Saturday, 27 August 2011

Besides the crossroads - the KGL 5th Line and 8th Line

As you walk away from the Lion Mound towards the main road, stay on the right of the road.  The end of the modern buildings by the mound (none of which existed in 1815) marks the limits of the ground held by Kielmansegge’s Hannoverians and from here to the crossroads ahead of you the ground occupied by another German brigade, the 2nd King’s German Legion commanded by Baron Ompteda.  About halfway between the buildings and the modern road would have stood the red-coated infantry of two of his four battalions, first (as you approach) the 5th Line and then the 8th Line.

The Grenadier Company of the 5th Line had been sent to La Haie Sainte on the 17th and the Light Company followed on the 18th, so the battalion was only 256 strong.  The 8th was the larger battalion with 489 men.

Initially, the 8th Line was held behind the crest of the ridge where they had a fairly quiet time of it.  The fall of La Haie Sainte ended the relative quiet of this sector of the front.  As the French infantry advanced, the 8th formed into line to clear them from the position they had taken 40 paces in front (presumably very close to the road on which you are standing).  The French retreated from the Germans but the cuirassiers attacked the right flank of the 8th Line, catching them in line.  The ensign holding one of the battalion’s flags, the colours, was shot three times and the man he passed the flag to, a sergeant, had his hand nearly cut off by a French sword-stroke.  The colours were lost (and only returned several days later by an Allied cavalry soldier).   Order was restored thanks in part to a counter-attack by the survivors of the British heavy cavalry.  They reformed but Christopher Bartram a lieutenant, noticed they only had enough men to form in 2 ranks rather than the usual 4.

Thirty minutes later, the situation was becoming desperate as the French advanced artillery and infantry past La Haie Sainte.  The Prince of Orange, or at least one of his staff officers, ordered Ompteda, the brigade commander to retake the farm with 5th Line.  This was a desperate order: 250 Germans were attacking the farm that ten times as many French had taken hours to capture.  They were also advancing over open ground into the smoke with the risk of cuirassiers, who had already ridden over the Luneberg Field Battalion and part of the 8th Line, possibly in the sight of the soldiers of the 5th Line.  Ompteda put himself at the head of the attack and the troops hurried forward, but the cuirassiers had their third success of the day and caught them in the open.  This time there were no heavy cavalry to come to the rescue of the KGL, only a regiment of their hussars (from whom we shall hear shortly).  The battalion was either cut down by French swords or scattered.

Back behind the roads, the survivors of the 5th and 8th formed squares but the French were able to advance their guns considerably, and Brinckmann tells us the Allied artillery had fallen silent and the gunners had taken cover from the cavalry and could not return to man the cannons as the battle reached its climax.

We have an excellent eyewitness account of the 5th Line’s experiences from Lieutenant Edmund Wheatley, an Englishman serving in the Legion.  Start by facing south past La Haie Sainte to the rising ground beyond around La Belle Alliance, then imagine the cool, damp morning in June 1815:

