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Napoleon at War

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Napoleon at War
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Author(s): Montgomery B. Gibbs
Date Published: 2013/01
Page Count: 396
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-051-2
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-050-5

Napoleon Bonaparte—his life as a soldier

While a pupil at military school Napoleon wrote to his mother that to carve his way in the world all he required was a copy of Homer and a sword. The die was cast—a ten year old boy was determined to follow the life of a soldier. Over the next thirty five years the boy would rise to army officer, general, consul and emperor of France. He would become, arguably, the most renowned soldier the world has ever known. This unique man personally commanded in 600 skirmishes and 85 full scale battles before his final defeat at Waterloo. To put Napoleon’s military career in clear perspective it should be noted that he spent just 6 weeks less on campaign or under fire than he did in at the seat of power or involved in his personal life. There have been many books written about Napoleon Bonaparte but this one deals exclusively with his military career and takes the reader to from the Italian Campaign to Egypt, through pivotal battles such as Jena and Eylau, to the Iberian peninsula, the disastrous invasion of Russia, the times of retreat and defeat and the final battles 1815. Interestingly, this is a book full of anecdotes for it is the authors assertion that it is through the reports, recollections and memoirs of those who knew Napoleon and served with him that the great man’s character is most clearly revealed. Certainly these many perspectives on the campaigns of the Napoleonic epoch, full of dialogue and incident, make entertaining reading. An interesting book for all those fascinated by the ‘Little Corporal,’ the military genius who, as the author of this book writes, ‘held Europe prisoner in the folds of the French flag.’ This book was originally published under the title, ‘Military Career of Napoleon the Great.’
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.

The action at Ligny had commenced a little later but not less aggressively. As Gérard’s three

columns approached the village of Ligny they were received with such a volley that they

were obliged to fall back. A large body of artillery was then thrown forward and riddled the

village of Ligny and Gérard’s columns again advanced, finally taking possession of the

place. This was followed by a series of combats, exceedingly ferocious, as the French gave

no quarter nor did they receive any from the Prussians.<br>
Blücher now advanced at the head of his soldiers and made a vigorous attempt upon the

three St. Amands; but with only partial success for a time. At length, by a series of skilful

attacks and manoeuvres, the French became masters of these three points, but had not

been able to cross the sinuous stream of Ligny. It was now 5:30 o’clock and Napoleon

was directing the Imperial Guard upon Ligny in support of the advantages already gained

by Count Gérard at the head of 5,000 men, at St. Amand, when he was informed that an

army of 30,000 was advancing upon Fleurus. The emperor suspended the movement of his

Guard in order to meet this new force; but the alarm was unfounded. It proved to be the

first corps,—Count d’Erlon’s,—which formed part of Ney’s division, at last complying with

Napoleon’s repeated orders, and had come up to take the enemy in the rear:—their

unexpected appearance had occasioned the loss of two hours.<br>
The Old Guard now resumed its suspended movements upon Ligny: the ravine was passed

by General Pecheux, at the head of his division, supported by the infantry, cavalry, artillery

and Milhaud’s cuirassiers. The reserves of the Prussians were driven back with the

bayonet, and the centre of the line broken and routed. A bloody conflict ensued in which

the French were victorious. The slaughter among the Prussians, was most remarkable.

They, however, divided into two parts, effected a retreat, favoured by the night and by the

failure of that attack in the rear which Ney had been so expressly ordered to make by a

detachment from his force. Their loss amounted to the prodigious number of 18,000 men,

killed, wounded or prisoners; forty pieces of cannon and eight stands of colours, while the

French loss was between 8,000 and 9,000.<br>
For five hours, two hundred pieces of ordnance deluged the field with slaughter, blood and

death, during which period the French and Prussians, alternately vanquished and victors,

disputed that ensanguined post hand to hand and foot to foot, so that no less than seven

times in succession Ligny was taken and lost.<br>
The emperor had repeatedly sent to Ney saying “that the destiny of France rested in his

hands” but the veteran marshal failed to appreciate the importance of the orders and did not

act promptly.<br>
Many of the Prussian generals were killed or wounded; and Blücher himself was

overthrown, man and horse, by a charge of cuirassiers, and galloped over by friends and

foes. Night was coming on and the marshal, who was much battered and bruised, effected

his escape. He joined a body of his troops, directed the retreat upon Wavres, and

continued to mask his movements so skilfully, that Napoleon knew not until noon on the

