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Waterloo: Rout & Retreat: The French Perspective

Waterloo: Rout & Retreat: The French Perspective

Автором Andrew W. Field

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Waterloo: Rout & Retreat: The French Perspective

Автором Andrew W. Field

579 pages
7 hours
Nov 30, 2017


Henry Percy is best known as the officer who carried the Waterloo Dispatch, the Duke of Wellingtons account of the Battle of Waterloo and the ultimate defeat of Napoleon, to London in June 1815. This was the climax of a remarkable military career. He served in the British army throughout the Napoleonic Wars in Sicily, Egypt, Sweden, Portugal and Spain, and he fought at Waterloo. This biography gives us a fascinating insight into active service and the high command during those wartime years. The strong, contrasting personalities of the notable British and French commanders he encountered Moore, Wellington and Junot among them are revealed, and his time as a captive in France offers us a rare inside view of the everyday existence of a prominent prisoner of war. Using archives in England, in particular at Alnwick Castle, and in France, William Mahon has reconstructed Percys life in meticulous detail. He paints a vivid picture of Percys wartime experience. He also describes his enduring friendships and his liaison with the French woman who bore him a son.
Nov 30, 2017

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Andrew Field MBE is a former British army officer whose travels around the world have given him a unique opportunity to explore battlefields from ancient history to present times. He has always harboured a special fascination for the Napoleonic Wars. In particular he has reassessed Napoleon's campaigns in 1814 and 1815, and has carried out extensive research into Wellington's battles in the Peninsula. His books include Talavera: Wellington's First Victory in Spain, Prelude to Waterloo: Quatre Bras, Grouchy’s Waterloo: The Battles of Ligny and Wavre and Waterloo: Rout and Retreat: The French Perspective.

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Waterloo - Andrew W. Field



Such is the French soldier: endowed with much intelligence, he soundly assesses his situation and is rarely mistaken on the capacity and operations of his leaders; but his raging imagination, which so often renders him capable of the most heroic acts, also often leads him astray. Then, the less he can distinguish the danger, the more he exaggerates it, pre-occupied by the illusions that overcome him, he no longer sees the resources or the means of salvation that remain to him, or fails to use them.¹

This is the fourth and final book in my series looking at the Waterloo campaign almost exclusively from the French perspective. It covers a little-known, and little written-about, aspect of the campaign; the rout of Napoleon’s army that had been catastrophically defeated at the great battle; the attempts to rally it at Laon and Soissons and its retreat on Paris; Grouchy’s far more orderly retreat after the Battle of Wavre and his concentration with the remnants of the Emperor’s army; Napoleon’s own flight and abdication; the combats around Paris; the retreat across the Loire and the final disbandment of the Imperial army; all of which marked the end of the imperial era and the First Empire.

Like my other books, my aim, as far as is possible, is to tell the story through the eyes of those officers and other ranks that were witnesses to these monumental events. Without it being a deliberate approach, I find that in this volume I have used much longer pieces of text from eyewitnesses or official correspondence than in the others. There is often much fascinating detail in the original scripts that is not revealed in summaries and I also believe it gives a more authentic feel to the narrative rather than paraphrasing and allows the writer to tell the full story; I hope the reader feels the same.

As in the introductions to the earlier books, I must remind readers of the inevitable bias, often poor recall or personal agendas of these writers, but even so, their first-hand testimony gives life and some intriguing insights into these events. As this book covers a much longer period than the others, the junior officers in particular wrote perhaps more on this aspect of the campaign than on their personal experiences on a single day of battle. Even so, I have quoted much more official correspondence in this volume than in the others because it is in this, rather than the somewhat more biased individual accounts, that the true state of the army is revealed during this period of the campaign. It will be noted that I have drawn heavily on Grouchy’s works as he published much of his own correspondence and also a copy of the official Registre of the major-général’s correspondence. These letters and orders are fundamental in understanding this phase of the campaign and should be a starting point for a serious study of events, although there are some mistakes and perhaps even deliberate falsehoods to be found in them. The rout of the Armée du Nord from Waterloo was undoubtedly a deep humiliation to the French nation, and yet more so to the individual officers and men who were a part of it. It is therefore unsurprising that many of them wanted to play down the effect on their own units which had all shared in the glory of many years of victory. This is particularly true of the Imperial Guard, whose conduct during the retreat is written about with contempt by many who were not a part of it.

