Friday, June 23, 2023

Setting the Scene for the Next Episode

From the top of the Butte du Lion looking southeast

From the top of the Butte du Lion looking south

While the view from atop the Butte du Lion is truly impressive, its construction destroyed a large portion of the battlefield. Upon seeing it, the Duke of Wellington allegedly commented,

"They have altered my field of battle!"

The Butte du Lion
And so they did, the map below shows roughly the centerline of where they dug up the earth to build the mound.

The red line marks the lane atop Wellington's ridge, the soil to construct the mound came from this area.
(Source Edited)
The road in the photo preceding the map shows that road today. It looks nothing like it did in 1815. Then the road was sunken along its length (much like Bloody Lane at Antietam), likely to a depth varying from two to six feet along its length. It was a difficult, and somewhat unexpected obstacle to French infantry and cavalry on the 18th of June

Though it was nowhere near as precipitous as described by Victor Hugo and depicted in the following painting ...

El barranco de Waterloo¹
Ulpiano Checa
The full map of the field in 1815.
(Click to embiggen)
Those views from the top of the mound are important for the next part in my Waterloo series. The series of multiple great French cavalry charges on the afternoon of the 18th of June, which involved upwards of 9,000 men on horseback (accounts vary).

Many authors have tried to count the charges which happened, some say as many as seven to nine, some as few as three or four. A number of French accounts speak of the cavalry "occupying" the British positions atop the plateau and having "captured" upwards of sixty British cannon. They almost make it sound as if they won the battle, only to lose because of a lack of infantry to hold the ground.

In reality, they overran the British gun positions, driving the gunners back to the infantry squares for protection. But different people in different places, all viewing the exact same event, will have almost as many descriptions, most varying quite a bit from each other, as there are witnesses.

A man on a horse, struggling up a slope in the mud, being shot at, engulfed in powder smoke will have a somewhat different perspective of things than an infantrymen kneeling in the ranks, holding his musket and bayonet out to dissuade that cavalryman from skewering him and his mates! All the while covered by the same powder smoke while being pounded by French artillery in the intervals between charges.

Also note the lay of the land in those views from the Butte du Lion, while technically speaking the two armies occupied "ridges" facing each other, it wasn't nearly as precipitous as you might think. However, it was fairly steep and with all the mud in the fields, it was a fairly tiring thing to trudge from one side to the other.

The dips and folds in the ground aren't really that perceptible from some points on the field. As you can see below, looking from La Haye Sainte to the south, towards La Belle Alliance (Napoleon's field HQ) you can see that there appears to be quite a dip there!

While the photo perspective makes it look a bit steeper than it really is, not by much. Compare it to the photo from the top of the Butte du Lion looking towards the southeast. La Haye Sainte is to to the viewer's left, La Belle Alliance to the right.

Looking south from next to La Haye Sainte
Over those fields, thousands of horsemen attempted to drive off Wellington's infantry, with virtually no support. All based on the perception that the Anglo-Allied army was withdrawing. Bear in mind, both sides of the field were shrouded in thick clouds of powder smoke, no general had a really good view of what was going on.

One might forgive Maréchal Ney for thinking and acting as he did, were it not for the thousands who were crippled or killed by his error. But that is a tale for another day. Soon, I promise.

It's been a very long and somewhat trying week as I prepare to head out to Sandy Eggo to work on USS Michael Monsoor (DDG 1001) yet again. Might be my swan song, might not be. Though I tire of the "great game" (what I call work ...) it keeps my mind active and young.

Though the toll it takes on my body can be trying at times, at least it keeps me off the streets and out of The Missus Herself's hair!

More soon, I promise ...

¹ The ravine at Waterloo. For some reason this sunken road has come down to us as a "ravine." Perhaps because of Victor Hugo's fanciful description of it. By the time Monsieur Hugo visited the field, that road was long gone. The Butte du Lion was raised in 1826, Monsieur Hugo first visited the field in 1852, then lived there for two months in 1861. His account of Waterloo from Les Misérables can be read here. A great writer but not really an historian, I think that many Waterloo myths can be traced to his writings.


  1. Good photos to show the battlefield, fair amount of earth they moved to construct that mound. Go West Sarge....Go West! (As somebody may have said)

    1. Every now and then I need to touch base with the terrain to keep myself oriented.

  2. Thanks for the geographic background, Sarge. It helps a lot.

    I had the same experience in Greece. Suddenly why the polis existed at all, why Athens was a naval power and Sparta a land power, and why they fought the way they fought all made sense after seeing the ground on which they lived.

    1. A lot of things don't really fit until you've walked the ground.

  3. I think my understanding of terrain has been warped (or informed) by repeated childhood trips between the flats of Montana and the Dakotas, and the steeps of the Rocky Mountains. This is some third kind of world, that I live in now without really seeing it.

    1. I've seen much of the terrain around the world, from the forests where I grew up, to the Great Plains and the Rockies, from the Alps to the billiard-table flatness of the road leading to Amsterdam. The only place I really don't like is the desert, it really freaks me out.

  4. I find the very minute I slow down, "they" start to look for the tape measure again: winding sheet, doncha know. I don't even talk about getting tired, not even @2300 hrs.
    "Howsat new project ur workin' on?"
    "Great! Jes' great! Be 'nuther week 'n it'll be online."
    "Said that last week, dincha?" 'n they walk away.
    Leastways they stop lookin' at me with that squinty, measurin' eye.

  5. I appreciate the "intermission" insights into the unfolding story. Never having had much previous exposure to Napoleonic era stuff (too far away and all those unpronounceable names, so I never much cared...) I would have real trouble keeping up without them, and the larger strategic or even tactical pictures.
    The small unit view yo provide is OUTSTANDING, but so much more enlightening and enjoyable with "the rest of the story."
    Thanks Sarge!

    1. It's one of my passions and I enjoy sharing it. It's gratifying when it's appreciated. Thanks, JB!

    2. Concur entirely, JB. His tales take me to new worlds.


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