Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

BOOK FIFTEEN.

___

YEAR 1815.

__

CHAPTER V.

THE GUARD DURING THE BELGIAN CAMPAIGN, IN 1815.

___

BATTLE OF WATERLOO.

On his return from the Island of Elba, Napoleon found only eighty thousand soldiers available in France , while the foreign powers numbered eight hundred and thousand men under their flags. The time and the means were therefore short for the Emperor: he did all that he could, but these were things above the ability of man.  How to arm the fortified towns without material?  How to place men into the line without giving them the means of undertaking a campaign?  The army was full of devotion and zeal; it had been recruited from old soldiers left in the prisons of England , of the deserts of Russia : all knew well that they acted for their cause.  They had wanted their emperor, he had to be defended; they had wanted their eagles, they would need to die around them, this ray of glory, which had shone in Austerlitz, Jena, Friedland, Wagram and Moskowa was still a part of them.

Through these feelings of enthusiasm ran something sad which interfered with it: this fanaticism which, formerly, led while signing to the triumph, did not exist any more in the ranks of the soldiers of the Guard; they had the rage in their hearts against the common enemy, but a rage cools when it was filled with only these words: “To overcome, if it is possible; to die, if we cannot.”  The chiefs of corps were too enlightened not to see that the resources of the country were disproportionate compared to the immense preparations of Europe.  There were thus only few chances of success; but at least one would succumb on the field of honor.  And then, it should be said, the troop only had weak confidence in its new officers; it always believed them to have traitors in its ranks.  The discipline, while being slackened, had lent a mortal blow to passive obedience: the soldier reasoned, discussed; the officer had a certain moral terror of the continuing events; some even had divided opinions.  In one word, if the army which left for Waterloo incontestably had that same bravery of Austerlitz, it did not have the same spirit, and that was to carry an ill omen for the campaign which was going to open.

However Napoleon had chosen, like always, lieutenants of capacity and energy: the Generals Michel, Reille, Gerard, Vandamme, Mouton, were officers of first merit.  The military superiority of the Marshal Soult made him the perfect choice for chief-of-staff for the army.  A great organizer, he was to thus replace Berthier, who had not come again to serve with his old general, his emperor: a captain of the bodyguards of Louis XVIII, he had withdrawn himself to Germany , where a sad destiny awaited him.  This change alone pointed to a considerable modification in the relationship of the army with its supreme chief. What admirably distinguished Berthier was his passive obedience, a marvelous action in seizing and carrying out the orders of the Emperor; without ever having to question him; he was the faithful mirror where the thought of Napoleon were reflected.  Marshal Soult, while having the qualities of Berthier, was not loved by the army them; it defied him, but very wrongly: he had honestly served the Bourbons; he served Napoleon honestly, in his functions of chief of staff. 

The Marshal Ney had asked for a command that could not be refused for his brilliant valor, with the sacrifice that he had made a solemn oath: he had given recent pledges; but, while sacrificing the Bourbons, he had hardly regained the confidence of the Emperor.  Marshal Grouchy also received a high command: the military career of Marshal Grouchy did not have anything which placed him above the Generals Gerard, Reille, Mouton, Lamarque, Clausel, and so many of the other officers of merit who surrounded Napoleon.  Thus the Emperor, while entering the campaign, did not have any more the men whom he usually had under his control.  He still found hot devotion, passionate heads, but he knew little about their valor and their peculiarities.  The only military talent of the first line was Marshal Soult: while placing him close to him as chief of the army, Napoleon used him away from his experiences and well below his merit.   And then most had been done with too much precipitation: the soldiers and the chiefs had not had time to get to know one another; the regiments of the Guard had been formed with haste, they had been recruited in all the manners; their ranks had been increased with officers on half-pay, who had more courage than instruction and experience.  It was still an Imperial Guard, but there was no longer a hierarchy.  The stay out of Paris, which, in the times of glory, did nothing but strengthen the officer in his devotion to the fatherland, had, on the contrary, weakened; the soldier of the Guard, who had always had such a profound instinct, seemed to understand that he would not have all France behind him, any more, as formerly; the middle-class class was frightened, the higher classes hostile to the order of things.  The federalist remained, but the latter had excited an extreme antipathy, even among the troops of line.

However, by June 1, the strength of our forces had changed to four hundred thousand men; but the revived insurrection in the Vendée, the guarding of the ports, that of the borders of the South and the East, the garrisons of the fortified towns of the North, did not leave more than one hundred twenty thousand men available.  Napoleon, nevertheless, decided (according to his habit) to take the offensive; and a few days before his departure to put himself at the head of his army, the following article was read le Moniteur, written in the form of a bulletin, relating to the Imperial Guard:

“The Old Guard was increased by three battalions; twelve others, made of returning soldiers who had made several campaigns, have been just joined together with the Young Guard.

