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   Chapter 2 HOUGOUMONT

Deeds that Won the Empire / Historic Battle Scenes By W. H. Fitchett Characters: 3960

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"The trumpets sound, the banners fly,

The glittering spears are rankèd ready,

The shouts o' war are heard afar,

The battle closes thick and bloody."

-BURNS.

The ground was heavy with the rains of the night, and Napoleon lingered till nearly noon before he launched his attack on the British lines. At ten minutes to twelve the first heavy gun rang sullenly from the French ridge, and from the French left Reille's corps, 6000 strong, flung itself on Hougoumont. The French are magnificent skirmishers, and as the great mass moved down the slope, a dense spray of tirailleurs ran swiftly before it, reached the hedge, and broke into the wood, which, in a moment, was full of white smoke and the red flashes of musketry. In a solid mass the main body followed; but the moment it came within range, the British guns keeping guard over Hougoumont smote it with a heavy fire. The French batteries answered fiercely, while in the garden and orchard below the Guards and the French fought almost literally muzzle to muzzle.

Hougoumont was a strong post. The fire from the windows in the main building commanded the orchard, that from the orchard commanded the wood, that from the wood swept the ridge. The French had crossed the ridge, cleared the wood, and were driving the Guards, fighting vehemently, out of the orchard into the hollow road between the house and the British ridge. But they could do no more. The light companies of the Foot Guards, under Lieut.-Colonel Macdonnell, held the buildings and orchard, Lord Saltoun being in command of the latter. Muffling, the Prussian commissioner on Wellington's staff, doubted whether Hougoumont could be held against the enemy; but Wellington had great confidence in Macdonnell, a Highlander of gigantic strength and coolest daring, and nobly did this brave Scotsman fulfil his trust. All day long the attack thundered round Hougoumont. The French masses moved again and again to the assault upon it; it was scourged

with musketry and set on fire with shells. But steadfastly under the roar of the guns and the fierce crackle of small-arms, and even while the roofs were in flames above their heads, the gallant Guardsmen held their post. Once the main gateway was burst open, and the French broke in. They were instantly bayoneted, and Macdonnell, with a cluster of officers and a sergeant named Graham, by sheer force shut the gate again in the face of the desperate French. In the fire which partially consumed the building, some of the British wounded were burned to death, and Mercer, who visited the spot the morning after the fight, declared that in the orchard and around the walls of the farmhouse the dead lay as thick as on the breach of Badajos.

More than 2000 killed and wounded fell in the long seven hours' fight which raged round this Belgian farmhouse. More than 12,000 infantry were flung into the attack; the defence, including the Dutch and Belgians in the wood, never exceeded 2000 men. But when, in the tumult of the victorious advance of the British at nightfall, Wellington found himself for a moment beside Muffling, with a flash of exultation rare in a man so self-controlled, he shouted, "Well, you see Macdonnell held Hougoumont after all!" Towards evening, at the close of the fight, Lord Saltoun, with the wreck of the light companies of the Guards, joined the main body of their division on the ridge. As they came up to the lines, a scanty group with torn uniforms and smoke-blackened faces, the sole survivors of the gallant hundreds who had fought continuously for seven hours, General Maitland rode out to meet them and cried, "Your defence has saved the army! Every man of you deserves promotion." Long afterwards a patriotic Briton bequeathed 500 pounds to the bravest soldier at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington to be the judge. The Duke named Macdonnell, who handed the money to the sergeant who was his comrade in the struggle at the gate of Hougoumont.

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