Whilst many soldiers deserted after the battle in the shock and devastation of defeat, and many more at the news of Napoleon’s abdication, others rallied stoically to their regiments and were again prepared to sacrifice their lives in the defence of their country. It is of particular interest that we have accounts from officers and soldiers across the whole spectrum of responses; from desertion, to joining Louis XVIII’s entourage as he advanced in the wake of Wellington’s army, to those that continued the fight. There are also a number of moving accounts by those who experienced the disbandment of their illustrious regiments and the final, tearful farewells of those who had fought and lived together in good times and in bad, who had shared that close military bond of friendship and the experiences from the horrors of the battlefield to the challenges of day-to-day living in the most uncomfortable circumstances.

Although there were no major battles during this period, there was rather more fighting than is generally believed. The retreat was marked by a series of skirmishes as the Prussians in particular tried to cut the French off from Paris and complete their total defeat. It is true that most of those were fought by French troops that had been psychologically crushed and physically disorganized by their defeat at Waterloo and were somewhat one-sided. However, as the army got closer to Paris, and had been joined by reinforcements and Grouchy’s small, undefeated army, the French put up much stiffer resistance in the defence of their capital in an effort to prevent a second victory parade by foreign troops in as many years. Indeed, one of the final combats resulted in a notable French victory.

Some of the material in the first chapter will be familiar to those that have read my Waterloo book, but given the title of this final volume, I felt it was impossible not to repeat some of it to ensure vital context for the rest of the story. I apologise for this, but can reassure the reader that I have included new material and presented it in a way to set the scene for this final phase of the campaign.

As this is meant to be a military history, I have deliberately avoided going into much detail on the intrigues and political machinations of Napoleon’s abdication. There is more detail in the memoirs and souvenirs referenced in the chapter that covers this and in various English-language books on Napoleon’s life, some of which appear in the bibliography.

I have endeavoured to include as many place names on the maps as possible. However, in many cases it has been impossible to locate some exactly. Sometimes this is because place names have changed as they transferred ownership between France and Belgium and sometimes because the names were spelt incorrectly in the original manuscript (this is quite common). Other places that are named have turned out to be just a farm and given the distances covered by the book it has proven impossible to locate them on a modern map.

As this volume brings an end to my series of books on the Waterloo campaign, I would like to thank a number of people; Rupert Harding of Pen and Sword who has encouraged me to see this long project through to the end; Jeff Murray and Rob Norton for the maps they have produced to complement the narratives; Paul Dawson who, although writing his own books on the same subject, generously shared much of his own work with me; my partner Mandy who has patiently allowed me to fill up all my spare time writing; and, finally, all those readers who have spent their hard-earned cash on buying my books; I sincerely hope you have enjoyed reading them as much as I have writing them.

Chapter 1

The Rout from Waterloo

La garde recule!’, ‘The Guard retreats!’ These words had never been uttered before in the Imperial army. Napoleon’s last gamble at Waterloo, the attack of his remaining battalions of the Old Guard, had spectacularly failed and the debris of those battalions were desperately trying to escape under the protection of the remaining battalion squares of the Old Guard formed across the slope in front of la Belle Alliance.

Whether the rout of the Armée du Nord was initiated by these words is unclear; some writers have the rout starting on the French right, where the rising tide of Prussian troops were driving in the exhausted troops of d’Erlon, Lobau and Duhesme. It is quite possible that it started simultaneously at these points; the beginning of a French rout unheard-of in Napoleon’s presence and a retreat that only finished under the walls of Paris.

Colonel Ordener had been elevated to the command of a cuirassier brigade in General Watier’s division when the brigade commander, Maréchal de Camp Dubois, was wounded in the early fighting of the battle. He gives his own interpretation of the cause of the rout:

Coming out of the forest of Soignes [actually the Paris woods] the Prussians appeared on our flank. From Mont-Saint-Jean we saw their masses advance, preceded by eighty artillery pieces; at the same time Wellington, uniting the brigades of Vivian and Vandeleur to the first of Zieten’s squadrons, two or three thousand cavalry launched themselves onto our line of retreat. At this sight, disorder penetrated our ranks; the devotion of our cavalry was ended, the sense of saving oneself took over. In vain did we make final efforts to hold them together; they descended the slopes of the ridge in disorder, swirled around the squares of the Guard and dispersed under a hail of balls. Dragged along in the flight, I rallied a few of my cuirassiers and followed, with my brother, the debris of the Guard as far as Genappe and Charleroi. There, before my eyes, were re-lived the scenes of Wilna.¹

Maréchal de Camp Tromelin commanded a brigade in Jeanin’s division of Lobau’s VI Corps; he was thus well placed to see how the collapse started on the French right. Having fought stubbornly against the initial Prussian advance, his division had been slowly pushed back to Plancenoit, where it was first reinforced by the Young Guard and then two battalions of the Old. He records:

But towards eight o’clock, decimated by the Prussian attacks that were constantly reinforced, turned on our right by Blücher’s cavalry that our squadrons could no longer contain and to our left by the English cavalry launched in pursuit of the army, we sensed that disorder would find its way into the remains of our battalions and the order arrived to abandon Plancenoit in flames and to retire towards the main road.

