retreat to waterloo

by Cavalié Mercer

My situation now appeared somewhat awkward; left without orders and entirely alone on the brow of our position-the hussar pickets galloping in and hurrying past as fast as they could- the whole French army advancing, and already at no great distance.
In this dilemma, I determined to retire across the little dip that separated me from Sir 0.Vandeleur, and take up a position in front of our hussar squadrons, whence, after giving a round to the French, advance as soon as they stood on our present ground, I thought I could retire in sufficient time through his intervals to leave the ground clear for him to charge.
This movement was immediately executed; but the guns were scarcely unlimbered ere Sir Ormsby came furiously up, exclaiming, ‘What are you doing here, sir? You encumber my front, and we shall not be able to charge. Take your guns away, sir; instantly, I say-take them away! ’
It was in vain that I endeavoured to explain my intentions, and that our fire would allow his charge to be made with more effect.
‘ No, no; take them out of my way, sir!’ was all the answer I could get; and accordingly, I was preparing to obey, when up came Lord Uxbridge, and the scene changed in a twinkling.
‘ Captain Mercer, are you loaded ? ’
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘Then give them a round as they rise the hill, and retire as quickly as possible. Light dragoons, threes right; at a trot, march!’ and then some orders to Sir Ormsby, of whom I saw no more that day.
‘They are just coming up the hill,’ said Lord Uxbridge. ‘let them get well up before you fire. Do you think you can retire quick enough afterwards ?’
‘ I am sure of it, my lord.’
‘Very well, then, keep a good lookout, and point your guns well.’

I had often longed to see Napoleon, that mighty man of war - that astonishing genius who had filled the world with his renown. Now I saw him, and there was a degree of sublimity in the interview rarely equalled. The sky had become overcast since the morning, and at this moment presented a most extraordinary appearance. Large isolated masses of thundercloud, of the deepest, almost inky black, their lower edges hard and strongly defined, lagging down, as if momentarily about to burst, hung suspended over us, involving our position and everything on it in deep and gloomy obscurity; whilst the distant hill lately occupied by the French army still lay bathed in brilliant sunshine.
Lord Uxbridge was yet speaking when a single horseman, immediately followed by several others, mounted the plateau I had left at a gallop, their dark figures thrown forward in strong relief from the illuminated distance, making them appear much nearer to us than they really were.
For an instant they pulled up and regarded us, when several squadrons coming rapidly on the plateau, Lord Uxbridge cried out, ‘Fire!-fire!’ and giving them a general discharge limbered up to retire, as they dashed forward supported by some horse artillery guns, which opened upon us ere we could complete the manoeuver, but without much effect, for the only one touched was the servant of Major Whinyates, who was wounded in the leg by the splinter of a howitzer shell.
It was now for the first time that I discovered the major and his rocket-troop, who, annoyed at my having the rear, had disobeyed the order to retreat, and remained somewhere in the neighbourhood until this moment, hoping to share whatever might be going on.
The first gun that was fired seemed to burst the clouds overhead, for its report was instantly followed by an awful clap of thunder, and lightning that almost blinded us, whilst the rain came down as if a waterspout had broken over us. The sublimity of the scene was inconceivable. Flash succeeded flash, and the peals of thunder were long and tremendous; whilst, as if in mockery of the elements, the French guns still sent forth their feebler glare and now scarcely audible reports-their cavalry dashing on at a headlong pace, adding their shouts to the uproar.
We galloped for our lives through the storm, striving to gain the enclosures about the houses of the hamlets, Lord Uxbridge urging us on, crying, ‘Make haste!-make haste! for god’s sake, gallop, or you will be taken!’
We did make haste and succeeded in getting amongst the houses and gardens, but with the French advance close on our heels. Here, however, observing the chaussee full of hussars, they pulled up. Had they continued their charge we were gone, for these hussars were scattered about the road in the utmost confusion, some in little squads, others singly, and, moreover, so crowded together that we had no room whatever to act with any effect-either they or us.
Meantime the enemy’s detachments began to envelop the gardens, which Lord Uxbridge observing, called to me, ‘Here, follow me with two of your guns,’ and immediately himself led the way into one of the narrow lanes between the gardens. What he intended doing, God knows, but I obeyed.