The Imperial Guard receives many reinforcements every day; shortly, it will be hold forty thousand men.  General Drouot is named assistant chief-of-staff of the Guard; General Friand commands the foot grenadiers, and General Morand the foot chasseurs of the Old Guard.  General Guyot commands the horse grenadiers; General Ornano, the dragoons; General Colbert, the lancers; and General Lefèvre-Desnouettes, the horse chasseurs.  Colonel Deschamps commands the light artillery, which will soon have mounted eighty pieces of cannon.  Colonel Germanowsky, who accompanied the Emperor to the Island of Elba, commands the Poles.

The Generals Brayer, Meunier and Barrois command three divisions of infantry of the Young Guard.

The Emperor reviewed the various corps of the Imperial Guard, the gendarmes of the Guard of Paris and the sapper-firemen.  All these troops were in their most brilliant attire.  His Majesty traversed the ranks on foot, and inspected the regiments in the greatest detail.  The review, started at one o’clock, only finished at six o'clock in evening.  During the whole time it lasted, the cries of Vive l’Empereur! did not cease until the re-entry of His Majesty with Elysée-Napoleon.”

The army had been divided into three bodies: Ney commanded the left, forty-eight thousand men strong and with one hundred sixteen pieces of cannon: Grouchy, on the right flank, numbered under his command thirty-eight thousand men and a hundred and twelve pieces of ordnance; finally, in the center, the Emperor had brought together, with one hundred thirty-four guns, thirty thousand men, of which the Old Guard formed a part: it was the elite of his troops.

All his provisions made, Napoleon left Paris on June 12, 1815 to go to Soissons to join the headquarters, which awaited him there.  He visited this place, reviewed the garrison, and went to lay down the same evening in Laon.  The 13th, he was in Avesnes.  There, he had a conference with the marshals and the various chiefs of his army, and published in this city an agenda which indicated the positions that each one was to occupy the 14th.  Here are those of the provisions, which related in particular to the Guard:

“The infantry of the Guard will bivouac at a quarter of a mile in front of Beaumont, and will form three lines: Young Guard, chasseurs and grenadiers.”
The 14th, the Imperial Headquarters was moved to Beaumont, where the order of movement for the following day June 15 was issued, only what related to the Guard was thus:
“The Young Guard will beat the Diane at four-thirty in the morning, and will start at five o’clock; it will follow the movement of the sixth corps on the road of Charleroi.
The foot chasseurs of the Guard will beat the Diane at five o’clock, and will start at five-thirty, to follow the movement of the young Guard.
The foot grenadiers of the Guard will beat the Diane at five-thirty, and will leave at six o’clock, to follow the movement of the foot chasseurs.
The luggage of the Guard will be joined together with those of the third and sixth army corps.
The seamen and sappers of the engineers of the Guard will march after the first regiment of the third corps.
Lastly, the cavalry of the Guard will follow the movement on Charleroi, and will leave at eight o’clock.*”

*The total manpower of the Guard present under the arms was only fourteen thousand infantrymen and four thousand cavalrymen; the artillery was composed of ninety-six pieces of ordnance: in all, including the administration, twenty-five thousand men more or less.

On June 15, the army crossed the border, crossed the Sambre and took Charleroi.  The united armies, still being unaware of the movements of our troops, had not carried reunited; the goal of Napoleon was to strike a great blow in the center of their line, and to cut it.

Marshal Ney had to march to a position at Quatre-Bras, a point where various roadways which led to Brussels met, in order to contain the English and to prevent them from bringing help to the Prussians, whom the Emperor, with the remainder of his forces, was to attack; but the bad condition of the roads prevented the Prince of Moskowa from carrying out this movement in the course of the day, as he had he had been commanded.

Napoleon found the 16th, close to Fleurus, between Saint-Amand and Sombref, the army of Blücher, a hundred thousand men strong, arranged for battle, and facing the Sambre: the French Army was put on line in front of the Prussians, and Napoleon sent at once to Ney the order to leave only a detachment of observation at the Quatre-Bras, and to turn back in all haste on Bry, to take the enemy in the rear.

