James fetched one of his razor sharp scalpels and warned George that he would need to extract the ball immediately. He handed George a leather thong, “Here bite on this; it will help you bear the discomfort.”
Sergeant Fairfoot appeared alongside him, he had been wounded in his arm again and had been forced to retire; he held George’s head throughout the operation to support him.
James made a very deep incision directly below his right pap then pushed his first finger deep into his chest to locate the ball. The pain was almost unbearable for George, who bit hard on the leather strap trying manfully to stifle a cry of pain. James’ finger felt the hardness of the musket ball lodged between the ribs. He expanded the incision, allowing him to plunge both his thumb and forefinger into his chest to grasp the ball. He had to use quite a lot of force to dislodge it from its new home. He pulled it out with an air of exultation, “There's the little bugger! And I didn’t have to break any ribs George.”
George simply collapsed back onto the table and thanked God it was over, he didn’t think he could have borne the pain for much longer.
During the operation it became clear that occasional cannonballs were striking the walls of the farmhouse. The wounded became agitated, as it was believed that the French must be approaching and they had no wish to be prisoners or worse. Robert Fairfoot indicated that as soon as the surgeon had finished, he would get a horse and take George to Brussels for safety.
George heard in the distance a voice almost whispering but perfectly audible to him, “What is the use of treating him, he cannot live the night, he is better where he is than to die on horseback.” George knew that they were talking about him.
To ease the swelling and despite the already large loss of blood, it was normal practise to bleed patients in the belief that this would ease their sufferings. James held a bleeding cup to George’s arm and drained off a quart of blood leaving him feeling very faint. James then applied what dressings he had to the wounds and left him, he had plenty more patients coming in.
James Burke, the Surgeon surveyed the scene in the hospital. There were already hundreds of injured, many had severe injuries from musket balls which caused terrible damage to bone and tissue. They shattered bone into a myriad pieces and the only effective answer to this was immediate amputation. Mr Burke indicated those that were to receive his personal attention for amputation and orderlies held them down whilst he cut the limb away as speedily as possible.
The British surgeons had learned from their colleagues in the Navy that immediate amputation of horribly damaged limbs improved the chances of ultimate survival. The patient was still in shock, which caused the body’s blood pressure to drop, reducing the loss of blood during the operation and the body naturally numbed the pain. The surgeon’s assistants gave them what brandy or gin they had to deaden the pain further, then he started. His razor sharp blade swiftly cut the flesh down to the bone, his assistants watched carefully to ensure their fingers did not get in the way!
The three cut method was now the modern way of amputating limbs. The first cut was made one inch above the top of the wound as it had been found that directly after injury the area up to two inches above the wound was numb and the muscles were relaxed. The initial cut severed the several layers of skin and nerve endings, the second was through the muscle but angled further up into the tissue above the wound and the third angled even further up clearing right through to the bone. The flesh was by this method cut in an inverse cone shape, allowing the bone to be cut higher up than the skin had been cut. Then the saw, which bit into the bone and the marrow. Ensuring the bone was cut further up than the flesh guaranteed that it did not protrude the stump. Pulling the flap of skin remaining into the centre and sewing up tightly completed the operation. The procedure took minutes and felt like a lifetime to those being cut, but it was the only way known to avoid gangrene.
They at least now had better than a fifty fifty chance of survival and with the bone not pressing on the skin flap, the wound healed quickly and allowed a wooden limb to be attached later. The ‘old school’ surgeons, who still cut straight across the limb found that the skin contracted and pulled painfully at the stump, the bone grinding on the skin flap made a wooden stump extremely painful, often impossible to use.
Even Lord Nelson, for all his greatness had suffered from this very cause. When his right arm had been amputated above the elbow, the ship’s surgeon had simply cut straight across. Nelson’s stump had been agony for many months as the bone pressed hard on the stitching; indeed it was so bad at one time that Nelson had thought that his naval career was over. What consequences would have ensued if he had not been fit to face the Combined Franco Spanish Fleet at Trafalgar?
The trick was to recognise the wounded limb that was damaged too badly to be saved or that indicated a high chance of becoming infected. The automatic removal of all damaged limbs was no longer in favour in medical circles, as many had previously lost limbs that could have been saved. The main debate was whether to amputate immediately or later when the initial shock was past, as this was thought to reduce their ability to survive the operation in some circles.
The ‘do it immediately’ school had largely won the argument in France and Britain but the German and Austrian doctors still preferred the old methods. Indeed Doctor Larrey of the French Imperial Guard had published findings to show that after the battle of Austerlitz, of eight hundred immediate amputees he logged, over seven hundred and fifty survived, an outstanding result, the wait and see method saved only one in twenty!
The men were to bear the pain without noise as a point of honour. Alongside George, Mr Burke was working on the soldiers still being brought in. A dragoon was having his arm amputated below the elbow; he was a well-worn old hand who held the damaged arm with his good one to steady it for the surgeon. He lay chewing a wad of tobacco showing no concern throughout the operation. Nearby lay a Frenchman on another table having his shoulder probed for a ball, he was howling with the pain. This annoyed the dragoon intensely and as soon as his arm was severed he took it by the wrist and struck the Frenchman a smart blow across his backside with the bloody end.
“Here” he said, “Stuff that down your throat, and stop your damned bellowing!”
George rested for a few minutes until Robert Fairfoot returned; he had found a couple of horses and was determined to move him away from danger.
“Come on Sir, we must be leaving immediately.” He prompted.
George hardly listened, he had other priorities, “Just shut that man up will you!” he said indicating towards a Brunswick infantry sergeant who was clearly dying from a terrible wound to his abdomen and was letting everyone else know with his cries and groans.
Somebody interrupted, “George, do not shout at the poor fellow so, we shall soon all be happy, we have behaved like Englishmen!”
The operation complete, George turned to see a fellow Lieutenant of Rifles, Elliott Johnston, who was also wounded, he hadn’t noticed him before. The second horse was for him and with the aid of a wounded Lifeguard, Robert managed to raise them both onto the horses and lead them onto the road for Brussels, George was near fainting from the pain. As they rode off they passed a huge pile of recently amputated limbs standing higher than the window of the farm.
They had not proceeded twenty yards when a stray cannonball bounded by, George heard a sickening sound, he had heard it before, it was the unmistakable sound of a body being smashed by a cannonball. Looking around he saw the already lifeless body of Elliott lying on the ground, the ball had nearly cut him in two. He turned away from the terrible sight, desperately hoping that this was the last of such scenes that he would witness, he had seen enough death and suffering this day, more than he would care to have observed in a lifetime.
Robert Fairfoot led the horse on and soon the scenes of destruction were left behind, except for the odd corpse lying in the roadside ditch along the way obviously thrown from the passing carts. They were already stripped naked for their clothes and valuables by some unseen hand.
One of the first to arrive in Brussels late that morning was Juana; she worried for her ‘Enrique’ as she lovingly called Harry. She was continuously accosted for news as she rode through the streets, for the sullen sound of the cannon was clearly to be heard from the City walls, but she knew nothing herself and could not offer any words of hope to ease their anguish.
News had started to filter in that the English were defeated and any British families in Brussels were advised to seek safety by moving further off to Ghent. Soon the gentry of all nations resident at Brussels were using any available means of transport to escape the City; Juana was persuaded to go along with this tide and fled with her servant.
Arriving at Ghent late at night there were no rooms available but a kindly soul introduced her to the City Governor’s family who took her in. She was thankful for their kindness but could not rest, constantly seeking any news that arrived. She sat at her window all night long watching for new arrivals, which she would call to for news. No good news arrived and she feared for her man.
As darkness fell, the cart of wounded finally arrived at Brussels, Ned recognised the neighbourhood they passed through and bid the others adieu, making directly for his previous quarters but unfortunately found them already occupied. He felt faint, but struggled on to the Place Royale where he had set out from what seemed like a lifetime ago, although it was actually a mere sixty hours before. The square had been strewn with straw as bedding and to soak up the profuse amounts of blood, it was already filling up rapidly with the wounded of all nations. The injured were laid out as they arrived in neat rows to ensure the maximum possible were fitted in, there were already many hundreds.
