Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Tag Archives: The Battle of Waterloo

  • Waterloo Anniversary by Martyn Beardsley

    Exactly two hundred years ago today, at the time I'm writing this - early on the morning of the 18th June - two armies just a few hundred yards apart were making the final preparations for a battle for the future of Europe. Weapons were cleaned, ammunition was checked, and horses were saddled and fed. British soldiers, stiff and sore from the overnight rain, their wet uniforms steaming in the morning sun, gazed anxiously at the glinting armour of the distant French cuirassiers as they galloped to their positions.

    Waterloo - Microsoft Word - Document1The research for my book on Waterloo was a fascinating experience. To be able to 'see' the battle through the eyes of those who took part made it a much more personal thing than merely reading about military tactics and manoeuvres. In some cases, especially of the ordinary foot soldier like Gunner Edwards (I have the onner of waren a blue and red ribbon as a marke of that day…) I was drawn into the lives of those involved, and it felt like discovering long-lost letters from distant relatives.

    Certain things stood out, and one was the courage of the rank-and-file men like Gunner Edwards. It goes without saying that you need to be brave to fight in a battle, but the way of fighting in 1815 was completely unlike anything in modern warfare. In modern times, the fancy parades might look impressive but can also seem somehow pointless. But the way in which all that marching up and down and manoeuvring has its roots in the kind of fighting that took place at Waterloo became clearer to me as I read the stories.

    Waterloo - Microsoft Word - Document1Soldiers had to be able to obey an instant command to form a line or a square, to face a particular direction, to keep formation with colleagues without leaving gaps, and to respond instantly to any change in formation or direction deemed necessary in response to the movements of the enemy.

    If the enemy infantry advanced, you would be ordered to form a line in order to bring maximum firepower to bear. The attack might seem overwhelming and there would be a temptation to retreat – but if you did you were lost. This is what happened many times when armies faced Napoleon and his feared armies, and it was the bravery and discipline of Wellington's men that saved them from being routed on many occasions as their comrades fell around them and their ranks were thinned out.

    Then if the cavalry attacked, upon a command you would be ordered to abandon your lines and form a square. It was said that a determined infantry square could withstand any cavalry charge as long as it stood firm, and so it proved at Waterloo. These squares had a 'hollow' centre where among others artillerymen who had to abandon their guns could take refuge till the storm had subsided. Again, perfect formation and discipline was paramount. Any wavering and the square would be overwhelmed, with men being cut down by the cuirassiers and their slashing swords.

    Waterloo - Microsoft Word - Document1There is always a big debate whenever Waterloo is mentioned about whether Wellington would have lost if Blucher hadn't arrived. Only the other day I overheard someone declare, 'Of course, without Blucher we would have lost'. I think there is a peculiarly British attitude, whether it's to do with war, sport or whatever, along the lines of 'Well, we're really not very good and all of our victories were either lucky or tainted…'

    I stand to be corrected by people who know more about military history than I do, but to me, much of the 'Prussia saved us at Waterloo' debate is spurious. For one thing, Wellington without the Prussians was outnumbered yet still held his ground for the whole day despite attack after ferocious and increasingly desperate attacks by an army that was used to demoralising its opponents. My impression, based on the accounts of those who took part is that a stalemate was the worst that would have happened as darkness came on.

     

    Waterloo - Microsoft Word - Document1

    But people seem to forget that the Prussians were part of the plan - they were supposed to be there! It wasn't as if they wandered along unexpectedly or had to be sent for as a desperate afterthought. It was always the arrangement that they would join up with Wellington, and in fact it would have happened earlier had not Napoleon worked so hard to keep the two allies apart. It's almost certainly true that their arrival allowed Wellington to finally, after having fought a brilliant defensive battle all day, launch a decisive counter-attack, but it's wrong to think of it as some sort of outsider coming along to dig the British out of a hole.

     

     

    Waterloo - Microsoft Word - Document1

    Be that as it may, my thoughts today will be with the ordinary British soldier who stood and faced up to the onslaught, and with the many who fell. For me there couldn't be a better tribute than the British Waterloo Monument in Evere. It features Britannia and three lions surrounding a tomb of fallen British officers, but far from being a triumphal monument, when you study it closer it is actually very poignant – because this was a battle won at enormous cost. Britannia looks distraught, and her helmet and trident are lowered. There is a disorderly pile of weapons, looking almost as if they were abandoned in death. And the lions aren't the proud, roaring beasts we are so used to seeing. They lie like spent, shattered soldiers – in fact one seems to be licking its wounds. But still in their pain and exhaustion they remain there, watching over the fallen. The monument is not so much about victory, but about the price to be paid for victory.

