Thursday, June 29, 2023

The Crescendo

Charge de Cavalerie napoléonienne¹
Henri Louis Dupray
Brigadier Tomasz Kasprowicz was dismounted, checking one of Liliana's hooves, she had been limping earlier. He found a small stone which he quickly removed.

"There girl, that should help." he stroked the horse's neck affectionately and she nuzzled her rider in return.

Remounting, he heard the trumpets calling once again. He heard Soldat Jan Kolski mutter, "Drogi Jezu, nie znowu.²"

Kasprowicz looked over at Kolski, the man was riding a dragoon mount, he'd lost his own at some time during the charges. He looked terrible, as bad as Kasprowicz felt. Kasprowicz didn't say a word, he knew exactly what Kolski meant. The difference was, this time it appeared that the infantry was going up the ridge with them.

All afternoon the cavalry had flung themselves at the enemy guns and infantry squares. With each assault, fewer men rode back down the hill. Most of the heavies from both Milhaud's and Kellerman's cavalry corps had been drawn into the charges. Guyot's Imperial Guard heavies and then even his own unit, Général de Division Comte Lefebvre-Desnouëttes' Guard light cavalry had joined in.

From what Kasprowicz could see, there were no reserves left. Only the Guard infantry stood in formation near La Belle Alliance, waiting. Every other fresh body of troops had been committed.

Sous-lieutenant Hercule Benoit stood with the remnants of his battalion, he was nearing the limits of his endurance. He now commanded the grenadier company, all twenty-seven of them, all that were left of the one hundred and eleven men who had advanced into Belgium only four days before.

They had been fighting the English and their German allies in the orchard to the east of the farm complex. They had finally managed to drive them from the orchard. Some of the enemy infantry, Benoit thought them to be Nassauers from their green uniforms, fled up the ridge. The red coated English fell back into the formal garden, exacting a heavy toll from the French.

He had seen his brother, Jean-Pierre³, briefly in the morning. After chastising him for being a fool for rejoining Napoléon, his brother had gone ahead and returned to the army himself, to the same regiment he had served in before, the 12th Chasseurs à Cheval. He'd been promoted as well, from Brigadier to Maréchal des logis-chef⁴.

Sous-lieutenant Benoit had been busy fighting around Hougoumont all day and had not seen the massive cavalry charges earlier in the day. When the Emperor's brother, Prince Jérôme, had pulled what was left of his brigade out of the orchard, he had seen the hillside leading up to the ridge covered by the dead and wounded of the cavalry, men and horses. It had stunned him.

Now they were to go up the hill, to support what remained of the cavalry. Why had no one thought of this earlier? Even the greenest of the green knew better than to attack infantry, still in good order, with cavalry only.

"I wonder where my brother is now?" he thought.

Maréchal des logis-chef Benoit sat his mount some 400 paces from where his younger brother stood. He knew the fighting around the big chateau was brutal, he hoped his brother was still among the living.

This was his second horse of the day, his favorite, Cherie, had been killed in the last attack up the hill. His regiment of light cavalry was covering the flanks of the heavy cavalry. He'd had the misfortune to have a howitzer shell explode close by, which had eviscerated poor Cherie.

He had openly sobbed as he had dispatched the poor beast with his pistol. He had started to walk back to the lines when a comrade he'd served with at Leipzig rode up leading an extra horse.

"Jean-Pierre! Take this one!"

As he had mounted the small mare, another light cavalry horse apparently belonging to another chasseur regiment, he wondered what had happened to her former rider. As he and Brigadier Maurice Féret rode back to rejoin their unit, Benoit looked back and saw the many dead and wounded near the crest of the English ridge. No doubt the poor bastard was still up there.

Private James Woodhouse of the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards was lying on the ground. Their officers had bade them lay down to keep them relatively safe from the French cannon fire. His side of the field had not experienced the cavalry charges as they were posted up the ridge from the big chateau, Goomont he'd heard it called.

But guns from the units attacking the chateau had been shooting at the Foot Guards and causing some damage. So now they lay in the muck, awaiting orders.

He could see the officers walking about, which gave him confidence. As he watched one of the captains using a glass to try and make sense of things, his messmate, Harry Thompson, nudged him.

"'Ere, look at that cheeky young bastard Daugherty, I think he's actually asleep!" Thompson said with a grin.

"Let 'im be Harry, we might all be sleeping by tonight, and I mean the long sleep. Daugherty's young, first battle and all. Surprised he can sleep through all this racket."

Both men chuckled and went back to relaxing in the warm mud of the Belgian countryside.

Sergeant Fabrice Benoit, a very distant cousin of Jean-Pierre and Hercule Benoit, had seen the dark uniformed men advancing towards the rear of their position. He thought they might be Prussians, their uniforms didn't look much like the French uniforms, their shakoes were a much different shape and the cloth of their tunics was a very dark blue.

Were these their allies? Come to help them defeat the French, he certainly hoped so. He and his boys were very low on ammunition, a party had been sent back to find some. There were a lot of men moving to the rear Benoit noticed, not all of them wounded.

