Waterloo 200

Project Hougoumont is an Anglo-Belgian initiative inspired by the military historian, Richard Holmes, with two objectives: to raise funds for the restoration of Hougoumont in time for the bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo and to give it a secure future as a place of remembrance, education and reconciliation.

Before 18th June 1815 Hougoumont consisted of a little chateau with a chapel attached, a barn, stables and a cluster of lesser farm buildings, all enclosed by a high wall. Next to it was a formal garden, walled on two sides and, beyond that to the east, an orchard bounded by dense hedges of beech and thorn. Close-by to the south west was an acre of mature woodland. Like many chateau-fermes in the province of Brabant it had something of the aspect of a fortress.

From the moment the first shot was fired Hougoumont was the scene of intense fighting. Indeed, it was the only place on the battlefield of Waterloo where fighting continued throughout the day. Its position among trees in a hollow in front of the extreme right of Wellington's line, equidistant from both armies, gave it strategic significance to both sides. If the French took Hougoumont, Wellington's line could be turned and his route to the sea cut off; if Wellington could hold it, the force of the inevitable assault on his centre would be weakened.

18 June 1815 – Waterloo – Napoléonic destructions at Hougoumont

18 June 1815 – Waterloo – Napoléonic destructions at Hougoumont

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So, during the day Hougoumont was attacked no less than seven times and defended with extraordinary courage and great loss of life by three regiments of British Foot Guards and German-speaking troops from Hanover, Brunswick and Nassau. In their first vain assault on the south front from the wood the French lost 1,500 men to the muskets of the Coldstream Guards firing from makeshift platforms behind the garden wall. At noon the French broke through the north gate, but ten soldiers of the Coldstream and 3rd Guards led by Lieutenant-Colonel James MacDonnell rallied and, after furious and bloody hand-to-hand fighting in which most of the intruders were killed, they drove the remainder out. Then, putting their shoulders to the great doors, they closed and barred them for good. Deflected, but undeterred, the French turned on the 1st Guards in the orchard.

Meanwhile, the chateau and farm buildings were bombarded with incendiary shells. Haystacks and roofs caught fire and by the end of the day Hougoumont was a place of horror. Survivors wrote of disorientation caused by smoke and the noise of battle, of being ordered to stay at their posts as floors and staircases collapsed beneath them, of terrified horses careering out of burning buildings and then back into the flames, and of the pitiful cries of wounded men trapped by fire and falling roofs.

Altogether some 6,500 men died or were wounded in the struggle for Hougoumont. It is a sombre reckoning, but a source of enduring pride to the descendants and regiments of those who were there because of the extraordinary courage they displayed and because of Wellington's famous remark that the outcome of the battle of Waterloo had turned on the closing of the gates at Hougoumont. Then, the battle over, peace returned to Hougoumont and for nearly two hundred years it remained a working farm. Some of the buildings were repaired; others, including all but a fragment of the chateau, were demolished and became grassy mounds. Travellers would be admitted by the farmer or his wife and shown the chapel and the crucifix hanging over the west door with its image of Christ whose missing feet and charred shins marked where the great fire of 18th June 1815 had burned itself out.

In the years that followed countless artists, writers, historians, poets and photographers found their way to Hougoumont and recorded their impressions. Sir Walter Scott, already established as a Romantic poet when he toured the battlefield with his brother in August 1815, 'loitered a couple of hours' at Hougoumont and was deeply moved by the grim detritus of war. In May 1816 Byron broke his journey into exile to gallop over the battlefield on a borrowed 'Cossac' horse and, according to his friend and travelling companion, Dr John Polidori, scratched his name on the chapel wall. In October 1815 Robert Southey was stirred to write prophetically that he wished the ruins of Hougoumont 'might be allowed to remain untouched as the best monument to the brave men who are buried beneath them'; and in August 1817 Turner paused on his way south to make seven quick sketches in pencil, one of which he worked up into a great night-piece of women moving enigmatically among the dead and wounded against the back-drop of Hougoumont on fire.

