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   Chapter 3 PICTON AND D'ERLON

Deeds that Won the Empire / Historic Battle Scenes By W. H. Fitchett Characters: 5597

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"But on the British heart were lost

The terrors of the charging host;

For not an eye the storm that view'd

Changed its proud glance of fortitude.

Nor was one forward footstep staid,

As dropp'd the dying and the dead."

-SCOTT.

Meantime a furious artillery duel raged between the opposing ridges. Wellington had ordered his gunners not to fire at the French batteries, but only at the French columns, while the French, in the main, concentrated their fire on the British guns. French practice under these conditions was naturally very beautiful, for no hostile bullets disturbed their aim, and the British gunners fell fast; yet their fire on the French masses was most deadly. At two o'clock Napoleon launched his great infantry attack, led by D'Erlon, against La Haye Sainte and the British left. It was an attack of terrific strength. Four divisions, numbering 16,000 men, moved forward in echelon, with intervals between them of 400 paces; seventy-two guns swept as with a besom of fire the path along which these huge masses advanced with shouts to the attack, while thirty light guns moved in the intervals between them; and a cavalry division, consisting of lancers and cuirassiers, rode on their flank ready to charge the broken masses of the British infantry. The British line at this point consisted of Picton's division, formed of the shattered remains of Kempt's and Pack's brigades, who had suffered heavily at Quatre Bras. They formed a mere thread of scarlet, a slender two-deep line of about 3000 men. As the great mass of the enemy came slowly on, the British line was "dressed," the men ceased to talk, except in monosyllables, the skirmishers lying flat on the trampled corn prepared to fire. The grape of the French guns smote Picton's red lines with fury, and the men fell fast, yet they closed up at the word of command with the most perfect coolness. The French skirmishers, too, running forward with great speed and daring, drove in the British skirmishers, who came running back to the main line smoke-begrimed and breathless.

As the French masses began to ascend the British slope, the French guns had to cease their fire for fear of striking their own forces. The British infantry, too, being drawn slightly back from the crest, were out of sight, and the leading French files saw nothing before them but a cluster of British batteries and a this line of quickly retreating skirmishers. A Dutch-Belgian brigade had, somehow, been placed on the exterior slope of the hill, and when D'Erlon's huge battalions came on, almost shaking the earth with their steady tread, the Dutch-Belgians simply took to their heels and ran. They swept, a crowd of fugitives, through the intervals of the British lines, and were received with groans and hootings, the me

n with difficulty being restrained from firing upon them.

A sand-pit lay in the track of the French columns on the left. This was held by some companies of the 95th Rifles, and these opened a fire so sudden and close and deadly that the huge mass of the French swung almost involuntarily to the right, off its true track; then with fierce roll of drums and shouts of "En avant!" the Frenchmen reached the crest. Suddenly there rose before them Picton's steady lines, along which there ran, in one red flame from end to end, a dreadful volley. Again the fierce musketry crackled, and yet again. The Frenchmen tried to deploy, and Picton, seizing the moment, ordered his lines to charge. "Charge! charge!" he cried. "Hurrah!"

It is yet a matter keenly disputed as to whether or not D'Erlon's men actually pierced the British line. It is alleged that the Highlanders were thrown into confusion, and it is certain that Picton's last words to his aide-de-camp, Captain Seymour, were, "Rally the Highlanders!" Pack, too, appealed to the 92nd. "You must charge," he said; "all in front have given way." However this may be, the British regiments charged, and the swift and resolute advance of Picton's lines-though it was a charge of 3000 men on a body four times their number-was irresistible. The leading ranks of the French opened a hurried fire, under which Picton himself fell shot through the head; then as the British line came on at the double-the men with bent heads, the level bayonets one steady edge of steel, the fierce light which gleams along the fighting line playing on them-the leading battalions of the French halted irresolute, shrunk back, swayed to and fro, and fell into a shapeless receding mass.

There were, of course, many individual instances of great gallantry amongst them. Thus a French mounted officer had his horse shot, and when he struggled from beneath his fallen charger he found himself almost under the bayonets of the 32nd. But just in front of the British line was an officer carrying the colours of the regiment, and the brave Frenchman instantly leaped upon him. He would capture the flag! There was a momentary struggle, and the British officer at the head of the wing shouted, "Save the brave fellow!" but almost at the same moment the gallant Frenchman was bayoneted by the colour-sergeant, and shot by a British infantryman.

The head of the French column was falling to pieces, but the main body was yet steady, and the cuirassiers covering its flank were coming swiftly on. But at this moment there broke upon them the terrific counterstroke, not of Wellington, but of Lord Uxbridge, into whose hands Wellington, with a degree of confidence quite unusual for him, had given the absolute control of his cavalry, fettering him by no specific orders.

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