Fire & Retire !

First hand accounts from
the Napoleonic Wars.

Battles and Sieges.
From the forgotten journal of Sergeant D. Robertson:


The terrible Battle of Quatre Bras.
(Part 2)

The 71st Highlanders at Quatre Bras. We now went off the road to the left of the house and closed up upon the front division in columns of battalions ready to form line.

Before many minutes had elapsed, we received some shots from the French artillery which galled us considerably, as we had none up yet to return the compliment.

The French made a movement to their own right; and the 42nd and 79th were ordered to oppose them, in a field on which was growing a crop of long wheat or rye. As those regiments were moving on to take possession of a wood to the left, a little in front of our position, they were attacked by a strong body of cavalry, which made considerable havoc among them.

The 92nd was now brought to the front of the farmhouse and formed on the road, with our backs to the walls of the building and garden, our right resting upon the crossroads, and our left extending down the front. We were ordered to prime and load and sit down with our firelocks in our hands, at the same time keeping in line.

The ground we occupied rose with a slight elevation. and was directly in front of the road along which the French were advancing.

Shortly after we had formed here the Duke of Wellington and his staff came and dismounted in rear of the centre of our regiment, and ordered the grenadier company to wheel back on the left and the light company on the right; so that the walls of the house and garden in our rear with the eight companies in front, joined in a square, in case any of the enemy's cavalry should attack us.

We had not been long in this way, when a column of Brunswick hussars, with the Duke of Brunswick at their head, made a charge down the road on the right. In this, however, they were unsuccessful, and were driven back with considerable loss, the Duke being among the slain.

The column of French cavalry that drove back the Brunswickers retired a little, then re-formed, and prepared to charge our regiment; but we took it more coolly than the Brunswickers did.

When the Duke of Wellington saw them approach, he ordered our left wing to fire to the right, and the right wing to fire to the left, by which we crossed the fire; and a man and horse affording such a large object for an aim, very few of them escaped. The horses were brought down and the riders, if not killed, were made prisoners.

Some of them had the audacity to draw their swords upon the men when in the act of taking them, but such temerity only served to accelerate their own destruction; for in the infuriated state of mind in which we were at the moment, those guilty of such conduct fared a worse fate than those who submitted without a murmur.

We were informed by the prisoners that Napoleon himself was in the field, so were also our old friends Soult and Ney; and that Ney was directly in our front, and had ordered a charge to be made upon us.

We were very happy on hearing this intelligence, as the thought that the two great generals of the time were to meet each other on the field of battle, stimulated us to do our utmost to maintain unsullied the hard-earned reputation which the British army had gained in many a bloody battle field.

As far as I am aware this was the first time that ever the Emperor had been personally engaged with us and we were anxious to know if the same good fortune which attended his former campaigns still awaited him, and whether he would be able to re-enact the splendid achievements of Lodi, Marengo, and Austerlitz, when brought into the arena against an army for the most part composed of veteran troops, and commanded by brave and experienced generals.

We wished to show him that we were made of sterner stuff than those whom he was wont to chase over the length and breadth of Europe.

Immediately after the enemy's cavalry had been driven back and partially destroyed, a column of infantry was sent round to a wood on our right and another to push us in front.

At this time the 30th, 69th, and 73rd regiments joined us, upon which we left our ground to charge down the road, led by General Barnes and Colonel Cameron. Just as we had taken our stand, a volley was fired at the Duke of Wellington from behind a garden hedge.

As I was the first sergeant he observed on turning round, he ordered me to take a section and drive them out. I accordingly got a section and we went into the garden when, after a short contest, we succeeded in driving them out, after having killed a good many of them. By the time I got out of the garden and came to the road the regiment was closely engaged with the bayonet.

The lieutenant-colonel at this time was coming up as fast as he could ride having been shot through the groin. We immediately joined the regiment at the foot of the garden and advanced at full speed, the French having by this time given way.

In the impetuosity of our charge we had advanced too near the enemy's guns and were obliged to move off to the right to the skirts of the wood. We then advanced rapidly on the right and turned the left flank of the French.

We now made a determined attack to seize two of the enemy's guns, which gave us considerable annoyance, but were foiled in the attempt. At this time the Guards came up and the action began to be general.

We, however, still sustained considerable loss from the enemy's cannon, as we had none with which to oppose them; and as so few of our troops had come up, we could not form a sufficiently strong column in one place to enable us to take any of their artillery from them.

Our regiment was now very much cut up both in officers and men, as we had been first in the action and, with the other Highland regiments had for a long time to resist the attack of the whole French army.

