Tag: Prussian

TRANSCRIPT EP 010 EXIT NAPOLEON

TRANSCRIPT FOR

http://www.ageofvictoriapodcast.com/ep010-exit-napoleon/

Today’s episode is a full episode and a return to the narrative where we left it in February at the end of the battle of Waterloo. Since then we’ve done a special episode on battlefield surgery and then we did an episode on the amazing Annie Besant and the Matchstick Girls strike, which was the Easter Special. 

They say that the mark of a man is how he copes with getting knocked down. Personally, I think that phrase just perpetuates some unhealthy stereotypes, but let’s run with it for this episode. When we left the last show it was the night after Waterloo. Napoleon had suffered a catastrophic defeat. Most people honestly either fall to pieces after relatively small set backs, or they are too afraid to take risks that might end in failure. Napoleon though was now suffering massive defeat. He had been beaten before in his career, and exiled, but there was a different air to this. This was the wreck of his entire army in what had seemed an even contest. He was on the verge of triumph. It was really his last great throw of the dice.

Can you imagine the stress he would have been under. He was the Emperor of France. The country and the lives of its people were his responsibility. His beloved army was scattered and in retreat. He had political enemies at home. It seems to me that he suffered some kind of mental breakdown as his behaviour over the next few days indicated. Perhaps the closest I can describe it is imagine your business goes bankrupt and your partner leaves you on the same day. That’s sort of the stress Napoleon was under. Except far worse. Whatever his many faults, Napoleon loved France and he must have known that this would have dire consequences for his beloved homeland.

As the 19 June arrived, Marshal Grouchy actually won the last real French victory against the Prussians. It was for nothing. News of the disaster of Waterloo reached him early on 19 June. The messengers were so overwrought that at first Grouchy could barely understand them. When he did, his blood must have run cold. Not only was this absolute defeat, but he knew instantly that when he had refused the advice of General Girad the previous day to march his men toward the sound of the gunfire at Waterloo, he had contributed to that defeat. If he had listened to his subordinates advice, perhaps he would have been able to help at Waterloo.

Immediately Marshal Grouchy began his excuses, and he would continue to give them for the rest of his life.

The main French army was in dire straights. Almost all of it was a confused mass of men, wagons and horses. Many had thrown away their weapons and were helpless against the vengeful Prussians. Some sources state that the Prussians were killing wounded and prisoners. Some French troops committed suicide rather than fall into Prussian hands. If even a quarter of the French army could have got organised, they could have held up the Prussians at the critical choke point provided by the town of Genappe where the bridge crossed the river Dyle. It would have provided critical hours for the main of the army to reform and get to safety. It wasn’t to be. Only a few regiments of the Old Guard retained the iron discipline and weapons for an ordered retreat.

There would have been a big difference in a post Napoleonic French political order if the army had been able to stage a fighting retreat from Waterloo rather than being swept away in a rout. The army could have been a nucleus for new recruits, acted as a counter balance to the chamber of deputies and made an Allied invasion a much tougher prospect. It was the chaos, not the actual causalities that made recovery impossible.

Marshal Grouchy was retreating too. He was doing it in good order, not just because he hadn’t been involved in the catastrophe at Waterloo, but because he actually seemed to up his game considerably. He performed a masterful fighting retreat. He managed to recapture some lost cannon, fend off Prussian cavalry and take up fortified positions in Namur. He got plentiful support from the Napoleon loving locals. He beat off a Prussian attack, and even managed to kill the future Chancellor Otto Von Bismarks uncle, then another retreat, blowing up bridges as he went. Again the intangibles of psychology are at work here. Why did he only start performing when it was critical and yet unimportant. Was it that he needed the shock to his system. Had he been too inexperienced and complacent before Waterloo, only to be galvanised by news of the defeat? Or is it just that a fighting retreat needed less initiative from him. We might never know those reasons.

For the Allies too, the night after battle was as much about mourning as it was about celebrating. Wellington was physically and mentally exhausted. He had had an incredibly stressful day, almost always under fire and watching as the fate of Europe itself hung in the balance. He visited his friend and Aide De Camp Sir Alexander Gordon as soon as he left the battlefield. Sir Alexander had to have his leg amputated at the groin and if you listened to my battlefield surgery episode you will know just how incredibly dangerous that was. After visiting his Wellington sent news to Loius XVIII in Ghent before having dinner. He spoke very little, but kept glancing up anxiously in the hope that some of his missing staff officers and friends might arrive. Eventually he collapsed into bed exhausted.

At 02:30 he was woken by a surgeon, David Hume who told him that his close friend and comrade Sir Alexander had died. Hume began listing the casualties of the day and Wellington burst into tears, before saying

[QUOTE] “thank God I don’t know what it is to lose a battle, but certainly nothing can be more painful than to gain one with the loss of so many of one’s friends.” [END QUOTE]

This is true as Wellington had never lost a major battle he commanded and he actually had a close circle of aristocratic friends in the staff, a good number of whom died. As a commander he cultivated the mask of icy indifferent emotionless bravery, but underneath he was still a deeply feeling man. How far this extended to the common soldier is open to debate, but he was careful with his men’s lives and welfare to a degree that Napoleon wasn’t.

I think it is certain that a lot of men were feeling similar emotions in the British, Dutch and Hanoverian ranks. The Prussians seem to have been more interested in chasing the French and killing them. Blucher especially wanted to push on to Paris, skipping sleep, resupply or food for his men if it meant he could take the city. It is entirely possible he would have sacked it thoroughly or even burned it to the ground. Wellington wouldn’t be rushed though, as he later said to the Prussian liaison officer

[QUOTE] Do not press me on this point, for I tell you, it will not do. If you were better acquainted with the English army, its composition and its habits you would say the same. I cannot separate it from my tents and my supplies. My troops must be kept well supplied in camp, if order and discipline are to be maintained. It is better that I should arrive 2 days later in Paris than that discipline should be relaxed. [END QUOTE]

After receiving the news of the death of his friend and the casualty list, Wellington got up and began writing reports. His terse dispatch to London could almost sound like he lost the battle. He singled out a few officers for praise, including Sir Alexander. He was a bit less generous to the Earl of Uxbridge, Lord Henry Paget, than the man deserved given the amazing performance of the heavy cavalry, and the fact that he had his leg blown off by a cannon ball. Whether this is because of the lack of general discipline in the cavalry and the loss of control of the charge, or perhaps just Wellingtons personal style, or perhaps because the Earl had previously had an affair with Wellingtons sister in law, but we don’t know the exact reason. Still an initially furious Lady Uxbridge, was eventually consoled when the Pagets were elevated to the rank of Marquess of Anglesey. The name Paget will come up again and again in the Victorian era, so this is a family name to remember. I really wish I had time to do an episode on the Earl because he is a really, really interesting guy and he will appear in the podcast again and of course Wellington could be very sparse with his praise. The artillery were particularly badly served in terms of receiving laurels and praise. Many gunners felt extremely hard done by and overlooked after their hard service of the day. 

As the Allies left the battlefield of Waterloo, its fame spread. Displaying typically ugly human behaviour, tourists descended on the battle field, eager to see the spot where Wellington triumphed and Napoleon the Corsican Ogre was defeated as they saw it. The field was not cleared in the way we would today. Aristocratic ladies and gentlemen took musket balls, clothes and badges, and even bone fragments as keepsakes to say they had been at Waterloo. Unearned privilege was on full display. John Croker bought a Legion D’Honour that had been looted from a dead French officer. Walter Scott himself obtained a cuirass riddled with holes. Lady Wailde took some ashes from the remains of dead guardsman at Hougoumont home with her in an envelope whilst a visiting reverend collected some skull fragments.

Still, for locals it was an opportunity.