An alarm suddenly went up that the French were actually at the gates unchallenged and were entering the City. Panic ensued; the scene became one of utter bedlam with all those still able to walk or crawl getting up to move on. However, the panic died down just as quickly as it had set in, once it became obvious that the thousands of Frenchmen walking in were unarmed prisoners escorted by a number of Scots Greys, not a conquering horde.
Ned lay down again and ate his remaining food supplies, a small scrap of bread and half a canteen of wine. He watched with admiration as the women that had remained in the City, helped to tend the injured. Many were ladies of a genteel nature who had to screw up all their courage to work around such appalling injuries; they had never been subjected to such awful sights before. He watched them tending the sick of all nations including Frenchmen without favour, many tearing up their own petticoats to provide clean dressings for the wounds. Local doctors attended to help treat the injured as the army doctors were clearly overwhelmed; indeed all that could be done was done.
Suddenly Ned recognised a fellow Rifleman sitting against a wall, holding a bandaged head. It was Tom Plunket, “Are you all right Tom?”
Tom looked up and smiled in recognition, “Aye, Ned, just a flesh wound.”
He then commenced to tell his story as only Tom could. “The last ting I remember is someone calling out ‘Watch out’” he started.
“We was foighting just behoind the chateau, stopping Johnny Frenchman surrounding it. Oi looked up as a French light infantryman stood a mere ten feet away and took aim with his musket. My eyes grew like saucers as the fear grasped me, my sight zoomed in on the fingers of the Frenchman as he squeezed the trigger, I tried to roll away as I heard the sound of the hammer dropping and the musket pop suddenly seemed very distant. A great pain across my forehead and everything went black.”
Tom continued “Sergeant Sugden told me the rest of the story afterwards”; he then proceeded to recount the circumstances, as he understood them.
“The news that oi was hit froze the battalion, as I am their figurehead and talisman, they feared their luck was changing against them! They wondered if they would all die in this God forsaken battle?”
He pause momentarily then continued, “After the French retoired, Sergeant Sugden noticed movement amongst the bodies lying on the field, someone groaned. The hole in the sole of moi boot told Sugden all he needed to know. It was me, oi was aloive, and he rushed up and turned me over. Moi face was a mass of blood and gore, but a drop of water from his canteen showed him that it was only a light wound.”
“ ‘You lucky sod! We taught you were dead for sure’ Sugden said. Oi was not quite so convinced that I was alright.” He held his forehead, which throbbed violently.
“Sugden explained to me that the musket ball had grazed moi head, it’s made a furrow across moi brow and he could see to de bone, but oi’ll live.”
“The others crowded round, really pleased that I had survived. Sergeant Sugden said, ‘I’m pleased you are all right Tom, but get yourself to the farm beyond the ridge where the surgeon will attend to you.”
Tom had not argued, “oi had no foight left in me today! They patched me up den sent me on my way here.”
Tom was as usual full of himself and he had clearly started embroidering his story into one he could relate for years to come to anyone willing to stand him a drink for the privilege, but Ned was pleased to have him as a friend; they would care for each other now.
George Simmons bore the twelve-mile journey from Mont St Jean to Brussels with as much stoicism as he could muster. With every step of the horse, the movement drove the broken ends of his ribs into the flesh turning it into jelly; the pain now grew very intense as the initial shock wore off. Blood oozed out of the wound at every step and George wondered if there was any blood left, he felt weak and faint; the journey seemed to go on for an eternity.
Finally with huge relief they arrived in Brussels and Fairfoot managed to guide George back to his former billet with the Overmars. They took him to his old bed and immediately summoned a physician and a nurse to give him round the clock treatment. All that could be done would be, Robert could stay with him to recover as well.
Mr Overmars looked on George with great pity, all the news from the front was bad and he expected the French at any time, he just hoped that they would leave George to die in peace.
Alexander regained his composure on Cossack’s back whilst John Bretton took his fourth horse of the day. Their countenances were now only slightly besmirched in blood since their linen handkerchiefs had been sacrificed to the cause.
As Alexander finished wiping his face, a horseman arrived alongside him; it was Sir George Wood who commanded all of the British artillery in Belgium.
“Damn it Mercer, you have hot work of it here!”
“Yes Sir, pretty hot”.
Alexander was pleased by his recognition, but before he could reply further, he spotted the French cavalry climbing up the slope for a third time.
As he passed, he shouted “There they are again; you must excuse me Sir George.”
He spurred Cossack forward and ordered the troop to prepare to fire. Alexander watched incredulously at the unbelievable folly of the Frenchmen. They had reformed and slowly walked up the slope again, picking their way between the corpses of their fallen comrades. Alexander admired their bravery, but it was sheer madness, how could they hope to succeed? Both sides were now extremely fatigued but the odds were stacked hopelessly against the cavalrymen. As before, at forty yards the order to fire was given and the cannon spewed out death and destruction again. Dozens more fell with each shot, men and horses crashing to the ground screaming from horrific injuries. The carnage was indescribable, a veritable charnel house, but still they attempted to form up and fill the gaps blasted through them by the cannonballs.
Alexander was now intoxicated with the battle, his cannon firing away, successfully preventing the French cavalry from achieving their victory elated him. With each successful discharge taking its toll on the intrepid cavalrymen, his cool demeanour broke and he shouted with great glee, strong encouragement to his flagging troop.
“Beautiful, beautiful!” he roared, raising his right arm and flailing it about in celebration.
Suddenly, someone grasped his raised arm tightly from behind, Alexander became aware of a shout, “Take care or you’ll strike the Duke!”
The Duke of Wellington himself appeared from behind Alexander’s right side, riding directly across the front of the troop. The Duke was immediately recognisable by his huge ‘beak’; he rode across the guns chased by a small group of aides, the depleted remains of his ‘family’. Alexander hastily bellowed out the order for the troop to “Cease Firing”, he anxiously turned to ensure that all the guns had heard, as he could not bear the thought of his troop striking his Lordship! The men stopped their actions and bent forward catching their breath, they were completely drained, caring little for the cause of the order to halt, simply grateful for the opportunity to catch their breath and recruit their strength.
A few with an ounce of energy left raised their heavy heads to take stock, to be rewarded by the sight of their great leader. There was no love for the Duke, but they respected him and knew that he had their interests at heart; he spared them as a valuable asset, unlike Napoleon who thought little about the loss of hundreds of thousands. His presence acted like a tonic, the words from Bombardier Thomas Masterson recharged their strength like a bolt of electricity.
“Look to your fronts lads, ‘tis old hooky!”
The men’s heads raised, slumped bodies straightened, dull eyes brightened, cheering rang out; the man himself was with them!
The Duke of Wellington continued to gallop across the face of the battery, seemingly oblivious to the cheers of the men or to the inherent danger from the French cavalry still picking their way towards the guns only yards away. He simply stared ahead, eyes fixed on his goal, his body automatically imparting his wishes to his fine steed Copenhagen, whilst his mind remained firmly focussed upon the task before him.
Within a few moments, the Duke and his entourage had cleared the face of the guns and disappeared beyond the horizon to the right. The French cavalry were still there plodding forward again, buoyed slightly by the inexplicable silence of the accursed guns.
The order to resume firing given, the guns roared into life again decimating the front ranks of the cavalry that had neared during the short lull. The shock of the renewed fire and the devastation caused forced the Frenchmen to halt. Moments earlier, a glimmer of hope had arisen, thoughts of success had been rekindled, perhaps the guns were bereft of ammunition? Now, surprise at the renewed carnage, linked to thoughts that the British artillery was toying with them, allowing them to advance to point blank range before vomiting forth their missiles of death, led them to reconsider their position. Their confidence was shattered, slowly the futility of the attack seemed to dawn upon them and the advance slowed to a crawl, then stopped. They simply stood there unable to advance and unwilling to admit defeat and retire.
