Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
They spent the next day in Waterloo, acting like tourists. They visited the various museums and the diorama. They climbed the, what was it, 229 steps to the top of the Lion Mound, and stood breathless at the top, the breeze cooling their faces. He pointed out the features of the battlefield, Hougoumont, La Haye Sainte, the distant inn, La Belle Alliance, the spot where Wellington’s tree had stood, and the slope up which so many Frenchmen had marched or ridden to their deaths. He bought several used musket balls in a souvenir shop, and she scolded him.
“What do you want those for? Do we not have enough clutter in the house?”
He could have replied that it was, after all, his house and his clutter, but he said nothing and smiled. In truth, he was now comforted when she spoke in this way. It gave him an odd sense of place, of belonging, which was something he had not felt for several years, not since…. He did notice that she had said ‘house’ and not ‘home’. He wondered if she made the same analysis of everything he said.
They went back to the restaurant they had so enjoyed the previous evening and were greeted like long lost friends. When Caterine went to the Ladies, the Patron spoke to Steven in English.
“You and your wife are interested in l’époque of Napoleon?”
“Yes, we are. Caterine is a researcher in history at University, and I am, well, just interested. She is not my wife, incidentally.”
The large Belgian raised his eyebrows. “Pourquoi pas?”
Steven smiled, but was irritated. What business was it of this man?
“I have never asked her.”
The Belgian smiled. “Yes, but you are English,” as if that explained everything. Steven thought that it probably did explain a great deal.
“What were you two talking about?” she asked on her return.
“Oh,” he replied vaguely, “history and suchlike. He thought you were my wife”
“Our large Belgian friend over there.”
“Would you be ashamed of me if I was your wife?”
“No, no, not at all.” He became quite flustered. “I’m sorry I mentioned it now.”
“Sorry, Steven, I was joking. I didn ‘t mean to embarrass you.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say.”
“Best to say nothing. What do you say in English about being in a hole?”
They ate in companionable silence, but she returned to the subject after le Patron had introduced his chef, who was also his wife, and as fat as himself.
“Have you thought of getting married again?”
He shook his head. “Since Maria died, I haven’t looked at another woman. I’m sorry, Caterine, they all seem boring and stupid to me, except you. Have you considered it?”
“No, all men are bastards.” But she smiled as she said it.
He didn’t ask if that meant him also. She might have said ‘yes’.
The next day they walked the battlefield, starting at Hougoumont. They wandered around the outside of the brooding farmhouse, guarding its momentous memories. They read in silence the plaques to each side on the walls. Cautiously to begin, but with increasing confidence, they crept past the great gateway, which had been attacked and defended with so much courage, and so many deaths. They walked up the cobbled driveway, Steven with one eye on his guidebook and the other watching for an irate Belgian farmer and his dog.
They stood inside the small chapel and regarded in awe the wooden figure of Christ on the cross. The feet had been burned away and the black scorch marks ran up the legs of the figure.
He whispered to her. “The buildings caught fire during the battle, and the chapel was burning. The chateau burned down, with many of the wounded inside and there was no one to fight the flames. Suddenly, the flames around Christ just died down and disappeared. The locals said it was a miracle.”
“Yes, they would.” He could not decide if her tone was ironic or not.
They walked around the garden and looked through the loopholes in the garden wall. He imagined the British Guards standing here as the French under Prince Jerome came at them in waves. He had the strangest feeling yet again, as he had had previously, that he was becoming part of 18th June 1815. As he walked around the garden, he imagined that he could hear the gunfire and the cries of the men.
“Was Dr John here, Steven?”
He returned to the present. “No, he was at La Haye Sainte. We will go there in a moment. Are you all right?”
“Yes, except I have that feeling of having been here before. In French we call it ‘deja vue’.”
He smiled. “In English we also call it ‘deja vue’.”
They left Hougoumont with its atmosphere heavy with the past.
“There is a weird feeling in that place.” She spoke softly. “Like as if they were all still there, watching and waiting for us to leave, so they can start fighting again.”
“Yes, I felt that, too.”
She linked her arm in his as they went back up to the road. “I don’t think I like it here, Steven. It makes me feel strange.”
He squeezed her arm against his ribs. “It’s all right, you have me.”
She squeezed him back. “We have each other.” They stopped and kissed, deeply and with feeling. The past was another country and the future unknown, but at that moment they were in love.
They walked back along the road, following the crest of the ridge.
“It’s about here that Sir Thomas Picton was killed.”
