Today, on the eve of the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo, we do not celebrate war. Only a fool would celebrate something so horrible. But we pay our respects to the glorious imbecility of it.
War may be dreadful, little more than a racket in many ways, but it is also a magnificent undertaking. It engages the heart and the brain at once and exposes both the genius of our race and its incredible stupidity.
But we are talking about real war. Not phony wars against enemies who pose no real threat. Phony wars earn real profits for the war industry, but only an ersatz glory for the warriors. Real soldiers take no pride in them. Instead, to a real hero, they are a source of shame and embarrassment.
Wars are not conducted to “Free the Holy Land.” Or “Make the World Safe for Democracy.” Or “Rid the World of Tyrants.” Or “Fight Terrorism.” Those are only the cover stories used by the jingoists to get the public to surrender its treasure… and its sons. Wars are fought to release the fighting spirit – that ghost of many millennia – in the scrap for survival.
And so it was that, 200 years ago tomorrow, one of the greatest military geniuses of all time, Napoleon Bonaparte, faced the armies of the Seventh Coalition – principally, the British, under the Duke of Wellington, and the Prussians, under Gebhard von Blücher.
Napoleon Bonaparte, born in Ajaccio, Corsica, later emperor of France and famous (and usually victorious) general, and later still, pensioner on the island of St. Helena
Napoleon had been run out of France, but he had come back. The veterans of the Napoleonic Wars rallied to his cause, and he soon had an army of 73,000 seasoned soldiers. Moving fast, he put his forces in his favored “central position” between Wellington and Blücher.
On June 16, he attacked the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny and drove them back. Then he turned to Wellington, who had formed his army on a low ridge, south of the Belgian village of Waterloo.
Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, here seen trying to imitate Napoleon
Napoleon knew how to plan and execute a campaign. He was where he wanted to be, with two of his best commanders on either side of him, Marshal Grouchy on his right and Marshal Ney on his left.
But two things conspired against Napoleon. The Prussians had been beaten, but not destroyed. They quickly regrouped and then marched on Waterloo. And it rained. Soft ground always favors the defender. The attacker wears himself out in the mud. Wellington only had to hold his position. Napoleon had to break the British line before the Prussians arrived at his back…
Prince Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, who upset Napoleon’s plans at Waterloo by arriving a lot earlier than expected, shortly after having been defeated already at Ligny two days earlier.
“Wellington Is a Bad General”
And so, the stage was set, on June 18, for one of the most extravagant showdowns in military history. Napoleon was having breakfast on the morning of the battle when one of his generals suggested a reorganization that might strengthen the French position. Bonaparte replied:
“Just because you have all been beaten by Wellington, you think he’s a good general. I tell you Wellington is a bad general, the English are bad troops, and this affair is nothing more than eating breakfast.”
Wellington shared Napoleon’s opinion of his troops. He thought they were bad, too. They were a collection of soldiers drawn from many different units. They had not seen action in almost 20 years. Many were poorly trained. Of his cavalry he wrote:
“I didn’t like to see four British opposed to four French. And as the numbers increased and order, of course, became more necessary, I was the more unwilling to risk our men without having a superiority in numbers.”
The battle began in the late morning. No one knows exactly when. Quickly, the “fog of war” descended on the battlefield, with no one sure what was going on. Crucially, Napoleon missed the rapid approach of the Prussians. He had expected them to need two days to get back in fighting order after their defeat at Ligny.
The Battle of Waterloo
An Englishman describes the scene once the battle was under way:
“I stood near them for about a minute to contemplate the scene: It was grand beyond description. Hougoumont [the escarpment where British and other allied forces faced off against the French] and its wood sent up a broad flame through the dark masses of smoke that overhung the field; beneath this cloud the French were indistinctly visible.
Here a waving mass of long red feathers could be seen; there, gleams as from a sheet of steel showed that the cuirassiers [armored French cavalry] were moving; 400 cannon were belching forth fire and death on every side; the roaring and shouting were indistinguishably commixed – together they gave me an idea of a laboring volcano.
Bodies of infantry and cavalry were pouring down on us, and it was time to leave contemplation, so I moved towards our columns, which were standing up in square.”
A map of the battle: Napoleon’s troops in blue, Wellington’s in red, and Blücher’s in gray, by Ipankonin – click to enlarge.
To win the battle, the French had to dislodge Wellington from his ridge at Hougoumont. Again and again, they attacked. And again and again, they failed. The Englishmen – along with a large number of Irishmen, Scots, and Germans – held their ground.
The Royal Scots Greys, the Gordon Highlanders, the Irish Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers – all fought better than Bonaparte or Wellington had expected. But the “bravest of the brave” was on the French side – Marshal Ney, whose statue we encountered on Sunday.
Good old Marechal Michel Ney, who was responsible for tactics on the battlefield. He had one horse after another shot out from under him. Not a quitter, that’s for sure.
A Hero’s Hero
When we saw the statue, we wondered: What sort of people are these who execute a man for treason and then honor his memory with a statue of him in their capital city?
Ney was a hero’s hero – a man whose military career was such a long shot… that so defied the odds… it was hard to believe he ever existed. He was everything our modern military lard-butts are not. He was the fighting spirit in the flesh.