At the moment when the last brigade of the 1st Division [of VI Corps; Simmer’s] had passed mine, I started my movement; my square, pressed from all sides, broke and retired in disorder. Remaining alone on the ground, I struggled to remount my horse in order to rally my brigade at a wood in the rear of my position. I found it already occupied by the Prussians which forced me to regain the main road with those that I had managed to get together. We rallied some men to the left of a square of the Grenadiers of the Guard, but, having noticed that it began to drift away, I decided to join the main road . . .²

The chaos and panic of the rout is well illustrated by the many first-hand accounts of those who were present. Let us start with Captain Duthilt, who was acting as an aide de camp to Maréchal de Camp Bourgeois who commanded the 2nd Brigade of Quiot’s division in d’Erlon’s I Corps.

Apart from the Old Guard, everyone ran off at once through the caissons, the broken guns and baggage of all kinds. Carried along, numb, they passed over the heaps of dead and trampled the wounded under their feet without hearing their groans and cries of pain; these sad victims of the war were crushed without pity; they died under the wheels of the caissons and guns. The soldiers of all arms fled mixed together and without leaders, and the desperate leaders fled without soldiers; the last pushing the first and the guns, wagons and caissons, closed up one against another without teams, obstructed the road and were delivered up to the greed of the pillagers and blocked the route. Despite the terrible state in which I found myself, on foot, covered in blood and alone, because my general and his second aide de camp were also seriously wounded, I only left the battlefield when all hope was lost.³

Jacques-Francois Martin was a young lieutenant of Swiss origin. He was part of the 45th de ligne who famously lost their eagle at Waterloo as part of Marcognet’s 3rd Division. This division was also part of d’Erlon’s corps.

All yielded before this flood of enemies. No more hope, no more resistance. Our divisions descended the slopes of the valley in disorder. The Prussian cavalry burst on us from every direction. Our soldiers thought they had been betrayed and dispersed. Not a single battalion, a single company of d’Erlon’s corps, remained in order; the whole artillery fell into the hands of the enemy. Everyone fled as quickly and as far as possible; I did the same as everyone else.

The other corps disbanded at the same time; the whole army was seized with panic. It was only a confused mass of infantry, cavalry and cannons, which hurried along mixed up, rolling across the plain like an impetuous torrent, across which the Prussian squadrons charged them and in front of the English battalions which descended from the plateau with cries of victory. Alone, several squares of the Guard, held back at the foot of la Belle Alliance by Napoleon, remained steady as rocks in a furious sea. The tide of fugitives passed between these heroic squares and soon enemies alone surrounded them. Then these living redoubts were demolished by caseshot and their resistance ended with their lives.

Night had come, it was late, the combatants moved off – soon silence reigned . . .

At this funeral hour, I was already far from the Genappe road, where it was difficult to advance, such was the disorder and overcrowding that had assumed terrible proportions. Vehicles of every kind, artillery guns and caissons, still-mounted cavalrymen, attempted to force a passage through this thick mass of fugitives and wounded who were knocked down and crushed in the mud. The cries, the curses, the insults of some, responded to the actions and sabres of the others; there were even shots fired: it was a new battle being fought amongst the unhappy debris of our army. The confusion was continually augmented by the arrival of the last fleeing men and it became extreme at the village of Genappe.

The more senior officers made efforts to hold their men in line or to rally them, but the almost irrational panic that seems to have overcome the troops gave them no chance. Maréchal de Camp Desalles commanded d’Erlon’s artillery at the battle. He had commanded the Grand Battery and thus had already had a pretty disastrous day:

As for me, absolutely alone, I did not even have an orderly; all my staff had fled in the rout. I did not pity myself, for the position I had occupied all day was hardly agreeable. When we started the retreat, along with Count d’Erlon, we made twenty different attempts at different times to form up a weak nucleus of men with which to march.

A useless effort! The terror was such that it was painted on all their faces.

An unrelenting panic gave these unhappy soldiers the legs to flee; they had all lost their heads.