He expected with assurance the effect of this measurement, which was to ensure the destruction of the Prussian Army, and he was on the point of beginning the combat as soon as the guns announced the arrival of the Marshal, with Quatre-Bras only two and a half miles separated from Sombref.  Time passed, and Ney did not appear.  At four hours after midday, in spite of the delay of his lieutenant, the Emperor resolved to attack; moments were invaluable: by letting the day finish, he was not likely to find the occasion to beat the isolated Prussian Army again.  The effort of our troops was thus dedicated to the left, towards Saint-Amand, in order to attract Blücher on this side, so that he could not conduct his retirement; all was laid out to push through his center at soon has forces were removed from it.  The Prussians fought with resolution.  At six o’clock, nothing was still decided.  A last and vigorous attack took place: the village of Ligny, which covered the center of the Prussian Army, having been taken, this (the Prussian Army) was crushed and its rout was complete.  But Ney was not coming from Quatre-Bras at this time, and the village of Bry was not occupied: this circumstance saved the enemy army, who filed through in its entirety through this village; the darkness of the night favoring its retreat; it lost nevertheless forty pieces of cannon, and had approximately twenty thousand men put out of combat.  The disorder had been such among the Prussians, that, the following day, Blücher had not been able to bring together thirty thousand men.

The delay allotted to Ney had not been due to a glorious combat on his part: this Marshal, having marched a little slowly, had found the English already established at Quatre-Bras, and, in spite of the obstinacy of his attacks, he had not been able to dislodge them.

However the goal of Napoleon was reached: the enemy line was crossed, and Blücher separated from Wellington.  Grouchy, recently elevated with the dignity of marshal, was charged to pursue the Prussians, while Napoleon, turning back himself on the left, was going to join Ney to attack the English Army.

This had taken positions in front of the Forest of Soignies; its number rose to a hundred and twenty thousand men: English, Scottish, Belgians and Hanoverians.  Wellington appeared decided to accept the battle; Napoleon was charmed by it.  It was the first success of his ingenuity, and a true blow of fortune to oblige the two enemy generals to fight thus successively and separately.  He sent at once to Grouchy the order to occupy the defile of Saint-Lambert, so that, he did not take an active share in the battle, while falling on the left from the English army, he at least preserved the right flank of ours.

The rain, which had not ceased falling in torrents during the day from the 17th and in the night from the 17 and 18, had so much softened the ground that it was impossible to operate there, although the weather had cleared up the 18th in the morning; a few hours had to pass, before the sun had returned the ground to some consistency.

The Emperor had reconnoitered the position of the enemy (in front of the village of the Mount-Saint-Jean, at the branching of the roads of Nivelle and Charleroi to Brussels): it was a hill with a soft slope favorable to artillery, and from where Wellington could see all our movements.  Towards ten thirty, Napoleon ordered the attack on the line of Mount-Saint-Jean; but Marshal Ney, having found that the ground, cut by an enclosed brook, formed a muddy hollow where it was impossible to cross with infantry, proposed to the Emperor to go up to the origin of the ravine, which formed in the center of the enemy, towards la Haie-Saint, and Napoleon agreed to it.  Two reasons decided this: the first, was that the center of the enemy was going to be attacked, the kind of attack of which was he precisely appreciated the advantage of; the second, was that the Union, abutting the Forest of Soignies, did not have any other route of retirement except the roadway to Brussels: however, by piercing the English Army in the center and while pushing directly into pursuit, one could make oneself master of the outlets from the Forest of Soignies, and then the two wings, separated one from the other and deprived of communications with Brussels, would have been seriously compromised.

The combat engaged, around eleven o’clock, with an attack of the French left against the enemy right, attacks ordered in order to mislead the English general; and indeed, Wellington reinforced at once his right with his best troops.  During this time, an annoying event arrived at our columns of attack: Ney, formed in front of Papelotte, had put his divisions on the march to conduct the agreed attack; but his artillery, encased in the earth watered by eight days of rain, could not follow them; the enemy cavalry sprang on one of our brigades and these pieces, distant from any help; the infantry was too close to fight, some battalions were cut up, and the English riders, sabering the drivers and cutting the traces as well as the  hocks of the horses, temporarily leaving some of our pieces out of service.  A brigade of French cuirassiers rush forward and destroyed this cavalry.  Marshal Ney forced to continue his march without artillery on le Haie-Sainte nevertheless; supported by the French batteries of the center he approached the position with his usual bravery and crushed everything in front of him.  Our cavalry carried out several brilliant charges on the English line, and penetrated up to the reserves of Wellington.

