Friday, May 26, 2023

17 June 1815, The Calm Before the Storm

Wellington's march from Quatre Bras to Waterloo
Ernest Crofts
The Duke of Wellington awakened in the small hours before dawn.¹ He had to admit to himself that he was tired, more tired than he should have been. But the last few days had indeed been exhausting. 

As he dressed for the day, he noticed that the air seemed heavy, the very atmosphere felt oppressive. From his experience, he knew that rain was imminent. He just hoped that it would hold off long enough to see what the French might be up to.

From his intelligence reports, he knew that he had faced Marshal Ney the day before. That man's conduct of the battle had seemed disjointed, unorganized, yet he had still come within a hair's breadth of driving the Anglo-Dutch army from the field.

As he wondered what the outcome would have been had he brought up his reinforcements sooner, or had Perponcher not disobeyed orders to hold the crossroads, he heard a tapping at his bedchamber door.

"What is it?" he snapped, he wasn't ready to be disturbed.

The door opened to reveal his military secretary, Lt. Col. Lord Fitzroy Somerset.

"Ah, Somerset, come in, come in, what is it?"

"Your Grace, Sir William, your quartermaster is here. Says it's urgent."

"Very well, I'll be right out. See if you can find something to eat, a bit of biscuit perhaps, and tea."

"As you wish, Your Grace."

Maréchal d'Empire² Michel Ney stepped out of the small cottage where he had spent the night. He made note of the fact that the men had their cooking fires going. Turning to an aide he spoke.

"So, are the English still in their positions?"

"Sire, they are doing the same thing we are doing, preparing a meal. Our forward pickets have seen some of their supply wagons moving north on the Brussels road."

At that moment Général de Division Comte Honoré Charles Reille rode up with members of his staff.

"Monsieur le Maréchal, the English are preparing to withdraw, we should be on them immediately, the Emperor expects it!"

"Calm yourself, Reille. My scouts report a few wagons heading north, the English are still preparing their breakfast. I have received no new orders from the Emperor."

Reille shook his head, before turning his horse he said, "Very well, Sir, I will be with my men. We should be ready to move at an instant's notice, if you ask me." Then he galloped off.

Chuckling, Ney said to his aide, "Well, no one did ask him, did they?"

"Sire, we have conflicting reports on Prussian movements. We have multiple reports of at least ten thousand men on the road to Liege. There is also a single report which indicates that the main Prussian body is heading north, towards Wavre."

Napoléon sniffed the air, "It feels like rain, don't you think, De la Bédoyère?"

De la Bédoyère smiled, "Yes Sire, the air feels moist and hot. I would expect a thunderstorm towards midday, perhaps later."

"Come gentlemen, let us inspect the troops. A magnificent victory yesterday, time enough to deal with the English. I'm sure by now Ney has them on the run."

"Your Grace!"

Wellington turned as a courier galloped up, offering a scrap of paper.

Gordon took it from the man and glanced at it.

When he saw the Duke looking at him, Gordon said, "It's a hastily scribbled note from Blücher's chief of staff, it's in German, Your Grace." Gordon handed the note to von Müffling, the Prussian liaison to Wellington's staff.

Von Müffling paled as he read the note, "Your Grace, the Prussians have been defeated. They are falling back on Wavre." Without thinking he handed the note back to Gordon.

"Damn it!" Wellington snapped. "Dispatches to all of my commanders, they are to fall back on Mont St. Jean, the ridge I pointed out to you gentlemen at Lady Charlotte's ball."

As the aides galloped off, Wellington turned to De Lancey, "Sir William, my compliments to Uxbridge, tell him that the cavalry is to provide a rear guard. I know that they will say we've been defeated back in England, but we must mirror the Prussians' movements. If we stay here Bonaparte can turn his entire army on us."

"Gentlemen, let us be off."

"Grouchy, take the infantry corps of Vandamme and Gérard, I'm also giving you Exelmans' cavalry corps and Soult's cavalry division. Find the Prussians and drive them away, keep the point of your sword in their kidneys, allow them no rest."

