George Beane looked gravely serious for a moment, “His lordship will have picked some ground for us to stand upon soon, mark my words, as he will not sell Brussels so cheap!”
Alexander bid them adieu, with the hope that they would join him for dinner if his provisions caught up with him that day, they happily accepted and he strode back to the troop.
Still no Beth, Johnny Kincaid had been searching for the best part of an hour now, but there was no sign of urgency or fighting yet and he decided to continue his quest. He came down from the crest and walked to the rear of the front line. Here second line and reserve troops of all arms stretched for half a mile or more back on the road to the village of Waterloo. They all milled about within their units, preparing food and checking weapons, indeed all along the line could be heard the irregular popping of muskets being test fired after the punishing rains. Aides de Camp could be seen darting about relaying orders to units; other regiments could be seen marching through the mire to their positions squelching through the mud. Johnny arrived at a Horse Artillery battery well behind the front, the horses still unhitched from their carriages chewing the sodden grass, unconcerned with all that went on around. There, happily joining in the breakfast was Beth, Johnny was so relieved! He ran to her, caught her reins and caressed her head.
“I’d thought you’d gone for good Bess”.
He’d given twenty guineas for her to a Guards officer in Brussels; he couldn’t afford to lose her.
An unseen voice rang out, “Sir, do I take it that this is your horse? For it has upset my horses all morning with its excitable state.”
Johnny turned angrily to face an officer of the Royal Horse Artillery in his dark blue hussar style jacket. The officer had obviously only feigned irritation and smiled broadly as he held out his right arm to shake hands in friendship.
“Captain Alexander Mercer, at you service, Sir.”
Johnny took his hand and shook it, “Johnny Kincaid, First Ninety Fifth, thank you for your care of my horse, it bolted during last night’s storm.”
“A pleasure, she wandered in this morning, she is a fine looking animal.”
Johnny looked about at the horses and equipment of the battery, “Your battery is a credit to you Sir, I warrant this must be the best artillery unit in the army.”
Alexander was pleased at such an evaluation from an experienced officer. “Thank you, for your kind words, I hope that we have the opportunity to show that we can fight as well as we look and not remain in the reserve as at present.”
Johnny looked Alexander straight in the eye, “Napoleon will ensure more than enough work for all of us I will wager. I hope we shall meet again after the battle.” he held out his hand again, “Good luck Alexander, for I fear many will not see the sunset tonight.”
Alexander looked surprised, “Are you certain we fight? For the rumours are of continued retreat.”
Johnny Kincaid smiled wryly, I have walked the position our army takes up at present, and Lord Wellington will not retreat further unless forced to. Expect a clash of the Titans today!”
Alexander strode with Kincaid up the rise to the top of the field, from here he could see the Rifles taking up positions near the farmhouse just below them and he watched Johnny ride back down to his men.
Alexander soon lost interest in Johnny and he scanned the horizon in front. There were numerous dark masses and myriad fires to left and right about a mile or so away. It was the French army, quietly encamped on a low ridge the other side of the valley, who knew how many were there? Eighty or Ninety thousand? It was an imposing spectacle. There was little sign of early activity from the French and after observing them for a few minutes; Alexander turned to stroll back to the troop.
Nearing the bivouac again, he spied a number of Lifeguards digging in a plot adjacent to the farmhouse of Mont St Jean; he approached them to discover the cause, it was Potatoes! The field was full of them.
Calling to the troop, Alexander thought little of his rank as he set to work with the men to haul the vegetables out from the sodden clay soil, for he was famished and they would make a very welcome addition to the ‘stir about’. They stood in a sea of mud, their uniforms becoming ever more besmirched and grimy, but they cared little for their appearance. Hunger took over all other considerations. They busied themselves for a considerable time and succeeded in piling up a substantial number of young potatoes.
Gunner James Putten arched his aching back to straighten from the constant bending. As he surveyed the fields around him, he let out a cry of surprise. “Eh, everyone's gone except our troop, where the bloody ‘ell have they all gone to?”
