The shrieks of both injured men and horses was horrible, the confusion in the front rank was palpable as the riders behind tried to negotiate past the injured and dead blocking their way. The horses were unhappy at treading on their fellow steeds and their former masters lying on the ground, the advance became bogged down.
Just as the confusion began to subside and the advance could be resumed, number two gun discharged its container of death. Each gun in turn exploded into life, each one causing further death and injury and increasing the confusion exponentially.
Alexander watched number one gun of John Bretton’s division as they completed loading again, they would be next to fire. He watched as John Butterworth used the ramrod to pack down the canister and explosive charge. The Griffith’s brothers awaited him finishing and as he withdrew the rod and stepped back, James removed his leather covered thumb from the touchhole and inserted the metal spike. He felt the point drive through the waxed paper releasing some of the powder and inserted the quick match. Removing the pricker, he covered the vent again with his fingerstall to avoid premature firing and indicated to his brother Richard that all was ready. Richard approached with the slow match and James removed his finger and stood back, the burning tip of the match was applied at arms length to the touchhole. As he did so many of the team took a further step away from the gun, some placed fingers in their ears to save their eardrums, their heads turned away from the explosion. The taper ignited the quick match which fizzled into life; the explosion was less than a second away. Alexander watched all this blithely awaiting their fire to observe its effect.
Suddenly, Alexander spotted movement in the corner of his eye, this unexpected manoeuvre made him home in, something wasn’t right. He realised that this flicker across his eyes was John Butterworth, the sponge man. John had taken a step backwards away from the cannon’s mouth as the match was applied, but he had stepped back onto a large stone, he had lost his balance and began to fall. Alexander realised the danger, but much too late, John’s arms extended instinctively to break his fall and at that precise moment the cannon roared into life. John’s torso landed on the ground in front of the cannon and all awaited the smoke clearing to see what had happened. As the black fog cleared slowly, the form of Butterworth’s body became clear lying across the mouth of the cannon. There was movement indicating that he was still alive, thank God! Through the haze he could be seen raising himself from the ground and lifted his head. As the last of the smoke cleared, John’s ashen face bespattered with blood, raised pathetically on two stumps, came fully into view; his two arms had been torn away by the blast!
Alexander was aware of the deathly stare in his eyes as John looked directly at him, but he was still troubled by the French, who unbelievably still sought to reach them. He had no time to give support to those that fell now; he pulled his gaze away from Butterworth guiltily to observe the troop continue firing.
John Bretton ordered the men to reload again and Thomas Martin was handed a spare ramrod and told to take Butterworth’s place.
“We must keep firing or they will overrun us all!” John Bretton shouted to drive his shocked team back into action. John Butterworth was such a mainstay of the troop, a noisy, loud mouthed, hard drinking, rabble-rouser; they would miss his humour and strength of character. Everybody understood the urgency of the moment and returned to their duties but with noticeably less verve.
At first Alexander had noted a small amount of hesitation in the French to proceed nearer the guns; soon he observed that the front rankers that remained were filing back to the rear along the flanks of the attacking cavalry. Those in the centre of the formation now found any direction to escape the deadly firing. There was little room in the dense, tightly crammed mass of horsemen to turn the horses in any direction. They began to fight to get out of the way of the next discharge from the guns. They beat at each other with the hilt of their swords, some fired erratically with their carbines, the formation became a complete mob, all fighting for their own escape route to evade death. The rear ranks that had not suffered and were little aware of the carnage before them still drove those in front onwards.
Some were so desperate to escape and seeing no other route available, they galloped hell for leather towards the guns before they could reload. These men reached the cannon successfully, but had no idea of attacking the gunners, their only raison d'être was to escape with their lives. They rode past the guns to the relative safety behind them and then rode to right or left, braving the fire of the squares and derisory insults as they searched for a point where they could safely retreat into the valley and rejoin their colleagues.
Eventually, the mass disintegrated, the rear eased away having become aware of the destruction, allowing all to retire out of sight of the guns. The mass fled back down the slope, but Alexander fully expected them to try again. Indeed Alexander could see that they had only retired far enough down the slope to reform without interruption from the guns, they were no more than one hundred yards away; indeed the plumes on their helmets could still be observed by the men, they knew they would be back to try again!
There was now time to tend to the wounded and Alexander’s eyes sought for John Butterworth, but he was not to be seen. A line of deep red blood leading to the rear, like the trail of a giant red snail, told a story. ‘Tuppence’ had dragged himself unaided to the rear on his bleeding stumps to seek help from the surgeons.
