"Waterloo did more than any other battle I know of
toward the true object of all battles—the peace of the world."
S UNDAY morning, the 18th of June, dawned grey and misty. The ground was sodden with the night's rain. Wellington was up early. He and Napoleon were face to face for the first time in their lives. Each must prepare for a tremendous conflict: each was confident of victory.
By six o'clock in the morning, the British troops and their allies were astir, a "miserable-looking set of men, covered with mud from head to foot," weary with the retreat of the day before. Mounted on his famous charger, Copenhagen, Wellington rode along the lines, as batteries, squadrons, and battalions took their appointed places, for the coming battle. His second in command asked him his plans for the day.
"Plans? I have no plans," answered Wellington impatiently, "except to give that fellow a good licking."
The road from Charleroi to Brussels ran across, and over, two ridges of hills, between which lay a narrow valley. On the top of the ridge, some nine miles from Brussels, Wellington posted his army. He had two advanced posts. One was on the road—the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte—under the command of the Prince of Orange and the Dutch allies; the other was Hougoumont, a farmhouse and castle strongly walled in, standing in the valley. On the ridge opposite, on the other side of the valley, the French army stood to arms.
"At last I have them—these English," said Napoleon.
"Sire," ventured Marshal Soult, who had fought against Wellington in Spain, "I know these English; they will die ere they quit the ground on which they stand."
"Bah!" was the answer. "You think that because Wellington defeated you, that he must be a great general. I tell you he is a bad general, and the English are bad troops: we will make a mouthful of them."
On his little white Arab, Marengo, Napoleon surveyed his troops with satisfaction, as with drums beating, colours flying, and bands playing they took up their position for the battle. He had intended to attack at nine o'clock; but he waited till the ground should dry, and it was half-past eleven before the first French guns rang out on the summer air.
The tremendous conflict of Waterloo had begun in deadly earnest.
Napoleon directed his first attack on Hougoumont, which, however, was held heroically, by British troops, throughout the whole of that long day. Early in the afternoon, the other outpost, La Haye Sainte, was taken by the French, and it seemed as if Napoleon would carry all before him.
Riding along his lines, Wellington encouraged his men.
"Stand fast," he urged; "we must not be beaten. What will they say in England?"
The French now approached the main line of the English, and so destructive was their fire, that the English squares broke and a gap was left in the centre.
It was a tremendous moment. Wellington himself led forward more troops to fill the gap. He was beset by questioning officers.
"There are no orders," he answered gravely; "only stand firm to the last man."
The French were gaining ground steadily, but more troops were wanted. Marshal Ney sent a message to the Emperor to this effect.
"More troops!" shouted Napoleon. "Where am to get them? Does he expect me to make them?"
It is impossible to do more, than mark the leading events of this eventful day. At half-past four Blücher and the Prussians arrived on the field. For fifteen long hours, the heroic leader of the Prussians, defeated and wounded though he had been, tramped over muddy roads to reach Waterloo, in time to fulfil his promise to Wellington. Napoleon saw them: still he did not despair. He sent another tremendous charge of French cavalry up the opposite ridge.
"Will these English never show us their backs?" he cried, straining his eyes through the smoke of the battle.
"I fear," said Soult, "they will be cut to pieces first."
It was past seven, and the battle was still undecided, when Napoleon prepared for his last final attack on the ridge of Waterloo.
"You shall sup at Brussels," he said confidently to the Imperial Guard, with whom he intrusted this final charge.
He watched their gallant ascent of the now slippery slopes, with triumph.
But suddenly Wellington's voice rang out clear above the storm of battle, "Up, Guards, and at 'em!"—such are the words that have passed into history—and from the shelter of the wayside banks behind the ridge, up rose the English Guards, 1500 strong. Like a very wall of scarlet, they reached the summit of the ridge and poured a withering volley into the French. It broke the French column, and soon the very flower of Napoleon's army was retreating down the hillside.
The Emperor was watching through his glass. Suddenly he turned deadly pale, and his hand fell to his side.
"Why, they are in confusion," he cried in a hollow voice. It was followed by a cry, almost a sob. "The Guard gives way!"
As the sun shot its last gleams over Waterloo, the supreme moment arrived. Wellington recognised it. Standing on the crest of the hill, his figure outlined against the bright western sky, he took off his cocked hat and waved it forward. It was the signal for a general advance. For nine hours his soldiers had patiently endured the fiery storm, and now they rushed in magnificent order down from the heights, in pursuit of the wildly retreating French.
Then Napoleon himself rushed into battle. He formed his Guards into four squares, and placed them across the line of retreat. The last stand of the French Imperial Guard, is one of the finest scenes in history. Like "fierce beasts of prey hemmed in by forest hunters," these men stood savagely at bay against their hosts of enemies. In vain, the British called on them to surrender.
"The Guard dies, and does not surrender," was the heroic answer. And they perished almost to a man.
Dusk was deepening into night, when Napoleon turned from the battlefield. "All is lost," he cried, as he turned his horse in the direction of Quatre-Bras. There he stopped, and looked yearningly toward Waterloo, while tears rolled down his pale cheeks. He had staked and lost all.
The victory was with the Allies; but it had been secured at tremendous cost. Both Wellington and Blücher together lost over 20,000 men.
Night was advanced, when Wellington, weary with the ten hours' fight, threw himself down to sleep at the little inn at Waterloo, his face still black with the dust and powder of the battle. Early in the morning, the doctor, at his request, brought the list of killed and wounded. He began to read it aloud to Wellington. He read for an hour; then he looked up. There sat the Iron Duke, his hands clasped together, while tears were making long white streaks down his battle-soiled cheeks.
"Go on," he groaned; "for God's sake go on. It is terrible."
So ended the battle of Waterloo. It ended the military careers of Wellington and Napoleon at the early ages of forty-six; it ended the great Napoleonic struggle, and brought to Europe thirty years of peace.