Tuesday, May 30, 2023

The Last Night

Blücher auf dem Weg nach Waterloo¹
Jäger² Markus Kohlmann hissed under his breath as he lost his footing, nearly falling, he somehow managed to stay upright. He was drenched and the rain kept falling in torrents.

His best friend in the army, Jäger Horst Kempf, reached out and steadied Kohlmann as his feet started to slide again. "Try to walk wider, my friend."

"Wider, what the hell does that mean?" Kohlmann muttered.

"Place your feet wider apart as you walk. What do you think I mean?" Kempf thought his friend had little imagination, he tended to bull his way through any and all situations.

"Well, say what you mean, Horst. Say, 'spread your feet further apart.' 'Walk wider,' such nonsense. What are you, a poet or something?"

Their sergeant, Unterofficier Max Schultze, turned and barked at both men, "More marching, less gabbing, you two!"

Kohlmann shook his head, bloody sergeants!

"How are you feeling, Herr Generalfeldmarschall?" von Nostitz was still concerned that Blücher was in more pain than he would admit. But he knew his commander was stubborn and tough, very tough. Most men his age would still be under a doctor's care after having a horse shot out from under him in the midst of battle.

"I am fine, Junge. I just wish the doctor had let me drink some of that brandy he used to make the concoction he insisted he massage into my bruises. Champagne is fine, but brandy gives a fellow a fire in the belly!" von Blücher was in better spirits but he still rued the need to retreat.

Von Nostitz tried not to get too close to his commander, the old man positively reeked of the brandy, gin, garlic, and rhubarb the doctor had used to treat the old man. The doctor had also recommended that the field marshal should rest in bed for at least a week.

Not that there was any hope of that!

Von Nostitz hoped that perhaps the driving rain might wash the smell away. It was almost as bad as the stink of the hundreds of unwashed soldiers marching around them.

"That's one thing the historians seldom mention," von Nostitz thought, "the smell of war!"

La Haye Sainte
Lieutenant Wilhelm Brecher was tempted to stay in the large barn where he'd left his kit. The rain was non-stop and it had been coming down since earlier in the day. But he felt duty bound to check on his men.

The march north to this ridge had been grueling. Though the battalion had not been engaged in the actions on Friday, they had still had a long march from their bivouac when the orders had come to move to occupy this farm. Most of that move had been in this miserable rain, which Brecher was beginning to think was trying to drown him.

He heard the sounds of an ax and went to investigate.

"What in God's name are you doing, soldier?!"

The man in question, one of the pioneers from his apron and the rather large ax he was wielding, turned around.

"Firewood, Sir! This door is pretty substantial, we thought to use it to cook supper and keep us warm in this nasty weather."

Brecher shook his head, "How about using that door to keep the damned French out? How about that?"

The pioneer looked a bit chagrined, it was obvious that he nor any of the other men had thought of that.

Brecher realized it was too late to save the door, turning to a sergeant he barked, "You, sergeant, go into the barn, grab anything we can use to block this entrance. I swear to God, you lads would tear down the walls themselves if you could either burn them or eat them. Damned fools!"

Turning again to the pioneer, Brecher asked him, "Why aren't you with the other pioneers, over at the big chateau³?"

The man shrugged and said, "Colonel Ompteda kept some of us back. I didn't ask why."

Brecher said, "Make yourself useful then and help the sergeant."


The Guard was halted again to let another battery of guns move up the road. The men were soaked to the bone, most of them were too tired to complain. Each man simply followed the man ahead of him.

Sergent Nicolas Guilbert turned to see if his old comrade, Sergent Pierre Grandchamp was still behind him. He was, Guilbert nodded to him.

Grandchamp nodded back, he could see that Guilbert was as sodden as the rest of them, but somehow he still wore his fatigue cap at the same jaunty angle he always did.

"Hey, Nicolas, any idea where we are?"

Guilbert adopted a thoughtful look, then said, "Belgium, I think we're in Belgium. Though from the look of things, we might have taken a wrong turn someplace and are at the bottom of La Manche⁴ right now. Seems wet enough."

Before Grandchamp could reply, the call to march came down the line.

Somewhere in the midst of the column, one wag shouted out, "Perhaps le Tondu can find the English before we're all swept out to sea!"

Privates Will Thomas and Jack MacKenzie were doing their best to stay dry. They were huddled in a sunken road next to a hedge which seemed to block a lot of the rain which continued to pour down.

"Will, how's the leg?" MacKenzie had shot down the cavalryman who had opened a gash on Thomas' leg the previous day. Thomas claimed he was fine, but MacKenzie had noticed him limping towards the end of the march to this place.

"I'll be a'right, Jacko. It was a scratch, had worse in Spain and you know that." For the moment Thomas' leg was not bothering him, he felt so wet and miserable that the leg was the least of his worries.

"C'mon laddie, I saw ye limpin', I know it pains ye."

"Pebble in me shoe, that's all."

"What's that?" MacKenzie thought the man had to be joking.

"Nah, I'm serious. Bleedin' great boulder in ma' right shoe. When we stopped I had it off and found it. Thing was the size of a hen's egg."