The lane was very little broader than our carriages -there was not room for a horse to have passed them! The distance from the chaussee to the end of the lane, where it debouched on the open fields, could scarcely have been above one or two hundred yards at most.
His lordship and I were in front, the guns and mounted detachments following. What he intended to do I was at a loss to conceive; we could hardly come to action in the lane ; to enter on the open was certain destruction.
Thus we had arrived at about fifty yards from its termination when a body of chasseurs or hussars appeared there as if waiting for us. These we might have seen from the first, for nothing but a few elder bushes intercepted the view from the chaussee.
The whole transaction appears to me so wild and confused that at times I can hardly believe it to have been more than a confused dream- yet true it was- the general-in-chief of the cavalry exposing himself amongst the skirmishers of his rearguard, literally doing the duty of a cornet!
‘By God ! we are all prisoners’ (or some such words), exclaimed Lord Uxbridge, dashing his horse at one of the garden-banks, which he cleared, and away he went, leaving us to get out of the scrape as best we could.
There was no time for hesitation-one manoeuvre alone could extricate us if allowed time, and it I ordered.
‘Reverse by unlimbering’ was the order. To do this the gun was to be unlimbered then turned round, and one wheel run up the bank, which just left space for the limber to pass it. The gun is then limbered up again and ready to move to the rear. The execution, however, was not easy, for the very reversing of the limber itself in so narrow a lane, with a team of eight horses, was sufficiently difficult, and required first-rate driving.
Nothing could exceed the coolness and activity of our men; the thing was done quickly and well, and we returned to the chaussee without let or hindrance. How we were permitted to do so, I am at a loss to imagine; for although I gave the order to reverse, I certainly never expected to have seen it executed.
Meantime my own situation was anything but a pleasant one, as I sat with my back to the gentlemen at the end of the lane, whose interference I momentarily expected, casting an eye from time to time over my shoulder to ascertain whether they still kept their position. There they sat motionless, and although thankful for their inactivity, I could not but wonder at their stupidity. It seemed, however, all of a piece that day-all blunder and confusion; and this last I found pretty considerable on regaining the chausee.
His Lordship we found collecting the scattered hussars together into a squadron for our rescue, for which purpose it was he had so unceremoniously left us. Heavy as the rain was and thick the weather, yet the French could not but have seen the confusion we were in, as they had closed up to the entrance of the enclosure and yet they did not at once take advantage of it.
Things could not remain long in this state. A heavy column of cavalry approached us by the chaussee, whilst another skirting the enclosures, appeared pushing forward to cut us off. Retreat now became imperative. The order was given and away we went, guns, gun-detachments, and hussars all mixed pele mele and going like mad, and covering each other with mud to be washed off by the rain, which, before sufficiently heavy, now came down again as it had done at first, in splashes instead of drops, soaking us anew to the skin, and, what was worse, extinguishing every slow match in the brigade.
The obscurity caused by the splashing of the rain was such, that at one period I could not distinguish objects more than a few yards distant. Of course we lost sight of our pursuers altogether, and the shouts and halloos, and even laughter, they had at first sent forth were either silenced or drowned in the uproar of the elements and the noise of our too rapid retreat; for in addition to everything else the crashing and rattling of the thunder were most awful, and the glare of the lightning blinding. In this state we gained the bridge of Genappe at the moment when the thunder-cloud, having passed over, left us in comparative fine weather, although still raining heavily.
For the last mile or so we had neither seen nor heard anything of our lively French friends, and now silently wound our way up the deserted street, nothing disturbing its death-like stillness save the iron sound of horses’ feet, the rumbling of the carriages, and the splashing of water as it fell from the eaves- all this was stillness compared with the hurly-burly and din from which we had just emerged.
On ground beyond the town, we suddenly came in sight of the main body of our cavalry drawn up across the chaussee in two lines, and extending away far to the right and left of it. It would have been an imposing spectacle at any time, but just now appeared to me magnificent, and I hailed it with complacency, for here I thought our fox-chase must end. ‘Those superb Life Guards and Blues will soon teach our pursuers a little modesty.’