“Old Tom Picton. He was leading the 5th Division. He was shot through the head about here.” He glanced around as if expecting some evidence of his statement. “He used to drink in the Black Bull.” They found the memorial to Picton and stood there reading it. He had no knowledge of whether Picton had ever drank at the Black Bull, apart from what Holly had told him, but it was a good story.
“The Black Bull in Hay?”
“The very same.”
“You’re joking with me.”
“No, honestly. Holly told me.”
“Oh, your girlfriend. It must be true, then.”
“She’s not my girlfriend,” he growled and kissed her again to reinforce his point.
She ignored the growling. “I wonder how Holly is. And dear old Tigger. I hope Mrs Williams is looking after him.”
“I hope he hasn’t savaged the poor woman.”
She laughed. “We will see him tomorrow. I miss him.”
“Yes, I miss him myself.”
She stopped and looked around. “Was it here that the Imperial Guard attacked?”
“Just about, I’d imagine, perhaps a little more over towards Hougoumont.”
“So Bertrand would have been killed here too?”
He agreed. “Yes, I suppose he must have been, but four or five hours after Thomas Picton.”
She stared around, back towards the Lion Mound and then down the slope, perhaps imaging the smoke, the mud, the noise, the bodies of the horses and the men, and her ancestor dying here, trampled underfoot. She linked arms again and they walked on and eventually turned right on the left of the allied line. He pointed out the sandpit, held by the 95th Rifles until the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte fell.
“You know a lot about this, Steven. It’s almost like you had been here.”
“Well, I have been reading up on things, and my second name is Wellington. I get the strangest feeling sometimes that dear old Dr John is just over my shoulder, whispering in my ear.”
“What have you been drinking?”
“Not a drop, your ladyship, not a drop.”
“What did he say about here?”
There was a bench, just the other side of the sandpit, and almost facing the high white stone walls of the farmhouse. “Let’s see.” He pulled out the journal where the bill for the previous evening’s meal was poking out as a page marker.
It rained all day on the 17th, and all through the night. The wounded from Quatre Bras were taken to regimental hospitals, or to the General Hospital in Mont St Jean. I resumed my duties on behalf of the Kings German Legion. As it was obvious that the Duke intended to stand at this place it was also obvious to all that a battle would be fought here, probably on the 18th. I carried out an inspection of all KGL field hospitals and spoke to the doctors and surgeons. All were ready. At three in the morning I walked in the rain to where the bulk of our brave fellows sought some shelter from the elements and tried to achieve a little peace for my fevered brain. I found my old battalion, the First Line, and stood with them for some time in front of a spluttering fire. I knew some of the officers and conversed in German about the old times in the Peninsula. I did not know many of the soldiers, all of whom seemed very young. I returned to the hospital, wrapped my cloak around myself and slept for two hours.
The morning presented a strange spectacle. The rain had stopped, but the evidence of its ferocity lay everywhere. The sun rose as a red ball in the east. England would still be in darkness, but here the light revealed our cold, wet and hungry Army. I begged a cup of scalding tea from some men of the 95th, their green jackets made even darker by the wet. Everything was bustle, but calm. There was a universal belief that this would be a day to remember if one lived. I thought of Harry, who would have praised the Lord for the chance to be present. I thought of my lovely Maria, and our unborn child, a son surely. Would he ever know his father, or would I fall here at Mont St Jean?
As he read, Steven was transported in time and space to this place on earth where two great armies shook themselves awake in preparation for the event which would shape Europe for one hundred years. He could feel the damp beneath his feet and the cold clammy uniform covering his shivering body. The hot sweet tea burned his tongue as he watched the men of the 95th standing in their shirtsleeves cleaning their Baker rifles and laughing softly.
I returned the tin mug to a corporal in the Rifles. “Thanks, corporal. May God be with today.”
“And with you, sir.”
I visited the KGL surgeons again and arranged for supplies to be delivered. The Hospitals at Mont St Jean and Waterloo were ready, the regimental hospitals were ready, and the General Hospital in Brussels was, I assumed also ready. The army was ready. I went with the supplies to La Haye Sainte, where the second battalion of the KGL Light troops was assigned. The Regimental surgeon of the 2nd Light Battalion, George Heise, was present. I knew him from the Peninsula, and he had been in the KGL for ten years, a most experienced surgeon. It was around half an hour before noon. I was dirty, and still in my blood-stained uniform from Quatre Bras. I was unshaven. There had been other matters more pressing to attend to, and I believed that Almighty God would receive me as cheerfully unshaved as shaved.
For some reason unknown to me, I was minded of the words of, I think, one of Cromwell’s officers on the eve of battle in the English Civil War: ‘Lord, I have much to do today, and if I forget thee, please forget me not.’
