“Make haste, make haste for God’s sake, or you will be taken!”
The troop needed no warning; they were driving at breakneck speed, the horses straining on their bits, seemingly unconscious of the driving rain in their faces. The drivers bent forward against the deluge, applying their leather straps to the horse’s flanks, whipping them frantically, and demanding an even greater effort. With their spare hands they desperately held on to their cumbersome helmets, it might be a pain to wear, but it did afford some protection from the downpour. The gunners sat on the limbers holding on tightly to the bars of the carriages as they bucked wildly over the fields.
After what seemed an eternity, the hooves of the lead horses clattered onto the cobble stone bridge and in seconds without any easing of the pace, the troop dashed over the river and into the main street of the town. The town was drab and barren, deserted of all outward signs of human habitation, the locals having either fled or locked themselves in their cellars, praying that the soldiers of both armies would leave them in peace, a vain hope. The dragoons had entered the river to left and right of the bridge and waded across; by a miracle they had evaded capture. There was a palpable feeling of relief and Alexander shouted to Henry Leathes as they cleared the bridge.
“That was too close Henry, I thought we were lost.” Alexander beamed.
Henry smiled back, but suddenly his face changed to one of horror as he pointed ahead.
“The road…. It’s blocked by troops!”
Alexander looked up to see that a regiment of British Hussars slowly filing through the town completely blocked the narrow street.
Alexander bellowed out the order to halt. The drivers strained to rein back their horse teams and they managed to stop just before they crashed into the rear of the hussars. What were they to do now? The houses to each side restricted the horse team’s movement, they would have to wait for the hussars to clear the village, but would they have enough time before the French caught up?
Alexander could see the other dragoon regiments passing through the gardens of the houses to both sides, the French would soon be doing the same and they would be trapped!
Lord Uxbridge suddenly appeared again.
“Here, follow me with two of your guns.”
Alexander called to Henry Leathes to follow with his division of two guns that was leading the troop. Lord Uxbridge led them into a very narrow and straight lane leading off to the left, bordered on each side by high earthen banks. Presumably they were to clear the village and deploy to prevent the French advancing on that flank.
However there was no opportunity for Alexander to discover Uxbridge’s real intentions. The lane stretched for some two hundred yards but having traversed half its length, Alexander suddenly became aware of a troop of French Chasseurs sitting astride their horses simply waiting for them at the end of the track!
“Oh my God, now what do we do now?” Alexander cried out.
Not only were Alexander and his two guns in grave danger, but he also could not believe that Lord Uxbridge, the Commander in Chief of the allied cavalry, had exposed himself to such danger, with no escort for protection.
“By God, we are all prisoners!” shouted Uxbridge, dashing his horse at the steep bank to the right, which his great charger mounted with aplomb and he promptly disappeared!
Alexander now felt very exposed and vulnerable; the distance to the French was now little more than fifty yards. He could not believe it, but the Frenchmen merely stood there and waited for them.
There was nothing for it but to order the teams to reverse direction.
“Reverse by Unlimbering” he ordered.
No sooner had he shouted the order, than the drivers hauled back on the reins and brought the teams to a halt.
The cannon were unlimbered and pushed to the side of the lane. The horse teams were led round to face the opposite direction and walked back past the guns. The cannon were then rolled back out and reattached to the limbers.
Alexander admired the calm and organised way his men rapidly carried out the manoeuvre in such circumstances. His amazement was reserved however for the Frenchmen, who remained impassive and unmoving, simply watching the troop alter formation.
The guns moved off back down the lane with no interference from the French, they trotted slowly in a slight show of defiance, now that the threat was much reduced.
A low rumble to their left caused Alexander to fear that he was now surrounded, but all of a sudden, British hussars lined the bank of the lane accompanied by Lord Uxbridge. He had obviously brought them up to save the guns; perhaps their approach was the reason the French had not overwhelmed them.
