Monday, June 18, 2012

On This Day In History.............

In 1815............

After what was called The Hundred Days, ( The period of time from the escape of Napoleon Bonaparte from the island of Elba to the reorganization  of the French Army and the march to Belgium )The Allied Army, A thrown together army of Prussians, Belgians, Dutch, and British commanded by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington  met the French Army under Napoleon  at Waterloo, Belgium.

The battle of Waterloo, consistently listed as one of the most important battles in world history, was a relatively short battle, starting at around 10:00 in the morning, (some records state 11:30) and lasted until Wellington and Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher commander of the Prussian Troops. met that night. at around 10:00. The late start was due to the muddy condition of the battlefield. It had rained all the night before adding to the misery of the soldiers in the field. The mud slowed down the movement of the soldiers as well as the artillery. It also interfered with the ability of the armies to use their cannons effectively. The cannons of the time fired solid shot, which they would try to "skip" off the ground to smash through the tightly packed ranks of the soldiers. On muddy fields, the solid shot buries it's self and does not bounce.

The battlefield was also relatively small, only two miles long by 2/3 of a mile wide. It was however highly concentrated, the Allied Forces had 68,000 men, the Prussians 50,000 facing, 72,000 French. When the battle was done, the Allies had lost 17,000 men, (3,500 killed, 10,200 wounded, 3,300 missing) The Prussians 7,000 men, (1,200 killed, 4,400 wounded and 1,400 missing) The French had lost over half of their forces 48,000 men (broken down to 25,000 killed and wounded, 8,000 captured and 15,000 missing) One of the things I find difficult in the study of history is wrapping my head around these kinds of numbers. Stalin was said to have said "One death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic." It's hard to mentally visualize the numbers engaged as well as the casualties involved. So what I try to do is focus on the story of the individual.

I will not bore you with the major facts of the battle since many other writers have done a much, much better job of it than I could. John Keegan in "Faces of Battle" gives a great quick overview as well as David Howarth in his book "Waterloo: Day of Battle". I will share however some interesting, at least to me stories of the men and incidents of the battle.

One of the more important officers in Wellington's staff had roots deep in America. William De Lancey, the British Quartermaster-General was American born, of a Loyalist family. After the American Revolution, The De Lancey family ended up being driven out of America where they start over again. De Lancey died of wounds he received in battle.

The French Heavy Cavalry, called "Cuirassiers" after the heavy armored breast plate and back they wore were prominent in the battle. It was said after the battle, that the British infantry cooked their rations in the brest-plates of the dead Frenchmen. This picture of a Waterloo brest-plate in a museum, probably escaped that fate.

 Waterloo has to be one of the most written about battles in history. there are countless journals, diaries, and letters written by every one involved in the fight from common soldiers to the highest ranking general, but my favorite recollection was from a lowly "ranker" who when asked about the great battle, reportedly said: " I'll be hanged if I know anything about the matter," was all he could find to say, "for I was all day trodden into the mud and ridden over by every scoundrel who had a horse"
Some of the wounded laid on the battlefield for up to 5 days without medical attention. Not because of ill will on behalf of the armies, but simply because the medical resources of both sides were overwhelmed with the numbers of wounded men they had to deal with. The wounded also had to deal with looters that would steal over the battlefield, looting and sometime even killing the wounded when they resisted. The injured soldiers continued showing their bravery by undergoing some of the most horrific surgeries without anesthesia. After a French soldier had his leg taken off by a surgeon, he grabbed it, tossed it in the air and shouted "Vive l' Empereur" A British officer, not to be out done, had a leg amputated,then jumped off the surgical table, refusing all aid and hopped to a cart that was waiting to take him to Brussels. And a wooden leg was a life long badge of courage.
Even the dead were used.  At this time dentures were either made from carved ivory or from the teeth of the dead. Shortly after the battle, there were large numbers of people who were searching the battlefield to extract teeth from corpses. There were literally barrels of teeth that were shipped to England to be turned into dentures and "Waterloo Teeth" were something of a conversation piece for many years.
 In 1970 the movie Waterloo was done with a proverbial "cast of thousand:" It wasn't half bad, so to close I 
 have attached a clip of the movie from You Tube. If you like, watch it and remember the fallen........

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