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Deeds that Won the Empire / Historic Battle Scenes By W. H. Fitchett Characters: 9398

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

"Three hundred cannon-mouths roar'd loud;

And from their throats with flash and cloud

Their showers of iron threw."


One of the most realistic pictures of the fight at this stage is given by Captain Mercer, in command of a battery of horse artillery. Mercer was on the extreme British right during the first stage of the battle, and only got occasional glimpses of the ridge where the fight was raging-intermittent visions of French cavalry riding in furious charges, and abandoned British batteries with guns, muzzle in air, against the background of grey and whirling smoke. About three o'clock, in the height of the cavalry struggle, Fraser, who was in chief command of the horse artillery, galloped down the reverse slope to Mercer's battery, his face black with powder, his uniform torn, and brought the troop at full gallop to the central ridge, explaining as they rode the Duke's orders, that, when the French cavalry charged home, Mercer and his men should take refuge under the bayonets of the nearest square.

As they neared the crest at a gallop, Mercer describes the humming as of innumerable and gigantic gnats that filled the bullet-torn air. He found his position betwixt two squares of Brunswickers, in whose ranks the French guns were making huge gaps, while the officers and sergeants were busy literally pushing the men together. "The men," says Mercer, "were like wooden figures, semi-paralysed with the horrors of the fight about them;" and to have attempted to run to them for shelter would certainly have been the signal for the whole mass to dissolve. Through the smoke ahead, not a hundred yards distant, were the French squadrons coming on at a trot. The British guns were swung round, unlimbered, loaded with case-shot, and fire opened with breathless speed. Still the French came on; but as gun after gun came into action, their pace slowed down to a walk, till the front files could endure the terrific fire no longer. They turned round and tried to ride back. "I actually saw them," says Mercer, "using the pommels of their swords to fight their way out of the mêlée." Some, made desperate by finding themselves penned up at the very muzzles of the British guns, dashed through their intervals, but without thinking of using their swords. Presently the mass broke and ebbed, a flood of shattered squadrons, down the slope. They rallied quickly, however, and their helmets could be seen over the curve of the slope as the officers dressed the lines.

The French tirailleurs, meanwhile, crept up within forty yards of the battery, and were busy shooting down Mercer's gunners. Mercer, to keep his men steady, rode slowly to and fro in front of the muzzles of his guns, the men standing with lighted port-fires. The tirailleurs, almost within pistol-shot, seized the opportunity to take pot-shots at him. He shook his glove, with the word "Scélérat," at one of them; the fellow grinned, and took a leisurely aim at Mercer, the muzzle of his gun following him as he turned to and fro in his promenade before his own pieces. The Frenchman fired, and the ball passed at the back of Mercer's neck into the forehead of the leading driver of one of his guns.

But the cavalry was coming on again in solid squadrons, a column so deep that when the leading files were within sixty yards of Mercer's guns the rear of the great mass was still out of sight. The pace was a deliberate trot. "They moved in profound silence," says Mercer, and the only sound that could be heard from them, amidst the incessant roar of battle, was the low, thunder-like reverberation of the ground beneath the simultaneous tread of so many horses, through which ran a jangling ripple of sharp metallic sound, the ring of steel on steel. The British gunners, on their part, showed a stern coolness fully equal to the occasion. Every man stood steadily at his post, "the guns ready loaded with round-shot first, and a case over it; the tubes were in the vents, the port-fires glared and sputtered behind the wheels." The column was led on this time by an officer in a rich uniform, his breast covered with decorations, whose earnest gesticulations were strangely contrasted with the solemn demeanour of those to whom they were addressed. Mercer allowed the leading squadron to come within sixty yards, then lifted his glove as the signal to fire. Nearly the whole leading rank fell in an instant, while the round shot pierced the column. The front, covered with struggling horses and men, was impassable. Some of the braver spirits did break their way through, only to fall, man and horse, at the very muzzles, of the guns. "Our guns," says Mercer, "were served with astonishing a