Turning to his aide, Napoléon barked, "We must move, De la Bédoyère. Ney is apparently eating breakfast, if I know Wellington, he will withdraw as soon as he learns of our victory here. I have heard no cannon fire from the west since yesterday evening, what is the man playing at?" The aides scrambled to follow the Emperor as he spurred Marengo.

De la Bédoyère turned to one of the couriers, "Send messages to the Guard, they are to follow us immediately. Girard's division will stay here, they are too battered to be of any further use."

One of the men spoke up, "Sir, Général Girard has been wounded, the surgeons believe it is mortal."

De la Bédoyère shook his head, "I didn't know. All the more reason to leave them here, we can call them up, if need be, once they have reorganized. Let us be off gentlemen!"

As the last of the infantry departed, the British and Allied cavalry units took up positions to delay the French, who had yet to show any activity.

Cornet John Berkshire of the 7th Queen's Own Hussars sat his mount, watching as a battery of horse artillery unlimbered north of the crossroads. He heard his sergeant clear his throat.

" I'd 'ate to be those lads, when the froggies come pounding up that road, Sir."

"Quite, Sergeant Ames, I'm sure those fellows know their business. Still and all, I'm glad to be in the cavalry and not have to lug those guns around."

At that moment a gust of wind came up, Berkshire swore he felt a drop of rain. Looking to the east, the sky was black and foreboding. "I think we're going to get wet, Sergeant."

"Won't argue that, Sir. Should slow the froggies down though, wot?"

"Indeed, Sergeant, indeed."

With a bright flash and a loud clap of thunder, the heavens unleashed a torrent of rain upon the men struggling up the road.

¹ Dawn would have been shortly before 4:00 AM.
² Marshal of the Empire.


  1. After reading this it felt like rain Sarge and a gloomy day even as the sunrise revealed a blue sky here........ :)

    1. The weather on the 17th of June in 1995, a Saturday, in that area was nearly identical to that on the 17th of June 1815, also a Saturday.

      We went to a reenactment of the battle on the actual battlefield (on Sunday 18 June, 1995) and we returned soaked to the knees and covered in mud. So when I described the weather, I was speaking from experience!

  2. Rain makes for damp powder and damp powder doesn't work but my experience with black powder arms is really small. Did they have tricks & such to get better use of it back then?

    1. Nope, they had to keep it dry. The soldiers would wrap the locks of their muskets with oil cloth, or similar waterproof material, in order to keep the mechanism dry. Their ammo pouches were designed to keep their cartridges dry. But if it was raining hard, it was either go at them with bayonet and sword or wait for it to stop raining.

      Once the powder was wet, it was useless. As loading a musket required the powder to be poured down the barrel, there really was no way to keep the bore dry.

    2. Even in our War of 1861 it was an issue. Granted, percussion caps helped, but you were still pouring loose powder down the bore.

      Artillery faired a bit better as long as you could keep your linstock burning. Open the limber chest as little as possible, protect the powder bag (yes, they did have fixed munitions in 1815) with your body and then into the gunners satchel. Insert it in the muzzle while covering it with your body. Then the fun part - prick the bag, insert the quill*, and touch it off with the slowmatch of the linstock (that's where the term "touch it off" comes from - touching the glowing slow match to the quill).

      *a primer made from the quill of a goose feather, filled with very fine gunpowder and sealed with a dab of wax.
      About 40 years later the friction primer was invented and made a much more reliable ignition system.

    3. True, the guns could stay in action even when the infantry couldn't fire. On the 17th, the British and Allied horse artillery were in action a lot, deploying to delay the French, then falling back themselves as the cavalry covered them.

      I once had the honor to serve on a gun crew, so I know of which you speak. (I also learned why gunners tended to dress in dark uniforms, black powder is messy!)

  3. I went to the store at 0500 this morning, it was mizzling, had to use the wipeers. Almost June in Sonoma County CA. Fortunately, that's about all it will do today, and should burn off by late morning and be mostly sunny, highs in the upper 60s.

    Rain and heat is no fun. Did that in PA in '08 for a few days. Wearing lots of wool. Not the most pleasant thing in the world.

    1. Been there, done that. As part of a German unit in a WWII reenactment group I really began to appreciate the GI uniforms, which were not wool! (Ours were.)