The French launched as many as 12 separate attacks against Wellington’s lines. Ney, leading the charges personally, had five horses shot from under him.
A British infantryman remembers what it was like to see him coming:
“About 4 p.m., the enemy’s artillery in front of us ceased firing all of a sudden, and we saw large masses of cavalry advance: Not a man present who survived could have forgotten in after life the awful grandeur of that charge.
You discovered at a distance what appeared to be an overwhelming, long moving line, which, ever advancing, glittered like a stormy wave of the sea when it catches the sunlight.
On they came until they got near enough, whilst the very earth seemed to vibrate beneath the thundering tramp of the mounted host. One might suppose that nothing could have resisted the shock of this terrible moving mass.
They were the famous cuirassiers, almost all old soldiers, who had distinguished themselves on most of the battlefields of Europe.
In an almost incredibly short period they were within twenty yards of us, shouting “Vive l’Empereur!”
The word of command, “Prepare to receive cavalry,” had been given, every man in the front ranks knelt, and a wall bristling with steel, held together by steady hands, presented itself to the infuriated cuirassiers.”
Marshal Ney leading the charge of the French cavalry.
Marshal Ney’s cavalry overran the British cannons. But without infantry and artillery support, he could not break the cavalry-proof defensive squares Wellington’s infantrymen formed.
And then Blücher arrived … and Napoleon was beaten. His “central position became a trap.” The Prussians hammered the French against the British anvil. At the end of the battle, Ney led one of the last infantry charges, shouting to his men, “Come see how a marshal of France dies!”
Prince Blücher’s Prussian troops, in form of the remainder of the IV. corps led by Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr von Bülow, attack Plancenoit, at the right flank of Napoleon’s troops.
Four days after the battle, Major W.E. Frye described what he saw:
“22 June – This morning I went to visit the field of battle, which is a little beyond the village of Waterloo, on the plateau of Mont-Saint-Jean; but on arrival there the sight was too horrible to behold. I felt sick in the stomach and was obliged to return.
The multitude of carcasses, the heaps of wounded men with mangled limbs unable to move, and perishing from not having their wounds dressed or from hunger, as the Allies were, of course, obliged to take their surgeons and wagons with them, formed a spectacle I shall never forget. The wounded, both of the Allies and the French, remain in an equally deplorable state.”
More to come … on what happened to brave Marshall Ney.
This house served as Napoleon’s headquarters during the battle of Waterloo
Photo credit: Kelisi
The battle between 5:30 to 8:00 pm: Bülow’s attack on Plancenoit begins at 5:30 pm. Ney and his cavalry take La Haye Sainte around 6:00 pm and the Old Guard launches an attack on the British center at 7:00 pm. Map by Gregory Fremont-Barnes.
The storming of La Haye – Marshal Ney can be spotted to the right, sword pointing to the sky.
Painting by Richard Knötel
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Addendum: Lord Uxbridge’s Leg
Lord Uxbridge led countless charges of British light cavalry, and similar to Marshal Ney, had numerous horses shot from out under him in the process. One of the last cannonballs fired in the battle shattered one of his legs (Uxbridge to Wellington: “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!” Wellington pauses, takes a look. “By God sir, so you have”). The leg, as well as its replacement, subsequently attained considerable, if somewhat morbid, fame.
Lord Uxbridge’s famous wooden leg. His real leg was hit by a cannonball during the battle and had to be amputated without antiseptic or anesthetics. Lord Uxbridge reportedly remarked during the procedure that “the knives appear somewhat blunt”.
Photo credit: Andreas von Einsiedel
Uxbridge’s real leg got its own burial place, while his wooden prosthetic leg is these days exhibited in a museum. The inscription on the tombstone of his leg reads:
“Here lies the Leg of the illustrious and valiant Earl Uxbridge, Lieutenant-General of His Britannic Majesty, Commander in Chief of the English, Belgian and Dutch cavalry, wounded on the 18 June 1815 at the memorable battle of Waterloo, who, by his heroism, assisted in the triumph of the cause of mankind, gloriously decided by the resounding victory of the said day.”
The leg’s burial site soon began to attract tourists from all over Europe, which proves that one definitely shouldn’t let a shattered leg go to waste.
George Canning was even moved to write a poem about Uxbridge’s leg:
“Here rests, and let no saucy knave
Presume to sneer and laugh,
To learn that mouldering in the grave
Is laid a British calf.
For he who writes these lines is sure
That those who read the whole
Will find such laugh were premature,
For here, too, lies a sole.
And here five little ones repose,
Twin-born with other five;
Unheeded by their brother toes,
Who now are all alive.
A leg and foot to speak more plain
Lie here, of one commanding;
Who, though his wits he might retain,
Lost half his understanding.
And when the guns, with thunder fraught,
Pour’d bullets thick as hail,
Could only in this way be taught
To give his foe leg-bail.
And now in England, just as gay –
As in the battle brave –
Goes to the rout, review, or play,
With one foot in the grave.
Fortune in vain here showed her spite,
For he will still be found,
Should England’s sons engage in fight,
Resolved to stand his ground.
But fortune’s pardon I must beg,
She meant not to disarm;
And when she lopped the hero’s leg
By no means sought his harm,
And but indulged a harmless whim,
Since he could walk with one,
She saw two legs were lost on him
Who never meant to run.
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