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The Struggle for Sea Power by  M. B. Synge


 

 

THE EVE OF WATERLOO

"There was a sound of revelry by night,

And Belgium's capital had gather'd then

Her Beauty and her Chivalry, and bright

The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men;

.     .     .     .     .     .


But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!"

—BYRON.

NAPOLEON left Paris at daybreak on June 12.

"I go to measure myself with Wellington," he said as he stepped into his carriage.

The slumbering capital was soon left behind. In twelve hours he was at Laon. The weather was very hot. As he neared Belgium, the country stood thick with corn. The wheat was just flowering, the barley was nearly ripe, the rye stood shoulder high in the fields.

He pushed rapidly forwards. On the 14th he had reached his great French army, which awaited him near Charleroi, on the frontiers of France and Belgium. He mounted his charger. As he rode [219] along the ranks a very storm of cheers greeted his arrival.

"Not so loud, my children," he exclaimed; "the enemy will hear you."

If the soldiers were proud of their commander, he had every reason to be proud of his army. It was composed entirely of Frenchmen, inspired with splendid fighting spirit. Before him stood heroes of Marengo, of Austerlitz, of Wagram—all with unbounded confidence in his leadership.

"Soldiers," ran Napoleon's proclamation, "to-day is the anniversary of Marengo, which decided the fate of Europe. For every Frenchman of spirit, the time is come to conquer or to die."

It was his last proclamation, as it was his last command.

For weeks past, the British and Prussian armies had been guarding the Belgian frontier from France, while huge hosts of Russians and Austrians were rolling slowly across Europe, to join them in a great invasion of France. Napoleon's plan was to march suddenly and directly upon Brussels, win over the Belgians to his cause, and thus plunge the Allies in a hostile country.

The distance from Charleroi to Brussels was about thirty-four miles. At a distance of some thirteen miles, lay the farmhouse of Quatre-Bras, at the crossing of four roads, as its name denotes; beyond it, some thirteen miles farther, was the village of Waterloo, eight miles from Brussels.

[220] On June 15 Napoleon marched into the town of Charleroi, where he was joined by Marshal Ney. Wellington was in Brussels at the time, the headquarters of the British army. The town was crowded with English. Feasting and dancing went on every night. Napoleon was not expected yet awhile. The Duchess of Richmond was giving a ball on the night of the 15th. That very afternoon Wellington received the news of his movements. The great army of France, under its Emperor, was within thirty-four miles of the Belgian capital. Wellington ordered his troops to Quatre-Bras to hold the road to Brussels, and attended the ball to allay the fears of the English. Despatches reached him constantly during the evening. The situation was more dangerous than he thought. Officer after officer quietly left the ballroom at his command. At last he left too.

"Napoleon has humbugged me," he said to his host, the Duke of Richmond. "He has gained twenty-four hours' march on me."

"What do you intend to do?" asked the Duke.

"I have ordered the army to Quatre-Bras, but we shall not stop him there. I shall fight him here," said Wellington, putting his thumb over the position of Waterloo on a map, which the Duke had lent him.

Next morning, he was galloping in all haste to Quatre-Bras. There he found all quiet, and leaving the Prince of Orange in command, he hastened on [221] to Ligny, some seven miles farther, where Blücher and a large army of Prussians were holding a position on the marshy banks of the stream running through the village of Ligny. Blücher had already drawn up his forces in battle array. From the window of a mill hard by, Blücher and Wellington watched the preparations of the French army. Together they arranged their plan of campaign against Napoleon.

But as he cantered back to his own ground at Quatre-Bras, he said to a fellow-officer, "The Prussians will make a gallant fight, for they are capital troops and well commanded: but they will be beaten."

Wellington reached Quatre-Bras to find that the fight was already beginning.

He had not arrived a moment too soon. With drums beating and shouts of "Long live the Emperor!" two French columns emerged from a neighbouring wood,—one moving off in the direction of Ligny, the other, under Marshal Ney, advancing on Quatre-Bras.

All through that summer afternoon, the two battles raged. Wellington and Ney fought amid the cornfields at Quatre-Bras, Napoleon and Blücher in the streets of Ligny, but a few miles distant.

The day had been hot and sultry. As the afternoon wore on, a terrible thunderstorm broke over the scene. Crash upon crash of thunder mingled with the booming of the guns, flashes of lightning [222] lit up the darkness that had crept over the sun, and a deluge of rain washed the blood-stained earth. As the thunder-clouds rolled by, gleams of setting sun lit up the battlefields of Quatre-Bras and Ligny. Evening found Wellington still holding the position of the cross-roads, which Ney had failed to secure; it found Napoleon victorious over Blücher, and the Prussians in retreat towards Wavre, to the north-east.

The morning of the 17th broke. Wellington was riding along his outposts at Quatre-Bras by three o'clock in the morning. It was not till nine o'clock that he heard of Blücher's defeat and retreat.

"Old Blücher has had a good licking," he said. "He has gone eighteen miles to his rear: we must do the same. I suppose they'll say in England we have been licked. Well, I can't help that."

He then gave orders for the famous retreat to Waterloo.

Meanwhile Napoleon, knowing nothing of Ney's defeat at Quatre-Bras, slept late. He had driven away the Prussian army. He had now only the British under Wellington to destroy, and Brussels would be his.

It was not till the morning had passed, that Napoleon suddenly realised that the English were slipping away from him. Frantic that the foe should escape him, he drove hastily to Quatre-Bras. There he saw Marshal Ney.

"You have ruined France," he said angrily to him.

[223] But it was the moment for deeds rather than words. He now gathered up his powerful cavalry and dashed after Wellington. It began to rain. Each hour the rain grew heavier, till the roads were ploughed up and the cornfields became impassable.

On raced the pursuers, on raced the pursued,—galloping for their lives through the storm. The Emperor rode at the head of his cavalry. He was drenched to the skin, his grey overcoat was streaming with wet, his hat was bent out of shape by the storm. It was not till darkness was falling that, on the ridge of Waterloo, Wellington stood at bay, and the truth was borne in on Napoleon, that his foes had escaped him that day.

Night fell, and still the rain poured down pitiless torrents. It was the eve of Waterloo.


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