The guns were reloaded and they then waited patiently for the return of the cavalry. Whilst the French cavalry reformed, their artillery fired from the opposite ridge to weaken the defences. The cannonballs rained down, thudding into the earthen mound to their front, or bounding over the top to smash into the infantry squares beyond, where they maimed a number of men with each strike. The firing was so intense that the men and horses in the battery would have been destroyed if not for the protection of the bank. Luckily little was hit, however one cannonball smashed through the hindquarters of John Bretton’s favourite horse, Seth. Man and horse collapsed in a heap, no one rightly knowing who had been hit in the confusion. The two Griffith’s lads ran over and extricated John’s leg that was trapped under the body of Seth. John was pulled clear and stood dusting himself down, he would just have a few bruises to show for the fall. He pulled out his pistol and holding it to Seth’s head he pulled the trigger, Seth sank to the earth. John wiped a tear from his eye then called for his spare, Nancy. He remounted and resumed his duties.
Some of the balls passed overhead towards the Brunswickers, the infantry were in four ranks deep and tightly packed, and so they never just struck one man. Alexander wondered at the stoicism of these infantry that stood and took such punishment, he watched the sergeants once again pushing the men into the gaps caused by the artillery.
The area around the infantry was particularly unsavoury; The squares were surrounded by the carcasses of both men and horses, later cavalry attacks were largely put off by the sights of such carnage, the unmistakable smell of death and the veritable rivulets of blood flowing down the slope. Within the squares was certainly no better, the centre of the hollow formation was filled with the horribly mutilated wounded, combined with the stench of blood and faeces, as no one dared to leave the safety of the square to relieve their natural body functions. Despite these awful sights, Alexander was glad to see that even the nervy Brunswickers were now standing well, the defeat of the cavalry had lifted their spirits.
Whilst the French reorganised, they sent forward a number of skirmishers, these individual horsemen trotted up to within twenty yards of the battery where they halted and took very careful aim with their short-barrelled muskets called carbines, which they carried in a pouch on their saddles. This fire was difficult to ignore, carbines were notoriously inaccurate weapons but at this range, they could hardly miss. The men felt helpless against them, they could not retaliate with cannon fire against such individual targets, it would be a waste of valuable ammunition that they might desperately need later. Alexander could see that this firing unnerved the men far more than anything else; they did not like simply standing there whilst someone took pot shots at them. They were moving back into cover and morale was clearly suffering. It was time for a ‘Grand Gesture’, thought Alexander.
Alexander urged Cossack forward, up onto the bank and he started riding slowly back and fore across the front of the battery. He feigned a look of complete composure and sought to show contempt for these cavalrymen. A number of skirmishers took up the challenge and hurriedly released shots after him, but miraculously none struck. Alexander swore at them, goading them with cries of ‘Cochin’.
Robert Newland shouted “Captain Mercer, come down for you will surely be killed.”
Alexander gave Robert a stare denoting total contempt for his daring to suggest such a thing, “I do not plan to hand over command of the troop yet Mr Newland.”
This made Alexander even more determined to maintain this act of bravado, despite becoming aware of a particular Cuirassier that had reloaded and was taking a good long aim. The Frenchman sat astride his fine horse no further than twenty yards from Alexander; he was a battle-hardened veteran judging by the scarred cheek and his weather beaten features. At this distance, Alexander could clearly see this old campaigner’s blonde hair and fine drooping moustache, his piercing grey eyes and knowing grin, clearly he aimed to make Alexander his!
He continued to ride slowly along the face of the battery, each time that he turned at the end to return he was aware of the carbine still fixed upon him. The Cuirassier took an age, he was determined that this shot would finish the impudent artillery officer. He carefully regulated his breathing and controlled his horse with his legs to maintain its perfect stillness. Up and down he trailed Alexander, determined to pull the trigger at the perfect moment.
Alexander struggled with himself to deny any show of concern over this accursed Cuirassier. He was acutely aware of the weapon continually following his movements and waited for the inevitable shot. As he turned again to face his foe, he became aware that the Frenchman’s finger seemed to be tightening on the trigger, the small puff of smoke registered in his brain at the same time that his ears had picked up the buzz of the musket ball’s flight. He fought manfully with his body’s automatic flinch against the danger, but knew that although he had damped down the reaction, he could not hide it completely. A deep sullen groan behind him informed Alexander that the ball intended for him had missed, but had struck home with somebody else. He glanced over his right shoulder instinctively to see the body of Driver John Miller slump to the floor. The ball had struck the poor man right between the eyes, he was dead well before his body hit the ground and soon ceased its death twitches. Alexander secretly breathed easier and continued his ride. He had made his point and he slowly led Cossack back to his normal position in the rear of the troop.
Sergeant John Nisbitt had been watching the horsemen very closely for the moment that they advanced again. He regularly popped his head above the earthen rampart to sneak a view but lowered it very quickly again before a cannonball removed it! The lads jested with him as only soldiers can.
“Sergeant, can I have your pay book if you catch one?”
“A little more to your left Sergeant, then it’s bound to get you.”