[QUOTE] A mile beyond Waterloo, most tourists would leave their carriage at the village of Mont Saint Jean and perhaps engage a battlefield guide. A local man, whose house had been filled with wounded after the battle, found regular employment as such and professed a deep hatred of Napoleon “And all for one man” he would say. “Ce coquin!” He would tell his English clients of the sufferings he had witnessed, “nothing but sawing off legs and sawing off arms” Then he would repeat his refrain “Oh mon dieu! And all for one man” and, following Bonapartes capture and exile, he would add “Why did you not put him to death?” [END QUOTE]

“The Aftermath – O’Keeffe”

Why indeed? It was a common sentiment. The Prussians wanted to, and poetry was written about it.

The poet laureate Robert Southey of the period wrote

“For him alone had all this blood been shed,

Why had not vengeance struck the guilty head?

One man was cause of all this world of woe,

Ye had him and ye did not strike the blow”

This was wholly unfair of course, and even worse it is terrible poetry. As always the reality was much more complex. Napoleon alone was not responsible for all the bloodshed. The causes of any war are usually complex and multifaceted. Still, in the popular mind of the time, Napoleon was a tyrant and he started the war.

News gradually reached the courts of Europe. Naturally the British were amongst the first to get the news. Major Henry Percy carried Wellington’s famous dispatch. Carrying a dispatch was considered a mark of high honour. He also carried the captured Eagles. Remember Sergeant Ewart and his revenge for the death of his beloved commanding officer? He had taken the eagle in desperate fighting, cutting and killing in a frantic melee. Well now the Eagle would be paraded and displayed and cheered as a symbol of Britain chaining the Eagle. Ewart would naturally be given the full hero’s legend treatment, but he and the other unsightly veterans would not be coming home to a land fit for hero’s as the saying goes.

Soon the whole UK was soon abuzz with the news. The great war was finally over. Peace, freedom, and the natural order could return to Europe. Yet the problem with Freedom is that its definition is in the eye of the beholder. Freedom meant a very different thing to a conservative British philosopher than it did to an American founding father. Both would argue that they were representing the true strands of freedom, liberty and justice. But both might arrive at very different conclusions about what those terms really represented.

In France, and in the courts of Europe, decisions had to be made. To capture Napoelon? To kill him? To banish him? Should he be exiled again or be allowed to go to America? Would he somehow cling on and scrape an army together to defend France? If not, who would rule France now? Napoleon’s son? The Duc D’Orlean? Louis XVIII. Or would the country be broken up, with its territory gobble up by Prussia, Austria, Britain and Spain. To Minister Joseph Foche, the ruthless, self obsessed traitor who was chief of the secret police, it was clear that it had to be King Loius XVIII. France had to be a monarchy again and he, Foche, was the only man suited to well advise the king. Foche’s treason had been a big contributor to so many of the disasters in recent French history. Foche was a master manipulator and was confident that naïve republican patriots like the famous La Fayette would be easy to manage. He was already scheming to exercise total control over the chamber of deputies and then puppet master of France.

The equally treacherous and self obsessed Foreign Minister Talleyrand was also for a French monarchy. The various European powers though would need to be persuaded. After all, it was entirely possible they could sweep into France, break it up and share it between themselves. Blucher was talking wildly of horrific acts of revenge, burning Paris, and acts that might border on genocide. The British were less committed. Britain was already being swept by a wave of sentimentality. They had beaten Napoleon by themselves at Waterloo they felt. Surely such an act of near mythic triumph required them to be gracious victors. It would stain their honour to engage in reprisals or the execution of Napoleon or the destruction of Frane. Many were uncomfortable with the idea that they could just impose government on the French, and besides how would it look to history if they killed Napoleon? That would cheapen the victory. Many more far sighted British statesmen were deeply concerned with the idea of France being broken up. They didn’t want to hand ultimate power over the continent from France to Prussia or Russia.

The painter, Benjamin Haydon, probably expressed the sentiment that a lot of the British were feeling. Quoting again from “The Aftermath by O’Keeffe” where he is quoting Haydon.

[QUOTE] the Duke of Wellington had saved for this age the intellect of the world while had Napoleon triumphed we would have been brought back to barbarianism. [END QUOTE]

Still, the feeling was not universal in Britain. Many British had been pro-revolution and pro-Napoleon. Some had suffered under the British aristocracy. Others were enlightenment liberals or were general admirers of Napoleon.

Whether sympathetic, happy, or just anxious for news about relatives and friends who were in the conflict, Britain was swept up in a mania at the news. Full overblown sentiments were let free. Artwork and prosed tended to the fantastical. Good taste was forgotten. This will be very familiar when we move into the Victorian period. It was no longed a victory thanks to god and our soldiers. It became in my words, admittedly made up, but I think this is the right style of it “ a most marvellous event comparable only to Caesars triumph over the Gaul’s. Now as then, our troops did display such fortitude and vigour that notwithstanding the enemies utmost assertions and great excitement, they were turned back as the waves breaking against rock. Such was the courage on display that Mars himself must surely have graced our arms and added greater lustre to the already illustrious achievements of our noble banners.

Yes I made that up, but it is really in keeping with how the style is going to develop. A good example is the Opera House in Covent Garden, who produce a piece of commemorative art and said [QUOTE] “A grand transparency, representing Britain succouring France, personified by an interesting female figure in a supplicant posture, attired in a robe covered in flour de lis; on her side stands the British Lion. A group of attributes, and above, with expanded wings, appears a figure of fame sounding the trumpet.” [END QUOTE] 

IIf it sounds odd when we say Britain succouring France that’s not suckering like a sucker punch, it is succouring as in to give aid to France. The image being created here is that Britain came to France and helped her in her hour of need to free her from Napoleon, rather than being at war with France. This was positively restrained compared to the language that was used by the Morning Post Newspaper to celebrate its collection for the veterans reaching £100,000. Remember when listening to this quote that Plumb was slang for £100,000 and this was a colossal sum of money.

[QUOTE]

Hail Britain! Thy bounty, beyond all dispute,

Must with wonder strike other lands dumb;

When they see that thy heroes, as victory’s fruit,

Receive from thy kindness a plumb

A plumb for those who fought and bled,

Already they declare;

But some have confidently said

We’ll make that plumb a pair.

[END QUOTE]

Ok, somethings to think about here. The first is that I hope you like this kind of overblown hyperbole because this is just going get more and more common as we go through the Victorian age. Language, ornate, over complicated and verbose is a Victorian trade mark. It can be delightful, baffling or tedious, but I do love it. So get used to it.

The second thing that perhaps leaps out at me is to wonder how much of that sum of money reached the genuine working class veterans, and how much was used effectively. I suspect it went through the filter of aristocratic monument building, then middle class worthy charities well before any trickled down to actually reach the veterans themselves. It is also worth noting that you have to say that piece of humour is not as funny and clever as the author wanted.

British feelings weren’t something that Foche would be able to simply ignore. If the British let the Prussians off the leash then France faced destruction. It wasn’t as if the British were historically friendly to France either. Centuries of continental war against the French made the two nations natural enemies and this would be an ideal opportunity to repay France for what Britain considered to be French aggression and unwarranted interference during the American War of Independence, when French help was instrumental in turning the tide of war in the Americans favour. This could be payback time. At the very least Foche and Talleyrand knew that Britain would be seeking to take advantage and territory from the defeated France surely. Wellington was now supreme commander in Europe and the new political order was in many ways up to him. As a natural conservative aristocrat he would look favourably on Louis XVIII being given power, but equally he was known to want to see a government that was acceptable to the French people, perhaps the Duc D’Orlean and it is unlikely that Wellington had a particularly high opinion of Louis XVIII in person. That wouldn’t remotely suit Foche. So playing up this British myth of a solo British triumph might actually be useful to Foche and Talleyrand. Greatness and generosity in victory would be quite helpful to them at this point.

Paris was in gossipy uproar. Whatever the press had been saying recently, their was a buzz in the air. Rumours circulated. The chambers went into emergency session. More rumours. That Prince Jerome had made a panicked return to Paris, liquidated his government stocks and fled, that there were only 200 Imperial Guard left and Napoleon had been killed. Everywhere the cry “The Prussians were coming.”

