Thursday, June 18, 2009

June 18, 1815

Captain Stanley Jonquil is the hero of my current work in progress. Being something of a stickler for accuracy in historical context, I have spent a great deal of time studying the history of the Peninsular Wars, known also as the Napoleonic Wars. Captain Jonquil has fought at the front lines as an officer with the Light Dragoons. He has seen and experienced the horrors of war but nothing could have prepared him for June 18, 1815.

Today, June 18th, marks the 194th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, which brought to an end more than 2 decades1 of constant warfare on the European Continent. Over 200,000 troops gathered1, facing one another across rain-drenched fields, on the heals of smaller battles at nearby Ligny and Quatre Bras, in what would become the final confrontation of the Napoleonic Wars.

Both sides were commanded by men who could easily be described as military geniuses.

* Napoleon Bonaparte led the French Grande Armée, having escaped exile and returned to France in March of 1815 and rallied his supporters once more to his side. He had, before his previous surrender, gained control of nearly all the Continent in the name of France and fully intended to reclaim what he had lost. He was an expert at combat strategy and a man of tremendous determination.2

* The Duke of Wellington led the Allied army with regiments consisting of British, Austrian, Russian, and Dutch soldiers, among other nationalities, in cooperation with the Prussian army3. He had perfected the art of staging a battle to give his troops the advantage of position and was a true leader of his men, placing himself personally on the battlefield so that he might make immediate and effective decisions.1

Until that wet June day, these two Generals had never met on the field of battle. While Wellington had led the Iberian Peninsular Campaign of 1808-1814 to drive the French occupation troops from Portugal and Spain, Napoleon had been on the eastern front of his own campaign, taking command of the countries he conquered along the way and attempting to seize control of Russia.

Throughout the morning of June 18, 1815, both armies waited as the battle drew nearer. The artillery moved their guns – cannons of varying sizes and power – into position. Troops assumed their formations. Both sides no doubt knew, simply by the shear number of gathered troops, that battle to come would be both epic and deadly.

It was a time of warfare fought hand-to-hand,
man-to-man with the added destruction of the massive artillery. Formations of infantrymen marched at each other, muskets and bayonets at the ready. Mounted cavalry troops charged at full gallop, sabres raised. The air filled quickly with the smoke of cannons firing into the skirmish1,2,3. Again and again the attacks were repeated.

Though the exact time of the battle's beginning that morning is uncertain, the call of retreat among the French troops was sounded around 8 pm, signaling that the 10-12 hours of battle were destined to end in a French defeat.1 Napoleon's vision was not to be achieved and the long held belief in French military indestructibility that had sustained his armies through their entire European campaign was shattered.

Wellington would later refer to the battle as “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.”1

Sergeant-Major Cotton described the aftermath thus: “The field of battle, after the victory, presented a frightful and most distressing spectacle. It appeared as if the whole military world had been collected together, and that something beyond human strength and ingenuity had been employed to cause its destruction.”1

Ensign Gronow wrote the following: “I am to this day astonished that any of us remained alive.”1

The morning following that epic battle, over 40,000 dead and wounded men remained scattered where they had fallen, on a portion of the battlefield only a mile square3. Andrew Roberts wrote, “Nearly 71,000 men were killed or wounded in the battle of Waterloo and its immediate aftermath, to which horrific toll must be added 2,600 casualties in frontier clashes on 15 June, the 32,500 at Ligny, 8,800 at Quatre Bras, 400 on the retreat from Quatre Bras and 5,000 at Wavre – making a total of 120,300.”1

120,000 casualties over the course of a mere 72-hours, 70,000 of those in a single day of horrific warfare.

The devastation of that day was apparent to the Duke of Wellington, who later remarked, "Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle won."1

No man who survived Waterloo would emerge unscathed. Beyond losses of limbs and other debilitating injuries, the survivors were known to suffer recurrent and sometimes lifelong nightmares.3 Many were unwilling or unable to speak of their experiences.3

Today, 194 years later, the accounts of that battle remind us of the terrible cost of war and the importance of peace.

1Roberts, Andrew. Waterloo: June 18, 1815 The Battle for Modern Europe. 2005

2Fuller, JFC. A Military History of the Western World, Volume II. 1955

3Keegan, John. The Illustrated Face of Battle. 1988
I can't get this to work, so just pretend it isn't there.-->


Annette Lyon said...

I never knew all that about Waterloo--wow. That's amazing and horrifying and all kinds of things wrapped up into one.

Thanks for the education.

Rachel Rossano said...

Horrifying. It was amazing that Europe wasn't completely crippled by the generation of wounded (physically and spiritually)veterans. The human spirit is amazing in the abuse it can take and continue to fight on.


Search This Blog