The gunners continued to prime and fire as quickly as they could, their knees buckled from exhaustion and the sweat flowed from their brows, but they would not let up until the French admitted failure. They maintained their impassive line for a further minute or two, suffering terribly from each further cannon shot, the range was virtually point blank and they could hardly miss them. Then, eventually bowing to the inevitable, they turned away and very slowly walked back down the slope, out of the line of fire, this time however, it was obvious to all on both sides that they would not try again.
Robert Newland approached Alexander, “Ammunition is becoming scarce and our reserve limbers are all but empty, permission to retire and seek additional supplies, Sir?”
Alexander knew that he was right; he was grateful for the reminder and nodded his approval silently. Newland eagerly spurred his horse to the rear.
The guns fell silent and the men sank to their knees from complete exhaustion. They desperately craved water to quench their oppressive thirst, knowing that there were no means of obtaining it. Alexander and the other officers also drew breath but remained vigilant, for the battle continued to rage all around and other dangers were sure to emerge.
Whilst they gathered their strength, it became obvious that the presence of the Duke had been occasioned by something important. From their position, nothing could be seen, the thick impenetrable smoke still hung to their front, obscuring all beyond a hundred yards away. Vague feelings that something was afoot was confirmed when a line of British and Brunswick infantry, some of whom had been the frightened lads they had protected earlier, now marched forward full of determination, bayonets fixed against some unseen foe. The line divided as it passed the battery, reforming in front of the guns and continuing on down the slope to disappear into the smoke in the valley below.
Henry Leathes approached Alexander, “Any idea what is happening?”
Alexander was just as perplexed, “They are probably sent to aid the defence of the chateau,” he guessed.
John Bretton pointed to the front, “The smoke is clearing, you can make out the batteries on the opposite rise and large infantry formations advancing.”
Alexander realised that without a smoke screen to hide them, the battery would make an enticing target for the French gunners. Indeed, shortly afterwards cannonballs started to bound over the ridge again as the French sought to get their range. Alexander pointed out the advancing infantry. “That is your new target, gentlemen, we must attempt to destroy their infantry.”
The men received the order to resume firing with some reluctance brought on by their craving for succour and rest. Their joints, their very being cried out for a respite, but it was not to be. The cannon started to fire again, but the men, despite putting their heart into it, could no longer find the energy to roll the guns back into position after each discharge.
Alexander became aware of a dark mass taking up a position to the left front of the troop, on a rise some five hundred yards away. He could see through his eyeglass that this unit had cannon, which they were rolling into position facing directly at them! Quickly, he ordered the two left hand guns, to face this new threat. This artillery was clearly going to be a very dangerous foe, they appeared fresh, plentifully manned and their position allowed them to fire at the troop from the flank. Here there was little protection from the small earth mound bordering the road, indeed firing across the battery each cannonball had the ability to smash right across the line of guns, wreaking havoc.
Puffs of smoke eventually told that this new menace was now commencing to fire. The cannonballs crashed into the troop immediately causing mayhem. Each ball unerringly struck into the heart of the battery dashing every living thing or piece of equipment in its path. Horses screamed in fright as the iron spheres bounded through, killing and maiming indiscriminately, drivers were brought down as they tried to release the wounded horses from their traces.
Alexander watched in horror as his troop which had survived the trials of the day relatively unscathed, was now being destroyed so quickly. The two guns attempted to quell this devastating fire but with no discernible reduction in shot. Each firing of the cannon rolled the guns further back and the great wooden trails crossed each other as they formed a huddle. No one had the energy to push the guns back into position, even Alexander and the other officers lent a hand at the guns but they could not muster enough strength anymore. James Griffiths let out a short scream of agony as a ball smashed into his torso, his mangled corpse dashed to the ground in a pathetic heap. Alexander watched as Richard Griffiths fell on his knees alongside the remains, tears streaming down his blackened features as he looked down at the gore that moments ago had been his younger brother. The remainder of the gun team watched silently at the moving scene, every eye filled with unreleased tears. Another ball smashed into a wagon, sending a shower of razor sharp splinters flying into the air. One large splinter struck Henry Leathes in the leg, gouging a deep channel in his thigh. Henry fell to the ground clutching his leg, but having it bound with his handkerchief by Staff Sergeant Henry Parsons, he refused to retire and propped himself up on the earthen bank and continued to shout encouragement.
Further cannonballs bounding by took Alexander’s gaze away from the distressing scenes toward the opposing battery. Instantly, his eye noticed a tiny speck in the distance, during the split second that it took for the brain to react to this information, the spot grew into a great black orb. Alexander had heard the soldier’s stories that you always saw the ball that would strike you approaching, he had always scoffed at them, he wasn’t scoffing now! There was not a moment to think further or react before the cannonball whistled past his ear, missing by a whisker. The shock wave struck his temple hard and confused him for a minute or two, unsure whether he had been hit or not. Eventually Alexander became aware of his very near miss and the shattered remains of the troop horse that the ball had struck behind him, nearly cutting the poor animal in half!
A new cry seconds later indicated another man down, this time it was Driver Thomas Dibbin, clutching his shoulder in agony. He was dragged back to safety.
They couldn’t stand this level of punishment for much longer, he thought. Shells were raining down on the troop, sitting in the soft mud whilst the fuse burnt down. This added to their discomfiture greatly, the men scurrying away or lying flat until it exploded. Alexander upbraided his men for flinching from the shells. “Get up, get up, we must keep the guns firing!”
Within seconds his own resolve was tested, for a shell landed ten feet to his right, plop! The black sphere sat half buried in the mud, the fuse still visibly burning down. There was no time for heroics such as trying to pull the fuse out before it exploded, he would have to stand there. His whole body wanted to throw itself down for protection, but Alexander couldn’t without losing face, he would have to see it through. The fuse burnt for a second or two longer, to Alexander it seemed an age, and then it eventually exploded into life. Miraculously, Alexander escaped unhurt bar a few mud splashes, the point was made but he hoped that he would never be forced to do that again!
An officer rode up wearing a black uniform with silver adornments, waving his hands frantically in a desperate attempt to attract Alexander’s attention. His voice betrayed a thick German accent as he shouted in broken English.
“Stop firing, stop, you must stop! Ah! Mine Gott! Mine Gott! What is it you doos, Sare? Vill you no stop? Dat is your friends de Proosians and you kills them! Ah mine Gott, mine Gott! Vill you no stop sare, vill you no stop? Ah! Mine Gott! Vot for is dis? De English kills their friends de Proosians! Vere id de Dook von Vellington? Oh! Mine Gott! Mine Gott!”
Henry Leathes called out “It is a ruse, he’s a Frenchman.”
But Hincks replied, “Oh no, he is certainly a Brunswicker.”
Alexander was sure that he was genuine and pointed to his troop.
“Look at my troop Sir, your Prussian guns have done this! I am returning fire to lessen their destruction of my men.”
The German would not accept this.
“Nein, nein, vill you no stop Sare?”
Alexander realised that he would not listen, but he could show him. Ordering the troop to cease fire, he waited for the Prussians reaction. The Prussian gunners no longer under fire themselves, briskly sent over further salvoes. The great whoosh of a passing cannonball was closely followed by two more, each whistling past very close to the Brunswick officer. Alexander turned back to the visibly shocked German.
“Now, Sir, you will be convinced. We will continue our firing whilst you go back round the way you came and tell them they kill their friends the English! The moment their firing ceases, so shall mine!”
Still he argued, “Oh, dis is terrible, to see de Proosian and de Inglish kill von annodder!”
Eventually, seeing Alexander order the troop to recommence firing, he rode off.
John Hincks suddenly gave out a muted cry and slumped to the floor clutching his chest. Alexander rushed over and with the help of Sergeant Nisbitt; they laid him down comfortably and opened his tunic to inspect the wound. John coughed convulsively, he looked pale and a small trickle of blood ran from the corner of his mouth.
Nisbitt looked up at Alexander, “Don’t look good, Sir”.
Alexander nodded, he could see the ball hole in the front of John’s tunic, it was close to the heart, but there was surprisingly little blood yet.
