Eventually as the troops filtered into the great square they picked out their regimental colours held high as a rallying point by the bright light shed from the immense rush torches lit for the purpose. Some semblance of order began to be established as each battalion drew together to muster. Within an hour the Rifle battalion was complete, the muster rolls had been checked and nobody was found missing. Many regiments had men billeted in the far suburbs and soldiers continued to slowly filter in, indeed it took over four hours for the last to arrive.
As the men gathered in their companies and awaited orders they became aware of the floating notes of dance music and laughter emanating from a large house nearby. Of course, it had to be the Duchess of Richmond's Ball, the rich and great of Brussels and many senior army officers were present including the Duke of Wellington as guest of honour. Had they not heard the Assembly?
However, a message was soon passed around.
“All officers obliged to chaperone a lady to the Ball are to continue to do so, maintain an air of normality to the populace. Officers are to report to their regiments before dawn.”
Harry Smith and his lady continued to weave their way through the throng of soldiers, determined to enjoy the Ball. Juana was dressed in the finest full length white silk gown with puffed upper sleeves in the latest style and a square cut décolletage, cut low on her ample bosom. The ivory white dress contrasted beautifully with her dusky skin, deep black hair tied up for the occasion and her dark piercing eyes. The ensemble was completed by long white gloves; a red cashmere shawl draped fashionably over her head and flat dancing pumps to enable her to enjoy performing the latest waltzes. Harry looked dashing in his scarlet jacket with long tails, skin-tight white breeches and dancing pumps. They stood out as one of the most beautiful couples at the Ball and they were determined to enjoy it to the full, this was likely to be one of their last nights before he went to war. The Duke’s presence at the dance and his affable demeanour proved that there was little worrying him that night; they all concluded that the alarm must have been a mere precautionary act and nothing to worry about, exactly the Duke’s intention.
The battalions once mustered were told to stay in their ranks but to get what rest they could until orders were received. Some sat, many lay down on the wide cobbled roadways and pavements to snatch some sleep.
Johnny Kincaid and George Simmons curled up in a ball in a shop doorway to keep warm and tried to rest. However, they were constantly interrupted by passing locals shaking them violently, craving for news, they were ashen faced and their eyes betrayed their fear. But they had no news to give them and answered them gruffly. Eventually the pair renounced all efforts at sleep and discussed their predicament.
“I haven’t been so cold since camping on the Pyrenees the other winter” groaned Johnny.
George rose slowly from his recumbent position on the marble doorstep and asked, “What do you think the alarm was for Johnny? Nobody seems to know what’s going on.”
Johnny nodded slowly, “Perhaps it is a false alarm or the Duke has simply called us out ready for the invasion.”
“There are rumours that Napoleon has attacked” George added.
Johnny was aware of the rumours and the warning he had received to be ready to move. It all smacked of a planned movement perhaps over zealously instigated. “If he had attacked we would not be sat here now, I rather think that we would be marching south already if that was the case.” He replied.
Like everyone else, they would have to wait for orders to clarify the situation.
“I think you will have to wait a while yet before you can get the lock of Bonaparte’s hair for your Mary!” Johnny added playfully.
George smiled weakly as he settled back in the doorway; he might as well try to sleep again, as he wasn’t missing anything.
After what seemed an age in this uncomfortable setting, they were interrupted again, this time by the nobs as they poured out of the Ball in the early hours. Many had drunk far too much and found negotiating the sleeping bodies of the Riflemen very difficult, many stumbling in the dark and falling upon some unsuspecting warrior. The shouting and swearing of disgruntled soldiers ruptured the air; the accompanying ladies attempted to blot out the foul language by covering their delicate ears. The whimpering apologies of these dignitaries did little to calm the situation, Johnny, George and their fellow officers had to get up often to calm their men down before they slit someone’s throat!
They also suffered the loud drunks who assaulted them verbally, particularly picking on the officers as their ornate uniforms showed them as someone in authority.
