From time to time, in my reading, I encounter excerpts of descriptive writing that strike me so forcibly that I feel moved to share them. The following anonymous piece comes from a book titled With Fife and Drum, True Stories of Military Life and Adventure in Camp and Field, Told at First hand by Officers, Privates and Other Eyewitnesses, edited by Alfred H. Miles and published by Hutchinson and Co of London, perhaps around 1890. I’m not certain that every word of it is true. The ending, in particular, seems a little implausible, but the description of Brussels in the confusing days of battle, and the horrific images of the field of Waterloo after the fight, make it a very compelling piece.
I AM an idle man and a bachelor possessed of an independent fortune, and, as an Englishman, need scarcely add, am fond of travelling. Indeed, ca va sans dire, for the love of locomotion is so natural to an Englishman that nothing can chain him at home but the absolute impossibility of living abroad. No such imperious necessity acting upon me, I gave way to my inclinations, and the summer of 1815 found me at Brussels.
The town was then crowded to excess – it seemed a city of splendour; the bright and varied uniforms of so many different nations mingled with the gay dresses of female beauty in the Park, and the Allee Verte was thronged with superb horses and brilliant equipages. The tables d’hote resounded with a confusion of tongues which might have rivalled Babel, and the shops actually glittered with showy toys, hung out to tempt money from the pockets of the English, whom the Flemings seemed to consider as walking bags of gold. Balls and plays, routs and dinners, were the only topics of conversation; and though some occasional rumours were spread that the French had made an incursion within the lines and carried off a few head of cattle, the tales were too vague to excite the least alarm.
I was then lodging with a Madame Tissaud, on the Place du Sablon, and I occasionally chatted with my hostess on the critical posture of affairs. Every Frenchwoman loves politics, and Madame Tissaud, who was deeply interested in the subject, continually assured me of their complete devotion to the English.
‘Ces maudits Francois!’ cried she one day, with almost terrific energy, when speaking of Napoleon’s army. ‘If they should dare come to Brussels, I will tear their eyes out!’ ‘Oh, aunt!’ sighed her pretty niece, ‘remember that Louis is a conscript!’ ‘Silence, Annette! I hate even my son, since he is fighting against the brave English.’ This was accompanied with a bow to me; but I own that I thought Annette’s love far more interesting than Madame’s Anglicism.
Rumours of battle
On the 3rd of June I went to see ten thousand troops reviewed by the Dukes of Wellington and Brunswick. Imagination cannot picture anything finer than the ensemble of this scene. The splendid uniforms of the English, Scotch, Hanoverians, contrasted strongly with the gloomy black of the Brunswick Hussars, whose veneration for their old Duke could be only equalled by their devotion to his son. The firm step of the Highlanders seemed irresistible; and as they moved in solid masses, they appeared prepared to sweep away everything that opposed them. In short, I was delighted with the cleanliness, military order, and excellent appointments of the men generally, and I was particularly struck with the handsome features of the Duke of Brunswick, whose fine, manly figure, as he galloped across the field, quite realized my beau ideal of a warrior. The next time I saw the Duke of Brunswick was at the dress ball given at the Assembly Rooms in the Rue Ducale on the night of the 15th of June. I stood near him when he received the information that a powerful French force was advancing in the direction of Charleroi. ‘Then it is high time for me to be off,’ said the Duke, and I never saw him alive again. The assembly broke up abruptly, and in half-an-hour drums were beating and bugles sounding. The good burghers of the city, who were almost all enjoying their first sleep, started from their beds at the alarm, and hastened to the streets, wrapped in the first things they could find. The most ridiculous, absurd rumours were rapidly circulated and believed. The most general impression seemed to be that the town was on fire; the next that the Duke of Wellington had been assassinated; but when it was discovered that the French were advancing, the consternation became general, and every one hurried to the Palace Royal, where the Hanoverians and Brunswickers were already mustering.
Strange rumours were now whispered. Some said that the enemy were actually at the gates, lying in ambush to surprise the city, and some that the security of the English general arose from his having bought over the French. Poor Madame Tissaud, who had risen at the first alarm, was dreadfully embarrassed by these contradictory stories, and according as one or other prevailed, the French Emperor or the Duke of Wellington became the god of her idolatry. The confusion of her ideas produced the most absurd mistakes, and she frequently began invectives which ended in becoming panegyrics of the persons whom she did not mean to praise. Annette was silent, but her eye and cheek spoke eloquently; and notwithstanding my own danger I could scarcely wish destruction to the army which contained her Louis.
