Charles James Lever.

Charles O'Malley, the Irish dragon online

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The aide-de-camp was gone ; Napoleon's eye followed him as he
crossed the open plain, and was lost in the dense ranks of the dark
columns. Scarcely five minutes elapsed when eighty guns thundered
out together, and, as the earth shook and trembled beneath, the
mighty movement of the day began its execution. From Hougou-
mont, where the slaughter and the carnage continued unslackened
and unstayed, every eye was now turned towards the right. I knew
not what troops occupied La Haye Sainte, or whether they were
British who crowned the heights above it; but in my heart how
fervently did I pray that they might be so. Oh ! in that moment
of suspense and agonizing doubt, what would I not have given to
know that Picton himself and the fighting 5th were there; that be-
hind the ridge the Greys, the Royals, and the Enniskilleners sat
motionless, but burning to advance ; and the breath of battle waved
among the tartans of the Highlanders, and blew upon the flashing
features of my own island countrymen. Had I known this, I could
have marked the onset with a less failing spirit.

" There goes Marcognet's division," said my companion, springing
to his legs ; "they're moving to the right of the road. I should like
to see the troops that will stand before them."


So saying, he mounted his horse, and, desiring me to accompany
him, rode to the height beside La Belle Alliance. The battle was
now raging from the Chateau de Hougoumout to St. Lambert, where
the Prussian tirailleurs, as they issued from the wood, were skirmish-
ing with the advance posts of Lobau's brigade. The attack upon
the centre, however, engrossed all my attention, and I watched the
dark columns as they descended into the plain, while the incessant
roll of the artillery played about them. To the right of Ney's at-
tack, D'Erlon advanced with three divisions, and the artillery of
the Guard. Towards this part of the field my companions moved.
General Le Vasseur desired to know if the division on the Brussels
road were English or Hanoverian troops, and I was sent for to
answer the question. We passed from square to square until at
length we found ourselves upon the flank of D'Erlon's division.
Le Vasseur, who at the head of his cuirassiers waited but the order
to charge, waved impatiently with his sword for us to approach.
We were now to the right of the high road, and about four hundred
yards from the crest of the hill where, protected by a slight edge,
Picton with Kempt's brigade waited the attack of the enemy.

Just at this moment an incident took place which, while in itself
one of the most brilliant achievements of the day, changed in a
signal manner my own fortunes. The head of D'Erlon's column
pressed with fixed bayonets up the gentle slope. Already the Bel-
gian infantry give way before them. The brave Brunswickers, over-
whelmed by the heavy cavalry of France, at first began to waver;
then are broken ; and at last retreat in disorder up the road, a whirl-
wind of pursuing squadrons thundering behind them. "En avant!
en avant I la vicloire est d nous," isr shouted madly through the impa-
tient ranks ; and the artillery is called up to play upon the British
squares, upon which, fixed and immovable, the cuirassiers have
charged without success. Like a thunderbolt, the flying artillery
dashes to the front ; but scarcely has it reached the bottom of the
ascent, when, from the deep ground, the guns become embedded in
the soil : the wheels refuse to move. In vain the artillery drivers
whip and spur their laboring cattle. Impatiently the leading files
of the column prick with their bayonets the struggling horses. The
hesitation is fatal ; for Wellington, who, with eagle glance, watches
from an eminence beside the high road the advancing column, sees
the accident. An order is given; and, with one fell swoop, the
heavy cavalry brigade pour down. Picton's division deploys into
line; the bayonets glance above the ridge; and with a shout that
tells above the battle, on they come, the fighting 5th. One volley
is exchanged ; but the bayonet is now brought to the charge, and
the French division retreat in close column, pursued by their gal-


