Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The Wee Hours ...

The Chateau of Hougoumont as it appeared in 1815¹
Corporal Michael Wareham of the 2nd Battalion of the Coldstream Guards looked out over the wall towards the south woods. The rain was still pouring down and he felt bad for the Nassauers and Hanoverians posted in those woods. At least in the chateau they had a few cook fires going out of the rain.

He had gotten a couple hours of sleep earlier in the night on some sodden straw in the big barn which formed the western flank of the chateau, which one of the officers had referred to as "Goomont," or something sounding like that.

He had been awakened by a party of pioneers who had come in to cut firing ports in the exterior wall of the barn. Unable to sleep, he had assisted with that work. At least it kept him moving, which helped keep him warm, and moreover, it kept him dry.

But now he was out on the wall, wondering if the rain would ever stop and if it did, would there be a battle?

"What are ye lookin' at Corp?"

Wareham turned to see Private Mick Wilcox, one of the men in his company, but not in his section.

"Mick, why aren't ye sleepin' lad?"

"Too damned chilly for me, Corp. Damned pioneers makin' all that noise as well. Who can sleep on the night before a battle?"

"Aye. Climb up here, we can watch together. Wonder how the foreigners are doing out in those woods? They're a mite closer to the Frenchies then we are. I reckon we'll get warning enough, if Boney decides to try for it."

"Better them than us, Corp. Better them than us."

"De la Bédoyère, have we heard anything from le Maréchal Grouchy?"

"No, Sire. Just before he went to take a nap, Maréchal Soult sent another dispatch, ordering him to march to join our right flank. It is the second order that le Maréchal sent."

The Emperor paced back and forth for a few moments, his hands clasped behind his back. He looked disheveled and unwell. His coatee, the undress uniform of a colonel of the Chasseurs à Cheval of the Guard was draped over the back of a chair.

"And still it rains ..." Napoléon mused aloud.

"It's as if the heavens themselves wish to prevent us defeating the English duke and his foreign minions."

"We faced them in Spain, Sire. I wouldn't underestimate them." Maréchal Soult said as he stepped into the room.

"The army he used to beat you in Spain is in America², fighting those rustics. The men he has now are new recruits. Most of his army is composed of Belgians and Dutchmen. Who were our allies not long ago! If we win tomorrow, they will flock to our banners." The Emperor seemed put out at yet another reference to English fighting prowess by another of his generals who had been beaten by this Wellington in Spain. Soult, Ney, Reille, all of them were infected with this fear of Wellington.

"Couldn't sleep, Soult?" The Emperor decided not to dwell on the fears of the men who had fought, and lost, in Spain. He knew his own limits, he also knew that his one campaign in Spain had seen the English driven from Spanish soil and their commander laid to rest in a Spanish grave!

"I have reports to send to Paris, Sire. Also I am expecting word from Maréchal Grouchy before sunrise. I have slept enough."

In truth, Maréchal Jean-de-Dieu Soult, Duke of Dalmatia had hardly slept at all. But if the Emperor was up, so would he stay up.

Worried that the Emperor took the English lightly, but resolved not to speak of it again, at least not until morning, Soult kept his thoughts to himself.

Private Jürgen Stroop of 1st Battalion, 2nd Nassau Regiment's light infantry contingent had managed to find a modicum of shelter under a tree. It wasn't much but it did keep the rain from running down the back of his neck and into his uniform.

"Jürgen, are the French out there?"

Stroop gave his companion, another private by the name of Kessler, he had no idea what the man's first name was, a look of pity.

"No, Kessler, I'm sure they've all marched back to France because of this filthy weather. Of course they're out there, and let me tell you, they are just as wet, just as miserable as we are."

"Did you receive any rations before they sent you out here?"

Stroop wondered how he got stuck with the youngest man in the company, kid couldn't be older than seventeen, he thought. Begrudgingly, he dug into his haversack and brought out a stale biscuit he'd been saving for later.

As Kessler's face lit up, and as he gobbled the biscuit down, Stroop had to smile. He wasn't particularly hungry, he seldom was before a battle, but the kid was probably ravenous.

Ah well, at least one of them was happy.

"As soon as the eastern sky lights up, I want us on the move." Generalfeldmarschall von Blücher felt very good for a man of 72, who had had probably three hours of sleep over the last few days, had had a horse shot out from under him leading a cavalry charge, and been ridden over at least twice by French cavalry.

"It's no wonder the men love him," von Gneisenau mused to himself. Out loud he said, "I have already given the order Herr Generalfeldmarschall. Von Bülow's Corps will march first ..."

"But they have the farthest to travel!" von Blücher pointed out, with some heat.

"I know that Herr Generalfeldmarschall, however IV Corps is our strongest unit within reasonable marching distance of Mont St. Jean. Better to arrive and deliver a solid blow than have the men who lost at Ligny have to make that long march then face the French after that." von Gneisenau realized, with some embarrassment, that he had snapped at the field marshal. Tired or not, that wouldn't do.

Before he could apologize, von Blücher laid a hand on von Gneisenau's arm and said, "I know, you do know best. Get my army to where we can fight, I'll do the rest."

"Jawohl, Herr Generalfeldmarschall, with God's help, we will prevail."

"Amen! Now where is my orderly? I need something to drink!"

It was hard to tell, what with the pouring rain, but gradually the eastern sky began to lighten. Many men looked with dread at the coming of daylight.

They expected to fight, one way or the other. Some of the men, particularly in the Prussian Army, would be praying. Some would be trying to dry their kit, knowing it was futile. Some sought a bite to eat, or something strong to drink.

Many of the men gathered on the slopes of Mont St. Jean and the ridge of Belle Alliance, and further away in Wavre and on the approaches to that town, knew that this would possibly be their last day on earth.

