Friday, February 24, 2023

Glory ...

Cavalier¹ Antoine Doucet was sitting on a crate alongside the road, his helmet was lying upturned on the ground, its horsehair mane soaked by the mud. His horse was grazing nearby. Brigadier² Charles Duplat had come around the corner on his way to collect his small detachment of dragoons when he beheld the sorry sight before him.

"Doucet, what is the meaning of this?" Duplat was a reasonable man and Doucet was a good soldier, a veteran of three campaigns, the corporal sounded more puzzled than angry.

Doucet looked up from the ground, Duplat was surprised to see that his eyes were moist, as if he were on the verge of crying.

"The Emperor is dead. I was talking to a peasant who came here from Nivelles, the cannon fire we heard yesterday? The Emperor and the main army engaged the English and Prussians at a place called Mont St. Jean, they were defeated. The army is dissolved, the Emperor died in a square of the Old Guard. All is lost." As he said that, the weight of it struck him and he sobbed aloud.

"Stand up man," Duplat hissed as he reached down and jerked Doucet to his feet.

"Are you a soldier or a useless fool?" Duplat knew that what Doucet said could be true, but as far as he was concerned, it was just a rumor until the officers told him otherwise.

"Where is the person who told you this nonsense?"

Doucet gestured towards a small house set back from the road, "He went in there."

"Get your helmet out of the mud, get your horse, be ready to move, but for now stay right here." With that Duplat walked briskly towards the house Doucet had indicated.

As he approached the open doorway, he heard two men speaking inside.

"Are you sure? Bonaparte dead? How would you know that?" One of the voices, an older man, was asking someone inside. Duplat paused.

"I wouldn't know, I avoided the battlefield, skirted it to the north I did. The Soignes³ was full of Dutchmen and Germans, all refugees from the battle. First man I talked to said that Boney was defeated and he'd heard that he'd died in one of the last squares of the Imperial Guard. Those men acted as if they'd won the battle, what do I know? I'm a simple man."

"Have you told anyone about ..."

Duplat entered the house, one of his horse pistols in hand, "If I were you lot, I wouldn't be spreading such tales."

The older man raised his hands in front of him, he had dealt with angry soldiers before, "No offense soldat, but we know there was a battle to the west, rumor says the Emperor was defeated. Alphonse here was told the Emperor was dead ..."

"I heard all that, I'm just saying do keep that to yourself. Do you have any idea how my soldiers might react if they thought the Emperor was dead? All discipline would be lost and the countryside would be filled with marauders trying to return to France by any means."

The man named Alphonse lowered his head, "I heard this ..."

"So you decided to tell the first Frenchman you met that his army has been defeated and his Emperor is dead? Are you completely insane? I know many in my unit who would cut you down for saying such a thing."

The patrol had remounted and was headed back to the main army. Doucet had managed to collect himself and had said nothing to the others. Duplat was worried, though it was true that they had defeated the Prussians yesterday, the lack of any word from the main army was troubling.

As they approached the picket line just north of Wavre, Duplat saw the squadron commander talking with their own lieutenant. Neither man looked particularly happy. The lieutenant took Duplat aside.

"Brigadier, have your men get ready to move, we're falling back to Charleroi. The left wing under the Emperor has suffered, shall we say, a reverse, and has fallen back towards France. We must do the same."

"Mon lieutenant, one of my men has heard a rumor that the Emperor is dead and that the left wing has dissolved in the face of overwhelming enemy strength. Is there any truth ..."

"Non, the Emperor is very much alive, but yes the defeat at Mont St. Jean was bad. We need to withdraw so that the Emperor might reform the army around us. We have beaten the damned Prussian swine twice, and we shall do so again. But for the moment, we must withdraw."

Duplat nodded. He felt sick to his stomach at the news. Though Napoléon yet lived, the defeat of the army under the Emperor's control would reverberate around the army, and Europe itself.

The jackals would soon gather.

Historical Note:

After the initial battles near the frontier, at Quatre Bras and Ligny, the Emperor Napoléon pursued the British and their Dutch-Belgian-German allies to the ridge at Mont St. Jean. There, at what the English-speaking world calls the Battle of Waterloo, the French army literally came apart.

Farther to the east, Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy, commanding two infantry corps and two cavalry corps, pursued the Prussian army under Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher as it fell back after the Battle of Ligny. That battle had been fought under the Emperor's direct command and had proven to be a narrow defeat for the Prussians.