lant enemy. Scarcely had the leading divisions fallen back, and
the rear been pressed down upon, or thrown into disorder, than the
cavalry trumpets sound a charge. The bright helmets of the Ennis-
killeners come flashing in the sunbeams, and the Scotch Greys, like
a white-crested wave, are rolling upon the foe. Marcognet's division
is surrounded ; the dragoons ride them down on every side ; the guns
are captured ; the drivers cut down, and two thousand prisoners are
carried off. A sudden panic seems to seize upon the French, as
cavalry, infantry, and artillery are hurried back on each other.
Vainly the French attempt to rally: the untiring enemy press
madly on ; the household brigade, led on by Lord Uxbridge, came
thundering down the road, riding down with their gigantic force
the mailed cuirassiers of France. Borne along with the retreating
torrents, I was carried on amidst the densely commingled mass.
The British cavalry, which, like the lightnings that sever the thun-
der-cloud, pierce through in every direction, plunge madly upon us.
The roar of battle grew louder, as hand to hand they fought. Mil-
haud's heavy dragoons, with the 4th Lancers, came up at a gallop.
Picton pressed forward, waving his plumed hat above his head ; his
proud eye flashes with the fire of victory. That moment is his last.
Struck in the forehead by a musket-ball, he falls dead from the
saddle ; and the wild yell of the Irish regiments, as they ring his
death-cry, are the last sounds which he hears. Meanwhile, the Life
Guards are among us; prisoners of rank are captured on every
side; and I, seizing the moment, throw myself among the ranks
of my countrymen, and am borne to the rear with the retiring

As we reached the crest of the hill above the road, a loud cheer
in the valley beneath us burst forth, and from the midst of the dense
smoke a bright and pointed flame shot up towards the sky. It was
the farm-house La Haye Sainte, which the French had succeeded
in setting fire to with hot shot. For some time past the ammunition
of the corps that held it had failed, and a dropping, irregular mus-
ketry was the only reply to the incessant rattle of the enemy. As
the smoke cleared away, we discovered that the French had carried
the position ; and as no quarter was given in that deadly hand-to-
hand conflict, not one returned to our ranks to tell the tale of their

" This is the officer that I spoke of," said an aide-de-camp, as he
rode up to where I was standing, bare-headed and without a sword.
" He has just made his escape from the French lines, and will be
able to give your lordship some information."

The handsome features and gorgeous costume of Lord Uxbridge
were known to me; but I was not aware, till afterwards, that a


soldier-like, resolute-looking officer beside him was General Gra-
ham. It was the latter who first addressed me.

"Are you aware, sir," said he, "if Grouchy's force is arrived?"

"They had not; on the contrary, shortly before I escaped, an
aide-de-camp was despatched to Gembloux to hasten his coming.
And the troops, for they must be troops, were debouching from the
wood yonder. They seem to form a junction with the corps to the
right; they are the Prussians. They arrived there before noon from
St. Lambert, and are part of Bulow's corps. Count Lobau and his
division of ten thousand men were despatched, about an hour since,
to hold them in check."

" This is great news," said Lord Uxbridge. " Fitzroy must know
it at once*"

So saying, he dashed spurs into his horse, and soon disappeared
amid the crowd on the hilltop.

" You had better see the Duke immediately, sir," said Grahant.
" Your information is too important, to be delayed. Captain Cal-
vert, let this officer have a horse ; his own is too tired to go much

" And a cap, I beg of you," added I, in an undertone, " for I have
already found a sabre."

By a slightly circuitous route we reached the road, upon which a
mass of dismounted artillery-carts, baggage-wagons and tumbrils
were heaped together as a barricade against the attack of the French
dragoons, who more than once had penetrated to the very crest of
our position. Close to this, and on a little rising ground, from
which a view of the entire field extended, from Hougoumont to the
far left, the Duke of Wellington stood, surrounded by his staff. His
eye was bent upon the valley before him, where the advancing col-
umns of Ney's attack still pressed onwards, while the fire of sixty
great guns poured death and carnage into his lines. The second
Belgian division, routed and broken, had fallen back upon the 27th
regiment, who had merely time to throw themselves into square,
when Milhaud's cuirassiers, armed with their terrible long, straight
swords, came sweeping down upon them. A line of impassable
bayonets, a living chevaux-de-frise, of the best blood of Britain, stood
firm and motionless before the shock. The French miiraille played
mercilessly on the ranks, but the chasms were filled up like magic,
and in vain the bold horsemen of Gaul galloped round the bristling
files. At length the word " Fire !" was heard within the square, and
as the bullets at pistol-range rattled upon them, the cuirass afforded
them no defence against the deadly volley. Men and horses rolled
indiscriminately upon the earth. Then would come a charge of our
dashing squadrons, who, riding recklessly upon the foe, were in their


turn to be repulsed by numbers, and fresh attacks poured down
upon our unshaken infantry.