They struggled to ease the numerous buttons on his braided tunic and white shirt beneath. Finally the chest was bared revealing a large red contusion and a musket ball! The ball must have been ‘spent’, near the end of its flight and with no real force left within it. It had expended its last ounce of energy ripping through the heavy tunic and had only retained the power to heavily bruise the chest. The wound was minor but painful and had knocked the wind out of his sails; he would have to retire from action to recuperate.
Looking down at John, Alexander wiped his brow and jocularly whispered, “You are a very lucky man, you will outlive us all!”
Alexander ordered Drivers Lightfoot and Bentley to help John Hincks back to Mr Hichens for treatment.
Soon after, the trundling of heavy wagons close at hand made Alexander look to his left rear. A Belgian battery of foot artillery rolled its guns into position and was now adding its weight of shot into the fray. The Belgians shouted loudly as they worked, some staggered and fell, they were clearly blind drunk! Alexander realised that he would have to be as vigilant of them as of the enemy! Whether it was due to the Belgians or the Brunswick officer, Alexander did not know, but he was grateful to finally note that the Prussian battery had ceased firing.
The remaining troopers sank to their knees in total exhaustion, but Alexander could not let them rest now. He quickly ordered that the men be reassigned to guns, it was clear that those left without wounds would barely enable four guns to continue firing. Completing this reorganisation, the guns continued slowly to engage with the French batteries lining the opposing ridge, but their efforts were now less than half hearted.
A lone rider approached, it was General Alava, the Spanish General attached to Wellington. He shouted encouragement to the troop, “Keep firing, the Prussians are arriving, the day is ours.”
Alexander was keenly aware of their arrival, it would be helpful however if they recognised who was the enemy!
Suddenly, the valley seemed to fill with soldiers, allied soldiers! Regiment after regiment advanced to pass the guns and march down the slope. Alexander was forced to order the guns to cease fire again to avoid hitting his own troops. Cheering could be heard from the right and it seemed to draw nearer. What on earth could it mean?
The Rifles continued their struggle to contain the French infantry; a stalemate seemed to have settled upon the fighting. Having succeeded in taking the farm and knoll, the French seemed unable to advance any further. The Rifles holding the hedge, lining the road some fifty yards back, were able to halt any advance with their accurate fire. On each occasion that some French officer and a few dozen brave souls sought to advance and dislodge the Rifles, a hail of balls rapidly brought down a number and the remainder would scamper for cover again. The less foolhardy French men lined the knoll, kneeling to offer less of a target and attempted to pick off the Rifles in return.
Shortly after losing the knoll some of the Rocket troops had reappeared. The small contingent appeared at the abattis on the crossroads and nonchalantly prepared to place the rockets in the branches to fire them at the columns near the farm. Within seconds of their appearance the French recognised the threat and fired on them furiously. The officer leading the party was hit in the chest virtually immediately and lay wounded. His sergeant had one of his men help him back but forced the remainder to carry on. They pushed their rockets through the abattis using the thickly entwined branches to form an impromptu firing frame. The sergeant took his time over each rocket, ensuring that they were set properly, lying parallel with the ground to avoid it flying skywards wastefully. He seemed totally unconcerned by the musket balls striking the ground all around and seemed to bear a charmed life. Each time two rockets were set; the sergeant coolly stepped back for one of his men to ignite their fuses. The spluttering and shuddering lasted a second or two then whoosh, they were gone. Many flew erratically into the air or to the sides but some went straight towards the French.
The units beyond the knoll were not clearly in sight but the consternation caused was guaranteed, the Rifles were aware how little they would like to be on the receiving end themselves. Indeed, as the train was lit the warning shouts from the French on the knoll could be faintly heard above the continuous din of battle and all heads disappeared into cover until the unmistakable screech of the rocket’s flight confirmed their safety again. The sergeant carried on until all the rockets they had brought with them had been fired, he then ordered his men to walk back to their parent unit. He left last, walking back as if having no care in the world, never once did he hurry his pace or look back nervously as he continued his quiet stroll until completely out of sight of his antagonists. His demeanour and gait had given total confidence to his men to see through their task; Johnny Kincaid rode over to him as he strode back.
“Sergeant, I would like your name, because if I survive this battle, I wish to report your brave actions to your commanding officer.”
The sergeant looked bewildered, “Jus’ doing me job Sir!”
“No sergeant, with your officer down, no one would have criticised your falling back.”
The sergeant looked annoyed, “I would never fail to do my duty whilst I still ‘ad breff in my body Sir.”
“I can see that sergeant and I did not intend to offend your honour, your name Sir.”
“Sergeant Daniel Dunnett, Captain Whinyates’ Battery, Horse Artillery, Sir. Now if you don’t mind Sir, I needs to keep an eye on them rascals.”
Johnny let him go and rode back to the front. As he arrived, he witnessed an extraordinary scene that reminded him of the stories of knights of old he had read as a child.
A French officer had stepped out from the cover of the knoll, obviously annoyed that he was unable to drive any of his men forward with him. He stood and gesticulated his anger at the British troops daring them to come and kill him, an obvious attempt to boost his men’s morale with an act of bravado. A number of Riflemen levelled their weapons and took aim, the bravery of the man was admired but allowing him to succeed could lead to serious consequences, he simply had to die.
A bellowing voice managed to make itself heard above the noise all around, “Cease fire, do not kill him, he’s mine!”
The Rifles remained levelled but no trigger was squeezed, all wanted to know what was happening. Second Lieutenant Allen Stewart, a huge burly Scotsman towering well above everyone else at six foot two, stepped from behind the hedge and strode out to face this audacious Frenchman. It was to be a single combat between these two men, nothing was said but everyone stopped firing and watched the scene unfolding in this amphitheatre between the contending armies. The Frenchman was dwarfed by the huge figure of Stewart but was not to be overawed. He held his rapier sword firmly and stood awaiting his challenger to approach. Stewart drew his great curved sword and strode forward menacingly, the Frenchman did not flinch. Eventually closing, they struck at each other like gladiators in the arena, both knowing it was to the death. Stewart’s sword hammered down with immense force, the Riflemen expecting the stroke to split the Frenchman’s skull, he parried the attempt with his thin rapier sword, but it would surely not stop the huge blade descending. The metal clang of the swords meeting with massive force was clearly audible and a great gasp went up from all watching as Stewart’s weapon broke, leaving him holding a short stub of sword still attached to the hilt! The French cheered, their hero must now surely win, indeed it seemed even more likely as the French officer deftly flicked his rapier and caught Stewart’s left arm, cutting through his uniform and causing the sleeve to darken visibly with the letting of blood. Stewart had little chance, indeed he instantly took the only one left to him, and he lunged forward to wrestle with the Frenchman at close quarters, where the point of his rapier could not complete his victory. His size and weight bowled the two over and they fell together locked in combat. Everyone waited for their rising again to continue fighting, but only Stewart rose, very slowly. As he did, the hilt of his sword could be seen buried deeply into the chest of the brave Frenchman, he had won. There was little cheering; Stewart wiped his mouth on his sleeve to remove the Frenchman’s blood from his face. Slowly turning with no sign of pleasure, he strode slowly back to the hedge and regained his company without a word said. In fairness to the French, no ball followed his walk back; they would not dishonour his protagonist’s memory. Once safely returned to his company the firing resumed, but the French no longer seemed to have the same heart for the fight.
The Duke of Wellington with a small staff appeared shortly after and in the confidence of this recent victory Daniel Kelly shouted, “Let us attack them, my Lord”
Wellington spoke sternly, but with a feint smile on his lips, “Not yet my brave fellows, but you shall have at them very soon.”
They had total confidence in ‘Our Addy’ as the men called him affectionately, out of his hearing! They didn’t idolize him, he was too stern a disciplinarian for that, but they believed in him after his success in Spain where he never lost.
