2nd Lieutenant George Stainforth at the Battle of Waterloo, 1815

"George's fate was to be dragged to the centre of the Square, where orderlies staunched the loss of blood with a pad bound tightly by strips torn from his shirt, and there he lay while the fury of the battle raged all about him for the remainder of the day..."

While Wellington's army took up its pre-arranged positions on the reverse slopes of a low ridge south of the hamlet of Mont St.Jean and the Forest of Soignes, George Stainforth and the 23rd Regiment which had been marching for two days, moved to its allotted station along the Nivelles to Louvain Road just to the rear of the army's main line. The 23rd Regiment, together with a brigade of the King's German Legion, made up General Clinton's 2nd Division and Wellington's only reserve of seasoned infantry. Stationed a little to the rear of General Maitland's Guards Division, covering the weakest part of the British line on which Wellington expected the main French attack to fall, the 23rd could be moved rapidly into a threatened part of the line to deliver a counter-attack. While two months short of his nineteenth birthday, George, still a second lieutenant, was considered to be a veteran on account of his experience with the Peninsular army during its advance into France, culminating in the battle for Toulouse, and now, after Colonel Ellis' briefing, he assured his fusiliers that, though in reserve, they would soon be in the thick of the fighting.

They had arrived in their position just before nightfall, and had marched most of the day in pouring rain.... Although wet to the skin, George's veterans busied themselves in finding dry wood and tinder, and miraculously getting a fire going, shielding the flames with a blanket until it was hot enough on which to cook. In no time they were boiling tea in their camp-kettles, and eating the unexpired portion of the day's rations of biscuit, a bit of meat and a slab of cheese. When asked whether the ration wagon would be along in the morning, George replied positively, confident that the regiment's transport had been at the head of the column of wagons head to tail along the road from Brussels. Then, feeling better for the meal, however meagre, the soldiers smeared their blankets with clay to make them waterproof and heat-retaining, and using their knapsacks for a pillow, lay down in the mud and went to sleep.

The army emerged from beneath its blankets at dawn, wet, cold, and filthy. It had poured all night, and the fields of rye on which it had bivouaced in the open were now ankle deep in mud....

While Hougoumont held firm throughout that long afternoon it was possible for Wellington to make adjustments to his line, which already drawn up two deep was beginning to thin, and to contract towards the centre. At this point the 23rd Regiment in which the young veteran, 2nd Lieutenant George Stainforth, commanded a platoon, was ordered to take up a position on the right of the 52nd to plug an opening gap.

In their reserve position they had only faced the leftover cannon shot which bounded over the ridge, almost spent; but now they were exposed to a far heavier cannonade which, even though they were lying down behind the crest, inflicted, here and there, ghastly injuries and sapped morale. Then suddenly the howling hurricane of shot ceased, and the silence for a second was stupefying, followed by the shout, 'Form Squares! Here comes the cavalry!'

For a few minutes while they moved with drill book precision into 'square', the front rank kneeling, the second rank standing with muskets levelled and bayonets fixed, they got a glimpse of the valley wreathed in an enormous pall of smoke out of which appeared a ghostly mass of horsemen, cuirassiers, lancers, and hussars, the like of which not even the Peninsular veterans had ever seen before. And the whole mass, filling the valley from flank to flank was moving steadily towards them. The gunners of the British battery on the left of the 23rd fired their last salvo and ran for the shelter of the square.

To the watchers of Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte, it looked as though the whole Allied line disappeared under a sea of horses, and was overwhelmed by that incredible tide of brilliantly accoutred cavalry, the finest in Europe. But gradually the tide thinned and ebbed, revealing miraculously the squares intact, the guns still in their emplacements on the ridge, untouched, but in front of every square a rampart of dead and injured horses, and wounded and dying horsemen, impenetrable to the survivors who drew back to reform and charge again and again.

The infantry in their squares lost count of the number of times the flower of the Grande Armee charged, but later historians reckoned it was twelve at least. British commanders, too, wondered why on earth Napoleon had allowed his magnificent cavalry divisions to be squandered uselessly on an unbroken Allied line....

So how did Second Lieutenant George Stainforth fare during this strange stalemate between the previously irresistible French cavalry and the impregnable British squares, defiant and solid as a rock? Not well, I fear. Records show that he was severely wounded, but not so badly hit as to prevent him resuming his military career after convalescence. The shattering of a limb by a shell fragment or a bullet invariably resulted in amputation as soon as possible, so such a wound can be ruled out. George undoubtedly was hit, like Colonel Ellis, by a bullet from the screen of sharpshooters who covered the withdrawal of the cuirassiers between each charge. His fate was to be dragged to the centre of the Square, where orderlies sterilised the wound with alcohol, probably gin, staunched the loss of blood with a pad bound tightly in place by strips torn from his shirt, and there he lay while the fury of the battle raged all about his redcoat island for the remainder of the day....

George was luckier than most because, when the battle ended he had been taken to a shed on the outskirts of the hamlet, Mont St. Jean, where, despite being packed like sardines with casualties of several regiments, he passed a night between torment and oblivion. Unlike the tens of thousands of wounded that lay in the valley unattended, he had water and was not despoiled of his few valuable possessions. Some wounded down there in that valley of death were not evacuated for up to three days.

In the morning those of the 23rd Regiment still able to bear arms moved southwards with their transport, taking Asst. Surgeon Munro with them; and the wounded were left in the hands of civilian doctors and the good citizens of Brussels. Little by little the casualties were cleared in farm carts, and trundled painfully over the cobbles of the city, a journey which, because of the state of the road and the crush of vehicles, took most of the day. Eventually George ended up in a makeshift hospital in the suburbs, possibly in Uccle, and there he remained for a month....

Not Found Wanting, pp. 262-71

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