Regardless of the future, Napoleon remained technically emperor. He was in full flight to France, ahead of his army. This wasn’t to abandon them through cowardice. Napoleon was never a coward. He just had a bigger picture to focus on. Who would rule France and could France organise a defence. Staying with a chaotic mob would not help save the nation, and need saving it did. Sadly for the Emperor his personal baggage and then later his treasury wagon were looted by lucky Prussian troops, losing him a fortune. Worse, the loot included a list of French spies and many plans.

Nor was Napoleon the only considerable figure involved. There were a lot of Napoleonic loyalists who would still rally to the Emperor or his son. There were many revolutionaries like La Fayette who thought the overthrow of Napoleon would restore the republic. They were as deluded as the original assassins of Caesar at the fall of the Roman republic, but they still had a powerful voice in the French government. If Napoleon could rally them, perhaps a Republican resistance movement would threaten Foche’s plans for restoring the Monarchy. There were other powerful figures to consider. There was Grouchy with his retreating force almost untouched by battle. There were the brilliant Marshals Soult and Clausel, as well as Napoleon’s loyal brother in law Lucien. 

Above all else though there was Marshal Davout. What would that icy, disciplined ,and ruthless man do? His loyalty to Napoleon had been beyond that of any other Marshal. He was Minister of War, and if he gathered an army to him, he could put anyone he wanted on the throne, or make Napoleon a unchallenged dictator. He would be an immensely dangerous enemy to the allied forces. He was arguably better than Napoleon at a tactical level and at least as good at the strategic and possibly even theatre levels. He had an enormous list of victories, some better than some of Napoleon’s. He had always drilled his men to maintain iron discipline no matter what. This was not a man to overlook or underestimate. Especially as he had a bitter hatred of Foche.

Finally on 21 June, after many twists and turns, the Emperor reached Paris. He refused the offer of a better carriage on arrival, sticking to a less noticeable one lent to him on the journey. By a less well know route, he entered the city.

I have previously said that it is unusual for a breakfast to make the history books, but Napoleon’s pre-Waterloo breakfast did. Well today, even more usually a bath is going to be crucial to Napoleon’s downfall.

It is sometimes on these strange curiosities that fate can hinge. The day before Napoleon entered Paris, it had been agreed by his generals that the Emperor had to go straight to the Chamber of Representatives, to inform them of everything, to make it clear that France as a nation was in danger, and that they should put aside any petty bad feeling and think only of helping Napoleon preserve the nation itself from utter ruin. This stirring address should come from Napoleon whilst still dressed in his army uniform, smeared with blood, his face blackened with smoke and dirt. He should tell them he was going to return to Belgium at the head of Grouchy’s men and they had to rally the nation and support him. Surely it would be impossible for them to say no to a man clearly fresh from battling for the existence of the French republic?

Yet despite agreeing to this plan, when he arrived, Napoleon decided to take a bath. His circle of ministers and generals gathered outside and had time to worry. Crucial time slipped away again as it did at Quatre Bras and early at Waterloo. Finally Napoleon emerged. Minister Carnot recommended a defence of Paris to give the for the consolidation of all French military forces from other areas, and then a mass counter attack. Others were less confident and asserted that only if Napoleon gained the confidence and support of the chamber of deputies could he continue. Marshal Davout was having none of this. He effectively urged Napoleon to become supreme military dictator for a short period, and move the government out of Paris. Foche immediately disagreed, saying he was sure, sure the government would give Napoleon everything he wanted during such an emergency, if the Emperor would only put himself in their hands. This was a breath taking piece of Chutzpa considering that Foche was busy secretly warning the chambers that Napoleon was planning on becoming a military dictator, and he had also secretly been priming La Fayette to bring matters to a head in the chambers. The Marquis De La Fayette had done wonderful things in support of the American revolution and is justly celebrated for those achievements, but in the arena of French politics he was utterly hopeless in comparison. He believed that Foche was working to save the republic from the military dictatorship of Napoleon. It is baffling why he would trust Foche, but it is also baffling how he could think that deposing Napoleon and effectively neutering the French army would be a good idea in the middle of an invasion.

Still, with the ideals of both revolutions in heart, La Fayette seemed to truly believe he was destined to lead France into a new age of Enlightenment. He rose to his feet in the chamber of deputies and gave a genuinely stirring speech. Graceful yet passionate and compelling. He also made a strong proposal of 5 articles. Art 2 was to have the Chambers in permanent session with any attempt to dissolve them being treason. The choice was now out of Napoleon’s hands. The government would neither dissolve nor leave Paris.

When he heard the news, Napoleon knew what it meant, saying

[QUOTE] I expected this. I should have dissolved those men before I left. It is finished. They will ruin France. [END QUOTE]

Foche’s secret plans had borne fruit. Marshal Davout now flatly refused to proceed with any military coup. He was unwilling to have his troops storm the Chamber, with the attendant loss of life. Before the articles were passed, he would have done, but the moment had passed. The time for Napoleon to seize power had drained away whilst he was in his bath.

Debate raged in the chambers, but it was now clear that they wanted Napoleon gone. Lucien gave a passionate defence of his brother, but La Fayette skilful rebuffed it.

Now the only real options left to Napoleon were to either rally the army and the mobs of Paris to him and kill the politicians in the chambers or to abdicate.

More than the Chamber of Deputies Napoleon understood the real situation

[QUOTE] It concerns me not. It concerns France. They want me to abdicate! Have they considered the inevitable consequences of my abdication? It is around me, around my name, that the army is gathered. Take me away and the army will dissolve. If I abdicate today, in 2 days time there will be no army. This army does not understand your subtleties. Do you think that metaphysical axioms, declarations of rights, parliamentary speeches will stop it from disbanding? [END QUOTE]

This seems to have been a constant failing of many revolutions and governments facing invasions; a constant obsession with speeches, declarations, proclamations and all the trappings without dealing with the often grim reality outside their bubble.

As Napoleon went on to say

[QUOTE] when the enemy is 25 leagues away, you do not overthrow your government with impunity. Do they think they can turn aside the foreigners with phrases. [END QUOTE]

That really cleaves to the heart of the problem. The politicians thought that the Allies were only interested in Napoleon and if he went, well then France could be left alone to form a peaceful republican government. Napoleon understood this to be delusional fantasy land thinking. The enemy wanted to conquer France. The real question was could they be stopped or if not, what kind of deal could France strike with them? If France kept a meaningful army in the field and showed determined resistance, then at least her post war bargaining position might be started from a firmer footing. Some of Napoleon’s Marshal’s like Suchet were already beginning to gain victories in other area’s.

The next day, after some wrangling and bitterness, Napoleon wrote his abdication in favour of his son Napoleon II. With it came Marshal Davouts calm situational report to the Chamber of Deputies on the armed forces. He noted that Marshal Grouchy was returning in good order with his 2 corp. Marshal Soult had gathered together 3,000 Imperial Guard and other line infantry. In all Marshal Davout felt he could put together a disciplined core force of around 60,000 men. As he said

[QUOTE] A strong barrier will be opposed to foreign invasion, and you will have an army sufficiently respectable to support your negotiations with an enemy who has proved that he does not always keep his promises with fidelity. [END QUOTE]

Foche must have had kittens at the mere thought of Marshal Davout as sole commander of French forces. After all, Davout was right. A strong army meant a strong negotiating hand for France and therefore less chance for Foche to get Louis XVIII not only back on the throne, but under his thumb. The Anglo Allied army had been badly battered at Waterloo, so its effective fighting strength was actually surprisingly low. I’ve seen figures of Wellington only have an effective strength of 50,000 at this stage. Worse for Foche, some of the politicians looked thoughtful. Perhaps the abdication had been premature. Maybe they should try Davout’s option. It must have gone almost without saying that Davout would immediately have Foche shot.

