Friday, June 2, 2023

And So It Begins ...

French Foot Artillery
From where he sat on his horse, Général de Brigade Jean-Baptiste, Baron Pelletier¹, commanding the artillery of the II Corps, could see what appeared to be buildings just beyond the trees which seemed to fill the small valley to his front.

But on the slope opposite where his batteries were positioned, he could see infantry, cavalry, and artillery. His gun captains knew their business, he was ready, they were ready. So he nodded to the gun captain of his right-most gun.

"Feu!" that worthy bellowed, which was followed by the report of his 6-pounder gun, followed almost immediately by the gun next to it, then on down the line to the left-most battery commanded by Capitaine Jean-Louis Marie Tacon.

As the cannonade rippled down the line, Pelletier grinned as he heard the deeper roar of the reserve artillery, six 12-pounders and two 5.5 inch² howitzers. The English would feel those, even at a distance of what Pelletier judged to be 1200 paces.

As shot began to fall among the positions of the men deployed behind Hougoumont, some of the battalion commanders had their men lie down. Many had noticed that due to the condition of the ground the artillery weren't able to "bounce" their rounds into the troops.³

The sodden ground was absorbing the shot for the most part. For the explosive rounds fired by the howitzers, many of those had their fuses go out when they landed in the mud.

Though the French gunfire wasn't that effective, it did cause some of the Angl0-Allied troops to pull back just beyond the crest of the ridge, to further shelter the men from the guns.

Pelletier was watching the far ridge through his glass and saw some units falling back out of sight. He took this as a sign that the English might be retreating, he called to his aide.

"Jean-Claude, my compliments to Prince Jérôme,⁴ les Anglais seem to be pulling back from the ridge, now would be a good time to drive their skirmishers from those woods below."

The aide galloped off.

Général de Division Prince Jérôme Bonaparte received the handwritten message himself, rather than waiting for an aide to handle it. He was impatient to get into action.

With the classic impatience of the Bonaparte clan, he gestured at the messenger from Pelletier. "Quickly man, give it here!"

He read the message quickly, "Hhmm, only skirmishers in the valley. Monsieur le Comte," he said to his second-in-command Général de Division Armand-Charles, Comte Guilleminot, "I thought there was a substantial farm complex inside those trees. Pelletier only sees skirmishers."

Guilleminot shook his head, "He can't see much from up there, maybe the roofs of the farm but not what's inside the trees. Maybe he assumes that the units on the ridge only have their skirmishers in there. But I saw more, Nassauers and Hanoverians in the wood, Englishmen occupying the farm complex, which has been prepared for defense."

Jérôme thought for a moment, then called to a waiting aide-de-camp, "Capitaine Jonquil, my compliments to Baron Bauduin, he is to take his brigade into the woods, using a heavy line of skirmishers out front, and drive the enemy from the woods and the farm complex!"

Guilleminot thought the move premature, send skirmishers in to fix the enemy position, then perhaps send a brigade, or more, in to contest the farm and the adjacent wood. But the Prince wasn't known for his patience.

Privates Jürgen Stroop and Wilhelm Kessler, light infantrymen from Nassau, heard the drums of the French and within moments saw a line of French infantry advancing slowly into the wood.

"Hold your fire, Kessler. I shoot, then you wait until I reload, then you shoot. We take turns. Our job is to slow the enemy down, cause casualties if we can, but our job is to delay. When you shoot, look for the men waving their arms around and with the fancier hats, those will be sergeants and officers."

Kessler grinned, he rather liked the idea of shooting the types of men who made his life miserable.

Their green uniforms blended in somewhat with the trees, though there wasn't much in the way of underbrush, there was enough to provide them concealment.

As the French got closer, Stroop saw a man on foot, carrying a sword. Had to be an officer. He brought his musket up slowly.

The captain of light infantry was searching the wood ahead, he knew there were enemy in here. His company's job was to drive them back so that their own supports could move up and drive the enemy from the wood.

"Alors, my boys, don't bunch up, keep your intervals ..." as the last word left his mouth, he saw movement to his front. Then he felt as if he'd been punched in the stomach.

"Slide to the rear, Kessler. I'm sure I hit that officer. Displace to your left a bit. Don't move in a straight line."

Stroop was reloading as he moved, difficult but not impossible. He had removed his bayonet, and had had Kessler do the same, to avoid impaling his own hand as he reloaded.

"Merde! The capitaine is dead, come on lads, I see the bastards who did it!" The junior sergeant let his emotions take him to a place he shouldn't go. "En avant! À la baïonnette!"

At least three Nassauers had their muskets leveled at the young man, as he charged forward, those three muskets all fired, nearly in unison.

The young sergeant from Gascony was thrown back from the impact of the three lead balls, all to his torso. He was dead before he hit the ground.