ctivity, and men and horses tumbled before them like nine-pins." Where the horse alone was killed, the cuirassier could be seen stripping himself of his armour with desperate haste to escape. The mass of the French for a moment stood still, then broke to pieces and fled. Again they came on, with exactly the same result. So dreadful was the carnage, that on the next day, Mercer, looking back from the French ridge, could identify the position held by his battery by the huge mound of slaughtered men and horses lying in front of it. The French at last brought up a battery, which opened a flanking fire on Mercer's guns; he swung round two of his pieces to meet the attack, and the combat raged till, out of 200 fine horses in Mercer's troop, 140 lay dead or dying, and two men out of every three were disabled.

Ney's thirteen cavalry charges on the British position were magnificent, but they were a failure. They did not break a single square, nor permanently disable a single gun. Both Wellington and Napoleon are accused of having flung away their cavalry; but Wellington-or, rather, Uxbridge-by expending only 2000 sabres, wrecked, as we have seen, a French infantry corps, destroyed a battery of 40 guns, and took 3000 prisoners. Ney practically used up 15,000 magnificent horsemen without a single appreciable result. Napoleon, at St. Helena, put the blame of his wasted cavalry on Ney's hot-headed impetuosity. The cavalry attack, he said, was made without his orders; Kellerman's division joined in the attack without even Ney's orders. But that Napoleon should watch for two hours his whole cavalry force wrecking itself in thirteen successive and baffled assaults on the British squares, without his orders, is an utterly incredible supposition.

If two hours of cavalry assault, punctuated as with flame by the fire of 200 guns, did not destroy the stubborn British line, it cannot be denied that it shook it terribly. The British ridge was strewn with the dead and dying. Regiments had shrunk to companies, companies to mere files. "Our square," says Gronow, "presented a shocking sight. We were nearly suffocated by the smoke and smell from burnt cartridges. It was impossible to move a step without treading on a wounded or slain comrade." "Where is your brigade?" Vivian asked of Lord Edward Somerset, who commanded the Life Guards. "Here," said Lord Edward, pointing to two scanty squadrons, and a long line of wounded or mutilated horses. Before nightfall the two gallant brigades that made the great cavalry charge of the morning had contracted to a single squadron of fifty files. Wellington sent an aide-de-camp to ask General Hackett, "What square of his that was which was so far in advance?" It was a mass of killed and wounded men belonging to the 30th and 73rd regiments that lay slain, yet in ranks, on the spot the square had occupied at one period of the fight, and from which it had been withdrawn. Seen through the whirling smoke, this quadrangle of corpses looked like a square of living men. The destruction wrought by the French guns on the British squares was, in brief, terrific. By a single discharge of grape upon a German square, one of its sides was completely blown away, and the "square" transfigured into a triangle, with its base a line of slaughtered men. The effect produced by cannon-shot at short range on solid masses of men was sometimes very extraordinary. Thus Croker tells how an officer received a severe wound in the shoulder, apparently from a jagged ball. When the missile was extracted, however, it turned out to be a huge human double-tooth. Its owner's head had been shattered by a cannon-ball, and the very teeth transformed into a radiating spray of swift and deadly missiles. There were other cases of soldiers being wounded by coins driven suddenly by the impact of shot from their original owners' pockets. The sustained fire of the French tirailleurs, too, wrought fatal mischief.

La Haye Sainte by this time had been captured. The brave men who held it for so many hours carried rifles that needed a special cartridge, and supplies of it failed. When the French captured the farmhouse, they were able to push some guns and a strong infantry attack close up to the British left. This was held by the 27th, who had marched from Ghent at speed, reached Waterloo, exhausted, at nine A.M., on the very day of the battle, slept amid the roar of the great fight till three o'clock, and were then brought forward to strengthen the line above La Haye Sainte. The 27th was drawn up in square, and the French skirmishers opened a fire so close and fatal, that, literally, in the space of a few minutes every second man was shot down!

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