Saturday, June 17, 2017

Off to the Races!


Saturday dawned, Guy and his mates were up early, preparing a meal and generally playing the old soldier, lying about and swapping tales of the day before. There was a bit of giddy excitement in their behavior. They were alive, they had food to eat, and the day, starting to get hot, was still fine.

To their front the English and their Dutch-Belgian allies were still in place, watching to see what the French would do next. Between their bivouac and the crossroads were numerous dead and wounded. They had heard the cries for water during the night, but they stayed close to their campfires. No one would venture into the night where the peasants were about their dark business.

Life in the 19th Century was hard, peasants worked from sunup to sundown for little reward. When armies came through, their fields were trampled, their livestock taken, and often enough their womenfolk harassed, or worse. So when the battle was over, those who could stomach it went out into the fields, avoiding the campfires of the living.

They stripped the dead of anything of value, those who weren't quite dead yet were "helped along." No mercy was offered, the veterans among the wounded knew to lie still and pray to be passed by. In the middle of a campaign it would be unusual to stop and collect the wounded.

Military medicine was primitive enough, wounded arms and legs were lopped off, with no anesthesia. Wounds elsewhere were usually fatal, there was no understanding of sepsis. Even if a man survived a night on the field and was picked up and taken to the surgeons, the hospitals were bad enough to kill men who would have survived their wounds in modern times.

But the French and Allied troops who survived Quatre-Bras didn't think of that, they were alive, the campaign was not yet over, even though many among the French thought it was, and a new day was dawning. Around the survivors lay the bodies of over 8,000 dead and wounded. Many of the latter would be dead before the day was out.


Maréchal Ney was finishing his breakfast. Dispatches had been sent out to the Emperor asking for new orders. Ney had been rather vague with his description of the events of the 16th. While he didn't say that his wing of the army had been repulsed, he didn't claim to hold the crossroads either. He was familiar with the Emperor's temper!

It seems that the Emperor's instructions to take the crossroads and then turn to come down on the Prussian flank had been whittled down to "take the crossroads" in Ney's memory. So Ney's dispatch indicated that he would have seized the crossroads if only d'Erlon's corps had marched to his support. It seems that that worthy had spent the day marching back and forth between the two battlefields and had contributed nothing to either. (Except for the brief scare experienced by young Adalwolf Eckstein and his comrades at Ligny.)

The ruins of the village of Ligny. (Source)
The Emperor rode down the line, basking in the cheers of "Vive L'Empereur!!" It felt good to be victorious again. Initial reports revealed a large body of disorganized Prussians, more a mob than an army, retreating to the northeast, that is, away from their English allies. Soon he would send Grouchy with two corps, those of Vandamme and Gérard, to pursue the defeated Prussians. He would take the Garde and Lobau's corps to join Ney. Tonight they would sleep in Brussels!

As he spoke with a colonel of grenadiers he noticed a rider come up to his aide, de la Bédoyère. Somewhat annoyed he broke away from praising the colonel's men and snapped at his aide...

"General de la Bédoyère, what is this distraction! Quickly!

Moving his horse closer to the Emperor, so as not to be overheard, de la Bédoyère informed the Emperor that the men sighted retreating to the northeast were but a large group of stragglers and deserters. The main Prussian army was withdrawing in good order to the north, in the direction of Wavre.

Staggered for a moment, the Emperor realized that he had made a mistake in not launching the pursuit immediately.

"Maréchal de Grouchy! To me!"

Quickly ordering de Grouchy to take III and IV Corps and press hard after the Prussians, he enjoined the newly minted Marshal of France to keep the point of his sword in Blücher's kidneys.

"You must press them, do not let them regroup, keep them away from Wellington. No go, activity, speed, I recommend them to you! Go!"

"Go where Sire?" The Maréchal was confused by the abruptness of the Emperor's manner. Vandamme, always a pain in the ass, replied for the Emperor -

"Certainly Monsieur le Maréchal, north, where else? After the Prussians!!"


At the crossroads of Quatre-Bras, Sir Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington, read the dispatch from von Blücher, sighed and looked to his quartermaster, Colonel William Howe De Lancey -

"Sir William!"

"Yes, Your Grace?"

"It seems the Prussians have been badly mauled and are busy heading north. Towards Wavre. As they go back, so must we. I don't wish to face Bonaparte without Prussian support."

"I shall get the army moving Your Grace. Where should I direct them?"

"The position we discussed Wednesday evening, the ridge at Mont-Saint-Jean. If the Prussians march to join us there, we shall see this thing through. Now off with you, let's move!"

As Colonel De Lancey set things in motion. The Duke looked south towards the French positions and muttered...

"No doubt they will say in England that we have been defeated, but as the Prussians retreat, so must I."

With that the Duke turned his horse and rode to the north.


With much haste the Emperor and his entourage rode into the encampment of Reille's II Corps. He was furious at the lack of activity.

"Ney, you have betrayed the Empire. Why are you not attacking?"

"Sire, I..."

At that point a courier came in from Reille's leading division.

"Sire, the English are gone!"

The Emperor Napoléon at that point seemed to revert to his days as a junior officer of artillery. Beckoning his aides in and directing them to the various units of Reille's and d'Erlon's corps, he had his army moving within a short time. And then, the thickening clouds split open, the countryside was engulfed with pounding rain, flashing lightning, and roaring thunder.
“The sky had become overcast since the morning, and at this moment presented a most extraordinary appearance. Large isolated masses of a thunder cloud, of the deepest  most  inky  black,  their  lower edges hard and strongly defined, lagging down, as if momentarily about to burst, involving our position and everything on it in deep and gloomy obscurity.” - Captain Alexander Mercer, Royal Horse Artillery (Source)
As the Prussians plodded north over muddy farm tracks pursued in rather desultory fashion by the French, the pursuit of the English began on the road to Brussels. The Allied cavalry and horse artillery under General Henry Paget, Lord Uxbridge, performed superbly.

As the Allied infantry and foot artillery retreated up the road, the Allied cavalry would form up, their guns would deploy,  fire, and force the French to deploy for battle. Then it was off again, limber up, turn about and off you go.

Guy Charron, newly promoted corporal, and his file followed in march column behind the pursuit, sometimes slogging through the increasingly muddy fields to let the cannon use the road, sometimes on the road itself. And like soldiers everywhere, in all epochs, they complained. Soaked to the bone, slogging through mud and what would be at the end?

Another day. Another battle. Then Brussels, and victory!

But les Anglais moved off with confidence, they had the Duke. What more could they ask for? Once they got to where the Duke wanted them, well then, they'd see Boney off, wouldn't they?




It was Saturday, the 17th of June, 1815.




6 comments:

  1. If only, if only....

    The story of so many battles, from Long Island to Antietam to Pearl Harbor to Normandy. As many battles have been lost as won.

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    Replies
    1. The story of our species is written in blood.

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  2. Thanks for the post. I await, with bated breath, more on this history lesson.

    Paul L. Quandt

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  3. In telling your story of some combatants in this fight, you write, as they would say in that time, " tolerable fiction, Damn your eyes, but you do!"

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Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)