The dull crack of the guns commenced. The battle had started. I knew little of it except for what occurred in the farmhouse. The French attacked time and time again, often with much spirit and gallantry, coming right up to the walls and trying to pull our rifles through the loopholes. Away to our left I could hear the sharp cracks of the Baker rifles of the 95th, a truly dreadful weapon in the hands of the ‘Grasshoppers’, and the KGL. I was soon drawn to my duties as the wounded were brought to our little casualty station in the farmhouse kitchen. The German surgeon and myself worked at all speed, probing and removing musket balls mostly, or stitching sabre wounds, and I was pleased that my earlier precautions had ensured a satisfactory inventory of equipment and dressings.
We probed, stitched and dressed without respite. Many of the wounded returned to their places on the walls as soon as they were bandaged. We were, despite my foresight in laying in dressings, fast running out of bandages. My needles were becoming blunt and the sweat was trickling into my eyes. I tied a large handkerchief around my forehead, and with blood on my hands, face and clothing, I must have seemed more a pirate than a surgeon in the King’s service. Fortunately, the French artillery had not done serious damage, so we were not called upon to perform amputations. The heat, the smoke and the noise were all but unbearable. We had no notion of how went the battle in other parts of the field. Several times the French got into the courtyard only to be dispatched or sent on their way at the point of a bayonet. One fellow, braver, or foolhardier than the rest, burst through into the kitchen, sword in hand. I levelled my pistol at him. He looked at us with our bloodstained hands and faces, saluted with his sword, and said “Pardon, m’sieur.” As he turned to leave, he was run through by Major Baring. It was a sad but necessary end to a chivalrous fellow.
Baring was like a vision from hell, bloodied, blackened by smoke with his uniform in shreds.
“Hot work, gentlemen.” He removed his sword from our Frenchman and plunged back into the fight.
I looked at George Heise, wild eyed, bloodstained, in our shirts and aprons. “God help us,” I said. Heise did not speak but turned at once to the man in front of him on the kitchen table.
During short lulls in the fighting, we evacuated as many of our wounded as we could, and snatched a mouthful of water, before they were on us again. Baring came back. He seemed to be wounded and I went to him, but he pushed me away. “It’s time, we are all but out of ammunition. My Lord Wellington believes the KGL can fight using handfuls of earth. We must leave, the farm is now for the French.”
I tried to refuse, but Baring just stared at me.
“My good doctor, I believe that you should come now, with your living comrades, or you will surely remain here with your dead ones. The French are pressing hard and will certainly overcome us in short order. They are giving no quarter to Germans, and you wear a German uniform. Your friendship with Wellington will avail you little, I fear.”
I was inclined to dispute the matter further, citing my duty to the wounded.
Baring produced his pistol, looked at and replaced it in his holster. “May I remind you, sir, that I am in command here. Go, and go now.”
We went out into the kitchen garden, crouching low, as the French clambered over the walls and dropped down from the roof of the building. We ran, followed by French fire, as the 95th tried to distract our pursuers. About forty men, including Major Baring escaped from La Haye Sainte. As I ran, Surgeon Heise at my side, a French musket ball took me on the right shoulder, knocking me to the ground. A brave German soldier hauled me to my feet and dragged me to the safety of our lines. It was some days later that I learned that the French had killed the wounded fellows we had left behind. An exception was a young man, Ensign Frank, who although wounded, had hidden under a bed until our forces retook the farm around eight in the evening.
“Wow!” Her one word summed up their joint feelings. They sat on the bench and looked at the solid white walls of the farmhouse, oblivious to the sights and sounds of traffic passing up and down the Genappe road in front of them.
He took her hand. “Let’s see what we can see on the other side.”
The farm consisted of a series of buildings built around a large courtyard, with the wall on the fourth side, the road from Brussels to Genappe. The large arch at the rear of the farm was open, and the courtyard seemed to be deserted. Cautiously they walked inside, noting the strength of the walls, and incongruously, the dovecote. Like at Hougoumont, history hung heavy in the air, and was absorbed into the walls. For perhaps five minutes they stood in silence and imagined the events of 18th June 1815.
“They are still here too, Steven, the ghosts, just watching us. I can feel them and hear them. Just waiting for us to leave so they can begin again.”
“Yes, I feel them too.”
He took her hand and turned away. “Come on, let’s leave them in peace. We have a cat who is missing us.”
Footsteps of the Father – Novel Serialisation – © Brian Matier
I inherited all of my fathers stories, tales, manuscripts and privately self-published manuscripts and have chosen to share them with my readership.
© Rory Matier 2019