17th what way he had taken.<br>
The total loss of the French amounted to no more than nine thousand, killed or wounded—

the extraordinary disproportion being occasioned by the more skilful disposition of the

French troops, whereby all their shots took effect, while more than half of those of the

enemy were wasted.<br>
On the same day as the battle of Ligny,—June 16th,—was also fought the Battle of

Quatre-Bras, and at about the same time. Ney, with 45,000 men, began an attack on the

position of Wellington at Quatre-Bras. At this point the French were posted among growing

corn as high as the tallest man’s shoulder, and which enabled them to draw up a strong

body of cuirassiers close to the English, and yet entirely out of their view. The 49th and

42nd regiments of Highlanders were thus taken by surprise, and the latter would have been

destroyed but for the coming up of the former. The 42nd, formed into a square, was

repeatedly broken, and as often recovered, though with terrible loss of life, for out of 800

that went into action, only ninety-six privates and four officers remained unhurt.<br>
The pressing orders of Napoleon not allowing the marshal time for reflection, and doubtless

anxious to repair the precious time lost in which he might have taken possession of

Quatre-Bras, he did not sufficiently reconnoitre but entered into the contest without being

wholly prepared. The first successful attack was soon suspended by the arrival of fresh

reinforcements, led by the Duke of Wellington, and the shining bravery of the Scotch,

Belgians and the Prince of Orange suspended the success of the French. They were

repulsed by a shower of bullets from the British infantry added to a battery of two guns

which strewed the causeway with men and horses.<br>
Ney was desirous of making the first corps, which he had left in the rear, advance; but

Napoleon had dispatched positive orders to Count d’Erlon, at the head of that body, to

join him, for which purpose the latter had commenced his march. Ney, when made

acquainted with this fact, was stationed amidst a cross-fire from the enemies’ batteries. “Do

you see those bullets?” cried the marshal, his brow clouded by despair; “would that they

would all pass through my body!” and he instantly sent General Delcambre with all speed

after Count d’Erlon, directing that whatsoever might have been his orders, although

received from the emperor himself, he must return. This he did, but when he arrived in the

evening, Ney, dispirited by the checks already received, and dissatisfied with himself and

others, had discontinued the engagement. D’Erlon had spent the day in useless marches, his

valour wasted by a fatality over which he had no control. Between 5 and 6 o’clock General

Delcambre had overtaken the first corps on its march to Bry and brought it back towards

Night found the English, after a severe and bloody day, in possession of Quatre-Bras, the

French being obliged to retreat. The gallant Duke of Brunswick, fighting in front of the line,

fell almost in the beginning of the battle. The killed and wounded on the side of the French

was 4,000 and the Allies’ loss was nearly 6,000, in consequence ]of their having scarcely

any artillery. As at Ligny, little quarter was either asked or given, there being much hatred

between the French and Prussians. The French were next driven out from the Bois de

Bossu by the Belgians, and the English divisions of Alten, Halket, Maitland, Cooke, and

Byng, successively arrived.<br><br>************<br><br>The Duke of Wellington

now dismounted, placed himself at the head of his line and led his men against the remaining

numbers of four battalions of the Old Guard—the only unbroken troops remaining behind,

while Ney was striving to rally his fugitives. His cocked hat was gone, and his clothes were

literally riddled with bullets, though he himself remained untouched. The intrepid marshal, at

Wellington’s approach, took part once more in the mêlée, sword in hand, and on foot. But

nothing could withstand the impetuous assault of the victorious British.<br>
Napoleon, who had watched this last terrible contest from the heights of La Belle Alliance

suddenly exclaimed, “They are mingled together, all is lost for the present,” and

accompanied by but three or four officers, he gave the signal for retreat and hurried to the

left of Planchenois, to a second position, where he had placed a regiment of the Guard,

with two batteries in reserve.<br>
The four battalions of the Old Guard, under General Cambronne, still remained to protect

the retreat of the French Army. If they could succeed in holding the British in check, and

prevent their advance during half an hour longer, darkness would enable the army to retreat

in safety, and partially recover its disorder by morning. The Old Guard formed in square,

flanked by a few pieces of artillery, and by a brigade of red lancers. “The Duke of

