Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Battle of Ligny - The Tide Turns

Lieutenant von Schmeling at the bridge next to En Bas Farm
by Adalbert von Roessler (engraving 1899 PD)
Capitaine Joseph Martin was awaiting the order to advance. He wasn't sure how many times they had crossed the brook, taken the village, then been driven back out again. All he was sure of was that his company was missing at least twenty men.

"At least twenty, mon Capitaine." Sergent-major Alphonse Juin had reported after the company had fallen in once more after the last trip into the village.
Martin noticed blood trickling down the left side of Juin's face. "Are you wounded, Alphonse?"

Juin removed his shako, there was a rough bandage tied around his head, the left side of that bandage was soaked through with blood.

"A scratch, mon Capitaine. No doubt a fragment of stone or something, at first I thought it was sweat. But when I touched it my hand came away red. You know how head wounds bleed. I'll bind it up again in a moment. Are we going in again?"

Martin sighed and looked back up the slope which was littered with French dead and wounded. "Yes, we need to get out of the open, the Prussian artillery is hurting us, badly."

At that moment, the drums began to roll. Martin looked at Juin, who winked back at his captain after donning his shako once more.

"Let's finish this." Juin muttered, as the battalion went up the slope once more.

"Are the infantry reserves all in, Gneisenau?" the old field marshal asked his chief of staff.

"They are, Herr Generalfeldmarschall. I've sent messengers off to Wellington, I knew that bastard wouldn't come."

"Tsk, tsk my old comrade, you said yourself, he's in a fight for his life with the French at Quatre Bras!"

Ignoring the disgusted look on Gneisenau's face, Blücher turned to the nearest aide-de-camp. Quickly, Blücher dictated orders for his last reserves, his cavalry. "Fast as you can, young Holzmeyer!"

As the aide galloped off, Blücher turned to Gneisenau once more, "Any other problems I should know about?"

The chief of staff sighed, then spoke, "The artillery are running low on ammunition. It's the only thing which have kept the French at bay so far. And yet the Schweine keep swarming across the stream as if they can't wait to die!"

"I see that bastard whore Bonaparte is assembling his Guard," Blücher gestured across the valley. "And whoever recalled those people coming in on the right have done us a great favor."

Gneisenau nodded and said, "My scouts say it was Bonaparte's I Corps, I have no idea what they're about, I'm just glad they are no longer our problem."

"We will face those bastards again, better to kill them now!" The old field marshal seemed to forget for a moment that his army was in dire peril.

Gneisenau ignored that and asked, "Who shall lead the charge, Herr Generalfeldmarschall? We should start to withdraw our guns and the trains under cover of that. The hour grows late."

Blücher seemed to stare off to the east, perhaps remembering his days as a young hussar, "I shall lead them, you get my children to safety. If I don't return, withdraw north, towards Wavre ..."

"Sir, I must protest, the English have left us in the lurch, we should withdraw towards Lüttich¹ along our lines of communication ..."

Pulling his horse's head around in anger, Blücher struggled to control himself, his next words dripped with ice, "I gave my word, Gneisenau, my word."

"Zu befehl, Herr Generalfeldmarschall², I shall get the army to Wavre, those that stay with the colors anyway."

Nodding, the old man placed himself at the head of thirty-two squadrons of Röder's cavalry. Drawing his sword, he stood in his stirrups and bellowed, "Forward my children! To glory!"

As Martin's battalion swarmed into the village, the Prussians fell back, it seemed as if they had had enough.

"At them, let no one escape!"

The French were in a barbarous mood, they had seen buildings where the wounded were burning to death, they had watched Prussians bayoneting the wounded.

Sergent-major Juin screamed at the company, "They give no quarter, they shall receive no quarter." As he turned back to the front, a Prussian ball struck him in the chest.

Gasping for air, Juin dropped to one knee. "Damn it," he thought, "again?"

One of the soldiers knelt next to him, a concerned look on his face. Juin shook off the man's hands, "Advance, don't worry about me or any other wounded man! Go! Go! Go!"

Juin dropped onto his hands and knees now. Oddly he felt no pain, he was just having trouble trying to catch his breath. "Perhaps a little rest," he thought as he lost consciousness.

Sergent Nicolas Guilbert looked to his right, the lads were perfectly aligned. The drums beat the advance and the 1st Chasseurs stepped off, into battle. The Prussians were wavering, it was time for the coup de grace!

As the Guard moved forward, Napoléon saw the Prussian cavalry moving forward.

"De la Bédoyère! Look there, the old man is launching his cavalry, a desperate moved to be sure!"

Turning to an aide, Napoléon dictated an order, "I shall match him with my cuirassiers!²"

In moments all that the Emperor could do had been done. It was a glorious day, Napoléon thought to himself. Yet a nagging suspicion that something wasn't quite right came over him. Why hadn't he heard from Ney?

As the cavalry thundered past, the Guard raised a cheer.

"Chantilly, have you seen the Sergent-major?" Martin was loading a musket he had taken from one of the fallen. This was no time to play with his sword, the Prussians were breaking after fighting like lions all day.

Soldat Henri Chantilly fired his musket and saw a Prussian just up the street fall, twisting in agony. There was no way he could be sure it was his ball which had dropped the man, just reload and keep firing.