Luckily for Foche, but disastrously for France, Marshal Ney was about to intervene again. He had, in the words of Napoleon, ruined France at Quatre Bras and Waterloo. He was about to do it again. He leapt to gave a passionate rant about how the army was destroyed and further resistance was folly. He claimed he had seen its total destruction.

This simply wasn’t true. Ney had basically snapped under the intense pressure. He had betrayed Napoleon, then he had betrayed the King, then failed Napoleon, and had failed to find the hero’s death he wanted at Waterloo. Now he was close to raving.

Whatever his beliefs, reasons, or state of mind, the die was now firmly cast. The military resistance that Napoleon and the Marshals hoped for was no longer an option. Marshal Soult was relieved of his command, which was given to the less talented Grouchy, who would in turn report to Davout. Whilst Davout was given supreme military command , there was no prospect of further resistance. Paris was surrendered under the Convention of St Cloud. On 07 July 1815 the allies occupied Paris. The next day Loius XVIII was made king again.

Napoleon fell into lethargy. He had initially refused to leave the capital, trying to get himself appointed a general of the republic. He had spotted a vulnerability in the allied positions that he could counter attack. The government rebuffed him. There was no way in hell they would allow a reinvented Napoleon the Republican General to sweep in and save the day. So he loitered. His power ebbed away. He eventually left the capital and travelled south. His few friends were desperately urging him to make a run for it, to flee to the United States or to South America or even to the Ottoman Empire. Anywhere out of reach of the French government or the Allies. Napoleon seemed to change his mind constantly, even reaching out to Foche for all people for passports and permission to leave. Quite why he decided this was necessary was baffling. He could have used his loyalist troops and loyalists in the navy to force an escape. Needless to say Foche provided a lot of warm and encouraging words to Napoleon but no real passports or permission to leave.

Eventually on 15 July 1815 he decided to give himself up to Captain Maitland on the HMS Bellerophon and the Royal Navy and throw himself on England’s mercy. Captain Maitland and the Royal Navy were naturally delighted, and Napoleon became a celebrated figure on board ship. The British government was firm that Napoleon was not to be allowed to land in England. They worried that he would charm his way into the aristocracy and become a unexploded bomb. They might have been right. Instead, after much wrangling, and a good deal of pleading on his part, he was exiled to St Helena. This was a far cry from his much more comfortable exile on Elba, and his British jailers treated him appallingly. Whether he merited it or escaped a well deserved hanging depends very greatly on your view of the causes of the Napoleonic Wars. I’ve tried hard to explain that reality is always a lot more complicated than the easy answers of popular culture.

Now though the first true world war was over. It had been fought across the continents of Europe, in the deserts of North Africa, on the high seas, and colonies of the great powers involving India, Africa, South and North America

This left France now, as it had been before the revolution, with the prospect of a useless monarchy that couldn’t address the challenges of the C19th. It would be a long time until France reclaimed her pre-eminence on the continent. For now the Allied Great Powers would settle the balance of power in Europe.

In the next episode or two we will discover how the great and the good would play with the lives of men as bubbles to suit their own visions. For a lot of brave Marshals, a day of reckoning was ahead as vengeful kings, princes and nobles sought payback for the constant humiliations, where men born to poverty rise to the top through sheer merit thereby exposing as false the claims of Kings and Aristocrats as being hollow. Marshal Ney would be executed after a show trial, Murat would meet a similar fate, whilst others went to more ugly deaths.

For now though we also say goodbye to what has been called the finest army that the British ever fielded. It isn’t quite accurate because the army of the Peninsular that Wellington commanded, was actually not in the main present at Waterloo. But when we look at the Napoleonic Wars in total, the British and allied army had performed incredibly under Wellington. Rough, tough, uncultured and largely uneducated. They looked shambolic and seemed to be officered by dandies, with a besetting alcohol problem. But to everyone’s surprise they had fought the French to standstill in Portugal, worked with the brilliant Spanish partisans to turn Spain in a graveyard for the French, expelled Napoleon from France. They had stood with allied troops and finally held off the last great Napoleonic army and the invincible Imperial Guard. It had been a long, hard war. Now though the army was about to march into history. They would be scattered in garrisons around the world, or sent home to see if there really was to be a land fit for heroes.

This is a crucial moment in British history because it really functions as a kind of creation myth for the nation in much the way that WW2 would go on to do for another generation. A British army of English, Irish, Scots and Welsh had fought together. A generation before it was touch and go if the English and Scots would be at war with each other. There was also the military disaster of the American War of Independence, a nadir in British military history, where the British displayed a level of ineptness that nearly broke their military reputation, with only some bright spots in the navy. The Napoleonic Wars changed everything. The Navy had seized control of basically the entire oceans on the planet. The British army had gone from a small, often defeat rabble to a pinnacle of triumph. They had gone toe to toe with the absolute best in Europe, which at that time probably meant the world. They might not have been better at strategy or clever manoeuvres but they had displayed a tough discipline that no one could believe. This meant that for the next century it became almost unthinkable that the British redcoat could suffer defeat as far as the British were concerned.  For the Scots, the Highlanders had been newcomers to the British army. Distrusted and distrustful. Still loyal to their clan chiefs and with memories of the rising of 1745 under Bonnie Prince Charlie against the English crown. Yet now, they were admired. The fierce cries of “Scotland forever” had rung out during the desperate bayonet charges. The war cries of the Scots and the terrible, mighty, powerful sound of the pipes would now ring out across the world as the Highlanders and Lowlanders become a key part of the growing empire, and fierce warriors in the Victorian army. The Welsh also came out of Waterloo with a glowing reputation, as did the Irish, especially for the heroics of the 27th Inniskillen.

Fittingly a bronze solider of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a Irish Dragoon, a English Grenadier and a Scottish Highlander stands next to the statue of the Duke of Wellington in Hyde Park. All forged from captured French cannons. This was the birth of the united Victorian army

Britain would not see their like again. The soldiers of the future would be very different. Starting to be drawn from factories. Less well fed and with rickets and deformaties. Yet better educated with drink on the decline. With the birth of intense religion amongst the ranks. But for years to come many a soldier and sergeant in a desperate spot somewhere overseas would say “huh, this is nothin’ I ain’t running from this rabble; I was at Waterloo against Bonney and that was a proper fight.”

TRANSCRIPT: Episode 008: Imperial Sunset – Waterloo Pt 3

LISTEN HERE:http://www.ageofvictoriapodcast.com/episode-008-waterloo-pt-8-climax/

OUTLINE:

  • The position of the French attack.
  • Charge of the Scots Grey, and British Heavy Cavalry Brigade.
  • Lady Elizabeth Butler “Charge of the Scots Greys.”
  • French chaos, and the grand battery overrun.
  • We shall match them with our lancers: French counter charge.
  • The day grinds on.
  • The greatest blunder & the greatest bravery
  • The fall of La Hay Sainte, last throw of the dice and the Imperial Guard
  • The advance, the Prussians, and the last stand of the Guard
  • Night falls.
  • Reflections & post script.

Finally we come to the end of tWaterloo

At the end of our last full episode, the battle was hanging in the balance. The French had attacked Hougoumont, hammered the allied line with the grand battery, seen the ominous signs of the arrival of the Prussians, and had started the great assault with General D’Erlon’s corp. This attack had fallen on the weak point of the allied line and seemed posed to break through.

At roughly 14:18 the Dutch Belgian troops had broken under immense French pressure. A 250 yard gap opened in the Allied line. In desperation, Lt General Sir Thomas Picton waved his umbrella to signal the advance and his Scots moved to plug the gap. 3,000 troops poured a staggering volley into the attackers.

As the French struggled to reform after the struggle over the ridge and through the hedge & sunken lane it appeared only a thin line of mostly Scotsmen were left to hold the allies together. Picton yelled at the Scots to charge and they did. The Highlanders advanced with the bayonet into the teeth of the enemy despite being desperately outnumbered. Picton himself was shot dead, a grievous loss to the troops. But there was a hope for the allies…..the cavalry was literally on the way.

