Sunday, June 25, 2023

The Gun Line

Chef d'escadron Augustin Couturier gasped in shock as the squadron to his front crested the ridge and was almost immediately enveloped in a cloud of powder smoke. The sound of canister hitting the armored breastplates and helmets of the men to his front was like hail on a tin roof. The screams of the horses and men, many in their death throes, nearly unnerved him.

A solid shot hissed past him, taking down the mount of the man directly behind him. He thought to check his squadron's advance but knew it would only lead to confusion, yelling back at his trumpeter he had but one thought, "Sound the charge!"

The horses were willing, Couturier felt his own mount try to break into a canter, but the beast was already tired from struggling up the increasingly muddy slope. The the horse shied and nearly threw Couturier from his saddle.

Looking at the ground, he saw dead and wounded men and horses everywhere, the leading squadron of his regiment had been torn to red ruin by British cannon. A number of his men surged past him, they were letting their emotions get the better of them.

"Rally! Rally to me!"

His trumpeter was sounding the rally call, but the excitement of the men, their rage after being under long range cannon fire throughout the day, couldn't be contained. So Couturier and his trumpeter picked their way forward and joined the charge of their squadron, following, rather than leading it.

Ramsay feared that perhaps he'd left it too late, but their first volley had stopped the French in their tracks. For the moment, already a second squadron of cuirassiers had burst through the lingering powder smoke and were coming on at a fast trot.

"Right lads, back to the infantry, look lively now!"

One of the sergeants yelled over at him, "What about the wheels, Sir? Shall we pull one?"

"Sod the bloody wheels, Sarn't. There is no time!"

As the men began to run back, one crew had their piece reloaded and were ready to fire, but the cavalry were on them quickly.

"Leave it, Jock!" he screamed.

But it was too late, most of the crew of his number two gun were sabered where they stood. Jock MacKay, the gun captain managed to unhorse one of the cuirassiers. Before he could dispatch the man and get under his gun for cover, another cuirassier brought his heavy sword down directly onto MacKay's head, cleaving his skull in two.

As Ramsay drew his sword he realized that to stand and fight was to die. As no one seemed to be paying him any mind, he started to make his way back to the squares. The ground was horrible, he could barely lift his feet due to the muck caked to his boots.

Still he went on. He heard, or rather felt, hoof beats coming up behind him. He turned, so quickly that he slipped and fell. Which saved his life for the moment.

"Où vas-tu cochon d'anglais?¹"

Ramsay heard the sibilant hiss of the cuirassier's saber slice past over his head. Had he still been standing he would have been decapitated. Scrambling, Ramsay managed to regain his feet as the horseman turned his mount.

Ramsay was angry now, how dare this cad refer to him as "English"? As the Frenchman came back, Ramsay ducked low and slashed his blade across the horse's back legs. As the French horse collapsed in the mud, Ramsay brought his sword down on the Frenchman's head.

Sparks flew as the blade glanced off the cuirassier's helmet, though it did seem to stun the man. Ramsay's next move was to give the Frenchman the point, at his throat where there was no armor.

Ramsay again turned back towards the nearest square, the other horsemen had shied off rather than face the bayonets of the formed infantry.

The infantry for their part dared not fire a volley, reserving their fire for a real threat. Discharging their muskets at close range would have brought down many a man and horse, but there was always the danger of a dead or badly wounded horse and rider crashing into the square, disrupting the ranks and leaving a hole for others to attack.

"Jaysus, Sir, but ye look a sight!"

Corporal Tommy Adair, his shako gone and his face powder stained, helped pull Ramsay into the square.

"Quite. Where are the rest of the men, Tommy?"

"All here, Sir, save number two gun's crew, 'aven't seen 'em."

As Ramsay tried to scrape the mud from his uniform, he turned to his batman, "I'm afraid they're done for, Tommy. They got off a last shot, then went down under French sabers."

At that moment a cheer went up from the infantry, the cavalry had pulled back out of sight.

Adair looked sad for a moment, then looked to his officer, "Back to the guns, Sir?"

"Right, Tommy, back to work. Let's go lads!"

Ramsay and what remained of H Troop went back to man their guns.

"Côté, how badly were we hurt?" Couturier and his squadron had fallen back to the dip between the ridges where they were sheltered from the English artillery.

"Seven men, twelve horses. I've got the fourriers² rounding up stray mounts. Dubonnier's squadron ahead of us was cut to pieces."

