Fire & Retire !

First hand accounts from
the Napoleonic Wars.

The Battle of Waterloo.
Journal of the Waterloo Campaign kept throughout the campaign of 1815
by the late General Cavalié Mercer, Commanding the 9th Brigade Royal Artillery.

Chapter 1.

Napoleon returns from Elba.
The return of Napoleon from Elba, though a surprise to many, was far from being so to those who, well aware of his restless disposition, his insatiable ambition, and the enthusiastic attachment of the French soldiery to his person and fortunes, had scarcely expected that he would have remained so long as he actually did without some new attempt at disturbing the general peace.

The steps taken on this occasion by the different European Powers their preparations for a renewal of the bloody scenes so lately ended are out of my province. They belong to the historian, and not to the simple journalist, whose affair it is to confine himself strictly to those transactions in which he was himself a participator; or at most to glance at those more general subjects, merely to give connection to his narrative and make it better understood.

At the time the news of this extraordinary event arrived, the troop of horse-artillerySee the Box with Green text below. which I commanded was stationed at Colchester; and the reductions necessary to put us on a peace establishment had already commenced, when the order arrived for our being immediately equipped again for foreign service. To do this effectually, another troop, then in the same barracks, was broken up, and we got the picked horses of both, thus making it the finest troop in the service; and such diligence was used, that although our equipment fell little short of a complete reorganisation, Major Sir A. Fraser, commanding the horse-artillery in Colchester, was enabled to report on the third day that the troop was ready to march at a moment's warning.

Horse artillery was a type of light, fast-moving and fast-firing artillery which provided highly mobile fire support to European and American armies (especially to cavalry units) from the 17th to the early 20th century. They consisted of light cannons or howitzers attached to light but sturdy two-wheeled carriages called caissons or limbers, with the individual crewmen riding either the horses or the caissons into battle. Once in position, horse artillery crews were trained to quickly dismount, deploy or 'unlimber' their guns, then rapidly fire grapeshot, shells or round shot at the enemy. They could then just as rapidly 'limber-up' (re-attach the guns to the caissons), remount, and be ready to move to a new position. Horse artillery was highly versatile and often supported friendly cavalry units by disrupting enemy infantry formations such as infantry squares with rapid concentrated fire. This would leave the enemy infantry vulnerable to cavalry charges.

Meantime the town of Colchester (situated as it is on the great road from Harwich to London) presented a scene of bustle and anxiety seldom equalled couriers passing to and fro incessantly, and numerous travellers, foreign and English, arriving day and night from the Continent, many travelling in breathless haste, as if fearful, even here, of Napoleon's emissaries. The reports spread by these fugitives were various and contradictory, as might be expected.
Louis XVIII.
According to some, Louis XVIIISee the Box with Green text below. had been arrested in Paris; according to others, he had sought refuge in the Pays Bas; and again, it was asserted that his Majesty was at Ostend, awaiting permission to pass the sea and return to his old and secure quarters in England.

In the midst of all this, on the 8th April, the post brought our order to march forthwith to Harwich, there to embark for Ostend an order received with unfeigned joy by officers and men, all eager to plunge into danger and bloodshed, all hoping to obtain glory and distinction.

Louis XVIII (Louis Stanislas Xavier de France; 17 November 1755 - 16 September 1824) was King of France and of Navarre from 1814 to 1824, omitting the Hundred Days in 1815. Louis XVIII spent twenty-three years in exile, from 1791 to 1814, during the French Revolution and the First French Empire, and again in 1815, for 100 days, upon the return of Napoleon from Elba. While in exile, he lived in Prussia, the United Kingdom and Russia.

On the morning of the 9th, the troop paraded at half-past seven o'clock with as much regularity and as quietly as if only going to a field-day; not a man either absent or intoxicated, and every part of the guns and appointments in the most perfect order. At eight, the hour named in orders, we marched off the parade. The weather was fine, the scenery, as we skirted the beautiful banks of the Stour, charming, and the occasion exhilarating.

Near Manningtree we halted a short time to feed our horses, and then, pursuing our route, arrived at Harwich about three o'clock in the afternoon. Here we found the transports 'the Adventure', 'Philarea', and 'Salus', in which last I embarked awaiting us; but the tide being unfavourable, although we immediately commenced operations, we only succeeded in embarking the horses of one division and those of the officers; the remainder were therefore put up in the barracks for the night.

