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Deeds that Won the Empire / Historic Battle Scenes By W. H. Fitchett Characters: 9449

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

"Beneath their fire, in full career,

Rush'd on the ponderous cuirassier,

The lancer couch'd his ruthless spear,

And hurrying as to havoc near,

The cohorts' eagles flew.

In one dark torrent, broad and strong,

The advancing onset roll'd along,

Forth harbinger'd by fierce acclaim

That, from the shroud of smoke and flame,

Peal'd wildly the imperial name!"


The attack of the Household and Union Brigades at Waterloo is one of the most dazzling and dramatic incidents of the great fight. For suddenness, fire, and far-reaching results, it would be difficult to parallel that famous charge in the history of war. The Household Brigade, consisting of the 1st and 2nd Life Guards, and the Dragoon Guards, with the Blues in support, moved first. Lord Uxbridge, temporarily exchanging the functions of general for those of a squadron-leader, heading the attack. They leaped the hedge, or burst through it, crossed the road-at that point of shallow depth-and met the French cuirassiers in full charge. The British were bigger men on bigger horses, and they had gained the full momentum of their charge when the two lines met. The French, to do them justice, did not shrink. The charging lines crashed together, like living and swiftly moving walls, and the sound of their impact rang sharp, sudden, deep, and long drawn out, above the din of the conflict. The French wore armour, and carried longer swords than the British, but they were swept away in an instant, and went, a broken and shattered mass of men and horses, down the slope. Some of them were tumbled into the sand-pit, amongst the astonished Rifles there, who instantly bayoneted them. Others were swept upon the masses of their own infantry, fiercely followed by the Life Guards.

The 2nd Life Guards and the Dragoons, coming on a little in the rear, struck the right regiment of the cuirassiers and hurled them across the junction of the roads. Shaw, the famous Life Guardsman, was killed here. He was a perfect swordsman, a man of colossal strength, and is said to have cut down, through helmet and skull, no fewer than nine men in the mêlée. How Shaw actually died is a matter of dispute. Colonel Marten says he was shot by a cuirassier who stood clear of the mêlée, coolly taking pot-shots at the English Guardsmen. Captain Kelly, a brilliant soldier, who rode in the charge beside Shaw, says that Shaw was killed by a thrust through the body from a French colonel of the cuirassiers, whom Kelly himself, in return, clove through helmet and skull.

Meanwhile the Union Brigade on the left, consisting of the Royals and the Inniskillings, with the Scots Greys in support, had broken into the fight. The Royals, coming on at full speed over the crest of the ridge, broke upon the astonished vision of the French infantry at a distance of less than a hundred yards. It was an alarming vision of waving swords, crested helmets, fierce red nostrils, and galloping hoofs. The leading files tried to turn, but in an instant the Royals were upon them, cutting them down furiously. De Lacy Evans, who rode in the charge, says, "They fled like a flock of sheep." Colonel Clark Kennedy adds that the "jamb" in the French was so thick that the men could not bring down their arms or level a musket, and the Dragoons rode in the intervals between their formation, reaching forward with the stroke of their long swords, and slaying at will. More than 2000 Frenchmen flung down their arms and surrendered; and on the next morning the abandoned muskets were still lying in long straight lines and regular order, showing that the men had surrendered before their lines were broken. The charge of the Inniskillings to the left of the Royals was just as furious and just as successful. They broke on the front of Donzdot's divisions and simply ground them to powder.

The Scots Greys were supposed to be "in support"; but coming swiftly up, they suddenly saw on their left shoulder Marcognet's divisions, the extreme right of the French. At that sight the Greys swung a little off to their left, swept through the intervals of the 92nd, and smote the French battalions full in front. As the Greys rode through the intervals of the footmen-Scotch horsemen through Scotch infantry-the Scotch blood in both regiments naturally took fire. Greetings in broadest Doric flew from man to man. The pipes skirled fiercely. "Scotland for ever!" went up in a stormy shout from the kilted lines. The Greys, riding fast, sometimes jostled, or even struck down, some of the 92nd; and Armour, the rough-rider of the Greys, has told how the Highlanders shouted, "I didna think ye wad hae saired me sae!" Many of the Highlanders caught hold of the stirrups

of the Greys and raced forward with them-Scotsmen calling to Scotsmen-into the ranks of the French. The 92nd, in fact, according to the testimony of their own officers, "went half mad." What could resist such a charge?