Brussels in motion
About one o’clock in the morning of the 16th, the whole population of Brussels seemed in motion. The streets were crowded as in full day; lights flashed to and from artillery and baggage waggons were creaking in every direction; the drums beat to arms, and the bugles sounded loudly ‘the dreadful note of preparation.’ The noise and bustle surpassed all description; here were horses plunging and kicking amidst a crowd of terrified burghers; there, lovers parting from their weeping mistresses. Now the attention was attracted by a park of artillery thundering through the streets; and now, by a group of officers disputing loudly the demands of their imperturbable Flemish landlords, for not even the panic which prevailed could frighten the Flemings out of a single stiver. Screams and yells occasionally rose above the busy hum that murmured through the crowd, but the general sound resembled the roar of distant ocean.
Between two and three o’clock the Brunswickers marched from the town, still clad in the mourning which they wore for their old Duke, and burning to avenge his death. Alas! they had a still more fatal loss to lament ‘ere they returned.
At four the whole disposable force under the Duke of Wellington was collected together, but in such haste that many of the officers had not time to change their silk stockings and dancing-shoes; and some, quite overcome by drowsiness, were seen lying asleep about the ramparts, still holding, however, with a firm hand, the reins of their horses, which were grazing by their sides.
About five o’clock the word ‘march’ was heard in all directions, and instantly the whole mass appeared to move simultaneously. I conversed with several of the officers previous to their departure, and not one appeared to have the slightest idea of an approaching engagement.
The Duke of Wellington and his staff did not quit Brussels till past seven o’clock, and it was not till some time after they were gone that it was generally known that the whole French army, including a strong corps of cavalry, was within a few miles of Quatre Bras, where the brave Duke of Brunswick first met the enemy, ‘And foremost fighting fell.’
Powerful French army
Dismay seized us all when we found that a powerful French army was really within twenty-eight miles of us, and we shuddered at the thought of the awful contest which was taking place. For my own part, I had never been so near a field of battle before, and I cannot describe my sensations. We knew that our army had no alternative but to fly, or fight with a force four times stronger than its own, and though we could not doubt British bravery, we trembled at the fearful odds to which our men must be exposed. Cannon, lances, and swords, were opposed to the English bayonet alone. Cavalry we had none on the first day, for the horses had been sent to grass, and the men were scattered too widely over the country to be collected at such short notice. Under these circumstances, victory was impossible; indeed, nothing but the staunch bravery and exact discipline of the men prevented the foremost of our infantry from being annihilated, and though the Englishmen maintained their ground during the day, at night a retreat became necessary.
The agony of the British resident in Brussels during the whole of this eventful day sets all language at defiance. No one thought of rest or food; but everyone who could get a telescope flew to the ramparts to strain his eyes, in vain attempts to discover what was passing. At length, some soldiers in French uniforms were seen in the distance; and as the news flew from mouth to mouth, it was soon magnified into a rumour that the French were coming. Horror seized the English and their adherents, and the hitherto concealed partisans of the French began openly to avow themselves; tricoloured ribbons grew suddenly into great request, and cries of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ resounded through the air. These exclamations, however, were changed to ‘Vive le Wellington!’ when it was discovered that the approaching French came as captives, not as conquerors.
On my return from my post of observation, I found Madame Tissaud and Annette busily employed in making a whole basket full of tri-coloured cockades. ‘Ah, ca monsieur! ‘ cried Annette gaily. ‘Voila ma corbeille de mariage.’ I sighed; and Annette’s joyful countenance immediately lost its brightness. In the exuberance of her joy, she had forgotten that I was an Englishman, and now blushing, she tried to heal the wound she had inflicted. ‘Monsieur n’aura pas besoin de se facher,’ said she in a timid hesitating tone. ‘Si les Francois arrivent, les camarades de Louis respecter ont le bien faiteur de sa fiancee.’ I thanked the pretty Annette for her courtesy, but whispered that the moment for it was not yet arrived, as the French who were advancing were only prisoners. ‘Prisonniers!’ exclaimed Madame Tissaud, dropping a half-finished cockade from her fingers as she spoke. ‘Ah! c’est une autre affaire cela! Tiens, ma chere,’ continued she, addressing Annette, and tossing the ribbons and cockades altogether in the basket. ‘Cache les pour le moment, ils serviront toujours en cas de besoin!’ Alas! there were that day many Madame Tissauds in Brussels, and all equally well prepared ‘en cas de besoin’.