“Get up all of you, how can you defend us lying down?”
“What is happening? Why haven’t you gone to fight the French?”
“Are you going to just lay there whilst Napoleon comes to gobble us all up?”
They fended off these attacks brusquely, Johnny occasionally resorting to ordering the men to escort some extremely abusive gentlemen out of earshot. These nearly flew down the cobbled streets, escorted by a Rifleman holding each arm lifting them bodily from the ground and many a toff certainly retreated to bed with a kick on their derriere that night!
Eventually the Ball petered out and all went reasonably quiet, everyone grasped a few moments of sleep where they could.
They were harshly awoken again when the bugles blew hard to fall in as the new sun was rising; everyone assumed that they would soon depart, who knew where.
Ned Costello was detailed as his company’s non-commissioned orderly officer to collect the rations for the company. The Commissariat staff issued Ned and his squad with their rations from a long convoy of carts lining the sides of the broad roads a block or two from the great square. He was issued with three days rations for each man against the muster list, which he then proceeded to hand out to the individuals. The young lads didn’t know campaigning and had never gone without food since joining the Army; many chose to decline much of their issue, as they didn’t like to carry the weight and they were sure that they would be fed regularly just as they had on the march to Brussels.
“Take ‘em youze ijots, youze never know when rations will catch us up again!” shouted a frustrated Ned.
Some listened to their wiser comrades, many did not; the old heads knew they would rue this moment later when it was too late. On campaign, food in your hand was better than gold. Sometimes there was literally nothing to buy at any price and you can’t eat gold! Costello gave the remainder to the other veterans as extra rations.
As soon as the sun rose above the horizon and they could proceed without stumbling in the dim grey light, orders were given to march. The battalions fell in and marched off with the bands playing in the intervals between the regiments, they played ‘The Downfall of Paris’ and other popular tunes. They were marching south toward the French border area, where either Bonaparte would attack or they would launch their invasion of France. It would be a leisurely and pleasant march with the clear skies denoting a warm sunny day to come. They wouldn’t have to fight for a day or two yet, so they could just enjoy their time.
They marched out on the road to Namur passing through the Port de Namur, a great stone gateway, a remnant of those distant days when Brussels had a surrounding wall for defence. Soon, having passed through the outer suburbs of the City, the battalion proceeded along a wide chausee passing through an extensive wood, the Bois de Soignies someone said the locals called it. The woodland extended for some miles; it was full of large trees that had formed a dense canopy of leaves, which denied any of the sunlight to the ground beneath. This meant that there was little undergrowth and they noted that although from afar it had all the appearance of an impenetrable wood, in fact it was open enough that you could march an army through it. The shade was welcome, for the morning sun was already warming the air and the body heat generated within their tight, fully fitted uniforms had already led them to feel hot and sticky. Despite their burden of a very heavy pack they laughed and joked as they strode on, the day was delightful in every sense. They had no cares in the world as they marched slowly toward the forward staging area.
The gruff bellow of Staff Sergeant John Hall, who was standing alongside his bed in the pitch-black room, brought Alexander to his senses with a jolt. He had trouble shaking himself out of his deep slumber, it was obviously near midnight and he could have only been asleep for an hour or so. What could be so urgent at this time?
“A message Sir” whispered Hall, holding out the paper. “The dispatch rider said nothing and rode straight off, but at such a late hour I thought it must be important Sir”.
Alexander grasped it and broke the wax seal with his fingers, spreading the sheet of paper wide. He strained to read the message in the dim flickering light from the candle held by Hall.
It read, “Captain Mercer’s troop will proceed with utmost diligence to Enghien, where he will meet Lieutenant Colonel Macdonald who will point out the ground on which it is to bivouac tonight.”
Alexander sprang from his bed. He had at first thought little of the order, just another simple movement order over eagerly delivered in the middle of the night. But something had told him that this time it was somehow different. Call it intuition, but he just knew.
