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1815, Waterloo

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1815, Waterloo
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Author(s): Henry Houssaye
Date Published: 2010/01
Page Count: 304
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-929-9
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-930-5

A great conflict—a classic account

A battle as momentous as Waterloo could do nothing other than attract the repeated attention of historians of all nationalities for decades after the last smoke had cleared from above its bloody field. Whilst battles are many, rarely do they bring down empires and emperors casting epochs to the ground with them. Yet, within comparatively modern times such was the Battle Waterloo and the campaign of 1815. History, it is said, is always written by the victors and that is generally true. However, in Henry Houssaye, both the French nation and international academia is fortunate in possessing an historian of superb talent, thoroughness and ability to communicate his ideas coherently and entertainingly to his readers—both professional and amateur. Houssaye's enduring histories of the latter stages of the Napoleonic Age require little introduction to those interested in the period. They are acknowledged classics and this book is one of their number. Leonaur also publish Houssaye's renowned predecessor to this book, Napoleon and the Campaign of 1814 which documents the campaigns to the first abdication and restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. Both are available in soft cover and hard cover with dust jacket for collectors.

The intrepid Kellermann had never discussed an order to charge. However, he thought it his duty to say to Ney that the Anglo-Dutch were thought to number more than 20,000 men, and that he had with him but one brigade of cuirassiers, his three other brigades having remained in the rear, in accordance with the order of the Marshal.
“What does that matter!” cried Ney. “Charge with what you have! Ride them down! I will cause you to be supported by all the cavalry here present. . . . Go! . . .”<br>
Kellermann could do nothing else but obey. He rejoined Guiton’s brigade (8th and 11th Cuirassiers), formed it in columns of squadrons, each squadron separated by a distance double that of its front, and led it at a rapid trot as far as the summit of the hill which rises between Gemioncourt and Quatre-Bras. There he gave the command, repeated at once from front to rear of the column: “Prepare to charge! . . . Gallop! . . . Forward! . . . Charge!”<br>
“I hastened,” says he in his report to Ney, “in order not to give to my men the time to recognize the full extent of the danger.”<br>
The trumpets sound the charge. In an irradiation of steel and a rain of pebbles thrown up by the feet of the horses the cuirassiers descend the slope like an avalanche. At each stride the pace increases. The ground trembles and a cloud of dust arises. The men in the first rank, bending forward over the necks of their horses, hold their blades straight before them; the others brandish their glittering swords. Kellermann, sword in hand, charges twenty steps in front of the leading squadron.<br>
In the valley the four battalions of Colin Halkett’s fresh brigade are drawn up in line or formed in squares. Motionless, resolute, and calm, the English, reserving their fire, await the cuirassiers. The 69th Regiment, posted in the first line, between the wood of Bossu and the highway, delivers its fire at thirty yards. The cuirassiers pass through the balls and smoke like a flash of lightning through the clouds. They attack the 69th, overthrow and crush it and, take its flag. They then charge the square of the 30th and overthrow the 33rd. Then, without giving their horses time to blow, they scale the opposite slope, sabre in passing the cannoneers of a battery, break a square of Brunswick, and penetrate as far as Quatre-Bras.<br>
The first and second lines of the enemy were pierced, and a bloody breach was opened. Unfortunately, the cuirassiers were not supported. Offended by Ney, who seemed to doubt his resolution, Kellermann had delivered his charge too soon. His mind still unbalanced by his rage against d’Erlon, the Marshal had badly coordinated this supreme effort, had delayed to issue orders, and had forgotten the cavalry of the Guard in reserve near Frasnes. The columns of infantry and the lancers and chasseurs of Piré had just begun to move, whilst the two regiments of cuirassiers, reduced to 500 men, disunited by the very impetuosity of the charge, and their horses blown, found themselves alone in the midst of Wellington’s army.<br>
They were at the apex of a triangle of fire, fusilladed from the wood of Bossu by the Dutch, from the embankment of the route of Namur by the English, from the houses of Quatre-Bras by the sharpshooters of Brunswick, and cannonaded from the route of Brussels by the batteries of Major Kulmann. Count de Valmy fell under his dead horse. This was the signal for flight. It was in vain that he arose and attempted to re-form his squadrons; the cuirassiers no longer listened to his commands. They wheeled about, buried their spurs in the flanks of their horses, and, in small groups, in disorder, but still with threatening point, re-traversed under a hail of balls the two lines of the enemy, bearing off as a trophy the flag of the 69th English.<br>
These horsemen, panic-stricken and retreating at headlong speed, jostled and drew with them in their flight many battalions of Foy’s division and the brigade of Bauduin. Bachelu, who had just begun his advance from Piraumont, saw at a distance the rout and also arrested his movement. Alone, the cavalry of Piré continued its charge against the enemy. At a rapid gallop it hurled itself upon the battalions of Kempt. The English squares, opposing their bayonets and flanking fire to this cavalry, rendered unavailing its multiplied charges.<br>
At this moment Commandant Baudus, who had been sent by the Emperor, joined Marshal Ney, who, having had two horses killed under him, was standing on foot “at the most exposed point.” Baudus transmitted to him the words of Napoleon: “It is absolutely necessary that the order given to Count d’Erlon should be executed, regardless of the situation in which Marshal Ney may find himself. I attach no great importance to what is passing today where he is. The important affair is here, where I am, because I wish to finish with the Prussian Army. As for the Prince of the Moskowa, he must, if he can do no better, confine himself to holding in check the English Army.”<br>
Ney, wild with rage, his face purple with passion, brandished his sword like a madman. He hardly listened to the words of Baudus, and cried that he had just sent to d’Erlon the order to return to Frasnes. Baudus vainly attempted to get him to rescind this order. The Marshal quitted him abruptly to throw himself in the midst of his routed infantry. He quickly rallied it and led it against the brigade of Pack, which was advancing offensively.

