Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIII, 16

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XXIII, 15 << Chateaubriand's memoirs >> XXIII, 17

Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXIII, chapter 16
The Battle of Waterloo

On the 18th of June 1815, towards midday, I left Ghent by the Brussels gate; I was going to finish my walk alone on the highroad. I had taken Caesar’s Commentaries with me and I strolled along, immersed in my reading. I was already more than three miles from the city, when I thought I heard a dull rumble: I stopped and looked up at the cloudy sky, deliberating with myself whether to go on, or turn back towards Ghent for fear of a storm. I listened: I heard only the cry of a moorhen in the rushes and the chime of a village clock. I pursued my course: I had not gone thirty paces before the rumbling began again, now short, now long, at irregular intervals; sometimes it was only perceptible as a tremor of the air, so distant that it communicated itself to the ground over those vast plains. Detonations, less prolonged, less undulating, less interconnected than those of thunder, gave rise in my mind to the thought of it being a battle. I found myself opposite a poplar planted at the corner of a hop-field. I crossed the road and leant against the trunk of the tree, my face turned towards Brussels. A southerly wind sprang up and brought me a more distinct sound of artillery. That great battle, as yet nameless, whose echoes I heard at the foot of the poplar, and for whose unknown obsequies a village clock had just chimed, was the Battle of Waterloo.

Silent and solitary listener to the mighty judgement of the fates, I would have been less moved if I had been in the fray: the peril, the firing, the press of death would have left me no time for meditation; but alone under a tree, in the Ghent countryside, like a shepherd of the flocks that grazed around me, I was overwhelmed by the weight of reflection: What battle was this? Would it be decisive? Was Napoleon there in person? Were lots being cast for the world, as they had been for Christ’s garments? What would be the consequence for the nations, in the event of victory or defeat for one army or the other, freedom or slavery? Ah, what blood must be flowing! Was not every sound that reached my ears some Frenchman’s last sigh? Was this a new Crécy, a new Poitiers, a new Agincourt, to delight France’s most implacable enemies? If they triumphed, was not our glory lost? If Napoleon won the day, what would become of our freedom? Although victory for Napoleon meant eternal exile for me, my country was at that moment foremost in my heart; my prayers were for France’s oppressor, if he, in saving our honour, were to rescue us from foreign domination.

What if Wellington should triumph? Then the legitimacy would re-enter Paris behind those red uniforms which had just been re-dyed scarlet in French blood! Royalty would have, for coaches at its coronation, ambulance-carts filled with our maimed grenadiers! What sort of a Restoration would be accomplished under such auspices? ....This is only a mere fraction of the thoughts that tormented me. Each roar of the cannons brought me the shock and doubled my rate of heartbeats. A few miles distant from that immense chaos, I saw nothing; I could not touch the huge funeral pyre growing minute by minute at Waterloo, just as on the bank of the Nile, on the shore at Bulak, I stretched out my hands towards the Pyramids in vain.

No traveller appeared; some women in the fields, peaceably hoeing rows of vegetables, did not seem to have heard the noise. But then I saw a courier approaching: I left the foot of my tree and stood in the centre of the road; I stopped the courier and questioned him. He belonged to the Duc de Berry and was coming from Alost. He told me: ‘Bonaparte entered Brussels yesterday (the 17th of June) after a bloody fight. Battle was due to be re-joined today (the 18th of June). The Allies are thought to have suffered a decisive defeat, and the order to retreat has been given.’

The courier continued on his way.

I followed in haste: I was passed by the carriage of a merchant fleeing with his family; he confirmed the courier’s story.