Thursday, June 1, 2023

Morning, 18 June 1815

Dawn of Waterloo
Lady Butler
"Johnnie, wake up!"

Corporal John MacBain, Johnnie to his friends, opened his eyes. He was wet, he ached all over, and he was in no mood to suffer his fellow man.

Glaring at the interrupter of his sleep, he grumbled, "What the Hell do ye want, MacDonald?"

"Can ye no' hear that?" MacDonald said, pointing to his right.

"Ah!" MacBain heard the regiment's trumpeters sounding reveille, he sat up, and groaned. He and most of the regiment had been in the saddle all day yesterday. Half of the day in the rain, which was still coming down. He did note that the sky was lightening in the east.

"Is there anything to eat, Dickie?"

"Aye, Johnnie. stirabout¹, lots of it."

"Yummy." MacBain stood up and looked at the sorry state of his uniform. Without scraping away a layer of mud, one could barely discern that it was a uniform. Going into his valise, he pulled his brush out.

"I guess I'd better scrape some of this mud off before the Sar'nt Major sees me. Have you been down to the horse lines?"

"Aye, they've been fed. Not much mud on 'em, except for their feet."

"I guess if I'd stood up all night I'd be clean too."

"Aye," MacDonald laughed, "and no less wet!"

The Army Awakens
Illustration from L'Epopeé by Job
Soldat Pierre Delaplace awakened in a sea of glutinous mud. He was on his back, using his pack as a pillow. He thought for a moment and wondered if he'd ever been this miserable before, yes, in Russia. He sat up.

"I was wondering if you were just going to sleep in today." Soldat Roger Brassard said. He had only awakened moments before and was busy scraping the mud from his trousers. He thought about removing his greatcoat, he knew the back of it had to be caked in mud as the garment felt ten pounds heavier. As it was still raining, he opted to leave it on and hoped that the rain would clean it off.

"Well, as much as I'd like to sleep in, the neighbors are making a terrible racket over there."

Brassard chuckled as he looked over at the battalion's assembled drummers, busy beating Le Diane². Then he said, "I wonder if rations came up during the night?"

"Up those roads? The only thing moving up those roads last night were guns, caissons, and the ammunition wagons. Rations? I suppose the Emperor assumes we'll be eating in Brussels tonight. But I tell you, first corpse I come across, I'll be looking for biscuit."

"What if the dead man is French?"

"Then I'll hope he's an Immortal, those lucky bastards always get fed first. If not, I'll look for a dead Englishman!"

Brassard shook his head, "Like the Guard would go in first. You're  more likely to find a dead pharaoh than a dead Guardsman!"

Both men turned as a flourish of trumpets announced the arrival of the very men they both hated and envied, the Imperial Guard.

The Guard arrives.
Sergent Nicolas Guilbert took a deep breath, then let it out. They had finally been called to a halt. Word spread through the ranks that the Emperor was nearby. Some of the men were excited, Guilbert just wanted to get off of his feet for a few minutes and perhaps have a bite to eat.

The Guard had pushed hard throughout the long, stormy night. When the last of the artillery had passed, they climbed up out of the sodden fields and marched on the chaussée itself, though slick with mud, it was better than slogging through the fields beside the road.

Guilbert looked up to see Capitaine Philippe Pierlot making his way back down the column. "Hey Capitaine, what's the plan here?"

Pierlot was somewhat startled to be hailed from the ranks like that, he looked up, ready to have a sharp word with the offender. When he saw who had called to him, he relaxed. He and Guilbert went back a long ways.

"Nicolas, someday you're going to shout at an officer and you'll be lucky to keep your stripes. How are you and the men holding up?"

"Tired, Sir, and hungry."

"We have no idea where the ration carts have got to, foraging parties have gone out, but this area seems to have been stripped clean. We're a little late to la Fête³ but I suspect we'll get a break while the ground dries. Still too wet to move the guns in the fields."

It was only then that Guilbert realized that the rain had stopped and the sun was appearing fitfully through the scudding clouds.

"The ground should be dry enough before noon, Sire. The rain has stopped and there is a nice breeze which will help things along."

Napoléon nodded and dismissed his artillery chief with a wave of his hand. He hadn't slept well, his stomach was bothering him and he could feel his piles⁴ acting up. Lack of sleep, many hours in the saddle, Napoléon understood the cause, but why, on this day?

Général de Division Comte Reille leaned over the table as the Emperor's staff began to put food out. "Sire, I beg you, do not underestimate the English. They ..."