“A shilling that the next ball gets him.”
“I hope not, bugger owes me five shillings!”
The officers let them carry on, the humour was a release for their pent up tension.
Nisbitt was aware of the dangers of lifting his head above the embankment, even though the chances of a hit were poor as they were certainly not aimed at him, it was just that so many were coming so thickly, that one might just knock it off.
He braced himself, tried to erase thoughts of impending death and forced his muscles to push his legs upwards, to stand and edge his head over the top. As he did so he was met by the sight of the cavalrymen commencing a deliberate trot back up the slope towards them.
He attempted to shout a warning, but his throat was too dry from nerves, he swallowed and tried again, he was pleased to hear a loud roar emerge.
“They’re coming again!”
Everyone stood to the guns and waited for the order to fire. Alexander watched as the riders slowly rose into view. Still he held the order, Henry Leathes looked at him silently asking if it were not time. Alexander saw Henry’s look but continued to wait, now their horses were coming into view, they were no more than fifty yards away. The first volley must stop them; they would have precious little time to reload before they were upon the gunners. The French were approaching a little more warily, aware of the reception awaiting them, and keenly aware that every second’s delay brought them nearer the mouths of the cannon where the destruction caused would be horrendous. As they neared, Alexander could see that some in the front ranks were becoming distinctly nervous, unhappy to lead on to the guns; their formation was already breaking down.
Glancing to the rear for a second, he noted that the Brunswickers were now more confident, holding their fire until the cavalry neared to maximise its effect. He also spotted John Bretton leading Nancy to the rear of the troop, blood streaming from a wound in its neck, obviously caused by a musket ball.
He returned his gaze to the front; they were no more than forty yards away. Now was the time, “Fire” he bellowed and the six cannon burst into life almost in unison. The barrage of shot striking the cavalry was completely devastating to the front ranks again. Both horses and men crashed to the floor screaming in agony, those following on behind flinched from the carnage. The horses refused to trample over the remains of men and horses blocking their way forward. As the gunners reloaded, the French cavalry tried to forge ahead but were brought up hard against the wall of their fallen compatriots.
Alexander continually scanned the view to the wings of the troop to guard against surprise attacks, whilst the guns dealt with the threat before them, but nothing seemed untoward. His gaze eventually returned to the front, he watched as his men loaded and fired their guns incessantly, they were clearly tiring, men wiped their brows of sweat, some had discarded their tight blue jackets to breathe easier or had undone shirt buttons to ease cooling. Their mouths hung open, parched and dry, leathery tongues mechanically ran over parched lips in a vain effort to relieve the desperate need for liquid. Their canteens had been drained hours before and there was no stream or well at hand to quench their nagging thirst. They forced themselves to keep going, despite their fatigue, more than aware that any slackening of the firing would let the French cavalry reach them, which would mean almost certain death to all.
The guns blazed away for a few minutes longer before the Frenchmen admitted defeat and retired into the valley again out of sight of the guns that had caused such carnage.
The troop knew that the respite would be short as the French rallied and prepared for a further attack. In the lull, the men completed loading, then stood back from the guns gasping for breath, arching their backs in an attempt to relieve their aches.
John Bretton rode up to Alexander to discuss the situation, he was now riding a troop horse, his third horse of the day. Their words had to be shouted to be heard above the din of battle.
“Do you think they will try again, Alexander?”
“Undoubtedly” Alexander replied, “This is obviously an important point to them.”
As they continued to discuss the day, their horses nuzzled into each other. John’s troop horse stood at right angles to Cossack and laid its head lazily on Cossack’s neck. The horse’s head lay on his thigh and Alexander bent forward to place his elbow on the horse’s head, resting his weary head by cupping his chin in his hand. This had the added benefit of bringing his head nearer to John, enabling him to converse better over the tumult. The horse stood nonchalantly, totally unmoved by Alexander’s use of its head for an armrest. All were fatigued, using mutual support to remain on their feet, rather than collapse from exhaustion.
“Are we winning?” asked John.
“I honestly have no idea what is happening beyond this gloomy cloud of gun smoke that lies about us. We must continue to fight here until we receive new orders.”
“What time is it?” John enquired.
Alexander peered at his fob watch, “Near Six o’clock I believe.”
John looked strained, “How much longer must we endure this?”
Alexander had no time to answer; there was a great whoosh of noise, a violent wind attended by a strong pressure wave, a feeling of complete terror, a drenching in deep red blood that filled his mouth and nose. Alexander slumped onto Cossack’s neck, completely disorientated and dazed. Initially he thought he must be dying and was only vaguely aware of concerned voices and helping hands, righting him on Cossack’s back. He evacuated the blood from his mouth and nose, it smelt and tasted appallingly, he was still unsure of the source of all this blood, he must have been seriously wounded.
