24 Hours at Waterloo
24 Hours at Waterloo
The Soldier’s Story – Introduction
During the early hours of the 18th June 1815 150,000 mud-splattered, disgruntled soldiers filed into makeshift bivouacs and open fields under teeming rain. The armies gathered in an area five kilometres wide by four deep, separated by a valley with two gentle ridgelines in between. Any chances of repositioning or even posturing for tactical advantage were over. Seventy-two hours of exhausting marching and counter-marching after the Emperor Napoleon had ‘humbugged’ the Duke of Wellington’s Allied army had taken their toll. The French had suddenly appeared between the two Allied armies coming as if from nowhere. The men knew they would be going no further, instinctively recognizing that they would fight on this ground at daybreak.
There was no battle-winning intelligence available to offer anything other than a stand-up fight. Waterlogged open fields bordered by undulating woodland to left and right towards Brussels offered little chance of creative manoeuvre. Time was limited for Napoleon. Somewhere to the east was a badly mauled Prussian army. Its arrival was unpredictable. All that remained for the French to do, they assumed, was lever aside this final rear guard screening Brussels. Lunch inside the city beckoned. But their opponents were going nowhere. This was to be a one-on-one bare-knuckle prize fight, the sort of all-out contest familiar to soldiers in an age of endemic violence.
The only variable was whether the Prussians arrived late. Commanders had little idea, line soldiers had none. Over the next 24 hours another 48,000 soldiers would join the 150,000 crammed into this same constrained space with 60,000 horses and 537 artillery pieces. Europe would never see its like again, so many men and animals fighting a major battle in such a small space. The horde of soldiers arriving at the beginning of the 24 hour cycle would be gone by its close. At the finish one in three or four men would be dead or maimed, falling at the rate of 5,400 men per hour or one or two per second. Space was so limited that bodies would be piled on top of each other. A war was lost and won during these 24 hours, the outcome reshaping imperial Europe into something more like its present modern form.
Waterloo was the last mass battle of the nineteenth century pre-industrial age to be fought in Europe. War would never again be fought in such splendid uniforms. Robust healthy looking soldiers from peasant stock would be superseded by pale slightly built men coming from the undernourished urban poor of post industrial Europe. Despite the density and lethality of flying missiles, there was still a good chance of being slashed by a sabre or pierced by bayonet and sword at Waterloo. The next large scale European conflict would be fought with ant-like armies dressed in drab khaki serge or grey in 1914. Millions of soldiers would face weapons of mass destruction, the machine gun, gas and huge railway-mounted artillery pieces.
When the armies lined up facing each other across opposing ridgelines at Waterloo, nobody could predict the outcome. Communication was by word of mouth, the beat of the drum, bugle call, or despatch rider. Events were influenced and constrained by what individuals could see or hear. Almost by definition the vast majority of participants had little clue about what was going on, but because the battlefield was such a small arena they could see alot, and later write about it.
The prime attraction of the battle of Waterloo is that it is such a human tale, best told from a roving correspondent’s eye view. Recently published sources have unearthed more stories from the ranks. These provide a more earthy contrast to the officer accounts famously harvested by Siborne’s Letters, to support his famous battlefield model. Sergeants were only appointed if they could write, as they maintained many of the mundane company rolls. 24 Hours at Waterloo draws upon much of this previously unseen material.
The outcome of the battle was as Wellington described ‘the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life’. The two days leading up to the battle had been an unmitigated disaster for the Anglo-Allies, outmanoeuvred, separated and badly mauled during Napoleon’s deft opening moves. Wellington’s staunchest ally, the Prussian general Blücher had ‘got so damnably licked’ he declared, ‘I could not find him on Saturday morning’. Now it was Sunday and he was still not sure where he was. Wellington had his back against Brussels walls, only 10 kilometres to his rear. Napoleon was on the cusp of claiming his deserved prize. His carriage was prepared for the ceremonial entry and the Brussels proclamations were already written.
This is not a story about the commander’s deliberations, so often handled in previous Waterloo accounts, it is rather the impact that their command decisions had upon their men. The soldier’s day began with four hours of fitful sleep in the pouring rain. Exhausted by 72 hours of fighting and counter-marching they slumped, crouched or simply lay in the mud. Drizzly daybreak merged into watery sunlight, enabling soaked soldiers five to six hours of watchful contemplation to ponder their chances of survival as corps and brigades formed up. They were never more than 1,200 yards apart and sometimes as close as 300. There was plenty of time for nervous reflection amid the flag-waving, band-playing reviews as they recovered from their night time chills. A gentle breeze began to evaporate some of the moisture from the field. The format of the next nine and a half hours of savage fighting across this mud splattered landscape was simple. The British and Allied troops stubbornly clung to the higher Mont Saint- Jean ridge, desperately seeking a delayed Prussian arrival, while the French attacked tenaciously from the La Belle Alliance ridgeline opposite, to get them off.