As might be expected, the little town of Harwich presented a most animated spectacle. Its narrow streets of modest houses, with brick trottoirs,See the Box with Green text below. were crowded with soldiers some, all over dust, just arrived; some, who had already been a day or two in the place, comparatively at home, lounging about in undress; others, about to embark, hurrying along to the beach with baggage and stores; sailors marketing, or rolling about half-seas-over; country-people bringing in vegetables and the like, and towns-people idling at their windows, or in groups at corners of the streets in short, the usual picture incident on such occasions.

'Trottoir', a French word meaning a 'pavement' or side-walk.

The morning of the 10th was foggy, which much retarded us, since it was necessary to embark the horses in flats to be taken off to the transports, not easily found in the fog. However, by noon all were on board, and without any serious accident, although a sailor was somewhat hurt in endeavouring to recover a horse that had fallen overboard.

In the afternoon our guns, carriages, &c., were embarked; but as the wind blew right into the harbour, the agent would not attempt to get out, and we adjourned to Mr Bull's comfortable house (the Three Cups), there to pass our last evening in England in the enjoyment of a good dinner, and perhaps for the last time to sleep in good beds.

About two P.M. on the 11th, a light breeze from the N.W. induced our agent to get under way, and we repaired on board our respective ships with every prospect of a good and speedy passage. In this, however, we were disappointed, for the breeze dying away as the sun went down, we anchored, by signal, at the harbour's mouth, just as it got dark.

At anchor. The evening was splendid. A clear sky studded with myriads of stars overhead, and below a calm unruffled sea, reflecting on its glassy surface the lights of the distant town, the low murmuring sounds from which, and the rippling of the water under the ships' bows, were the only interruptions to the solemn stillness that prevailed after the people had retired to their berths. In our more immediate neighbourhood stretched out the long, low, sandy tract, on the seaward extremity of which the dark masses of Landguard fort could just be distinguished.

With daybreak on the morning of the 12th came a favourable wind, though light, and again we took up our anchors and proceeded to sea. For some distance, after clearing the harbour, our course lay along the Suffolk coast, and so near in that objects on shore were plainly discernible. To us, who had long been stationed at Woodbridge, only a few miles inland, this was highly interesting.

We knew every village, every copse, every knoll nay, almost every tree. There were the houses in which we had so oft been hospitably entertained; there were the sheep-walks on which we had so often manoeuvred; and there in the distance, as we passed the mouth of the Deben, our glasses showed us the very barrack on the hill, with its tiled roofs illumined by the noontide sun.

About Bawdsey we left the coast, and steered straight over, with a light but favourable wind: the low sandy shores of Suffolk soon sank beneath the horizon. At noon fell in with a fleet of colliers bound for the river, and soon after saw the Sunk-Sand Light; when, as the wind had died away and the tide was setting us towards the bank, we anchored until the flood-tide. During the night a light breeze right aft, and smooth water, enabled us to make good progress.

But towards morning (13th) the wind had very considerably increased, and although the coast was not in sight, we were sensible of its neighbourhood from the number of curious heavy-looking boats plying round us in all directions, having the foremast, with its huge lug-sail, stuck right up in the bow, or rather inclining over it. From one of these boats we soon procured a pilot a little sturdy fellow, with a full, good-humoured countenance, and his breast decorated with a silver medal bearing the impress of an anchor, like our porters' tickets, the badge of his calling.

The poor fellow was hardly on deck ere he was surrounded and assailed by innumerable questions "Where is Buonaparte ?" "Where is the French army ?" "What are the English about ?" "Has there been any fighting?" &c. Of this he understood or heard only the word "Buonaparte," and therefore to all kept repeating, "Il est capôte," accompanied by a significant motion of the hand across the throat, at the same time showing much anxiety to get rid of his tormentors and proceed to business, which he did with such earnestness as soon gave us to understand there must be more than ordinary difficulty in entering the port of Ostend. The first and principal care was the getting up a hawser and coiling it on deck, the use of which we were soon to learn.

Meanwhile we had been approaching the coast, which, though still invisible, the pilot informed us was not distant. The first intimation of the truth of this was the appearance of the church tower and lofty lighthouse of Ostend; and we had brought about half their height above the horizon before land began to show itself, which it did in a number of isolated and rounded yellow hummocks, and at the same time the houses of the town became distinctly visible.

With that impatience and excessive curiosity always felt upon approaching for the first time a strange land, especially under the present interesting state of things, all our glasses were directed to the coast, which we were rapidly nearing and hoped soon to reach, when, to our great disappointment, the pilot ordered the vessel to be hove to, and we found that the tide would not permit our running for the port before two p.m. Numbers of ships, brigs, and schooners were lying to as well as ourselves, and others continually arriving.

