HARRY SMITH AND HIS WIFE START TOGETHER FOR THE WATERLOO CAMPAIGN – GHENT – BATTLE OF WATERLOO.
MY wife and I and my brother Charles were to start in a chaise at three o’clock the next morning. I never saw my poor father suffer so much as at thus parting from three of us at once, and feeling that his companion, my wife, was lost to him. He said, “Napoleon and Wellington will meet, a battle will ensue of a kind never before heard of, and I cannot expect to see you all again.”
We reached Harwich in the afternoon, found West, his horses, and all our things right, and went to the Black Bull, from whence I had embarked years before for Gottenburgh. There we found my old acquaintance, the landlord, Mr. Briton, a man as civil as full of information. He said I had no chance of embarking at Harwich, unless I freighted a small craft that he would look out, and fitted it up for my horses.
Next day I came to terms with the skipper of a sloop of a few tons’ burden, himself and a boy the crew. I couldn’t help thinking of the 74’s and frigates in which I had been flying over the ocean. We measured it, and found there was just room for the horses, and a hole aft, called a cabin, for my wife and self and brother. I did not intend to embark the horses till the wind was fair – a fortunate plan, for I was detained in the Black Bull by foul winds for a fortnight. The wind becoming fair, in the afternoon we embarked all our traps. Mr. Briton amply provided us with provisions and forage, and brought his bill for myself; wife, brother, two grooms, five horses, lady’s maid, sea stock, etc. I expected it to be fifty or sixty pounds; it was twenty-four and some shillings, and we had lived on the fat of the land, for having been half-starved so many years, when once in the flesh~pots of England, we revelled in a plenty which we could scarcely fancy would last.
A gentle breeze carried us over to Ostend – in twenty-four hours, where we landed our horses by slinging them and dropping them into the sea to swim ashore. My wife’s noble mare, which we called the ” Brass Mare ” after her son of that ilk, when in the slings and in sight of the shore, neighed most gallantly, and my wife declared it an omen of brilliant success. We went to the great inn of Ostend. The difference between it and our late bivouac, the Black Bull, is not to be described. I found an English horse-dealer there. I bought two mules of him and a stout Flanders pony for our baggage, and in three days we were en route for Ghent, stopping one night at Bruges, where was an excellent inn, and the best Burgundy I had drunk up to that hour. My wife was delighted to be once more in campaigning trim.
When we reached Ghent we found Sir John Lambert had reached it the day before. Louis XVIII. was there, his Court and idlers, and Ghent was in as great a state of excitement as if the Duke of Marlborough was again approaching. I found our Brigade were all New Orleans Regiments ~ three of the best regiments of the old Army of the Peninsula, the 4th, 27th, and 40th, and the 81st in garrison at Brussels. We were ordered to be in perfect readiness to take the field with the warning we had been so many years accustomed to.
Louis held a Court while we were there. I was near the door he entered by. He was very inactive, but impressive in manner. He laid his hand on my shoulder to support himself. His great topic of conversation was how delighted he was to see us, and how much he was indebted to our nation. A more benign countenance I never beheld, nor did his subsequent reign belie the benignity of his expression.
While at Ghent I waited on Sir John Lambert every morning just after breakfast for orders. On one occasion we heard a voice thundering in the passage to him, “Hallo there, where the devil’s the door?” I went out, and to my astonishment saw our noble friend Admiral Malcolm. “Why, where the devil has Lambert stowed himself? The nouse is as dark as a sheer hulk.” He was delighted to see us, and sang out, “Come ~ bear a hand and get me some breakfast; no regular hours on shore as in the Royal Oak.” He had been appointed to the command of the coast. He was very much attached to the Duke. During our stay at Ghent we had Brigade parades almost every day, and my General, an ex-Adjutant of the Guards, was most particular in all guard mountings, sentries, and all the correct minutiae of garrison. The three regiments were in beautiful fighting trim, although the headquarters ship with the Grenadiers, the 27th, had not arrived from America. Poor 27th! in a few days they had not two hundred men in the ranks.
As we anticipated, our march from Ghent was very sudden. In an hour after the order arrived we moved en route for Brussels. We reached Asche on the afternoon of the 16th June. The rapid and continuous firing at Quatre Bras, as audible as if we were in the fight, put us in mind of old times, as well as on the qui vive. – We expected an order every moment to move on. We believed the firing to be at Fleurus. As we approached Brussels the next day [17 June], we met an orderly with a letter from that gallant fellow De Lancey, Q.M.G., to direct us to move on Quatre Bras.