Johnny arrived at the crossroads to find the Rifles moving to their positions as ordered by Sir Thomas Picton. They had marched forward and passed the cross roads in the direction of La Haye Sainte, which now formed an outpost in front of the line on the ridge.
Sir Andrew Barnard had called the officers together and explained that they were to hold the left side of the crossroads area, forming the right wing of the Fifth division. They were also required to support the Second Light Battalion King’s German Legion who were to defend the farm of La Haye Sainte, it was they whom Johnny had seen preparing the defences there earlier.
As they passed the crossroads, three companies were ordered to halt and form a reserve along the line of the track leading to the left. William Johnstone’s company was to hold a small rise or knoll, some fifty yards to the front, this they did by lining a thick hedge at its base on the side facing the French. Jonathan Leach’s and Edward Chawner’s companies were ordered another fifty yards in front of this knoll, into an old pit formed by locals digging out the sand for building. The hole was oval in shape, measuring some fifty by one hundred feet and excavated to a depth of about twelve feet below the normal surface level. The men moved into position rapidly, they lined the rim of the pit, resting their rifles on the forward edge and waited for Johnny Frenchman. The pit was about sixty yards to the rear of the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte on the opposite side of the chausee.
Johnny arrived as they were taking up positions and sought his orders. Sir Andrew Barnard and Major Cameron would command from the cross roads, he was to stay with the two companies at the sand pit. Johnny remained in the saddle, giving him additional height to scan the horizon for a better view of threatened attacks.
“Well Gentlemen, there will be warm work today.” Johnny proffered.
Edward Chawner smiled, “Let them come, they’ll not take this spot from us easily.”
“What about the road, it will give easy access for cavalry?” Johnny countered.
William Johnstone replied, “That’s under way, we will construct two abattis of branches, one just in front near the farm, the other further back on the approach to the sunken part of the road at the cross roads. George Simmons is getting them organised right now.”
George Simmons was indeed watching his detachment of men dragging logs, old farm implements and broken branches, anything to form an obstruction on the roadway to stop cavalry charging along it.
“Keep going lads, Crawley, Kelly, give Sergeant Fairfoot a hand with that old carriage there.”
Soon they had completed an obstruction that would stop anything and they returned to the sand pit.
A few minutes later, a cavalry patrol of British dragoons approached the crossroads and moved forward at a canter along the chausee towards La Haye Sainte on a reconnaissance mission. George and his men stood in horror, open mouthed, as they approached the barricade and nonchalantly brushed it aside to ride on!
“So much for all that bloody work” Tom sighed.
“Well we will just have to build it again and stronger still” George added.
Half an hour later, the two abattis were completed again and no horse was going to charge through these ones!
Johnny noticed Joseph Burke the Surgeon, and his Assistant Surgeon Robert Heyt, setting up their equipment on the top of the knoll ready to deal with the wounded from the front line. Their trestles were set up under the canopy of leaves of a large beech tree and they were unpacking their vile instruments, their saws and the razor sharp amputation knives. As he watched them, the dull thud of a distant cannon firing registered in his head, a ranging shot or test firing from a French cannon in the distance.
The cannonball crossed his view as it bounded over the knoll, severing the canopy of branches from the tree stump, and he watched in awe as the whole mass of branches and leaves collapsed in a heap upon the heads of the said Surgeons! Within seconds the medics emerged, showing no ill effects but mortified by the roar of laughter from the battalions that witnessed it. Hurriedly, they repacked their equipment and retired to a safer location. It must have been a fluke; nobody could have aimed such a shot with any hope of succeeding. As they passed to the rear Joseph Burke informed Johnny that he would set up again at the farm half a mile back at Mont St Jean.
Looking back towards the cross roads, movement on the ridge to his left, on the opposite side of the Brussels road, caught Johnny’s eye. A single young yew tree grew on the rise and near it he could make out Lord Wellington and his staff gesticulating as they discussed the troop dispositions. The movement that caught his eye however, was the arrival of a Horse Artillery battery, which promptly started to unhitch its guns and load them.