There can be no doubt that many officers tried to rally their men; but all accounts agree on the futility of such attempts. Even non-combatant officers tried to help; Joseph Tyrbas de Chamberet was a médecin ordinaire (a doctor) in Foy’s division and he tells us of his own attempts:

Individual fugitives soon crowded the route, some on foot, others on horseback, some having thrown away their arms to be able to move quicker, others more or less seriously wounded, others safe and sound, joined the individual wagons or those led in files at the fast gallop by their terrified drivers. Entire squadrons of cavalry, masses of infantry, entire batteries of artillery, guns and caissons, were leaving the fields onto the road, at great pace, knocking down all before them like an avalanche, wiping out without pity all those who were not nimble enough to get out of the way and crushing, as in a mortar, the bones of the unfortunate wounded who were left scattered on the ground.

After having marched for two or three hours without stopping in this disordered crowd which became more and more compact on the Charleroi road, I found myself before a farm where the II Corps ambulance had been stationed. Bagueris, the senior doctor of this army corps, who was with this ambulance, surprised at this panic and shameful flight, was in the middle of the road, sword in hand, attempting to rally some soldiers and put them in line along the road. He made incredible efforts to hold up the torrent of fugitives. Coming up to me with emotion, he said, ‘Where have you come from? What has caused this panic? What is the cause of this terror?’ I told him of what I had seen. ‘Draw your sword and help me to stop some of these fugitives, to keep together the core I have already formed.’

I did as he said and with my voice and gestures and movements of my sword, I was able, by copying him, to stop several soldiers and put them in two ranks across the road. The avalanche of fugitives grew ever bigger, the weak dam that Bagueris and I had succeeded, after all our efforts, to oppose it with a few hundred soldiers from various regiments, of different arms and under direction of two doctors without authority over them, was soon bypassed on both sides and finally broken. Bagueris, then convinced of the futility of our efforts, invited me to mount his carriage that his servant had been ordered to take to Cambrai. I thanked him for his offer and followed the disordered and terrified column as far as Charleroi.

Reille’s II Corps, being on the French left, were the last to start their retreat. Being isolated from the causes of the rout, their withdrawal began in good order.However, this did not last; Captain Robinaux, a company commander in the 2nd de ligne, wrote:

This [order] did not last long; we received several balls from behind us and the frightened soldiers, looking over their shoulders, saw our Polish lancers, whom they took for English cavalry [most of the French Guard lancers were dressed in red], shouted, ‘We are lost!’ This call was repeated throughout the column and soon we were in complete disorder: each thought only of his own salvation. It is impossible to rally such lost soldiers.

General Foy commanded the 9th Division in Reille’s corps; he summed up the situation in just a single sentence, ‘In a few instants, our magnificent army was nothing more than a mass formed of fugitives.’⁸ The rather lavishly named Chef d’Escadron Marie-Jean-Baptiste Lemonnier-Delafosse was acting as the chief of staff to General Foy at the battle; the original occupant of this post, Colonel Hudry, had been injured in a fall from his horse. Lemonnier-Delafosse gives us a longer account of the rout of his division and some of his subsequent adventures:

It is said there were shouts of ‘Sauve qui peut!’ [Save yourselves!] I can assure you that I did not hear them, although I was in the middle of the fugitives. In fact, it was to the contrary, their silence was complete, although it added to the ills; I would have preferred shouts to give life to these masses. Never had the French army been more thoroughly beaten than on this day; it was marked by prodigies of valour and without the night, the soldiers, seeing the Emperor, would have rallied. What men! How many were like the one I found sitting at the moment that we tried to rally them: he was a grenadier, to whom I made an appeal, reproaching him in his rest; black with powder, covered in mud, legs stretched out, exhausted, soaked with sweat, but holding his musket; he was a statue. Encouraged to re-join his comrades, he showed me his weapon and his hands, saying to me, ‘They have, with this, used more than twenty packets of cartridges, that is more than my part; I have taken those of the dead . . . leave me to die here on the battlefield! I cannot move; it is not courage that I am lacking, it is strength!’ At these words, he spread himself out on the ground saying, ‘It is all over! Poor France!’ I left him, tears running from my eyes . . .

. . . at eight o’clock, the noble remains of the Old Guard were exposed to total destruction, as from moment to moment the road became more crowded and despite the order in which these brave soldiers remained, it took all their efforts to force a path.

Infantry, cavalry, artillery; all marched mixed together, closed up in a mass. The drivers of the artillery train and equipages, to flee quicker, cut the traces of their horses, abandoning vehicles and guns, around which the gunners, those model soldiers, still maintained their post, but the situation ended with them having to leave.