In the afternoon, after we passed Brussels, the scene of confusion, the flying of army, baggage, etc., was an awful novelty to us. We were directed by a subsequent order to halt at the village of Epinay, on the Brussels side of the forest of Soignies, a report having reached his Grace that the enemy’s cavalry were threatening our communication with Brussels (as we understood, at least). The whole afternoon we were in a continued state of excitement. Once some rascals of the Cumberland Hussars, a new Corps of Hanoverians (not of the style of our noble and gallant old comrades, the 1st Hussars), came galloping in, declaring they were pursued by Frenchmen. Our bugles were blowing in all directions, and our troops running to their alarm-posts in front of the village. I went to report to Sir John Lambert, who was just sitting quietly down to dinner with my wife and his A.D.C. He says very coolly, ” Let the troops——; this is all nonsense; there is not a French soldier in the rear of his Grace ~ depend on it, and sit down to dinner.” I set off; though, and galloped to the front, where a long line of baggage was leisurely retiring. This was a sufficient indication that the alarm was false, and I dismissed the troops and started for the débris of a magnificent turbot which the General’s butler had brought out of Brussels. This was in the afternoon.
Such a thunderstorm and deluge of rain now came on, it drenched all that was exposed to it, and in a few minutes rendered the country deep in mud and the roads very bad. All night our baggage kept retiring through the village.
In the course of the night, Lambert’s Brigade were ordered to move up to the position the Duke had taken up in front of the forest of Soignies, and our march was very much impeded by waggons upset, baggage thrown down, etc. [18 June]. We met Sir George Scovell, an A.Q.M.G. at head-quarters, who said he was sent by the Duke to see the rear was clear, that it was choked between this and the Army, and the Duke expected to be attacked immediately; our Brigade must clear the road before we moved on. Our men were on fire at the idea of having to remain and clear a road when an attack was momentarily expected, and an hour would bring us to the position. The wand of a magician, with all his spells and incantations, could not have effected a clear course sooner than our 3000 soldiers of the old school.
This effected, General Lambert sent me on to the Duke for orders. I was to find the Duke himself, and receive orders from no other person. About I I o’clock I found his Grace and all his staff near Hougoumont. The day was beautiful after the storm, although the country was very heavy. When I rode up, he said, “Hallo, Smith, where are you from last?” “From General Lambert’s Brigade, and they from America.” “What have you got?” “The 4th, the 27th, and the 40th; the 81st remain in Brussels.” “Ah, I know, I know; –but the others, are they in good order?” “Excellent, my lord, and very strong.” “That’s all right, for I shall soon want every man. One of his staff said, “I do not think they will attack today.” “Nonsense,” said the Duke. “The columns are already forming, and I think I have discerned where the weight of the attack will be made. I shall be attacked before an hour. Do you know anything of my position, Smith?” “Nothing, my lord, beyond what I see – the general line, and right and left.” “Go back and halt Lambert’s Brigade at the junction of the two great roads from Genappe and Nivelles. Did you observe their junction as you rode up?” “Particularly, my lord.” “Having halted the head of the Brigade and told Lambert what I desire, ride to the left of the position. On the extreme left is the Nassau Brigade 2 those fellows who came over to us at Arbonne, you recollect 3 Between them and Picton’s Division (now the 5th) I shall most probably require Lambert. There is already there a Brigade of newly-raised Hanoverians, which Lambert will give orders to, as they and your Brigade form the 6th Division. You are the only British Staff Officer with it. Find out, therefore, the best and shortest road from where Lambert is now halted to the left of Picton and the right of the Nassau troops. Do you under—stand ?” “Perfectly, my ]ord.” I had barely turned from his Grace when he called me back. “Now, clearly understand that when Lambert is ordered to move from the fork of the two roads – where he is now halted, you are prepared to conduct him to Picton’s left.” It was delightful to see his Grace that morning on his noble horse Copenhagen ~ in high spirits and very animated, but so cool and so clear in the issue of his orders, it was impossible not fully to comprehend what he said; delightful also to observe what his wonderful eye anticipated, while some of his staff were of opinion the attack was not in progress.