Johnny decided to investigate; it could turn out to be his newfound friend Alexander Mercer. As he pressed his horse up the slope however, he was overjoyed in recognising very old friends.
“The Devil take me if it isn’t Johnny Kincaid, how the devil are you old boy?”
Lieutenant Colonel Hew Ross was delighted to see Johnny again. Hew had commanded ‘Chestnut Troop’ Royal Horse Artillery, attached to the Light Division throughout the Spanish war, he knew the Rifles well.
Major John Parker and Lieutenant Phipps Onslow also approached and heartily shook his hand, he was a welcome sight.
Hew Ross explained, “We are to protect you and the Germans in the farm, I will place four of my nine pounders up here to dominate the ground and place John with his division down behind that abattis at the cross roads. Just don’t get in John’s way when the French come!” he warned playfully.
Johnny returned to his station at the sand pit to complete the preparations.
Eventually, as the early morning light flickered through the curtains, Juanna rose, dressed hurriedly and walked out to her horse with Harry. One final passionate embrace and she mounted her horse, turned away to hide her tears and headed out on the road to Brussels where Harry hoped that she would be safe. He watched her disappear into the woods, frantically trying to keep her in view for as long as possible, eventually she was gone and fighting back his fears for the future, he rode hurriedly to the front.
He arrived to discover his brigade in the reserve so he proceeded on to the crest of the ridge where he spotted the Rifles and rode down to join Johnny Kincaid.
“How does it appear Johnny?”
Johnny looked thoughtful, “They take a devilish time about attacking us.”
As the words fell from his mouth, numberless cannon roared into action far to the right, near the chateau Johnny thought.
He hooked out his fob watch by the gold chain, eleven thirty five and the wait was over!
The heavy cannon fire to their right grew to a crescendo; it was accompanied by the faint sounds of distant beating drums, blaring bugles and the pop of hundreds of muskets, creating a veritable cacophony of sound. The Rifles could see nothing of proceedings beyond the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte, except for a thick plume of light grey smoke rising high into the sky about a mile away.
Johnny Castles looked at the telltale signs of war, then turning to the lads around him shouted out “Well ‘ere we go lads, we’ll be next mark moi words. That there farm is a big proize fur Boney, he’ll cum t’take it soon!”
Tom Crawley turned to George “Lefftenant Simmons, begging yur pardon Sir, but Johnny Frenchman’s up to some ut, look there.” He pointed toward the low ridge half way across the valley.
Just visible to the naked eye were numerous solid black objects appearing along its crest with small groups of men moving around them with purpose.
“Artillery” George muttered as he used his spyglass in an attempt to count the guns; he lost count at seventy.
“Shit!” he exclaimed.
Over seventy six and twelve pounders and howitzers, they were surely in for a severe pasting. George ordered Private John Palmer to pass the word to Lieutenant Kincaid and then to the reserve companies. Napoleon had started as a gunner and was still in love with his ‘Children’, his twelve pounder iron and brass guns; he would use this massive battery to demolish the units facing them, before his infantry and cavalry closed to smash through and deliver the coup de grace.
The battery was obviously taking some time to move into position and set up ready for action. The men watched as their preparations continued, they could do nothing; the guns were well beyond rifle range.
Johnny Kincaid approached George Simmons and Jonathan Leach.
“They must be sinking deep in this mud,” suggested Johnny.
“An hour now since they started moving, I think they are near ready” Jonathan Leach replied.
“The firing to the right is still heavy and seems stationary,” George observed.
Johnny agreed, “It must be an attack on the chateau I saw this morning and as the firing stays constant it must be holding firm.”
Their conversation was interrupted abruptly when a dull thud was heard on the breeze. A small puff of smoke could be seen emanating from one of the French guns on the ridge. They could not see the cannonball’s trajectory however; it must have passed to their left.
Major Cameron saw it coming though; flinching instinctively he felt its pressure wave as it passed close to his right. He looked over his shoulder at the line of Rifles formed as the reserve. There was movement and a shuffling amongst the men at the extreme right of the line.
