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   Chapter 7 THE OLD GUARD

Deeds that Won the Empire / Historic Battle Scenes By W. H. Fitchett Characters: 15543

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"On came the whirlwind-like the last,

But fiercest sweep of tempest blast-

On came the whirlwind-steel-gleams broke

Like lightning through the rolling smoke;

The war was waked anew."

-SCOTT.

Napoleon had expended in vain upon the stubborn British lines his infantry, his cavalry, and his artillery. There remained only the Guard! The long summer evening was drawing to a close, when, at half-past seven, he marshalled these famous soldiers for the final attack. It is a curious fact that the intelligence of the coming attack was brought to Wellington by a French cuirassier officer, who deserted his colours just before it took place. The eight battalions of the immortal Guard formed a body of magnificent soldiers, the tall stature of the men being heightened by their imposing bearskin caps. The prestige of a hundred victories played round their bayonets. Their assault had never yet been resisted. Ney and Friant led them on. Napoleon himself, as the men marched past him to the assault, spoke some fiery words of exhortation to each company-the last words he ever spoke to his Guard.

It is a matter of keen dispute whether the Guard attacked in two columns or in one. The truth seems to be that the eight battalions were arranged in echelon, and really formed one mass, though in two parallel columns of companies, with batteries of horse artillery on either flank advancing with them. Nothing could well be more majestic, nothing more menacing, than the advance of this gallant force, and it seemed as if nothing on the British ridge, with its disabled guns and shot-torn battalions, could check such an assault. Wellington, however, quickly strengthened his centre by calling in Hill's division from the extreme right, while Vivian's Light Cavalry, surrendering the extreme left to the advancing Prussians, moved, in anticipation of orders, to the same point. Adams's brigade, too, was brought up to the threatened point, with all available artillery. The exact point in the line which would be struck by the head of the Guard was barred by a battery of nine-pounders. The attack of the Guard was aided by a general infantry advance--usually in the form of a dense mass of skirmishers-against the whole British front, and so fierce was this that some Hanoverian and Nassau battalions were shaken by it into almost fatal rout. A thread of British cavalry, made up of the scanty remains of the Scots Greys and some of Vandeleur's Light Cavalry, alone kept the line from being pierced.

All interest, however, centred in the attack of the Guard. Steadily, on a slightly diagonal line, it moved up the British slope. The guns smote it fiercely; but never shrinking or pausing, the great double column moved forward. It crossed the ridge. Nothing met the eyes of the astonished French except a wall of smoke, and the battery of horse artillery, at which the gunners were toiling madly, pouring case-shot into the approaching column. One or two horsemen, one of whom was Wellington himself, were dimly seen through the smoke behind the guns. The Duke denied that he used the famous phrase, "Up Guards, and at 'em!" "What I may have said, and possibly did say," he told Croker, "was, 'Stand up, Guards!' and then gave the commanding officers the order to attack."

An officer who took part in the fight has described the scene at the critical moment when the French Old Guard appeared at the summit of the British ridge: "As the smoke cleared away, a most superb sight opened on us. A close column of the Guard, about seventies in front, and not less than six thousand strong, their drums sounding the pas de charge, the men shouting 'Vive l'Empereur!' were within sixty yards of us." The sudden appearance of the long red line of the British Foot Guards rising from the ground seems to have brought the French Guard to a momentary pause, and, as they hesitated, along the whole line of the British ran-and ran again, and yet again-the vivid flash of a tremendous volley. The Guard tried to deploy; their officers leaped to the front, and, with shouts and waving swords, tried to bring them on, the British line, meanwhile, keeping up "independent" firing. Maitland and Lord Saltoun simultaneously shouted the order to "Charge!" The bayonets of the British Guards fell to level, the men came forward at a run, the tramp of the charging line sounded louder and louder, the line of shining points gleamed nearer and yet nearer-the bent and threatening faces of the British came swiftly on. The nerve of the French seemed to fail; the huge battalion faltered, shrank in upon itself, and tumbled in ruin down the hill!

