The last stand of the famous French Imperial Guard
There remained to us still four squares of the Old Guard to protect the retreat. These brave grenadiers, the choice of the army, forced successively to retire, yielded ground foot by foot, till, overwhelmed by numbers, they were almost entirely annihilated. From that moment, a retrograde movement was declared, and the army formed nothing but a confused mass. There was not, however, a total rout, nor the cry of sauve qui peut, as has been calumniously stated in the bulletin.
-Marshal M. Ney
A mid the growing flood of fugitives, whom the retreat of the cavalry threatened to leave defenseless and exposed to the victors’ pursuit, the only effective resistance was mounted by the four Guard infantry battalions, three Old Guard and one Middle Guard, which had constituted the French second line of attack. They were little more than two thousand muskets strong and therefore could have no conceivable hope of standing fast against the flood that was rushing toward them; but retiring step by step, without losing cohesion, and leaving behind them an unbroken trail of dead and wounded, they covered the retreat of the French army south along the main road to Charleroi. Their action was responsible for, among other things, the fact that the army managed to keep all its colors; incredibly, not a single Eagle was lost in the course of the retreat. The Prussian officers who were at that moment capturing Plancenoit were amazed to hear the French shouting not “Sauve qui peut!” but “Sauvons nos aigles!” even though they were withdrawing so hastily as to give very much the impression of a rout. On that June evening, the squares of the Old Guard wrote the last chapter in the Napoleonic epic and entered directly into legend.
The British cavalry tried repeatedly to break up the squares but discovered to its cost that their defensive capacity remained undiminished. When Major Howard of the Tenth Hussars received the order to charge a square, he asked the opinion of a colleague, who told him that it would be better to await the arrival of the infantry, because the square looked too solid to charge. Since he had been given an order to charge, the perplexed Howard declared, disobeying it seemed “a ticklish thing,” and so he led his squadron forward; but another acquaintance of his, who nodded to him as he passed, observed that he “looked as if his time had come.” As foreseen, the square stood fast, and the Hussars dispersed before coming into contact with it. Major Howard, galloping ahead of everybody else, took a ball in the face and fell from his horse right in front of the enemy bayonets; a French soldier stepped out from the ranks and bashed in the major’s skull with the butt of his musket.
In other cases, attacks against the Guard squares miscarried before they began. Colonel Muter of the Inniskillings, with one arm in a sling and his helmet disfigured by saber blows, was in command of what was left of the Union Brigade when a young staff officer, the Honorable George Dawson, brother of the disgraced Lord Portarlington, came hurrying up, bearing orders for Muter and his men to join in the charge. Dawson later confessed that he would never forget the looks on their faces when he communicated these orders to them. The remaining dragoons, many of them battered and wounded, wearily hauled themselves back into their saddles and advanced at a walk until they came within musket range of a French square; one of the first balls struck Dawson in the knee and knocked him off his horse. “I think you ha’ it nu’, sir!” Colonel Muter growled in his broad Scots dialect, and that was the end of the charge.
In general, the accounts left by British officers leave the impression that the Allied pursuers learned almost immediately to stay away from the Guard squares, which were retiring in relatively good order, and turned instead to harrying the more exhausted line infantry units. Under the menace of cavalry, these also tried to form square, but they tended to disband, throw down their weapons, and surrender. Duperier, whose recollections are at least as colorful as his orthography, led his squadrons against “a regiment of infantry of the franch, nothing but Vive le Roy’ but it was too late beside our men do not understand franch, so they cut a way all through till we came to the body of reserve when we was saluted with a voly at the length of two sords.” At this point, the Hussars turned their horses and started chasing down runaways again; they offered much more fun (Duperier’s word) and less resistance than the squares of the Imperial Guard.
