Waterloo: A Visit To The Field – France And The Netherlands

The French wished to call it the battle of Mont St. Jean, but Wellington said “The Battle of Waterloo.” The victor’s wish prevailed. I know not why, except because he was the victor. The scene of the battle is four miles from the village of Water-loo and, besides Mont St. Jean, several villages from. any one of which it might well have been named, are included in the field. Before the bat-tie, however, the village of Waterloo had been the headquarters of the Duke and there he rested for two days after the battle was won.

I am now on this memorable spot as the solitary guest of a small hotel at the base of the Lion’s Mound, after having made a night of it in crossing from Aix-la-Chapelle to Brussels and thence, through a storm of mist and rain to the little station of Braine-l’Alleud, which is a good mile from the battlefield. The train reached Braine-l’Alleud long before daybreak. When the morn had really dawned, I left the little waiting room, a solitary loiterer, and set out to find the battleground. From the platform of the station the eye surveyed a wide, thickly populated but rural plain, and in one direction afar off, clearly set against the dark rain-dripping sky, rose in solemn majesty a mound of earth, bearing on its lofty summit an indistinct figure of a lion.

A small rustic gate from the station led in the direction of the Mound. From necessity, I began a tramp through the rain alone, no conveyance being obtainable. The soil of Belgium here being alluvial, a little rain soon makes a great deal of mud and little rains at this season (January) are frequent. Along a small unpaved mud-deep road, having meanwhile been joined by a peasant with a two wheeled cart drawn by a single mule, I was soon hastening onward toward the Mound which was growing more and more visible on the horizon. The road soon turned away, however, but a path led toward the mound. The peasant took the road and I the path, which led into a little clump of houses, where were boys about their morning duties, and dogs that barked vigorously until one of the boys to whom I had spoken silenced them.

Passing onward through streets not more than six feet wide, along neatly trimmed hedges and past small cottage doorways, I soon entered an open plain, but in a crippled state with heavy mud-covered shoes. Mud fairly obliterated all trace of leather. With this burden, and wet to the skin with rain, there rose far ahead of me that his tonic mound, and at last I stood at its base alone, there in the midst of one of the greatest battle-fields history records,, soon to forget in the momentary joys of a beefsteak breakfast that man had ever done anything in this world except eat and drink

I must borrow an illustration—Victor Hugo’s letter A. The apex is Mount St. Jean, the right hand base La Belle Alliance, the left hand base Hougoumont, the cross bar that sunken road which perhaps changed the future of Europe, the two sides broad Belgian roads, paved with square stones and bordered with graceful and lofty poplar trees, their proud heads waving in every breeze that drifts across this undulating plain. The Lion’s Mound is just below the middle of this cross bar. Mont St. Jean, La Belle Alliance and Hougoumont, at the three angles of the triangle, are small villages—scarcely more than hamlets. All were important points in the fortunes of that memorable 18th of June, 1815. Hougoumont, with its chateau and wall, in some sense was like a fortress.

Go with me if you will in imagination to the summit of the Lion’s Mound. A flight of 225 stone steps will take us there, a toilsome ascent in this chilling air and this persistent rain. To-ward Mont St. Jean, the surface of the ground is rolling, the waves of it high enough to conceal standing men from view. Except the lofty poplars at the road sides, there are no trees. An admirable place for an army on the defensive, you will at once say, since reserves can he concealed behind the convolutions of the rolling plain. These convolutions may also serve in the fight as natural fortifications.

Here at Mont St. Jean, Wellington pitched his tent. Hougoumont lay far off in front of his center, and had that morning a small garrison. Napoleon, with his army, was a mile away, his line extending to the right and left beyond La Belle Alliance. We must turn squarely around as we stand along-side the lion if we are to see in the distance the ground he occupied. Our place is nearly in the center of the field. Hougoumont we realize to have been worthy of the prodigious struggle the French made to capture it. Half a fortress then, it provided an admirable stand for artillery. A few men might hold it against superior numbers.

