Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Entr'acte - 17 June 1815

Night is falling. Off in the distance can be seen the flicker of lightning. Closer in, the flames of burning villages light the oncoming darkness. All is quiet in the fields around Quatre-Bras. In the fields around Wagnelée, Saint-Amand, Ligny and Sombreffe, all is quiet.

But not so quiet that a man who was not there during the battle couldn't hear it.

The groans of the dying, the screams of the badly wounded, the sound of fire consuming houses and outbuildings.

Those who fought are semi-deaf from the roar of cannon and the rattle of musketry all day. They, mercifully, hear little at all.

Besides, many are used to this, long service veterans. The battle is over, if you survived you seek food and drink. Perhaps, if you are so inclined, a bit of loot.

Two battles have been fought, now they are over. The Prussians are in retreat, but to where? Large bodies of troops in disorder have been seen fleeing towards Liege. Rumors of units in good order on the roads leading north to Wavre are also heard.

At Quatre-Bras, the two armies remain in place, licking their wounds, wondering what the morrow brings.

The short night passes, the armies arise. The Emperor, pleased at having won his first victory since returning from exile, walks among his men, chatting with some. Those he remembers from as far back as Egypt. There are still some among the line units who fought in the shadow of the Pyramids, so many years before.

Wellington frets. As much as he hates to do so, he must fall back. His army, most of it, will understand. The Prussians have been defeated, his left flank is in the air with the entire Armée du Nord perhaps about to concentrate and advance.

Against him.

His right flank worries him too. That way lie the roads to the Channel ports and England. He will spend a great deal of time worrying about that flank.

To no purpose. But he cannot know that, not now.

Orders are prepared, the cavalry under Uxbridge know that the day will be long and arduous, they must cover the retreat. The infantry and the artillery began to slip away during the night towards Brussels. They have orders to reform the line along a ridge near a place called Mont-Saint-Jean. The other ranks and sergeants have never, for the most part, heard of the place. But their officers will get them there.

To have to retreat from the French is galling. But they stay with the colors.

At sunrise, the Emperor tells off Grouchy to take 30,000 men, the bulk of III and IV Corps and follow the Prussians. Press them, do not let them reform. Then he and his staff ride to see exactly what Marshal Ney was up to. No reports have reached them, he is angry.

Angry at having seen his I Corps march away just when they were most needed. Angry, wondering what Ney was playing at. Could he have been in a fight with the English?

Arriving before Quatre-Bras the Emperor sees his men cooking breakfast, playing the old soldier, smoking their pipes and content to while away the day. Scouts report that all that remains near the crossroads are cavalry patrols, a screen. The English have vanished!

Hastily orders are bellowed out, units form up and march off, the Emperor himself rides off at the head of the duty squadrons. Though he is older, tired and feeling the effects of having been in the saddle for nearly two days, he feels energized as the trumpets sound and the clatter of hooves on the chaussee announce that the pursuit has begun.

The Anglo-Allied cavalry and horse artillery fall back with great discipline. When the pursuit starts to overtake them, they halt, forcing the French to deploy for battle. After a few shots from the artillery, they are off again.

The French know this game, they have pursued Austrians, Prussians, Piedmontese, Russians, Spaniards, Portuguese and numerous other armies in their day. The Eagles soar once again.

The Emperor dreams of dictating peace from the palace in Brussels. Perhaps that very night!

Then the rains, which have been threatening all day, break out.

The sound of thunder drowns the sound of cannon, the clatter of horsemen. The rain pounds down with great fury. The verges of the road become muddy, the fields are gradually becoming glutinous. The pursuit slows.

In the rain the French grimly head north. Shoulders hunched against the downpour. To Brussels, to victory.

Or so they think.

On a ridge line they come up short. Les Anglais have stopped retreating. Campfires can be seen across a shallow valley. How on earth can they get a fire started in this weather? The very air is drenched.

But soldiers, they find a way.

Cautiously the French probe forward along the line. Attempting to determine the extent of Wellington's position. The bark of cannon fire ends the probing. Though chagrined that his artillerymen may have revealed too much of his lines, Wellington knows that the French are as exhausted and soaking wet as his own men.

The day is over.

Somewhere off to the east, the Prussians are stumbling into the area around Wavre. Their pursuers are far behind. Grouchy has been less than active in his pursuit. He feels the Prussians are done for, all he needs to do is stay on their trail.

But the Prussians are by no means done for. They are humiliated by this latest defeat. They want revenge, they want blood. French blood.

Far to the south, the rains have doused the fires. The intermittent lightning lights the wan faces of the dead. At Quatre-Bras. At Ligny. The wounded suffer from their wounds but also from those who stalk the night.

Best to be quiet so that the looters don't hear you.

The next day is a Sunday. Church bells will peel, choirs will sing hymns in praise of Our Lord.

But at a place just south of Waterloo, on the road to Charleroi, the cannon will bellow and the thundering drums and brazen trumpets will sound.

The 18th of June, a Sunday will be the last day on Earth for thousands of men.

Men who huddle in the night against the rain. Praying and wondering.

What the morrow might bring...

Dawn of Waterloo
by Lady Elizabeth Butler


  1. You've painted a haunting picture Sarge. Makes me shiver as I read this in the chill, post-thunderstorm dawn on June 17.

  2. This was was a beautifully crafted account, Chris. I feel as if I've departed my law office for the last 10 minutes or so, and stepped back in time 200 years.


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