The firing continued and casualties mounted slowly, Jonathan Leach was hit in the leg though not seriously. Johnny Kincaid rode to the left in an effort to see more of the battle still roaring around them, Beth continuing to carry him despite a further two wounds to her body. The noise was deafening, cannon fire, musket and rifle fire, the shouts of the combatants, screams of the wounded and dying, the nervous neighing of horses, it was a riot of sound, he just wished it would stop.
The thick black smoke from the incessant firing and the burning farm buildings lay around the troops like a blanket, indeed visibility was never now more than eighty yards and often less. They could only distinguish the positions of the enemy by the flashes from their muzzles as they fired. Every throat seared by the heat and smoke cried out for water but there was none to be had. As Johnny rode out to the left he observed the regiments in the rear of the Rifles, many balls had travelled past and struck these units, indeed one British battalion seemed to lie dead in square just behind them. He had thought that maybe the visibility was better over to the left, but found the smoke engulfed everything including the sky. He turned back, now feeling very weary and desperate for the battle to end, it had been such a pounding match, the few uninjured simply seemed to be waiting their turn to be struck. Johnny wondered if this might be the first battle in history when everybody was killed!
These thoughts had to be hidden and he continued to press the men to keep up the fight. Everyone was clearly exhausted and they were finding it extremely hard to muster the energy to reload their rifles each time. Their weapons were now clogged badly with the carbon from so much firing that they hardly had the strength to drive the cartridges home even with their mallets.
All of a sudden a feint cheer was heard far to the right, it grew louder as each regiment took it up, and instinctively all knew it was a British cheer. The French were starting to retire from the knoll and without any orders from anyone all instinctively knew to advance and complete the victory. They knew nothing of what had happened, simply that it was over, tired limbs suddenly gained renewed energy and they ran forward.
Appearing from the smog like an apparition, Lord Wellington materialised, begrimed by the smoke, his great white teeth beaming through the dirt, they started to cheer their hero.
“No cheering lads, but forward and complete your victory!” he shouted.
They needed no further prompting; all ran forward chasing the rapidly retreating Frenchmen, indeed it almost turned into a race.
As they passed the farm of La Haye Sainte, an intense light suddenly blinded them. Bright sunlight! Emerging from the dark oppression of the smoke filled ridge, they were amazed to find a beautiful summer’s evening with the golden rays beating down. Glancing left and right Johnny saw the wonderful sight of a long line of British red and Belgian blue intermixed, marching as if on a parade ground across the fields with the whole French army fleeing before it, their dark masses rapidly disintegrating and moving away.
The lads caught dozens of prisoners, their spirit was completely broken, the unthinkable had happened, Napoleon had been defeated. The prisoners were herded together and given full protection; everyone had seen too much death that day.
Black masses to the left made Johnny fear a counter attack for a moment, but a cry went up “The Prussians are here”, which instantly dispelled any such thoughts.
Captain Edmund Walcott from Webber’s troop rode up to Alexander, his smile beamed through his grimy features, as he waved his arms wildly.
He shouted “Victory, Victory! They fly, they fly!”
The smoke of battle cleared a little and the terrible volume of noise suddenly eased and the far slope could be clearly seen in the evening light. The dark masses of the French could be seen moving away, no, running away! They were fleeing before the advance of the battered remnants of Lord Wellington’s infamous army of a dozen nations. Now that the smoke had cleared one could clearly see the sun slowly setting over the heads of the French and over Napoleon’s ambitions.
Looking around their ridge, the scene of such constant fighting, incessant noise, smoke and myriad unsavoury odours was suddenly completely calm and silent. Few others could be seen left on the ridge apart from Norman Ramsay’s battery, now being commanded by Lieutenant Philip Sandilands, the only officer still standing!
An Aide de Camp rode into the troop calling out, “Who commands here?”
Alexander answered from his crouched position, “Captain Mercer, Sir”.
The aide looked earnestly at Alexander, whilst pointing toward the French agitatedly, “It is imperative that this movement should be supported by artillery, your troop must advance.”
Alexander stood tall, he stared back at the aide incredulously and spreading his arms wide to emphasise the devastated state of his troop, he replied in a quiet restrained voice. “How?”
Looking around the shambolic scene he continued, “Of two hundred horses, we have lost some one hundred and forty, and as for my men, two thirds are wounded or dead, I have scarcely got the men to man three guns and they do not have the energy left to move the cannon one foot. How do you propose I move the guns?”
The officer had seen enough, the futility of the order was apparent; he simply saluted Alexander, turned his horse and rode away.
Alexander had over stressed his losses but the point was a real one, they were in no condition to move.
The hell was finally over, Alexander slumped on a small hillock to rest his aching bones, and his ears rang from the constant noise making him nearly deaf, immediately his adrenaline ceased to flow, he became extremely weary, and he could barely keep his eyes open. Surveying the battery, he was appalled by the destruction and confusion. Nobody had the energy or the inclination to sort out the mess of the guns that night.
The men that had luckily survived unscathed or with minor contusions sank down where they had stood totally exhausted. But they were now even more aware of their driving thirst and desperate hunger, made worse by the certain knowledge that there was no opportunity to relieve either of them.
This was no moment of exultation after victory, which had already worn off. Now one offered silent prayers for one’s own personal survival and deplored the waste and terrible destruction of war. Despite the overpowering requirement for sleep, the men found that the disturbing sights around them denied them peace. Without saying a word they individually rose slowly and dragged themselves back to clear ground just to the rear of the troop, where the unpleasant sights of mangled friends and comrades could be forgotten. Soon repose grasped them with firm hands, they slept solidly that night.
A Prussian artillery battery halted a little in the rear of the troop, their loud German voices conversing around a large fire they kindled did not disturb the sleeping. A few men sauntered over to offer friendship, with a great hope that they had wine and food to spare! However the Prussians soon showed that their presence was not welcome and there would be no hope of provisions from them. Their language was incomprehensible but the anger in their voices and hand signals did not allow for misinterpretation. The men sullenly returned to the troop empty handed and lay down next to their already slumbering comrades.
Alexander regained a little strength and rose to carry out the essential duty that must be performed each evening, to settle Cossack. He patted the dear horse on the muzzle, Cossack remained alert and bright, but now Alexander became aware of minor injuries. He ran his hands over his withers and legs and counted no less than eight minor cuts and abrasions caused by flying splinters and musket balls, he had been very lucky indeed to escape serious injury. Removing the saddle and tethering Cossack to a wagon with fresh fodder within reach, Alexander now cared only for himself. He copied the others and simply sought a berth for the night without speaking to any body. He decided that a spot off the damp soil would suit his wearied limbs better and eyed the driver’s wooden footboard on one of the wagons. It was a bit short, but it looked a wonderful spot through wearied eyes and curling up with the edge of the tarpaulin pulled over him he was soon sleeping deeply with all the cares of the day temporarily forgotten. Bal, still unscathed, curled up on the ground beneath the wagon for the night.
Johnny Kincaid watched the Prussian cavalry sweep across the Rifle’s front and on after the retreating French. These fresh troops would decimate any attempted rallying of the French; they would ensure the heavy defeat was now turned into a complete rout and hopefully chase Bonaparte all the way back to Paris. Johnny sincerely hoped so for he was tired of fighting. Passing another house on the French side of the valley, Johnny watched as Wellington met a Prussian officer and shook hands, someone told him it was Blucher, the Old Prussian warhorse, ‘Marshal Forwards’ as the Prussians affectionately called him.
The Rifles continued their pursuit until encountering a wood a mile or so beyond the battlefield. All the British units were halting here, the men slumping to the ground as exhaustion enveloped them again. Within seconds many fell asleep wherever they dropped down. The Prussian infantry continued to march on and saluted, their bands playing the British national anthem as they passed.
Soon they had all passed and there was a glorious silence as all succumbed to sleep, despite the excitement of the day, their brains closed down and they slept long and deep.
Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, had enjoyed the moment of exhilaration as he had raised his cocked hat aloft and sent his battered army forward to seal a famous victory. His meeting with the Prussian leader General Blucher, as the two armies converged and celebrated success near the French front line of that morning, ended his role that day. Blucher’s fresher troops were to continue the chase that night to prevent the French regrouping.