Between seven and eight o’clock in the evening I walked up to the Porte de Namur, where the wounded were just beginning to arrive. Fortunately, some commodious caravans had arrived from England only a few days before, and these were now entering the gate. They were filled principally with Brunswickers and Highlanders; and it was an appalling spectacle to behold the very soldiers whose fine martial appearance and excellent appointments I had so much admired at the review, now lying helpless and mutilated-their uniforms soiled with blood and dirt-their mouths blackened with biting their cartridges, and all the splendour of their equipments entirely destroyed. When the caravan stopped, I approached them, and addressed a Scotch officer who was only slightly wounded in the knee.
‘Are the French coming, sir?’ asked I. ‘Egad! I can’t tell,’ returned he. ‘We know nothing about it. We had enough to do to take care of ourselves. They are fighting like devils, and I’m off again as soon as my wound’s dressed.’
Is my husband safe?
An English lady, elegantly attired, now rushed forward: ‘Is my husband safe?’ asked she, eagerly. ‘Good heavens! Madam,’ replied one of the men, ‘how can we possibly tell? I don’t know the fate of those who were fighting by my side, and I could not see a yard round me.’ She scarcely heeded what he said, and rushed out of the gate, wildly repeating her question to every one she met.
Some French prisoners now arrived. I noticed one, a fine fellow, who had had one arm shot off, and though the bloody and mangled tendons were still undressed, and had actually dried and blackened in the sun, he marched along with apparent indifference, carrying a loaf of bread under his remaining arm, and shouting ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ I asked him if the French were coming? ‘Je le crois bien,’ returned he, ‘preparez un souper, mais bourgeois-il soupera a Bruxelles ce soir.’ ‘Pretty information for me,’ thought I. ‘Don’t believe him, sir,’ said a Scotchman who lay close beside me, struggling to speak, though apparently in the last agony. ‘It’s all right I assure you.’
The wounded suffered dreadfully from the want of a sufficient number of experienced surgeons able to amputate their shattered limbs, and there was also a deficiency of surgical instruments and of lint. The Flemings, however, roused by the urgency of the case, shook off their natural apathy, and exerted themselves to the utmost to supply everything that was necessary. They tore up their linen to make lint and bandages; they assisted the surgeons in the difficult operations, and they gave up even the beds they slept upon, to accommodate the strangers. The women, in particular, showed the warmest enthusiasm to succour the wounded; they nursed them with the tenderest care, and watched them night and day. In short, their kindness, attention, and solicitude, reflect immortal honour on the sex. The very children were seen leading the wounded Highlanders into the homes of their parents, exclaiming, ‘Voici votre brave Ecossais!’ Even the national vice of covetousness was forgotten in the excitement of the moment; rich and poor fared alike, and in most cases every offer of remuneration was declined.
The whole of Friday night was passed in the greatest anxiety; the wounded arrived every hour, and the accounts they brought of the carnage which was taking place were absolutely terrific. Saturday morning was still worse; an immense number of supernumeraries and runaways from the army came rushing in at the Porte de Namur, and these fugitives increased the public panic to the utmost. Sauve qui peut! now became the universal feeling; all ties of friendship or kindred were forgotten, and an earnest desire to quit Brussels seemed to absorb every faculty. To effect this object, the greatest sacrifices were made. Every beast of burthen and every species of vehicle was put into requisition to convey persons and property to Antwerp. Even the dogs and fish carts did not escape – enormous sums were given for the humblest modes of conveyance, and when all failed, numbers set off on foot. The road soon became choked up – cars, waggons, and carriages of every description were joined together in an immovable mass, and property to an unusual amount was abandoned by its owners, who were too much terrified even to think of the loss they were sustaining. A scene of frightful riot and devastation ensued. Trunks, boxes, and portmanteaus were broken open and pillaged without mercy, and everyone who pleased helped himself to what he liked with impunity.
The disorder was increased by a rumour that the Duke of Wellington was retreating towards Brussels, in a sort of running fight, closely pursued by the enemy. The terror of the fugitives now almost amounted to frenzy, and they flew like maniacs escaping from a madhouse. It is scarcely possible to imagine a more distressing scene. A great deal of rain had fallen during the night, and the unhappy fugitives were obliged literally to wade through mud. I had, from the first, determined to await my fate in Brussels; but on this eventful morning I walked a few miles on the road to Antwerp, to endeavour to assist my flying countrymen. I was soon disgusted with the scene, and finding all my efforts to be useful unavailing, I returned to the town, which now seemed like a city of the dead; for a gloomy silence reigned through the streets, like that fearful calm which precedes a storm; the shops were all closed, and all business was suspended.