But this was only the leading battalion of the right segment of the great column, and the left was still moving steadily up. The British Guards, too, who had followed the broken battalion of the French down the hill, were arrested by a cry of "Cavalry!" and fell back on the ridge in confusion, though the men obeyed instantly the commands of the officers. "Halt! Front! Re-form!" Meanwhile the left section of the huge column was moving up, the men as steady as on parade, the lofty bearskins of the Grenadiers, as they mounted the ridge, giving them a gigantic aspect. The black, elongated shadows, as the last rays of the setting sun smote the lines, ran threateningly before them. But the devoted column was practically forcing itself up into a sort of triangle of fire. Bolton's guns crossed its head, the Guards, thrown slightly forward, poured their swift volleys in waves of flame on its right shoulder, the 52nd and 71st on its left scourged it with fire, beneath which the huge mass of the French Guard seemed sometimes to pause and thrill as if in convulsion.

Then came the movement which assured victory to the British. Colborne, a soldier with a singular genius for war, not waiting for orders, made his regiment, the 52nd, bring its right shoulder forward, the outer company swinging round at the double, until his whole front was parallel with the flank of the French Guard. Adams, the general in command of the brigade, rode up and asked him what he was going to do. Colborne replied, "To make that column feel our fire," and, giving the word, his men poured into the unprotected flank of the unfortunate Guard a terrific volley. The 52nd, it should be noted, went into action with upwards of one thousand bayonets, being probably the strongest battalion in the field. Colborne had "nursed" his regiment during the fight. He formed them into smaller squares than usual, and kept them in shelter where possible, so that at this crisis the regiment was still a body of great fighting force, and its firing was of deadly volume and power. Adams swiftly brought the 71st to sustain Colborne's attack, the Guards on the other flank also moved forward, practically making a long obtuse angle of musketry fire, the two sides of which were rapidly closing in on the head of the great French column.

The left company of the 52nd was almost muzzle to muzzle with the French column, and had to press back, while the right companies were swinging round to bring the whole line parallel with the flank of the Guard; yet, though the answering fire of the Frenchmen was broken and irregular, so deadly was it-the lines almost touching each other-that, in three minutes, from the left front of the 52nd one hundred and fifty men fell! When the right companies, however, had come up into line with the left, Colborne cried, "Charge! charge!" The men answered with a deep-throated, menacing shout, and dashed at the enemy. Napoleon's far-famed Guard, the victors in a hundred fights, shrank, the mass swayed to and fro, the men in the centre commenced to fire in the air, and the whole great mass seemed to tumble, break in

to units, and roll down the hill!

The 52nd and 71st came fiercely on, their officers leading. Some squadrons of the 23rd Dragoons came at a gallop down the slope, and literally smashed in upon the wrecked column. So wild was the confusion, so dense the whirling smoke that shrouded the whole scene, that some companies of the 52nd fired into the Dragoons, mistaking them for the enemy; and while Colborne was trying to halt his line to remedy the confusion, Wellington, who saw in this charge the sure pledge of victory, rode up and shouted, "Never mind! go on! go on!"

Gambier, then an officer of the 52nd, gives a graphic description of how that famous regiment fought at this stage:-

"A short time before, I had seen our colonel (Colborne), twenty yards in front of the centre, suddenly disappear, while his horse, mortally wounded, sank under him. After one or two rounds from the guns, he came striding down the front with, 'These guns will destroy the regiment.'-'Shall I drive them in, sir?'-'Do.'-'Right section, left shoulders forward!' was the word at once. So close were we that the guns only fired their loaded charges, and limbering up, went hastily to the rear. Reaching the spot on which they had stood, I was clear of the Imperial Guard's smoke, and saw three squares of the Old Guard within four hundred yards farther on. They were standing in a line of contiguous squares with very short intervals, a small body of cuirassiers on their right, while the guns took post on their left. Convinced that the regiment, when it saw them, would come towards them, I continued my course, stopped with my section about two hundred yards in front of the centre square, and sat down. They were standing in perfect order and steadiness, and I knew they would not disturb that steadiness to pick a quarrel with an insignificant section. I alternately looked at them, at the regiment, and up the hill to my right (rear), to see who was coming to help us.