“Stand still, Sergeant Morgan take charge there!”
Sergeant Morgan had already spotted the movement himself and had moved swiftly across to discover the cause. As he approached, the reason was abundantly clear. Summers, the tall right hand man of the company, lay flat on his back on the ground as if at attention, the corpse had no head. The solid iron cannonball had smashed Summer's head removing it completely! The men behind had recoiled in horror, partly at the sight, but mainly because they had been completely smothered with the pulped contents of Summer’s head! Blood, brain tissue and fragments of skull still retaining his hair, bespattered them. Dooly was physically sick, Smith and James stood rigid being afraid to move, they looked to be in complete shock.
“What a baptism of fire” thought Thomas Morgan. He thoughtfully offered them his canteen of brandy to swill their mouths of the taste of Summers.
Having shown them sympathy they needed shocking out of their stupor.
“Get back in line, James take right hand man, dress off him.” Despite their recent experience, complete obedience to orders made them fall back into line, to face death like men.
Johnny Kincaid watched the long line of guns with his spyglass and observed a number of small billows of smoke swiftly followed by the deep-throated roar of the guns as they finally came into action.
The ranging shot had obviously been observed and a similar range set on all the French guns, the balls could be tracked as they flew mostly to the left of the Rifles, aimed more towards the British Fifth and Belgian Divisions on the crest of the ridge. The French could not observe many units however and they had to guess the location of the defending forces.
Sir Thomas Picton had known what was coming and as instructed by Wellington, he had his troops retire behind the crest of the rise and lay down to reduce casualties to a minimum.
The Belgian units holding the crest in front of the Fifth division also retired, but one regiment stood unmoved near the crest, clearly visible to the French gunners. They paid dearly for this mistake; they stood awaiting orders to move, they were either forgotten or needed for a purpose they didn’t know of. They stood and took the terrible punishment meted out, cannonball after cannonball smashing through their massed ranks, knocking numbers over with every strike. The wounded streamed back helped by uninjured colleagues, which rapidly depleted the regiment. They clung together like sheep clustering for protection and stood their ground, but they shouldn’t have been left so terribly exposed, it was sheer murder.
Johnny Kincaid rode back to the reserve, he could see them standing protected largely from the artillery fire by the knoll in their front. To their left, Johnny could see the Belgian units with the Fifth division behind them; all were lying down to avoid casualties. Occasionally, a cannonball bounded over the crest, landing on some poor sod lying on the ground, they rarely let out a cry but succumbed to the reaper swiftly and silently. Some, who suffered smashed limbs, made up for them by screaming in agony and had to be carried back to the surgeons. Morale however was excellent, as Johnny passed behind the troops, he was amazed to hear them laughing and joking, Napoleon’s tactics which were designed to destroy their spirit was clearly not working.
Every few seconds another solid iron sphere bounced across the fields smashing everything in its path. The wet ground swallowed up many a cannonball but some were only slowed each bound of the ball being much lower, but danger still remained. Johnny caught sight of a Rifleman stopping a cannonball that was simply rolling slowly down the knoll with his foot. The shouted warnings from colleagues to leave it be, were not heeded, which was followed by the inevitable scream of agony as the ball still had the power to tear his foot away.
Casualties mounted slowly but steadily with no ability to answer, how long would this go on for?
The British artillery batteries occasionally fired at the French guns to ease the bombardment but there was little visible lessening of the cannonade. As Johnny observed the guns, he could now see the movement of large bodies of troops beyond them; the French were finally going to launch their attack.
The cannonade had continued for half an hour or more and it was a relief of sorts to prepare for infantry and cavalry attacks, as at least the guns would have to stop to avoid killing their own men.
Throughout the allied forces, preparations began to receive the French attacks. Johnny returned to the sand pit to ensure that Jonathan Leach had prepared the advance companies. He arrived to see Jonathan and George Simmons viewing the French formations as they prepared to advance.
“How many do you make it Jonathan?”