Panic and sacrifice
During the panic of Friday and Saturday, the sacrifice of property made by the English residents was enormous. A chest of drawers sold for five francs, a bed for ten, and a horse for fifty. In one instance which fell immediately under my own observation, some household furniture was sold for one thousand francs (about £40), for which the owner had given seven thousand francs (£280) only three weeks before. This was by no means a solitary instance; indeed, in most cases the loss was much greater, and in many, houses full of furniture were entirely deserted and abandoned to pillage.
Sunday morning was ushered in by one of the most dreadful tempests I ever remember. The crashing of thunder was followed by the roar of cannon, which was now distinctly heard from the ramparts, and it is not possible to describe the fearful effect of this apparent mockery of heaven. I never before felt so forcibly the feebleness of man. The rain was tremendous – a heavy black cloud spread, like the wings of a monstrous vulture, over Brussels. The wounded continued to arrive the whole of Saturday night and Sunday morning, in a condition which defies description. They appeared to have been dragged for miles through oceans of mud; their clothes were torn, their caps and feathers cut to pieces, and their shoes and boots trodden off. The accounts they brought were vague and disheartening – in fact, we could only ascertain that the Duke of Wellington had, late on Saturday night, taken up his position at Waterloo, and that there he meant to wait the attack of the French. That this attack had commenced we needed not to be informed, as the roar of the cannon became every instant more distinct, till we even fancied that it shook the town.
The wounded represented the field of battle as a perfect quagmire, and their appearance testified the truth of their assertions. About two o’clock a fresh alarm was excited by the horses, which had been put in requisition to draw the baggage-waggons, being suddenly galloped through the town. We fancied this a proof of defeat, but the fact was simply this: the peasants from whom the horses had been taken, finding the drivers of the waggons absent from their posts, seized the opportunity to cut the traces, and gallop off with their cattle.
As this explanation, however, was not given till the following day, we thought that all was over. The few British adherents who had remained were in despair, and tri-coloured cockades were suspended from every house. Even I, for the first time, lost all courage, and my only consolation was the joy of Annette. ‘England cannot be much injured by the loss of a single battle,’ thought I; ‘and as for me, it is of little consequence whether I am a prisoner on parole, or a mere wanderer at pleasure. I may easily resign myself to my fate; but this poor girl would break her heart if she lost her lover, for he is everything to her.’ In this manner I reasoned, but in spite of my affected philosophy, I could not divest myself of all natural feeling ; and when about six o’clock we heard that the French had given way, and that the Prussians had eluded Grouche, and were rapidly advancing to the field, I quite forgot poor Annette, and thanked God with all my heart. At eight o’clock there was no longer any doubt of our success, for a battalion of troops marched into the town, and brought intelligence that the Duke of Wellington had a complete gained victory and that the French were flying, closely pursued by the Prussians.
Huge numbers of wounded
Saturday night was employed in enthusiastic rejoicing. The tri-coloured cockades had all disappeared and the British colours were hoisted from every window. The great bell of St Gudule tolled, to announce the event to the surrounding neighbourhood, and some of the English, who had only hidden themselves, ventured to reappear. The only alloy to the universal rapture which prevailed, was the number of the wounded; the houses were insufficient to contain half; and the churches and public buildings were littered down with straw for their reception. The body of the Duke of Brunswick, who fell at Quatre Bras, was brought in on Saturday, and taken to the quarters we had occupied near the Chateau de Lacken. I was powerfully affected when I saw the corpse of one, whom I had so lately marked as blooming with youth and health; but my eyes soon became accustomed to horrors.
On Monday morning, June 19th, I hastened to the field of battle. I was compelled to go through the forest de Soignes (for the road was so completely choked up as to be impassable), and I had not proceeded far before I stumbled over the dead body of a Frenchman, which was lying on its face amongst the grass. The corpse was so frightfully disfigured, and so smeared with mud and gore, that I felt horror-struck; but when, on advancing a little further, I saw hundreds, and in less than an hour, thousands of slain, I found my pity for individuals merge in the general mass, and that the more I saw the less I felt; so true is it, that habit reconciles everything.
The dead required no help; but thousands of wounded, who could not help themselves, were in want of everything; their features, swollen by the sun and rain, looked livid and bloated. One poor fellow had a ghastly wound across his lower lip, which gaped wide, and showed his teeth and gums, as though a second and unnatural mouth had opened below his first. Another, quite blind from a gash across his eyes, sat upright, gasping for breath, and murmuring, ‘De l’eau! de I’eau!’ The anxiety for water was indeed most distressing. The German ‘Wasser! wasser!’ and the French ‘De I’eau! de I’eau!’ still seem sounding in my ears. I am convinced that hundreds must have perished from thirst alone, and they had no hope of assistance, for even humane persons were afraid of approaching the scene of blood, lest they should be taken in requisition to bury the dead; about every person who came near, being pressed into that most disgusting and painful service.