The charge of the heavy brigade.

The French could feel the victory in the palm of their hand. If they could just but close the fist. But now, unknown to them, the Allied counter attack was coming. The British cavalry under the Earl of Uxbridge had been carefully hidden behind the ridge. Two Brigades of British Heavy Cavalry made up of regiments from England, Ireland, and Scotland prepared to charge the French through the smoke. The 1st Brigade, known as the Household Brigade, commanded by Major-General Lord Edward Somerset, consisted mostly of guards regiments: the 1st and 2nd Life Guards, the Royal Horse Guards (the Blues), and the 1st (King’s) Dragoon Guards. The 2nd Brigade, also known as the Union Brigade, commanded by Major-General Sir William Ponsonby, and was so called as it consisted of an English, the 1st (The Royals); a Scottish, 2nd (‘Scots Greys’); and an Irish, 6th (Inniskilling); regiment of heavy dragoons. The Earl of Uxbridge had been carefully drilling them ready for the battle.

The charge was devastating and made with exquisite timing. Most of the cavalry officers were death or glory types who lived by the maxim that a cavalry officer who wasn’t dead by 30 was a failure. Captain Verner of the 7th Hussars wrote in his diary that [QUOTE] There is no part of action more disagreeable than looking on[END QUOTE]. It wasn’t just the men that suffered in the charge. The poor horses too could be killed by unfortunate shots, and even the horses that lived might be spooked by gunfire in civilian life as much as any veteran soldier could be. Captain Verner’s horse lived with him for another 20 years but remained forever skittish at the sound of gunfire.

Whatever their feelings of the men and officers of the cavalry, they were hugely outnumbered but they were also thirsting to unleash a glorious charge. Even the Earl of Uxbridge was swept up in the excitement. Instead of staying back to control and organise he would be in at the death as the popular Victorian cavalry saying went.

It is absolutely true that the British cavalry were often wild, undisciplined and persistently unwilling to leave reserves or to stop a charge and reform. Wellington certainly considered them vastly inferior to the French in terms of discipline or organisation and felt that the problem got worse the more of them there were.

Still this was their great moment. The charge was devastating and made with exquisite timing. They swept aside the surprised force of French cavalry who had supported the assault, and slammed into the French just as the attackers were forming up after gaining the ridge. British officers, often expert riders and steeple chasers well used to jumping dangerous hedges during long fox hunts were in their element, cheerfully calling the orders to charge.

Now the French were wrong footed. They were trying to reform after their almost successful attack to push it to a conclusion, but now to their shock Frenchmen were falling dead with sabre cuts, and the British Heavies crashed into them. These big men on big horses could weigh up to half a tonne and were easily capable of riding a man down and crushing him, before laying into his fellows with vicious sabre cuts. These weren’t the prime and proper gentlemen followed by silent but disciplined yeoman as is sometimes portrayed in art work of the period. These were violent men in a violent age. For example Corporal John Shaw of the Life Guard Cavalry. He was a big, tough man. A cockney street fighter turned prize fighter who had floored an English bareknuckle boxing championship contender in a brutal one sided 30 minute bout. He had been picked by the Colonel of the Life Guard Cavalry because the colonel wanted just such tough, hard men to fight for him. Before Waterloo he had looted the supply wagons for an immense amount of drink, but no one would dare cross him. He was described as swaying by the time he climbed into the saddle. He would be much admired for his furious fighting, and the Victorians would whitewash his personality to fit the clean cut stoic lower class yeoman image they preferred. The reality was that he was a violent drunk who killed a lot of Frenchmen in a drunken rage before being cut down because the drink slowed his wits.

To face the charge of the Scots Greys was especially nasty, and behind them came the Highlanders to support their countrymen. The moment is immortalised in the extremely famous painting, Charge of the Greys by Lady Elizabeth Butler. On the podcast website in the art section is a copy of the Charge of the Greys. Just go to the main menu, select Artwork and her name.

If you can, open it up now and have a look at it. I will do a full episode on Lady Butler. She is a important painter of the Victorian period and frankly I don’t think I’ve emphasised enough yet just how important art work was to Victorian culture. Much more than it is today, although that is probably a reflection of the insipid talentless non-sense that often passes for modern art. Anyway, on the podcast website in the art section is a copy of the Charge of the Greys.

Right so hopefully you are looking at the painting. If you were a middle class late Victorian, you would almost certainly have either seen this painting, or at least a print of it, or know of it from illustrations especially if you or you husband moved in military circles. It was carefully designed. Lady Butler loved painting military scenes. She was very talented at capturing a feeling on the canvass. This painting gives you the feeling that the charge is flying towards you out of the canvass. It bursts with life. It captures the unstoppable quality of the charge. There are no enemies, and everyone is displaying the appropriate heroism and excitement, with a dashing square jawed officer right there front and centre. That might seem naive to us in our much more cynical age, but this painting was a cornerstone myth of Waterloo for the Victorians. It has graced book covers and articles about Waterloo. There is little in the way of smoke or confusion, the ground is too level and dry, some of the horses are in anatomically impossible positions, and there’s no drunken Corporal Shaw but as art it shows how some Victorians wanted to see their ancestors. This is a full bore celebration of the actions of the Scots Greys. The Scots and English in this myth are indivisibly British.

Also don’t forget that Waterloo was a major battle that had entered national myth, but it was before the age of battlefield photography. Paintings and illustrations offered the Victorians a way to see the battles or distant countries.

The reality of the charge was grim. The French gains were lost. Often stuck in large columns or out of formation in the open, they were unable to form squares to repel the cavalry. Really the French attack had actually been made with too many men in one formation. It was at this point Ney should have had a reserve of infantry, cavalry and horse artillery ready to support the attack and protect his troops from the allied counter attack. He should also have at least seized the farm of La Haye Sainte in a combined arms attack to support the main assault.

Now though the French had to suffer the consequences. They were ridden down, pushed back into the valley and butchered. Corporal Shaw was seen to spilt the head of a French cavalryman in half with a single blow. He was eventually overpowered somewhere in the valley bottom, lashing out at his enemies. It is thought that he eventually bled to death overnight near La Hay Sainte.

For Sergeant Ewart, the charge was one of revenge. He was extremely attached to his new officer, Cornet Kinchant. Against the sergeants better judgement, Kinchant had taken a French officer prisoner. The officer  had begged for his life to be spared. The prisoner waited till Kinchant was distracted, then shot him in the back with a concealed pistol. A violation of the accepted rules of war at the time. An enraged Ewart listened to the officer’s second attempt to surrender. Then he told him to “ask mercy from god for the devil a bit of it will you get from my hands” before cutting him down. Kinchants death affected the sergeant for years to come, but for now he was out for more payback. He joined the frenzy of the charge. He was determined to take vengeance and he plunged into the enemy. The fight was brutal as he struggle against soldiers of the 45 Regiment. They had battle honours stretching across Napoleon’s finest victories and fought hard. Sergeant Ewart was almost stabbed in the groin. In return he cut down the bearer of the Eagle of the 45 Reg. A lance was thrown at him like a spear, but with lightning reflexes he parried it with his sword. He killed two more enemy whilst under fire, then he swept up the Eagle. He and the greys had achieved what few soldiers in history could claim. They had taken one of the Emperors own eagles in battle. It was returned to Edinburgh Castle and displayed with honours, but for Ewart he was always clear he had done it for revenge not glory.

Again this touches on an interesting psychological trait that we see in history with soldiers. The importance of the personal, the comrades who matter more than the abstract glory or rewards. We can also see how the events of battles would become the inspirational legends of regiments and armies in the future.

This personal fury was sweeping through the British cavalry. If you have only ever considered the British as polite or reserved, even in war time you might find the reality is much more complicated. Like anyone a British soldier could easily give into the emotions of war. It was not only stressful, but filled with fear and adrenaline. The stoic discipline of the British could sometimes shift into an unexpected battle fury that was terrible to behold. The Connaught Rangers, the Black Watch, and many other regiments could all claim to be as fine a set of disciplined soldiers as a general could wish, yet when their blood was up they could turn into savage close quarter fighters in a way that utterly shocked their enemies.