* * * * * *

Beyond Genappe the pursuit became more rapid. As there was no longer an organized body of troops forming the rear guard, the Prussians sabred with impunity the panic-stricken mob. “It was a regular chase,” says Gneisenau; “a chase by the light of the moon.” The great highway, the country roads, the lanes and fields, as far as the eye could see, were covered with soldiers of every arm, dismounted cuirassiers, lancers upon foundered horses, infantrymen who had thrown away guns and haversacks, wounded men losing their blood, and soldiers who had suffered amputation and had escaped from the ambulances ten minutes after the operation.<br>
Without authority over these men and, besides, no less demoralized and thinking like them only of their own safety, captains, colonels, and generals marched intermingled with the mass of fugitives. Durutte on horseback, but blinded by the blood that flowed from his open forehead, was guided by a sergeant of cuirassiers. A corporal of the Old Guard supported Ney by the arm until the moment when Major Schmidt, of the red lancers, dismounted from his horse to give it to the Marshal. Surgeon-in-Chief Larrey, wounded by two sabre-blows, was struck again by the Uhlans, robbed, stripped of his clothing, and carried, almost naked, with his hands tied, to a general, who ordered him to be shot. Just as this order was on the point of being carried out, a Prussian surgeon recognized him, threw himself in front of him, and saved him.<br>
Each one marched, ran, dragged himself along as best he could, went wherever he pleased, no one thinking to give orders, which would not have been obeyed. And when the sound of the Prussian trumpets, the galloping of the horses, and the savage clamours of the pursuers drew nigh, from this terror-stricken mob arose the cry: “Here they are! Here they are! . . . Let us save ourselves!” And, under the lash of fear, cavalry and infantry, officers and soldiers, wounded and unwounded, again found strength to run.<br>
Bands of fugitives, who, falling from fatigue, halted in the woods, hollows of the ground, farmhouses, and hamlets, were quickly set running again by the cavalry. The Prussians broke up no less than nine bivouacs. Some of the wounded killed themselves to avoid falling alive into the hands of the enemy. An officer of cuirassiers, seeing himself surrounded by Uhlans, cried: “They shall have neither my horse nor myself!” And coolly he dropped his horse with a ball in the ear and then blew out his own brains with a second pistol.<br>
Most of Bülow’s infantry having halted at Genappe and Ziethen and Pirch’s corps having gone no further than Caillou, Gneisenau had with him only the dragoons and Uhlans of General Roder, one battalion of the 1st Pomeranian, and one of the 15th Regiment. It is truly incredible that thirty or forty thousand Frenchmen should have fled before four thousand Prussians! If a few hundred soldiers had overcome their terror and had re-formed to make a stand, their resistance would have put an end to this lamentable pursuit.<br>
The Prussians, who sabred especially the defenceless fugitives, allowed themselves, as it seems, to be easily imposed upon, since a handful of resolute men marching grouped around the eagle of each regiment sufficed to defend the flags. The enemy picked up on the battlefield and along the highway more than two hundred abandoned cannon and more than a thousand wagons; during the retreat, he did not capture one flag.<br>
Hardened and insensible as is the soldier, by habit and the very nature of his profession, to spectacles of death, the fugitives in passing through Quatre-Bras were seized with horror. The men killed in the battle of June 16th had not been interred. Three to four thousand bodies, entirely naked, for the peasants had even removed their shirts, covered all the ground between the main road and the wood of Bossu. The scene presented the aspect of an immense morgue.<br>
By turns lighted up by the moon and drowned in shadow by the veil of clouds, the dead, in the fleeting movements of the light, seemed to move their stiffened bodies and to contract their livid faces. “We thought,” said a grenadier of the Guard, “to see some spectres who demanded burial of us.” Lower down the soldiers quenched their thirst in the stream of Gemioncourt, which, swollen by the storm of the day before, was filled with floating bodies.<br>
Less and less numerous, more and more fatigued, but as ardent as ever, the Prussians continued the pursuit. Gneisenau had knocked up en route half of his force. There alone marched with him a few squadrons and a small detachment of the 15th Infantry, whose drummer beat the charge, perched upon a horse taken from the imperial carriages. They passed Frasnes. Gneisenau judged that the fatigue of the men and horses would not permit of the chase being pushed further. He gave the order to halt in front of an inn, which, supreme irony, bore the name “A l’Empereur.”
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