Tuesday, June 18, 2019

A Damned Serious Business

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: the bravery of my troops hitherto saved me from the greater evil; but to win such a battle as this of Waterloo, at the expens of so many gallant friends, could only be termed a heavy misfortune but for the result to the public. - Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

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 peal, 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

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
Tout est fini...

It has been a damned serious business... Blucher and I have lost 30,000 men. It has been a damned nice thing — the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life. … By God! I don't think it would have been done if I had not been there. - Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington


  1. Good reposts, these last two days.

    Other than that, I gots nutting.

    So far.

  2. One nit would be that bells “peal,” they don’t “peel.” That would be bananas.

    1. Well, they can peel, but usually that's due to bad casting due to material separation and bad pouring...

      Other than that...

  3. Replies
    1. No, historical posts take a lot of time and effort to do right. During the week it's tough to find that time. Especially this week, which has been rather mind-numbingly busy, for a number of reasons.

      I may look at this battle later this week, perhaps Friday? I just don't know yet, though it is a good suggestion.

  4. Oh My Goodness. A magnificent post. No wonder you are exhausted. I wish I knew how to spell the French phrase ( I'm sure you know which one I mean ).

    Thanks for the post.
    Paul L. Quandt

  5. Witch doctor spam. That’s a new one to me.

  6. Sarge, moui glad to see you are still alive and kicking. Great post too by the way. AND I still miss LEX.

    The AeroBracero

  7. Thanks, Sarge.
    I've been a lover of history, and especially military history, since I was a kid. Yes, I was a weird kid. Then again, I'm a weird adult.
    Somehow, I could never get interested in Waterloo, or the events leading up to it. Jingoism? Don't think so--I've enjoyed reading about other armies & navies, other wars, back to Sparta & Athens, and that era.
    I now understand a smidgen more about the Napoleonic Wars, and intend to educate myself further. Not an onerous idea at all; it'll gice me great pleasure. I have you to thank for that, and I do so now, sir.
    My thanks for a whole new part of the library I may now raid with pleasure!
    --Tennessee Budd

  8. "give", not "gice". I really should proofread my posts.


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

NOTE: Comments on posts over 5 days old go into moderation, automatically.