Once upright, his ears slowly ceased ringing, he collected his thoughts and realised that there was no pain, it wasn’t him that was hit, thank God, and then it dawned on him.
“Oh God, Not John!”
“It’s all right Alexander, I’m all right but we thought that you had been cut in half!” came the comforting reply from John Bretton. John’s smile beamed through a face also drenched in blood as he stood on the ground alongside Cossack.
“What happened?” Alexander asked groggily.
“A cannonball, smashed fully into the head of my horse, the one you were resting upon. The ball did not touch you at all and left Cossack unscathed. How it did not touch anyone apart from the horse is astonishing, it’s a miracle!”
Alexander smiled, “Perhaps we are not meant to die today!”
John laughed, “I trust you are right!”
The sleepy quiet hollow of Waterloo village was transformed instantly with the first discharge of cannon. It was the starting gun for a race involving all the great mass of various wagons belonging to the Commissariat and the camp followers, setting out on the Brussels road again, to get further away from the fighting. Horses were reharnessed, passengers clambered aboard and soon all were in motion. The road through the wood was narrow, congestion grew rapidly and within minutes there was a virtual logjam of wagons and nothing moved. It would take hours to clear the mess and there was nobody prepared to do it. Everyone was looking out for themselves, frustration led to a number of brawls breaking out.
Eventually Wellington’s aides were ordered to sort out the problem, they eventually had the road cleared of abandoned vehicles and things started moving along again slowly as a steady pace away from the fighting was better than being jammed solid.
Occasionally all the jolting on the cobbled roads in these unsprung wagons was too much to bear for some of the badly wounded. They would slip away quietly, but the second it was noticed that they had passed on, indeed sometimes before they exhaled their final breath, they were tumbled bodily from the wagons into the ditches running alongside the road, the space was needed for those still alive. As the wagons rolled on, the sound of cannon fire grew to a tremendous continuous roar. Ned was struck by the number of small groups of soldiers of all allied nations camping out in the woods, what were they doing there? Shirking the fight he guessed.
Every so often riders would fly past shouting that the day was lost and that the French were on their way, spreading fear and consternation throughout the convoy. At one time a whole regiment of Belgian cavalry on beautiful thoroughbred horses passed at a rush, fleeing the fighting. Someone said that they were all Belgian gentry who owned their own horses and were not prepared to lose them in battle! They were roundly booed as they passed.
Ned’s head ached, the constant violent jostling of the wagon wore him down and eventually despite the distant sounds of battle he fell fast asleep.
George Simmons came round slowly to find his face embedded in the soft mud where he struggled to breathe, his chest and abdomen were seared by a terrible pain unlike anything he had ever known, he knew that his luck had just run out, he had been hit.
Daniel Kelly and Thomas Treacy came to him and taking hold of his arms at the shoulders roughly raised him up.
“Come on Mister Simmons Sir, let’s be having you to Mister Burke” Kelly shouted.
George knew little of what was going on, he was simply aware of the terrible pain and his ardent desire that these men would let him be. They carried him along however, holding him up by the arms, as he had no power over his legs, which just dragged along the ground.
It seemed an eternity to George, but was probably ten minutes or so, before they arrived at the farmhouse of Mont St Jean, which had been turned into a temporary hospital. George was not aware of much he passed, nor cared about anything he saw as he stared at the ground all the way. However, the lack of its two arms made him take notice of one particular corpse, the face showing extreme pain even in death. He had obviously been a horse artilleryman that had just failed to crawl to the farm unaided on his stumps and had bled to death, the sickly pallor of the artilleryman made him more acutely aware of his own predicament. George was not to know that this was the mortal remains of Gunner John Butterworth of G troop.
Many of the surgeons had set up at the farmhouse of Mont St. Jean some hundred yards behind the ridge. It was ideal as a safe and central point for the wounded and not too far from the front line.
The few tables in the house were instantly turned into operating tables; the others used planks laid across barrels as makeshift tables.
Mr Robson, the Assistant surgeon proceeded to examine George, he described his findings as he went. “George, the ball has entered your left side breaking at least two ribs. I cannot tell if it has caused any serious injury within your chest but your lungs appear undamaged, your initial breathing problem is caused by the rib injury being very painful.”
He held out little hope for him and felt that George should understand his situation, particularly as he was a dear friend.
James answered very seriously, “I pray that no major damage has occurred internally, but it is very serious George, with our best efforts I hope that the answer is no.”
James continued to examine his chest. “There is no exit wound George, your chest on the right side is very swollen.” He prodded around this swelling, the pain was excruciating, but as a soldier he was trained not to cry out, George fought the impulse to groan.
“There it is” James announced proudly, his fingers had discovered a hard round object between the ribs, it was the musket ball, he would have to remove it to avoid infection gaining hold.