From down the line nearby an officer yelled out, "You men try and get some sleep and stop yer jawin', the morrow's bound to be busy!"

As he pulled his sodden blanket closer around him, MacKenzie muttered, "And how are we supposed tae sleep, in this bloody muck?"

The night wore on, the rain poured down on the men atop the ridge at Mont St. Jean, knowing that their enemy was moving towards them, in force.

As Wellington wrote the last words of a message to London, he paused and looked out the window of the small inn in the town of Waterloo he was using as his headquarters. He knew that there would be a battle in the morning, a big one. He wondered if the Prussians would come, he wondered if he would need their help.

Knowing that his worrying about things wouldn't change them, the Duke of Wellington prepared for bed. He would be up before dawn, which wasn't that far away, any sleep he got now was better than none at all.


"Your Grace?" Gordon had been waiting outside of the small room he was using as his quarters.

"My compliments to the provost, have this dispatch sent to London, immediately."

"Very good, Sir."

As the Duke turned down the lamp, he looked outside.

The rain was still coming down, in sheets.

¹ While the engraving is supposed to depict the Prussian Army's march from Wavre to Waterloo, I use it here to depict the Prussian retreat from Ligny to Wavre. Conditions were similar.
² Private in the Prussian light infantry. Literally means "hunter."
³ The "big chateau" would be the Chateau Hougoumont which anchored the far right of the Allied line. I have read accounts which indicate that most of the pioneers from the regiments in the Anglo-Allied army had been sent there to prepare the place for defense.
⁴ Literally, "the sleeve," what the French call the English Channel.


  1. Soaked to the skin makes for miserable sleeping experience. Rained here overnight, first time in eleven days and started raining again as this is typed. Coincidence Sarge?

    1. At least the mud is soft ...

      I know, not really a feature.

  2. Wet wool, both too hot and too cold at the same time. And it weighs something like 13 pounds per square inch. And it stinks. All by itself, when clean, it stinks. Add in the sweat, powder, stale grease, and smell of smoke from cook fire and it can get overwhelming.

    1. I see you've been there, done that.

      Add in all the other nasty smells, like 50,000 people all peeing and pooping in a relatively small area. And all that is without the fighting part!

  3. All that wet, I'm guessing they didn't load the musket until it was needed.

    1. Sentries had to have their muskets loaded, at the end of their shift they had to unload them. If sergeants weren't around they'd unload them by firing them in a "safe" direction. If it was wet, like it was on that night, the charge was usually too damp to fire and they'd have to draw out the charge. There was a corkscrew looking tool they used for that.

      But yes, the musket was only loaded when needed.

    2. I've pulled the ball on a .50 muzzle loading rifle, way easier to fire it!

    3. Any number of old soldiers would agree with you on that!

  4. Sarge, one of the most pungent odors I have ever smelled was in the large drying room in Japan in the evening when all the kendo practitioners were allowing their armor to air out after a day training.

    I retract that. Pungent is a tame word. I cannot imagine that smell replicated over and over, and with wool. In our antiseptic age, we forget such things.

    Looking out the window after reading I am grateful for the sun.

    1. I can't imagine marching through the mud in a driving rain storm then having no place to sleep and having nothing to eat at the end of that.

      Then be expected to fight a battle!

  5. Crusty Old TV Tech here. Yeah, mud and sleep do not go together. Mid '70's, DeSoto Parish, north of Mansfield, LA. Army JROTC field training bivouac. It had rained for 2 days before, and was raining when we marched in and set up camp. 2' of mud in most places. Most miserable night spent (well, except for that night at Torrejon AB after sangria pitchers and San Miguel cerveza in the O' Club. But, I digress...). Then field exercises with M-14's and blank adapters all day. Decided then and there that my eventual goal of earning a commission in the USAF was the right way to go.

  6. One of the great smells after being wet for a day is the mildew. I know of what I speak. Many a day, after long fights and battles, I'd waddle back to th encampment and people would actually veer away from me, as if the stench was a physical wall. Bleh.

    Sad thing is, I can imagine how 50-100 thousand men and horses and poop and pee and mud and rain and blood and guts and infected wounds and burnt wood and burnt gunpower and burnt other things must have smelled like. Horrid.

    1. Keep in mind that hygiene standards weren't the way they are now. When everyone smells bad, you kind of get used to it. (DAMHIK)

      The day after the battle, sightseers from Brussels came to visit the field, clutching perfumed hankies to their delicate nostrils.

  7. "Still Life" by Anthony Hecht. Nothing like what I expected...reminds me of mornings in Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, although the latter two were much drier and hotter, yet with their own beauty...I once gazed with wonder at a butterfly sipping water from my plastic wash tub while hand washing my clothes in the freakin' desert waiting for the war to commence...
    - Barry

    1. Hecht had definitely seen some sh!t, as they say.

      Sometimes it's the little things that stand out, like that butterfly.

    2. Brings to mind an account of a windowless logging camp bunkhouse (no windows because they were never inside in daylight) with a central red hot wood stove heating it to tropical temperature. Meanwhile wet wool pants and socks hung above drying out for the next day and the bunkhouse packed with unwashed sweaty bodies wearing unwashed sweaty long underwear.

    3. I can see why that might spring to mind!


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