Wellington” says Captain Pringle, “now ordered his whole line to advance and attack their

position.” They advanced to the charge in embattled array, condensed and tremendous,

against the remnant of noble veterans of that old Imperial Guard, which, during twenty

years of slaughterous wars, had never once been vanquished. Gathering round the

standards of their former glory, they received the dreadful onset with souls prepared for

death. Nothing could now withstand the vigour of the attack of the British soldiers who thus

had an opportunity to relieve their breasts of the heavy burden they had borne all day when

compelled, for hours, to stand the fierce attacks of the French, being frequently driven

back, and never making an advance.<br>
The Old Guard, as was to be expected, were beaten down,—slaughtered. Their general,

Cambronne, was called upon to surrender by some British officers who seemed to revolt at

the uneven contest. The only reply made by him was,—not the generally believed, but

inaccurate declaration recorded by some historians, “The Old Guard dies, but does not

surrender!” but was a single word of military jargon frequently used by French soldiers.

Almost immediately afterwards he fell from his horse, cut down by a fragment of a shell

striking him on the head; but he would not allow his men to leave their ranks to bear him

Once more these heroes, now reduced to but one hundred and fifty men, are commanded

to surrender; “We will not yield!” they answer back, and discharging their muskets for the

last time, rush on the cavalry and with their bayonets, kill many men and horses, and then

sink to the earth exhausted or in death.<br>
The Old Guard was destroyed,—not defeated! The advancing British troops rode over

their prostrate bodies piled in ghastly heaps,—a monument to their valour and heroism,

even in death. Ney, bareheaded, his clothes hanging in shreds, and with his broken sword in

his hand, seeing a handful of his followers still remaining, ran forward to lead them against a

Prussian column that was pursuing them. As the fearless marshal threw himself once more

into the fray he exclaimed, “Come my friends; come see how a marshal of France can die!”

But his time had not come: he was not destined to die upon the battlefield. His small band

was soon overpowered and scarcely two hundred escaped death. Rulliere, who

commanded the battalion, broke the flag-staff, hid the eagle beneath his coat, and followed

Ney who had been unhorsed for the fifth time, but who was still unwounded. Under cover

of the darkness they made their escape.<br>
The emperor attempted to protect the retreat and rally the fugitives; but it was now fast

growing dark. The soldiers could not see him or they might have rallied, while many

believed the report that he had been killed. “He is wounded,” said some, “He is dead”

cried others. Nothing could be heard above the uproar and hideous confusion that

everywhere prevailed. The Prussian cavalry, supported by some battalions of infantry, and

the whole of Bülow’s corps, now advanced by the right of Planchenois.<br>
In a few minutes the emperor was almost surrounded by hostile forces. He had formed the

regiment into a square, and was still lingering, when Marshal Soult seized the bridle of his

horse, exclaimed that he would not be killed, but taken prisoner, and, pulling him away, the

emperor at last yielded to his destiny! Behind him on the battlefield lay 60,000 French,

English and Prussians, dead or wounded. The Battle of Waterloo was lost and this hitherto

almost invincible warrior was obliged to gallop across the fields in the dark, amidst the

whistling of the Prussian bullets, and detachments of their cavalry which were scouring the

field in all directions.<br>
Napoleon was so fatigued, on the road to Genappe, that he would no doubt have fallen

from his horse, had he not been supported by General Gourgaud and two other persons,

who remained his only attendants for some time.<br>
Wellington and Blücher met about 10 o’clock, at the farm-house of La Belle Alliance, and

after congratulating each other on the success of the day, the Prussian commander, whose

men were still fresh, eagerly undertook to continue the pursuit during the night, while the

English general halted to rest his weary men and care for the dead and wounded.