The Crayon Papers/The Field of Waterloo
The Field of Waterloo
I have spoken heretofore with some levity of the contrast that exists between the English and French character; but it deserves more serious consideration. They are the two great nations of modern times most diametrically opposed, and most worthy of each other's rivalry; essentially distinct in their characters, excelling in opposite qualities, and reflecting luster on each other by their very opposition. In nothing is this contrast more strikingly evinced than in their military conduct. For ages have they been contending, and for ages have they crowded each other's history with acts of splendid heroism. Take the Battle of Waterloo, for instance, the last and most memorable trial of their rival prowess. Nothing could surpass the brilliant daring on the one side, and the steadfast enduring on the other. The French cavalry broke like waves on the compact squares of English infantry. They were seen galloping round those serried walls of men, seeking in vain for an entrance; tossing their arms in the air, in the heat of their enthusiasm, and braving the whole front of battle. The British troops, on the other hand, forbidden to move or fire, stood firm and enduring. Their columns were ripped up by cannonry; whole rows were swept down at a shot; the survivors closed their ranks, and stood firm. In this way many columns stood through the pelting of the iron tempest without firing a shot; without any action to stir their blood or excite their spirits. Death thinned their ranks, but could not shake their souls.
A beautiful instance of the quick and generous impulses to which the French are prone, is given in the case of a French cavalier, in the hottest of the action, charging furiously upon a British officer, but perceiving in the moment of assault that his adversary had lost his sword-arm, dropping the point of his saber, and courteously riding on. Peace be with that generous warrior, whatever were his fate! If he went down in the storm of battle, with the foundering fortunes of his chieftain, may the turf of Waterloo grow green above his grave! and happier far would be the fate of such a spirit, to sink amid the tempest, unconscious of defeat, than to survive and mourn over the blighted laurels of his country.
In this way the two armies fought through a long and bloody day. The French with enthusiastic valor, the English with cool, inflexible courage, until Fate, as if to leave the question of superiority still undecided between two such adversaries, brought up the Prussians to decide the fortunes of the field.
It was several years afterward that I visited the field of Waterloo. The plowshare had been busy with its oblivious labors, and the frequent harvest had nearly obliterated the vestiges of war. Still the blackened ruins of Hoguemont stood, a monumental pile, to mark the violence of this vehement struggle. Its broken walls, pierced by bullets, and shattered by explosions, showed the deadly strife that had taken place within; when Gaul and Briton, hemmed in between narrow walls, hand to hand and foot to foot, fought from garden to courtyard, from courtyard to chamber, with intense and concentrated rivalship. Columns of smoke turned from this vortex of battle as from a volcano: "it was," said my guide, "like a little hell upon earth." Not far off, two or three broad spots of rank, unwholesome green still marked the places where these rival warriors, after their fierce and fitful struggle, slept quietly together in the lap of their common mother earth. Over all the rest of the field peace had resumed its sway. The thoughtless whistle of the peasant floated on the air, instead of the trumpet's clangor; the team slowly labored up the hillside, once shaken by the hoofs of rushing squadrons; and wide fields of corn waved peacefully over the soldiers' graves, as summer seas dimple over the place where many a tall ship lies buried.
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To the foregoing desultory notes on the French military character, let me append a few traits which I picked up verbally in one of the French provinces. They may have already appeared in print, but I have never met with them.
At the breaking out of the revolution, when so many of the old families emigrated, a descendant of the great Turenne, by the name of De Latour D'Auvergne, refused to accompany his relations, and entered into the Republican army. He served in all the campaigns of the revolution, distinguished himself by his valor, his accomplishments, and his generous spirit, and might have risen to fortune, and to the highest honors. He refused, however, all rank in the army, above that of captain, and would receive no recompense for his achievements but a sword of honor. Napoleon, in testimony of his merits, gave him the title of Premier Grenadier de France (First Grenadier of France), which was the only title he would ever bear. He was killed in Germany, in 1809 or '10. To honor his memory, his place was always retained in his regiment, as if he still occupied it; and whenever the regiment was mustered, and the name of De Latour D'Auvergne was called out, the reply was, "Dead on the field of honor!"