Jonathan looked stern, “By our calculations up to eighteen thousand infantry formed in columns as Johnny Frenchman always attacks. A Cloud of skirmishers in front and Cavalry on both wings, light cavalry far side, Cuirassiers bordering the road our side. Classic all arms attack as you would expect from Mister Bonaparte.”
Johnny Kincaid took another look with his spyglass and inwardly agreed with Jonathan’s professional assessment. “Ranged from the road in our front across to our left wing, but the columns are broader than normal, the French must be looking to increase their firepower, the Fifth Division will have their hands full!” Johnny looked at his pocket watch; it was now half past one.
“There, Look!” George shouted excitedly, pointing up the road. They all trained their glasses towards a party of French near the cobbled road, “I’m sure it is, yes, it’s Bonaparte himself.”
There he was, squat, plump in a grey coat with a large cocked hat lying crossways on his head, he sat astride a beautiful white horse. The French troops were clearly saluting him as they passed him on their advance; shouts of ‘Vive la France’ and ‘Vive l’Empereur’ could be heard faintly on the breeze.
“Look lively lads, ‘ere cumms Ole trousers!” shouted Sergeant Fairfoot.
“Come on you bastards! Let’s tank you proper loik fur the pasting we just ‘ad” added Jem Connor.
“Aye, their turn to eat lead” George Kitchen concurred.
Rifle barrels were rested along the crest of the sand pit and careful aim taken, each man choosing their individual target as they waited for the range to close.
William Johnstone’s company at the hedge on the knoll, received reinforcements, Lord Wellington who obviously had seen the build up of French troops had sent troops from Ompteda’s Light Battalion of the King’s German Legion.
The noise of battle now grew louder by the second; the allied artillery concentrated on the massive infantry targets, which they could hardly miss. They worked as fast as they could to pour their terribly destructive fire into the masses. The commotion from the French rose as they marched towards the crest, drums beating and bugles blaring, men shouting encouragement, all designed to bolster morale, the theory being that the greater the noise level the more confidence was maintained. The ‘Pas de Charge’ was the rhythm, which they beat, sounding something like ‘the rum dum, the rum dum, the rumma dum dumma dum dum dum’ played incessantly.
Despite these attempts to maintain their morale, the French started to become nervous as they climbed the slope. The British and Belgian units remained unseen and unheard behind the crest, which had a great dampening effect on their ardour as it had in Spain, old hands became worried by the reception they knew that Wellington and his army had waiting for them.
One column of Frenchmen headed directly towards the farm of La Haye Sainte, a second moved towards the Rifles on the knoll, they were obviously unaware of the sand pit and its defenders in their path. Further columns advanced toward the main crest to the left of the Rifles. The Cuirassiers could be seen to move over to the far side of the farmhouse and advance on that side.
Finally the French skirmishers were at a range of one hundred yards and the rifles roared into life. The aimed shots held so long were finally released, decimating the skirmishers. The shock was palpable, they had not suspected any resistance before the crest, and certainly not so deadly. The skirmishers reeled backwards, but the main column soon came up to them and marched on, they had been saved from this initial destruction and saw no reason to stop.
The rifles now concentrated all their fire on the head of the column; this was much the greater threat now. Every Rifleman poured in as great a volume of fire as he could, the company behind the hedge on the knoll contributing fully as well. The noise was deafening, soon the smoke from the rifles caused a thick smog, occasionally obscuring the column altogether. There was no need for taking careful aim now though, simply load and point, for the target was so large you had to hit something. They quickly became tired, it was really hard work ramming the cartridges of ball and powder home, the mouth dried with fear, tearing the cartridges with your teeth to prime the firing pan contributed as the gunpowder seared the throat.
Despite horrendous casualties, which increased with every moment, the column continued to advance steadily. The dead and wounded at the front of the formation were simply trampled on, the wall of men behind still marching forward stopping those that sought to turn back, there was no escape. Those troops further back in the mass were protected by the men in front from injury and did not feel the same fears, they simply strode forward.