The Emperor shifted in his chair, he felt a sharp pain which instantly made him snap at Reille. "I tell you Reille, and you others who fought them in Spain, this Wellington is a bad general and the English are bad troops. Defeating them will be no more taxing than eating breakfast. Now enough of that, gentlemen, please help yourselves," he swept his hand over the table. "We have a long day ahead of us."

Corporal Michael Wareham was back at the garden wall of Hougoumont, he could see green coated men in the woods to the south moving about. It seemed to him that they had finished their breakfast and were seeking good positions.

Wareham couldn't imagine the French attacking this place, it was solidly built. The thatched roofs on a number of the buildings gave him pause though, fire could roar through thatch in an instant. But after the soaking from last night, fire didn't really concern him all that much.

What did concern him was a chat he'd had with a Hanoverian soldier, whose unit was also deployed in the woods to the south. He'd traded the man a bit of tobacco, which he didn't use, for a bit of brandy, which he was fond of. The German spoke some English, though with a heavy accent.

"So English, there are a great many Franzosen beyond this wood. At least, how do you say, zwei Divisionen?"

Wareham knew enough German to understand that. "Two divisions, why that's some eight to ten thousand men. Are you sure?"

"I didn't count them, English. But I served with them in the old days, I know how many I saw. They're preparing their soup now, but when this dries out," he said gesturing at the sodden turf, "I think they will come. Your Vellin'ton intends to fight, ja?"

"I daresay he does, thanks Fritz, good luck today!"

"You as well, English. Danke für den Tabak!"

As the German had gone back into the wood. Wareham realized that they would fight today. From the sounds of it, Boney had brought his entire army this way.

Private Mick Wilcox interrupted his thoughts, "Go back and get some tea, Corp. Rumor has it there's biscuit as well."

Wareham saw the crumbs on Wilcox's tunic, "Brush yourself off before the Sar'nt Major sees you. Are you relieving me here?"

"That I am, Corp, that I am. I hope you'll be back before the festivities begin?"

"Depends on my leftenant, but I'm sure I'll be back here. Keep your head down, Mick."

"Aye, that I will, Corp, that I will."

Across the valley, Wilcox could hear a band start to play, then others joined in. Grumbling, he said to himself, "I'll bet Boney's putting on a show right now, trying to scare us off the ground. But we'll see about that, that we will."

¹ Porridge made by stirring oatmeal in boiling water or milk.
² The French drum call for reveille.
³ The party, French Army slang for war.
⁴ Piles is a common term for hemorrhoids, the Emperor suffered from that problem. As do I.
⁵ Frenchmen.


  1. A bad night for sleep and the never-ending pursuit of food.

  2. Thanks for the link to the French version of The Long Roll. It's amazing to me how many drum calls and bugle calls soldiers had to memorize. And how quickly. One has to wonder how many mistakes were made because people heard the drums for a different regiment and thought it was for them?

    "Stirabout"- the Brit version of "skillygalee" (if you were Federal) or "coosh" (if you were Confederate). Better than no food. But, Lord help them, no coffee!

    Again, an excellent piece of writing, putting the dear reader in the midst of the muddle.

    1. Wow, I knew about "coosh" but "skillygalee" is new to me. I so enjoy learning new stuff.

      In Colonel John Elting's Swords Around a Throne (great book BTW) he talks of the French trying to make use of Saxon cavalry horses they had captured. The Saxon steeds didn't know the French bugle calls so he said they thundered around amidst the sound of meaningless tootling, to them anyway.

      Constant exposure to both bugle and drum calls and soon you know which is which. But yeah, hearing another regiment's calls could ball things up. (On the drill pad at Yokota AB in Japan, I was asked to lower my voice as a flight fifty yards away was executing my commands, not their own sergeant's. Heh. So yes, I got louder.)

    2. At one War of 1861 reenactment we were going through cannon drill. Our S'ar Major came over and politely asked me to lower my voice as the commands I was giving my crew were being done by the 3rd gun to my right - which put them out of sync with what their Chief of Piece was telling them.

      Re: confusion of commands. At a different reenactment our gunline was on a ridge. We had done our opening volly and were reloading and someone started yelling "FIRE!" and all the Chiefs of Piece started yelling "Check Fire! Check Fire!" because, well we were reloading. Person again yelled "FIRE!" we again yelled "NO!!! STOP!!! CHECK FIRE!" then, "NO! The GRASS down slope in front of the guns is ON FIRE!" So we grabbed our buckets (thank goodness several of us had extra galvanized buckets of water handy) snd doused it. A quick meeting and it was decided that in the case of a grass fire the call would be "GRASS!" and not "FIRE!"

    3. D'oh! Funny story but yeah, I can see that happening.

      (I can picture a puzzled newcomer looking around wondering why someone was yelling GRASS!)

