Saturday, April 11, 2015

200 Years Ago

Marechal Ney à Waterloo by Louis Dumoulin
The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo will occur on the 18th of June. I have read more about this battle than any other. I have more books on this one battle than any other. This particular battle, the culmination of a campaign of no more than a week, has fascinated me since I was a young lad.

In the Air Force I actually met a lieutenant by the name of Ney (that hat-less, red haired fellow leading the cavalry charge in the painting is French Marechal Michel Ney). On encountering this fellow (who bore a passing resemblance to the Marshal, sans the red hair) I asked him if he had any famous ancestors.

"Well, there was a Marshal of France under Napoléon who was either a great-great uncle or distant cousin, something like that."

He was surprised that I recognized the name. He didn't know what a history nut I was and still remain! I did point out though the correct title was "Marshal of the Empire." As Buck might have said, "Ever the pedant!"

Marechal Ney by François Gérard

Marshal Ney was one of the most renowned soldiers in France during the time of the First Empire. He enlisted in the cavalry two years before the French Revolution (1787) and rose rapidly through the non-commissioned ranks. Gaining his commission in 1792 he was awarded his Marshal's baton in 1804 by the Emperor, amongst the first Marshals created by Napoléon.

When pressured by his Marshals to abdicate in 1814, Napoléon is alleged to have said "the army will obey me!" Ney answered with "the army will obey it's chiefs!" Of whom he was one.

During the exile to Elba, Ney served the French crown under Louis XVIII. Like many of the Marshals, the French court looked down upon Ney and his wife. After all, Ney had been born of a master barrel cooper's wife!

When Napoléon escaped from exile and landed in the south of France in March of 1815, Ney is alleged to have said that he would bring Napoléon back to Paris "in an iron cage."

At Grenoble, Ney had his chance to prove that boast. He and his troops went over to Napoléon en masse.

After years of war Ney was thought to be "not quite right in the head" by many. No doubt he suffered from something very much like, if not exactly like, post-traumatic stress disorder. His performance during the Waterloo campaign was brave to the point of suicidal, but abysmal from a command point of view.

After the campaign, Ney was tried for treason and shot. French royalty tend to be a vindictive lot.

Still and all, Ney remains one of my favorites amongst Napoléon's Marshals. (He and Louis-Nicholas Davout are my favorites.)

Now what sparked this post? (Other than the impending bicentennial of the battle.) Well, my comrade-in-arms, the Ex-Bootneck over at The Mellow Jihadi had a fascinating post the other day. In which this figured prominently -

Diorama of the Battle of Waterloo (Source)

The post in question is here. (Two other good posts by EB on the battle are here and here.)

I found that third post most interesting. It seems that the British soldiers who defended the chateau of Hougoumont (that complex of buildings in the right foreground) throughout the day are finally getting a memorial. The Duke of Wellington was convinced that the defense of that chateau was one of the keys to his victory.

It shouldn't have been that important but the Emperor's kid brother (no, really, his kid brother) managed to involve the bulk of an entire French corps (the II, commanded by General Reille, sort of, how do you argue with the Emperor's kid brother?) in the fight for that chateau.

Most of a corps versus what was in essence a reinforced regiment. No more than a battalion in the buildings themselves and other troops upon the grounds and in the woods around Hougoumont.

Now I have been to the Waterloo battlefield a number of times. As you explore and see the sights, one could be forgiven for thinking that the French had won the battle! A large number of the memorials and plaques are dedicated to French units. Hell, there's a statue of Napoléon located just behind the center of the Anglo-Allied position, facing south towards France!

Though the most obvious feature of the battlefield now (which was constructed well after the battle) is a large pyramidal mound called the Butte du Lion which does feature a large lion at the top gazing towards France (in defiance), it doesn't commemorate any specific units.

(And yes, that is quite a climb to the top of that thing. I've done it more than once!)

Butte du Lion
(Photo by Jean-Pol Grandmont CC)

Soon though, the defenders of Hougoumont will get a very nice monument to honor their efforts, 200 years after the fact.