I had hardly got back to Lambert, after reconnoitring the country and preparing myself to conduct the troops, when the Battle of Waterloo commenced. We soon saw that where we should be moved to, the weight of the attack on Picton would be resisted by none but British soldiers. For a few seconds, while every regiment was forming square, and the charge of Ponsonby’s Brigade going on (which the rising ground in our front prevented us seeing), it looked as if the formation was preparatory to a retreat Many of the rabble of Dutch troops were flying towards us, and, to add to the confusion, soon after came a party of dragoons, bringing with them three eagles and some prisoners. I said to General Lambert, “We shall have a proper brush immediately, for it looks as if our left will be immediately turned, and the brunt of the charge will fall on us. At this moment we were ordered to move to the very spot where the Duke, early in the morning, had expected we should be required. Picton had been killed, Sir James Kempt commanded on the left of the road to Genappe, near La Haye Sainte; his Division had been already severely handled, and we took their position, my old Battalion of Riflemen remaining with us.
The Battle of Waterloo has been too often described, and nonsense enough written about the Crisis,4 for me to add to it. Every moment was a crisis, and the controversialists had better have left the discussion on the battle-field. Every Staff officer had two or three (and one four) horses shot under him. I had one wounded in six, another in seven places, but not seriously injured. The fire was terrific, especially of cannon.
Late in the day, when the enemy had made his last great effort on our centre, the field was so enveloped in smoke that nothing was discernible. The firing ceased on both sides, and we on the left knew that one party or the other was beaten. This was the most anxious moment of my life. In a few seconds we saw the red-coats in the centre, as stiff as rocks, and the French columns retiring rapidly, and there was such a British shout as rent the air. We all felt then to whom the day belonged. It was time the “Crisis” should arrive, for we had been at work some hours, and the band of death had been most unsparing. One Regiment, the 27th had only two officers Ieft ~ Major Hume, who commanded from the beginning of the battle, and another – and they were both wounded, and only a hundred and twenty soldiers were left with them.
At this moment I saw the Duke, with only one Staff officer remaining, galloping furiously to the left. I rode on to meet him. “Who commands here?” “Generals Kempt and Lambert, my lord.” “Desire them to get into a column of companies of Battalions, and move on immediately.” I said, “In which direction, my lord ? ” ” Right ahead, to be sure.” I never saw his Grace so animated. The Crisis was general, from one end of the line to the other.
That evening at dark we halted, literally on the ground we stood on; not a picquet was required, and our whole cavalry in pursuit. Then came the dreadful tale of killed and wounded; it was enormous, and every moment the loss of a dear friend was announced. To my wonder, my astonishment, and to my gratitude to Almighty God, I and my two brothers-Tom, the Adjutant of the 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade, who had, during the day, attracted the Duke’s attention by his gallantry, and Charles, in the 1st Battalion, who had been fighting for two days-were all safe and unhurt, except that Charles had a slight wound in the neck. In the thunderstorm the previous evening he had tied a large silk handkerchief over his stock; he forgot to take it off; and probably owed his life to so trifling a circumstance. There was not an instance throughout the Army of two brothers in the field escaping.5 We were three, and I could hardly credit my own eyes. We had nothing to eat or drink. I had some tea in my writing~case, but no sugar. It had been carried by an orderly, although in the ranks. He found me out after the battle, and I made some tea in a soldier’s tin for Sir James Kempt, Sir John Lambert, and myself; and while we were thus regaling, up came my brother, of whose safety I was not aware.
Captain McCulloch of the 95th Regiment wished to see me. He was a dear friend whom I had not seen since he was awfully wounded at Foz d’Aruz [Foz de Aronce] on Massena’s retreat, after having had seven sabre-wounds at the Coa, in Massena’s advance, and been taken prisoner. He was in a cottage near, awfully wounded. I found him lying in great agony, but very composed. “Oh, Harry, so long since we have met, and now again under such painful circumstances; but, thank God, you and Tom are all right.” I had brought all my remaining tea, which he ravenously swallowed. The ball had dreadfully broken the elbow of the sound arm, and had passed right through the fleshy part of his back, while the broken bone of the arm previously shattered at Foz d’Aruz was still exfoliating, and very painful even after a lapse of years. I got hold of a surgeon, and his arm was immediately amputated. When dressed, he lay upon the stump, as this was less painful than the old exfoliating wound, and on his back he could not lie. He recovered, but was never afterwards able to feed himself or put on his hat, and died, Heaven help him, suddenly of dysentery.
