticism, the conduct of the Cumberland Hussars did not go unnoticed. As early as 20th June, General Alten wrote to the Duke of Cambridge, as military governor of Hanover, remarking on the conduct of the Hussars and criticising their commander. As a result of negative rumours already spreading through the army about the regiment’s conduct, Major von Meltzing wrote on 27th June to Lt. General von der Decken on behalf of the officers to explain the situation and requesting an official enquiry into the behaviour of von Hacke. Since nothing was done, this was repeated on 21st July to Lieut. General Alten and he in turn wrote on 23rd to both Wellington and the Duke of Cambridge, requesting a formal enquiry into the conduct of von Hacke. Wellington consented to the enquiry on the 29th. By now, the Marquis of Anglesey’s account of events had been passed to the Prince Regent and this document was sent to the Duke of Cambridge, as well as another report, written by Alten on 6th August. As a result, the Duke placed von Hacke under house arrest pending court martial and on 13th August 1815 ordered a formal investigation into the actions of the commander of the Cumberland Hussars and into those of the regiment itself during the battle.
On the 14th August a Hanoverian military tribunal summoned von Hacke to a court martial to be held in Brussels, though this did not, in the event, open until 14th October. The charge against von Hacke was that he had repeatedly disobeyed verbal orders given to him by senior officers and had disgracefully led his regiment out of the battle and as far as Brussels. In his defence, von Hacke mentioned the lack of forage for the horses, the weakening of the regiment as a result of casualties and its general unsteadiness and confusion during the battle. The court rejected these arguments as simply untrue or as an unjust means of shifting responsibility to his fellow officers and men.
As a result of the court martial, von Hacke was cashiered and degraded and Major von Meltzing was reprimanded for not having done enough to prevent the situation from escalating into an ignominious retreat. The verdict was published on the 14th October 1815 and formally announced in January 1816. Interestingly, the regiment as a unit was not formally charged with anything in the trial but was shortly afterwards disbanded, though (equally interestingly) not before the regiment had been granted the battle-honour “Waterloo” by the Prince Regent in March 1816. Von Hacke later went as a German Legion settler to South Africa, where he served in the local forces and was again reprimanded for his insubordination! He died there in 1858.
Attractive named Waterloo medals were awarded to the Brunswick and Hanoverian contingents at Waterloo – the former in bronze and the latter in silver. Hanoverian Waterloo medals are known to members of the Cumberland Hussars. But who amongst the disgraced regiment was awarded the medal? Is it likely that all the men would actually be given a medal given their regiment’s poor conduct? Or was their mere presence during the 1815 campaign and earlier on in the battle enough to win them the award? It seems clear that at least some of the officers and men of the Cumberland Hussars were appalled by the behaviour of their Colonel and colleagues in leaving the field and it is known that some refused to retire and attached themselves to the 23rd Light Dragoons (and possibly other nearby cavalry regiments) and served through the battle. Did only these men – who saw out the battle – receive the medal?