Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Le 18 Juin 1815

The Last Reveille
(Lady Butler)
The Morning of Waterloo
(
James de Vine Aylward)
199 years ago today, a climactic event in the history of Europe took place. For on this date in 1815, Napoléon Bonaparte, Emperor of France and destiny collided.

Destiny won.

Dawn came early that day - a wet muddy dawn. Though the skies were clearing, it would be hours before the fields dried enough to move cannon.


In those days the troops slept in the open, tents were bulky and required a lot of wagon space. French armies were noted for their celerity. To fight the French, one needed to move quickly.

So for the most part the soldiers slept in the mud the night of the 17th - 18th. Some were "lucky" and were quartered in farm houses around the battlefield. Of course, luck is relative. While those men stayed relatively dry, they spent part of the night preparing the buildings for defense. For many of those men, their last night on Earth was spent in those buildings.

Hougoumont, a substantial chateau on the Anglo-Allied right flank.
Occupied and defended by select men from three British Guards regiments.
In the woods surrounding the chateau there were German troops, Hanoverians and Nassauers.

The farm of La Haye Sainte on the high road to Brussels.
Defended by a detachment of the King's German Legion.

The commanders of the two armies, Napoléon and the Duke of Wellington spent the night in reasonable comfort. The Emperor had his headquarters just south of the field at the farm of Le Caillou. Protected by a battalion of the Imperial Guard.

Le Caillou

The Duke spent the evening at his headquarters north of the field in an inn situated in the village of Waterloo (from whence the ensuing battle would take its name).

Wellington's Headquarters in Waterloo

The French dallied, they needed the fields to dry in order to move their cannon.

The fields were drying, but the clock was ticking.

While the Anglo-Allied Army was before him, the Emperor did not know that away to the east, the Prussian Army was stirring. The old field marshal, von Blücher, had given his word to the Duke of Wellington. He would bring his army across roughly 14 miles of muddy Belgian countryside, crossing streams swollen by the recent rains. He was on the march early. The field marshal urged his troops on shouting, "Would you have me break my word? March, my children, march!"

Marsch, meine Kinder, marsch!

The French move into position.

Vive 'lEmpereur!

Wellington's army waits...

The guns are manned and ready.
The infantry await the French...

The French artillery opens up. Hell is unleashed...

Au feu!

The Emperor's brother, Prince Jerome, leads elements of the II Corps into the attack at Hougoumont.

Aux baïonnettes!

The struggle there will last all day, the chateau will catch fire, many wounded die in the flames but the Guardsmen fight to the last, repelling all comers.

Colonel James Macdonnell of the Coldstream Guards helps to slam the gate shut.

But this is a sideshow, draining more and more French troops away from the main action. The fight lasts all day. The British hold. The French fail.

In the center of the field, the French I Corps under Jean-Baptiste Drouet, Comte d'Erlon is on the move. Four divisions in four massive columns set forth. The main event is beginning.

Avancer!

The fighting is fierce, it seems the Allied center is about to crack. The road to Brussels and victory beckons.

Vive l'Empereur, en avant, voici la victoire!

The Duke of Wellington, with superb timing, launches his heavy cavalry.

Scotland Forever!

The heavies drive the broken French before them. All the way to the guns the cavalry charges. Two French colors are captured. The Corps of d'Erlon is finished as an effective fighting force.

Sergeant Ewart seizes the colors of the 45th Ligne.
Counter-charging French cavalry drive the British heavies back to the Allied lines. Now the British heavy cavalry is also finished as an effective fighting force.

After a period of cannonading and continued savage fighting around Hougoumont, movement can be seen behind the French lines. What is Bonaparte up to now?

Massed French Cavalry.


The cavalry overruns the British artillery, to no avail. The gunners are sheltering in the Allied squares. The French ignore the guns to their peril. When they fall back, the guns are remanned and blast into the retreating French.


Attack after attack crashes against the immoveable infantry. Some say as many as seven cavalry attacks went in. The cost was terrible, the effects negligible. Where was the Emperor? Why was Marshal Ney wasting the cavalry?

The Emperor was in the rear, resting. Some say he was ill that day. All concurred that this was not the Napoléon of old. But the Allies were exhausted. Perhaps one more push.

It came at La Haye Sainte. There the soldiers of the King's German Legion had been beating off attacks all afternoon. But they were running low on ammunition. Their ammo cart was overturned in a ditch somewhere up the Brussels road. As they were equipped with rifles, they could not borrow ammo from neighboring units. They were equipped with smoothbore muskets. Something must give...

La Haye Sainte falls to the French, the center of Wellington's line is wavering.

La Haye Sainte falls...

Wellington is heard to say, "Either night or the Prussians must come. Otherwise, we are finished."

Away to the far left flank, something is happening.

The Prussians are arriving, the Field Marshal has kept his vow!

The Emperor announces to the French army that Grouchy has arrived. Those men off on the French right flank are French. One more attack will do it.

Forward the Guard!


These men have never been defeated. Hope surges anew in the battered ranks of the Armée du Nord. Vive la Garde! Vive l'Empereur!

But as the Guard crest the hill on the Allied side of the field, belabored by shot and shell, they were met by the British 1st Foot Guards. These soldiers seemed to rise up out of the ground. The Imperial Guard hesitated...

Now Maitland, now's your time!

The Guard was assailed, first to the front, then to their right flank as one enterprising regimental commander swung his regiment out of the line to face the French flank.

More volleys, the Guard begins to waver, then the Guard flees.


Then the Emperor's deception is revealed as Prussian cannon fire begins to interdict the Brussels road behind the French line. The road home is about to be cut!

The French army begins to fall apart. They are no longer an army, they turn and begin to head south. Towards France, towards home.

Now the French are on the run...

The Allies advance!

The Prussians advance!

 The battle is over...


Tout est fini...

13 comments:

  1. I am currently re-reading Lord Hornblower. I am at the 19th of June, with Hornblower captured, and about to be shot at dawn, when the word comes about Waterloo. The French decide not to shoot Hornblower, and he decides not to insist that they do.

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  2. Replies
    1. Thanks BP.

      I noticed today, at your place, that we seem to have the same taste in Napoleonic art.

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  3. Cant help but think of the Richard Sharpe series of historical novels. Cornwell's descriptions of hand-to-hand fighting was so realistic and down to earth. Thanks for the history lesson.....once again!

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    1. I love the Sharpe series. Mr Cornwell is an excellent writer. Have you read his other stuff? It's all superb!

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    2. yes...The Saxon stories are very realistic, couldn't put them down. I think there is one I haven't read, something with Kings in the title. I find it challenging to pronounce the names, but fun. I will usually make up some Americanized version of the original Welsh or whatever it was. (does Google translate work here?)

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    3. I know what you mean and...

      Google gyfieithu gwaith ar gyfer y Gymraeg.

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