"A red regiment was coming along steadily from the British position, with its left directly upon me. It reached me some minutes before the 52nd, of which the right came within twenty paces of me. Colonel Colborne then called the covering sergeants to the front, and dressed the line upon them. Up to this moment neither the guns, the squares of the Imperial Guard, nor the 52nd had fired a shot. I then saw one or two of the guns slewed round to the direction of my company and fired, but their grape went over our heads. We opened our fire and advanced; the squares replied to it, and then steadily facing about, retired. The cuirassiers advanced a few paces; our men ceased firing, and, bold in their four-deep formation, came down to a sort of elevated bayonet charge; but the cuirassiers declined the contest, and turned. The French proper right square brought up its right shoulders and crossed the chaussée, and we crossed it after them. Twilight had manifestly commenced, and objects were now bewildering. The first event of interest was, that getting among some French tumbrils, with the horses attached, our colonel was seen upon one, shouting 'Cut me out!' Then we came upon the hollow road beyond La Belle Alliance, filled with artillery and broken infantry. Here was instantly a wild mêlée: the infantry tried to escape as best they could, and at the same time turn and defend themselves; the artillery drivers turned their horses to the left and tried to scramble up the bank of the road, but the horses were immediately shot down; a young subaltern of the battery threw his sword and himself on the ground in the act of surrender; his commander, who wore the cross of the Legion of Honour, stood in defiance among his guns, and was bayoneted, and the subaltern, unwisely making a run for his liberty, was shot in the attempt. The mêlée at this spot placed us amid such questionable companions, that no one at that moment could be sure whether a bayonet would be the next moment in his ribs or not."

It puts a sudden gleam of humour into the wild scene to read how Colonel Sir Felton Harvey, who led a squadron of the 18th, when he saw the Old Guard tumbling into ruins, evoked a burst of laughter from his entire squadron by saying in a solemn voice, "Lord Wellington has won the battle," and then suddenly adding in a changed tone, "If we could but get the d--d fool to advance!" Wellington, as a matter of fact, had given the signal that launched his wasted and sorely tried battalions in one final and victorious advance. Vivian's cavalry still remained to the Duke-the 10th and 18th Hussars-and they, at this stage, made a charge almost as decisive as that of the Household and Union Brigades in the morning. The 10th crashed into some cuirassiers who were coming up to try and relieve the flank of the Guard, overthrew them in a moment, and then plunged into the broken French Guard itself. These veterans were retreating, so to speak, individually, all formation wrecked, but each soldier was stalking fiercely along with frowning brow and musket grasped, ready to charge any too audacious horsemen. Vivian himself relates how his orderly alone cut down five or six in swift succession who were trying to bayonet the British cavalry general. When Vivian had launched the 10th, he galloped back to the 18th, who had lost almost every officer. "My lads," he said, "you'll follow me"; to which the sergeant-major, a man named Jeffs, replied, "To h--, general, if you will lead us!" The wreck of Vandeleur's brigade, too, charged down the slope more to the left; batteries were carried, cavalry squadrons smashed, and infantry battalions tumbled into ruin. Napoleon had an entire light cavalry brigade still untouched; but this, too, was caught in the reflux of the broken masses, and swept away. The wreck of the Old Guard and the spectacle of the general advance of the British-cavalry, artillery, and infantry-seemed to be the signal for the dissolution of the whole French army.

Two squares of the French Guard yet kept their formation. Some squadrons of the 10th Hussars, under Major Howard, rode fiercely at one. Howard himself rode home, and died literally on the French bayonets; and his men rivalled his daring, and fought and died on two faces of the square. But the Frenchmen kept their ranks, and the attack failed. The other square was broken. The popular tradition that Cambronne, commanding a square of the Old Guard, on being summoned to surrender, answered, "La Garde meurt, et ne se rend pas," is pure fable. As a matter of fact, Halkett, who commanded a brigade of Hanoverians, personally captured Cambronne. Halkett was heading some squadrons of the 10th, and noted Cambronne trying to rally the Guard. In his own words, "I made a gallop for the general. When about cutting him down, he called out he would surrender, upon which he preceded me to the rear. But I had not gone many paces before my horse got shot through his body and fell to the ground. In a few seconds I got him on his legs again, and found my friend Cambronne had taken French leave in the direction from which he came. I instantly overtook him, laid hold of him by the aiguillette, and brought him back in safety, and gave him in charge of a sergeant of the Osnabruckers to deliver to the Duke."

Napoleon himself, from a spot of rising ground not far from La Haye Sainte, had watched the advance of his Guard. His empire hung on its success. It was the last fling of the dice for him. His cavalry was wrecked, his infantry demoralised, half his artillery dismounted; the Prussian guns were thundering with ever louder roar upon his right. If the Guard succeeded, the electrifying thrill of victory would run through the army, and knit it into energy once more. But if the Guard failed--!

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