"Non, mon Capitaine. He was there back by the bridge across the brook, then he wasn't."

Martin fired his musket then stood and looked around him, he scarcely recognized any of the other French soldiers in the vicinity. A number of units had gotten mixed together in the vicious hand-to-hand fighting.

"Frenchmen, to ME!" Martin screamed, then advanced up the street.

"Don't move, Herr Generalfeldmarschall, the damned French are all around us."

Blücher stopped trying to pull his leg from under his dead horse. His aide was right, the French were galloping past, sabering everything in their path.

One moment he had been leading a glorious charge, the next he was lying on his back, winded and confused. When he tried to get up he remembered what had happened.

They had burst from the powder smoke and not thirty paces to their front was a French infantry square. Time had seemed to slow down at that point.

Leaning forward to shelter behind his horse as he had been trained so many years before, he had heard the hiss of shot passing close by. His horse had stumbled, screaming, the animal had gone down, pinning its rider underneath.

Blücher knew then, that even if he survived, this battle was irretrievably lost.

"Get me out of here, August."

Guilbert nodded, satisfied, just as in the old days, when the Guard advanced, the enemy crumbled and ran. The day is ours, he thought to himself.

The Prussians were fleeing but damn it, night was falling, there was little likelihood of a pursuit at this late hour.

As the cheers erupted up and down the line, "Vive l'Empereur!" Guilbert felt his heart swell, it felt like 1806 all over again.

¹ The name for Liege in German.
² Heavy French cavalry, big men on big horses, they wore a helmet and steel breast and back plates. Napoléon's vaunted battle cavalry.
³ Victory is ours! Chase the link for the march of the same name.


  1. "how many times they had crossed(?) the brook"... does that fit? Once again back into the past, nicely done Sarge.

    1. Yup, works a lot better. (My typing skills were never that strong!)

      Thanks Nylon12!

    2. 10%, 20%. even 50% casualties and they would still press an attack...OK, maybe not 50% so much although it did happen. That soldiers of any era could still have the courage to advance in those circumstances boggles the mind.

      Once more you have taken us "into the breach" as it were. Excellent writing, thank you.

  2. The raw carnage of it all is overwhelming. We have become so used to death via video and long distance that it is shocking (in a needed way) to be reminded of what is really occurring. As always, great writing Sarge.

    Checking Wikipedia (All this new information I need to take in), I find the following note of Blücher following the Battle of Ligny: "After bathing his wounds in a liniment of rhubarb and garlic, and fortified by a liberal internal dose of schnapps, Blücher rejoined his army."

    1. To really experience a battle, one would need to reproduce the smell. The screams, the agony of the wounded, are also something missing from the modern experience.

      As I walked the ground at Bloody Lane (Antietam) I tried to imagine how blood soaked the ground must have been. Battle is sheer horror, Sherman was right.

    2. The noise, the smell.... I can't really imagine it but you do a good job of helping.

    3. Many sensible people - military and otherwise - have pointed out that only the crazy and foolish desire war.

    4. That is, politicians and certain far to the left/right lunatics.

    5. The smell of blood, once it turns, is very nauseating. Add to that the smell of open bowels, brain tissue (which rots very quickly,) piss, vomit and the stench of sulfur, all mixed with the smell of disturbed earth. What a fetid stench.

      Then there are the flies. The ravens (and if one is north enough, the storks.) Stray dogs and wolves (if any are in the area.)

      The carnal pits of Hell opened on this Earth.

      Smelled enough of the components to have a very good idea of what that smells like. No thank you.

    6. Same here, you don't want to experience that.

  3. Choke points like bridges are death collectors. And yet men still charged over and over and over again.

    1. When you gotta cross, you gotta cross. (Even if there is an unguarded ford further upstream ...)

  4. Something about bridges; in addition to von Schmeling, Horatius stood at a bridge in the 6th century. Thirteen centuries or so later, there was a bridge at Antietam. Another century and Marine John Ripley took down a bridge at Dong Ha, Vietnam.

    1. Bridges tend to become militarily significant. If there's only one way to get over a river, it's going to be fought over.

    2. The Battle of Stamford Bridge, between Harold's Anglo Saxons and Harald's Scandinavians was made famous for one Viking holding the bridge against 40 Englishmen, until some Anglos got under the bridge and speared the valiant viking from below.

    3. All's fair in war, if you're not cheating, you're not trying.

  5. Crusty Old TV Tech here. From Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, to Remagen, Toko-Ri, the Paul Doumer bridge, yeah, bridges are a big prize for Armor and Infantry...and a big target for the Air Force, Artillery, and mounted Lancers. What if a politician who thinks he must start a war, then as the kings of old, he must put on his armor and ride out at the head of the column. Why, that might just put an end to the worst abuses. But then again, it did not in days of old, so maybe not. Politicians are a special breed of narcissist.

    The bloodiness of battle came across in visits to Land's End, which I've written of in the past. That former plantation was turned into a field hospital for a small battle in the War of 1861, Mansfield. There was 100+ year old blood on some of the furnishings, and torn bits of curtains used as bandages displayed as they were found after the war, blood-stained, along with other artifacts. Sobering.

    1. Sobering indeed, and a lesson for those wise enough to pay heed!


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