Once back on the main street they discovered that the hussars and remainder of the troop had already passed out of the town. Clearing the last of the houses, Alexander found Robert and the rest of the troop and having reformed they moved on rapidly together.
Beyond the town the cavalry were ranged in two long lines right across the road as they had now caught up with the army’s rearguard and they needed to gain them more time so that they could get clear again.
G troop was ordered by an Aide of Lord Uxbridge to return towards the French and support the advanced picket of hussars. As soon as the troop advanced and came into the view of the French, their cannon made them a particular target. Their cannonballs bounded past regularly, but remarkably failed to hit them at all, even though they were little more than two hundred yards away.
Alexander halted the troop and deployed then waited for the inevitable attack.
TURN & FIGHT
The Rifles could now see cavalry units on either flank, they must have crossed at fords on the river but they were British thank God! Behind the town of Genappe, they were ordered to halt and form line facing the enemy. French cavalry were now to be seen moving along the narrow road through the town.
The order rang out “Form Square!”
The men ran to their positions, the square had to be formed perfectly before the cavalry could charge them or they would be slaughtered. They were getting very close and not a single bloody rifle would be able to fire for the rain! The leading French horsemen were lancers. They could outreach the rifle and bayonet and pick them off with their outstretched lances, as they stood in square unable to fight back. Their hearts sank, they couldn’t win this fight, and this surely was the end!
As they began to clear the houses and reform for their advance, a British hussar regiment gallantly charged the French lancers. They met bravely, the lancers impaled some of the hussars but others dodged the lance thrust and struck them aside enabling them to close with their opponents. The hussars now had the advantage close in where they could use their curved swords to slash away, causing horrendous flesh injuries. The French cavalry were too numerous however and despite hard fighting the hussars were eventually beaten back.
A great cheer arose from the French cavalry as they brushed this opposition aside, the hussars had fought bravely but were light cavalry, small men on small horses, they were no match for the French cavalrymen who completely outnumbered them.
Lord Uxbridge smiled; the hussars had done their job of delaying the lancers well. Whilst their attack had foundered, he had formed up his elite heavy cavalry, the Lifeguards. These huge men on towering horses watched impassively as the hussars were eventually brushed aside. They hungered to redress the balance; their horses snorted with flared nostrils whilst champing on their bits, they awaited the charge impatiently. The men strained their ears eagerly awaiting the order to advance.
The command finally arrived, they trotted forward but it was hard work for the horses to pick their feet out of the sodden ground. With seventy yards to go they broke into a canter, the horses straining to break into a gallop had to be held firmly in check to maintain formation and to conserve their energy.
The French lancers had been too busy celebrating their recent success to take notice of this new threat. Suddenly they realised the danger, some called out warnings, others tried to reform the wall of lances, a few tried to turn their horses in an effort to flee, but the crush behind was so immense that they were being pushed bodily to advance.
Surprise had destroyed the French morale, before a weapon had crossed, they were already half defeated. The Lifeguards crashed home, horse colliding with horse, some lances impaling a Life guardsman but many more were irresolutely held allowing a deft sword stroke to brush them aside.
Their heavy swords crashed down on heads, shoulders and arms rarely severing completely, but carving great gouges in the flesh, their helmets providing little protection. The screams and cries were awful to hear, those that fell to ground being trampled horribly under horses hooves. The Lifeguards scythed through the front ranks and slashed left and right as they drove deeper and deeper into the column of French horsemen still crowded in the town’s main street. The lancers had seen enough being constricted by the surrounding houses and unable to deploy, panic set in. This caused the rear units to turn and fly back across the bridge eventually allowing the crush in the town to ease and the surviving lancers to flee.
The Rifles watched the struggle, anxious for success and cheered the Lifeguards until they were hoarse.
Tom Crawley watched in admiration, but had spotted numbers of Life guardsmen returning from the struggle on foot leading their horses, but neither man nor beast showed any sign of injury.