Weariness descended upon his furrowed brow, he had worked tirelessly since four o’clock that fateful morning to achieve this success and had managed to be at all the various points of danger throughout the day, to ensure the French had not succeeded against his polyglot army. Urging Copenhagen onwards, Wellington slowly rode back across the field of battle, followed at a distance by the remainder of his staff, towards his headquarters in Waterloo. They understood his need to gather his thoughts; he had no wish to converse with anyone for a while.
Wellington and Copenhagen had borne a charmed life again; neither was injured, not even slightly, despite the hail of lead flying through the air at the numerous danger points they were always to be seen at throughout the day. Arthur’s visage betrayed red eyes and a face besmirched with the thick black smoke that had shrouded much of the battle, but more telling were the rivulets of tears streaming down his cheeks, coursing strange patterns in the grime. The pitiful sight of thousands of dead and dying carpeting the fields, the cries for compassion and the feeling of total inadequacy to relieve their suffering, backed by the guilt of being an arbiter in this great affair struck him deeply.
Eventually, they arrived at the village of Waterloo, Arthur Wellesley wearily slid from Copenhagen’s back and he handed the reins to a groom who would look after his faithful companion. As he trudged wearily towards the door of the public house temporarily turned into Allied Headquarters, he gently patted Copenhagen’s rump in a final show of appreciation, before leaving him for the night. Copenhagen, the placid war-horse that had mildly cantered all day, seemingly oblivious to the danger of both shot and shell, reacted with surprising vigour. His farewell gesture was an extremely powerful kick from his rear legs, which luckily missed Arthur by a whisker! The nearest he had come to serious injury or death had come from his own horse! The irony of it was not lost on Arthur and he smiled slightly as he opened the door to the tavern.
His smile disappeared instantly as he entered the inn and surveyed the scene within. The main room of the tavern was full of allied senior officers sitting side by side with a number of high-ranking French prisoners. The fighting was over, there was no longer any animosity between these men that merely hours earlier had sought to kill each other. They were enjoying their first decent food since the evening before and the conversation was loud and animated. Arthur quickly moved through to the back room reserved for his staff, shutting the door tight against the noise without. His look as he proceeded across the room was unmistakable. Arthur viewed these Frenchmen as traitors to their rightful King; he did not hide his disdain for them. The message was understood, meals were quickly finished, the allied officers made excuses and left, French officers were quietly escorted on the road towards Brussels.
The view within the back room struck Arthur as extremely depressing and tore at his heartstrings again. The large table had been laid to welcome his ‘Family’ of young nobles, those dashing men that had raced at breakneck speed all day with orders. The room was virtually empty! Almost all his Aides de Camp were still out there, injured or killed. Arthur sat quietly and mechanically consumed a little of the fare placed in front of him, but he continued to stare into the distance contemplating the sad loss of such wonderful young men. With every sound outside Arthur would look up at the door in the hope that one of them would enter, but it was a vain hope.
Arthur conversed occasionally with Alava, his old friend from Spain, now the Spanish Minister to the court in Holland. Alava had been constantly by Arthur’s side throughout the Peninsula, but his greatest claim was now to be the only Spaniard to be present at both the battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo! Arthur constantly reiterated his amazement that he had borne such a charmed life again.
He visited Alexander Gordon, a good friend who was mortally wounded and ordered that he should be placed on Arthur’s own bed; he would lie out on a put up bed.
The preliminary list of casualties was brought to him in the early hours; it read like a Who’s Who of the peerage, every family would mourn some loss.
The tears rolled down his cheeks once more and he offered a silent prayer to God, “I pray that I have seen my last battle!”
He got his wish.
A dreadful noise disturbed Alexander just after midnight and he sat up, precariously balanced on the footboard to view the scene in the light spread by a near full moon unobscured by even the smallest cloud. The site of battle was even more repugnant, bathed in the cold moonshine. The fields were covered with a carpet of corpses lying in every aspect of death, their bared flesh reflecting the moonlight, for the scavengers were already at work. Local villagers crawling out of the woods now that the fighting was over joined servants, camp followers, and even some soldiers that had partaken in the fighting. They scurried about the field in search of rich pickings off the dead. The quickest way to search them was to remove the clothes from the corpse, the garment would be useful and their valuables could be sought out at leisure. Many soldiers sewed gold coins into their clothing for safe keeping, to be used in time of desperate need. Well, they would have no need now! Officers were particularly good pickings, necklaces were snatched, fancy clothes stripped away for their valuable gold lace, rings wrenched free or if stuck fingers simply cut away so that the rings could be prised off at ease! Sometimes the corpse groaned, not fully dead yet, that didn’t bother them, they just got on with the work in hand. If they groaned too loudly, fought back or cried out, they simply finished them by beating out their brains with a stick or simply slit their throats!
Alexander watched these human vermin scurry across the field like scavenging rats, their heads bobbing up and down above the sea of shattered humanity, in search of new victims, whilst avoiding the near approach of those seeking to find and succour their loved ones. The cries and groans of the wounded was heart rending, one could only pity them as there was no means of aiding them, those that survived the cold night and loss of blood, may be lucky to be collected tomorrow and taken to the hospitals, some would not be retrieved for days. Indeed, after such terrible battles, wounded hidden in wooded or less easily accessible areas had been known to be missed and survive for many days before succumbing to a lingering death by starvation. If they were lucky they were found before they had finished devouring the corpses near them.
Occasionally, Alexander spotted wounded men haul themselves into a sitting position, some even tried to raise themselves but always their strength failed them and they sank back down to the ground once more. A few could be seen to repeat the attempt but down they would sink, never to rise again.
In stark contrast, the bright light from their roaring fire, loud talking and laughter from the Prussian battery just behind him, reminded Alexander that all life was not expunged. Slowly he sank back into a sound sleep, not to be disturbed again until the sun smiled.
Waking in the early morning sunlight of Monday 19th June 1815 was a strange experience for Johnny Kincaid. The previous day’s occurrences seemed little more than a nightmare that had passed.
The Rifles simply rose and prepared an inadequate breakfast. They had woken in a beautiful wooded glade with the warming sun’s rays peering through the canopy of leaves above. A brook of clean fresh water was discovered nearby and it soon slaked their all-consuming thirst. The clean water was a Godsend, revitalising them and cleaning the grime of smoke and blood from their worn faces and hands. Refreshment made everyone even more aware of the lack of food suffered over the previous days. Sustenance was at hand, the Commissariat wagons had caught up during the night and food was issued rapidly and devoured just as quickly. Sitting beside a roaring fire, fed and watered, their troubles were soon forgotten, this was as good as it got for a soldier.
Everybody wanted to tell of their own exploits and hear every body else’s. Soldiers passed from one campfire to another seeking out comrades in other units, sometimes there was a shout of glee as friends discovered each other alive and well, but more often than not they were depressed and saddened to hear of a serious injury or death. Indeed, usually after a battle men would ask “Who’s dead?”, but it was said that after Waterloo they asked “Who’s alive?”.
A few good words were uttered for those that were gone then life went on and they were forgotten. That was how it was, it wasn’t callousness, it was simply the only way to deal with so much death. Returning to their units, equipment was put in order, weapons were cleaned in case they were needed again and tattered uniforms repaired with a sewing kit, to appear as well as possible.
Soon messengers arrived at camp with orders to detach a number of men with an officer to form a stretcher and burial party on the battlefield. Nobody was keen for such work, to be reminded of the horrors and pain of yesterday. Johnny Kincaid joined the party led by Allen Stewart, which also included Charles Smith the Volunteer, George Kitchen and Thomas Treacy amongst others. They were formed up and marched off back to the battlefield, none envied their task.
Shortly before ten, another messenger arrived to order the battalion under arms to march with the army into France. The fighting wasn’t over yet, coupled undoubtedly with many a hard march, the joys of a foot soldier!
As they prepared to set out back to the field of death, Johnny met a British infantryman sitting dejectedly by the roadside; he had obviously been originally dressed in red, but was now encased in thick dark brown mud from head to toe, no vestige of scarlet remaining visible. Johnny asked what had happened to him the previous day.