Again he thought of the irony of it all, he was Dutch, attached to a mostly German-speaking unit in the Dutch army, fighting against the French, who he had been fighting with not two years ago. What a strange world, he thought.

Generalleutnant Hans Ernst Graf von Zieten had his men moving into position near the small hamlet of Smohain. He turned his glass towards the English position.

"Hauptmann von Müller! Are the English retreating? Are we moving into a trap?"

Von Müller turned his own glass towards where the commander of I Corps was looking. He saw what his commander saw, men moving to the rear, some wounded, many looked healthy. The usual dodge of helping a wounded comrade to the rear, accompanied by four or five healthy men.

"It looks like the English are quitting the field, Herr Generalleutnant."

Von Zieten snapped his glass closed in a rage, "Recall the men, we must fall back so that we don't get caught up in this fiasco. Wellington has been defeated, that's the only explanation. Send a message to the Field Marshal, 'English retreating on the forest south of Brussels, recommend we fall back and regroup.' Got it? Off you go then Hauptmann!"

Within minutes, the Prussians that Benoit had seen advancing had fallen back out of sight. He thought that odd, for he could hear cannon fire to the south of his position. Who was attacking who in that direction? Why were the Prussians retreating? He began to consider falling back himself, but the French to his front seemed quiet for the moment.

"What the hell is going on?" he muttered.

Karl Freiherr von Müffling⁵ had received a message that the Prussian troops which had been tying in to the Allied left were now falling back.

"Was für ein Wahnsinn ist das?⁶" he had said aloud.

"Sir?" his British aide, Captain Harold Fisk, asked.

"Von Zieten's corps is in sight of the field, but now he's withdrawing, he has been told that we are defeated!"

Fisk was shaken by the statement, "But Sir, we are not!"

"I know. Come, we must ride to von Zieten and stop his withdrawal, if he does not come up, then we certainly are lost!"

Fisk spurred his horse and followed the Prussian. He thought to inform the Duke, but he and von Müffling were alone for the moment. Fisk wondered where all the other staff officers were. Little did he know, but Wellington's staff had been decimated this day. He was one of the few left upright on the field.

The trumpets sounded, the drums beat the pas de charge and another attack was launched up the British ridge just to the east of Hougoumont.

The field was torn and muddy, corpses and wounded men and animals were strewn about to make it hard not to tread upon them. But the French infantry shouldered their muskets once more, the cavalry drew their sabers and urged their tired mounts forward, many could only maintain a walking pace. The horses were nearly blown, the men exhausted.

Then a rider came galloping down the length of the advance, his hat lifted in the air, waving back and forth as the officer, an Imperial aide-de-camp, shouted, "Nous sommes sauvés! Voila le Maréchal de Grouchy! En avant mes braves! Vive l'Empereur! Vive l'Empereur!⁷"
Immediately shoulders went back, men lifted their chins, a thousand voices bellowed in unison ...

Vive l'Empereur!

The Armée du Nord went up the ridge, the bands played La Victoire est à nous, the men were uplifted. Then the cries were redoubled as many men began to shout, "Vive la Garde Impériale, les immortels marchent avec nous!⁸" French morale soared.

Up on the ridge, Wellington when was informed of this development, he galloped to the point where he assumed the French would arrive. Pulling out his glass, he surveyed the scene. Then he turned to Cathcart ...

"Damn the fellow is a mere pounder after all. Well, we shall see who is left standing. Alert the Guards, I believe Bonaparte means to try his luck here. Go now!"

"Your Grace!"

As Cathcart galloped off, Wellington turned his glass towards La Belle Alliance. He saw the Imperial Guard began to move, for just a moment he felt doubt. Then it passed and he continued to lead his army.

"Come, Copenhagen, let's move to our right a bit more."

As he did so, the men began to cheer, something which always irked him, but for now he'd let them cheer, he doubted that many would live to see the sunset. But he had been informed that the Prussians were in action on his left and were also attacking Bonaparte's rear near Plancenoit.

He stroked his horse's neck and said, "No matter what old fellow, we did our duty this day."

¹ "Charge of French cavalry." Though this painting is not specific to Waterloo, to my knowledge, and it would be unusual for mixed types of cavalry to be charging all together like this, it's a nice image of charging French cavalry.
² Dear Jesus, not again.
³ He started the story as Fabrice Benoit, then I went and gave one of the allied soldiers the exact same name. Seeing the first Fabrice had only a brief mention, I changed his name to Jean-Pierre. Yes. I should fire my editor. (I had to change his brother's name - Pierre became Hercule - as well. Geez ...)
⁴ Cavalry equivalent to a sergeant major in the infantry. For those completely confused with French ranks, see here.
⁵ He was the Prussian liaison officer with Wellington's headquarters.
⁶ What madness is this?
⁷ We are saved! Here is Marshal de Grouchy! Forward my braves! Long live the emperor! Long live the emperor!
⁸ Long live the Imperial Guard, the immortals march with us!