Couturier heard a trumpet call, another unit, this one of dragoons, was heading back up the slope to try their luck with the enemy guns and squares.

"Damn it, where is the infantry?" Couturier wondered.

Some eleven hundred paces from where Couturier's squadron was reorganizing itself, Maréchal Ney was gathering a body of infantry to assault La Haye Sainte. He had been given a direct order by the Emperor to seize the farm complex.

Much of d'Erlon's I Corps was still disorganized and demoralized from their earlier attack. Ney suspected that a number of men had made their way to the rear rather than go forward again.

One of his aides had already told him that some of the infantry were in a rather mutinous mood, muttering "treason" and "betrayal" as they did not know nor trust their officers.

A patchwork brigade of veterans had been mustered, it consisted of a number of battalions from three of d'Erlon's four divisions, the fourth was over on the right flank, still engaged in desultory fighting around Papelotte, Smohain, and La Haye³. This cluster of farm buildings and dwellings had been seized and lost a number of times already.

Ney drew his sword and placed himself at the head of these men.

"Soldiers of France! You know me, we must have this farm, this La Haye Sainte! The Emperor commands it!"

With shouts of "Vive l'Empereur!" the men went forward, skirmishers to the front, two squadrons of Milhaud's cuirassiers to either side of the column in support.

As they approached the complex, the volume of fire was less than it had been earlier. Many of the men suspected that the enemy was waiting for them to get closer before firing. They marched bent over, as men would walk into a heavy rain.

Only the occasional shot rang out, then the drums began to beat the pas de charge and the infantry surged forward. Clambering over the walls surrounding the courtyard of La Haye Sainte and forcing the gates along the Brussels chaussée.

For the garrison was down to their last few rounds.

Ney left a brigade commander to take on the task of seizing La Hate Sainte. One of his aides asked him where they were bound.

"The cavalry attack is fading. We must put heart into them. Go tell Guyot that the Emperor commands him to charge! The hour of decision is upon us!"

"But Guyot will know ..."

"He will advance this time. I know the man, he won't pass up a second chance at glory!"

Slowly, but surely, the attack of the French Armée du Nord was devolving into a series of uncoordinated and unsupported attacks. But in truth, Wellington's army was slowly bleeding to death.

Upon his ridge, sheltering in an infantry square as the French cavalry swirled all around, the Great Duke consulted the angle of the sun and his pocket watch, he was alleged to have muttered, almost to himself, "Dear God, give me Blücher or give me night. The army can't take much more of this."

Night was still hours away, but Generalfeldmarschall Blücher and his Prussians were far closer and were nearly ready to go into action.

¹ Where are you going English pig?
² Quartermasters, each cavalry troop had one. A squadron of two troops would therefore have two. In cavalry charges it was typical to lose more horses than men, but a man without a horse is of no use.
³ Not to be confused with La Haye Sainte in the center of the battlefield. See this map.


  1. As they are quartermasters of cavalry I wonder if fourrier, and farrier are related words, in some way?

    1. Not to my knowledge, farrier in French is maréchal-ferrant, blacksmith. The word derives from Old French ferrier, from Latin ferrarius, from ferrum ‘iron, horseshoe’. Fourrier on the other hand is derived from Middle French, forager, from Old French forrier, from forre, fuerre fodder, straw. So I guess you could say another word for quartermaster is "scrounge"?

    2. Crusty Old TV Tech here. By Army heritage, Quartermaster means supply dude, and/or scrounger. By Coastie reckoning, it is more like a navigator. I got the patented Chief's Glare when I asked a Coastie QM friend about how they issued supplies...

      Cracking good story. Enjoying the telling, though not the reality, much slaughter, much blood.

      Though, I can see Marechal Ney getting...Grouchy...yes, I went there!

    3. In the Navy quartermasters are the navigator's assistants. At least that's what my son, the Naviguesser, tells me.

      Ney was very, ahem, grouchy that day.

  2. Can't imagine the sounds, all those horses and men.......and the smoke....

    1. It would have to be experienced to be understood. No thanks, I'll pass.

  3. Another excellent piece, putting the reader in the midst of the action while giving him an eagle on the wall's view of everything.