One can imagine 40,000 men on a single road, stationary because of the sheer mass! It was a rock forcing back the current, but which, giving in to its force, finished by giving in to it in masses, throwing each other down, wiping them out in their build-up! No one could take this way without danger; the generals, coming together by the hedge enclosing Hougoumont, went across the fields: General Foy alone remained with his three hundred men gleaned from the battlefield and marched off at their head, leaving me as a lookout. It was only towards nine o’clock that the English cavalry descended from the hill, masking masses of infantry formed in square . . .

Darkness had fallen, no longer required at the post assigned to me by my general, I re-joined him. He kept his handful of men together as best as he could . . .

It was necessary to get off the battlefield without getting mixed up with the fugitives; the general wanted to retreat like a true soldier. Seeing three fires on the horizon, bright as a lighthouse, he asked me where I thought they were. The first was at Genappe, the second at the Bossu wood at Quatre Bras, and the third at Gosselies.

‘Well! We march on the second; no obstacle will stop us; take the head of the column and do not lose sight of this point of direction,’ such was his order.

After all the agitation and incessant noise of a long day of battle, how imposing was the silence of the night! Our march alone troubled it. Exposed to the most cruel reflections, beaten, concerned; no complaint, no word came to interrupt our sad meditations; it seemed as if we were morticians who assisted in the funeral of the glory of la patrie. A handful of men, the remains of a fine division, standing alone after having given death, we needed more on this terrible night, a new courage that inspired the confidence in a good chief. This silence was suddenly broken by a ‘Qui vive?’

- ‘France!’

- ‘Kellerman!’

- ‘Foy!’

- ‘It is you general, dismount.’

We were on a hill at the foot of which was a hamlet; remaining at the head of our column, my general called for me and said, ‘Kellerman knows this area, his cavalry passed through here in daylight, we will follow him.’

During this conference, we left the hamlet with Kellerman and his officers. The direction we took was towards the first fire; that of Genappe, it led us to the main road, which, with reason, the general had wanted to avoid; a gallop there convinced me. It was then that I got an idea of the disorder of a routing army; what a hideous sight! The torrent, descending from the hills, breaking down and dragging along all temporary obstacles, has as a low point this heap of men and horses; vehicles rolling over each other, building up against the lightest obstacle to form a mass that breaks open all in its way and hard luck to any that fell in this maelstrom, they were destroyed, lost! I returned to paint this picture for my general, who left Kellerman and retook our original direction.

Crossing the ground in a direct line through woods and across fields, we arrived behind the Bossu wood, where our battalion halted. ‘Go,’ the general said, ‘to the Quatre Bras farm, say that I am here; the Emperor or Soult should be there; ask for orders and remember that I wait for you and the fate of these men is in your hands.’

The farm was situated on the other side of the main road, still obstructed by those fleeing. I was dragged along by this current of men despite my horse, and took a quarter of an hour to cross. Finally, I entered the farm; General Lobau occupied it with his headquarters; his VI Corps was camped around it and all were resting. I asked for the chief of staff; he slept! I saw horses without their saddles, thrown around as if in garrison . . . [Lobau was actually captured by the Prussians before he reached Quatre Bras, but Lemonnier-Delafosse may well have got his farms mixed up.]

What to do? Follow the crowd? The general did not want to do this. Five officers remained with him; wounded for five hours without being bandaged he suffered much, but his physical courage was not beaten, but his low morale was inevitable in the present situation; the circumstances of this disaster put him in an unenviable situation. Paralleling the road . . . we came across a track which we took; the moon came up and its light revealed a terrible tableau to our eyes! A corporal and four cavalrymen that we met and were still in order became our escort. In our march I noticed that the noise was disappearing, we moved away from the road and the moon, more to my left, made me sure. I informed the general; but absorbed in his thoughts, he did not reply. Arriving at a windmill, we tried to get some information; but they would not open up and we continued on our night march. Finally, entering a village, all the doors were refused to us and threats had to be used to get one open. The poor owner, more dead than alive, in a cotton shirt and hat, received us as enemies. Before asking where we were, the words ‘to eat’ were pronounced. Bread, butter and beer were all that appeared before us after an empty stomach for twenty-four hours.

Many accounts, like this one of Lemonnier-Delafosse, mention how the darkness augmented the disorder and it may well have been this that mitigated against the efforts to rally the troops; it is almost certain that darkness made the confusion and dissolution even greater. In daylight, it might have been possible for Napoleon to form a viable rearguard and co-ordinate an organized retreat instead of flight, but darkness had made his personal intervention impossible. Under the cover of night, anyone who could move could save himself.