  1. Footnote eight would be something along the lines of " Hooray for the Imperial Guard! The Immortals march with you? "

    1. I guess I will fire my editor. (Fixed that.) Nice pickup on the French, StB.

    2. 'Vive' can be used either way. In formal French, it is indeed 'long live,' but normal French it can mean either one. It also depends on where the French is being spoken and by whom. Don't get me started on Quebecois...

    3. 'Vive' in Cajun French and Quebecois means 'Long Live' so that's French from 1650s and 1750's. Modern French didn't come out until after Nappy lost bigly.

    4. That's what it meant in the early-19th century as well.

  2. Two guys with the same name? Not surprised that it happened what with the cast of dozens Sarge.

    1. Total brain fart on my part. As the end of the week nears, mental exhaustion begins to set in.

      Apparently. (Where oh where is footnote 8? Quintili Vare, nota octo redde! Or something ...)

  3. Not the expected race to victory, a crawl to survival. Onwards!

    1. The reluctance to go up the hill one more time, the reluctance to defend that hill one more time. Sometimes (probably most times) war is simply a struggle to see who can outlast who. (Witness the current Russo-Ukraine war.)

  4. The sheer waste of men and horses is staggering. And the confusion. Well portrayed, Sarge.

    The only things sadder than the scene is the fact that I know this series will come to end. I am really enjoying it (which sounds a bit like a guilty pleasure, but then again we all need them).

    1. I don't think it will end when the battle ends. Might not end until the Emperor boards HMS Bellerophon for the long trip to St. Helena.

    2. Hurray! More installments!

    3. One could say it didn't end until after WWII, as the fall of Napoleon set the stage for the Franco-Prussian War and both WWI and WWII. Along with some fun in Mexico, as that poor benighted country has never really caught a break.

    4. I'd blame all that crap on the return of the Bourbons. The Napoleonic Wars ended at Waterloo. This is a topic I really need to do a post on.

    5. Well, Nappy II and Nappy III didn't exactly excel either, so...

    6. Napoléon II was briefly King of Rome as a child. He died young, a thing of the Hapsburgs. Napoléon III was a nephew and not a particularly talented fellow, in my book. The only Bonaparte worth a candle was the Emperor, his younger brothers Louis and Lucien had some political talent. None of the others really did. It's why having kings doesn't work, you get a good one from time to time, but most of them suck. The Emperor seldom gets a "I" attached to his name, he's just Napoléon, say that, everyone knows who you mean.

  5. "He now commanded the grenadier company, all twenty-seven of them, all that were left of the one hundred and eleven men who had advanced into Belgium only four days before."

    Imagine what would happen now if a unit sustained such a high rate of casualties. Officers fired, endless House and Senate hearings, the august editors of the press pompously pontificating about What Went Wrong.

    Re: the painting. I suspect that, as was often the case, the artist sought to portray the different types of cavalry that were at a battle, rather than a single charge. Or, maybe, he was showing what later could te termed a "combat team," I think that's one of the ways of saying "bits and pieces of units pressed together in hopes of making sausage." (vaguely stolen from Harry Turtledove, In The Balance series, I forget which book)

    1. I think you're right on the painting. It is such a nice painting and I like what the artist did.

  6. I am really liking the paintings.

    1. Me too! It's fun looking for them.

    2. I have often read of the fascination of many with the uniforms of the Napoleonic period (I believe Osprey published many, many books on them). Seeing the pictures, I begin to understand why.

    3. I have many of those books. Of course, on the field on the day of battle, no one wore all of that fancy dress. Most of the French infantry were in grey/brown overcoats. Even the Imperial Guard were in blue overcoats. No plumes, oilskin covers on headdresses. Practical. But no painter would take that on as a subject!

    4. TB, "You can't tell the regiment without the uniform!" All the facings, cuffs, button arrangements, button colours meant something. The colour patterns on shako and helmet plumes meant something. NCOs had different coloured reinforcement bands than privates. All to make identification easier.

      This is a bit earlier, but illustrates how detailed it got

    5. Love Chris the Redcoat's videos, he knows his stuff.

    6. And a lot of ornamentation on the uniform was a form of armor. All that braiding was quite effective at slowing or stopping a sword or saber slash. Not so much a thrust from a sword or bayonet, nor bullets or cannon fire.

    7. The epaulettes, the officers' gorget, are both forms of vestigial armor. As opposed to the cuirassiers actual armor. Other than the hussars, most braiding was on general officer uniforms not on the troops' uniforms. Braiding costs money, by the time of the mass armies of the Napoleonic Wars, cost became a bigger and bigger consideration. I speak of the French Army in particular but it applies to most of the major armies of the period.

    8. "You cannot tell your regiments without a program". Just another way I would have failed in the 18th century...

    9. The only thing a soldier needed was to recognize his own regimental colors and not wander off, ever. 19th Century was easier, French infantry regiments had the regimental number on their shako plates. Regimental number was also on the colors.


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