Nevertheless, having suffered severe casualties and being in a state of disorganization, the Prussians had fallen back, but to the north so as to stay in communication with the Anglo-Allied army under Wellington.

Blücher left a single corps at Wavre while he took the rest of the army to fall upon Napoléon's right flank, where they routed the French. Grouchy did drive the single Prussian corps from Wavre but with the defeat of the main army, there was no point in staying where they were. They had to fall back or be crushed.

Which they did.

For all the scorn and blame Grouchy has had poured on his name over the intervening two centuries since the Waterloo campaign, he stayed true to the Emperor to the end. The same Emperor who was the source of most of that scorn and blame.

Grouchy stayed the course until there was no hope left, unlike Soult and Ney who fled back to Paris to protect their own interests rather than those of France.

Even Davout, the Iron Marshal himself, turned his back on Napoléon. The man who had raised these men to the heights of glory and honor was rejected by them in the end.

For his troubles Ney was shot by a royalist firing squad six months after the defeat at Waterloo, a defeat which in reality falls more at his feet than those of Emmanuel de Grouchy.

The Execution of Marshal Ney
Jean-Léon Gérôme (PD)
It is so true ...

¹ Private in the French cavalry
² Corporal in the French cavalry
³ Forest to the north of the Battlefield of Waterloo. Just south of Brussels it is far smaller today than it was in 1815.


  1. The world runs on "what have you done for me lately".

  2. Failure, the flip side of glory. First comment is succinct. That painting is chock full of despair. Good post Sarge.

    1. Sometimes when yo try, you fail. At least you tried. Reminds me of Teddy Roosevelt's "The Man in the Arena" speech.

  3. Sarge, I do not know much about the period, but the bit I have read on my own (thanks to interest sparked by you) indicates that in the Revived Empire, the loyalties were split - the Marshalls wanted Napoleon to succeed after they had agreed to terms under the Bourbons, but then wanted to placate the Bourbons immediately after Napoleon failed (not arguing for Napoleon as a enlightened human being here, just observing). One can never succeed if one continually sits on two horses.

    As always, excellent writing.

    1. The Emperor raised them to dizzying heights and, truth be told, the Marshals (and many of the generals) were tired of war and wished to rest on their laurels. Can't say I blame them, but to switch loyalties? There were some who didn't, and paid the price oif exile.

  4. I'd never heard much of this part of history and nothing (really) of Marshal Ney but someone thought enough of Ney to take the time to paint that picture of his execution. So much to learn....
    That was a good story!

    1. Ney was a fighter. Many have argued that he was promoted well past his capabilities. It's also been argued that by Waterloo he was suffering greatly from PTSD, which they didn't understand well at all back then.

  5. All these parts of the story I've never heard. Thank you, Sarge, I won't say you're making me wiser, but I am definitely more informed and aware of consequences, both intended and not.

  6. I don't remember who wrote it, nor do I recall the exact words, but someone wiser and more articulate than I wrote something like, "Glory is putting
    an acceptable face on the horrors you want to forget." I think that's part of the reason so many who have earned our highest military awards say, "Not me. I'm no hero. The guys who didn't make it, those are the heroes."

  7. Ah, rumor flies faster than the speed of light, doesn't it? Especially in the military. Has, does, always will.

    And what you portrayed above is what happens when everything is tied into the cult of personality around one strong man. Take strong man away, by actual death, by physical or mental means, or by, as you showed above, by rumor and the cult collapses. We see this in war, amongst real cults and communes, in companies, in one's local church, amongst groups of people. Remove the light the moths fly around and the moths fly away.

    Must have been hard to be French at the time. Once on top of the world, now on the bottom, then on the top again, then on the bottom, over and over and over again. What a hell ride, all starting in 1789 due to bad wheat harvests due to Icelandic volcanoes. Damn those crafty Icelanders...

    1. Also why monarchies don't work all that well. Get one, maybe two, good ones, the rest are incompetent, corrupt, or both. Napoleon was definitely one of a kind.

  8. Such a great movie. Too bad Scott was just as arrogant as Patton and refused the honor of his Oscar. Although, maybe that showed a lack of arrogance! Nowadays, you kind of want to ignore those academy types.

    1. I feel that Scott was correct in refusing that "honor."

    2. I get it, I'm a little torn on what my current thoughts about Hollywood are but also how great I think his performance was. There's nothing wrong with recognizing that great performance, but I also think of Groucho Marx saying I don't want to be in a club that would have me as a member.

    3. Hollywood got too big for their britches, just my thought on it. Good movies are still being made, they're just rare.


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