Clausewitz, the famous Prussian military philosopher, wrote a critical essay on the campaign in which he served as the chief of staff to General Thielemann, commander of the Prussian III Corps. In this essay, considering the state of the French army at the end of the battle, he wrote:

When the defeated army is no longer capable of forming a rearguard in order to slow down and control the victorious pursuer, then the retreat is really a flight; everything is in dissolution and the army, for the time being, must be considered destroyed. Such success must always result when the individual who has seen the tide of victory turning against him, tries to force a turnaround with a final sacrifice, thus using up the reserve that could have formed a rearguard. This is what Napoleon did with the last battalions of the Old Guard. The extent to which an army can rally following such a total dissolution naturally varies greatly according to the circumstances. The time of day that a battle ends, the area and terrain where it is fought, the morale of the army, the political situation of the people and the government – these things all play a role.¹⁰

Clausewitz highlights a number of factors that will have an impact on the morale of the soldier and his possibly subconscious decision to flee. Whilst the break-up of the French army after a single battle was unprecedented, certainly under Napoleon’s personal command, so were the political situation of France and the make-up of his army. The latter point needs no explanation for those who have read my book, Waterloo, the French Perspective, which explores the character of the Armée du Nord in some detail.

Adjutant-Commandant Trefcon served as the chief of staff of Bachelu’s 5th Division in II Corps. His division had taken no part in the attacks against Hougoumont and had stood idle until Marshal Ney ordered it to make an ill-conceived and poorly-supported attack on the British ridge after the great cavalry charges had been repulsed. Wounded and alone, he wisely chose to take a different route to the flood of fugitives that were already leaving the battlefield:

I received two heavy bruises to my chest and I had my horse killed underneath me by caseshot. In my fall I fell on my left wrist.

The violence of the shock and the pain that I suffered made me lose consciousness . . . The state I was in did not allow me to continue the fight. I moved to the rear . . .

Not finding the ambulances, we continued our way in the direction of Genappe. The road was already full of fugitives of all arms and of all ranks who shouted, ‘We are betrayed! Save yourselves!’ and knocked over all in their way.

The disorder was at its height. It surpassed in horror that which I had seen on the retreat from Russia and from Leipzig.

Surrounded by this mass of men, having lost my companion in misfortune and above all, weakened by my bruises, I would certainly have perished if the idea had not occurred to me to get off this road and get into the countryside.

I preferred to be taken than to die so miserably.

My idea was crowned with success I had soon caught an escaped horse and reached the Nivelles road across the fields. This route was much less crowded than that to Charleroi. I joined a small group of general and superior officers who, wounded, had left the battlefield and searched to put themselves beyond the enemy’s pursuit.

The night was dark and we were pushed along irresistibly by the crowd of fugitives. It was necessary to concentrate and not be thrown under your horse, also to distance ourselves from these unfortunates, continuing our way as long as our mounts were able to manage it.¹¹

The truth is, however, that the majority of the fugitives automatically took the road that they knew, the one they had used in their approach to the battlefield the day before; this was the main road from Charleroi to Brussels, which passed through the small town of Genappe. This road was soon crowded with fugitives.

Chef de Bataillon Jolyet commanded a battalion of the 1st lèger in Prince Jérôme’s division of II Corps. His battalion had been involved in the fight for Hougoumont on the French left and had suffered heavy casualties. He had been wounded in the groin at the end of the battle and fallen from his horse, but two of his chasseurs had carried him unconscious to the rear of the battlefield where he came round. He later wrote:

Arriving close to the main road I saw that our troops were fleeing on all sides; but I continued to march despite my wound, hoping that this disorder would cease at the first favourable position. Alas! The more I marched the more I could see the rout was getting worse.¹²

Chef d’Escadron Dupuy served in the 7th Hussars under the command of the famous Colonel Marbot. During the battle, he had been despatched to the right flank to try to establish contact with Marshal Grouchy. Thus detached away from the battlefield, he was initially unaware of the disaster unfolding to his rear:

Until then, we thought the battle was won at other points of the line; but when, arriving on the main road, we saw it crowded with fugitives, we were disabused. We tried at first to rally them, but this was impossible. It was necessary for us to retreat also, but at least we did this in order, marching several hundred paces from the side of the road until night and the difficulties of our route forced us to get back onto it and to march all mixed up with the fugitives of the army. Our defeat was calculated in advance, caissons unharnessed, whose drawbars were all mixed up together, having been placed here and there across the main road to hamper our march and to stop our materiel and our baggage. Because of the large ditches that bordered it, it was often necessary for some men to dismount to break down the slope and thus provide a passage.¹³

In this account, Dupuy alludes to a theme that is common in French accounts of the rout; treason. Accusations of treason are routinely rolled out in eyewitness accounts in an effort to explain the disastrous defeat the French suffered in this campaign, particularly by those in the more junior ranks against those above them, but also against royalist sympathisers within the army. We will return to this shortly.

