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   Chapter 5 HORSEMEN AND SQUARES

Deeds that Won the Empire / Historic Battle Scenes By W. H. Fitchett Characters: 10074

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"But yet, though thick the shafts as snow,

Though charging knights like whirlwinds go,

Though bill-men ply the ghastly blow,

Unbroken was the ring;

The stubborn spearmen still made good

Their dark impenetrable wood,

Each stepping where his comrade stood,

The instant that he fell.

No thought was there of dastard flight;

Linked in the serried phalanx tight,

Groom fought like noble, squire like knight,

As fearlessly and well."

-SCOTT.

Napoleon's infantry had failed to capture either Hougoumont or La Haye Sainte, which was stoutly held by Baring and his Hanoverians. The great infantry attack on the British left had failed, and though the stubborn fight round the two farmhouses never paused, the main battle along the ridge for a time resolved itself into an artillery duel. Battery answered battery across the narrow valley, nearly four hundred guns in action at once, the gunners toiling fiercely to load and fire with the utmost speed. Wellington ordered his men to lie down on the reverse of the ridge; but the French had the range perfectly, and shells fell thickly on the ranks of recumbent men, and solid shot tore through them. The thunder of the artillery quickened; the French tirailleurs, showing great daring, crept in swarms up the British slope and shot down the British gunners at their pieces. Both Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte were on fire at this stage of the battle. The smoke of the conflict, in an atmosphere heavy with moisture, hung like a low pall of blackest crape over the whole field; and every now and again, on either ridge, columns of white smoke shot suddenly up and fell back like gigantic and vaporous mushrooms-the effect of exploding ammunition waggons. "Hard pounding this, gentlemen," said Wellington, as he rode past his much-enduring battalions. "Let us see who will pound longest."

At four o'clock came the great cavalry attack of the French. Through the gap between, not merely the two farmhouses, but the two farmhouses plus their zone of fire-through a gap, that is, of probably not more than 1000 yards, the French, for two long hours, poured on the British line the whole strength of their magnificent cavalry, led by Ney in person. To meet the assault, Wellington drew up his first line in a long chequer of squares, five in the first line, four, covering their intervals, in the second. In advance of them were the British guns, with their sadly reduced complement of gunners. Immediately behind the squares were the British cavalry brigades; the Household Brigade, reduced by this time to a couple of squadrons; and behind them, in turn, the Dutch-Belgian infantry, who had fortitude enough not to run away, but lacked daring sufficient to fill a place on the fire-scourged edge of actual battle. When the British front was supposed to be sufficiently macadamised by the dreadful fire of the French batteries, Ney brought on his huge mass of cavalry, twenty-one squadrons of cuirassiers, and nineteen squadrons of the Light Cavalry of the Guard.

At a slow trot they came down the French slope, crossed the valley, and, closing their ranks and quickening their stride, swept up to the British line, and broke, a swirling torrent of men and horses, over the crest. Nothing could be more majestic, and apparently resistless, than their onset-the gleam of so many thousand helmets and breastplates, the acres of wind-blown horse-hair crests and many-coloured uniforms, the thunder of so many galloping hoofs. Wellington had ordered his gunners, when the French cavalry reached their guns, to abandon them and run for shelter beneath the bayonets of the nearest square, and the brave fellows stood by their pieces pouring grape and solid shot into the glittering, swift-coming human target before them till the leading horses were almost within touch of the guns, when they ran and flung themselves under the steady British bayonets for safety.

The French horsemen, as they mounted the British slope, saw nothing before them but the ridge, empty of everything except a few abandoned guns. They were drunk with the rapture of victory, and squadron after squadron, as it reached the crest, broke into tempests of shouts and a mad gallop. All the batteries were in their possession; they looked to see an army in rout. Suddenly they beheld the double line of British squares-or, rather, "oblongs"-with their fringe of steady steel points; and from end to end of the line ran the zigzag of fire-a fire that never slackened, still less intermitted. The torrent and tumult of the horsemen never checked; but as they rode at the squares, the leading squadron-men and horses-smitten by the spray of lead, tumbled dead or dying to the ground. The following squadrons parted, swept past the flanks of the squares, scourged with deadly volleys, struggled through the intervals of the second line, emerged breathless and broken into the space beyond, to be instantly charged by the British cavalry, and driven back in wreck over the British slope. As th

e struggling mass left the crest clear, the French guns broke in a tempest of shot on the squares, while the scattered French re-formed in the valley, and prepared for a second and yet more desperate assault.