The infantryman perked up a little saying, “I’ll be hanged if I know anything at all about the matter, for I was all day trodden in the mud and galloped over by every scoundrel who had a horse and in short I only owe my existence to my insignificance!”
Johnny smiled and bade him better luck, then rode to join the detachment that had proceeded on ahead.
The burial party cleared the wood. They were forced to leave the road and walk through the fields because of the hundreds of abandoned carriages and cannon all intermingled, blocking the road completely for half a mile. They had been rapidly abandoned as the Prussian cavalry had caught up, it was rumoured that even Napoleon had nearly been caught, only escaping by abandoning his carriage and mounting a cavalryman’s horse to ride away swiftly.
Passing this mass of wreckage they observed a number of Prussian artillery horse teams locating and removing all the captured French cannon. Johnny remonstrated with one Prussian officer but his lack of language and a determination to ignore him by the German, caused him to fail to move him utterly. Somebody was going to be in hot water for letting the Prussians take all the prizes he thought, he didn’t want to be the one to tell Lord Wellington!
Now cresting the ridge on the French side they were met with the panorama of the battlefield, the spectacle of devastation shocked them. The wagon jam was nothing to this, last night they had been oblivious to the scenes of suffering as they crossed the fields in the elation of victory.
Bodies were piled everywhere, mangled and contorted dreadfully. Many corpses were already naked, stripped by camp followers or local villagers returning to take anything that they could turn to a profit. In all directions, there were wounded men sitting imploring succour, and as they passed, the lads offered many a mouthful of water to ease their sufferings but they could not help them any further. Their own men lying near the cross roads must be their priority. Injured horses strangely tugged at the emotions more than the men. These poor creatures meekly led into this slaughter, sat silently imploring help, others lying unable to rise simply suffering in silence. One cavalry horse sat on his haunches quietly chewing the grass within his reach. Closer examination showed that it’s rear legs had both been blown off by a cannonball! Most looked on with pity, but could not summon up the courage to put the horse out of its misery. Treacy closed up to the horse, putting his head close to the horse’s ear and whispering calming words to settle him, he raised his rifle unseen and fired into it’s temple killing it instantly, the horse slumped to the ground, all suffering ended. The others turned away, inwardly pleased that Treacy had done the deed.
Proceeding towards the crossroads, they struggled to walk without stepping on some form of human remains. Fragments that once bore human form were scattered everywhere, arms, legs, heads and many pieces less easily identified. It was one huge slaughterhouse; some of the lads retched at the sights and recoiled from the stench of death that pervaded everything.
They encountered robber groups crossing the fields searching for riches; they did not disguise their disgust for them. Many were women, some even children; they quickly searched each corpse for jewellery and coin. Sometimes the corpse emitted signs of life, groaning or even imploring help, few received any mercy beyond their immediate despatch to their maker. Their heartlessness shocked the Riflemen, they were professional soldiers, they only caused death in battle, and they showed compassion once the fighting was over. These peasants and camp followers showed a complete lack of mercy, simple farm folk turned into cold-blooded murderers to satisfy their lust for riches, it was a sickening spectacle.
Johnny’s orders were to carry all of their wounded found to the hospitals now set up in Brussels and the surrounding villages. More benevolent locals drove farm carts to ferry the wounded to the hospitals, their compassion contrasting markedly with the carrion of the battlefield. However the fact that many drivers were escorted by an armed soldier to ensure that they completed the journey without dumping their unwanted loads, tempered the feelings of gratefulness for their actions.
Other wagons were detailed to collect the dead; carts loaded the British and allied corpses to be buried in mass graves dug near the chateau and the crossroads. French dead were heaped ready for cremation in huge pyres, the piles rapidly grew mountainous, there were numerous heaps, nobody counted the number of dead but it was certain that it numbered tens of thousands.
Johnny watched as the men helped find the dead and wounded, they showed great compassion for those that they found alive, lifting them to the roadside to await transportation to the hospitals. He noted with pride that this care was applied to the French wounded as much as to their own.
“Sir, Sir” shouted Casima Casima.
Turning over the corpse of a French infantryman, he had stared into the face of a youth with a serenely peaceful look even in death. A simple cursory inspection of the pockets for valuables had revealed a secret. The body was that of a woman! Fully dressed in uniform she must have passed herself off as a man for some considerable time. Talking to other search parties it soon became apparent that this was not the only occurrence of women being found in uniform. They set her body aside and dug a shallow grave to bury the unknown female alone with some dignity.
Surveying the scene Johnny could only contemplate the terrible loss of life and the pain and suffering caused because of the naked ambition of the tyrant Napoleon. He wished that all those that revelled and gloried in war could stand there with him and take in the sights, sounds and smells of death on such an horrendous scale; where was the glory in this?
Leaving the detachment with orders to continue their work until all were gathered in, he happily turned Beth away from the scene of slaughter and rode out to catch the battalion on its march to France to complete the overthrow of Napoleon.
Alexander was reawoken by the bright rays of the early morning sun. He attempted to stretch his legs, which ached from being coiled up tightly whilst sleeping on the board. He pulled himself round to sit upright on the step, his legs dangling down in front of him. He cupped his aching head in his hands and attempted to rub life back into his cheeks. Eventually, he prised open his heavy eyes and he stared down at the ground. He was regaled by the delightful sight of the mangled corpse of Driver John Miller lying directly below the berth he had slept on so snugly that night, the sight made him shudder involuntarily and reawakened all the terrible memories of the previous day.
A groaning nearby, which Alexander had been subconsciously aware of during the night, made him look up. There no more than ten feet away was a Frenchman, wounded by a ball in the right thigh and curiously barefoot. Alexander conversed briefly with him in French; he was extremely gentlemanly and well spoken for a common cavalryman. Alexander ordered two men to aid the brave Horse Grenadier to hobble slowly back to the hospital at Mont St Jean.
Alexander looked himself up and down, he was black from the smoke and his clothes were stiff and ungiving, the blood of Breton’s horse having dried hard. His thighs were already chafed from long hours of riding and the rough blood soaked cloth had irritated his skin severely, walking was going to be difficult and painful. Riding was going to be nigh on impossible, he would have to ride side saddle, like the young ladies, a sure source of merriment for his men.
A loud “Ahem”, brought Alexander’s thoughts back into focus. He looked directly into the face of Staff Sergeant Parson.
“Permission to speak, Sir?”
“What is it?” Alexander asked wearily.
“The lads want permission to bury Driver Crammond, Sir.”
Alexander was perplexed, the troop was awash with corpses, “Why Crammond particularly?” he asked, whilst jumping down from his perch and using his arms to straighten his aching back.
Parson answered sternly, “Because he looks frightful, Sir, many of us have not had a wink of sleep for him!”
Alexander pointed toward the men, “Show me, Sergeant.”
They walked together to the rear of the carts where the troop was stood in a semicircle looking at something.
Sergeant Nisbitt called out “Make way men”.
The group turned and seeing Alexander approach, parted to allow his view of the scene. Nothing Alexander had yet seen or experienced had prepared him for this awful sight.
There lay the body of Driver James Crammond; his skull had been smashed away by a cannonball. However, it had not decapitated him; the ball had only removed the rear part of the head, leaving the front inch of skull intact and undamaged. The visage was complete with piercing eyes and a slight grin, but nothing behind it. The sight was truly repugnant, even to such men as had viewed all the horrors of the previous day with little thought.
Alexander understood and sympathised with their horror, he immediately nodded to Staff Sergeant Parson to proceed.
Three men stepped forward with shovels and dug a shallow grave and poor Crammond, wrapped in his blanket to hide him from view, was rolled into the hole and the sod returned.
Written orders eventually arrived via a dragoon, Alexander read them quickly. They were to proceed after the army with whatever equipment they could supply with horses and men; all other wagons were to be sent to a park in the rear. Ammunition would also be supplied at Waterloo village to replenish the empty chests.