Not everyone writes of the appalling tragedy that surrounded them at this time. Pharmacien aide-major Fée speaks of his own good fortune:

[Leaving Larry’s makeshift hospital . . . ] I found myself surrounded by a multitude; officers, soldiers, cavalrymen and infantrymen, marching without order and in silence. Happily the night partly hid from my sad gaze this painful and humiliating spectacle. The night was raw and I suffered from cold, having only a small and very light morning coat and nankeen trousers. In the middle of this disaster, a happy circumstance came to my aid. I marched side by side with an infantry soldier mounted on a horse that I later learnt had belonged to an English lancer [sic]. The soldier was not wounded and he was still armed. I proposed to him to buy his mount; but he replied that he was looking after it for his captain. Whilst praising him for his good intentions, I tried to convince him that in the middle of this chaos it would be impossible to fulfil these good intentions, adding that the first wounded officer would force him to dismount and give up his horse. Having reflected on this, he found my reasoning fair and asked me what I could offer him to give up his prize. ‘All that I have’, I said to him, and gave him my purse, which he found very light, which was indeed the case. He opened it, and taking sixty francs in gold and, although he could have kept the rest, and even the purse, he contented himself with the gold and gave me back the rest; leaving me with a magnificent beast, which was very tall, with a portmanteau and all the equipment of a cavalryman on campaign; oats bag, lunch bag with a small piece of beef and a quarter of ration bread which both disappeared to feed my hunger.

It is easy to comprehend how this acquisition eased my situation. When night came I looked in the portmanteau in which I found some nearly new trousers of iron grey with a broad red stripe; I put them on without being awkward and they seemed to have been made for me. I immediately felt some shelter from the cold and calmer about the future.

The sound of cannon was heard until late. A league from Waterloo, a cordon of gendarmes of the Guard attempted to rally the debris of the army. Orderly officers shouted, ‘Stop! Why are you running? The emperor has retaken position; the enemy is beaten.’ The cannonade, which seemed to get ever closer, belied these words and the retreat continued.¹⁴

Whilst the junior battalions of the Guard had been savaged in their attack on the ridge and the subsequent charges of Vandeleur’s and Vivian’s light cavalry brigades, a number of the more senior battalions had been held back to support that attack and, further back still, to provide a final reserve. Only five battalions had been committed to that attack and one more (the 2/3rd Grenadiers) had been swept away in the subsequent Allied counter-attack. Captain Prax had taken part in the final attack with the 3rd Chasseurs and describes what happened as the attack failed:

. . . the centre appeared to be in rout; mounted officers went to the front of the fleeing columns to try and stop them; confusion was everywhere and their attempts were useless. We thus found ourselves surrounded; night was coming, we followed the torrent. Alas! Alas!¹⁵

The 1/2nd and 2/2nd Chasseurs and the 1/2nd Grenadiers had formed in square on the slopes below La Belle Alliance ready to support the attack or to provide a firm base behind which the attacking battalions could rally in the event of a check. Napoleon himself had been forward of these three battalions when the attack went in, but on seeing its failure, he fell back to them. Seeing the general advance of the Anglo-Netherlands troops and realizing these few men would be unable to resist them, he gave the order for them to retire and fell back to the two squares of the 1st Grenadier Regiment that was formed at the junction of the road to Plancenoit with the main road.