We continued very warmly engaged until about eight o'clock in the evening, when we rallied, and made another effort to capture the enemy's guns.

In this attempt I received a wound in the head, while in the act of cheering the men forward. I was very sick for a short time, and was sent to the rear under the care of the surgeon, where I got my wound dressed, and remained till morning; when I awoke I found I was able to join the regiment again.

On account of this wound I was reported dead and my old companions were rather surprised at my return. On calling over the roll the night previous, it was found that we had lost 1 colonel, 1 major, 4 captains, 12 lieutenants, 4 ensigns, 12 sergeants, and about 250 rank and file.

The regiment was now formed in the rear of the house of Quatre Bras. Before we had time to cook our victuals the Duke of Wellington and his staff came into the midst of us and gave orders for the march of the different divisions.

The cavalry by this time were coming up in great strength; and on the arrival of General Hill at their head we all stood up and gave him three hearty cheers, as we had long been under his command in the Peninsula, and loved him dearly on account of his kind and fatherly conduct towards us.

When he came among us he spoke in a very kindly manner and inquired concerning our welfare. He also expressed his sorrow that the colonel was wounded; and gave us a high character to the Duke of Wellington who replied that he knew what we could do and that by-and-bye he would give us something to keep our hands in use.

We now removed as many of the wounded out of the field as we could and buried all the dead bodies within our reach, especially the officers.

After remaining here till about ten o'clock we fell back to the skirts of a wood near the village of Waterloo, the cavalry forming our rear guard. The French now pushed very hard upon us, but we still managed to keep the road.

On coming to the village of Genappe, we found the houses were full of our wounded who had made that length and were not able to go any further. When the French came up they were all taken prisoners. We now heard that Colonel Cameron had died on the road about an hour before we came to Genappe.

We still kept moving very slowly, until the French artillery got close to our rear, and were annoying us very much, when the Duke ordered a regiment of Hanoverian infantry to wait and assist our cavalry, who were formed on each side of the road, to protect our flanks which they effectually did.

We arrived at length at the house of Le Hay Saint, a very large building having a great entrance gate on the left hand, where the Brussels road is cut through a small green hill with high banks on each side. On coming to the rear of the house we diverged to the right and left.

The right of Sir Thomas Picton's division to which we belonged, rested on the great road; and the left extended on in rear of a double hedge - that is two hedges with a bye-road running between them.

It had been raining very hard ever since we commenced our march in the morning and we were drenched to the skin. The ground on which we were formed had been lately ploughed and the corn newly brairded, so that with the number of men that were treading upon it, the field was reduced to the consistency of mortar.

Sprouting above ground.

However, we formed line, and the French halted opposite to us much in the same state. The weather soon began to fair up, but still everything round and below was very wet.

We now thought of getting our muskets in order for action, for by every appearance we were likely to need them soon. I took the opportunity of going into the hedge to look at the French forming; but such numerous columns I had never looked on before, nor do I believe any man in the British army had ever seen such a host.

I must confess that, for my own part, when I saw them taking up their ground in such a regular manner, and everything appearing so correct about all their movements, I could not help wishing that we had had more troops with which to oppose the thousands that were collecting in our front.

Our artillery and a rocket-brigade had now arrived, all the cavalry had come up, and a great number of foreign infantry had already joined us. The evening at length cleared but without any sunshine.

We had a fine view of the country round the village of Mount St Jean which stood within half a mile of our rear, and the skirts of the great forest of Soignes lay not much farther off. We could get no fuel here to make fires as everything was soaked with the rain.

There was a field of green clover in our rear of which we cut large quantities, and with some branches out of the hedges made a kind of bed on the ground to keep us from the clay.

Every regiment sent to its own front a small picquet for the purpose of giving information to the commanding officer in case of alarm. In this condition we stretched ourselves on our uncomfortable lair.

We lay till about twelve o'clock when the alarm was given that the French were coming. We instantly stood to our arms and continued in that posture until the cause of the alarm was found to be groundless; it arose from a part of the Belgian cavalry going their rounds, having when challenged by our sentries replied in the French language.

During all this time it continued to rain very hard. As we had lain down by fours, we had blankets enough to cover us and keep us dry; but when we got up again we were made as wet as before.

The place on which we lay was like a marsh and for the season of the year the rain was very cold. Notwithstanding all these disagreeable circumstances, we lay down again and slept sound, as we were very much fatigued.

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Researched & Compiled by Way-Mark.

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Updated: 1st August, 2011.
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