The officers were briefed and soon working parties were formed. Most of the drivers were detailed to capture any wandering horses to bolster their teams; Farrier Job Price would look over each horse, assessing its state and re shoeing where necessary. Collar maker Robert Redhouse and his team sought out undamaged equipment that was scattered about or reclaimed from the dead horses and fitted out the approved horses with saddle, collar and reins. Bombardier Thomas Masterson and his gunners checked over the cannon and collected all the remaining ammunition into a couple of wagons, his count revealed that their guns had fired nearly seven hundred rounds over the last few days.
Whilst they worked, they were all amazed to see the first ghoulish sightseers from Brussels. Their carriages drew onto the battlefield; the heavily perfumed and elegantly attired occupants disembarked looking around in horror at the sights. They were careful not to step too closely to the corpses, as they did not want to ruin their pristine white stockings. They observed the troop as they worked for a few moments without seeking to converse with these wretches clearing up the mess. They then moved on towards the chateau of Hougomont. Now those people really were sick, no right minded person would volunteer to bear witness to these scenes!
The only location from which to obtain fresh water was the well in the grounds of the chateau of Hougomont, where the right wing of the army had stood during the battle. Alexander accompanied a section of men to obtain much needed water for both men and horses. As they descended into the valley and neared the chateau, the level of destruction became more extreme, even compared with their own experiences. The woods and farmhouse walls were thick with bodies; the gullies were completely filled with them. The trees were smashed and twisted, mere broken stumps remaining, destroyed by the heavy cannonade. As they entered the courtyard, the scenes became infinitely worse. The buildings had been set alight during the battle and many of the wounded, both British and French who had lain within for safety were burned alive. Bodies of the wounded were strewn across the doorways their lower halves burnt to a cinder where had vainly sought to escape the relentless flames. Further away from the buildings the slightly luckier wounded lay in great numbers around the yard, still awaiting transportation to the hospitals.
Alexander engaged a couple of German dragoons in conversation about their experiences. As he conversed with them, to their rear he could see some Belgian peasants rifling the clothes of a French corpse. Having completed emptying the pockets, they commenced abusing the body, kicking and punching it, obviously in an attempt to impress Alexander as to their hate for the French. They looked to him for approval but Alexander could only look at them with total disgust.
The dragoons turned to see what bothered him and seeing the cause they flew into a rage and drew their sabres, turning the flat side to strike the peasants hard across the back, they roared in pain and scurried away, like the vermin they were.
Walking slowly back up the slope to the ridge with their water supply, Alexander encountered a group of wounded French soldiers, they had been collected together ready for carting off to hospital. An old warrior of a Guard lancer, with a long grey moustache, sat berating his colleagues to stand their discomforts with fortitude, to act like soldiers and particularly to bear up like true Frenchmen. The lancer engaged Alexander in conversation, asking how the battle had gone and praised the English and their allies for their stubborn resistance. He sat waving his arm in the air gesticulating as he spoke passionately. His other arm lay by his side, the hand severed at the wrist and lying on the ground beside him. He also had a dreadful wound from a piece of case shot in his side and another had broken his leg. After a long conversation, Alexander bade him farewell and good luck, the Frenchman handed his lance, still bloody from the previous day to Alexander. He had no further use for it and he would rather Alexander took it rather than the thieving peasants, he said. Alexander gave it to Joseph Millward; he would be his own lancer in future! They returned to the troop, to find that John Hall’s team were already back having replenished the ammunition.
The guns and wagons that could not be taken on had been taken to the collection park near the village of Waterloo by Quartermaster John Hall’s team. When they arrived at the park it was obvious that a group of senior artillery officers were having a heated argument about something.
John Hall spotted an old colleague, Sergeant Daniel Dunnett of the Rocket Troop.
“Hey Daniel, I see you managed to see your way through again.”
Daniel was pleased to see an old acquaintance, “I’m glad your luck held too, John.”
Hall pointed towards the group of officers, “What’s going on?”
“Summat to do with the French guns left on the battlefield seems Sir Augustus Frazer is mad with Sir George Wood for failing to collect them. The canny Prussians snatched them all up last night and took them away. Frazer has been to the Prussians to demand our prizes back and they have agreed to send them back tomorrow. Sir George is very lucky not to have to go tell the Duke that he had no prize cannon!”
They both laughed, who’d be an officer?
They shook hands then John’s team proceeded back to G Troop. On route Hall found a whole side of venison lying in the mud, which he promptly liberated. His arrival at the troop with the welcome supply of game raised morale considerably. The meat was scraped with a sword to rid it of most of the dirt, a lance shaft was turned into a makeshift spit lying on crossed muskets; upturned cuirasses were used as seats, a battlefield was a source of all sorts of useful items.
By afternoon enough horses had been caught and equipment found to proceed with four cannon, three ammunition wagons and the travelling forge. Then, the best news of all, a long train of wagons creaked along the roadway towards the troop. It was Joshua Coates, the Commissariat and his train of farm carts, a very welcome sight indeed. They had managed to evade the advancing French army and by a very circuitous road finally arrived at the battlefield this morning. The men eagerly accepted their food supplies; there were now adequate stocks for at least five days. Morale rose dramatically as they breakfasted on the excellent supplies.
As Alexander sat and devoured his first proper food for over seventy-two hours, he spotted Robert Newland strolling towards him and realised that he had not seen him since the previous afternoon, when he had gone to look for ammunition.
“What happened to you?” he asked innocently.
Newland looked irritated by the question, “I was with Gardiner and my old troop.”
Alexander did not press the point further, but he couldn’t understand why Newland hadn’t returned. Why stay with his old troop over on the left of the army, where there was little action? The thought that he may have found the heat of battle too much and had found cooler waters, would nag him and colour his view of his second in command for the rest of his life.
Eventually the team were all reassembled and ready to proceed to catch up with the army. Alexander stood up in the saddle. Momentarily he stared around at the fields still scattered with the debris of the terrible struggle, then turning to his troop and raising his arm, he cried out.
“G troop will advance.............To Paris!
The Battle of Waterloo ended everything for Napoleon. His army was destroyed, the remainder harassed beyond endurance by the Prussians and never recovered. Napoleon and his people’s dreams of renewed glory were irrevocably shattered and the politicians in Paris moved rapidly to distance themselves from him, in a belated effort to ingratiate themselves to Louis XVIII who would soon be back on the throne. Napoleon eventually accepted the inevitable, abdicated and attempted to flee to America. The ever-watchful Royal Navy barred his escape and eventually he was forced to surrender. He was taken to the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic, which was turned over to military law as a prison. With enforced retirement, the passion soon ebbed from his ageing frame and Napoleon succumbed, probably to cancer of the stomach, which seems to have been hereditary. Napoleon died in 1821 and was buried on St Helena. Later in 1840, his body was returned to France with great ceremony and finally laid to rest in Les Invalides.
This book has been written because of my life long love affair with the history of the period known as the Napoleonic Wars. I trust that my writing does not glorify war, for that is not my intention. War is undoubtedly horrible, bringing untold misery to all that it touches. Many seem to think that modern warfare is somehow worse than that before, I would question that assumption. Although modern weapons are more powerful in their individual destructive capability, they have the benefit of clinical accuracy, therefore reducing although not eradicating ‘civilian’ casualties. War in 1815 was carried out at extremely close quarters, the weapons still largely ‘hand’ weapons, requiring the combatants to be within a hundred yards of each other and certainly in sight. Many weapons, particularly those associated with cavalry could only be used at little more than arms length. Some weapons it is true had progressed to being long range, up to a thousand yards, but, even these were more regularly used at ‘point blank’ ranges. Death and injuries have always been a horrendous sight no matter the methods used. The difference was the sheer closeness of that scene of destruction, death occurred literally inches from you. Your enemy’s death was so close it was personal. With long-range modern weapons, troops are often cushioned from this consequence of their actions.
Indeed to put the level of destruction into perspective one only has to look at the ‘butchers bill’ for Waterloo. In the three square miles that encompass the main battlefield, the following figures will indicate the level of carnage to be seen.