Now the fury of the Heavy cavalry including the Scots Greys was seeking an outlet. Even their senior officers were swept up in the madness. Shouts ran out for them to charge the Grand Battery on the French hill. This was madness indeed. The senior officers should have been sounding the recall, to reform and rest and be useful to Wellington later. But now Wellington’s worst fears about indiscipline were to be realised. Charge, charge. The sound swept up and down the line. A British colonel, with both his hands blown off, took his horses reins between his teeth and led his men up the slope into the Grand Battery. Terrified French gunners were by now blasting away indiscriminately at the mass of men and horses in the valley, uncaring if they hit friends or foes in their desperation to protect themselves.

As Napoleon watched the cavalry overrun his guns he was heard to exclaim in amazed horror;

[QUOTE] “Those terrible Greys, how they fight” [END QUOTE]

Somehow the Greys broke through the battery and the first and second lines. Killing was brutal and relentless. A mad bloodlust seemed to have seized them, but they had badly over reached. The momentum of the charge was fading. Veteran French Lancers and Cuirassiers who had stayed in reserves could see the tired and disorganised British cavalry were ready to be taken. They made disciplined moves to get between the British and their way back to the safety of the Allied lines. Then they sprang the trap. The damage these counter charging lancers did was calculated and devastating. It was so devastating that it caused the British to readopt the lance into many cavalry regiments after the war. Cavalrymen who fell from their mounts were usually dispatched by vengeful French infantry. The battle was becoming intensely personal now. The British began a desperate fighting retreat, during which many frantic combats took place and Corporal Shaw probably received his death blow.

The British Heavies made their fighting retreat. They somehow struggled back to the ridge. They had saved the Allied line from cracking and shattered General D’Erlon’s corp, but they had suffered dreadfully for it. The Heavies were reduced to below 50% effective strength. The French had lost around 4,000 men from D’Erlons corp and would take hours to rally and reform. The Grand Battery had also suffered with 7 heavy guns knocked out of action. With Hougoumont sucking 13,000 French troops into doomed attacks, Napoleon was running short on infantry and was basically back where he started at 11:30. All the deaths so far were for nothing.

Not that Hougoumont showed any signs of stopping. The French belated brought up some cannon to assist them. Probably they probably should have brought up two heavy guns early in the morning. The cannon set fire to the buildings. Wellington sent a message ordering his men to hold on even if the whole place burned down around them. When their ammunition began to run short, desperate resupply missions were made under heavy fire. Allied Riflemen targeted enemy officers to heighten confusion, and then if possible looted the rich corpses.

Napoleon changed his focus. He now understood that La Hay Sainte was the key to attacking Wellington’s centre. He ordered Marshal Ney to take it. The marshal selected 7000 men and another brutal battle within a battle was soon raging around the smaller farm. Again ammo was running short. The riflemen defending the farm fought with tenacity, picking up rifles from dead comrades to fire more quickly. They were repeatedly attack and the buildings set on fire. Wellington ordered his some of his reserves forward, including the fighting Irish Iniskillens.

Above them, on the French ridge, around 16:15, Marshal Ney was about to reach a fateful decision. He seems to have come to the conclusion that after their serious losses, the Allies were starting to retreat. He decided that it was time to really break them. It was time for the French cavalry to conduct a massed charge on an epic scale. He ordered a massed attack by virtually the entire French cavalry against the Allied centre where D’Erlon and his men had attacked. Worse, a misunderstood conversation meant that the Imperial Guard reserve cavalry were also added to the charge.

Napoleon was horrified and helpless. He couldn’t recall them in time. The charge once launched could not be stopped. Thousands of men and horses swarmed across the valley. Onlookers were awestruck. Ensign Gronow 1st Foot Guards recalled

[QUOTE]Not a man present who survived could have forgotten in after life the awful grandeur of that charge. You perceived at a distance what appeared to be an overwhelming, long moving line, which ever advancing, glittered like a storming wave of the sea when it catches the sunlight. [END QUOTE]

Officers responded quickly. Squares were formed and gunners began blasting away frantically. Wellington had established a forward gun line and men like Captain Mercer deployed their horse artillery smoothly and opened up on the oncoming mass.

Mercer remember;

[QUOTE] The effect was terrible. Nearly the whole leading rank fell at once; and the round shot penetrating the column carried confusion throughout its extent. The discharge of every gun was followed by a fall of men and horses like that of grass before the mowers scythe. [END QUOTE]

Doesn’t that remind you a little bit of the first world war. As the French wave approached the earth itself seemed to shake. The allied gunners had to abandon their guns and seek cover with the infantry or hiding under their gun carriages as the horsemen swept past. Yet as the cavalry crested over the ridge, seemingly overrunning the enemy, they saw a terrible sight. 22-25 squares of steady, unbroken allied infantry in a chequerboard formation. Ready to repel them. The French cavalry couldn’t know it, but they were about to be part of an epic military disaster.

We’ve already gone into a ton of depth about Waterloo so far. I’ve discussed Ney’s state of mind in launching the charge, and I don’t think you need to know about every single wave of attacks the cavalry went through or I’ll have to do another two episodes. So in summary, the French cavalry made a series of death or glory attacks on the various British and Allied squares. Napoleon couldn’t stop the carnage, he had to send in more cavalry to support it. But they were helpless. Men were shot from saddles. Horses killed, maimed or terribly injured. The French couldn’t force their way into the squares unless the first wild rush sent the horses barrelling into the squares before they realised the danger. This was certain death for rider and mount unless the opposition panicked. Wellington had planned for this by placing his steady British infantry squares at the front. Still the French inflicted heavy casualties. Horses won’t force themselves onto sharp obstacles so most French cavalry diverted around the squares, flowing like water round rocks. As they did they were shot down. Any Allied soldier not safely in square was hacked down. By 17:00 over 9,000 French cavalry were facing over 22,000 well formed infantry supported by the final reserve British Heavy cavalry. It was pointless and doomed. Still, it was not all going the Allies way. Men in square were easy targets for the artillery and hundreds of allied soldiers were mown down. In the centre near La Hay Sainte, the Irishmen of the Inniskillings were dreadfully exposed to over 32 French guns. They were repeatedly charged by desperate French cavalry and then hammered by the guns for nearly three hours. I cannot conceive of the horror of this moment for the Inniskillings. WW1 has accounts like the Somme where men knew they were charging a hopeless position and almost certain death, but to have to stand in a square in a bright red uniform on a sunny day whilst cannons blast at you for three hours seems almost infinity worse. Napoleon certainly constantly seemed to believe that the British were about to break. That nothing and no one could take this punishment. He was far more focused on countering the approaching Prussians. Yet the British did stand. Casualties could be up to 2/3 of a regiment, but they wouldn’t break.

The battle was becoming a haze of fog and a almost meaningless noise of guns and muskets and screams. Marshal Ney led at least 6 cavalry charges in person. Gradually some French guns were moved up to support the cavalry, increasing the British and Dutch casualties. The pressure was biting hard on Wellington who was anxiously looking at his watch and preying for the Prussians to arrive. The Allies might not break, but they might be wiped out by the endless artillery pounding.

The Prussians were approaching Napoleon’s right through the village of Placenoitt. They drove out the French defenders and were poised to begin to fall onto Napoleon’s flank and rear. By 18:00 Napoleon was getting desperate. He sent 4,750 of his elite young guard on a near suicide mission to retake the village and hold off the Prussian army. They were under the command of the capable and brutal General Duhesme, and were eager for glory, and the promotion it would bring to the infamous Old Guard. Within 30 minutes they had retaken the village in hand to hand combat with the Prussians. The fighting would continue to rage and they were soon re-enforced by some of the Old Guard themselves. The Prussians vented their fury by immediately killing the wounded or prisoners by hanging or cutting their throats. The French responded in kind.