Such fellows !-surely nothing can withstand them. Scarcely had these thoughts passed through my mind ere an order from his lordship recalled us to the rear. The enemy’s horse artillery, having taken up a position in the meadows near the bridge, were annoying our dragoons as they debouched from the town. The ground was heavy from the rain, and very steep, so that it was only by great exertion that we succeeded at last in getting our guns into the adjoining field.
The moment we appeared the French battery bestowed on us its undivided attention, which we quickly acknowledged by an uncommonly well-directed fire of spherical case. Whilst so employed, Major McDonald came up and put me through a regular catechism as to length of fuse, whether out of bag A or B, &c., &c.
Although much vexed at such a schooling just now, yet the major appeared so seriously in earnest that I could not but be amused; however, to convince him that we knew what we were about, I directed his attention to our excellent practice, so superior to that of our antagonist, who was sending all his shot far over our heads. The French seemed pretty well convinced of this too, for after standing a few rounds they quitted the field, and left us again without occupation. The major vanishing at the same time, I sent my guns, &c., to the rear, and set off to join Lord Uxbridge, who was still fighting in the street.
Our ammunition was expended the waggons having been taken away by Sir Augustus Frazer at Quatre Bras. On regaining my troop I found Major McDonald and the rockets with it. They were in position on a gentle elevation, on which likewise were formed the lines of cavalry stretching across the chaussee.
Immediately on our left, encased in the hollow road, the Blues were formed in close column of half-squadrons, and it was not long ere Lord Uxbridge, with those he had retained at Genappe, came sweeping over the hill and joined us. they were closely-followed by the French light cavalry, who, descending into the hollow, commenced a sharp skirmish with our advance-posts.
Soon squadron after squadron appeared on the hill we had passed, and took up their positions, forming a long line parallel to ours, whilst a battery of horse artillery, forming across the chaussee, just on the brow of the declivity, opened its fire on us, though without much effect. To this we responded, though very slowly, having no more ammunition than what remained in our limbers.
In order to amuse the enemy and our own cavalry, as well as to prevent the former noticing the slackness of our fire, I proposed to Major McDonald making use of the rockets, which had hitherto done nothing.
There was a little hesitation about this, and one of the officers (Strangways) whispered me, ‘No, no- it.’s too far!’
This I immediately told the major proposing as a remedy that they should go closer. Still there was demur; but at last my proposition was agreed to, and down they marched into the thick of the skirmishers in the bottom. Of course, having proposed the measure myself, I could do no less than accompany them.
Whilst they prepared their machinery, I had time to notice what was going on to the right and left of us. Two double lines of skirmishers extended all along the bottom- the foremost of each line were within a few yards of each other-constantly in motion, riding backwards and forwards, firing their carbines or pistols, and then reloading, still on the move.
This fire seemed to me more dangerous for those on the hills above than for us below; for all, both French and English, generally stuck out their carbines or pistols as they continued to move backwards and forwards, and discharged them without taking any particular aim, and mostly in the air. I did not see a man fall on either side. The thing appeared quite ridiculous, and but for hearing the bullets whizzing overhead, one might have fancied it no more than a sham-fight.
Meanwhile the rocketeers had placed a little iron triangle in the road with a rocket lying on it. The order to fire is given, portfire applied; the fidgety missile begins to sputter out sparks and wriggle its tail for a second or so, and then darts forth straight up the chaussee. A gun stands right in its way, between the wheels of which the shell in the head of the rocket bursts; the gunners fall right and left; and those of the other guns, taking to their heels, the battery is deserted in an instant. Strange; but so it was. I saw them run, and for some minutes afterwards I saw the guns standing mute and unmanned, whilst our rocketeers kept shooting off rockets, none of which ever followed the course of the first; most of them, on arriving about the middle of the ascent, took a vertical direction, whilst some actually turned back upon ourselves; and one of these, following me like a squib until its shell exploded, actually put me in more danger than all the fire of the enemy throughout the day.
Meanwhile the French artillery men, seeing how the land lay, returned to their guns and opened a fire of case-shot on us, but without effect , for we retreated to our ridge without the loss of a man, or even any wounded, though the range could not have been above 200 yards.