|(Source of the painting. I did the speech and thought bubbles.)|
In the old days of the nineteenth century, warfare was (as it still is) violent and bloody. But in those days most soldiers walked to war. Imagine, if you will, walking from Paris to Moscow. That's roughly 1,760 miles. Walking at a comfortable 2 mph, non-stop, it would take roughly 36 days to do that. More realistically, marching perhaps ten hours a day, it would take 88 days to make that march.
Oh, at certain points there will be people proclaiming...
|(Source of the painting. I did the speech and thought bubbles.)|
So it's a long walk and along the way the colorful native inhabitants will be trying to kill you. After a few years of being occupied by the French, even the civilians will try to kill you. War is nasty. Then and now, make no mistake, war is no fun.
By now some of you are probably saying to yourselves, "Hey, they had horses too. And wagons, lots of wagons. Cavalrymen don't walk, they ride!"
Well, yes they did. They had thousands of horses available. Many, if not most, were used to pull the cannon, the ammunition carts, mobile forges and tools, and the supply wagons carrying all sorts of spare gear. While the French army tried to live off the land and not have a huge supply chain behind them, nevertheless there were things they couldn't get locally but had to be hauled along. Shoes, spare uniforms and accoutrements, all sorts of stuff.
When you got to where you wanted to fight, then, if you didn't go into battle immediately, you made camp. For the French, that often meant tossing your blanket down and rolling up in it to go to sleep.
Tents? The officers have tents?
Why yes, yes they did. Muster roles, manuals, regulations, and all manner of paperwork were as important to a military force then as they are now. Who takes care of all that stuff? Why the officers, that's who. Back then there were a higher proportion of troops who couldn't read and write nor do simple math. So the officers, for the most part, took care of that. So they had tents to keep the paperwork dry. Paper gets wet, ink runs, and the troops don't get paid.
Oh yeah, armies tended to haul their pay chests with them as well. Though the men might get paid sporadically, if at all, on campaign, good leaders knew that the men felt better with a few coins in their pockets. Ya know to check out the local talent and the local vintners, breweries and distilleries.
Remember, the French term for the brandy so loved by the troops is eau de vie, literally "water of life." In most armies of the period the soldiery liked their booze. Yes, I know, not much has changed in that regard. Though the quality of the beverages has improved over time.
On the day of battle the soldiers woke up, pulled themselves up off the ground, cleaned themselves up as best they could then sought sustenance. Sometimes it wasn't much more than some moldy biscuit they'd been carrying with them for days. Some mornings there was nothing at all. Before Waterloo most of the British troops hadn't had anything proper to eat since leaving Brussels two days before.
So maybe you had a bite, perhaps a bit of soup, then perhaps a bit o' grog (in the British army), brandy in many of the Continental armies. Then it was time to fall in and earn one's pay.
Notice that I made no mention of tents for the men. Tents are bulky and require lots of transport. Many generals felt that it was healthier for the men to sleep out in the open. Considering the disease rates at Valley Forge they may have been right. Cramped huts, or tents, with smoky fires, men coughing and hacking, there were periods during the year when it was surprising that any of the soldiers were fit for duty. Truth be told, disease caused more deaths on campaign than combat. That remained true for at least another century.
The bugles are now sounding, the drums are thumping, and the sergeants are getting the men into some sort of order. For across the valley lies the enemy, doing much the same thing you're doing. Waiting on the generals.
Then, eventually, the king of battle (the artillery) would begin to speak. If one was paying attention, one might see the smoke from a single enemy cannon signaling for the battle to commence. Usually begun with the fire of many cannon. The idea was to "soften" the enemy up before sending in one's infantry.
Standing under artillery fire for minutes and even hours is no picnic. You could actually see the rounds leave the cannon barrels across the way and follow them in flight if you had the right angle. One British officer at Waterloo told the tale of seeing the ball leave the cannon and head straight for him. As an officer, of course, he couldn't duck or drop or betray any fear at all. Officers were expected to set the example and actually lead the men. (Another reason why they had tents is that tired officers make mistakes and get men killed!)
While the round didn't actually hit him it did strike nearby and tear two privates in the ranks to bloody shreds. I daresay if it had been me, I would have needed a change of skivvies, to say the least.
Okay, so the artillery has been pounding both sides, it's now pretty damned smoky and hard to see, but that chap across the way has decided that it's time to send in the infantry. So they begin to march, while you probably can't see them, you can hear the drums, and if you're fighting the French you can hear the cheers for the Emperor over the din of cannon fire.
Shortly, if the officers time it right, your battalion is brought to the "present", muskets up and ready to fire. Then, out of the smoke, there they are, the enemy.
"Volley fire! Present! FIRE!"
In the British infantry they didn't fire all at once but by platoon, one unit after another to produce a rippling fire down the line. Normally this fire would occur at no more than one hundred paces (less than a hundred yards) often closer depending on conditions.
Thousands of lead balls, each over a half an inch in diameter, would smash into the enemy ranks. Blood and gore would splash skyward and onto the ground, onto the men who weren't actually hit by a lead ball. Men would fall having been killed or wounded by bits and pieces of smashed equipment. By bits and pieces of the men around them.