People have written about the battle of Waterloo for 300 years. The wealth of first hand accounts, diaries and letters offer the type of grainy authenticity and immediacy commonly used in TV war reports. Extraordinary images of men and women emerge from these accounts, as colourful as any contemporary tabloid newspaper. Life was filtered through entirely different perspectives compared to today. Pain and risk was accepted. Physical suffering was the lot of the 19th century soldier in a society where people laboured hard simply to sustain life. An agrarian existence could be harsh, military life by contrast was not half so bad. Soldiers were fed, clothed and sheltered.
Death and mutilation were everyday occurrences. Violence was hardly unusual in an age whose sport and pastimes included bear-baiting, ratting, cock-fighting, duels and bare-knuckled prize fighting. If a farm labourer broke his leg he died or was severely disabled. He lost his smallholding and starved, leaving his family destitute. Child birth complications led to death, children taken ill often died. Despite all this, the Waterloo battlefield bordered on the extreme even by the harsh standards of the day. Hardened campaigners who had seen Europe’s worse were taken aback.
24 Hours at Waterloo monitors a battle fought between between three armies. The nine national groups fighting represent an interesting microcosm of the future members of the present-day European Community. There were British, French, Prussians and Germans. Among the Germans there were Hanoverians, Nassauers and Brunswickers and among these were Poles, Danes, Swiss and Croats. Netherlands troops belonged to a barely formed national confederation, while the Dutch-Belgians had spent the previous few decades fighting with Napoleon. This lack of cohesion at the soldier level in Wellington’s army has never really been explored. Napoleon’s forces by contrast were nationally pure and veterans. As would be anticipated, the clock in 24 Hours… is the constant throughout, providing the timeline for these multi-faceted and different accounts. Timings are, however, not as accurate as suggested. No time-piece on the battlefield gave the same reading. Accuracy is to within a half hour, sometimes an hour, dependent on the accepted historical interpretation.
‘I recommend to you to leave the battle of Waterloo as it is’ Wellington advised in later years. He found it every bit as traumatic as many of the eye-witnesses themselves. ‘The history of a battle is not unlike the history of a ball’ he reflected. ‘Some individuals may recollect all the little events, of which the great result is the battle won or lost; but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance’.
This may well be so, and it is for the reader to decide. 24 Hours at Waterloo offers a portrait of the battle ‘as it is’.
‘This is a gripping, anecdote-packed read…he captures in graphic detail the tension…the hour-by-hour account is packed with fascinating and often poignant vignettes.
‘He shows us the battle at its grittiest and bloodiest’…’This is the experience of living through a day and night in hell’.
The idea of writing 24 Hours at Waterloo as a kind of hour by hour virtual reality TV narrative happened purely by chance. Responding to a request to provide background historical information for the release of a Waterloo chess set, I offered something out of the ordinary. There were of course the figures of Wellington, Napoleon and Blücher to write about and a plethora of soldiers from British, French, Hanoverian, Prussian and other units to describe. Instead of simply providing the usual notes, why not track the progress of each of these little pieces across the battlefield on the 18th June 1815?
One of the chess pieces was a model of a private soldier in the 27th Inniskillings Regiment. On checking my sources I found that virtually the entire regiment perished in square by the end of the day. What an exciting theme to follow up! All this however, was too ambitious for a company simply selling model Waterloo chess pieces, so the idea was shelved. Why waste the research I thought, it was the germ of an idea for a book.
The crucial question was whether there was sufficient documentary evidence to populate such a work? Investigation of a number of 19th Century accounts at the library of the Royal military Academy at Sandhurst suggested this might indeed be the case. All this was coincidental with the exciting release of newly researched archives by people such as Gareth Glover and others, offering far more gritty material at the soldier level than I thought had existed.
In order to inject a more modern virtual reality style to the narrative I proceeded to edit out precocious or flowery contemporary language from the stories. This involved selectively quoting passages that appeared modern and would be intelligible to any private soldier today.