     

    Waterloo - 9781445619828

    Waterloo Voices 1815 by Martyn Beardsley is available for purchase now.

  • What Did Cambronne Say at Waterloo? by Mark Simner

    There are many myths and controversies surrounding the Battle of Waterloo, fought on 18 June 1815. Indeed, a number of books have been written that solely focus on these fascinating, yet sometimes frustrating, aspects of the Hundred Days campaign. Some of these myths have since been proved false or otherwise finally laid to rest, but many persist, with military history experts still no nearer to the truth than at any time in the past 200 years. One, which continues to be debated by professional and amateur historians alike, is the alleged words of Pierre Cambronne during the final stages of the battle. But who was Cambronne and what did or didn’t he say at Waterloo?

    Waterloo - CambronneBorn in 1770 at Nantes, France, Cambronne enlisted into the French army in 1791 shortly before the outbreak of the War of the First Coalition. He would rise rapidly through the ranks, becoming a lieutenant in 1893, and took part in the campaigns in the Vendée, the Rhine and in Switzerland. More promotions would follow, including chef de batallion in 1805, and he was present at the battles of Austerlitz and Jena before being sent to Spain. However, he was recalled to France in order to assist with the enlargement of the Garde Impériale, later participating in the battles of Aspern-Essling and Wagram before returning to the Iberian Peninsula. Perhaps luckily, he did not take part in Napoleon’s ill-fated campaign in Russia in 1812, but he did play an important part in the rebuilding of the French army the following year. After the Battle of Hanau, fought in October 1813, he was again promoted, to général de brigade, and placed in command of the 1st Chasseurs of the Old Guard. When Napoleon was defeated in 1814, he faithfully accompanied his emperor in his exile to the island of Elba as head of the Guard Grenadiers.

    With Napoleon’s subsequent escape from exile and return to France in early 1815, Cambronne was again offered promotion, but this time he refused the honour, insisting that he would stay with his men. However, he would, as colonel-major, take command of the two battalions of the 1st Chasseurs during the Hundred Days campaign, seeing action at both Ligny and Waterloo. Thus, the somewhat incredible and long military career of Pierre Jacques Étienne Cambronne was about to reach its climatic end and become firmly entwined with the Waterloo legend.

    Waterloo - Garde ImperialeThere is little room within this brief article to offer any detailed description of the advance of the Garde Impériale late in the Battle of Waterloo. Countless books have already dealt with the subject and many different interpretations of the assault exist. Suffice to say, the attack was repulsed by Wellington’s Anglo-Allied army and Napoleon’s last throw of the dice ultimately failed. However, it was following the repulse of the Guard that Cambronne was later alleged to have said, when invited to surrender, ‘la Garde meurt mais ne se rends pas!’, which translates into English as ‘the Guard dies but does not surrender!’ Other eyewitnesses claimed that he simply said ‘Merde!’, meaning ‘Shit!’. Both, particularly the former, quickly became one of the Waterloo myths that were readily believed by so many in the years following the battle. However, these words were later denied by Cambronne himself who, according to the French historian Henry Houssaye, stated ‘I did not say what is attributed to me, I replied with something else.’

    Following such a denial, it, therefore, might seem odd why the myth of what Cambronne said during his capture at Waterloo persisted for so long. However, looking back from the distance of 200 years, we should remember that Waterloo was an embarrassing defeat for France, and nothing short of a humiliation for the men of Napoleon’s elite Old Guard to be taken prisoner in battle. To counter this, what followed was an attempt by some to portray the defeat in a glorious light, or as an act of courageous defiance in the face of the enemy. Houssaye himself believed the whole thing was made up by a French journalist who worked for the Journal général de France. To further muddy the waters, those, on the Anglo-Allied side, who did witness the capture of Cambronne and his Old Guard comrades do not always agree on the details, some accounts even proving to be completely unreliable. All of which acted to merely perpetuate the myth.

    Whatever the actual circumstances of Cambronne’s capture, we do know he suffered a serious head wound at Waterloo and was later attended to by a British doctor. Following the battle, he was taken to England but longed to return to France, which he did in late 1815, where he was arrested on allegations of treason. Later cleared of the charges, Cambronne would resume his military duties for a short period before retiring and spending the last two decades of his life helping veterans of the Garde Impériale. On 29 January 1842, aged 71, Cambronne died, and, in 1848, a statue of him was erected in his honour in his home city of Nantes, where it still stands today.

    Waterloo - 9781445646664

    An Illustrated Introduction to The Battle of Waterloo by Mark Simner is available for purchase now.

2 Item(s)