Stroop was heading back to the rear faster than he wanted to, but the French had their blood up. He had watched aghast as a party of French skirmishers had caught up with two of his countrymen. Both were bayoneted to death without mercy.

"Come on, Kessler, we need to get back to the chateau. There are too many Frenchmen coming at us."

But Kessler had dropped to one knee and was aiming his weapon towards the advancing French. Stroop wanted to run, but his training and his sense of duty overrode his sense of self-preservation. He stopped and prepared to cover Kessler, who, at that moment, fired.

And missed.

Sergent-chef Guy Chalmont felt a ball whistle past, that one had been close.

"Guy, to your left, there is the cochon who fired at you!"

Chalmont turned, indeed, he saw two green-coated men, he knew they were Nassauers. "At them boys! Cut them down!"

The man kneeling stood no chance, Chalmont's bayonet took the young Nassauer in the chest. The man standing thrust the muzzle of his musket at Chalmont's face, which was parried by the man to Chalmont's left.

It was a good thing he did, for Chalmont's bayonet was stuck in the dying soldier's chest. Putting his foot on the dying Nassauer he tried to pull it out, to no avail.

Stroop was screaming with fury, his stroke had been parried, but fortunately it had left that Frenchman overextended. Stroop swung the butt of his musket at the Frenchman and felt it connect with the side of the man's head.

That man dropped like a stone, but at the same time, the French sergeant had managed to free his bayonet from Kessler's corpse. As Stroop prepared to fend off the French sergeant, he took a step backwards. He felt a hot agony pierce his side as a French bayonet found him.

Stroop died under the French bayonets, within just a few feet of Kessler's body.

Chalmont was panting with exertion, they had arrived at the edge of the wood and what he saw filled him with dread. There, across a few paces of open ground, was a tall brick wall, the top of which bristled with English muskets.

He started to order the remnant of his section to fall back, but the roar of an English volley drowned him out.

Chalmont was down on the ground, there seemed to be no sound, he could feel movement around him, he felt someone tugging at his legs, but then that sensation was gone.

He lost all feeling in his legs and he felt a coldness spreading up into his belly and advancing through his body. He knew what it was, Death was coming for him.

He blinked once, then again. His vision was fading, he wondered ...

Then he felt no more.

"My Prince, Baron Bauduin reports that they have driven the skirmishers from the wood in our front. But he also reports that there is a substantial block of buildings occupied by a great many English. He wants to use his entire brigade to assault that place."

Guilleminot shook his head at the aide, then turned to Jérôme, "I would advise sending this information back to the Emperor. I don't think he knows the problem we face here. I would recommend a holding action, put just enough pressure on this place to keep the English fixed in place. We could maneuver the rest of the division around to the left flank ..."

Jérôme interrupted him, "Do you think I don't know what I'm doing Monsieur le Comte? I understand that the order was to clear the wood. I believe that includes this farm complex as well."

"We should at least go forward and see the situation ..."

Turning from Guilleminot, Jérôme told the aide, "My compliments to the Baron. He may use his brigade as he sees fit."

Turning to a second aide, he said, "My compliments to Baron Soye,⁵ he is to prepare his brigade to support Bauduin."

As that man galloped off, Guilleminot scribbled a message on a scrap of paper from his valise. Turning to his own aide-de-camp, he said, "Give this to Reille, let him know what we're doing, see if he approves."

The man galloped off, causing Jérôme to turn to his second-in-command with a question in his eye. "What was that about?"

"Merely informing our Corps commander what we're doing."

"Very well."

Defence of the Chateau de Hougoumont
Denis Dighton
The battle for the chateau would rage the entire day.

¹ French orders of battle: here and here. The latter source has the order of battle for the entire campaign, all three armies involved.
² In French this would be referred to as a "obusier de 5.5 pouces." One pouce being roughly one inch. Pouce translates literally as "thumb."
³ The range of a cannon firing solid shot could be nearly doubled by having the shot hit in front of an enemy unit, which would kick up stones and dirt into the enemy, increasing the effectiveness of the ball, which would then plunge through the formation before continuing on, hopefully to bounce again. A 12-pounder gun, with a normal range of 900 meters, could nearly double that.
⁴ The younger brother of Napoléon.
⁵ Général de Brigade Baron Jean-Louis Soye commanded the 2nd Brigade of Jérôme's division, Bauduin commanded the 1st.


  1. Did not know that the artillery range could be extended so far nor the mud's effect on fuses. Well done on the research Sarge.

    1. Most of the accounts I've read on the battle mention the deleterious effect the sodden ground had on artillery fire.

  2. Crusty Old TV Tech here. So Jerome was as much a military genius as his brother, Joseph "Pepe Botellas" Napoleon. Pressing the enemy is one thing, foolishly dashing your army against a well defended stone wall without determining the defending force strength is a far different thing. And second the mud and cannonball observation, interesting. Bet a 105mm howitzer round wouldn't "bounce"!