Structuring the 24-hour narrative around the inaccurate timepieces of the day was also going to be a problem. Accepting a degree of inaccuracy and compensating by applying time and motion norms to changing formations and march-times resolved this, based on my own varied military experience. The battle consisted of five recognizable phases. Although some eyewitness accounts do mention time, most refer to a sequence of events, much of which can be accurately pinpointed to within a half hour or so. Reports mentioning the opening of the battle vary between anything from 11.00 to 11.40 that morning, with most witnesses agreeing on about 11.20 am as the time the first cannon shots were heard.
Very early on I decided that the book was not going to be about Wellington and Napoleon or the strategy and tactics of the commanders. Rather it was to be concerned with the outcome of the decisions they made and how they affected the fortunes of the two-dozen or so individuals from the various nations I intended to track across the battlefield that day.
This was the point at which the personal stories, set against the various battle phases created by these command decisions, became so fascinating. The French attacked all day, the British and allies defended and the Prussians sought to reach the battlefield in time. Each individual character is described and covered in terms of what he could see, hear, feel or indeed taste that day. Sergeants in Wellington’s army could only become a senior NCO if they could read and write sufficiently to maintain a Company Roll. This enabled earthy and gritty accounts of private soldiers, with whom they routinely dealt with, to emerge.
As a consequence fresh information came to the fore. It was interesting to discover the extent to which British soldiers, who only formed one third of Wellington’s force, devalued the contribution made by the rest of the Allies, who by definition by numbers alone, likely enabled the battle to be won. ‘Foreigners’ were not highly regarded by the average British soldier. This rather arrogant attitude, replicated in modern armies today, was immediately recognizable within my own military experience working as a liaison officer and on operations with NATO and multi-national coalitions during the first Gulf War and Bosnia in the 1990s. Communication between Allies is not just about language, it involves attitudes, perception and body language and afflicted Wellington’s soldiers and officers as much as it might today. Intoxicated young British officers who kidnapped the famous Mannequin Pis statue (of the child peeing in a fountain) in Brussels in 1815 is an incident that could still happen today, and would have the same unfortunate diplomatic fall-out.
French characters emerge as colorfully as their enemy counterparts. Captain Fortunè de Brack, a French cavalryman who subscribed to the maxim ‘any Hussar not dead at thirty, was a malingerer!’ claims to have accidently initiated Marshal Ney’s disastrous massed cavalry charges against Wellington’s squares – a culminating point in the battle. Jean Roche Coignet, a trusted member of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard tells the tale of playing billiards with the Empress, confessing he was more concerned to gain the right angle to view her ample cleavage as actually win the game. Pierre Guillot the eagle-bearer of the 45th Line regiment charging with d’Érlon’s Corps had already been wounded several times on the Spanish Peninsula. Having been incarcerated in a British prison hulk, he was thirsting for revenge, on this the anniversary of his release one year before.
Human frailties emerge in many of the soldier accounts. The precocious Hanoverian Captain Carl Jacobi gave his heavy coat to his servant during the hot day’s march preceding Waterloo. He was rained on the entire night in his thin tunic, his servant nowhere to be found on the Mont Saint Jean ridge. Cornet Francis Kinchant a dashing young officer with the Scots Greys had frequented the Bordellos of Brussels, getting himself into trouble by over-reaching himself with both his poor Flemish language and exploratory hands. He thought he would gain promotion amid the inevitable casualties that day but was not to survive himself
One of the real pleasures piecing together accounts is when the characters coincidentally cross paths. George Ross an ex-slave and enlisted soldier with the 73rd Regiment was near enough on the battlefield to speak with a respected black cavalry veteran nearby. They almost certainly met because they were the only black soldiers in their regiments. The pregnant Mrs Martha Deacon, wife of the wounded Ensign Deacon with the 73rd Regiment, whom she sought laboriously, trod the rain-swept road to Brussels with three young children in tow. Clothed in just a thin black dress, in the driving rain she may well have been noticed by soldiers of the 27th Inniskillings Regiment passing at the same time, going the opposite way. Most would be dead in square that night.
These few civilian accounts are especially rewarding. Napoleon’s pressed guide, the Belgian peasant Decoster spent the whole day squirming in the saddle at each gun report, attached to one of the Emperor’s cavalry escorts. A clearly irritated Napoleon told him to desist, because he would be just as damaged, whichever direction a round came. Displaying the completely stoic attitude to death prevalent in so many of the accounts, he was advised to simply accept it.
‘A blow by blow account of the fateful day. I couldn’t put it down. This book stands in comparison with John Keegan’s classic, The Face of Battle.
Read the Sunday Post review here