A Horse Gunner's view of the world's most famous battle
Captain Mercer has left posterity a vital and remarkable book in his Journal of the Campaign of 1815. It is, of course, written from the perspective of an officer of the Royal Horse Artillery of Wellington's army and so brings to life a host of detail about the composition, daily workings, camp life and battle field manoeuvrings of the British Horse Artillery during the Napoleonic Wars. This alone would recommend it to anyone interested in the period. It is much more. Mercer’s substantial work covers a comparatively short period of time from the call to arms following Napoleon's escape from Elba through to the landing on the continent, the fearsome battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo—which all but destroyed his troop—to the pursuit of the fleeing French Army to Paris and the subsequent occupation. He recorded everything he saw, felt and personally experienced in fine detail on a day by day basis. This not only provides us with an incomparable portrait of momentous events, but also a detailed and illuminating view of Belgium, Northern France and Paris itself from it's people to the minutiae of everyday life and the culture of the capital in the early years of the 19th century.
Grand cavalry review near Grammont, in the fine meadows on the banks of the Dender, for the use of which, it is said, as much as £400 or ,£500 were paid.
The day was lovely, and we marched from Strytem in the cool of the morning. The roads, although pretty good, were in places so cut up by the passage of other troops before us, that it became necessary at times to halt until our men filled up the holes with brushwood and earth. About noon we arrived on the ground, than which nothing could be more favourable for the purpose.<br>
The Dender, flowing through a broad tract of rich meadow-land perfectly flat, makes a bend from Grammont to the village of Jedeghem, the ground on its left bank rising in a gentle slope, whilst on the right the meadows extend back for about half a mile, and then terminate at the foot of an abrupt wooded height, which forms, as it were, a chord of the arc described by the river. This was the arena chosen for the review, and a more favourable one could scarcely have been chosen. We were formed in three lines. The first, near the banks of the river, was composed of hussars in squadrons, with wide intervals between them, and a battery of horse-artillery (6-pounders) on either flank. Opposite the centre of this line was a bridge (temporary, I believe) by which the cortège was to arrive on the ground, descending from the village of Schendelbeke. The second line—compact, or with only the usual squadron intervals—was composed entirely of heavy dragoons, having two batteries—the one of 24-pounder howitzers, the other of 9-pounders—in front of the centre, and a battery of 9-pounders on either flank. The third was a compact line like the second, but entirely of light dragoons, supported also on either flank by a battery of 9-pounders.<br>
It was a splendid spectacle. The scattered line of hussars in their fanciful yet picturesque costume; the more sober, but far more imposing line of heavy dragoons, like a wall of red brick; and again the serviceable and active appearance of the third line in their blue uniforms, with broad lapels of white, buff, red, yellow, and orange—the whole backed by the dark wood of the declivity already mentioned—formed, indeed, a fine picture. There were, I understood, about 6000 men on the field; and as I looked and admired their fine appearance, complete equipment, and excellent horses, I wondered how any troops could withstand their attacks, and wished Napoleon and his chiefs could but see them as they stood. My wish was in part gratified, for we afterwards learned beyond all question that numbers of French officers had not only been present, but actually were so in full uniform (many of them of high rank), and had mingled in the cortège of the Duke, and so rode through the ranks—the safest plan they could have pursued, it being impossible to say whether they did or did not belong to the corps of the Duc de Berri, who, as I said, still wore the imperial uniforms in which they had come over to the royal party; and this was still more favoured by a ridiculous scene which occasioned the absence of the French party from the review. It was as follows:<br>
Arriving on the ground covered with dust, the different corps had no sooner formed in their position, and dismounted, than off went belts, canteens, and haversacks, and a general brushing and scrubbing commenced; for the Duke, making no allowance for dusty or muddy roads, expected to see all as clean as if just turned out: accordingly, we had not only brought brushes, etc., but even straw to wisp over the horses. The whole line was in the midst of this business, many of the men even with jackets off, when suddenly a forest of plumes and a galaxy of brilliant uniforms came galloping down the slope from Schendelbeke towards the temporary bridge. ''The Duke!'' "the Duke!" "the Duke's coming!" ran along the lines, and for a moment caused considerable bustle amongst the people; but almost immediately this was discovered to be a mistake, and the brushing and cleaning recommenced with more devotion than ever; whilst the cavalcade, after slowly descending to the bridge and debouching on the meadows, started at full gallop toward the saluting point already marked out, the Duc de Berri, whom we now recognised, keeping several yards ahead, no doubt that he might clearly be seen. At this point he reined up and looked haughtily and impatiently about him; and as we were now pretty intimate with his manner, it was easy to see, even from our distant position, that he was in a passion. The brushing, however, suffered no interruption, and no notice was taken of his presence. One of his suite was now called up and despatched to the front. What further took place I know not, but, certes! the messenger no sooner returned than his Highness was off like a comet, his tail streaming after him all the way up the slope, unable to keep pace with him, for he rode like a madman, whilst a general titter pervaded our lines as the report flew from one to the other that Mounseer was off in a huff because we did not give him a general salute. Many were the coarse jokes at his expense; and I was amused at one of my drivers, who, holding up the collar from his horse's chest with one hand, whilst with the other he brushed away under it, exclaimed, laughing aloud, "I wouldn't be one of them 'ere French fellows at drill upon the common tomorrow for a penny; if they're not properly bully-ragged, I'm d——." It turned out afterwards that he had sent his aide-de-camp to claim the reception due to a prince of the blood-royal, but Lord Uxbridge excused himself by saying he had no instructions on that head, etc. etc. About two o'clock the Duke of Wellington and Prince Blucher, followed by an immense cortège, in which were to be seen many of the most distinguished officers and almost every uniform in Europe, arrived on the ground. Need I say that the foreigners were loud in praise of the martial air, fine persons, and complete equipment of the men and horses, and of the strength and beauty of the latter? and my vanity on that occasion was most fully gratified, for on arriving where we stood, the Duke not only called old Blucher's attention to "the beautiful battery," but, instead of proceeding straight through the ranks, as they had done everywhere else, each subdivision—nay, each individual horse—was closely scrutinized, Blucher repeating continually that he had never seen anything so superb in his life, and concluding by exclaiming, "Mein Gott, dere is not von orse in dies batterie wich is not goot for Veldt Marshal": and Wellington agreed with him. It certainly was a splendid collection of horses. However, except asking Sir George Wood whose troop it was, his Grace never even bestowed a regard on me as I followed from subdivision to subdivision. The review over, and corps dismissed, I resigned my command to my second captain, and proceeded direct to Ninove, Lord Uxbridge having invited all commanding officers to meet his illustrious guests at dinner. On repairing to the monastery, I found a numerous company assembled, comprising some of the most distinguished characters in Europe.