Wednesday, June 7, 2023

En Avant! Vive l'Empereur!

I Corps Advances
Soldat Pierre Delaplace couldn't help but wonder just what the higher ups were thinking. He understood tactics as well as the next simple soldier. You wanted to be in line when firing, you wanted to be in column when maneuvering. He was on the left of his battalion, which was in line, behind another battalion from his regiment which was also in line. Every battalion in the division was in line¹, but instead of being deployed side by side, as he considered would be normal, each battalion in the division was lined up one behind the other, in what was, in effect, a massive column formation.

Soldat Roger Brassard was to the left of Delaplace. When Delaplace hissed, "What madness is this?" He looked around, none of the officers or NCOs were nearby so he answered.

"We have firepower, we have depth, if the ranks at each end of the battalion turn outwards, we have a square, a loose one, yes, but still a square. It seems perfect for this attack."

Situation at ~1330 on the Angle-Allied Left Flank
Red dot with arrow marks the position of the view below.
(Source Edited)

Delaplace couldn't see much from where he was positioned, his battalion of the 45e Ligne was the second in the column, but from what he could see, the ground sloped down gently into a valley, then back up to the Mont St. Jean ridge. If it wasn't for the damned muddy ground it would be an easy walk on maneuvers, but with cannon firing at them and then up a slope into the teeth of English musketry he still didn't like it.

The fact that the crops were head high didn't help matters, but the lead battalion had trampled enough of them into the mud that he could see a bit farther than the men in the lead unit.

"Roger, if we don't do this right, it could all go straight to hell. I don't like it." Delaplace jumped as Sergent Gilles Duval bellowed into his ear.

"Eyes front, soldier. I'll make sure the Emperor knows of your objections to his plan."

As Duval got to the end of the line, he looked to his left. The alignment was good enough on the uneven ground. He just hoped the men could keep their footing, he had nearly landed on his ass twice just walking the line.

Duval heard the bark of a command to his right front, he could see the division staff out in front of the column. Then the order rippled down the column as each battalion commander repeated the order, "En avant! Vive l'Empereur!"

Corporal John MacBain was worried, though they were pretty much out of sight of the French across the valley, protected by a tall hedge to their front, they had cut away parts of that hedge to let them fire to their front.

Private Dickie MacDonald looked over at his friend and said, "What are ye worried for, Corp? That sunken road and this great tall hedge will keep the Frenchies at bay. Dinnae ye see that, man?"

"Ye may be right, Dickie. But have ye noticed, we're a wee bit thin on the ground. The whole brigade wouldn't make but a regiment in the old days."

MacBain was right, the 42nd Highlanders maybe numbered 300, maybe less. They had been roughly handled by the French two days ago at Quatre Bras. The rest of the brigade - the Royal Scots, the East Essex, and the Gordon Highlanders - had all suffered. The East Essex nearly losing their colors to boot.

MacBain's ears perked up, there, that infernal yelling and drumming. "Do the French think tae scare us off the ground?"

Before MacDonald could respond, the pipes of the Scots began to swell and fill the smoky air. MacDonald held his firelock tightly and took a deep breath. He hoped not to make his mother back in Aberdeen sad, but damned if he would run this day, he'd sooner die where he stood!

The storming of La Haye Sainte²
Richard Knötel
Firing broke out as elements of Bourgeois's³ division neared the farm complex of La Haye Sainte. Though the rattle of musketry was barely perceptible above the roar of cannon and the shouting of thousands of men, it was there, just above the level of perception.

Which made Sergent Duval break out in a cold sweat. They were close to engaging the enemy, glimpses of whom could be spotted behind a ragged hedge. He could see their own skirmishers begin firing at their enemy counterparts as the redcoats endeavored to delay and disorganize the oncoming French.

Duval then realized that they were really disorganizing themselves as the men were shouting themselves hoarse. They were also starting to force the pace, not so much to come to grips with the enemy, but to get the thing over with.

"Keep your ranks men! Slow the pace, damn it, Bergeron, stop that useless shouting!"

But it was to no avail. As they covered the remaining ground between them, he saw a number of dead Englishmen, some of whom appeared to be wearing skirts? That thought amused Duval, he knew then that their opponents were Scottish. Crazy they were, every man jack. But apparently they died like any other man.

The last of the Scottish skirmishers, there were English among them as well Duval realized, had gotten through the hedge. Now it was the turn of the French soldiers to get through.