No one, but those who have witnessed the awful scene, knows the horrors of a field of battle ~ the piles of the dead, the groans of the dying, the agony of those dreadfully wounded, to whom frequently no assistance can be rendered at the moment; some still in perfect possession of their intellect, game to the last, regarding their recovery as more than probable, while the clammy perspiration of death has already pounced upon its victim; others, again, perfectly sensible of their dissolution, breathing into your keeping the feelings and expressions of their last moments ~ messages to father, mother, wife, or dearest relatives. Well might Walter Scott say –
“Thou canst not name one tender tie
But here dissolved its relics lie.”
Often have I myself, tired and exhausted in such scenes, almost regretted the life I have adopted, in which one never knows at any moment how near or distant one’s own turn may be. In such dejectiom you sink into a profound sleep, and you stand up next morning in fresh spirits. Your country’s calls, your excitement, honour and glory, again impel, and undauntedly and cheerfully you expose that life which the night before you fancied was of value. A soldier’s life is one continued scene of excitement, hope, anticipation; fear for himself he never knows, though the loss of his comrade pierces his heart.
Before daylight next morning [19 June] a Staff officer whose name I now forget, rode up to where we were all lying, and told us of the complete de’route of the French, and the vigorous pursuit of the Prussians, and that it was probable that our Division would not move for some hours. At daylight I was on horseback, with a heart of gratitude as became me, and anxious to let my wife know I was all right. I took a party of each Regiment of my Division with me, and went back to the field; for I was now established as Assistant~QuartermasterGeneral.
I had been over many a field of battle, but with the exception of one spot at New Orleans, and the breach of Badajos, I had never seen ariything to be compared with what I saw. At Waterloo the whole field from right to left was a mass of dead bodies. In one spot, to the right of La Haye Sainte, the French Cuirassiers were literally piled on each other; many soldiers not wounded lying under their horses; others, fearfully wounded, occasionally with their horses struggling upon their wounded bodies. The sight was sickening, and I had no means or power to assist them. Imperative duty compelled me to the field of my comrades, where I had plenty to do to assist many who had been left out all night; some had been believed to be dead, but the spark of life had returned. All over the field you saw officers, and as many soldiers as were permitted to leave the ranks, leaning and weeping over some dead or dying brother or comrade. The battle was fought on a Sunday, the 18th June, and I repeated to myself a verse from the Psalms of that day – 91st Psalm, 7th verse: “A thousand shall fall beside thee, and ten thousand at thy right hand, but it shall not come nigh thee.” I blessed Almighty God our Duke was spared, and galloped to my General, whom I found with some breakfast awaiting my arrival.
So many accounts and descriptions have been given of the Battle of Waterloo, I shall only make one or two observations. To those who say the ultimate success of the day was achieved by the arrival of the Prussians, I observe that the Prussians were part of the whole on which his Grace calculated, as much as on the co-operation of one of his own Divisions; that they ought to have been in the field much sooner, and by their late arrival seriously endangered his Grace’s left flank; and had Napoleon pushed the weight of his attack and precipitated irresistible numbers on our left, he would have forced the Duke to throw back his left and break our communication with the Prussians. The Duke’s army was a heterogeneous mass, not the old Peninsular veterans; young 2nd Battalions most of them, others intermixed with the rabble of our allied army. Thus the Duke could not have counter-manceuvred on his left, as he would have been able with his old army; and we had one Division under Colville far away to our right.
Napoleon fought the battle badly; his attacks were not simultaneous, but partial and isolated, and enabled the Duke to repel each by a concentration. His cavalry was sacrificed early in the day. If Napoleon did not desire to turn our left flank, and the battle is to be regarded as a fight hand to hand, he fought it badly.
By a general attack upon our line with his overpowering force of artillery, followed up by his infantry, he might have put hors-de-combat far more of our army than he did. His cavalry would have been fresh, and had he employed this devoted and gallant auxiliary late in the day as he did early, his attempts to defeat us would have been far more formidable.