    1. No, the Prince was like many of the Bonapartes (in my estimation), not a lot of talent, but they had a famous relative who could get them jobs. One the other hand, Louis Bonaparte (another of Napoléon's kid brothers) actually had some talent as an administrator and leader. He was King of Holland from 1806 to 1810, he placed the interests of his Dutch subjects over those of his brother. Which may have led to him being deposed and Holland absorbed into France proper.

      But you can skip an anti-tank round. (I know, I know, different trajectories, one is solid, the other goes "boom" ...)

  3. Looking at the first painting as an old artilleryman (before I became a medic) I *THINK* that the charge being loaded is backwards as in the cannon ball is facing the breech when rammed in?

    1. I wondered about that and why "Foot Artillery" had swords.

    2. Michael - Very good eye, I think the officer is yelling at him to "turn it around you sorry soldier!" This painting is more to show the uniforms and equipment of the artillerymen as I really doubt that they would be wearing their packs in action. Then again, maybe the painter knew all the details of a Napoleonic artillery crew but none of the technical stuff.

      Yup, Soldat "Carl" is trying to load the round backwards, explodey part goes to the rear.

    3. Rob - Those swords were pretty substantial, more used for chopping brush and the like rather than combat. Though they could be used in that fashion.

    4. Unrealized instincts must be kicking in as that makes at least three of us wondering if the load was about to be rammed home backwards. Read that during the CW, it wasn't uncommon for troopies in battle to reload their rifle in spite of not having fired the round already in place.

    5. Oh yeah, happened all the time. I've read of weapons being recovered from the battlefield with many rounds loaded. Of course, the reason it was recovered from the battlefield is that the kid wielding it probably died.

    6. One of the tasks the gunners had was combat engineering. Gotta cut and build field fortifications for their guns. And the swords were very useful in cutting out dead horses from the traces and final protective action as most didn't have personal guns, only the gun they worked.

    7. That looks like grape over ball.

    8. The other way around, that's definitely solid shot Soldat Schmuckatelli is trying to load backwards. Could be canister behind it.

  4. Sarge - I had not thought about the mud impacting the cannon fire. I learned not too long about that the cannon "bounce" was the real impact of cannon fire; I had not thought about fuses not being able to burn.

    It sounds like that lack of patience combined with everyone's blood up might have doomed the endeavor from the start, at least in terms of trying to take the Farm instead of just isolating it or providing enough support to truly overwhelm it.

    Was there ever any chance that due to weather, the French elected to delay the start of the battle, or were they on too much of a time schedule by then?

    1. If the French had delayed the start of the battle any longer the Prussians would have shown up even earlier.

      They had to get this campaign over, and quickly, as the rest of Europe were massing some pretty substantial armies to come after Napoléon, especially the Russians and the Austrians. Time was the one thing the Emperor simply did not have.

    2. Ah, makes sense Sarge. Thus the urgency even at what might have been better tactical decisions.

  5. Ouch. I know you have to kill many, it's beginning to sink in. Well done.

    1. It bothers me to create a character, then kill him off. Imagine what it's like to raise a child only to see him (now her as well) fall in battle.

    2. "Kill your darlings" - Stephen King. Still does not make it any easier.

  6. Yep...that fixed muntion is about to turn into a headache when #2, if #1 iws stupid enough to ram it, has to worm it out.

    Grazing solid shot was nasty stuff. Hit about 25 yards in front of the target, it would raise to between waist and shoulder high with little loss of velocity, and then about every 100 yards or so after the first bounce do it again, and keep doing it. As to the "extended range," we need to be clear, while the effective range of a 6 pounder was about 900 yards, that's the range a good gunner could hit a house. The at 5 degrees was closer to a mile. In reality grazing fire just took advantage of the full range of the ball.

    Supposedly after losing a battle in The Peninsula do to the effectiveness of the English Exploding Case Shell Napoleon sent his ordnance experts to the field to try to find unexploded shells so they could reverse engineer them. Seems that the French hadn't figured it out by Waterloo.

    1. I'll have to do some more reading on that exploding case shell, sounds downright nasty, therefore effective!

    2. Invented by

    3. Common shell you wanted to explode at ground level. Shrapnel, aka exploding case, you want to explode maybe 50 to 25 yards ahead of the target. Gunners in our Civil War would call out the range, men at the limber chest would consult the Table of Fire on the inside of the limber chest and cut the fuse to the proper length. I expect that the English had something similar.


    4. Joe #! - Of course, how could I forget that!

    5. Joe #2 - Good to know you don't need to make your own. I had a chuckle when I saw that the item was out of stock, yeah, since like 1870. But I know that there are still lots of reenactors out there, they do buy this stuff.

    6. I believe it was that even an almost spent rolling cannon ball was still known to break an ankle or lower leg of the unwary.

    7. In some cases it could take a leg completely off.


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