Delaplace got through the hedge, screaming in anger at the enemy, it was no longer "Vive l'Empereur," more a primal scream of rage. The hedge had scratched his face badly and had stripped the shako from his head. But he didn't care, he saw the redcoats to his front, not many of them.

Then he realized he was stumbling, as was the rest of his battalion. There was a damned sunken road behind the hedge!

MacDonald and the other Scots were firing as fast as they could but there were a lot of French coming through the hedge. He heard MacBain shouting, "Hold laddies, dinnae let the bastards pass!"

But step by step, the brigade was being driven back. They were outnumbered and outgunned and more and more Frenchmen were forcing their way through the hedge. Dear God, he thought to himself, we're all dead men!

Delaplace could feel it in his bones, the English were wavering. He screamed an incoherent war cry as he prepared to go after a man to his front with the bayonet, but Brassard got there first.

The Englishman went down with an agonized scream as Brassard drove his bayonet into the man's belly. Delaplace saw a sergeant wielding what looked to be some sort of pike coming at them. Before the sergeant got there, Delaplace fired his musket at the man, who dropped to the ground screaming, his face torn away.

"We have them! We have them! Form up men! Serrez vos rangs!⁴" Sergent Duval and the other officers and NCOs were gradually getting control of their men as the enemy continued to step back. They weren't running, but they were on the very brink of running.

Duval heard one of the officers bellowing, "The victory is ours! Vive l'Empereur! Vive l'Empereur!"

Then Duval's blood ran cold, he heard the sound of trumpets. Cavalry, had to be. He began trying to get the men to form square and was having some success, some of the others had heard the trumpet's call as well. 

Then they all felt the ground trembling at the impact of hundreds of horses' hooves.

Duval stared, open mouthed, for just a moment, moaning softly, "Mon Dieu, nous sommes perdue."

The British cavalry were on the move.

Scotland Forever!
Elizabeth Lady Butler

¹ A French battalion, 400 to perhaps 600 men, depending on the unit, when in line would form three ranks. The battalion frontage could be 140 to 200 men. The men would be at close intervals, shoulder to shoulder. The distance between ranks was minimal, the men would nearly be breathing down the neck of the man in front of him.. The intervals between two battalions in such a column was also minimal, perhaps ten feet, maybe less. While presenting an imposing mass, such a formation would be cumbersome and unwieldy. Some authors claim this was the first time the French used this formation, others claim it had been used in Spain. Regardless of the real story of its supposed use before, many have questioned d'Erlon's choice of this formation. However, those deep formations with the wide frontages nearly carried the day. As we shall see.
² Though this painting depicts the fighting later in the day, well honestly, I just like the painting. It does show how the farm must have looked in 1815.
³ Sorry, it's in French, but you are a clever lot, I'm sure you know how to copy and paste into a translator. Oui?
⁴ Tighten your ranks!
⁵ My God, we are lost.


  1. "The Englishmen went...." or perhaps "man" since the bayonet affected one man? Maybe I'm wrong Sarge. Tension really built up reading this post.

    1. Yup, one guy, I type faster than I think. Fixed it.

      I can't imagine what those guys must have experienced at that battle. But I'm trying to approximate it.

  2. That must have been a truly awful sound to feel. - TB

    1. Especially when you consider that infantry who are unprepared to face cavalry (i.e. not in square) are easy meat for the horsemen. As we shall see.

  3. Gulp. My stomach complains I haven't had breakfast yet, my mind says that's a good thing. Well written, Sarge!

  4. The French definitely experienced an "Ah, Merde!" moment, no? To go from success to failure and death so quickly must have sucked bigly.

    Thanks for bringing the boring to life.

    1. From the latest source I'm reading, the French came very close to breaking through the Allied center. If Wellington had not had the cavalry in the right spot, Belgium might very well be part of France today. As well as the Netherlands.

  5. Replies
    1. History is replete with them, it's all in the telling.

  6. One time at the County Fair I stood next to the track during a race. The sound of just that dozen horses, the rumbling through the ground at 100 yards was impressive. I can't imagine the sound and feel of a couple hundred. Especially with the rattle of full military kit.

    Excellent piece, sir.

  7. A question about your footnote #3, it's at the name of Baron Charles-François Bourgeois , why would it need translation?

    1. The Wikipedia article that link goes to is in French. Gives Bourgeois' biography,

    2. Ah! Thank you. It looks like a link but for some reason my phone wouldn't open it. I did, however, Google the name and found the article. Then hit translate in the drop down menu.


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