Friday, June 14, 2013

198 Years Ago

Le Champ de Bataille
On a Thursday in June 1815, the French l'Armée du Nord crossed from France into Belgium. It was the culmination of Napoleon's 100 Days, the last roll of the dice. Napoléon's Grande Armée had already passed into legend some years before. The Armée du Nord was but a shade of the army which had made all of Europe tremble. But once again, a French army was on the march. Once again, Europe trembled.

Some of you may know of my passion for military history. In particular the history of the Napoleonic Wars which stretched from 1804 to 1815.

Eagle of the Sixième Régiment d'Infanterie de Ligne

I have walked the battlefield of Waterloo on many occasions. To survey those now peaceful fields and to think back and contemplate the fact that on those very fields, thousands of men and horses struggled and died gives you pause.

The Morning of Battle
Scotland Forever!
The Artillery Will Advance!
The Prussians Storm Plancenoit

Two locations of particular note still stand on the battlefield of Waterloo, the farm of La Haye Sainte and the Chateau d'Hougoumont. Standing outside of these buildings and picturing the horrific fighting which place in and around these places left me in awe of how men could stand such carnage. For warfare took place in those days at fairly close range. The old saying about "the whites of their eyes" held true. The weapons of those days were of short range and questionable accuracy.

We, as Americans, like to think we defeated the British Army in the Revolution because we hid behind rocks and trees while they stood out in the open with their bright red coats. Actually we didn't start to do well until such men as Baron von Steuben taught us to stand in straight lines and fire all at once. Much like the British.

For those smooth bore muskets to have much of an effect, you had to fire off a lot of them at once. Only then could you be assured of hitting someone!

Chateau d'Hougoumont Today

Chateau d'Hougoumont in 1815

La Haye Sainte Today

La Haye Sainte in 1815

The Attack of the French Cavalry
Marshal Ney
The Scots Greys and Gordon Highlanders

Scottish Square Assaulted by French Heavy Cavalry
Piper Kenneth MacKay at the Battle of Waterloo, 1815. A heroic piper of the British army was Piper Kenneth MacKay of the old 79th (Cameron) Highlanders.
This regiment was hard pressed like the rest of Wellington's army during the long hours of battle on June 18th, 1815 at Mont St. Jean near the village of Waterloo. During the course of the afternoon the French subjected the British to a number of massive cavalry charges in hopes of breaking Wellington's centre. The 79th Highlanders were forced to form squares, an all around defensive formation that infantry assumed against cavalry during this period. 
While the French cavalry dashed themselves vainly upon the British squares, the French horse artillery moved in close to fire murderously upon the exposed British troops. The situation was desperate as entire files were blown away by the French artillery. The 79th, like many other British battalions, were near the breaking point. The pipes and drummers of the battalion were kept in the centre of the square together with the colours and the regimental staff. 
During one of the lulls of the battle, Piper MacKay of the Grenadier company boldly marched in a deliberate fashion around the outside of the 79ths square playing the famous Piobaireachd "Cogadh no Sith" (Peace or War). 
MacKay's sangfroid under fire no doubt inspired his comrades, and the entire battalion. His devotion to the war like music of the pipes, played in these most appropriate circumstances, caught the public's imagination. 
King George III was so inspired by the event that he personally presented MacKay with a specially made set of silver mounted pipes that remain a treasured item in the regimental museum of the Queens Own Highlanders.
Here is that very tune that Piper MacKay played for his regiment that day.


The Last Attack of the Imperial Guard

Wellington and von Blücher Meet at La Belle Alliance
La Belle Alliance Today

L'Aigle Blessé
The Emperor Flees the Battlefield
The Aftermath
It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it. General Robert E. Lee


  1. This and all the posts today were awesome.
    Very cool.

  2. But once again, a French army was on the march. Once again, Europe trembled.

    THAT won't happen again in the foreseeable future, or even ANY future, as we know it.

    Nice post. You have a very discerning eye for the supporting graphics... excellent work.

    1. In recent history, any marches performed by the French were (ahem) retrograde in nature.

      As to the rest, thank you kind Sir. It was kind of easy on this one as I am very familiar with this battle. I've probably read over a hundred books on it. So that helped.

  3. Just found this (working too hard to cruise the internets too much) but it's a great one. If you had to recommend one good book on Waterloo, what would it be?

    1. I know that feeling!

      In my opinion, the best book to date on the battle is ,The Battle, A New History of Waterloo by Allessandro Barbero. Signore Barbero does a superb job of describing the battle and he's an awesome writer. Having actually walked those fields, when I read the book I felt like I had actually been there in 1815. A definite must read for someone interested in the battle, either for the first time or for the fiftieth. It's that good.

    2. Ah, merci beaucoup, mon ami!

    3. Ce n'est pas rien. Let me know what you think of the book if you get the chance to read it.


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