Meanwhile the pounding continued. Poor Sergeant Lawrence of the 40th who we met last episode had been in square near the Inniskillings so he too was stuck under heavy artillery fire. Then he received dreadful news. He was next in line to pick up the regimental colours after the latest standard bearer died. He did so without enthusiasm, knowing he was now target number one for the enemy gunners. By 1830, the critical La Hay Sainte had fallen to the French. The isolated Irishmen were almost alone and dead.

In the intense pressure the Cumberland 7th Hussars decided the battle was lost and began to retreat to Brussels. Allied regiments of Dutch and Belgiums were losing men to desertion at an alarming rate despite the heroics of various individual regiments. The road to Brussels was crammed with deserters, fugitives and wounded men.

Despite everything there was now a real danger that the Allied army would finally crumple under the immense pressure. A blundered attempt to retake La Hay Sainte resulted in yet another battalion being annihilated by French cavalry. The Irish Inniskillings had lost all their officers, and taken over 463 casualties out of the original force of 698 men.

At 19:30 the critical farms of La Hay Sainte and Plaicenoitt were in French hands. Wellington had only a handful of cavalry left in reserve. He was like an exhausted boxer on the ropes. The Allied line was in real crisis. Some British battalions were down to around 100 men out of their starting figures of around 700. Ammunition was critically short in some places. Now came Napoleon’s last big decision. Call off the battle and prepare a managed retreat or risk everything in one last gamble. Perhaps one last attack by the Imperial Guard would win the day. The Allies had been under fire for 9 hours, and Napoleon was at his heart always a gambler. He would stake everything on one last throw of the dice.

As the Prussians began another assault on Placenoitt and some Prussian regiments finally arrived on Wellingtons furthest left, Napoleon prepared to launch the Imperial Guard at Wellingtons almost broken centre. He loved the Guards, his Grumblers and they loved him. Everyone else was expected to address Napoleon with full pomp and title but not the Guard – they were allowed the simple Mon Empereur. Yet this was a cruel way to treat the Guard. Napoleon was gambling their lives probably pointlessly. They were only sent in to seal a final victory or cover the army from decisive defeat. Now with only limited support the out numbered guard were being sent to achieve what D’Erlon couldn’t but they were to do it with half the numbers and the battlefield now flooding with Prussians.

The advance was indeed a magnificent sight. Formed up in disciplined squares, arms shouldered and immaculate uniforms gleaming in the sun, this was perhaps as close as history got to the fantasy ideal presented in computer games and films.  Wellington knew the advance of the Guard was a sign of utter desperation. Worse, as they advanced Napoleon told them a lie, that Grouchy had arrived with reinforcements. Cheers greeted the news and great cries went up. The outcome of Waterloo had already been essentially decided when the Allies weathered the crisis of the massed cavalry and the onslaught on their centre at 18:00. The Guard were an hour too late to swing the balance. And yet, oh and yet everyone knew that this was the Imperial Guard. They had never really known defeat, so if anyone could perform a miracle it would be them. If they broke the thin British and Dutch lines then perhaps the shaken Allied line would disintegrate in panic, leaving nothing for the Prussians to rescue. Yet even now confusion reigned. It is not cleared who exactly bungled the orders but rather than delivering a hammer blow at a few critical points, the Guard came up in an uncoordinated attacks, falling on the enemy in distinct waves. This meant that they were actually fighting outnumbered 10-1. It was hopeless. As intimidating as the Guard were, they noticed the almost silence from the British line. Marshal Buguead recalled

[QUOTE] When about 1,000 yards from the English line our soldiers got agitated and exchanged their thoughts; they hurried their march which began to get disorderly. The silent English, with ordered arms, looked in their impassive stillness, like a long red wall – an imposing spectacle, which never failed to impress the young soldiers. [END QUOTE]

The British held their fire till the enemy were barely 40 paces away and then as the saying goes, they unleashed hell on the them. French and British Horse Artillery added to the smoke and noise. One awestruck onlooker described the sight as like watching a violent storm filled with thunder and lightning breaking out on the ridge. In such circumstances, the odds suddenly seemed not to matter. Despite horrific losses, the Guard were causing a ripple of chaos. Some brave Dutch Belgium gunners dragged a couple of guns onto the Guard’s flank and blasted them forcing the French Guard Grenadiers back, but a British bayonet counter charge was driven off and almost unbelievably the chaos it caused in Humbts Brigade almost broke them. Some Dutch and Brunswick regiments were on the verge of disintergrating. If the Guard had their cavalry support with them, perhaps this really would have cracked Wellington after all, but Ney had killed them with his earlier blundering. Still the line held, pulled itself together and the first wave was beaten off. The next wave finally arrived with very limited cavalry support. It was quickly shattered by massed volleys from concealed British troops of Halkats and Maitlands Brigades, followed by a swift bayonet charge as the British took the fighting hand to hand. 300 Frenchmen were killed in the first minute alone. As that wave was finally beaten off, a last wave appeared to attack Wellingtons left centre. The Duke had no more cards to play, Humbts brigade was still in disorder after the attacks, Halkats and Maitlands Brigades were likewise trying to reform from their bayonet charges, the Dutch Begliums were almost ready to bolt at the slightest new pressure and there was no cavalry reserve. If the next wave succeeded, the Guard really would have achieved the miracle and done the unthinkable, and broken Wellington. If that had happened the Allied army would certainly have fallen apart.

In this most desperate moment, the army was about to be saved by Lt Colonel Sir John Colbourne was commanding the 52nd. It was relatively fresh and he spotted the crisis point. Without orders, he seized the initiative and ordered the advance. The 52nd Reg alone were going to try to stop the last of the Imperial Guard alone in a daring flanking attack. Not only that but Colbourne had his men move with an almost intimidating parade ground perfection into a novel formation. Skirmishers out, then cheers and volleys. Somehow he got the battalion to reload and volley fire on the move before forming up four ranks deep instead of the usual two.

If you are not quite sure why this is so incredible, well perhaps you’ve seen on TV the Queen having the Colour Trooped in front of her. All those neat soldiers in red ranks, moving like clockwork toys. Now imagine them doing in a haze of smoke with cannon and muskets all around, as they died by the dozen and even somehow managing to reload a musket down the barrel, which is normally done when stationary, whilst on the march. But still perfectly moving in complex patterns. This was the perfection of the British military system of the early C19th century. When military theorists and reformers suggested improvements or changes or novel tactics, traditionalists would point to moments like this at Waterloo where the most perfect discipline and careful ranks turned the tide from a defeat to victory. The Guard was blasted away, and a cry went up. A cry unheard in the entire of Napoleon’s career. “La Garde Recule” The Guard is retreating. This was a thunderbolt to the French army. It had never happened. It couldn’t happen. Yet it did. Now the Guard were in retreat, and a heroic Dutch Belgium unit arrived on its flank to seal the deal.

Defeat was about to turn into a French disaster though. The Prussians were viciously attacking Placenoitt. This, Napoleon’s lies about Grouchy and now the retreat of the invincible Guard would turn this defeat into one of France’s greatest military disasters until the Franco Prussian Wars or Verdun in WW1. By 20:00 Prussian pressure took Placenoitt and the French survivors were ceasing to rally. The real possibility now became a certainty. The French army was actually going to scatter and break up to disappear into the countryside and cease to be a fighting force. A small section of the Guard was held back by the French HQ near La Belle Alliance, and Napoleon hoped to rally at least a fighting force behind them. It was too late. Wellington had ended up swept forward with the 52nd and after giving fulsome praise by his standards to Colbourne, he waved his hat and ordered a general advance. This was uncharacteristically risk as the French might well rally and counter attack what was a haphazard and reckless general advance. Still as the Duke said [QUOTE] Oh damn it, in for a penny, in for a pound. [END QUOTE] I suppose he was human after all.

