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   Chapter 1 THE RIVAL HOSTS

Deeds that Won the Empire / Historic Battle Scenes By W. H. Fitchett Characters: 10389

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"Hark! I hear the tramp of thousands,

And of armèd men the hum;

Lo! a nation's hosts have gathered

Round the quick alarming drum,-

Saying, 'Come,

Freeman, come,

Ere your heritage be wasted,' said the quick alarming drum.

******

'Let me of my heart take counsel:

War is not of life the sum;

Who shall stay and reap the harvest

When the autumn days shall come?'

But the drum

Echoed, 'Come!

Death shall reap the braver harvest,' said the solemn-sounding drum.

What if, 'mid the cannons' thunder,

Whistling shot and bursting bomb,

When my brothers fall around me,

Should my heart grow cold and numb?'

But the drum

Answered, 'Come!

Better there in death united, than in life a recreant,-Come!'"

-BRET HARTE.

For weeks the British and Prussian armies, scattered over a district 100 miles by 40, had been keeping guard over the French frontier. Mighty hosts of Russians and Austrians were creeping slowly across Europe to join them. Napoleon, skilfully shrouding his movements in impenetrable secrecy, was about to leap across the Sambre, and both Blücher and Wellington had to guess what would be his point of attack; and they, as it happened, guessed wrongly. Napoleon's strategy was determined partly by his knowledge of the personal characters of the two generals, and partly by the fact that the bases of the allied armies lay at widely separate points-the English base at Antwerp, the Prussian on the Rhine. Blücher was essentially "a hussar general"; the fighting impulse ran riot in his blood. If attacked, he would certainly fight where he stood; if defeated, and driven back on his base, he must move in diverging lines from Wellington. That Blücher would abandon his base to keep touch with Wellington-as actually happened-Napoleon never guessed. Wellington, cooler and more methodical than his Prussian fellow-commander, would not fight, it was certain, till his troops were called in on every side and he was ready. Blücher was nearer the French frontier. Napoleon calculated that he could leap upon him, bar Wellington from coming to his help by planting Ney at Quatre Bras, win a great battle before Wellington could join hands with his ally, and then in turn crush Wellington. It was splendid strategy, splendidly begun, but left fatally incomplete.

Napoleon fought and defeated Blücher at Ligny on June 16, attacking Quatre Bras at the same time, so as to occupy the English. Wellington visited Blücher's lines before the fight began, and said to him, "Every general knows his own men, but if my lines were drawn up in this fashion I should expect to get beaten;" and as he cantered back to his own army he said to those about him, "If Bonaparte be what I suppose he is, the Prussians will get a -- good licking to-day." Captain Bowles was standing beside the Duke at Quatre Bras on the morning of the 17th, when a Prussian staff-officer, his horse covered with sweat, galloped up and whispered an agitated message in the Duke's ear. The Duke, without a change of countenance, dismissed him, and, turning to Bowles, said, "Old Blücher has had a -- good licking, and gone back to Wavre, eighteen miles. As he has gone back, we must go too. I suppose in England they will say we have been licked. I can't help it! As they have gone back, we must go too." And in five minutes, without stirring from the spot, he had given complete orders for a retreat to Waterloo.

The low ridge on which the Duke took up his position runs east and west. The road from Brussels to the south, just before it crosses the crest of the ridge, divides like the upper part of the letter Y into two roads, that on the right, or westward, running to Nivelles, that on the left, or eastward, to Charleroi. A country road, in parts only a couple of feet deep, in parts sunk from twelve to fifteen feet, traverses the crest of the ridge, and intersects the two roads just named before they unite to form the main Brussels road. Two farmhouses-La Haye Sainte, on the Charleroi road, and Hougoumont, on that to Nivelles-stand out some 250 yards in advance of the ridge. Thus the cross-road served as a ditch to Wellington's front; the two farmhouses were, so to speak, horn-works guarding his right centre and left centre; while in the little valley on the reverse side of the crest Wellington was able to act on his favourite tactics of keeping his men out of sight till the moment for action arrived. The ridge, in fact, to the French generals who surveyed it from La Belle Alliance seemed almost bare, showing nothing but batteries at intervals along the crest, and a spray of skirmishers on the slopes below.

