In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
No News is Good News; Sometimes
The chandeliers sparkled in the lights from the candles and oil lamps, seemingly winking at the dancers who spun and twirled to the music of the red jacketed musicians.
It was apparently a carefree sight, the young officers smiling at their wives and sweethearts; the ladies in their lush gowns and coiffured hair, smiled back and bowed graciously to their partners before moving on. It was a balmy early summer evening, while many of the great and good looked on.
Yet there was a tension in the ballroom, a heaviness which hung around the dancers like a shroud. The young men knew, and their ladies also knew, with a dreadful awareness that many of those here present would almost certainly be dead within a few days. And the reason for their foreboding stood, his arms folded across his chest, talking to the Duchess of Richmond. The Duke of Wellington was here for one reason, and one reason only, to fight Napoleon and put an end, once and for all, to the tyrant’s rule of fear over Europe.
Holding her fan to her lips, the Duchess whispered, “And what news of the French, Arthur?”
“No news, Lady Fiona, no news at all.”
“And is that good news?”
“Time will tell, Fiona, time alone will, tell.”
The Duke and Duchess of Richmond, as the hosts, and the Duke of Wellington, as the chief guest, accepted the greetings of the Army leaders and the British aristocracy. All had faith in Wellington’s judgement and were satisfied that the great man had deployed his forces judiciously. At around nine in the evening the dancers broke up for supper and during the meal, the 22 year old Prince of Orange entered the dining room and approached Wellington. He whispered in his ear for several minutes before leaving again.
Wellington turned to Richmond. “The French have crossed the frontier and have pushed back the Prussian piquet. Blucher is retiring on Ligny. By God, Bonaparte has humbugged me. He has stolen twenty four hours on me.”
The Duke of Richmond stared at the soldier. “Can I help in some way?”
“Do you have a good map and a room I can use?”
Richmond nodded. “Follow me. You can use my study.”
Wellington rose from the table, catching the eyes of many of his senior officers and he nodded. Most of his senior commanders, Picton, Uxbridge, Ponsonby and Maitland also rose, causing the younger officers to hasten their own departures. It was time; time to join their regiments and time perhaps, time to die.
Wellington spread out the map on the table in front of him. He jabbed his finger on Charleroi. “The French are here, perhaps twenty miles away. We will stop them here, at Quatres Bras and, God willing, by the Prussians at this place, Ligny.”
He looked up. “Are there any questions? Very well, Gentlemen; Go join your regiments. And may God go with you all.”
It was two thirty ion the morning before Wellington went to bed and he slept for three hours. By six he was in the saddle and passed the bulk of his Army en route to Quatres Bras, where the Dutch and Belgian troops had already beater back a weak French attack.
During the day the battle expanded as the Duke’s soldiers arrived and were fed into the fray. Away to the Duke’s left, about three miles distant at Ligny, the French and Prussians engaged in a life and death struggle. The French tried time and time again to take the crossroads, attempting to outflank the British and their Allie, but were checked by the skill of the 95th Rifles with their Baker rifles, so more accurate a weapon that the muskets of Marshal Ney’s forces.
About six in the evening the fighting ceased as both sides retired to lick their wounds and consider their next moves. Wellington reviewed his soldiers, making adjustments to his dispositions. The medical officers tended to the wounded, cutting, probing and amputating limbs were necessary. The wounded were dispatched northwards, towards Brussels, the rickety horse drawn ambulances adding to the agonies of the unfortunate injured men.
By midnight the Duke realised that the Prussians had been severely mauled at Ligny, about three miles distant, losing some 16,000 men to the French casualty total of 12,000. At Quatres Bras the Allied losses were about 4,500 dead, wounded and missing, while the French losses were later shown to be about 4,300. Wellington was on horseback all night, receiving reports from his mounted officers who had reconnoitred the Prussian positions. He knew that he would need to retire to avoid giving Napoleon the opportunity to outflank him on his left.
Breakfast was served at seven thirty in the morning and then preparations began to withdraw. Just after eleven, the crossroads were abandoned and protected by the cavalry the whole Army moved north. The withdrawal took all day, with the Duke staying with his troops, encouraging them and exhorting the stragglers. The French pursued but without great enthusiasm, a pursuit literally dampened by the heavy rain which started in the early afternoon.
About six, Mont St Jean was reached and the wet, hungry and exhausted men were deployed behind the great ridge. Everyone knew that there would be a battle at this place, as no further retreat was possible before Brussels.
The rain continued all night, until about five in the morning of 18th June, soaking the soldiers who were camped in the open. It was not possible to light cooking fires even if the Commissariat had been able to effect supplies. As the sun rose on the rain saturated ground, the Army stood watching the first deployments of the French a mile or away. It was little comfort to the British, Dutch, Belgian and German troops that the French would be just as wet, hungry and miserable as they were themselves.
One thing was certain; this day, 18th June 1815, would be a day to remember for a lifetime, for he who survived.
Written by BM