General Christiani commanded the 2nd Grenadier Regiment and was present with the first battalion at this moment (his second battalion had been sent to hold the Prussians in Plancenoit). Ordered by Napoleon to withdraw, he describes how even the morale of one of the most senior regiments of the Guard was beginning to crack:

Then I started to retreat with my battalion in square; several balls fell there which caused some confusion in the ranks. The voices of the officers were unfamiliar and arriving in the vicinity of the 1st Regiment of Grenadiers, my soldiers left the ranks and it was impossible to rally them. I rejoined the road before Genappe; General Roguet also came there. We endeavoured to rally as many as possible before night, but we were abandoned. Nevertheless, General Roguet and myself only retreated when we heard the enemy advancing along the road to the sound of a fife. Forced to retire, I lost contact with General Roguet in the crowd and I took a track to the left of Genappe with the intention of reaching Charleroi . . . ¹⁶

The Rout from Waterloo

Maréchal de Camp Pelet commanded the 2nd Chasseur Regiment. His first battalion had also been deployed to Plancenoit to counter the Prussian advance, but his second formed one of the Old Guard squares next to Christiani’s battalion. Pelet described how they suffered a similar fate:

The 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Regiment of Chasseurs, placed by the side of la Belle-Alliance, remained there after the departure of Cambronne [forward to support the attack], until the arrival of night, still having to his right some regiments of cuirassiers and a regiment of chasseurs à cheval. This cavalry moved off, it is said, without orders and without being seriously charged. Commandant Mompez [who commanded the battalion], struck by the crowd of men who were abandoning the battlefield and without cavalry support, started his retreat, moving along the road without being threatened. This battalion, soon reduced to about 30 men, had received the Eagle of the Guard from General Cambronne. Marching always in square, they could not maintain their order for long and ended up dispersing. Soon, all those that remained joined the bloody remains of the 1st Battalion that had evacuated Plancenoit.¹⁷

Only three battalions of the Guard now retained any order; the two battalions of the 1st Grenadier Regiment at Rosomme and the 1/1st Chasseurs, commanded by Chef de Bataillon Duuring, that had been left to guard Imperial Headquarters at Le Caillou, several kilometres behind the front line.

General Petit commanded the 1st Grenadiers and he described the withdrawal of his battalions:

The Emperor retired at the gallop and came back to place himself in the square of the 1/1st Grenadiers. The entire army was in the most terrible disorder, infantry, cavalry, artillery, all fled in haste in all directions. Soon, the only ones that retained any order were the two squares of this regiment placed to the right and left of the main road [not quite true; the 1/1st Chasseurs were still at Le Caillou behind them]. At the Emperor’s order, General Petit, who commanded them, had the grenadiére beaten to rally all the Guardsmen who were swept up in the torrent of fugitives. The enemy followed up closely. To prevent them penetrating into the squares, we were obliged to fire on the fugitives to prevent them throwing the squares into disorder. It was a necessary evil to prevent a greater one.

Night was close. The Emperor himself gave the order to leave their positions which were no longer tenable given that they were outflanked to right and left. The two squares retired in order, the 1st Battalion across the fields, the 2nd on the main road. Halts were regularly made to maintain the faces of the squares and to give time for the skirmishers and stragglers to re-join.

Half a league from Genappe the two squares found themselves together on the main road where they marched in column by sections. In this manner, and whilst still marching, they were joined by those of the other Guard regiments. The enemy followed this movement closely, but without threatening it. It was only when a panic seized the soldiers of the artillery train, who cut the traces of their horses and overturned their guns and caissons and that the way was barred and blocked, then the left of the column was struck by a lively fusillade. The fire caused little harm but it considerably augmented the disorder that was already at its height.

In this state of things it was not possible for what was left of the Guard to pass the town; we succeeded to go by the left of the road and the place. There was no means of maintaining order or of re-establishing it.¹⁸

Although General Petit would probably not have seen them in the dark, his withdrawal was covered to some extent by the Guard cavalry. Both the heavy and light brigades, despite the casualties they had suffered in the earlier cavalry charges, also still retained some order. First, let’s hear from Captain de Brack who belonged to the regiment of Guard lancers, part of the light brigade commanded by General Lefebvre-Desnoëttes:

The order for retreat was given to us. What a dismal retreat! It was a funeral cortege! Our brigade of light cavalry, reduced to two and a half squadrons commanded by Generals Lefebvre-Desnoëttes, Lallemand and Colbert (wounded), retired slowly and in extended line so as to form a curtain which, given our position, hid to some extent the sight of our routing army from the English.

We marched like this until we found the debris of the Old Guard to our left, which, like us, formed the extreme rearguard. It was formed in square on the road and on the southern slopes of a fold in the ground, whose crest served as a parapet against the English balls. It faced to the rear.

We stopped level with it and, like it, we turned about. At that moment we counted only from one hundred to one hundred and fifty officers and men, lancers and chasseurs, overcome by fatigue and sadness, and we were about five hundred paces on the left of the infantry mentioned above, separated from it by a low meadow and some bushes.

The sun had disappeared over the horizon; it was almost midnight.

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