“Sergeant muster the troop; have Bugler Bowen sound ‘Boot and Saddle’, also send a message to Mr Leathes at Ysingen to bring his division forthwith.”
Dressing rapidly, Alexander thought.
“This is it!”
Joshua Coates burst in to Alexander’s room; he was wearing only his trousers and continued dressing as he entered. He had heard the confusion in the passageway and had surmised the reason. “What, are we off Sir?”
“Yes, without delay. You must collect your wagons as quickly as possible”, Alexander replied.
Coates looked worried, “I fear Captain Mercer that it will take some time, as farmer St Cyr’s wagons are gone to Ninove.”
The words shook Alexander to the core, his wagons were not ready and it was entirely his own fault. He began to fret over the consequences of his earlier decisions, which were now coming back to haunt him.
His problems were numerous; the officers were all away in Brussels at the Ball, the division at Ysingen with their two horse teams and cannon would take some time to arrive and here was Mr Coates reporting that the carts of provisions were not going to be available for some hours. They really had been caught on the hop, Alexander regretted allowing the troop to be broken up like this, but the seven weeks of waiting had led to a general relaxation of readiness and he had to admit to himself that he had been guilty in allowing complacency to set in.
“Just do your best and if you cannot be ready by eight, you must follow us,” he answered quietly.
Within half an hour the welcome sound of horse’s hooves clattering on the cobbled driveway, clinking scabbards and the deep rumble of cannon on the move seeped through the mists covering the lawns. Suddenly dark masses could be discerned in the hazy distance, it was the division of Henry Leathes from Ysingen. At least Alexander now had the entire troop mustered and most importantly all of the guns. Things improved even further as shortly after the officers rode into the chateau grounds having returned at speed from Brussels. Their horses looked tired and blown.
“Thank goodness we found you Alexander, we thought that you may have left already” shouted John Bretton.
“Indeed we should have gone some time ago, but the troop has taken time to muster, Mr Coates will be a while yet with provisions. How did you come to know of our move?”
Henry Leathes joined the discussion “Whilst at the Ball, a message was passed for officers without partners to return to their units immediately, we have ridden all night. Indeed as we passed through Brussels, we observed the Fifth and Brunswick Divisions forming to march south. What are our orders?”
Alexander explained, “We must proceed to Enghien with all haste. We will give Mr Coates thirty more minutes, and then we will proceed with or without him. I have already ordered a large breakfast from the kitchen staff; I suggest we all partake of a hearty meal, for I know not when we will eat again!”
Everyone ate ravenously of a fine cooked breakfast and prepared to move out. Alexander was unable to relax over his meal; he worried over the carts and the consequent lack of supplies. Raising his eyes from toying with his food, he became aware of the smirk of self-satisfaction painted across the face of Robert Newland. He had been proven right and he was enjoying every minute of Alexander’s discomfort. Everyone else knew of his embarrassment and they pointedly avoided eye contact.
At eight o'clock Alexander finally ordered the troop to march out on the road to Enghien. Mr Coates had not arrived and orders were left for him to follow as closely as possible. Alexander ordered a detachment led by Bombardier James Downie consisting of twenty-one drivers to remain to man the wagons for Mr Coates. Alexander could not delay any longer, how he lamented his decision to overrule Coates.
The Rifles approached a wide clearing in the woods; they noted a village formed of two rows of low houses hugging the road and to the right a large church, catering for the spiritual needs of this small community. The church was of a hybrid design, it sported a Romanesque columned portico at its northern end; this led into a tall, near circular red-bricked tower, capped with a copper dome encased in verdigris. A tall circular Byzantine style tower topped the dome, glazed panels encompassing it to two thirds of its height and at its apogee a cross. The main body of the church was conventional enough, but a square tower at its Southern end topped with an extremely pointed spire completed it. The overall effect was that of a curious monstrosity.