At Waterloo the Duke had about 67,000 men —some accounts say 70,000—but many, perhaps 15,000, fled in desertion at an early hour of the day. With these figures correct, the fighting forces of the Allies later in the day, would remain little more than 55,000 men. The Emperor’s army has usually been placed at 70,000. His soldiers were probably better trained than the Duke’s and combined with long service an abundance of enthusiasm for their old general, now restored to his imperial throne and confident of victory.

The night before the battle had been wet and stormy, but the morning gave some promise of clearing; the sky, however, remained overcast and some rain continued to fall. The French were weary after a long march, and the artillery moved with difficulty across this wet and muddy plain. Altogether they were in poor condition for a battle, in which all their fortunes were at stake. It was just such a morning as ours, except that it was then June and is now January. If the battle began at 8 o’clock, as one account reads, we are here on the Lion’s Mound at that same hour. Even if this be January, daisies are in blossom at our feet.

Jerome Bonaparte, leading the attack, moves on Hougoumont, where the Allies, who have come down from Mont St. Jean, repulse him. He renews the attack “with redoubled fury,” and a gallant resistance is made, but he forces a way into the outer enclosure of the chateau that crowns the hill. British howitzers are at once discharged upon the French and compel them to retreat. New assaults are then made. Overwhelming numbers seem to bear down upon the Allies. The stronghold is more than once nearly lost, but it is defended with “prodigies of valor” and firmly held to the last. Had Hougoumont been taken, the result of the battle “would probably have been very different.”

Meanwhile, the Emperor has ordered a second attack elsewhere—this time against the left wing of Wellington. Marshal Ney sends forward six divisions, who encounter the Netherlandish troops and easily scatter them. Two brigades of British numbering 3,000 men then prepare to check the advancing French. A struggle, brief but fierce, ensues, in which the French are repulsed. They rally again, however, and Scotch Highlanders, their bagpipes sounding the cry, advance against them, along with an English brigade. These make an impetuous assault, while cavalry charge Napoleon’s infantry, and force a part of them back on La Belle Alliance. But here the pursuing British meet with a check in a scene of wild carnage that sweeps over the field.

We may look down upon the scene of that frightful struggle. It lies just below us. Grass is growing there luxuriantly now. A north wind sweeps over the plain. A mournful requiem seems to whistle through the poplar trees.

If we look toward Hougoumont, French gunners are seen to have been slain. Many cannon are silent. With the chateau in flames, confusion reigns. Napoleon, ordering a new cavalry attack, directs Jerome to advance with his infantry. Immediately the Allies discharge grape and canister on the advancing host. But no Frenchman wavers. On the contrary, the French cavalry capture Wellington’s outward battalion and press onward toward his hollow squares of infantry. All efforts to break these squares end in failure. For a time the French abandon the attack, but only to re-new it and then follows a remarkable scene. The French charge with unprecedented fury, and the squares are partially broken, while friends and enemies, wounded or killed, are mingled in inextricable confusion.

Some of the Belgian troops take flight and in mad terror run back to Brussels, causing great consternation there by reporting a defeat for Wellington. The squares maintain their ground to the end admirably, and with severe losses the French retire. Hougoumont near by, all this time was not silent. The attack being continued, the commander is killed and at last its heights are gained.

From elsewhere in the field, Wellington learns of his loss, places himself at the head of a brigade, and commands it to charge. Amid the utmost enthusiasm of the Allies the French are driven back from Hougoumont.

Napoleon now turns his efforts against La Haye Sainte, a small height forward from Mont St. Jean, occupied by the enemy’s left wing. Ney, in a furious cannonade, begins the attack, in which the Allies are overwhelmed and their ammunition is exhausted. Masters of this point, the French again move on Hougoumont. It is seven o’clock in the evening, with Napoleon in fair way to succeed, but his men are already exhausted and their losses are heavy. Some of them plunge into that famous sunken road, unheeded of him and them, and still so great a mystery to historians. It was a charging cavalry column that plunged in, unknowingly, rider and horse together, in indescribable confusion and dismay. We may see that road to-day, for we have walked in a part of it when coming across the plain from the station-a narrow road cut many feet deep, its bed paved with little stones. Hugo’s words on that frightful scene are these :

“There was the ravine, unlooked for, yawning at the very feet of the horses, two fathoms deep between its double slope. The second rank pushed in the first, the third pushed in the second; the horses reared, threw themselves over, fell upon their backs, and struggled with their feet in the air, piling up and overturning their riders; no power to retreat; the whole column was nothing but a projectile. The force acquired to crush the English crusht the French. The inexorable ravine could not yield until it was filled; riders and horses rolled in together pell-mell, grinding each other, making common flesh in this dreadful gulf, and when this grave was full of living men, the rest marched over them and passed on. Almost a third of the Dubois’ brigade sank into this abyss.”