Wherever the cavalry came, entire units threw down their weapons and clung to one another to avoid being trampled or flung themselves to the ground, out of reach of the sabers, and stayed there until someone took them prisoner. Colonel Murray, commander of the Eighteenth Hussars, described with some amazement the multitudes of surrendering French soldiers: “The sneaking prisoners we had taken holloaed, Vive le roi.’ . . . On charging, not only did the infantry throw themselves down, but the cavalry also from off their horses, all roaring ‘pardon,’ many of them on their knees.” At this point, the fugitives were practically defenseless, and it was solely up to their pursuers whether to take them prisoner or to slaughter them. Murray found himself galloping into the midst of a crowd of French troops, one of whom aimed a bayonet thrust at him; his orderly “was compelled to cut down five or six in rapid succession for the security of his master.” When Vandeleur’s cavalrymen caught up with General Durutte, who had been cut off from his men in the French flight from Papelotte, one saber blow smashed his right hand, and another split his face open, leaving him disfigured and blind in one eye.40
Captain Tomkinson of the Sixteenth Light Dragoons also recalled “many of their infantry immediately throwing down their arms and crowding together for safety” when he and his men reached them; he saw others “lying together for safety, they were some yards in height, calling out, from the injury of one pressing upon another, and from the horses stamping upon them (on their legs).” Tomkinson pursued a man who had thrown away his musket, picked it up again, and fired it at the dragoons; the man flung himself atop his stacked comrades, and Tomkinson’s horse, called “Cyclops” because it had but one eye, inadvertently trampled the pile, provoking howls of pain. Plunging among that terrorized and only partially disarmed throng, however, was a dangerous undertaking; at least one officer of the Sixteenth died in the midst of panic-stricken French troops. Eventually, the dragoons somehow managed to surround them and persuade them to surrender. Another officer, barely nineteen years old, disappeared in the pursuit and was never found again. Tomkinson concluded that the French had probably killed him, his body had lain hidden in a grain field, and the next day the peasants had stripped the corpse, rendering it unrecognizable.
The four Guard squares were able to hold out until nightfall, after which they dissolved into the crowd of fugitives filling the road to France; however, even they left a certain number of prisoners in the hands of their pursuers. A Hanoverian officer, Lieutenant Richers, wrote a graphic account of the attack of his militia battalion, commanded by Hew Halkett, which harried the squares, accelerating their retreat and, in some cases, their disintegration: “The battalion . . . advanced in silence, tense from the large number of both enemy and friendly cannon balls flying over our heads. . . . Once we had gone through the hollow and climbed the ridge on the other side, we saw an enemy column about 300 or 400 paces from us. It was either a regiment or battalion of the Old Guard. . . . Our skirmishers deployed against the Old Guard skirmishers and a firefight began. We were advancing, but the enemy stood where he was. The centre of our skirmish chain inadvertently closed together to allow the following column to pass as it was clear we were only a few moments away from a bayonet charge. Once the advancing battalion reached the skirmish line, its pace accelerated. We moved up, the enemy skirmishers disappeared and the front ranks of the columns fired a volley at us.” French fire, even coming from so unfavorable a formation as a square, was always a fearful thing, especially for a unit composed of recruits; “I believe we all hesitated and stood where we were,” Richers noted.
Colonel Halkett, who during the course of this brief combat had three horses killed under him, saved the situation by cheering his men and urging them on; the French lost heart when they saw the enemy advancing upon them with leveled bayonets. Richers continued: “They stood for a moment longer, then wavered, turned around and retired a short distance in relatively good order. Their formation then started to break up and finally they fled in total disorder. It seemed as if we were fresher than the tired-out Old Guard because we got closer and closer to them, taking many prisoners from those who could run no further. The wild chase continued forwards towards the enemy. Both sides fired only as much as they could when running. The enemy officers did attempt to rally their men, waving their swords and shouting ‘en avant!’ However, that was in vain for when an officer managed to gather a few men around him, our pursuit chased them away again.”
The most famous of the prisoners captured on this occasion was General Cambronne, commander of the 2/1 st Chasseurs, the same man who had disembarked near Antibes a little more than three months earlier at the head of the thousand grenadiers accompanying the emperor on his flight from Elba. According to the account that appeared in a Paris newspaper a few days after the battle, Cambronne was the French commander who declared, “The Old Guard dies, but it does not surrender!” when summoned to lay down his arms. Much more probably, as his troops were beginning to disband, the exclamation he uttered was “Merde!” The general and two of his aides had been riding back and forth outside their square, encouraging the troops; noticing this, Colonel Hew Halkett had called on him to surrender, thereby occasioning his gracious reply. The Hanoverian skirmishers quickly noticed the general’s exposure and started firing at the three French officers. Soon Cambronne’s horse was hit and fell, dragging down his rider. “I ordered the sharpshooters to dash on,” Halkett wrote, “and I made a gallop for the General. When about cutting him down he called out he would surrender, upon which he preceded me to the rear, but I had not gone many paces before my horse got a shot through the body and fell to the ground. In a few seconds I got him on his legs again, and found my friend, Cambronne, had taken French leave in the direction from where he came. I instantly overtook him, laid hold of him by the aiguillette, and brought him in safety and gave him in charge to a sergeant to deliver to the Duke.” The colonel did not yet know who his prisoner was and asked him his name in the midst of a crowd of German officers, who had gathered around out of curiosity. The prisoner was wounded, and his face was covered with blood; he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and said, “fe suis le general Cambronne.”