He called out to one passing. “Where’s you going? yer ain’t cut!”
The Lifeguard looked straight at Tom and answered indignantly, “Oi’m forced to retoir as I ‘as fallen. Sergeant says we must retoir if’n our huniform is dirty!”
Tom and the lads roared with laughter “These ‘eroes tink theys at Orseguards not foighting Boney!”
Palmer joined in “You knows wot they sez. The uglier and dirtier, the better the soljer!”
“Wull you must be a bloody foin soldier, cos youze damn ugly!” the Lifeguard retorted.
Everyone looked at Palmer and waited for his violent temper to explode but he just stared for a moment, and then roared with laughter.
“Good answer lad, ‘ere share moi rum!”
The Lifeguard smiled, drank a good half of Palmer’s canteen of rum off in one go and bid him farewell.
The French followed cautiously after that, the Rifles and cavalry retired slowly but steadily, the squadrons of cavalry each standing ready to fight as the adjoining squadron retired, then retreating themselves as the others took their turn to cover them. This led to a checkerboard effect across the fields, which the Rifles could view and admire as they marched, a textbook retreat.
The rains had now eased a great deal and the slow matches were re lit. Alexander ordered G troop to deploy and return fire on the French batteries. As they unlimbered the cannon and loaded with spherical case, Macdonald mysteriously appeared again at his shoulder. He showed a professional interest in the length of fuse applied for the shrapnel to burst directly above the French artillery.
“Mercer, which fuse have you ordered, A or B?”
“A Sir” Alexander replied in a tone that barely concealed his irritation.
Alexander said nothing; his nit picking was driving him to distraction. However the first discharge from the right hand gun proved his point, the shell exploded perfectly just above the enemy guns and a number of their gunners fell, others ran, it was a perfect shot.
Alexander turned in triumph to confront Macdonald, but he had vanished once again.
The troop fired slowly taking deliberate aim, Alexander was acutely aware of the shortage of ammunition as the wagons were ordered well to the rear for safety. He sent Staff Sergeant Henry Parson to recall Quartermaster Hall’s wagons, as he could not fire much longer without replacement ammunition.
He was intrigued to watch the hussars skirmish with their French opponents. The horsemen trotted forward, took aim with their inaccurate short muskets known as carbines and fired before trotting back out of the firing line to reload. This little circular equine dance was being played out all along the line, with no perceivable benefit to either side. Alexander found the scene both amusing and a great waste of time for all, a mere futile charade.
This fascinating entertainment was interrupted by Major Macdonald’s reappearance with a rocket troop; it was Captain Edward Whinyates’ men. They had been ordered to join the retreat, but Alexander had noted all day that they were hanging just behind the rearguard in the hope that they could join in. Obviously Edward had persuaded Macdonald to let him have a go at the French.
Whinyates was lucky to be there as he had nearly drowned when his transport almost sank on route to Spain in 1810. He was an experienced peninsula man who had been mentioned in Lord Wellington's despatches, a major honour although Wellington was no lover of rockets.
The Rocket troop dismounted and unpacked some of their missiles. They marched forward as far as the picket line, and then set a small iron framed tripod on the ground. A rocket with a long wooden tail attached was placed on the tripod and pointed at a French cannon which was deployed on the road firing at the British cavalry. The slow match was applied and the rocket fuse fizzled into life, it sparked and juddered then with an almighty whoosh! It flew as straight as an arrow directly up the road, striking the cannon. The explosion destroyed the gun’s carriage and its crew ran for cover like frightened whippets closely followed by the neighbouring gun teams who didn’t fancy being next.
A great Hurrah! Arose.