    4. The basic trooper had to know some drum rolls, but the more complex were the responsibility of the NCOs and officers to know and transmit to the troops. That whole walking backwards while holding one's sword or gun out horizontally to the side to give the troops somthing to dress the line to thingy. Once one has been a trooper for a bit, the recognition of other rolls and signals will come naturally to most troopers, and the dumb ones will just take their cues from their smarter mates.

      Having a solid core of experienced troopers helps when adding in newbies.

    5. As to confusing orders... In the SCA the term for 'Stop' is 'Hold.' 'When 'Hold' is called, everyone stops, those who can take a knee until the situation that caused the hold is taken care of. The phrase that I learned when I started as a command to hold the line was 'Hold the Line.' Confusion thus reigned (snark) until the order to hold the line was changed to 'Stay (or Stand) the Line.'

      Yeah, confusing orders are confusing in a confusing way.

    6. Beans #1 - Yup, the officers and NCOs need to know those calls, the individual soldiers just need to keep their dress and alignment. And do precisely as they are told with zero deviations.

    7. Beans #2 - And in truth, in combat no one is going to be yelling that something is on fire. They would quickly be told to STFU by their sergeant. But at reenactments, different story.

    8. There is at least a story of a recruit at Marine boot camp bursting into the quarters of two DI's. There followed long minutes of instruction with him practicing the proper way to knock, enter, and address them. They finished with "No what do you want private"? "Sir! The barracks is on fire! Sir"!

  3. I've been lucky as I've never had to sleep just laying in the mud & the rain, or been tired enough to welcome the time to sleep like that!

    I looked up Skillygalee to get an idea of what we were talking about, hardtack soaked in warm water to get the bugs out and fried in bacon grease.

    It was good knowing what The Chateau of Hougoumont looked like.

    1. I was thrilled when I found that overhead photo of a model of Hougoumont as it looked in 1815. Gives you a really good impression of the area fought over.

      I had the opportunity, once upon a time, to sleep under a cannon with nothing but a single (woolen) blanket. Quite an experience, one I'd rather not repeat.

    2. Well Sarge, wool will keep you warm(er) when wet or damp; least there's that.
      Slept some in poncho "hootches"; one time in rain so heavy that we were swept out of it atop the air mattresses we were using to stay above the mud.
      Good Times (sarc)
      Boat Guy

    3. Yup, better'n being naked I suppose. (Haven't tried that ...)

      Seeing guys floating out of their tents on air mattresses, now there's a sight to see!

  4. Crusty Old TV Tech here. No wonder Le Tondu was so, er, grouchy all the time! Hemi's are no joke, you'd think your whole exit portal is on itchy fire and ready to get up and rip itself off your tuchas! Old Truck Driver's Complaint, that.

    Appreciate the setting of tomorrow's stage, today. I can see and smell the nasty mud all over everyone and everything. And second the thoughts on bugle calls (and drill pad commands)...SOUND!...ADJUTANT'S!...CALL! Staff, post!

    1. I wanted to put the reader there, on the ground, with a small taste of what it must have been like.

      Glad I accomplished the mission.

    2. Heh! On my cellphone the ringtone for calls from my wife's cell is Morning Colors, from our landline is Adjudents Call, and from all others its the obsolete US Navy General Quarters bugle call. Unique, distinctive, easy to hear over the noises of a machine shop,

    3. Which is probably why the Navy chose those. Nice!

  5. Napoleon left his hemorrhoid cushion behind due to his hasty exit from the field at Leipzig in 1813.

  6. The apprehension felt by those awakening that morning...hungry, cold, tired, and knowing what is to come.

  7. Sarge, there is an account during the Jacobite Wars in Scotland where the Highlanders spent the night under frost conditions - and then rose, cracked the frost off, and got ready for battle.

    As opposed to me in my "rugged" expeditions, which now involves a tent, a sleeping bag, an inflatable mattress, and a pillow. All of which I am happy to have.

    I have done Highland games in rain and mud - not truly comparable, except in the nature of the misery.

    1. Well, Highlanders are a different breed altogether. Tougher ya know. 😁

  8. Somewhere in my brain-housing groups store of useless info I recall this nugget; settling in for a night's stay in France. a first time traveler was confused by what appeared to be dual commodes. The helpful innkeeper delicately explained the seatless device as something a member of Napoleon's cavalry would have found relief with after a hard day's ride.
    And while here, talk of rations brings to mind a Southwest Vuginya staple; "Stone Soup" sans additional ingredients.

  9. Eats are eats. And boiled whatever can be supplemented by dry meats or fruits to make a somewhat more palatable gruel.

    1. Assuming that such things were available. Which on the morning of Waterloo was unlikely.


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