Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Behind the Lion

As you stand at the foot of the Lion Mound nearest to the main road, you are on the ground occupied by Kielmansegge’s 1st Hannoverian Brigade.  These German troops had spent the night several hundred yards behind you and to the right; they had nothing to eat and had spent the night standing in the rain, including those with light wounds.  The morning had been spent drying off and cleaning their weapons.  There was little to eat.

Around 11am, as the sun was breaking through, the order came to form up and they moved up to the reverse slope of the plateau.  The ground level would have been higher than it is today by maybe 10-20 feet (about 3 metres) but earth was moved to form the Lion Mound after the battle.  An artillery battery was about 100 paces in front of them.  La Haie Sainte farm is about 500 paces ahead and to your left (south-east), standing on the main road.  The house and gardens are held by more German troops as a forward post against the expected French attacks.

The troops can see the French army deploying and the Allied artillery subjects it to heavy fire.  The fighting starts away to the right at 11.30 as Hougoumont is attacked and the artillery battle in front of you fires at the attacking French troops – it’s about 900 paces away and would take about 15 minutes to walk.

To the immediate right are some Nassauers, more Germans, and then Halkett’s British infantry brigade; behind are the cavalry.  The initial fire from the French guns misses your men in the shelter of the slope but the Nassauers and cavalry are already taking casualties.  The order is to lay down, which helps, but soon the shot and shells are starting to find the range of the brigade and the order comes to move onto the plateau about 1pm – the men stand up and walk forward about 100 paces.

French cavalry are spotted almost immediately and they’re the heavily armoured cuirassiers coming on at a medium-paced trot.  The brigade forms into two squares, each of two battalions, the Bremen and Verden battalions to the west and the Grubenhagen and Duke of York’s nearer the crossroads.

Ideally the infantry would let the cavalry come close, within 50 paces, because the infantry muskets are so inaccurate but some men fire when the cavalry are well over 100 paces away.  Julius von Schkopp, a major in the Verden infantry, is so angry he threatens to shoot any of his men who do not hold their fore until his order.  Nevertheless the cuirassiers are stopped and the English cavalry advance between the Hannoverian squares to counter-attack – this is the English Life Brigade ordered to clear first the cavalry you can see and then to swing to their left and cross the main road where a huge French infantry attack is taking place.  (This is d’Erlon’s corps.)  The cuirassiers put up a fight but soon retreat and the English cavalry disappear into the smoke either side of the farm.  From where you are, the battle taking place a few hundred yards away would have been invisible.

The French artillery fire is now the main concern and the Nassauers 60 paces to your right are taking casualties.  The artillery battery in front of you seems to be the target and the order is to move 20 paces to the right.  Just in time: an ammunition wagon that was in the middle of the western square explodes and while it still causes casualties it could have been far worse if the men had stayed where they were.

Morale is still good, boosted by seeing off the cuirassiers.  The men can take stock and notice there is fierce fighting around La Haie Sainte to the left; on the right Hougoumont is now on fire.  The artillery fire is continuous and the colonel commanding the square, von Langrehr, is hit on the leg by a cannonball, shattering his foot - while he calmly hands over command he bleeds to death soon after.

To reduce the target for the French gunners the brigade deploys into line, but the cuirassiers return and it’s back into square as quickly as possible.  There are 700 of them, deployed in 6 squadrons, one behind the other and they’re coming towards you at a trot.  They stop about 70 paces away.  This would seem like a really weird part of the battle to us – we imagine horsemen speeding towards a square and massed fire to either bring them down, or else the wall of infantry is breached and the square can be destroyed.  In practice, the French cavalry trotted towards the left corner of the square and passed the flank about 6 paces from the line.  The horses got so close that they almost touched the tips of the bayonets, held out like a hedgehogs spikes.  Wilhelm von Tschirschnitz, a lieutenant and therefore armed with a sword, felt he could have reached out and touched them with his sabre.

The French try to get the infantry to fire because a musket, once fired, could take 30 seconds to reload during which the infantryman had only the bayonet to defend himself.  The infantry had little to gain by firing – they couldn’t kill all the French and while the cavalry were by the square the French artillery stopped aiming at them.

The French cavalry are driven off for a second time and while they take losses, they could have been worse: the infantry seem to have fired too high but the cuirass (a body plate of armour) deflects many musket balls.  Muskets were also getting dirty by now and if they were not loaded properly then the gunpowder gave little power to the ball as it left the muzzle.  No wonder Carl Scriba, commanding the flight flank of the western square, saw a brigadier-general leading the cavalry and noticed when the infantry fired he escaped injury by hugging his horse’s neck.  The Allied cavalry eventually charge from behind you but it is only as the French ride away.  Worse, the Allied infantry are Belgian cuirassiers, almost identical to the French in uniform, and some are fired on as they ride back through the Allied lines.  They were slow to counter-attack in the first place and this won’t help!

The men settle down to endure more French artillery fire, and you notice the Nassau troops to your right in retreat as their officers try to stop them.  They bring the soldiers back but this happens several more times during the day.  The Hannoverian soldiers move into line again.  By now it’s around 3pm and cavalry are seen advancing for a third time and the square reforms.  This time the cuirassiers come in much more aggressively but they can’t break into the squares.  They hang around and the order comes for the men to all stand up while still in square and walk towards the cavalry, driving them away.  However, there are French guns close by and they load canister, a can full of musket balls that explode like a massive shotgun.  The Nassauers on the right fall back again and with no cover for the right flank the Hannoverians return to where they started.

There’s more artillery fire to be endured.  A half-battery of Dutch artillery deploys in front but is destroyed by French artillery fire within half an hour; the other Allied battery of guns to your front has stopped firing, maybe they’re all dead or maybe just out of ammunition.  Your men are running out of musket balls as well and a junior officer is sent to find more.  He’s not the only one heading for the rear of the army - every man injured is helped away for treatment by one or two other soldiers and you notice how few of the uninjured men return so a cannon-ball that injures 2 men could take 6, even 8 out of the battle.  The numbers of men left in the square is dwindling.

It’s now past 6pm and the cuirassiers come back for another grand attack, the fourth, then a little later they return for a fifth and final time at about 6.45, but significantly weaker.  It’s just as well; the loss of men means the shape of the western square has become irregular, more like a triangle, then just a mass of men facing outwards.  The western square is starting to resemble the Nassauers: one more determined French attack and it may not stand.

And here comes that attack, a column of French infantry heading for you, but – thank goodness – it veers off to your right, attacking Halkett’s brigade and is driven off.  Now a second column appears and this time it IS the Hannoverians’ turn.  The French are in a square formation, to protect them against cavalry, with artillery in the hollow centre.  Some men volunteer to go forward and act as skirmishers, sniping at the French to try to slow them down.  But there’s little ammunition left after the supply in the wagon exploded earlier, and the Hannoverians begin to go backwards, still in good order, but back to the Allied cavalry line 300 paces behind you.  They rally there and come forward but are met by French canister fire and fall back again, this time in less good order. 

It’s about 8pm and the battalions begin to re-form but the brigade commander, Kielmansegge orders the survivors to retire up the main Brussels road, over your left shoulder, to the farm at Mont St Jean.  There are a lot of men on the road and the officers have a hard job keeping the troops together but once there they re-form and return to their position on the plateau about 9pm, in time only to see the French in retreat in the distance.  About 10pm the Prussians arrive on the scene, greet their fellow Germans and move off after the French half an hour later.

The men move forward from the plateau, and camp for the night amid the dead and wounded about 400 paces to the west of La Haie Sainte.  The next morning they came back to where you are standing to bury the dead Hannoverian officers.

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