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Historical Note

Waterloo Eyewitness Account

6 page Document – Signed and Dated:
Text as Follows:

                                                                        Head Quarters, Cateau June 23rd 1815

My Dear Colonel

            I have not written to you because my time has been and is so extremely taken up, that I can hardly call half an hour even my own.

            In the battle of the 16th and 18th instant the Duke of Wellington has even exceeded himself, and adorned his brows with that one Laurel more that was wanting to complete his fame and glory in the entire defeat of Bonaparte. The battle of the 18th was one of the most gigantic struggles it is almost possible for the Mind to form an idea of. The returns of the killed and wounded, and the immense number of dead bodies strewed upon the field, sufficiently attest its effects.

            The Duke indeed was too much exposed, and it is difficult to understand how he escaped unhurt; he lost however two Aides de Camp, Gordon and Canning; and Lord Fitzroy Somerset has had his Right arm amputated but is doing well. Our loss in artillery is the severest as to officers ever known, and several of our best have fallen.

            The battle of the 18th was a most complete lesson in the Art of War, and accounts for most satisfactorily to my mind of the causes why Bonaparte had such brilliant and decisive Success over the Allies until they were beaten into the same System.

            The Cannonade from perhaps more than double the number of guns we possessed was tremendous and destructive; the Charges of Cavalry principally of the Imperial Guard and Cuirassier were terrific, and would probably have shaken the nerves and Solid Squares of any other Infantry but our own; and their Infantry was led in with great Spirit and determination.

            Bonaparte crossing the Sambre at Maubeuge with his left and his right marching from (Archmont?) found himself early in the morning of the 16th before the Duke of Wellington at a place called Quatre Bras, where four great Roads divide, the one to Brussels, another to Charleroi, a third to Namur and the fourth to Nivelles. The Prussians were concentrated near Fleurus, a distance of about 10 miles from us, though in communication. The Duke was attacked it is said by Marshal Ney with two corps. His Grace had in the first part of the day only the 5th Division commanded by Sir. Thos. Picton, but towards the evening the Prince of Orange’s Corps composed of the first and part of the 3rd Divisions arrived; this battle had no very particular features except some desperate charges of Cavalry in which they gained no advantages, and the firing ceased with day light, preserving in every respect the ground originally taken up. But it did not fare quite so well with the Prussians against which Bonaparte was opposed with the principal part of his force at eight o’clock in the evening. The French Cavalry broke through their Centre, swept off 16 pieces of cannon with most of the reserve ammunition of their Army, together with a number of prisoners which caused Blucher to retire to a more secure position at Wavre. This compelled the Duke to do the same, in order to put himself in more close communication with him, by which undoubtedly he mended greatly his position. The British Army therefore moved at 9 am to the rear on the 17th; in its retreat it was greatly pressed by the Enemy’s Cavalry. The position taken up in the Afternoon was with the right on the Chateau de Hougoumont and the left in the rear of a wood (which we occupied) at Ohain.

            On the 18th at about twelve o’clock at noon, the Cannonade of the French commenced, which was tremendously heavy particularly always just before the attack of cavalry and Infantry, and had not the ground had several small vallies running parallel to the point of the position, our loss must have been much more severe even than we experienced; the Cannonade thus continued for two hours, when a Charge of Cavalry was made with great bravery on the left and Centre of the line; this was received by the infantry in Squares, and by a reciprocal charge on the part of our Cavalry, when the enemy without making any impression retreated with precipitation, pursued close to their Infantry; a Second Charge of Cavalry throughout the line was also made without success, supported by Infantry and repulsed in the same manner.

            Bonaparte finding the Cavalry had not had the desired affect he expected, redoubled his efforts with his Artillery, cannonading our line for a length of time, and as his Artillery was full double of what ours was, occasioned great loss, the (?) particularly  as the Duke ordered our Guns only to fire upon Infantry and Cavalry, and not upon Artillery. In his last effort he is said to have assembled 20000 Infantry of his Guards, 96 pieces of Cannon, and with Cavalry on the Flanks, advanced to pierce our Centre. In this however after a desperate struggle he failed and the Charges of several Regiments of Infantry particularly the 52nd in the front, and thus that had been ordered by the Duke in Squares and Lines on the flank the whole was put into complete confusion retreating with the greatest precipitation. About this time the Prussian Army under Blucher made it’s appearance on the right of the Enemy’s Line, which together with the rapid manner in which they were pushed back to the Main Road on which their Cannon were before retreating, obliged them to abandon there, and on the field of Battle 122 Pieces and near 300 Ammunitions and their Waggons. In short no Victory could be more complete.

            The Duke had about 70,000 Infantry, 10,000 Cavalry, and about 150 pieces of Cannon; but the Enemy’s Force very much greater. The Prussians were not attacked, but all the Weight of the French on us. 

 Signed May

Document Specifications:  This is a wonderful clean Waterloo letter. It consists of 8 pages made from two sheets bifolium and ribboned. There is handwriting on 6 of the 8 sheets. There is a horizontal fold tear on the back sheet not effecting any of the writing. The ribbon ties have left some small dye stains. Likely an account by Sir John May, R.A., Captain and Brevet Lieutenant Colonel. May was an Assistant Adjutant General on the Artillery staff at Waterloo, due to the high number of artillery references. He had also served in the Peninsula War on Wellington's Artillery Staff. His brother, James Frere May, was an Ensign in the 52nd Foot, which might explain his reference to this particular infantry action. This is as nice a contemporaneous Waterloo Letter as you are likely to find as it is in excellent condition and contains a plethora of details and eyewitness observations by an officer who was in the thick of it.

Offered by Berryhill & Sturgeon, Ltd.