This general burying was truly horrible; large square holes were dug about six feet deep, and thirty or forty fine young fellows, stripped to their skins, were thrown into each, pell mell, and then covered over in so slovenly a manner, that sometimes a hand or foot peeped through the earth. One of these holes was preparing as I passed, and the followers of the army were stripping the bodies before throwing them into it, whilst some Russian Jews were assisting in the spoilation of the dead by chiselling out their teeth, an operation which they performed with the most brutal indifference. The clinking hammers of these wretches jarred horribly upon my ears, and mingled strangely with the occasional reports of pistols, which seemed echoing each other at stated intervals, from different corners of the field. I could not divine the meaning of these shots, till I was informed that they proceeded from the Belgians, who were killing the wounded horses. Hundreds of these fine creatures were, indeed, galloping over the plain, kicking and plunging, apparently mad with pain, whilst the poor wounded wretches who saw them coming, and could not get out of their way, shrieked in agony, and tried to shrink back to escape from them, but in vain.
Soon after, I saw an immense horse (one of the Scots Greys) dash towards a colonel of the Imperial Guard, who had his leg shattered; the horse was frightfully wounded, and part of a broken lance still rankled in one of its wounds. It rushed snorting and plunging past the Frenchman, and I shall never forget his piercing cry as it approached. I flew instantly to the spot, but ere I reached it the man was dead; for, though I do not think the horse had touched him, the terror he felt had been too much for his exhausted frame.
Immense heaps of slain
Sickened by the immense heaps of slain, which spread in all directions as far as the eye could reach, I was preparing to return. When I was striding over the dead and dying, and meditating on the horrors of war, my attention was attracted by a young Frenchman, who was lying on his back, apparently at the last gasp. There was something in his countenance which interested me, and I fancied, though I knew not when or where, that I had seen him before. Some open letters were lying around, and one was yet grasped in his hand as though he had been reading it to the last moment. My eye fell upon the words, ‘Mon cher fils,’ in a female hand, and I felt interested for the fate of so affectionate a son.
When I left home in the morning, I had put a flask of brandy and some biscuit into my pocket, in the hope that I might be useful to the wounded, but when I gazed on the countless multitude which strewed the field, I felt discouraged from attempting to relieve them. Chance had now directed my attention to one individual, and I was resolved to try to save his life. His thigh was broken, and he was badly wounded on the left wrist, but the vital parts were untouched, and his exhaustion seemed to arise principally from loss of blood. I poured a few drops of brandy into his mouth, and crumbling my biscuit, contrived to make him swallow a small particle. The effects of the dose were soon visible; his eyes half opened, and a faint tinge of colour spread over his cheek. I administered a little more, and it revived him so much that he tried to sit upright. I raised him, and contrived to place him in such a manner as to support him against the dead body of a horse. I put the flask and biscuit by his side, and departed in order to procure assistance to remove him.
I recollected that a short time before I had seen smoke issuing from a deep ditch, and that my olfactory nerves had been saluted by a savoury smell as I passed. Guided by these indications, I retraced my steps to the spot, and found some Scotch soldiers sheltered by a hedge, very agreeably employed in cooking a quantity of beefsteaks over a wood fire in a French cuirass!! I was exceedingly diverted at this novel kind of frying-pan, which served also as a dish; and after begging permission to dip a biscuit in their gravy for the benefit of my patient, I told my tale, and was gratified by the eagerness which they manifested to assist me; one ran to catch a horse with a soft hussar saddle (there were hundreds galloping over the field), and the rest went with me to the youth, whom we found surprisingly recovered, though he was still unable to speak. The horse was brought, and as we raised the young Frenchman to put him upon it, his vest opened and his livret fell out. This is a little book which every French soldier was obliged to carry, and which contains an account of his name, age, pay, accoutrements, and services. I picked it up, and offered it to my patient – but the young man murmured the name of ‘Annette’ and fainted.
‘Annette ! ‘ the name thrilled through every nerve. I hastily opened the livret and found that it was indeed Louis Tissaud whom I had saved! The rest is soon told. Louis reached Brussels in safety, and even Madame’s selfishness gave way to rapture on recovering her son. As to Annette – but why perplex myself to describe her feelings? If my readers have ever loved, they may conceive them. Louis soon recovered; indeed, with such a nurse he could not fail to get well. When I next visited Brussels I found Annette surrounded by three or four smiling cherubs, to whom I was presented as le bon Anglais who preserved the life of their papa.