Nothing, certainly, could be more repulsive than the appearance of the coast sand-hills as far as the eye could reach, broken only by the grey and lugubrious works and buildings of Ostend, and further west by the spires of Mittelkerke and Nieuport, peering above the sandhills. The day, too, was one little calculated to enliven the scene. A fresh breeze and cloudy sky; the sea black, rough, and chilly; the land all under one uniform cold grey tint, presenting scarcely any relief of light and shadow, consequently no feature.

Upon reconnoitring it, however, closer, we found that this forbidding exterior was only an outer coating to a lovely gem. Through the openings between the sandhills could be seen a rich level country, of the liveliest verdure, studded with villages and farms interspersed amongst avenues of trees and small patches of wood. An occasional gleam of sunshine breaking out and illumining it, communicated to it a dreamy appearance that was very pleasing, and tended to revive our spirits, drooping from the gloomy aspect of the coast.

A black-looking mass of timber rising from the waters off the entrance of the harbour, and which we understood to be a fort, now became the principal object of our attention. As the tide rises the depth of water is announced by different flags hoisted on this fort; and we were delighted when at last that (a red one) indicating the necessary depth for our ship was hoisted, and we bore up for the harbour mouth.

The harbour of Ostend is an artificial one, formed by jetées of piles projecting as far as low -water mark. The right, on entering, is merely a row of piles running along in front of the works of the town; but on the left is a long mole or jetée, on the extremity of which is a small fort. Behind this mole, to the north-east, the shore curving inwards forms a bight, presenting an extent of flat sandy beach on which the water is never more than a few feet deep, even at the highest tides. A tremendous surf breaks on this whenever it blows from the westward. As the flood-tide sets past the harbour mouth with great rapidity, a vessel attempting to enter with a westerly wind is in danger of being swept beyond it and thrown on the beach just mentioned.

And this we now discovered was the cause of the anxiety displayed by our pilot, and for which we could not before account. In approaching the harbour, we steered as if going to run the ship ashore on the broad stone glacisSee the Box with Green text below. of the town, which extended into the water all along the seafront. Even with this precaution we were drifted so much to leeward that, instead of shooting into the harbour, we went bump upon the jetty.

A glacis, in military engineering, is an artificial slope of earth used in late European fortresses so constructed as to keep any potential assailant under the fire of the defenders until the last possible moment. On natural, level ground, troops attacking any high work have a degree of shelter from its fire when close up to it; the glacis consists of a slope with a low grade inclined towards the top of the wall. This gave defenders a direct line of sight into the assaulting force, allowing them to efficiently sweep the field with fire from the parapet.

† The port of Ostend is what people usually term a "dry harbour." It is dry at low tide, but the flood brings in about 16 or 18 feet water.

The poor pilot raved and jumped about like a madman, but there still was method in his madness; and now we discovered the use of the hawser he had coiled upon deck, for passing the end of this to the Belgic soldiers, who upon the shock immediately ran out of their guard-room, the vessel was saved from swinging round (as she otherwise would have done) and falling ashore on the beach beyond, stern foremost, and soon dragged within the influence of the current setting up the harbour.

Our attention, before engaged by our perilous situation, was now directed to new and exhilarating objects on the other side, where the works of the town arose immediately from the sands. These were crowded with spectators, and, being Sunday, all in their best; so that the sun, just peeping out as we shot along, imparted to the scene quite an air of gaiety; and to us it was also a novel one.

I remember being mightily struck with the headdress of the women, so different from what we had been accustomed to see at home, and the comparison was certainly not in favour of my fair compatriots. With these the fashionable coiffure was a large low poke-bonnet, which I had always fancied very becoming; but there is no describing how this sunk into meanness and deformity in a moment when I cast my eyes on the elegantly tapering, high-crowned straws of the belles on the rampart, encircled sometimes with two, and even three, rows of gay ribbon or artificial flowers.

These gave them such a lofty commanding air, and withal was so light and graceful. But bonnets were not allowed long to occupy my attention. Followed by a crowd of other craft of all sorts and sizes, we shot rapidly along towards that part of the harbour where a dense assemblage of shipping filled up its whole breadth, and forbade further progress, so that one wondered what was to become of the numerous vessels in our wake. The mystery was soon explained, for each having attained the point, turning her prow to the town, ran bump on the sands, and there stuck fast.

Those immediately above us had just arrived, and from them a regiment of Light Dragoons was in the act of disembarking by throwing the horses overboard, and then hauling them ashore by a long rope attached to their head-collars. What a scene ! What hallooing, shouting, vociferating, and plunging ! The poor horses did not appear much gratified by their sudden transition from the warm hold to a cold bath.

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Researched & Compiled by Way-Mark.

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Updated: 15th June, 2011.
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