Thursday, June 18, 2015

200 years ago, June 18, 1815

On the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo a blog re-publishes Jules Crittenden's review of a book about the battle, from which:
A couple of times a year, some old warriors I know get together, a small group of friends. They are men who have seen heavy combat, including, for two of them, a day at the Ia Drang in 1965, when a third of their battalion's men were killed and another third were wounded in the space of a few hours. But they held, giving better than they got.

Forty years later, they fight tears when they talk about absent friends. They remain intensely interested in war in all its aspects, and when we meet, we talk about war. The old wars and today's wars, how they are being fought and where they will take us. Courage and cowardice, the timeless misery of infantrymen, and the cleverness and failings of officers. ....

There is one constant of war through time, and that is the base experience of it. Technical aspects may change, but the gut feelings remain the same, and in varying degrees of intensity are shared by everyone who has done this. They are conflicting feelings of horror, fear, commitment, despair, camaraderie, discipline, honour, fatalism, hilarity, sacrifice, bloodlust and the desire to prevail, elements of which combine to carry us through, carry us away or destroy us. ....

You know more or less how [the Battle of Waterloo] goes. As Napoleon tried to resurrect his shattered empire in 1815, nearly 200,000 men engaged on a few square miles of Belgian woods and farmland. The British and their allies, badly beaten two days earlier at Quatre Bras, had stopped on a ridge while falling back toward Brussels. The British squares held, and the Prussians arrived on the French flank. Exactly how many British, French, German, Dutch and Belgian soldiers died on June 18 1815 is unknown, but estimates range to about 20,000, with twice as many missing or wounded. The future of Europe hinged on it, and two magnificent generals, the greatest of their age and artists of war, faced each other. ....

Barbero (the author of the book being reviewed) quotes Sgt. William Lawrence of the 40th Foot, on being ordered to bear the regimental colours.
This, although I was used to warfare as much as any, was a job I did not at all like: but I still went as boldly to work as I could. There had been before me that day 14 sergeants already killed and wounded while in charge of these Colours and officers in proportion... This job will never be blotted from my memory; although I am now an old man, I remember it as if it had been yesterday. I had not been there more than a quarter of an hour when a cannon-shot came and took the captain's head clean off. This was again close to me, for my left side was touching the captain's right, and I was spattered all over with his blood. The men in their tired state began to despair, but the officers cheered them on continually throughout the day with the cry of 'Keep your ground, my men!' It is a mystery to me how it was accomplished, for at last there were so few left that there was scarcely enough to form a square.
It's nearly 200 years, but that's not so much time. It could be yesterday. .... [more]