Most of the French retreated except for a square of the old Guard. They were invited to surrender. Myth says that General Cambrone replied, “The Guard dies but it does not surrender.” He didn’t. He was called on to surrender and just said “Merde” In isolated spots, elements of the Old Guard held discipline and formation to cover the panic but most French troops who were in full flight.

Napoleon’s career was now basically over. The great victory of Waterloo rested in the hands of Wellington and Blucher. Over the next 200 years, hundreds of accounts would be written about Waterloo, who won, who did what, was it really a French defeat or a moment of bad luck, was it Marshal Ney’s fault or Napoleon’s, or Marshal Grouchy’s was it really the Prussians or was British steadiness the key? Was Wellington better than Napoleon? Was this a sign that the British were somehow superior to the French. These questions still rage to this day in books, magazines and documentaries.

For the Allied troops, the long day was ending. Many troops in Hougoumont just slumped down in the ruined buildings and tried to gather their wits or find food. The brave Irish of the Inniskillings could finally move from their position in square. Only 218 of the original 698 men were still alive.

All across the field junior officers had to step up to more senior rolls to fill the gaps created. Some had craved the opportunity for advancement, but it often came at the price of a friends death. Soldiers have to take care of themselves. Just because the battle was over, the responsibilities didn’t end. Men had to be gathered, food organised, places to sleep found, wounded to be treated. Many a wife was left a widow and I could spend hours listing the letters to wives expressing heartbreaking loss.

What about some of the people we’ve met? Sergeant Lawrence or Private Rose the former slave? What about Marshal Ney or Captain Mercier of the British Horse Artillery?

As is inevitable with history, we have much more information about the famous Marshal Ney than we do about many others. I’ll cover him in a wrap up when we cover the Congress of Vienna and the peace settlements. I feel that we have probably done nearly as much about the Napoleonic period as we need to for a grounding. We’ve still got a few key things to cover, including the medical episode, the Congress of Vienna, the Peterloo massacre in Britain and perhaps a quick canter through some bits and pieces. Once those are done, it means that the ground work for the podcast has been well and truly laid. We will finally be able to turn to one of the stars of the new age; Victoria herself.

What I’ve tried to do in these episodes is to lay out as much as I can the events of the battle without a national spin or gloss. I’ve tried especially to get you to see the real human face of battle. The excitement, the fear, the pain, the death, the horror and even some of the joys. I’ve also tried to emphasise that this battle had a long lasting impact into the Victorian period, including on the art work, the veteran soldiers who would now go out into the world to carve an Empire, and the institutional impact on the British army. The political consequences in France and across Europe would be immense.

I’d like to end by quickly finishing up with a post script about Sergeant Lawrence. He was clearly a brave soldier and a good NCO. He was a bit of a joker, and kept a trained chicken in his backpack to amuse the men. For him at least the story has a happy ending. The good sergeant arrived in Paris with the occupying Allied troops.

Outside the barrack gate was a market stall, owned by a gardener from St Germain-en-Laye and run by his daughter, Clotilde Clairet. Romance blossomed and Clotilde became an army wife

In winter of 1817 the couple were stationed in Glasgow when Lawrence received news that his father was very ill. Getting leave of absence, the couple made a six-week round trip to visit Lawrence’s family.

The arrival of Lawrence and a foreign wife caused uproar in the tiny village of Bryant’s Piddle. Both his elderly parents were overcome with emotion at the sight of a son they had never expected to see again. There were celebrations for several days and a stream of visitors.

By 1821, Lawrence’s service of 17 years and 7 months was over. Because his knee still carried a slug shot from Badajoz, he was given a pension for life of 9d a day. This was a far cry from the skinny, abused apprentice who had run away to join the army aged only 14. He was now a respected veteran standing 6’1” who had seen service in South America, North America, Spain, Belgium and France, a holder of the Silver Medal with no less than 10 clasps and he had born the colours at Waterloo. Few soldiers could claim the same.

Lawrence and his wife ran a prosperous public house in Studland near my home town of Poole in Dorset.

Clotilde’s died on 26 September 1853, and in his old age, Sgt Lawrence finally dictated his autobiography. The result is a fascinating window to the past and to one man’s life on the march. The Sgt died on 11 Nov 1869 and was given a funeral with full military honours. You will note that he survived well into the Victorian era and must have been bemused by some of the changes.

I hope you also remember me mentioning Pvt George Rose in episode 006. He was born as a slave in Jamaica but escaped in 1809. He somehow made it to London. He joined the 73rd Foot. He served in Ireland where he became a Methodist, then later in German and the Netherlands in 1813-1814. I said he was known to have been in the thick of combat at Quatre Bras, but today would be a new level of hell for the former slave turned soldier – all of his hopes and ambitions rested on surviving the day without being maimed or otherwise incapacited from service. Well, Pvt. Rose had a very hard day at Waterloo. He was with the 73rd. They suffered the 2nd highest rate of casualties during the day and had to hold off 11 French cavalry charges. Pvt. Rose was hit in the arm by gunshot and badly wounded. Despite this, he survived, although his arm was permanently weakened. He was part of the occupation of Paris and then transferred to the 42nd The Black Watch in 1817 when the 73rd disbanded he was sent on overseas campaigns in Ireland, Gibraltar, Corfu and Malta, getting promoted to corporal and then sergeant. By the time he was honourably discharged on medical grounds in 1837 he was probably the most senior black NCO in the British army, and he was considered a model soldier who was much admired. He was given a generous pension too. He was a devout methodist by then, and could read and write, unlike a lot of British soldiers. Years later in 1849 he returned to Jamaica as a missionary, and remained there until his death in 1873.

I wanted to finish this episode talking about Sgt Lawrence and Sgt Rose as you know I like to remind you that the past is people. Complex, and with all the amazing variety that is the hallmark of the human race. Each of the people involved in Waterloo has their own life that was lived in a unique way and I’ve selected those two different people as examples of how the reality was much complex and multifaceted than the simple “red vs blue” coats images that most people have of this period of history. We might not know their individual stories, but they were as real as you and I.

SOURCES: http://www.ageofvictoriapodcast.com/sources-on-napoleon/

EP011 Congress of Vienna pt 1 “A Brave old world”

Every European school child should have learnt about the Congress of Vienna. Seriously. It is actually possibly the most important series of events in modern history that no one has ever heard of. 

Honestly, how many of us have heard of it, or know what it was, or what happened? We should and not just because it is important or worthy. It is a fascinating tail in its own right. Who would rule France? Would there be a Poland? What about the Pope or the Prussians? Who would control the Baltic or the Mediterranean? Who would end up in power, and who would end up dead? Politicians and kings squared off. Devious spies, and clever diplomats faced imperial generals or experienced statesmen. Flattery, bribery and corruption vied with high minded principle. Hypocrisy warred with genuine optimism. Had they disposed a tyrant only to create new tyrannies? Clever, ruthless men like Talleyrand destroyed incriminating archives, attempting to shape history itself.

This is part one of the story of how the modern nations of Europe were born, who shaped them and why.

Join me and find out about the brave old world that the old elite of Europe were attempting to build.

EP010 EXIT NAPOLEON

Here end the Napoleonic Wars. The revolution is over. France is beaten and it seems Britain is set to take over power in Europe, and perhaps the world. Learn how France fell, how the political battles ousted Napoleon & doomed the Marshals, and the final triumph of the great British Napoleonic Army.

Email any questions to ageofvictoriapodcast@gmail.com

Episode 008 Waterloo Pt 3: The climax

The climax of the Battle of Waterloo. The fate of Napoleon, France and Europe hangs in the balance. The French seem poised for victory. Can a thin line of brave Scotsmen and the dashing British cavalry save the Allies from defeat?

This episode covers

The heroic Scots

The British Heavies and the Charge of the Greys by Lady Butler

The arrival of the Prussians

The massed French cavalry charges

The dire position of the brave 27 (Irish) Inniskillens

The last attack of the Imperial Guard

Total victory & total defeat.

A post script to a pair of brave soldiers.