They received the welcome order to halt and cook breakfast. Filing off into a field, which formed a sort of green alongside the church, they immediately set off to gather wood, so that their ration pound of beef could be cooked. Other fires were set to boil iron kettles of water to which were added tea leaves, milk and sugar; everyone had to drink tea white and sweet. George, Johnny, Archibald and the other officers quickly identified an old dilapidated inn in the village. The white washed two-storey building was punctured by rows of large glazed windows to ensure that the interior was light and airy. It was 9 a.m.; the landlord was awake and happy to provide excellent fare for the gentlemen’s breakfast in the small front room. In discussion with the patron they discovered that this was the village of Waterloo and that a messenger riding through last night had warned that Napoleon was coming soon. They smiled, there were no orders to proceed, no urgency, and these Belgies were apt to exaggerate, for they had a downright fear of Napoleon’s return. How could there be a French attack without any warning?
Indeed shortly after nine, whilst they waited for their breakfast, Lord Wellington and his large entourage had ridden past. His ‘family’ were dressed in the colours of the rainbow, not only the scarlet and navy of the British contingent, but also Prussian blue, Austrian and Spanish white and Russian green. There were no signs of apprehension from them; they had ridden straight through without stopping, jesting light heartedly amongst themselves. Lord Wellington had looked relaxed and cheerful; they had left no orders, so all continued to enjoy their steaming food as it arrived from the kitchens.
After an hour or so, the officer’s hunger sated and feeling refreshed, they sauntered out into the intense sunlight. The battalion was spread across the field, the old hands cooking all their beef for three days, for who knew when they would next be able to kindle a fire to cook the raw meat and the heat of the day was already making it smell rancid. The younger lads had little to cook and consumed their all for breakfast. They lay down and slept in the glorious sunshine, laughing openly at the silly old sods worrying about food, the Commissariat would catch up soon to issue more.
About 11 o’clock the Black Brunswickers marched into the village and set down near the Rifles to cook. The Duke of Brunswick and his senior officers contrasted with their men dressed all in black, as their uniforms were adorned with silver lace and great white plumes surmounted their cocked hats.
The Duke and his staff selected the trunk of a fallen tree as a seat alongside the road where servants served them food. The Rifles watched with interest as he conversed with his entourage sat alongside him. Eventually his Aide de Camp sitting next to him stood to stretch his legs. As he sauntered away, a very dirty and flea bitten tramp, dragged his aching body towards his habitual perch. It was busy for a change but there was a space and unmoved he pushed his way through to sit down. As he sat, some of the officers went to remonstrate but the Duke raised his hand to stop them and continued as if nothing had happened. The Duke sat alongside the poor tramp for some fifteen minutes appearing totally indifferent to the foul smell and threat of fleas; however he had refrained from eating anything else!
The Rifles had sat mesmerised by the scene unfolding in front of them, when the order “Fall in” caused them to move away. The Duke and the Brunswickers rose as well and fell in behind the Rifles; they were all obviously required to proceed on a little further today.
Setting off once again, they soon cleared the southern end of the woods, emerging onto a rolling landscape of luscious farmland with head high wheat just awaiting the scythe greatly obscuring the views. Large square farm complexes stood fortress like in the midst of the wheat fields and small clumps of trees and orchards were dotted randomly, it was a truly magnificent vista in the bright sunlight. They marched on through this undulating land without a care in the world, the birds singing, crickets chirruping, accompanied by the rhythmic clumping of the men’s boots upon the roadway. They walked zombie like, marching to the rhythm of their feet crashing down whilst their thoughts drifted, they just kept in step mechanically. They had marched some three miles from the village of Waterloo and now marched through a cutting in a low rise, then immediately passed another enclosed farmhouse, which the owner, who nonchalantly watched them pass as he puffed on his pipe, called ‘La Haye Sainte’. The officers noted with a professional eye that this ground was a good defensive position and wrote it in their notepads for possible use in the future. Any good officer always noted the lie of the land and particularly useful positions that could be of advantage later during any fighting in the area.
On they marched in the heat of the day, the sun glaring down, canteens were already empty of liquid refreshment, and the packs became a terrible burden.