" That column yonder is wavering. Why does he not bring up his
supporting squadrons ?" inquired the Duke, pointing to a Belgian
regiment of light dragoons, who were formed in the same brigade
with the 7th Hussars.

" He refuses to oppose his light cavalry to cuirassiers, my lord,"
said an aide-de-camp, who had just returned from the division in

"Tell him to march his men off the ground," said the Duke,
with a quiet and. impassive tone.

In less than ten minutes the " Belgian regiment" was seen to de-
file from the mass, and take the road to Brussels, to increase the panic
of that city, by circulating and strengthening the report that the
English were beaten, and Napoleon in full march upon the capital.

" What's Ney's force ? can you guess, sir ?" said the Duke of Wel-
lington, turning to me.

" About twelve thousand men, my lord."

"Are the Guard among them?"

" No, sir ; the Guard are in reserve above La Belle Alliance."

"In what part of the field is Bonaparte?"

" Nearly opposite to where we stand."

" I told you, gentlemen, Hougoumont never was the great attack.
The battle must be decided here," pointing, as he spoke, to the plain
beneath us, where Ney still poured in his devoted columns, where
yet the French cavalry rode down upon our firm squares.

As he spoke, an aide-de-camp rode up from the valley.

" The 92d requires support, my lord. They cannot maintain their
position half an hour longer without it."

" Have they given way, sir ?"

"No "

"Well, then, they must stand where they are. I hear cannon
towards the left — yonder, near Frischermont."

At this moment the light cavalry swept past the base of the hill
on which we stood, hotly followed by the French heavy cuirassier
brigade. Three of our guns were taken ; and the cheering of the
French infantry, as they advanced to the charge, presaged their
hope of victory.

" Do it, then," said the Duke, in reply to some whispered question
of Lord Uxbridge, and shortly after the heavy trot of advancing
squadrons was heard behind.

They were the Life Guards and the Blues, who, with the 1st
Dragoon Guards and the Enniskilleners, were formed into close


" I know the ground, my lord," said I to Lord Uxbridge.

" Come along, sir, come along," said he, and he threw his hussar
jacket loosely behind him, to give freedom to his sword-arm. "For-
ward, my men, forward! but steady; hold your horses in hand.
Threes about, and together — charge!"

" Charge !" he shouted. As the word flew from squadron to
squadron, each horseman bent upon his saddle, and that mighty
mass, as though instinct with one spirit, dashed like a thunderbolt
upon the column beneath them. The French, blown and exhausted,
inferior besides in weight, both of man and horse, offered but a
short resistance. As the tall corn bends beneath the sweeping
hurricane, wave succeeding wave, so did the steel-clad squadrons
of France fall before the nervous arm of Britain's cavalry. Onward
they went, carrying death and ruin before them, and never stayed
their course until the guns were recaptured, and the cuirassiers,
repulsed, disordered, and broken, had retired beneath the protection
of their artillery.

There was, as a brilliant and eloquent writer on the subject men-
tions, a terrible sameness in the whole of this battle, — incessant
charges of cavalry upon the squares of our infantry, whose sole
manoeuvre consisted in either deploying into line to resist the attack
of infantry, or falling back into square when the cavalry advanced :
performing those two evolutions under the devastating fire of artil-
lery, before the unflinching heroism of that veteran infantry whose
glories had been reaped upon the blood-stained fields of Austerlitz,
Marengo, and Wagram, or opposing an unbroken front to the whirl-
wind swoop of infuriated cavalry. Such were the enduring and de-
voted services demanded from the English troops, and such they
failed not to render. Once or twice had temper nearly failed them,
and the cry ran through the ranks, " Are we never to move for-
ward ? Only let us at them !" But the word was not yet spoken
which was to undam the pent-up torrent, and bear down with
unrelenting vengeance upon the now exulting columns of the

