Lieutenant James Lockwood
The Battle of Waterloo
Chapter Sixteen: Waterloo
Like a series of six red waves, the companies of the 1/27th moved up the ridge, passing the 1/4th and 1/40th, being cheered, the Irishmen cheering in return. James wondered how it was decided that the Inniskillings would take the most exposed position, while the King’s Own and the Somersetshires would deploy to their rear. Furious noise and banks of smoke boiled ahead; it was about a half a mile to their new position, the front of the Allied line. As they neared the front they came across increasing numbers of dead and wounded, bearing the white facings of the 32nd Foot, the yellow of the 28th, and numerous Scots with a blue and green tartan, Cameron Highlanders. James had some friends in the Camerons, but he saw no officers lying in the field.
The air was even hotter up there, still and hot, like putting his head in an oven. The smoke was everywhere, drifting thick above and around them in the motionless air, the light muted, a sickly yellow-gray. James would not allow himself to be distracted, instead concentrating on his company, making sure that they stayed in a straight line, at quarter distance, or about twenty-five feet, behind Tom’s Seven Company. With his eyes continually trained to the left to monitor the company’s front, James tripped over the body of a Rifleman, his dark green uniform making him hard to see in the grass. The Rifleman’s eyes flickered, and instinctively James almost stopped to help him, but then continued on. Soon every man in the battalion had to step over dead and maimed men.
Several battered Hanoverian and British battalions withdrew to allow Lambert’s brigade to take up position. As they crested the ridge James looked ahead and saw the French, untold thousands in perfect order, menacing beyond comprehension.
James averted his eyes and looked up and down the lines, where the battle raged all across the mile-long front. There was a great deal of firing, but most of it seemed to be coming from far off to their right, and while James heard some yelling from further back in the column his company had not yet taken any losses: they reached the top of the ridge unscathed. Archibald gave the order for the battalion to halt, and at last James had a brief opportunity to look around. The dense smoke covered much of the field, but from the crest of the ridge he could make out at least some of the ground.
To their front, the ridge sloped downward into a shallow valley, the French lines on the far side of the valley, perhaps six hundred yards away. He found that if he viewed the French with a professional eye they seemed somehow less ominous: masses of troops there, and a long row of artillery all across their front, but for the time being the guns were mostly silent, issuing only a few desultory shots. About fifty feet from the Inniskilling’s position the road to Plancenoit ran across the face of the ridge, right to left, sunken into the hillside, bordered with thick hedges and brush. It was well below them on the face of the ridge, so the sunken road did not impede their ability to see the French. The unfortunate corollary to that visibility was that the French, especially the French gunners, could see them as well. Their position in the field at the top of the ridge offered no cover at all, but for those fortunate enough to occupy it the sunken road below them was an ideal defensive position. It was filled with British Riflemen, Grasshoppers, the French called them, squeezing off carefully aimed shots at the French skirmishers that haunted the knoll to their front.
The Charleroi road, also sunken as it crossed the crest of the ridge, ran from the French side of the valley and crossed the Plancenoit road just to their right front. It didn’t require Wellington to explain to them that the Charleroi road was the perfect way for the French to launch themselves into the centre of the Allied line. Up to this point the road had been blocked by the German garrison of a large farm that lay a little further down and on the other side of the north-south road. But the farm was covered in dense smoke, the scene of heavy fighting, and the French were obviously determined to take it. The firing there continued unabated.
James found that he was no longer tired, or in the least bit frightened. He was interested. Wholly fascinated, since from the top of the ridge he could see more than just about anyone on the battlefield, as the lower-lying areas were thick with smoke. He clicked open his pocket watch: just past 3:30. Brigid had given him that watch on their tenth anniversary. He consciously told himself not to think about her, to think only of the present, to concentrate.
They were standing in what was once a rye field, but the passing of so many feet had trampled the thick stalks down and it looked as if they were standing on an India mat. He stepped back a few feet to get a look at Coakley, who was in his appointed post at the middle of the company, two paces back from the second rank. They exchanged nods, wholly meaningful nods: Coakley conveying nervous confirmation, James expressing grim confidence.
From the head of the column the drums called the company commanders, and James hurried forward. Tom was already there and they greeted each other with some relief. The other soon joined them; Barr was silent, his face waxy and completely without expression. Archibald quickly briefed them. “Here it is, now. A couple of hours ago the French launched a very strong infantry attack all across our centre and left. Our infantry stopped them, and then our heavy cavalry threw them back. But as usual our heavies went wild and got themselves mauled in return.”
Pointing to the long line of French artillery, Archibald continued as each of the company commanders leaned forward to hear. “The French have gathered a Grand Battery there. It has been flailing this part of the line all day, and it is wearing us thin. That’s why we were brought up, to—”
As if in response to Archibald’s gesture, the French artillery picked up the pace of their firing, typically the precursor of another attack. A ball struck near the knot of officers, burying itself into the soft ground in a shower of dirt clods, as Archibald hurriedly pointed to the large farm to their front right. “That is La Haye Sainte,” he called, “The French have been attacking it repeatedly, but the Germans holding it are doing very well. We are to support the Rifles to our front, but also ensure that the French can’t advance up this road to our right. Captain Pratt, you will please deploy your Light Company to the right front, and work in concert with the Rifles.” Another ball whirred just over their heads and struck deep into the column. Cries from behind them told them that they had been hit hard. “The 4th and 40th will support us, but we are to hold the juncture of these two roads! The Duke himself says that we must hold, as this is the centre of the line, and these damned roads are the key to the position! God bless us, but it will get right hot, right soon!”