Whinyates’ men encouraged by this splendid success eagerly fired a number of further rockets, but they could not match this early success. Later rockets flew in all directions all but the one intended; eventually the French gunners gained renewed confidence and returned to their guns. The final rocket initially flew perpendicularly, then descended and turned towards the guns, the British guns! Alexander watched its flight with amazement, which quickly turned to horror as its trajectory altered directly toward him! He deliberated his courses of action for a split second then ran like hell! The adrenaline pumped profusely, he ran quicker than he ever thought he could. He was aware of the hissing rocket approaching at great speed, knowing that he couldn’t outrun it. There, just ahead of him was a shallow culvert in the field, Alexander dived head first into the narrow ditch, which was filled with water from the rains, the rocket passing overhead harmlessly. Picking himself up from the muddy trough, sodden and cold, Alexander had lost all interest in the rockets!
The cavalry started to retire slowly as the infantry had marched clear again. The racing was over; an orderly retreat was now the way of things. Slowly and methodically, the line of cavalry retired by alternate squadrons. It was carried out as if on the parade ground with the King himself watching at Horse Guards. The French cavalry seemed to have lost their drive and meekly followed these movements without any threat to disrupt these beautiful evolutions.
Slowly they retired, G troop standing by to deploy, but never needed. The gun teams trotted along the chaussee and eventually caught up with a battalion of Brunswick infantry, dressed all in black. At the sound of the horses in their rear, without even bothering to look to identify whether they were friend or foe, they simply broke and fled! This was not an auspicious sign from their German allies!
Evening crept up on the Rifles as they continued to march, the rain falling incessantly again, and darkness came early with the black foreboding clouds threatening to engulf everything. The battalion trudged past the large farmhouse that they had passed only yesterday in such heart, called La Haye Sainte. They became aware of large numbers of regiments encamped in the fields around.
A messenger rode down the road calling out for the First Battalion Ninety Fifth. Colonel Barnard hailed him as he approached. The lads nearby eavesdropped on the discussion.
The messenger was one of Sir Thomas Picton’s young lords. He called out “Sir Andrew, Sir Thomas requests that your battalion halt in the fields to the right just beyond the cross roads ahead for the night. Be aware Sir that the army is encamped to your right and left and that it is Lord Wellington’s intention to offer Napoleon battle here tomorrow if he has the support of the Prussians. The General compliments you on your success in delaying the enemy today and advises that your unit is placed behind the front line tonight to allow all your men to rest. There will be no need for pickets.”
“Thank Sir Thomas for his kindness; we will be ready for the fight tomorrow.” Sir Andrew replied.
Eventually, G troop trotted past the large enclosed farmhouse of La Haye Sainte on their left. As they passed on, the French advanced nearer and Alexander sought a spot on which to deploy. To his right was a sand pit, the troop turned into it and deployed their cannon on the roadway to warn the French that they were encroaching.
The French were some eight hundred yards behind and Alexander ordered the guns to aim carefully not to waste their shot. The first gun fired and to everyone's amazement dozens of cannon roared into action just to their rear from atop a low ridge running to right and left. They had clearly caught up with the main army and they were serving notice of their intention to dispute this ground.
The French retorted in similar vein and a regular cannonade developed for a considerable length of time.
“Look Sir” cried gunner John Death, “It’s the monster himself!”
Alexander peered through the gloom of sunset, on a low ridge he could discern the squat body and low bicorn of the Emperor himself for the second time. A large group of senior officers swarmed around him in deep conversation. They were obviously counting the flashes of the guns to judge whether Wellington had stopped retreating.
Lieutenant John Hincks took great care in laying one of his guns, taking very deliberate aim, finally loosing a cannonball that passed through the group, clearly causing great confusion and consternation.
“That will give them something to think about” Gunner Philip Hunt shouted.
The French clearly took the hint that the army was not to be moved on that night and the cannonade slowly fizzled out on both sides, the French had clearly stopped driving them hard in their retreat.
A stubby little man, unshaven, wearing drab ill kempt clothing and a battered hat approached Alexander. In a deep, gruff voice with the hint of a Welsh accent, the stranger attempted to engage Alexander in conversation.
“Damn Frenchies look as though they have had enough to day.”
