One hundred and ninety-five years ago today, Britain narrowly escaped absorption into the French Empire in a decisive engagement which put an end to the career of a General whose activities had convulsed Europe and beyond for around three decades. When asked who was the greatest military tactician of the times, the Duke of Wellington (modestly or otherwise!) declared:
"In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon."
As global frontiers rapidly shrink, revisionist history has never been more fashionable, or politic, or humbling, or resentful. But the French are accustomed to underplay their defeat by referring to the Battle of Waterloo as the Battle of Mont St Jean.
This excerpt from My Mother Bids Me is to remember all those who fell on that fateful day, whether inspired by an iconoclastic vision of La Gloire and the hubris of one man, or whether in defence of the way of life on our 'sceptr'd isle set in a silver sea', or merely because they would otherwise have starved to death.
Earlier that morning at Le Caillou, the farmhouse the French generals had commandeered for their quarters, Napoleon raged and fretted about the murderous state of the ground and would not listen to the opinions of his staff who were all for slashing a swathe through the Allied lines and dining in Brussels that evening. His sudden frustrating mood of indecision perturbed them at so crucial a stage when La Gloire was within an ace of their grasp.
But Napoleon was febrile and in pain with a re-occurrence of his old complaint, cystitis, brought on by cold and damp, the bugbear of his long campaigns. He realised that in the heat of triumph over Blücher at Ligny, he had made the vital error of letting the Prussians out of his sight and had since despatched Marshal Grouchy to tail them. It was not impossible that they intended to rendezvous with Wellington and that must be prevented at all costs.
He glared at the ever-changing sky, rays of sun playing hide-and-seek between hillocks of cloud.
“We will mount an attack on the left at noon,” he decided at last. He drove his fist into his palm and turned sullen eyes upon Ney. “I shall hammer them with my infantry, charge them with my cavalry to make them show themselves and when I am quite sure where the actual English are, I shall go straight at them with my Old Guard!”
For Wellington, superb at the art of defence, did not possess Napoleon’s Gallic ostentation and the little Emperor had no idea what forces were drawn up on the reverse slope of Mont St. Jean.
Leo had had the good fortune to pass the night in a shared tent with straw for a pillow and a blanket to cover him. Against the din of thunder and driving rain, the murmurous sounds of coupling infiltrated his shallow sleep, the tender attentions of those redoubtable wives and sweethearts who had followed the drum and knew not what the morrow would bring.
He awoke at the first hint of dawn, braced in every sinew and nerve and obscurely elated. Three hours earlier, he had received a message from Uxbridge who headed the whole of the British cavalry, that the Prussians were on the way and Wellington was making a stand.
Sunday June 18th, 1815. Today the world’s future and his own would be decided. He had a reckless urge to tempt fate or God, or whatever it was out there that presided over the destinies of men, to arbitrate in the question of his own worth. His past had been dogged by a deep-seated conviction of moral inequality which hitherto had brought all his best endeavours at close relationships to nought.
When the camp fires were lit, his batman brought hot water for shaving. Leo snatched a clean shirt from his saddle-bag, singing snatches of airs from The Marriage of Figaro in a tuneful tenor voice.
Swirling mist dissolved over the battered fields of barley, wheat and rye, grown nearly as tall as a man. An opal light shone about the horizon, tinting the walls of the Château Hougoumont to the west of the valley with violet, rose and gold. The building was garrisoned by British Guards, Hanoverians and Nassauers. He could see them moving about the woods and blossom-bereft orchards making ready for the day.
And while he stood in contemplation, savouring the rare sweetness of the air, soon to be corrupted by the stench of sulphur, blood and smoke, he was filled with a certainty that the fortress would hold, come what may.
Across the chequered plains behind him, the Waterloo church bell chimed for Mass.
At quarter past eleven, Napoleon, fired with a fatalistic courage, clapped on his bicorn and grasped the reins of his grey charger, Marengo.
Slowly he rode down from the French lines with a marvellous show of bravado and traversed the hollow towards Hougoumont. Every muscle in the Allied camp tensed. During those moments he was an easy target but honour forbade them to exploit the opportunity. Suddenly a volley of cheering broke the stillness. Infantry began to pour down the slopes, batteries of cannon were drawn up at his rear.
“Gentlemen,” the Duke cordially addressed his staff under the elm tree, “it is about to commence. If the Prussians come up in time, we shall have a long peace. And if they don’t, please God the result will be the same.”
The almighty rumble of discharging cannon heralded the opening of the battle which would spare mankind from tyranny.
By half past one, all the legions of hell had broken loose and still the Prussians did not come. Explosions of rocket fire, highly inaccurate, lit up the field. Palls of acrid smoke stung the sinuses and parched the throat. Dying men fell down upon dead, impaled upon lances, butchered by sabres, their screams lost in the whine of shot and bursting shell.
Napoleon’s prime objective had been to engage the extreme right and left of Wellington’s lines, turn them, and open a breach in the centre. Now the thinning columns showed that he had every chance of succeeding.
It was then that Picton’s division, supported by the cavalry, came into its own. Wellington had directed them to retire well back from the ridge to avoid the worst of the barrage of French artillery as shot ricocheted up the bank. Concealing themselves behind hedges, they awaited the onslaught. They could no longer see the enemy’s progress but they could hear it. Half an hour slipped by. Then, abruptly, the firing ceased. The sound of drums beating the relentless pas de charge, the slow march, increased in volume. Shouts of Vive L’Empereur! rent the air. Coming over a mound on the right, the foremost ranks met with a hail of shot from the Rifle Brigade and fell back, every dazzling manjack of them. Those behind were thrown into disarray and hastily tried to reform. Seizing his advantage, Picton urged the Scottish infantry forward: “Rise up! Fire!” They burst through the hedges, three thousand men conjured out of the brimstone mists, bayonets poised, muskets discharging. “Charge! Charge! Hurrah!” cried Picton in an apotheosis of zeal. His moment of glory was his final one. No sooner had he given the command than a bullet in the skull sent him toppling off his horse.
Some distance away, the Earl of Uxbridge saw what was happening and immediately ordered his waiting cavalry, tightly packed to charge. “Now! In with you, my lads!” The Household Brigade, the Blues, the Lifeguards and the King’s Dragoon Guards took the hedges like steeplechasers and in a vast rolling wave of red and blue and flashing steel bore down on the astonished French, many of whom, sooner than fight hopelessly, lay down and feigned death. Matchless in courage, if not always in discipline, the rum in the veins of the British cavalry and the corporate pounding of hoofbeats intoxicated them to a pitch of ecstacy so that, rising up in their stirrups, they milled through the French infantry, sabres flailing, driving them back, fighting hand to hand as they went, and did not hear the trumpet’s recall. “Strike at the neck!” Leo exhorted his men. “Make use of your spurs!” On they pursued, right up the opposite slope and past the enemy lines to be set upon and scattered in turn by a savage horde of lancers and Kellermann’s famed cuirassiers.
Galloping down from Mont St. Jean and sweeping through the valley, the reedy wind upon his face and an edge to his sword and his senses, Leo knew a timeless moment of apperception. Scenes from the past shimmered up before him and were gone. He knew the transience of pleasure and pain, of life itself, and the tarnished vault of heaven unfurling in a soft iridescence to disclose the resolution of all conflict. Eternal peace.
His terrified mount reared. There was the grinding clash of steel upon steel, the searing fulgence of a cuirass splattered with blood, a quintessence of pain, fading, ebbing away. An Armageddon of brute legs and hooves.
Lieutenant-Colonel Penrose slumped into the mire.
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