The strength of defense had answered that of the attack; and, in spite of the superiority of the enemy artillery, which, favored by its immobility, continued to fire, our columns did not make any seeming progress: already la Haie-Saint had been taken, and Ney was established there.  Suddenly, the Emperor was given the announcement that troops were seen moving to the side of Saint-Lambert: initially it was believed that it was the corps of Grouchy, which, attracted by the sound of the guns, came to take part in the combat; but soon the prisoners let it made known that the column which emerged of the defile (it had not been occupied!) was the corps of Bulow, which, having conducted its junction with Blücher, formed the advanced guard of the Prussian Army.

Napoleon sadly could not believe his eyes; but finally it well became necessary, as it was obvious.

At once, and without ceasing fighting in the center, he gave the order to the Young Guard, which had been put in motion to support Marshal Ney, to go on the right, in order to contain the Prussians.  — It was yet only two o’clock in the afternoon, and he hoped to have time to complete the defeat of Wellington before the arrival of Blücher.  — Our cavalry sprang on our side and charged the English masses, which occupied the plateau of Mount-Saint-Jean.  This last effort was to be decisive; but Wellington had been warned of the approach of his ally, and had understood the importance of holding the line until the Prussian Army could enter there in its turn.  The combat thus engaged with fury, and a horrible carnage started.  The English infantrymen, formed in squares, died at their posts, and through two hours our cuirassiers continued to decimate their battalions; neither the artillery nor the bayonets could stop their impetuous charges: twelve thousand English fell under their blows.

Already the road of Brussels was covered with fugitives; the soldiers, throwing down their arms, sought refuge in the close forest; Wellington regarded himself as overcome, and, despairing to prolong resistance, was going to give the signal for retreat, when Blücher and his columns appeared.  Part of his divisions, debouching onto the battlefield, linked the corps of Bulow with the left of Wellington, and the remainder extended around our right to turn it.

The certainty of help had revived the courage of the English: as did moving from of a passive defense to a furious attack.  Our soldiers, exhausted by the combat of the day, pulled back; the Guard advanced in vain to support them.  The arrival of the Prussians on la Haie-Saint completely changed the face of the combat: this place was taken again by the united Prussians and English.  The Guard, formed in square, made a heroic resistance in vain; the superior forces of the enemy, the night coming on, a fatal cry of save themselves who can! escaped from some cowards or launched by some traitors decided the route of the French Army… Napoleon wanted to die: he almost had to be forced to leave the battlefield.

Only, the battalions of the Guard, Michel at their head, did not move back.  In the middle of the obstinate and unceasingly renewed charges, their general could then, and with truth, make this sublime answer to the summons of the enemy: “La Guard meurt et ne se rend pas!” (The Guard dies and does not give up!) *

*M. the Count Michel, Captain of the 45th Line, and M. the Baron Michel, Auditor for the Council of State, Sub-Prefect of Bar-sur-Aube, son of M. the Lieutenant General Michel, killed at Waterloo at the head of the squares of grenadiers of the Old Imperial Guard, addressed, in July 1845, a request to the King to ask for a royal decree that: La Guard meurt et ne se rend pas! be found these these words, which had been pronounced by their father, were not to be attributed to General Cambronne.

In support of their request, Misters Michel sons established, by the testimony of Misters Cordier, Deputy of the Jura; Pons, de l’Hérault; Maurice Duval, General Harlet, Colonel Magnant, the Mayor of the town of Nantes, and other people worthy of the time, that the honorable General Cambronne himself had constantly repudiated these words, that, by error, one ascribed to him; and that elsewhere none the contemporary historians had attributed them to him in a formal way.

This request quoted moreover the passages of several works which dispute General Cambronne’s use of these fine words, by expressly allotting them to the General Michel, inter alia: Historical Annals of France, V. II, p. 642; The Biography of the Contemporaries, V. 1st, p. 736; the Biographical Dictionary of the Dead and the Living, V. VII, p. 178; Victories and Conquests, V. XXX, p. 223, and V. XXXI, in the table; the Biography of the Living Men (article CAMBRONNE); the Dictionary of the Conversation, V.X, p. 113; Ephemeral Universes, V. VI, p.335; the Record of the Legion of Honor, V. IV, p. 320; etc. etc.

Indeed, with the number of particular testimonies that Misters Michel produced to prove that these words had been pronounced by their famous father, we can quote Franck, adjutant-sub-officer of the Invalids, an ancient foot chasseur of the Old Guard, eyewitness of death of General Michel; Baron Martenot, who commanded the battalion in which the Emperor placed himself for a moment at the end of the battle; finally Bertrand himself: but worthy the companion in exile of Napoleon was not restricted to give to his declaration in the form of a letter; he consigned it, this declaration, on a monument which the sons of General Michel will undoubtedly preserve eternally, like an inappreciable relic: on a detached stone of the tomb of Napoleon, the grand marshal wrote these words and signed in his hand:

“To the Baroness Michel, widow of General Michel, killed at Waterloo, where he answered the summons of the enemy with these words sublimes: THE GUARD DIES AND DOES NOT GIVE UP!