The two British cavalry brigades were by this time riding roughly abreast, the men drunk with warlike excitement and completely out of hand, and most of their officers were little better. They simply rode over D'Erlon's broken ranks. So brave were some of the French, however, that again and again a solitary soldier or officer would leap out of the ranks as the English cavalry came on, and charge them single-handed! One French private deliberately ran out as the Inniskillings came on at full gallop, knelt before the swiftly galloping line of men and horses, coolly shot the adjutant of the Inniskillings through the head, and was himself instantly trodden into a bloody pulp! The British squadrons, wildly disordered, but drunk with battle fury, and each man fighting for his "ain hand," swept across the valley, rode up to the crest of the French position, stormed through the great battery there, slew drivers and horses, and so completely wrecked the battery that forty guns out of its seventy never came into action again. Some of the men, in the rapture of the fight, broke through to the second line of the French, and told tales, after the mad adventure was over, of how they had come upon French artillery drivers, mere boys, sitting crying on their horses while the tragedy and tumult of the mêlée swept past them. Some of the older officers tried to rally and re-form their men; and Lord Uxbridge, by this time beginning to remember that he was a general and not a dragoon, looked round for his "supports," who, as it happened, oblivious of the duty of "supporting" anybody, were busy fighting on their own account, and were riding furiously in the very front ranks.

Then there came the French counter-stroke. The French batteries opened on the triumphant, but disordered British squadrons; a brigade of lancers smote them on the flank and rolled them up. Lord Edward Somerset, who commanded the Household Brigade, was unhorsed, and saved his life by scrambling dexterously, but ignobly, through a hedge. Sir William Ponsonby, who commanded the Union Brigade, had ridden his horse to a dead standstill; the lancers caught him standing helpless in the middle of a ploughed field, and slew him with a dozen lance-thrusts. Vandeleur's Light Cavalry Brigade was by this time moving down from the British front, and behind its steady squadrons the broken remains of the two brigades found shelter.

Though the British cavalry suffered terribly in retiring, nevertheless they had accomplished what Sir Evelyn Wood describes as "one of the most brilliant successes ever achieved by horsemen over infantry." These two brigades-which did not number more than 2000 swords-wrecked an entire infantry corps, disabled forty guns, overthrew a division of cuirassiers, took 3000 prisoners, and captured two eagles. The moral effect of the charge was, perhaps, greater than even its material results. The French infantry never afterwards throughout the battle, until the Old Guard appeared upon the scene, moved forward with real confidence against the British position. Those "terrible horsemen" had stamped themselves upon their imagination.

The story of how the eagles were captured is worth telling. Captain Clark Kennedy of the Dragoons took one. He was riding vehemently in the early stage of the charge, when he caught sight of the cuirassier officer carrying the eagle, with his covering men, trying to break through the mêlée and escape. "I gave the order to my men," he says, "'Right shoulders forward; attack the colours.'" He himself overtook the officer, ran him through the body, and seized the eagle. He tried to break the eagle from the pole and push it inside his coat for security, but, failing, gave it to his corporal to carry to the rear. The other colour was taken by Ewart, a sergeant of the Greys, a very fine swordsman. He overtook the officer carrying the colour, and, to quote his own story, "he and I had a hard contest for it. He made a thrust at my groin; I parried it off, and cut him down through the head. After this a lancer came at me. I threw the lance off by my right side, and cut him through the chin and upwards through the teeth. Next, a foot-soldier fired at me, and then charged me with his bayonet, which I also had the good luck to parry, and then I cut him down through the head. Thus ended the contest. As I was about to follow the regiment, the general said, 'My brave fellow, take that to the rear; you have done enough till you get quit of it.'"

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