It was six o'clock. The battle had continued with unchanged for-
tune for three hours. The French, masters of La Haye Sainte,
could never advance farther into our position. They had gained
the orchard of Hougoumont, but the chateau was still held by the
British Guards, although its blazing roof and crumbling walls made
its occupation rather the desperate stand of unflinching valor than
the maintenance of an important position. The smoke which hung
upon the field rolled in slow and heavy masses back upon the
French lines, and gradually discovered to our view the entire of the
army. We quickly perceived that a change was taking place in


their position. The troops, which on their left stretched far beyond
Hougoumont, were now moved nearer to the centre. The attack
upon the chateau seemed less vigorously supported, while the
oblique direction of their right wing, which, pivoting upon Planche-
noit, opposed a face to the Prussians, all denoted a change in their
order of battle. It was now the hour when Napoleon was at last
convinced that nothing but the carnage he could no longer sup-
port could destroy the unyielding ranks of British infantry ; that
although Hougoumont had been partially, La Haye Sainte com-
pletely won ; that upon the right of the road the farm-houses Pape-
lotte and La Haye were nearly surrounded by his troops, which
with any other army must prove the forerunner of defeat, yet still
the victory was beyond his grasp. The bold stratagems whose suc-
cess the experience of a life had proved were here found to be
powerless. The decisive manoeuvre of carrying one important point
of the enemy's lines, of turning him upon the flank, or piercing him
through the centre, were here found impracticable. He might
launch his avalanche of grape-shot, he might pour down his crash-
ing columns of cavalry, he might send forth the iron storm of his
brave infantry ; but, though death in every shape heralded their
approach, still were others found to fill the fallen ranks, and feed
with their heart's blood the unslaked thirst for slaughter. Well
might the gallant leader of this gallant host, as he watched the
reckless onslaught of the untiring enemy, and looked upon the un-
flinching few who, bearing the proud badge of Britain, alone sus-
tained the fight, — well might he exclaim, " Night or Blucher I"

It was now seven o'clock, when a dark mass was seen to form upon
the heights above the French centre, and divide into three gigantic
columns, of which the right occupied the Brussels road. These were
the reserves, consisting of the Old and Young Guards, and amount-
ing to twelve thousand — the ilite of the French army — reserved by
the Emperor for a great coup de main. These veterans of a hundred
battles had been stationed from the beginning of the day, inactive
spectators of the fight ; their hour was now come, and with a shout
of " Vive VEmpereur /" which rose triumphantly over the din and crash
of battle, they began their march. Meanwhile, aides-de-camp gal-
loped along the lines, announcing the arrival of Grouchy, to reani-
mate the drooping spirits of the men ; for, at last, a doubt of victory
was breaking upon the minds of those who never before, in the most
adverse hour of fortune, deemed his star could be set that led them
on to glory.

" They are coming ; the attack will be made on the centre, my
lord," said Lord Fitzroy Somerset, as he directed his glass upon the
column. Scarcely had he spoken, when the telescope fell from hia


hand, as his arm, shattered by a French bullet, fell motionless to
his side.

" I see it," was the cool reply of the Duke, as he ordered the
Guards to deploy into line, and lie down behind the ridge, which
now the French artillery had found the' range of, and were laboring
at their guns. In front of them the 52d, 71st, and 95th were formed ;
the artillery stationed above and partly upon the road, loaded with
grape, and waited but the word to open.

It was an awful, a dreadful moment. The Prussian cannon thun-
dered on our left, but so desperate was the French resistance, they
made but little progress. The dark columns of the Guard had now
commenced the ascent, and the artillery ceased their fire as the bayo-
nets of the grenadiers showed themselves upon the slope. Then
began that tremendous cheer from right to left of our line which
those who heard never can forget. It was the impatient, long-re-
strained burst of unslaked vengeance. With the instinct which
valor teaches, they knew the hour of trial was come; and that wild
cry flew from rank to rank, echoing from the blood-stained walls of
Hougoumont to the far-off valley of La Papelotte. " They come !
they come!" was the cry; and the shout of "Vive HEmpereur!"
mingled with the outburst of the British line.

Under an overwhelming shower of grape, to which succeeded a
charge of cavalry of the Imperial Guard, the head of Ney's column
fired its volley and advanced'with the bayonet. The British artil-
lery now opened at half range, and although the plunging fire
scathed and devastated the dark ranks of the Guard, on they came,
Ncy himself, on foot, at their head. Twice the leading division of
that gallant column turned completely round, as the withering fire
wasted and consumed them ; but they were resolved to win.

Already they gained the crest of the hill, and the first line of the
British were falling back before them. The artillery closes up ; the
flanking fire from the guns upon the road opens upon them ; the
head of their column breaks like a shell ; the Duke seizes the mo-
ment, and advances on foot towards the ridge.

" Up, Guards, and at them !" he cried.