Many had seen their last night and many hoped that at least the sun would rise and that the rain would cease.

Most knew that no matter what they did, fate would find them on these muddy fields south of Brussels.

And so the sun arose on the morning of Sunday, the 18th of June, in the year of Our Lord, 1815.

Last Reveille
Lady Butler

¹ North is to the left in this photo. The French attack cam from the right.
Buildings n° 1, 4 and 5, as well as 9, 16 and 11, are long gone.
N°10 was the Chapel, of which a few walls survived
N°19 is the Northern Gate
N°2 is now a simple wall.
N°3, 12 and 18 are now dedicated to exhibitions
N°13, 17, 14 and 5 are still in use. (Key from the source, edited.)
² Sent there to fight the War of 1812, many were still aboard ship returning to England, some were actually present on the other side of the field. But for the most part, the Wellington's Peninsular Army was no more.


  1. Was Gniesenau more successful the Blucher, so he got the battle cruiser, and Blucher the CA?

    1. I have no idea how the Germans named their ships.

    2. It is interesting reading about Gniesenau and Blucher. I guess Germany didn't have a great naval tradition.

    3. No, they didn't. They did have a few ships named for admirals from WWI and responsible for building that navy before the war: Scheer (commanded at Jutland), Graf Spee (killed in action off the Falklands in WWI), Tirpitz (largely responsible for building the WWI fleet), and Hipper (commanded the battlecruisers at Jutland). So in reality, their naval "tradition" was barely thirty years old. That's why you get ships named for generals, and one politician (Bismarck).

  2. That farmhouse was quite a strongpoint, requiring a massive charge or artillery to eliminate. Did the pioneers (early engineers?) add some sharpened stakes and abatis around the farm complex as early barbed wire to slow charges, I wonder?

    Built so well that after the war was rebuilt mostly for decades of farm life service. I suspect an American farming complex would never be so durable as evidenced by Sherman's march to the sea.

    1. Pioneers were early combat engineers. There weren't any obstacles outside of Hougoumont other than the trees themselves that I'm aware of. Those old farm complexes were built very strong.

    2. Southern America had/has lots of trees and little frost-heaved rocks. Now, New England has lots of trees and lots and lots of frost-heaved rocks left over from the Ice Ages.

      'Permanent' buildings in the South were made of bricks and some stones (for rich built buildings.) Predominantly wooden or wooden-reinforced structures, lots to burn.

      Try a Sherman's March in New England and, yes, lots of quaint wooden buildings to burn, but also a lot of really thick-walled stone structures from pretty early on. Something about being both in a rocky soil area and a continued conflict area made thick stone walls a good thing.

    3. Thick stone walls are good. Think of the Three Little Pigs.

  3. I was looking at the model of the Chateau and wondered how tall the wall around the orchard/garden was...

    1. From having seen it close up (sort of, when I visited it was still private property, now it's a museum open to the public) the walls around the complex had to have been at least eight feet high. To fire over them the garrison had to build firing platforms which were constructed of furniture, doors, even rubble taken from breaking down one of the walls inside the complex. The walls around the chateau were substantial.

  4. You did it again. I'm now cold, I feel damp even though I'm inside and dry.

    Yeah, old estates were built to last. One of the Food Network contests, Ciao House, is using a 14th century villa for it's setting. 14th century - before Columbus made his famous navigation error. Well before the founding of our republic. Oh, there have been upgrades and repairs, but the core of it still stands. Here....very few buildings even 200 years old. Of course, HERE, in California, our european based history only goes back to the 1700s. One of the buildings at Mission San Juan de Capistrano, I believe.

    Re: The Wee Hours - usually between 0300 and 0400.

    1. I just reread my comment and realized how out of step my wife and I are with most Americans. We see 200 years as kind of new.
      We grouse about "traditional" Italian or Asian dishes using New World foods, then realize that 400 years of use could just maybe qualify as "traditional."

    2. Joe #1 - I used the phrase "the wee hours" for just that reason. Men who were going to sleep were probably up early as sunrise in that area of the world was at 0400, or a bit earlier. And yes, Hougoumont was old. Parts of it dated back to the 1300s. I once took my colonel on a tour of Waterloo, he thought to help himself to a loose brick from the SW corner by the gardener's house. I asked him what would happen if everyone did that. He let it lie. He also said, "What the Hell was I thinking?" Good man, that.

    3. Joe #2 - I saw a building in Germany which dated to 1640. Rather amazing because it was in an area flattened by the American Air Force and later from American artillery. Oldest place I've seen in New England dates back to just before the French and Indian War, around 1730. Where I live has a number of buildings roughly from that era. Mind you, these are wooden buildings which were built much stronger than current structures.

  5. Blucher is growing on me. Would that I have that kind of energy in my 70's...

    Was this this first time Napoleon and Wellington directly met in battle? It seems risky to make light of the opinions of men that had real experience with him (to be fair, this seems to happen quite a lot...).

    1. The field marshal was quite a character, one of my favorite people from history.

      This battle was the first, and only, time that Napoléon faced Wellington directly.

  6. Amazing how a reinforced building can allow smaller forces to hold against larger ones. Roarke's Drift, Camaron, The Alamo, Acre. Sure, the last three were losses for the defenders, but they all held against far larger forces.

    As to old compounds, you have to do something with all those rocks. In Normandy they made hedgerows and thick houses/compounds. Pile stones up for nigh unto 1,500 years and, yeah, helluva defensive works.

    1. Like you say, all those rocks have to go somewhere. (Which is why New England is crisscrossed with stone walls!)

  7. Crusty Old TV Tech here. So, speaking of naming ships, I wonder if the French Navy has a "FSS Grouchy"...?

    1. Not to my knowledge, but there was an HMS Ney and an HMS Soult. I kid you not.


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