Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXIII, 17

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XXIII, chapter 17
Confusion in Ghent – The reality of Waterloo



When I returned to Ghent all was confusion: the city gates were being closed; the wickets alone remained half-open; some inadequately armed civilians and a few soldiers from the army depot were standing guard. I went to the King’s residence.

Monsieur had just arrived by a circuitous route: he had left Brussels at the false news that Bonaparte was about to enter the city, and that having lost the first battle there was no hope of winning a second. It was said that that because the Prussians had not taken up their positions the English had been crushed.

At these reports, the stampede became general: those who had any resources, left; I, who was used to possessing nothing, was ready to go at any time as always. I wanted Madame Chateaubriand, a great Bonapartist but one who hated gunfire, to depart before me: she refused to quit me.

In the evening there was a Council meeting at His Majesty’s: we heard Monsieur’s reports again and the hearsay picked up at the Military Commander’s and at Baron Eckstein’s. The wagon containing the Crown jewels was hitched to the horses: I had no need of a wagon to remove my treasure. I put the black silk handkerchief in which I wrap my head at night into my limp Interior-Ministry portfolio, and placed myself at His Majesty’s disposal, carrying that important document on the affairs of the Legitimacy. I was richer when I first emigrated, when my haversack did duty as a pillow and served as a swaddling band for Atala: but in 1815 Atala was a tall, gawky girl of thirteen or fourteen, who went about all by herself, and who, to her father’s honour, had got herself talked about too much.

On the 19th of June, at one in the morning, a letter from Monsieur Pozzo, delivered to the King by courier, established the true facts. Bonaparte had not entered Brussels; he had assuredly lost the Battle of Waterloo. Leaving Paris on the 12th of June, he rejoined the army on the 14th. On the 15th, he broke the enemy lines on the Sambre. On the 16th, he beat the Prussians on those fields of Fleurus where victory always seems to favour the French. The villages of Ligny and Saint-Amaund were taken. At Quatre-Bras, a fresh success: The Duke of Brunswick remained among the dead. Blücher in full retreat fell back upon a reserve of thirty thousand men, under the command of General von Bülow; the Duke of Wellington, with the English and Dutch, stood with his back to Brussels.

On the morning of the 18th, before the first shot had been fired, the Duke of Wellington declared that he would be able to hold out until three; but that at that time, if the Prussians had not appeared, he would necessarily be destroyed: forced back on Planchenois and Brussels, he was cut off from all retreat. Surprised by Napoleon, his position was strategically deplorable; he had accepted it, not chosen it.

The French, first advancing on the enemy’s left flank, took the heights which overlook the Manor of Hougoumont as far as the farms of La Haye-Sainte and Papelotte; on the right they attacked the village of Mont Saint-Jean; the farm of La Haye-Saint, in the centre, was taken by Prince Jerôme. But the Prussian reserves appeared near Saint-Lambert at six in the evening: a new and furious attack was made on the village of La Haye-Sainte; Blucher arrived with fresh troops and cut off the squares of the Imperial Guard from the rest of our scattered troops. Around that motionless phalanx, the torrent of fugitives carried everything with it among clouds of dust, fiery smoke and grape-shot, in a gloom streaked with Congreve rockets, amidst the roar of three hundred guns, and the headlong gallop of twenty-five thousand horses: it was like the summation of all the battles of the Empire. Twice the French cried: ‘Victory!’ and twice their shouts were stifled by the pressure of the enemy columns. The fire from our lines died down; the cartridges were exhausted; a few wounded grenadiers, among the thirty thousand dead, with a hundred thousand blood-stained cannon-balls lying cold and conglobated at their feet, stood erect leaning on their muskets, bayonets broken, and cannon emptied. Not far from them, the Man of Battles, his gaze fixed, listened to the last cannonade of all those he would hear during his life-time. On that field of slaughter, his brother Jerôme was still fighting with his outnumbered dying battalions, but his courage could not retrieve victory.

The number of Allied dead was estimated at eighteen thousand, the number of French dead at twenty-five thousand; two hundred English officers died; almost all Wellington’s aides-de-camp were killed or wounded; there was barely a family in England which did not suffer bereavement. The Prince of Orange was hit by a bullet in the shoulder; Baron de Vincent, the Austrian Ambassador, had his hand pierced. The English owed their success to the Irish regiments and the Scottish Highland Brigade which our cavalry charges could not break. General Grouchy’s corps, failing to advance, took no part in the affair. The two armies exchanged steel and fire with the bravery and persistence that had fuelled national enmity for ten centuries. Viscount Castelreagh, recounting the events of the battle in the Lords, said: ‘The English and French soldiers, after the battle, washed their blood-stained hands in a little stream, and congratulated each other on all sides on their courage.’ Wellington had always been a fatal obstacle to Bonaparte, or rather English genius, the rival to French genius, barred the way to victory. Today the Prussians claim from the English the honour of that decisive battle; but, in war, it is not the final action, it is fame which creates the conqueror: it was not Bonaparte who really won the battle of Jena.

The French errors were considerable: they were mistaken as to hostile and friendly corps; they occupied the position at Quatre-Bras too late; Marshal Grouchy, who was ordered to hold back the Prussians with his thirty-six thousand men, allowed them to pass him without his catching sight of them; from this stemmed the reproaches that our generals addressed to him. Bonaparte attacked head-on according to his custom instead of turning the English flanks, and concerned himself, with the presumption of a master, about cutting off the retreat of an enemy that had not yet been conquered.

Many falsehoods and a few rather curious truths have been credited to this catastrophe. The phrase: ‘The Guard dies but does not surrender’ is an invention which no one dares to defend any more. It appears certain that at the commencement of the action, Soult made some strategic observations to the Emperor: ‘Because Wellington has beaten you,’ Napoleon replied dryly, ‘you always think him a great general.’ At the end of the battle, Monsieur de Turenne urged Bonaparte to withdraw, to avoid falling into the hands of the enemy: Bonaparte, emerging from thought as if from a dream, was enraged at first; then suddenly, in the midst of his anger, he threw himself on his horse and fled.