  4. So many different vignettes. This is what history really consists of.

    Following through your links (thank you!), interesting what the cast of characters went on to do after Waterloo.

    1. I wanted the readers who were interested in such things to know who theses guys were, not just names from a history book, but actual flesh and blood human beings. Glad you're enjoying that.

    2. Making these people 'real' is a fine thing! Thanks!

  5. Crusty Old TV Tech here. The map of Europe is about to be redrawn, again, it would seem. One battle at one small Belgian town, the fate of a continent hangs on it, more or less. From Waterloo came the Schleswig Wars, the German Brothers War of 1866, and the biggie that gave us a united Germany, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. After that, much German immigration to the US and other places in the aftermath, including the Texas Hill Country, changing the world in ways unmeasureable in 1815.

    But none of that is on any minds at Quatre Bras in 1815. The Brits, and the Prussians only want to defeat the French, to live another day, return to their farms and shops. The French know if they fail, it will mean very hard times back home.

    The die is cast, the stage is set. Even the Heavens pour out their flood upon the scene.

    1. You've set the scene nicely!

    2. Sarge, are you aware of any speculative fiction where Napoleon was not defeated and went on to rule Europe? To COTT's point, without the loss at Waterloo other things might have occurred.

    3. TB - After a cursory search of "teh Google." I found no fictional works regarding that possibility. However if you search for "what if napoleon had won at waterloo," you'll get a number of different articles that look very interesting.

      The whole "rule Europe" thing is probably a non-starter, he missed his chance at that. Continue to rule France, that would have worked. But his family, in my estimation, had nowhere near the talent he had. As with most dynasties, the first one is good, then they get weaker and weaker.

      But an interesting topic nonetheless.

    4. The French Revolution and Napoleon's previous loss saw a bit of a diaspora amongst the French. In some instances, whole units emigrated to America, along with their wives, children, mistresses, chattel, materials yada yada. Wars do that.

    5. Indeed, look at the aftermath of any war, you get refugees. Many of whom can't go home again.

    6. Crusty Old TV Tech again. Yeah, there was some French outward migration in the 19th century from what I have seen in studying such things, but nothing like the non-Prussian Germans after 1866. Seems the Bavarians, Hessians, Alsatians, et. Al., did not want to live under Prussian rule by and large, if immigration from there is any indication. The French did seem to lose many to their colonies in the 18th century, Bretons and the like to Nova Scotia and St Pierre, etc., then onward to La Louisienne.

    7. The Prussians were certainly unpopular with the rest of Germany, that's for sure.

    8. My last name's bearer did the 'escape from Prussian rule' thingy, and ended up in New Orleans, while all of his relatives and other last name bearers ended up in the Midwest.

    9. Got out before things went straight to Hell.

      Very smart.

    10. Beans, one direct strand of The Ravishing Mrs. TB's line also escaped Greater Germany prior to 1870 and ended up in the Midwest as well. Probably more common than I realize.

    11. There are also many, many Germans who came to the US around 1848, the year of revolution. Europe was very unsettled in those days.

    12. I have a set of great grandparents who came from Germany sometime late in the 1800's, they were married here in 1885. William Schultz & Louise Thymian, I can find her in 1867 German census.
      After reading the remarks I went to and looked for them in the Ellis Island records, I need to find his middle name & she didn't show up.
      Just something to do ....

    13. It's interesting trying to track that sort of information down. Never know what you might learn!

  6. So... what was the urgent message from the quartermaster to Wellington?

    1. Um... Good question. (How did I miss not pulling that thread?)

    2. Crusty Old Tv Tech was "Pardon Your Dukeness, the Blancmange has Fallen!". Oh, that's what I get for watching too much Flying Circus in college!

      Military signals in the Napoleanic time, that would be an interesting topic of research, too. Hmmm. Wonder what sort of codes they used?

    3. Hahaha! Perfect!

      As to signaling during the Napoleonic Wars, search for "Claude Chappe." He invented a military telegraph system (actually more akin to semaphore) which was fairly effective. I believe the British had something similar. Then there is the system of flags used by the Royal Navy to pass commands. (I believe other navy's had flag systems as well.)


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