The Pudsey men who fought Napoleon

On the morning of 18 June 1815, Henry Wilcock of Pudsey was positioned with the First Guards (later the Grenadier Guards) in the orchard of a farm at the bottom of an escarpment near Waterloo, Belgium. The defence of Hougoumont, as the farm was known, would be critical to the outcome of the famous battle which raged all that day.

Somewhere to the east, at the top of the ridge, fellow Pudseyman William Varley was preparing to fight with the 33rd Regiment of Foot (known as “the Havercake Lads” from their oatmeal biscuit rations).

Both men were veterans of Wellington’s European campaigns. Wilcox had fought through Spain and Portugal and at the Battles of Nive and Nivelle. Varley had been at Marksom, the Siege of Antwerp and the Storming of Bergen Op Zoom.

Napoleon threw 10,000 men at the 1,200 defenders in Hougoumont, hoping to divert Wellington’s strength to the defence of his right flank, whilst preparing an assault on his left. A Frenchman named Legros led a famous assault on the north gate and smashed it open with an axe. The attackers were repelled in fierce hand to hand combat and all were killed, save for a young French drummer boy. The gate was secured and the French did not breach it again.

Wilcock was wounded by a spent bullet at one point during the day but helped defend the farm which proved to be pivotal to the outcome of the entire conflict as it allowed Wellington’s left flank to be reinforced by his Prussian allies.

Thus thwarted, Napoleon ordered his feared Imperial Guard to attack a more central position on the ridge between Hougoumont and La Haye Saint. Here, they met the Havercake Lads and were too repelled. It was the last throw of the dice for Napoleon; Wellington and his allies won the day.

Like Wilcock, Varley was slightly wounded but survived. Wilcock was rewarded for his service by being chosen to serve in Wellington’s own personal bodyguard in Paris later that year, being one of the “best and steadiest men”.

Both men returned to Pudsey where they were fĂȘted as heroes (Waterloo in Pudsey is thought to derive its name from the battle). Wilcock died on 26 February 1862, aged 73 (Varley attended his funeral) and Varley on 11 September 1872, aged 79.

Other men from Pudsey who are known to have served in the Napoleonic War (but not Waterloo) are George Loryman, James Gibson, William Glover, John Boocock and Joshua Wheater. The latter two were both killed at Bergen Op Zoom in March 1814.

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Closing the gates at Hougoumont, by Robert Gibb (National War Museum)

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