Thursday, June 18, 2015

Act III, Give me night or give me Blücher...

The field of battle - looking towards La Haye Sainte. La Belle Alliance is at the far right.(Google Street View)
The Duke arose early. As he dressed he looked about the room in the small inn at the side of the Brussels-Charleroi road.

"Will I see this place again?" he pondered as he buttoned his cloak.

Passing quickly down to the street, he mounted his horse Copenhagen and, together with his aides, headed south, towards the ridge line where his army had been posted.

South of the field, the Emperor Napoléon awoke in the early hours before dawn.

After checking with the staff for word from Grouchy, he settled down with his senior officers for breakfast. He was confident and cheerful, even when his artillery chief informed him that it would be some time before the ground dried sufficiently to allow the guns to maneuver.

At that point, an officer mentioned the tactics Wellington was famous for in the Peninsula.

Slamming his fork down the Emperor told his senior officers in no uncertain terms, "I tell you Wellington is a bad general, the English are bad troops, and this affair is nothing more than eating breakfast."

The remainder of the meal was less than congenial, several generals excused themselves to "see to their units."


To the east, in the vicinity of Wavre, the Prussians were on the move.

Through errors, or perhaps bad staff work, the corps furthest to the east set off first. Two other corps stood ready to move, the fourth was taking up positions to keep the French off of the main body.

A fire had broken out in the village of Wavre, movement was slowed until the fire could be contained.

Although the army was on the move early, it would be hours before they could tie in with Wellington's left flank. There were a lot of country roads to follow, streams to cross and the terrain was sodden from the recent rains.

Not to mention the fact that the troops were exhausted. They had fought a major battle on the 16th, marched all day on the 17th and now they must march again. Towards the French, towards the enemy who had defeated them on Friday.

But today was Sunday and some units sang the old Lutheran hymn as they marched, "Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott!"

Looking north along the main highway to Brussels.
La Haye Sainte is to the left at the dip in the road.
(Google Street View)

I have walked the fields between La Haye Sainte and La Belle Alliance a number of times. Farm fields for the most part as they have been for over 200 years. It looks like many another field in Belgium. This one is different. This one is sacred to the memory of the men who fought and died there.

The amount of blood shed on these fields is staggering.

73,000 French, 25,000 British, 17,000 Netherlanders, 11,000 Hanoverians, 6,000 men of the King's German Legion, 6,000 Brunswickers, 3,000 Nassauers and 50,000 Prussians fought on this field. 118,000 men were in the three armies engaged.

At the end of the day, over 45,000 of those men lay dead or wounded. Alongside them, lay over 10,000 horses dead or wounded.

In the museum at Le Caillou, where the Emperor spent the night before the battle, I was startled to see human remains in a glass case. Startled and appalled.

On the 18th of June in 1815, this man, a French hussar had sat upon his horse with his comrades, awaiting his orders, ready and able to do his duty.

At the end of the day he lay dead, near the last stand of the French Imperial Guard.

Buried on the field in the days after the battle, as were most of the casualties, he lay, with his comrades, undisturbed for many years. Then sometime in the 20th Century his body was accidentally exhumed.

Was he reburied with honor? No, he was placed on display in a museum.

But he is a reminder of the cost of war.

When the final gun sounds, when the smoke has cleared and the armies have moved on, all that are left are the dead. Their bright uniforms smoke and blood stained, torn as are their bodies.

There is no glory for them or for those that loved them. All that remains are the memories.

On that field there are so many memories.

Near the position of Captain Mercer's battery of the Royal Horse Artillery, looking south.
To the right, beyond the trees, is the Chateau of Hougoumont.
(Google Street View)

In the photo above, the terrain looks almost flat, but that is deceptive.

You can't see the French position from here, not too far to the front the ground dips. On the day of the battle, the French cavalry made upwards of seven charges in this area. As soon as they came up from the dip, Mercer's battery would engage them.

I pictured that, the earth shaking from the hooves of thousands of horse. The drifting powder smoke, the hiss and buzz of musket and cannon rounds in the air. Off to the right, Hougoumont was in flames as the battle between what was essentially a single, under-strength Anglo-Allied regiment (a few companies of British Guardsmen with German troops, mainly Nassauers, in the surrounding woods and gardens) battled the bulk of the French II Corps to a bloody standstill.