    As long as we're doing word origins, "Sod the bloody wheels"

    "Sod" from "sodomite." So, basically he's saying (with some modifications to keep this R, if not PG-13) "Fornicate the darned wheels in the rectum!" I'll not attempt to unravel the origins of "bloody" as an oath, he says before an attempt to do just that. Several theories on how it came to be. Some say it's from "s'Blood" or Jesus' Blood, as in "By the Blood of Jesus, I swear" others maintain it's from the slurring of "By our Lady Mary," and yet others say it's a lower class reference to the upper classes, those of "good blood," as in "drunk as a blood."

    1. Very nice. I have such well-read readers! I once had a friend from Manchester (in England, not New Hampshire) when I was around 12. I once mentioned that my elbow was bloody my saying, "What a bloody mess!" He cautioned me that saying such things round his Mum would be, shall we say, a "punishable" offense. Which is how I learned to use "bloody" in its British context. 😁

  4. ""Soldiers of France! You know me, we must have this farm, this La Haye Sainte! The Emperor commands it!""

    How many men have been led to their deaths over the years because "X commands it", disregarding the actual facts of the situation. .

    Sigh. Great writing as always Sarge, but just another reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

    1. One can use passion to lead folks, but it can backfire, as we shall see.

  5. Hmmm, lots of fighting, much uncertainty, lots of confusion about what is commanded, needed or desired. Locations of friend and foe are unclear. Powder smoke everywhere, mud underfoot, ammunition running low, morale varying from totally gone to mediocre at best (after all, the ARE getting shot at!). The "fog of war" is indeed real, and the outcome of today's fighting, as that of a couple previous days, is undecided, with even the commanders not knowing what the hell is happening.

    Although we all know the final result, the path to victory for some, defeat for others, remains to be told.
    Well done, Sarge.
    John Blackshoe

    1. Historians love dividing this battle (any battle actually) into semi-clearly defined "phases." But I wanted to depict it from what the man on the ground might have seen and experienced. It was all a great confusing muddle to the man on the line. Not even the generals had the full picture at times.

      Thanks, JB.

  6. The puzzling thing given the need to deal with calvary charges is no body recreated the Pike. A gun battery with a few dozen pounded in pikes all around would give the saber fellows some pause. Even if it was just a sharpened young tree with a few branches sharpened horses feel poorly about running into them. I've seen the Artillery Sabre, a useful tool for such.

    1. Now that you mention it, it is surprising that the Anglo-Allied army made no such preparations. Would've been simple enough to accomplish. On the other hand, the rain that night before the battle and the retreat most of the men were involved in, it might have been risking a mutiny to have them prepare those cheval-de-frise. There is still some question if Wellington was unsure if the Prussians were coming. If they weren't, he would have had to fall back again, probably all the way to Brussels!

      Cheval-de-frise were used in the Napoleonic Wars, they were used extensively in the American Civil War.

    2. It's really a variation of the older Pike and Shot warfare. Why have the arquebusiers burden themselves with dealing with placing stakes when surrounded by pikes already?

      Also, this kind of warfare was usually extremely mobile. Artillery would usually leapfrog the PBI, unlimber, fire a half dozen rounds, by which time the infantry would then be up to them. If they arrived at the party early and knew that they would be hosting it there, they would put up works.

    3. "Hosting the party ..." now that's priceless.

  7. And gulp. It's not even noon, if I'm following correctly. War is ... you're doing a great job.

  8. I ran across an obscure (nonfiction) book written by an Englishman in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He mentions marching along a narrow road with thick trees and brush on each side (the situation was fluid) silently hoping that they did not encounter a Yankee cannon loaded with cannister blocking the way.

    1. That would have ruined that Englishman's day!

    2. More simply, would have ruined the Englishman. He was kind of trapped in the South. If he did not vigorously support the Succession by enlisting, no matter which side won, his formally thriving import business would be finished permanently. On the other hand, there were certain 'serious' risks in active involvement. Later, in a second book, he tells of being a blockade runner bringing arms, ammunition, and supplies to the South.

    3. Pray tell, what is the title of this work, and the author's name?

    4. Sarge, it took a while, because they list read only first, but they are free on Archive if you can find them:

      Life in the Confederate army, being the observations and experiences of an alien in the South during the American Civil War
      by Watson, William, b. 1826.

      The adventures of a blockade runner; or, Trade in time of war
      by Watson, William, b. 1826


    6. Any Mouse - Thanks for the map gif, very nice!

  9. Can you make the notes a bit larger my old eyes would appreciate it .


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

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