Foiled in his first attack, Ney drew the whole of Kellerman's division-thirty-seven squadrons, eleven of cuirassiers, six of carabineers, and the Bed Lancers of the Guard-into the whirlpool of his renewed assault, and this time the mass, though it came forward more slowly, was almost double in area. Gleaming with lance and sword and cuirass, it undulated as it crossed the broken slopes, till it seemed a sea, shining with 10,000 points of glancing steel, in motion. The British squares, on the reverse slope, as they obeyed the order, "Prepare to receive cavalry!" and fell grimly into formation, could hear the thunder of the coming storm-the shrill cries of the officers, the deeper shouts of the men, the clash of scabbard on stirrup, the fierce tramp of the iron-shod hoofs. Squadron after squadron came over the ridge, like successive human waves; then, like a sea broken loose, the flood of furious horsemen inundated the whole slope on which the squares were drawn up. But each square, a tiny, immovable island of red, with its fringe of smoke and steel and darting flame, stood doggedly resolute. No French leader, however daring, ventured to ride home on the very bayonets. The flood of maddened men and horses swung sullenly back across the ridge, while the British gunners ran out and scourged them with grape as they rode down the slope.

From four o'clock to six o'clock this amazing scene was repeated. No less than thirteen times, it was reckoned, the French horsemen rode over the ridge, and round the squares, and swept back wrecked and baffled. In the later charges they came on at a trot, or even a walk, and they rode through the British batteries and round the squares, in the words of the Duke of Wellington, "as if they owned them." So dense was the smoke that sometimes the British could not see their foes until, through the whirling blackness, a line of lances and crested helmets, or of tossing horse-heads, suddenly broke. Sometimes a single horseman would ride up to the very points of the British bayonets and strike at them with his sword, or fire a pistol at an officer, in the hope of drawing the fire of the square prematurely, and thus giving his comrades a chance of breaking it. With such cool courage did the British squares endure the fiery rush of the French cavalry, that at last the temper of the men grew almost scornful. They would growl out, "Here come these fools again," as a fresh sweep of horsemen came on. Sometimes the French squadrons came on at a trot; sometimes their "charge" slackened down to a walk. Warlike enthusiasm had exhausted itself. "The English squares and the French squadrons," says Lord Anglesey, "seemed almost, for a short time, hardly taking notice of each other."

In their later charges the French brought up some light batteries to the crest of the British ridge, and opened fire at point-blank distance on the solid squares. The front of the 1st Life Guards was broken by a fire of this sort, and Gronow relates how the cuirassiers made a dash at the opening. Captain Adair leaped into the gap, and killed with one blow of his sword a French officer who had actually entered the square! The British gunners always ran swiftly out when the French cavalry recoiled down the slope, remanned their guns, and opened a murderous fire on the broken French. Noting this, an officer of cuirassiers drew up his horse by a British battery, and while his men drew off, stood on guard with his single sword, and kept the gunners from remanning it till he was shot by a British infantryman. Directly the broken cavalry was clear of the ridge, the French guns opened furiously on the British lines, and men dropped thick and fast. The cavalry charges, as a matter of fact, were welcomed as affording relief from the intolerable artillery fire.

For two hours 15,000 French horsemen rode round the British squares, and again and again the ridge and rear slope of the British position was covered with lancers, cuirassiers, light and heavy dragoons, and hussars, with the British guns in their actual possession; and yet not a square was broken! A gaily dressed regiment of the Duke of Cumberland's (Hanoverian) Hussars watched the Homeric contest from the British rear, and Lord Uxbridge, as the British cavalry were completely exhausted by their dashes at the French horsemen as they broke through the chequer of the squares, rode up to them and called on them to follow him in a charge. The colonel declined, explaining that his men owned their own horses, and could not expose them to any risk of damage! These remarkable warriors, in fact, moved in a body, and with much expedition, off the field, Seymour (Lord Uxbridge's aide) taking their colonel by the collar and shaking him as a dog shakes a rat, by way of expressing his view of the performance.

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