Hougoumont is remarkably well documented in pictures. Within a few days of the battle Thomas Stoney, an Irish gentleman artist, and Denis Dighton, the Prince Regent's Military Painter, produced watercolour sketches of the burned-out ruins. Thereafter, innumerable views were engraved and published until photographs began to appear in the 1860s. In Les Miserables, published in 1862, Victor Hugo devoted a hundred pages to the battle of Waterloo and in a memorable passage described how wounded French prisoners were thrown alive into the well at Hougoumont. That is now known to be untrue, but at the time it did wonders for tourism and innumerable late 19th-century views of Hougoumont show the well gradually diminishing in height as its stones were removed as souvenirs.

When the last tenant farmer died in 2003, Hougoumont was put up for sale for the first time since 1816 and bought by the Intercommunale Bataille de Waterloo 1815, a local-government consortium that already owned parts of the battlefield. For some years, the buildings lay unoccupied and decaying, but in 2012, encouraged by the late Duke of Wellington, Project Hougoumont launched an appeal in both Belgium and the United Kingdom for 3.3 million euros.

 Restored garden wall from the south-east - the visible holes were cut to give the  defenders a better field of fire (Martin Drury)

Restored garden wall from the south-east - the visible holes were cut to give the defenders a better field of fire (Martin Drury)

Thanks to the interest and generosity of individuals and charitable trusts in the United Kingdom, commercial sponsors and donors in Belgium, the Walloon Regional government and a magnificent donation of 1.5 million euros from the British government our target was reached in less than a year and in October 2013 work began on site.

Today, buildings and walls have been repaired and later additions removed. Care has been taken to preserve the romance of the place, but some new materials have had to be used which in time will weather. An exhibition and multi-media show telling the story of Hougoumont and explaining its significance has been created in the former cowsheds and barn. New gates have been made for the northern entrance, given by Lord Egremont in memory of his kinsman, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Wyndham of the Coldstream Guards, one of the ten 'closers'. The new gates were made by craftsmen on the Leconfield estate at Petworth where Wyndham was born and grew up.

A moving monument created by the sculptor Vivien Mallock and dedicated to the British soldiers who fought at Waterloo was recently unveiled by the Prince of Wales. For those who wish to study the battlefield at leisure an apartment has been created on the upper floors of the former gardener's house and is now available for rent for a few days at a time through the Landmark Trust. The miraculous crucifix hangs again above the door in the chapel where it was in 1815. It was stolen in 2011, but, through a second miracle, recovered in October last year. The chapel itself has been simply furnished as a place of memory and reflection.

Finally, the interest of the exhibition at Hougoumont has been enhanced by a remarkable discovery. A few months ago an eagle-eyed volunteer came upon a news item headed 'The Ownership of Hougoumont' in an 1890 copy of The Guernsey Star, referring to a wholly unknown collection of blood-stained letters and other mementoes picked up within the precincts of the farm on 19th June 1815'. Diligent research led to the discovery of this collection, still intact, in the ownership of Count Guibert d'Oultremont, former owner of Hougoumont and direct descendant of the man who bought the ruins in 1816.

Among an extraordinary collection of memorabilia are several personal letters, including a particularly touching one dated 31st May 1815 to Private George Davis of the 1st Guards from his girl in London, a German patriotic poem, a German soldier's mud-stained birth certificate, a home-leave pass for a Brunswicker, sheets of trumpet music, a French song ridiculing Louis XVIII and a prison record sheet dated 16th May 1815 listing ten British soldiers, four of whom had been locked up for drunkenness, signed by Sergeant Joshua Robinson of the 33rd Regiment.

Equally poignant are the objects in the collection: a knitted bonnet with the chequered brow-band of a Scottish regiment, a scarlet and gold epaulette, a pair of unused linen gaiters, a veritable cascade of capbadges, buttons, and cockades, a rusty musket ball, a fragment of a cuirasse and other items of the kind that early visitors record being pestered by local people to buy.

Count d'Oultremont has generously placed a selection of these eloquent objects on loan for display at Hougoumont. Studying them brings one very close to those who died in the dreadful slaughter of 18th June 1815 and visitors emerge to explore this hauntingly evocative place in a suitably thoughtful frame of mind.



Chairman, UK Committee

Project Hougoumont Appeal