“… on the opposite heights we could perceive large dark moving masses of something impossible to distinguish individually. Where the edge of the ground bound the horizon, shoals of these gloomy bodies glided down, disjointing then contracting, like fields of animated clods sweeping over the plains, like melted lava from a Volcano, boding ruin and destruction to whatever dared impede its course. It had a fairy look and border’d on the supernatural in appearance. While gazing with all my utmost stretch of vision on the scene, little Gerson struck me on the shoulder saying, ‘That’s a battle, my boy! That’s something like a preparation! You’d better have stopped with Notting at Brussels. I must be off to the Hospital and hope to see you there.’
We shook hands and I walked up and down for some time and felt very uneasy that I had left no letter of remembrance behind me.
I fancied the occupation of all at home. It was about six o’clock[A1] . …
On the opposite ascent stand hundreds of young men like myself whose feelings are probably more acute, whose principles are more upright, whose acquaintance would delight and conversation improve me, yet with all my soul I wished them dead as the earth they tramped on and anticipated their total annihilation. ‘Tis inconceptible how one’s ideas should be diametrically reversed from what is equitable and correct. When I looked at my own comrades I could not conceive why my animosity was diverted from them in preference to the French who are, by far, more commendable characters than these heavy, selfish Germans.
Here stood a swell-faced, ignorant booby, raw from England, staring with haggard and pallid cheek on the swarms of foes over against him. One could perceive the torture of his feelings by the hectic quivering of his muscles, as if fear and cold were contending for the natural colour of the cheek. And this man is one of the mighty warriors shortly to deal out thunder and confusion to the opposers of the British constitution.
Close behind him stalked a dark, swarthy weather-beaten man whose arm had aided in expelling the opposite nation from the Tagus to the Garonne. Frequent flashes from the pan had died his brows with a never-failing black. The horrid preparations before him gave no surprise to his soul. The scene afforded no novelty to his eye. Yet a side glance on turning at his walk’s end bespoke the uppermost thoughts in his mind, [for] the oldest veteran must have been struck by the solemnity of the scene.
About ten o’clock, the order came to clean out the muskets and fresh load them.  Half an allowance of rum was then issued, and we descended into the plain, and took our position in solid Squares.  When this was arranged as per order, we were ordered to remain in our position but, if we like, to lay down, which the battalion did [as well as] the officers in the rere.
I took this opportunity of surveying our situation. It was singular to perceive the shoals of cavalry and artillery suddenly in our rere all arranged in excellent order as if by a magic wand.  The whole of the horse guards stood behind us.  For my part I thought they were at Knightsbridge barracks or prancing on St James’s Street.
A Ball whizzed up in the air. Up we started simultaneously. I looked at my watch. It was just eleven o’clock Sunday (Eliza just in church at Wallingford or at Abington) morning. In five minutes a stunning noise took place and a shocking havock commenced.
One could almost feel the undulation of the air from the multitude of cannon shot.  The first man who fell was five files on my left.  With the utmost distortion of feature he lay on his side and shrivelling up every muscle of body he twirled his elbow round and round in acute agony, then dropped lifeless dying, as it’s called a death of glory, heaving his last breath on the field of fame. Dieu m’engarde!
A black consolidated body was soon seen approaching and we distinguished by sudden flashes of light from the sun’s rays, the iron-cased cavalry of the enemy. Shouts of ‘Stand firm!’ ‘Stand fast!’ were heard from the little squares around and very quickly these gigantic fellows were upon us.
No words can convey the sensation we felt on seeing these heavy-armed bodies advancing at full gallop against us, flourishing their sabres in the air, striking their armour with the handles, the sun gleaming on the steel.  The long horse hair, dishevelled by the wind, bore an appearance confounding the senses to an astonishing disorder.  But we dashed them back as coolly as the sturdy rock repels the ocean’s foam. The sharp-toothed bayonet bit many an adventurous fool, and on all sides we presented our bristly points like the peevish porcupines assailed by clamorous dogs.
The horse Guards then came up and drove them back; and although the sight is shocking ‘tis beautiful to see the Skirmish of cavalry.
The French made repeated attacks of this kind. But we stood firm as the ground we stood on, and two long hours were employed in these successive attacks.
About two o’clock the cavalry ceased annoying and the warfare took a new turn. In order to destroy our squares the enemy filled the air with shells, howitzers and bombs, so that every five or six minutes the whole Battalion lay on its face then sprang up again when the danger was over.
The Prince of Orange gallop’d by, screaming out like a new born infant, ‘Form into line! Form into line!’ and we obeyed.
About this time the battle grew faint and a mutual cannonade with musketry amused us for one and a half hours, during which time I walked up and down chatting and joking with the young officers who had not then smelt powder.