Two hours before this, Blucher, with his Prussians, had appeared—Blucher who was to turn the tide of battle. He had promised Wellington to be there. His soldiers had complained bitterly on the long march over muddy ground, but he told them his word as a soldier must be kept. From far beyond La Belle Alliance had Blucher come, a cow boy showing him the way—a boy who, if he had not known the way, or had lied, might have saved Napoleon from St. Helena. The ground where Blucher entered the field is just visible to us from the mound as with strained eyes, we peer through the morning mist. During Ney’s attack, Blucher opens fire on La Haye Sainte. By six o’clock he has forty-eight guns in action and some of the guns send shot as far as La Belle Alliance. As the conflict deepens, Napoleon’s fortunes are seen to be obviously in grave, if not critical, danger, but he strengthens his right wing and again hazards Hougoumont. Eight battalions are sent for-ward, an outlying stronghold is captured, but more Prussians advance and threaten to regain the point.

At seven o’clock while Ney is renewing the at-tack on Hougoumont other Prussians appear. The real crisis being at hand, Napoleon resolves on a final, concentrated movement against the enemy’s center. His soldiers being worn out and discouraged, he gives out a false report that reinforcements are at last coming—that Grouchy has not failed him. A furious cannonade opens this new attack, causing “frightful havoc” among the Allies. The Prince of Orange holds back the French on the very ground where the lion is now elevated, but falls wounded. Napoleon, in an address to the Imperial Guard, rouses them to great enthusiasm. Fr a half hour longer the French bear down on the enemy, but British gunners make gaps in their ranks. With his horse shot from under him, Ney goes forward on foot.

The Duke now takes personal command. He sends a shower of grape and cannister against a column of French veterans, but they never waver. Reserves, suddenly called for, pour a fierce charge against the advancing French, rending them asunder. The attack is closely followed up and the French are driven down the hill. Elsewhere in the field the battle still rages. Blucher continues his attack on Napoleon’s right and forces it back. Reduced to despair, Napoleon now gives his final and famous order: “Tout est perdu ! Sauve qui peat.” But the Young Guard resists Blucher. Wellington, descending from his height, follows the retreating enemy as far as La Belle Alliance. At eight o’clock, after a most sanguinary struggle, the Young Guard yields. The success of Blucher elsewhere completes the victory of the Allies.

One man will never surrender—Cambronne. Who was Cambronne? No one can tell you more than this—he was the man at Waterloo who would not surrender. “The Old Guard dies, but never surrenders.” “Among those giants then,” says Hugo, “there was one Titan—Cambronne. The man who won the battle of Waterloo was not Napoleon, put to rout; not Wellington, giving way at four o’clock, desperate at five; not Blucher, who did not fight. The man who won the battle of Waterloo was Cambronne. To fulminate at the thunderbolt which kills you, is victory.”

As we look over this field from our height and try to realize what mighty fortunes were here at stake, we note that the mementoes of that day are few. A Corinthian column and an obelisk are seen at the roadside as memorials of the bravery of two officers. This Lion’s Mound, two hundred feet high and made from earth piled up by cart loads, commemorates the place where a prince was wounded. Colossal in size, the lion was cast from French cannon captured in the fight. On this broad plain upward of 50,000 men, who had mothers, sisters, and wives at home, gave up their lives. Poplar trees sigh forth perpetually their funeral dirge. Grass grows where their blood was poured out. Modern Europe can show few scenes of more sublime tragedy. Our visiting day, with its chilling air and penetrating rain, has been a fit day for seeing Waterloo. The old woman who served me with breakfast spoke English easily. It was well—doubly well. No other language than English should be spoken on the field of Waterloo. I passed a few French words with the boy who called off the dogs, but was afterward sorry for having done so.