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With Wellington’s Staff at Waterloo

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With Wellington’s Staff at Waterloo
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Author(s): Basil Jackson
Date Published: 2010/04
Page Count: 132
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-171-3
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-172-0

An essential personal witness to great events and of great men

No enthusiastic student of the Battle of Waterloo—academic or amateur—could wish to be without this remarkable book in their library. Wellington’s ‘glittering staff’ rode at their great chief’s heels as a body of forty horseman at dawn on the day of the great battle that would end an epoch. As the Duke rode back to Waterloo in the darkness of that apocalyptic day he was accompanied by just five. Young Basil Jackson, one of their number, was a staff officer, aged only 19 years, when he experienced the events of what became possibly the most famous battle ever. His book is absolutely compulsive reading and provides insights and information not readily found in regimental works. We discover that the route employed by the Prussians to Wavre had been mapped and was known, at least to the British, long before in was employed and many other interesting details. Jackson’s junior rank gave him a roving commission and he tells of his experiences in detail at Quatre Bras and over much of the Anglo-Allied line before Mont St. Jean throughout the conflict including the historical meeting between Blucher and Wellington at its close. There are so many interesting aspects to this book it is impossible to mention them all here, but the book is further enhanced and completed by the author’s appointment to join Hudson Lowe on St Helena with the fallen Emperor. So young Jackson came to know and engage in conversation with the very man who had set Europe ablaze. Recommended.

As few can have any idea of the number of persons usually attached to the headquarters of a large army, it may be as well to state that the Duke’s tail at Waterloo comprised at least forty officers. There was his personal staff, consisting of his military secretary and six or eight aides-de-camp, the adjutant and quartermaster-generals, each with a suite of half-a-dozen officers; the commanding officers of engineers and artillery with their following. Besides our own people, we had Generals Alava, Müffling, and Vincent, attended by their aides-de-camp, so that we formed an imposing cavalcade, sadly diminished at the close of the battle, as will be seen.<br>
It will readily be conceived, that none save individuals attached to the headquarters staff can possibly move about so as to see what takes place in various parts of the field of battle, all others being necessarily confined within a more or less limited sphere of action and of vision, and therefore only cognizant of events occurring in their immediate vicinity. Hence a person may see much fighting and yet know very little about the battle in which he is taking part. Probably there never was a battle when a General-in-Chief afforded to the headquarters staff better opportunities of witnessing its principal events than at Waterloo; for wherever there was an attack, thither went the Duke, exposing himself to the hottest fire, as if, like Father Murphy in the Irish Rebellion, he could catch and pocket the enemy’s bullets; indeed, his escaping without a wound was marvellous.<br>
On one occasion especially I trembled for his safety; it was during an attack on the left of La Haye Sainte, between three and four o’clock, when he remained for many minutes exposed to a heavy fire of musketry. All the staff, except a single aide-de-camp, had received a signal to keep back, in order not to attract the enemy’s fire; we remained, therefore, under the brow of the elevated ground, and, the better to keep out of observation, dismounted. As I looked over my saddle, I could just trace the outlines of the Duke and his horse amidst the smoke, standing very near the Highlanders of Picton’s division, bearing a resemblance to the statue in Hyde Park when partially shrouded by fog, while the balls—and they came thickly—hissed harmlessly over our heads. It was a time of intense anxiety, for had the Duke fallen, heaven only knows what might have been the result of the fight! I have said that a single aide-de-camp was in attendance on that perilous occasion, Lord Arthur Hill, the most portly young man in the army, who, when a lad at the Military College, was always called “Fat Hill;” being at a little distance behind the Duke, I can only suppose that he escaped being riddled, by not finding himself directly within the line of fire.<br>
At times the situation of the staff, like that of the troops, when standing to be pounded by round and grape shot, was trying enough, while at others it was very exciting; but nothing that occurred seemed to produce any effect on the Duke, whom I had frequent opportunities of observing, as he would often turn and counter-march, thereby closely passing all who followed. His countenance and demeanour were at all times quite calm, rarely speaking to any one, save to give an order, or send a message; indeed, he generally rode quite alone, that is, no one was at his side, seeming unconscious even of the presence of his own troops, whilst his eye kept scanning intently those of his great opponent. Occasionally he would stop and peer for a few seconds through the large field telescope which he carried in his right hand; and this his horse, the docile Copenhagen, his old Peninsular favourite, permitted without a sign of impatience.<br>
Thus he would promenade in front of the troops, along the crest of their position, watching the enemy’s preparations for their attacks. I well remember that once, when he was about to pass in front of a battalion of Nassau troops, two aides-de-camp rushed forward and said, “My Lord Duke, they are Nassauers.” At first I thought he was going to persist in going on, and felt heartily glad when he turned his horse and went in another direction. These Nassauers formed part of the Dutch or Belgian contingent, and had served under the French eagles; indeed, their arms, dress, and general bearing were perfectly French; it looked a splendid battalion, but inspired us with no confidence. Unquestionably it was only prudent of the Duke to avoid passing in their front, for the drawing of a single trigger, at such a moment, might have done a thousand times more injury to the cause of Europe than was effected by all Napoleon’s cannon.<br>
It is but just to state that the battalion in question was the only one, of a body of three thousand men, that remained on its ground in the first line; all the rest had clearly “no stomach for the fight,” as they coolly withdrew early in the day out of harm’s way. I should mention, however, that they were not the only soldiers who preferred to be in the rear, as great numbers of the foreign troops generally were of the same way of thinking; but we must bear in mind that there was a powerful feeling in favour of Napoleon, especially among the Dutch and Belgians, thousands of those then brought against him having long fought under his eagles. Then, as regards the Hanoverians and Brunswickers, they were mostly very young soldiers, who had not been embodied many months, likely to make good ones in time; but Waterloo was a trying battle for veterans, and bodies of mere recruits could not be expected to withstand such troops as were brought against them. The wonder is that they stood at all.<br>
It certainly showed a vast amount of nerve in the Duke to hazard a battle against Napoleon with so motley a force as his army presented; but, under the circumstances, he could not do otherwise. He has written it as his opinion, that “Forty thousand British troops formed a good position anywhere.” He had not more than thirty thousand at Waterloo, but they sufficed to form a good position. “I never saw our infantry behave so well,” he wrote soon afterwards. Well might he say, as I have quoted already, “You should see those fellows fight”