Then, while you're reloading, it's the enemy's turn to fire. If you're lucky they're a bit winded and many of their shots may go high. (Troops had a disturbing tendency to fire too high. If you ever find yourself in a Napoleonic battle, aim at the enemy's knees. Trust me.)
This exchange of fire could be only one or two volleys before one side or the other broke and headed to the rear. But it could last much longer. At Albuera, in Spain, one British brigade, Colborne's and one French, Girard's hammered away at each other at close range for quite some time...
The musketry duel that developed between Colborne's brigade and Girard's left flank was so intense that both sides faltered. The French began to break, and were only kept in place by their officers beating them back with swords as they tried to retreat. The left of Colborne's brigade, assailed by both musket fire and grapeshot from Girard's supporting guns, tried to force the issue with a bayonet charge but were unsuccessful. On the right Colborne's men continued to trade volleys with the French and, seeing their resolve wavering, also fixed bayonets and charged.Oh yes, cavalry, those guys who didn't have to walk to war.
As the brigade moved forward a blinding hail- and rain-shower hit the battlefield, rendering both sides' muskets useless. Under cover of the reduced visibility Latour-Maubourg launched two Polish cavalry regiments at Colborne's exposed right flank. Ploughing through the unprepared British infantry, the 1st Vistulan Lancers and the 2nd Hussars virtually annihilated Colborne's first three regiments. Only the fourth, the 31st Regiment of Foot, was able to save itself by forming into squares. The cavalry pressed on against Colborne's supporting KGL artillery battery and captured its guns (although all but the howitzer were subsequently recovered).
Having captured five regimental flags and eight cannon the Uhlans swept past the 31st's square, scattering Beresford and his staff, and attacked the rear of Zayas's line. Zayas met this assault unflinchingly while continuing to direct fire at Girard. By this time the rainstorm had cleared and Lumley, commanding Beresford's horse, could finally make out the devastation caused by the French and Polish cavalry. He sent two squadrons of the 4th Dragoons to disperse the Uhlans, which they did, but the British troopers were in their turn driven off by a fresh hussar regiment that Latour-Maubourg had sent to cover the lancers' retreat. Closing on the action, the 29th Regiment of Foot (the lead regiment of Stewart's second brigade) opened fire on the scattered Vistula lancers. Most of this fusillade actually missed its intended targets and instead struck the rear ranks of Zayas's men. The Spaniards nevertheless stood firm; their actions very likely saved the allied army from destruction.
Some British sources claim that the Polish cavalrymen refused to accept any surrender by the British infantry, and deliberately speared the wounded as they lay. Tradition reports that the British 2nd Division swore to give no quarter to Poles following Albuera. According to Beresford, of the 1,258 men lost by Colborne's first three regiments, 319 were killed, 460 were wounded and 479 were taken prisoner. According to Soult's report the Vistula Lancers had 130 casualties out of 591 troopers. W
|Battle of Hanau by Richard Knötel (Source of the painting. I did the speech and thought bubbles.)|
If the cavalry was committed at just the right time, like when the enemy infantry was shaken by cannon and musket fire, they could shatter the enemy. If committed too early?
|Battle of Quatre Bras by Lady Butler (Source of the painting. I did the speech and thought bubbles.)|
Then your horsemen would be reduced to red ruin and you'd have nothing left to pursue a beaten enemy (which means they can regroup and perhaps fight another day) or you'd have nothing to protect your rear should it be you who needs to run.
And there's nothing cavalrymen like better than sabering running infantrymen and gunners who have been shooting at them all day.
One last note on the cavalry. Unlike the movies, oft times more horses were killed and wounded then riders. After all, they are much bigger targets. What's more, what do you call a cavalryman on foot?
Dead man walking.
Seriously though, warfare in the Napoleonic era was extraordinarily brutal, though probably an improvement over medieval times. If you were wounded, you were probably going to die. Unless the surgeons got to you in time and cut off whichever arm(s) or leg(s) you were wounded in. Then it's off to the hospital. Which often were a sewer of disease and uncleanliness. If you survived the amputation, you probably would die of some disease picked up in the hospital. Men avoided hospitals at all cost, considering them a virtual death sentence.
If you did survive all that? Back to the homeland with you and good luck! The common soldiers generally received no pensions, if they did, it was some paltry sum which might last a month or two. Then you could become a beggar and die in the streets.
Things did improve throughout the period, but once the uniform came off, society forgot about you. In fact, they ignored you and preferred that you stayed out in the countryside or anywhere where the high society folk didn't have to see you. Or think about your sacrifice. (Folks like that still exist...)
|(Source of the painting. I did the speech and thought bubbles.|
Oh, remember that 1,760 mile walk to Moscow you did in the summer? Now you get to walk all the way back.
In the snow.
With a bunch of very angry Cossacks after you...
|Napoleon's Retreat by Vasily Vereshchagin (Source)|
There's your glory.