Stone of the tomb of Sainte-Helena.

Signed: BERTRAND.”

As of this moment, the retirement of the Guard had to take place creating new wonders and bloody sacrifices.  The fire of the enemy was at four hundred paces behind the unhappy French Army; the roadways were cut.  The general pell-mell, which had included Napoleon with the remains of his Guard, soon confused, through the fields and in the middle of the darkness, cavalry, infantry, artillery, boxes and luggage.  Officers and soldiers of the Guard were seen committing suicide out of despair, so as not to survive the disaster that they had just led.  General Duchesne, one of the more brave generals of the Guard, was taken and massacred by the Prussians.  The humanity, the friendship, the pain of the Belgians concealed a crowd of wounded from Prussian cruelty.  The despair of those who survived and followed Napoleon to Paris can be compared only with the glory of which they had been covered since the beginning of the day up to the night.  A funeral procession escaped silently from these fields of carnage, where twice cries of victory had resounded…

The Imperial staff gained Jemmapes, where it vainly tried to organize some means of defense.  The equipment of the Emperor had been taken: a cart was used to transport him from Waterloo to Philippeville, where the carriage of Marshal Soult arrived, and Napoleon went up by barouche to the Grand Marshal Bertrand, who was not to leave his side again until he closed his eyes, three thousand miles from France ! …

Thus ended the campaign of Belgium , which, although having lasted only one week, did not cost the Union any less than sixty thousand men, and in France forty thousand soldiers.

One year later, on June 18, 1816, one of the faithful of Napoleon having reminded him, in Saint-Helena, that this day was the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, this memory produced on the so mobile features of the Emperor an indefinable impression:

“Incomprehensible day! He exclaimed with pain; contest of amazing fates! … Grouchy! Ney! d’Erlon! … Was it only misfortune there? … Ah! poor France ! …” And he covered his face with his two hands; but, after one moment of silence, he began again: “And yet, all that could be done with skill had been accomplished! … All failed only when all had succeeded! Singular defeat, he added still, where, in spite of the most horrible catastrophe, the glory of the overcome did not suffer, where that of the winner did not increase! … The memory of the one will survive its destruction; perhaps the memory of the other will be buried in its triumph!”

COMPOSITION AND NUMERICAL STRENGTH OF THE GUARD IN 1815

General Staff………………………………………………………………………………………..

       20

Administration………………………………………………………………………………………

200

 

Infantry.

       

Grenadiers…………………….

3 regiments………………..

3,000

 

Chasseurs……………………..

3 regiments………………..

3,000

 

Tirailleurs……………………..

6 regiments………………..

7,200

 

Voltigeurs……………………..

 6 regiments………………..

7,200

 
   

20,400

20,400

 

Cavalry.

       

Grenadiers…………………….

1 regiment…………………

800

 

Chasseurs……………………...

1 regiment…………………

800

 

Dragoons……………………...

1 regiment…………………

800

 

Elite Gendarmes………………

1 company………………...

100

 

Light Horse Lancers…………..

1 regiment…………………

800

 
   

3,300

 3,300

Artillery.  

6 foot companies (Old Guard), 4 horse companies,

1,500

(Old Guard), 1 company of workers, 1 train

squadron…………………………………………………

Engineers.

 

1 staff, 1 company of sappers-miners……………………

250

                       Equipment train.        1 squadron……………………………………………….

200

   

TOTAL

25,870

GENERAL RECAPITULATION OF THE STRENGTH OF THE GUARD BY YEAR.

In

1804…………………………...

9,798

men.

 

1805…………………………...

12,187

 
 

1806…………………………...

15,656

 
 

1807…………………………...

15,361

 
 

1808…………………………...

15,392

 
 

1809…………………………...

31,203

 
 

1810…………………………...

32,150

 
 

1811…………………………...

51,960

 
 

1812…………………………...

56,169

 
 

1813…………………………...

92,472

 
 

1814…………………………...

112,482

 
 

1815…………………………...

25,870

 

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2007

 

Organization Index | More on St. Hilaire's "History of the Imperial Guard ]



© Copyright 1995-2012, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.

Top | Home ]