Sunday, June 4, 2023

The Eastern Flank

Dutch-Belgian carabiniers at Waterloo
Alphonse Lalauze (PD)
Some of the men around Napoléon had noticed what appeared to be a body of troops off in the distance to the east. De la Bédoyère heard these men chattering among themselves and stepped back to discover what had them all aflutter. The last thing the Emperor needed at the moment was a needless distraction.

"What is going on, gentlemen? The battle is about to commence and here you are, chattering like magpies."

One of the men, Capitaine Delort of the 7th Hussars, handed De la Bédoyère his glass, "There, mon Général, to the east, we think we see a body of troops moving on the hillside. Gauthier here," Delort said, nodding at a man in a Chasseur à Cheval uniform, "thinks it is nothing but the shadow from a cloud."

De la Bédoyère took the proffered glass and raised it in the direction pointed out by Delort. First he found the highest terrain in that direction, then he steadied the glass, there, something ...

Studying it for a few seconds he realized, those were troops. But whose? Grouchy was expected from that direction but it could as well be the Prussians.

Looking at Delort, De la Bédoyère said, "Perhaps it is a herd of cattle? The distance is rather far for me to really discern what it is. But it most certainly is not the shadow of a cloud."

Looking east from near Napoléon's position.
The small party of soldiers from the 3rd Battalion of the 2nd Nassau Regiment were busy preparing their position within the farm complex of Papelotte, on the Duke of Wellington's far left flank.

Their sergeant, Fabrice Benoit, had been hurrying them along all morning, to his credit he was pitching in and was as sweaty and dirty as his men. Though it didn't make the work any easier, at least the men weren't complaining.

Korporaal Oliver Van Schepdael turned to his three Soldaats and beckoned them over to the wall which faced to the south. The men, Matthieu Carton, Bram Van Roy, and Daan Goossens, joined him there.

"See out there boys? The French are over there, our old buddies from Spain." For a few of the men had been there, when their unit served with the French.

Papelotte farm viewed from the south, i.e. the direction the French would approach from.
The site has changed a lot since 1815, the fancy tower to the left wasn't there in 1815.
"D'ya think they'll come this way, Korporaal?" Soldaat Carton, the youngest of the men, a recent volunteer, asked the question. He sounded very nervous.

"Well, the English are over there," Van Schepdael pointed to the west, "Napoléon needs to beat them, he'll worry about us later. Besides, 1e Luitenant Spruijt told me earlier that the Prussians will be joining the party shortly. Or he hopes they will. For now, we hold this farm."

Some miles off, the Prussians were indeed coming. Though a fire had started in Wavre that morning before they had set off, some suspected French sympathizers of setting it, they had eventually gotten through the town. They could hear the cannonade in front of Hougoumont when the wind was right.

Though General der Infanterie Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr von Bülow's IV Corps hadn't fought at Ligny, and were near full strength, the men were tired. Many of them were Landwehr¹ and weren't used to all of the marching they had been forced to do over the past week. But nearly every man in those units was anxious to meet the French in battle.

Many of the men had grown up under the French occupation, some had lost fathers and older brothers in the campaign of 1806. These men were green, and they were raw, but all hated the French and loved their field marshal, von Blücher.

A cheer sprang up as the column debouched from a wood into some pasture land. There, sitting his horse, was the old man himself, Generalfeldmarschall Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, Fürst² von Wahlstatt, he was standing in his stirrups, hat held aloft, yelling ...

"Forward, my children! You would not make me a liar in front of my friend Wellington, would you? Forward, ever forward!"

As the cheering died down, one of the men in the ranks began to sing the old Lutheran hymn, Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott³.

Those nearest the field marshal would later swear that they had seen a single tear drop down the old soldier's cheek, others said it was a rain drop, for intermittent rain showers were still occurring.

Tear or rain, the old warhorse was feeling very emotional that day. He knew if they could just make it to Wellington's aid in time, they could turn this tide and remove Bonaparte as a threat to European peace forever.

That very same man, Napoléon Bonaparte, was sitting at a small table near Rossomme Farm looking at his maps. He had been informed of the possible sighting of troops to the east. While he hoped it was Grouchy, he had a sneaking suspicion that they were Prussian. Grouchy had made no report that day.

Marbot's 7th Hussars had been sent to the east, along with a battalion of the 13e Régiment d'Infanterie Légère⁴, to be used by Marbot as he saw fit. For the moment, the Emperor had the battle before him to fight.

Maréchal Ney had reported that the grand battery⁵ had been assembled and was ready, d'Erlon's I Corps was in position. He had sent messengers to Reille to remind him that the fighting around Hougoumont was a diversion, nothing more. All seemed to be in place, so he looked at De la Bédoyère and said ...

"Let the attack begin."

As the cannon began to roar along the front of the French army, their commander, the Emperor of the French, went into the farmhouse, he desperately needed to lie down. Surely Ney could handle this fight?

"Wake me only if I am absolutely needed." he had snapped at De la Bédoyère.

"Of course, Sire. Get some rest."

De la Bédoyère wasn't overly concerned. Ney had his orders, as did Reille. They had sent scouts to the east to warn them of the Prussian advance, surely the Emperor could put his head down for a bit.

Couldn't he?

¹ Militia troops, ill-equipped and under-trained, but in Prussia's case, very patriotic and wanting to engage and defeat the French.
² Generally translated as "Prince."
³ The Prussians actually did sing this, we know it in English as "A Mighty Fortress is Our God."
⁴ 13th Regiment of Light Infantry.
⁵ That morning the artillery of I Corps, some from VI Corps, and some from the Guard had been emplaced forward of the main French position, on a small rise. Many sources say that there were 80 cannon in that battery, some give lower numbers, some question that the battery even existed. As it was a favorite tactic of Napoléon's, after all he began his career as a gunner, I have no doubt that the battery was formed and contained a substantial number of guns.


  1. Indeed, where are the Prussians? The best laid plans.

    1. They're on the march through boggy terrain, mud-clogged roads, and with little rest. But they're coming.

  2. You're bringing these long dead people to life, Sarge! Great writing founded on good research; as ever.
    Boat Guy

  3. The pieces in the Great Game are assembling. What will people think, write, feel about the moves we are making today?

    1. Literally thousands of books have been written about this campaign.

  4. I suspect that this was not a good time for the Emperor to nap...

    I'm glad I live in a time/place where a good sized wall is not a requirement to live to an old age (I was looking at the picture of the farm).

    1. Well, you kick things off, then you wait and see. Things moved slower in those days, it could take an hour, or more, for an attack to develop and see the outcome. While I'm sure a younger Napoléon wouldn't have slept, he wasn't the same man in 1815.

    2. Lots to be said for "combat naps" especially as we age - but also for 20-something company-grades; tired people make mistakes they might not have, otherwise

  5. "Though it didn't make the work any easier, at least the men weren't complaining."

    Since when would soldiers NOT complain?

    Oh!!! I think I get it! A literary device to indicate that this is a work of fiction.

    Another excellent piece of writing.

  6. I'd serve under Blucher. Leaders like him are few and far between. Competent, smart, caring and charismatic. What's not to like?

    Gonna be a bad day for Nappy.

  7. OK, to make up for that last post ... here's my favorite version of A Mighty Fortress is Our God.

  8. Sarge, a little fittingly this popped up right as we landed in Amsterdam. Thanks! -TB




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