“Hold Charity up Mc Nabb” bellowed Sergeant Fairfoot.
Mc Nabb held the arm of Thomas Charity as he started to sag from heat exhaustion. Thomas was a tall gangly individual, one of the older survivors of Spain being all of thirty two, a ripe age for a soldier on campaign, but it had taken its toll on his constitution and he was often weak now. William Mc Nabb helped him to the side of the road and he sat down on the grass verge to recuperate.
“I’ll catch up soon Sergeant,” he cried weakly.
“E’ell be all right, Sarge, Oi’ll stay wid ‘im” piped up Mc Nabb.
“Not on your nelly Mc Nabb, fall back in; Thomas can get on by himself. I’m not letting youze out of moi soight!” Robert knew McNabb of old, a skiver, always looking for an easy life and apt to disappear whenever there was any fighting to be done! Well he wasn’t disappearing this time.
The battalion hadn’t stopped and they had to move swiftly to catch up.
Again they marched on, footstep following interminable footstep, would it never end?
Suddenly, there was a very distant low rumble.
“Thunder” said Jem Connor.
“Cannon Foir” corrected Ned Costello.
“Frenchy twelve pounders I tink, oi’d recognise dem bastards anywheres” he continued.
The air was suddenly electric as his words spread through the battalion; some serious fighting was going on somewhere up ahead, they thought. The battalion almost instinctively increased its pace of march, there was a renewed spring in the step, weary legs took on new powers, drooping heads rose, nostrils flared, the brain switched on and concentrated again, no longer worn by the mindless monotonous drudgery. Soon even Thomas Charity appeared back in the ranks, all strained their hearing for more sounds to confirm that they hadn’t miss heard, but nothing, absolutely nothing.
Perhaps they were mistaken; maybe it was only practise firing or indeed thunder after all.
Alexander had failed to procure a local guide that could show G troop their way to Enghien, for none of the locals seemed to have been that far in their lives. He struggled valiantly with the poor map that he had purloined, which showed few of the roads or villages that they encountered and soon was quite lost in the maze of side roads. Alexander drove them on; he was acutely aware of their slow progress because of the delayed start and the maximum speed of the ammunition wagons, which held them back. Finally he decided to press on at a greater speed with the cannon and their limited ammunition supplies in the limbers. The ammunition wagons commanded by Quartermaster John Hall were ordered to follow at the best speed they could. It was a calculated risk, he realised that his guns might make the difference in any engagement and that he may already be expected. Hopefully the ammunition would catch up before it was needed to replenish the limber stock.
The order was given, but Alexander worried over this division of his unit, he had now effectively split into three columns and his guns could only have a partial effectiveness without the reserve ammunition.
Robert Newland had highlighted the weakness of course; “Captain Mercer, I must protest strongly against this decision and beg you to reconsider. We have already seen the effect of your over ruling Mr Coates for we have no supplies. It is sheer madness to separate the guns from most of the ammunition. It could lead to severe embarrassment in front of the enemy.”
Alexander knew that it was a massive gamble and he prayed that it would not lead to their downfall, but he felt it was the right thing to do in the circumstances. He was aware that the others’ silence spoke of their agreement with Robert, but he dug his heels in.
“Do as I bid Mr Newland” he answered curtly.
Newland ordered the Quartermaster to follow at their best pace and fell back into the column. He was not about to jeopardise his whole career by disobeying a direct order, that would be playing into Alexander’s hands, no he would continue to gather evidence against him for the inevitable court martial if he continued making such high handed and dangerous decisions.
They pressed onward with the guns now rolling at a full trot until eventually meeting a group of farmers who were able to give confident directions to Enghien; they must therefore be nearing their goal.
A lone dragoon officer dashed past, his stallion lathering heavily, Alexander recognised him and called out.
“Charles, where do you rush?”
Charles Dance was a Captain in the 23rd Light dragoons; he recognised his old friend and reined in abruptly. Having regained his breath a little, he explained.