The hour of triumph and vengeance had arrived. In a moment
the Guards were on their feet ; one volley was poured in ; the bayo-
nets were brought to the charge; they closed upon the enemy. Then
was seen the most dreadful struggle that the history of all war can
present. Furious with long-restrained passion, the Guards rushed
upon the leading divisions; the 71st, the 95th, and 26th overlapped
them on the flanks. Their generals fell thickly on every side ;
Michel, Jamier, and Mallet are killed ; Friant lies wounded upon
the ground ; Ney, his dress pierced and ragged with balls, shouts


still to advance ; but the leading files waver ; they fall back ; the
supporting divisions thicken ; confusion, panic succeeds ; the British
press down ; the cavalry come galloping up to their assistance ; and
at last pell-mell, overwhelmed and beaten, the French fall back upon
the Old Guard. This was the decisive moment of the day — the Duke
closed his glass, as he said,

" The field is won. Order the whole line to advance."

On they came, four deep, and poured like a torrent from the

" Let the Life Guards charge them," said the Duke ; but every
aide-de-camp on his staff was wounded, and I myself brought the
order to Lord Uxbridge.

Lord Uxbridge had already anticipated his orders, and bore down
with four regiments of heavy cavalry upon the French centre. The
Prussian artillery thundered upon their flank, and at their rear.
The British bayonet was in their front ; while a panic fear spread
through their ranks, and the cry of "Sauve qui peut /" resounded on
all sides. In vain Ney, the bravest of the brave ; in vain Soult, Ber-
trand, Gourgaud, and Labedoyere, burst from the broken, disorgan-
ized mass, and called on them to stand fast. A battalion of the Old
Guard, with Cambronne at their head, alone obeyed the summons.
Forming into square, they stood between the pursuers and their
prey, offering themselves a sacrifice to the tarnished honor of their
arms. To the order to surrender they answered with a cry of defi-
ance ; and as our cavalry, flushed and elated with victory, rode
round their bristling ranks, no quailing look, no craven spirit was
there. The Emperor himself endeavored to repair the disaster ; he
rode with lightning speed hither and thither, commanding, ordering,
nay imploring too ; but already the night was falling, the confusion
became each moment more inextricable, and the effort was a fruitless
one. A regiment of the Guards and two batteries were in reserve
behind Planchenoit ; he threw them rapidly into position ; but the
overwhelming impulse of flight drove the mass upon them, and they
were carried away upon the torrent of the beaten army. No sooner
did the Emperor see this, his last hope, desert him, than he dis-
mounted from his horse, and drawing his sword, threw himself into
a square, which the first regiment of Chasseurs of the Old Guard had
formed with a remnant of the battalion. Jerome followed him, as
he called out, —

"You are right, brother; here should perish all who bear the
name of Bonaparte."

The same moment the Prussian light artillery rend the ranks
asunder, and the cavalry charge down upon the scattered fragments.
A few of his staff, who never left him, place the Emperor upon a


horse and fly through the death-dealing artillery and musketry. A
squadron of the Life Guards, to which I had attached myself, came
up at the moment, and as Blucher's hussars rode madly here and
there, where so lately the crowd of staff officers had denoted the
presence of Napoleon, expressed their rage and disappointment in
curses and cries of vengeance.

Cambronne's battalion stood yet unbroken, and seemed to defy
every attack that was brought against them. To the second sum-
mons to surrender they replied as indignantly as at the first ; and
Vivan's brigade was ordered to charge them. A crowd of British
horse bore down on every face of the devoted square; but firm as in
their hour of victory, the heroes of Marengo never quailed; and
twice the bravest blood of Britain recoiled, baffled and dismayed.
There was a pause for some minutes, and even then as we surveyed
our broken and blood-stained squadrons, a cry of admiration burst
from our ranks at the gallant bearing of that glorious infantry. Sud-
denly the tramp of approaching cavalry was heard ; I turned my
head, and saw two squadrons of the Second Life Guards. The officer
who led them on was bare-headed, his long dark hair streaming
wildly behind him and upon his pale features, to which not even the
headlong enthusiasm of battle had lent one touch of color. He rode
straight to where I was standing, his dark eyes fixed upon me with
a look so fierce, so penetrating, that I could not look away. The
features, save in this respect, had almost a look of idiocy. It was

Online LibraryCharles James LeverCharles O'Malley, the Irish dragon → online text (page 77 of 80)