Alexander forced out an ill-tempered “Yes”.
The stranger persisted “You form part of the rearguard?”
Alexander could not disguise his ill temper, he was tired and ravenous, and he had no time for Lords who fancied themselves as amateur Generals.
“I am very busy Sir, You must excuse me.”
The stranger retired, with no sign of irritation at Alexander’s off hand replies.
John Hall approached surreptitiously, talking quietly to avoid being overheard.
“You do know who that was, Sir?”
“I have no idea and I do not much care” Alexander replied caustically.
“If I am not much mistaken, that was General Picton, Sir”.
Alexander’s jaw dropped, the famous Picton, the foul-mouthed Welshman was the fear of every soldier. He was known as a hard-bitten General and one of Lord Wellington’s most able lieutenants. A man of supreme grit and determination, Alexander had just treated him like a mere subaltern!
The Riflemen marched through a cutting and across the crossroads where they were relieved to hear the orders “Halt” and “Fall Out”. The men found a patch of unoccupied ground and slumped to the ground. They lay with no protection from the heavy rain and cold evening temperatures, water flowing beneath them in tiny rivulets and bodily sinking into the soft muddy ground, but exhaustion allowed them to snatch some sleep.
George Simmons watched his men lie down without cover and thought how best to use his greatcoat to most advantage. George laid his coat on the ground and encased it in clumps of turf. Once the coat was completely covered in a thick protective layer of mud and grass, he slid beneath it and lay snug within for the night, his hat protecting his head from the beating rain.
Johnny Kincaid tethered Beth and sat beneath her for shelter, wrapped in his cloak for the night as protection. Eventually most fell into a fitful sleep occasionally disturbed by the water trickling over and under them and the gnawing cold.
An Aide de Camp approached G troop, carrying orders for them to retire a further mile, to form in a field and orchard near the farm at Mont St Jean.
The troop marched back until near the farm which formed a square of solid brick barns with high slate roofs. They turned into the field on the left of the road, where the wagons sank into the soggy turf; feet sank up to the ankles in the bog. The horses were tethered and corn supplied from the few sacks they had brought with them. Soon they were satisfied; the men however sat in sullen silence, the rain running down their bodies and the pain of acute hunger gnawing unmercilessly at the pit of their stomachs.
The men transferred the remaining ammunition from two of the wagons to the limbers and Bombardier Thomas Masterton was ordered to proceed to refill the wagons at the depot set up just beyond the village of Waterloo. He set off with his teams without complaint, despite the prospect of marching through the night to replenish the ammunition. He had no prospect of any sleep that night, but those he left behind had little more, work at least had the advantage of keeping his mind occupied and would help him forget his miseries.
They all sat huddled under the wagons, stretching the canvas covers out in a vain attempt to obtain protection from the renewed heavy rainfall. They were soaked through and they dare not move as that brought a colder portion of their wet clothing against their skin, which further increased their discomfiture. The officers set up a tent, but the water seeping through it and the wet soil beneath ensured a very uncomfortable night. They huddled close together in an effort to maintain some warmth but it was futile, little sleep was to be had.
In the lee of the wagons, poor excuses for fires were kindled which hissed and spat as the raindrops attempted to extinguish them. The warm thoughts inspired by these minuscule flames were infinitely more rewarding than the actual heat generated by the green wood, which smoked away. Robert Newland produced cigars and an umbrella to ward off the rain, Alexander eagerly accepted a share of both when proffered as enmities were put aside at such times of joint suffering. There they sat as miserable as sin enduring all in silence, as nobody wanted to be mocked by the old peninsula hands. They were always ready to chastise the new lads with their “Lord have mercy on your tender carcass!” or “Ho, my boy this is but child's play to what we saw in Spain!”
Robert Newland eventually broke the silence.
“I haven’t seen rains like this since Burgos, now that was bad. Every day the rain filled the trenches, men had to stand up to their shoulders in water for up to four hours at a time.”