In the opening photo are the initial positions of that French corps, in the far distance one can just make out the farm of La-Haye-Sainte where a battalion of the King's German Legion was holding out in a desperate fight against elements of the French I and VI Corps.

They held their position, just below the center of Wellington's line, until nearly nightfall, when, out of ammunition, the French drove them out.

By then the French had few reserves, other than the Guard, to commit.

Ney begged for infantry, thinking of the Guard, but was rejected by the Emperor. Napoléon had seen Ney squander the cavalry in valiant, though futile, attacks, unsupported by either infantry or artillery.

No doubt the Emperor also remembered Ney's startling lack of competence at Quatre-Bras.

Roughly the position of D'Erlon's I Corps. Forward of here the British heavy cavalry routed D'Erlon as he advanced.
The British heavy cavalry were, in their turn, routed by French heavy cavalry and lancers.
The rolling nature of the terrain is evident here.

(Google Street View)

One cannot stand upon the field of Waterloo and not think of the events of that day. One, if he or she has any knowledge of history and a soul, cannot help but think of the dreadful cost of one man's ambition.

I will not regale you with all the details of Waterloo. I have written on this topic before (and no doubt will again) here (2012), here (2013) and here (2014 - one of my favorite posts).

This is the first time I have tried to post on the Waterloo Campaign to cover the major events of five days of war. Late nights, lots of research and having been ill recently (and the ever present paying job does take its toll) has left me exhausted. Nevertheless...
The history of a battle, is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost, but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance. - The Duke of Wellington
(Google Street View)
As the sun lowered in the west, the Duke looked around him, most of his staff were down, dead or wounded. His reserves were exhausted, La-Haye-Sainte had fallen...

"Dear God, give me night or give me Blücher."

Looking towards Papelotte, where the Prussians were coming into action.
(Google Street View)

As if in answer to that prayer, out on the far left flank, the Prussian army was approaching. Soon their presence would be felt, they were muddy, they were sweaty and dear Lord they were exhausted. But they were exultant, the end to the long misery, the opportunity to crush the hated Bonaparte was at hand.

The Guard will advance!
(Google Street View)

The Emperor made his final cast of the dice, the Guard would advance. Too little, too late, their commitment even an hour earlier could have been decisive. Hindsight.

The orders were given, the troops were formed. Initially the Emperor was at the head of their column. When he moved his horse off the road and raised his hand in salute, the men were surprised. Was the Emperor,
Le Tondu, not going to lead them all the way?


Regardless, the Imperial Guard, veterans of many campaigns, tough soldiers all, advanced to meet the foe. It was do or die.

They died.

The Armée du Nord collapsed and fled south.


The campaign was, to all intents and purposes, over.

Erstürmung des Dorfes Planchenois in der Schlacht von Waterloo am 18. Juni 1815.
by Ludwig Elsholtz (Source)

Tout est fini...

10 comments:

  1. There's a lot to ponder here. Thank god my ancestors were busy fighting off saber tooth tygers in the wilds west of the Mississippi at the time.

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    1. Yes, good thing.

      Otherwise where would I get my western Nebraska news from?

      Oh, and cow videos, I love those.

      ;-)

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  2. "...he mounted his horse Copenhagen..."

    Snuff?
    ...or the city?

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    1. Hahaha. His horse was named after the city. Not sure if that brand of snuff had been invented yet.

      Good one Skip!

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  3. “Waterloo is not a battle; it is the changing face of the universe.”
    --Victor Hugo

    Excellent, as always, Chris. A fine job at reminding us of the drastic human cost of war, and of man's ambition. As the great Duke himself pondered in the aftermath of Waterloo, "My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers. Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won."

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    1. Thanks David!

      I started out thinking about the various phases of the battle, then I remembered the cost.

      It's not a big battlefield, at the end of the day the dead, dying and wounded carpeted those fields, even long time veterans mentioned that.

      In the Wellington Museum in Waterloo (same inn where the Duke had his headquarters) is the bed where Sir Alexander Gordon died. It was the Duke's own bed.

      That loss grieved him greatly. Among so many others. It was the Duke's last battle. Of that he was glad.

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  4. Really neat series, and the chosen illustrations excellent and illuminating choices. Thanks for the time and effort putting it together.

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    1. Thanks Cap'n. It really was a labor of love. I'm really glad you enjoyed it.

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  5. As with all your 'battle' posts, most informative and interesting. They all lead me to further research and readings.

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    1. Thanks SoCal, I'm glad I sparked your interest!

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