Looked at from the British ridge, the plain over which the great fight raged is a picture of pastoral simplicity and peace. The crops that Sunday morning were high upon it, the dark green of wheat and clover chequered with the lighter green of rye and oats. No fences intersect the plain; a few farmhouses, each with a leafy girdle of trees, and the brown roofs of one or two distant villages, alone break the level floor of green. The present writer has twice visited Waterloo, and the image of verdurous and leafy peace conv

eyed by the landscape is still most vivid. Only Hougoumont, where the orchard walls are still pierced by the loop-holes through which the Guards fired that long June Sunday, helps one to realise the fierce strife which once raged and echoed over this rich valley with its grassy carpet of vivid green. Waterloo is a battlefield of singularly small dimensions. The British front did not extend for more than two miles; the gap betwixt Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte, through which Ney poured his living tide of cavalry, 15,000 strong, is only 900 yards wide, a distance equal, say, to a couple of city blocks. The ridge on which Napoleon drew up his army is less than 2000 yards distant from that on which the British stood. It sloped steadily upward, and, as a consequence. Napoleon's whole force was disclosed at a glance, and every combination of troops made in preparation for an attack on the British line was clearly visible, a fact which greatly assisted Wellington in his arrangements for meeting it.

The opposing armies differed rather in quality than in numbers. Wellington had, roughly, 50,000 infantry, 12,000 cavalry, a little less than 6000 artillerymen; a total of 67,000 men and 156 guns. Napoleon had 49,000 infantry, nearly 16,000 cavalry, over 7000 artillery; a total of, say, 72,000 men, with 246 guns. In infantry the two armies were about equal, in cavalry the French were superior, and in guns their superiority was enormous. But the French were war-hardened veterans, the men of Austerlitz and of Wagram, of one blood and speech and military type, a homogeneous mass, on flame with warlike enthusiasm. Of Wellington's troops, only 30,000 were British and German; many even of these had never seen a shot fired in battle, and were raw drafts from the militia, still wearing the militia uniform. Only 12,000 were old Peninsula troops. Less than 7000 of Wellington's cavalry were British, and took any part in the actual battle. Wellington himself somewhat ungratefully described his force as an "infamous army"; "the worst army ever brought together!" Nearly 18,000 were Dutch-Belgians, whose courage was doubtful, and whose loyalty was still more vehemently suspected. Wellington had placed some battalions of these as part of the force holding Hougoumont; but when, an hour before the battle actually began, Napoleon rode through his troops, and their tumultuous shouts echoed in a tempest of sound across to the British lines, the effect on the Dutch-Belgians in Hougoumont was so instant and visible that Wellington at once withdrew them. "The mere name of Napoleon," he said, "had beaten them before they fired a shot!" The French themselves did justice to the native fighting quality of the British. "The English infantry," as Foy told the Emperor on the morning of Waterloo, "are the very d-- to fight;" and Napoleon, five years after, at St. Helena, said, "One might as well try to charge through a wall." Soult, again, told Napoleon, "Sire, I know these English. They will die on the ground on which they stand before they lose it." That this was true, even of the raw lads from the militia, Waterloo proved. But it is idle to deny that of the two armies the French, tried by abstract military tests, was far the stronger.

The very aspect of the two armies reflected their different characteristics. A grim silence brooded over the British position. Nothing was visible except the scattered clusters of guns and the outposts. The French army, on the other side, was a magnificent spectacle, gay with flags, and as many-coloured as a rainbow. Eleven columns deployed simultaneously, and formed three huge lines of serried infantry. They were flanked by mail-clad cuirassiers, with glittering helmets and breast-plates; lines of scarlet-clad lancers; and hussars, with bearskin caps and jackets glittering with gold lace. The black and menacing masses of the Old Guard and of the Young Guard, with their huge bearskin caps, formed the reserve. As Napoleon, with a glittering staff, swept through his army, the bands of 114 battalions and 112 squadrons poured upon the peaceful air of that June Sunday the martial cadences of the Marseillaise, and the "Vive l'Empereur!" which broke from the crowded host was heard distinctly by the grimly listening ranks of the British. "As far as the eye could reach," says one who describes the fight from the French ranks, "nothing was to be seen but cuirasses, helmets, busbies, sabres and lances, and glittering lines of bayonets."

As for the British, there was no tumult of enthusiasm visible among them. Flat on the ground, in double files, on the reverse side of the hill, the men lay, and jested in rough fashion with each other, while the officers in little groups stood on the ridge and watched the French movements. Let it be remembered that many of the troops had fought desperately on the 16th, and retreated on the 17th from Quatre Bras to Waterloo under furious rain, and the whole army was soddened and chilled with sleeping unsheltered on the soaked ground. Many of the men, as they rose hungry and shivering from their sleeping-place in the mud, were so stiff and cramped that they could not stand upright.

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