An ammunition cart blew up near us, smashing men and horses[A2] .  I took a calm survey of the field around and felt shocked at the sight of broken armour, lifeless bodies, murdered horses, shattered wheels, caps, helmets, swords, muskets, pistols, still and silent.  Here and there a frightened horse would rush across the plain trampling on the dying and the dead.  Three or four poor wounded animals standing on three legs, the other dangling before [them].  We killed several of these unfortunate beasts and it would have been an equal Charity to have perform’d the same operation on the wriggling, feverish, mortally lacerated soldiers as they rolled on the ground.
About four o’clock the battle was renewed with uncommon ardour. We still stood in line.  The carnage was frightful.  The balls which missed us mowed down the Dutch behind us, and swept away many of the closely embattled cavalry behind them.
I saw a cannon ball take away a colonel of the Nassau regiment so cleanly that the horse never moved from under him. While [I was] busy in keeping the men firm in their ranks, closing up the vacuities as the balls swept off the men, inspecting the fallen to detect deception [or] subterfuge, a regiment of Cuirassiers darted like a thunderbolt amongst us. At the instant a squadron of horse Guards dashed up to our rescue. In the confusion of the moment I made for the Colors to defend them. And we succeeded with infinite difficulty in rallying the men again.
I parried with great good fortune a back stroke from a horseman as he flew by me and Captain [Frederick] Sander had a deep slice from the same fellow on the head the instant after.
The battalion once more formed into a solid square, in which we remained the afternoon.
I felt the ardour of the fight increase very much within me, from the uncommon fury of the engagement.
Just then I fired a slain soldier’s musket until my shoulder was nearly jellied and my mouth was begrimed with gunpowder to such a degree that I champed the gritty composition unknowingly.
Nothing could equal the splendour and terror of the scene.  Charge after charge succeeded in constant succession.  The clashing of swords, the clattering of musketry, the hissing of balls, and shouts and clamours produced a sound, jarring and confounding the senses, as if hell and the Devil were in evil contention.
About this time I saw the Duke of Wellington running from a charge of Cavalry towards the Horse-Guards, waving his hat to beckon them towards the encounter.
All the artillery in our front fell into the French power, the bombardiers skulking under the carriages. But five minutes put them again into our hands and the men creeping out applied the match and sent confusion and dismay into the retreating enemy.
Several times were these charges renewed and as often defeated. Charge met charge and all was pell-mell. The rays of the sun glittered on the clashing swords as the two opposing bodies closed in fearful combat and our balls clattered on the shining breastplates like a hail shower.
As I stood in square I looked down, I recollect, to take a pinch of snuff and thought of the old ballad, which I had seen somewhere, of the aged Nurse who describes the glorious battles of Marlborough to the child. After each relation of valour and victory, the infant [says]
‘Ten thousand slain you say and more?
What did they kill each other for?’
‘Indeed I cannot tell,’ said she,
‘But ‘twas a famous victory.’
The field was now thickened with heaps of bodies and shattered instruments. Carcasses of men and beasts lay promiscuously entwined. Aid-de-Camps scoured across with inconceivable velocity. All was hurry and indefatigable exertion. The small squares on our right[A3]  kept up incessant firings and the fight was as obstinate as at the commencement.
The Duke of Wellington passed us twice, slowly and cooly.
No advantage as yet was discernible on either side. The French cavalry was less annoying. Their brave, repeated assaults had cost them very dear.
About six o’clock a pass√©-parole ran down the line – not to be disheartened as the Prussians were coming up to our left, which news we received with loud cheers. And on looking left I perceived at some distance a dark swarm moving out of a thick wood. In twenty minutes a fresh cannonading began as if in rere of the French and the battle raged with increasing vehemence.
A French Regiment of Infantry before us opposite the farm house called the holy hedge (La Haye Sainte) advanced considerably just then and poured a destructive fire into our Battalion[A4] .
Colonel Ompteda ordered us instantly into line to charge, with a strong injunction to ‘walk’ forward until he gave the word.  When within sixty yards he cried ‘Charge’, we ran forward huzzaing.  The trumpet sounded and no one but a soldier can describe the thrill one instantly feels in such an awful moment.  At the bugle sound the French stood until we reached them.  I ran by Colonel Ompteda who cried out, ‘That’s right, Wheatley!’
I found myself in contact with a French officer but ere we could decide, he fell by an unknown hand.  I then ran at a drummer, but he leaped over a ditch through a hedge in which he stuck fast.  I heard a cry of ‘The Cavalry! The Cavalry!’  But so eager was I that I did not mind it at that moment, and when on the eve of dragging the Frenchman back (his iron-bound hat having saved him from a cut) I recollect no more.”

Wheatley was taken prisoner but escaped later.

 [A1]While some French could have been deploying at this, most authors believe the main deployment was not until around 10am.
 [A2]This would have been in the Hannoverian lines, as we have already heard.
 [A3]The Hannoverians and, after them, British infantry).
 [A4]La Haie Sainte had fallen to the French.

5 comments:

  1. I just discovered your blog via The British Army at Waterloo blog. Very interesting, and fun to read! I look forward to more postings.
    Regards
    Thomas Foss
    www.skullncrown.com

    ReplyDelete
  2. Your information on the battle are really interesting.
    Hi
    Simmy

    ReplyDelete