His artillery and cavalry behaved most nobly, but I maintain his infantry did not. In proof; I will record one example. On the left, in front of the 5th Division, 25,000 of the Young Guard attacked in column. Picton was just killed, and Kempt commanded. It is true this column advanced under a galling fire, but it succeeded in reaching the spot where it intended to deploy. Kempt ordered the Battalion immediately opposite the head of the column to charge. It was a poor miserable Battalion compared with some of ours, yet did it dash like British soldiers at the column, which went about. Then it was that Ponsonby’s Brigade got in among them, and took eagles and prisoners.
As a battle of science, it was demonstrative of no manoeuvre. It was no Salamanca or Vittoria, where science was so beautifully exemplified: it was as a stand-up fight between two pugilists, “mill ~way” till one is beaten. The Battle of Waterloo, with all its political glory, has destroyed the field movement of the British Army, so scientifically laid down by Dundas, so improved on by that hero of war and of drill, Sir John Moore. All that light-troop duty which he taught, by which the world through the medium of the Spanish War was saved, is now replaced by the most heavy of manceuvres, by squares, centre formations, and moving in masses, which require time to collect and equal time to extend; and all because the Prussians and Russians did not know how to move quicker, we, forsooth, must adopt their ways, although Picton’s Division at Quatre Bras nobly showed that British infantry can resist cavalry in any shape. It is true the Buffs were awfully mauled at Albuera, but what did my kind patron, Sir William Stewart, order them to do? They were in open column of companies right in front, and it was necessary at once to deploy into line, which Sir William with his light 95th had been accustomed to do on any company: he orders them, therefore, to deploy on the Grenadiers; by this the right would become the left, what in common parlance is termed “clubbed;” and while he was doing this, he kept advancing the Grenadiers. It is impossible to imagine a battalion in a more helpless position, and it never can be cited as any criterion that a battalion must be in squares to resist cavalry. At the Battle of Fuentes d’Onoro, the overwhelming French cavalry, having rapidly put back our very inferior force, were upon a regiment of infantry of the 7th Division, to the right of the Light Division, before either were aware. The French advance of the Chasseurs Britanniques, I think (it was one of the mongrels, as we called those corps, anyhow), was imposing, heavy, and rapid (I was close to the left of our infantry at the time), but it made not the slightest impression on the regiment in line; on the contrary, the Chasseurs were repulsed with facility and loss.
But to return to our narrative. A party was sent to bury the dead of each regiment as far as possible. For the Rifle Brigade, my brother Charles was for the duty. In gathering the dead bodies, he saw among the dead of our soldiers the body of a French officer of delicate mould and appearance. On examining it, he found it was that of a delicate, young and handsome female. My story ends here, but such is the fact. What were the circumstances of devotion, passion, or patriotism which led to such heroism, is, and ever will be, to me a mystery. Love, depend upon it.
That afternoon we moved forward by the Nivelles road. I had to go into my General’s room. I was not aware he was there, and entered abruptly. He was changing his shirt, when I saw he had received a most violent contusion on his right arm. It was fearfully swelled (in those days our coatsleeves were made very large), and as black as ebony from the shoulder to the wrist. “My dear General,” I said, “what an arm! I did not know you had been wounded.” “No, nor you never would, if accident had not shown you.” He made me promise to say nothing, about which I compromised by saying, “To no one but to a surgeon, whom you must see. An arm in that state, if inflammation succeed, might slough, and you would lose it.” The General would not see a surgeon, and thank God he got well.
But turn we now to the poor wife. I left her at daylight on the 18th, prepared to get on her horse and go to Brussels, to await the result of the storm of war which I had prepared her for. Her tale of wonder must form a separate and distinct narrative.
Footnote 1 – See p. 80.
2 – The Regiment of Orange Nassan held Sinohain and La Haye, and part of the second Regiment of Nassau the farm of Papelotte.
3 – See p.155.
4 – In 1833, Major G. Gaw1er, of the 52nd, published The Crisis of Waterloo, in which he claimed for his regiment the honour of having by their flank-attack defeated the Imperial Guards in their last charge, an honour generally given to the Guards. His contention was supported by Rev. W. Leeke in Lord Seaton’s Regiment at Waterloo (1866).
5 – There was one case at least John Luard, Lieutenant, 16th Light~ Dragoons, and George Luard, Captain, 18th Hussars.