Source

I have to admit, the inscription at the base of the statue is somewhat irritating to me. Rather akin to calling World War One, the War to End All Wars. Sure it was.

At any rate, it's about time the defenders of Hougoumont got a nice monument. Beats a plaque on a wall any day.

Maybe that's just me...

(No doubt there will be more Waterloo posts coming your way between now and June. Sorry.)

16 comments:

  1. Great post Sarge. Kindles a bit of a flame. My own brand of historical inquisitiveness has heretofore ignored the First Empire entirely. Everything between Agincourt and the Marne is a big muddle in my mind. And speaking of "kindling" a flame, I snatched up the free Churchill biography (eight volumes!) yesterday. I suspect I'll never get caught up now...;)

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    1. I've heard that Churchill's biography is interesting. As was the man!

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    2. Of the ones that I've read, Martin Gilberts Volumes I and II are the best written about Churchill. Mr. Gilbert died before finishing Volume III.

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    3. That is too bad and a loss for those of us who love history.

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  2. Sarge, I think your historical posts are some of your best. Keep it up, please.

    I've been to Waterloo (even climbed Butte du Lion, but I was younger then). Thought it fascinating. Then drove ALL the way across Belgium and visited Ypres. That 30 minute drive gave me a pretty good understanding of the German Strategy in WWII.

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    1. I need to do more of these. History has always fascinated me.

      I never did get over to Ypres. The thing about Europe is, I could visit there for ten years and do nothing but tour battlefields and museums. And still not see it all.

      When in Paris I spent a good four hours in the Musée de l'Armée and had to be dragged out by The Missus Herself as she thought seeing the rest of Paris might be nice. I could be heard to shout, "But honey, I'm only up to the 18th Century!"

      Want to watch an interesting movie, check out The Wipers Times. It's based on a true story from WWI. A group of British soldiers in the trenches near Ypres started their own newspaper. Some of the brass hated it, some loved it. In general the soldiers ate it up.

      An excellent film, I give it 4 Phantoms.

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  3. Keep it up, Sarge.
    The historical posts, that is.
    I'll keep coming back.

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  4. I found Les Invalides and Le Musée de l'Armée to be very impressive. The French do the grandeur and ceremony thing quite well. However, their batting average since the Franco-Prussian War hasn't been too spectacular. And who else would give a taxi an honored place?

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    1. At many points in history the French soldier has been ill-served by his government.

      I know folks who served with them in Afghanistan, they have nothing but praise for French military prowess.

      But yeah, since the 1870s they've been in some tough fights and got the short end of the stick.

      They did fight les boche to a standstill in WWI but had horrendous casualties.

      By 1940 they had yet to recover.

      Ah yes, the taxi and the "miracle of the Marne," I saw something today which is related to that. I may have to post about it.

      And I probably will.

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  5. When I hear the name "Ney," I think of the "Ney Award" given to the Navy ship with the best food service! Here's a funny semi-related comic to today's post: http://xkcd.com/1510/

    True story: During my first week aboard the USS INDEPENDENCE (CV-62) I was eating like a king, having amazing food like steak, lobster, shrimp, and seeing the most diverse, fresh and colorful salad bar I'd ever seen. I thought it was going to be like that every night but I was sorely mistaken. The following week, the food was gawdawful and barely edible. Turns out, that was the same week that the Ney Award Assessment Team was aboard and the cooks were trying to impress.

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    1. Then here's a little something -

      After the year 1999, the Ney Awards are determined by a one-day, surprise inspection conducted by evaluation teams made up of senior Navy mess management specialists and members of the IFSEA. Prior to that, the inspections were scheduled. Wikipedia

      If you want good results, schedule the inspection. If you want true results, just pop in, unannounced.

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    2. I always wanted to ask the IG during UEIs (Unit Effectiveness Inspection AKA "Is your paperwork up to speed?") if they tired of the smell of new paint.

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    3. Funny how the floors always had that freshly waxed and buffed look too.

      (Don't get me started. Wait! There's a story to be told. POCIR...)

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  6. And all leaves of key personnel mysteriously canx just prior..

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Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)