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“Nobody Knew Who Was in Charge”

By Jonathan North
8/6/2018 • MHQ Magazine

A veteran of the Napoleonic wars reflects on his experiences at Quatre Bras, where the bravery of individual French soldiers won the day, and at Waterloo, where it did not.

Napoleonic War veteran Jean-Baptiste Jolyet had served with the 42nd Line Regiment in eastern Spain, fighting guerrillas and partisans, when he was transferred to Germany in 1813. There he narrowly avoided capture at Leipzig, escaping over the Elster River by means of a rickety plank bridge before fighting at Hanau and finishing the war in a fortress in the Low Countries. He remained in the military during the Bourbon Restoration of 1814, obtaining the rank of chef de bataillon (major) in the Régiment du Roi and serving in the Paris garrison.

Angry that the Bourbons had abandoned them, the twenty-nine-year-old major and his unit went over to Napoleon after Bonaparte’s return from Elba in March 1815. Colonel Amadée-Louis Despans-Cubières was given command of the regiment, which Napoleon now designated the 1st Light. On March 24, Jolyet and his companions marched out of Paris toward the kingdom of the Netherlands.

Napoleon realized that in time his forces would be overwhelmed by the Allied nations. He planned to march against their existing armies in Belgium, hoping to drive the British into the English Channel and force Prussia to sue for peace.

There, in the countryside south of Brussels, the Allies waited to confront Napoleon in what would prove to be the final campaign of the Napoleonic saga. In the portion of Jolyet’s memoirs that follows, the major details how he and his troops participated in two of the four major battles of the campaign: Quatre Bras and Ligny on June 16, Waterloo on June 18, and Wavre on June 18-19. Quatre Bras, Ligny, and Wavre were French victories, but Waterloo would decide Napoleon’s fate.

Our division reached Montigny (near Beaumont) on June 13, and we camped there along with Prince Jerome [Bonaparte], who commanded us, and General [Armand Charles] Guilleminot, Jerome’s chief of staff. On the 14th the emperor reached Beaumont with his Guard. I spent the night camped by a farmhouse on Belgian soil. The following day the 2nd Light, the vanguard of our corps, pushed the Allies back as far as Marchiennes. We were soon over the Sambre. Despite some clashes with Prussian cavalry falling back toward Fleurus, we scarcely fired a shot.

On the 16th we remained in our camp until noon, when the bulk of our corps set off along the Brussels road; we heard the noise of cannon-fire to our right and could see smoke around Fleurus [Ligny]. Soon, as we drew close to Frasnes, a cannonade could also be heard in front of us. It was here that a few of our divisions had encountered the English.

Our regiment marched off to the left of the road and took up position near a wood from which we could clearly see the English drawn up on the heights where the Brussels and Nivelles roads cross each other [Quatre Bras]. Around 4 in the afternoon our second battalion pushed into the woods, taking up a position so as to annoy the English regiments. I was in the rear until 6, waiting for instructions. Finally one of Guilleminot’s aides-de-camp brought me the order to advance against the English position.

No sooner had I formed up columns to advance in support of the 4th Light’s skirmishers than we came under cannon-fire. My horse was killed under me, and I lost a number of men in a short space of time. As the 4th’s skirmishers fell back to the right, my battalion and I found ourselves alone in the middle of an extensive plain with considerable numbers of English before us. Two cavalry regiments (one of cuirassiers and one of lancers) did appear and launched charges against some English squares but, as they were unsuccessful, they soon fell back.

Seeing myself isolated, and not wishing to incur casualties, I headed toward a substantial farmhouse. Here two companies from the 3rd Battalion joined me. We were troubled by swarms of English skirmishers supported by artillery and columns of infantry. Nevertheless we held out until nightfall, and it was then that I ordered a retreat. Our colonel, who had been wounded at the start of the action, joined me and he told me that the corps was camped behind Frasnes. Having collected the 2nd Battalion, still positioned along the edge of the woods, we marched off to rejoin the corps.

I only mention these details to show what absolute disorder reigned at headquarters. Nobody knew who was in charge, and we hadn’t seen a single general since our arrival on the battlefield. It had been a junior officer who had given me my vague orders to advance. When the English were pushed back, no fresh troops were launched against them. Our troops fought well, indeed there were some worthy deeds, and cannon were captured from the enemy, but there was no coordination, no direction. It seemed as though we had been abandoned and, in truth, it could have turned out much worse, especially when some cuirassiers fled to the rear, sowing panic and disorder.

On the 17th we remained in our camp until around 4 in the afternoon, and it seemed as though the English would hold Quatre Bras. Prince Jerome came to compliment us on our performance on the day before and told us of the emperor’s victory at Fleurus. He then got us up and marching in the pouring rain. This time things were better, and we marched forward in good order toward Quatre Bras.

However, it was all for nothing, as the enemy had quit the place and was retreating on Genappe, being aware that the emperor was descending upon their flank. We camped near Genappe. It rained the whole of the day.

On the following day, the 18th, we began marching at 5 in the morning and were halted when we reached a farmhouse occupied by the emperor. At about 11 we were sent off toward the left, reaching a plateau on which a large number of troops were drawn up in column. Beyond them we could see the English positioned on some heights before the forest of Soignies.

Just as we reached the plateau we were ordered forward to take up a position on the left of the 5th Division (I Corps). My voltigeur company was detached and sent into the Hougoumont woods on the left of the army. [The Hougoumont estate stood in a shallow valley near the center of the Waterloo battlefield. The fight to control the position was among the sharpest of the battle.] I deployed the rest of my battalion to the left of the 69th Line, which had been positioned on the left flank of the 5th Division. These troops had been formed up in a dip in the ground, and were hidden from the English. There was sufficient room for my men to benefit from it too.

A hollow road seemed ideal shelter for our second battalion, but just as they began to make use of it our général de brigade (killed a short while later) ordered the battalion to form up in front of the road. This placed the men in full sight of the enemy; when the English batteries, positioned in front of their lines, opened up, some 20 men were felled and successive roundshot were so deadly that the men had to fall back and shelter in the hollow road. These shots were the first to be fired, but they seemed to have acted as a signal, for soon firing broke out all along the line.

At about 1 in the afternoon I was sent forward to support our voltigeurs in the Hougoumont wood. Close by there was a house which the English had loopholed. Despite their orders to limit their actions to preventing the English from advancing against our left, our voltigeurs very much wished to capture the house as it annoyed them tremendously. Each time they tried they were thrown back into the woods.

I determined to support them but also to keep them in their position, as I had been warned that the army depended upon us to preserve this post. It was here that I spent much of the day, and we suffered frequent casualties on account of the enemy shot and bullets. At one point, while sitting on a gentle slope, I heard something land behind me and roll toward me. Turning round, I saw a shell. I had just enough time to dive away, and the shell exploded without doing any harm.

Toward 5 in the evening our line seemed to fall back. This movement was no doubt caused by the return of our cavalry, which had been unable to produce the desired results. This made a bad impression upon us but did not prevent us from presenting a bold face to the English.

It was growing late, and despite all our efforts we had been unable to take and hold Hougoumont. We had lost around two-thirds of our effectives, and our colonel, the brave Cubières, had been badly wounded. Général de Brigade [Pierre-François] Bauduin had just been killed.

The remains of our regiment were being re-formed in the hollow road. General Guilleminot was also there, and he sent off one of his aides-de-camp to ask Prince Jerome for news. It was around 7 that evening when the aide-de-camp returned to inform us, on behalf of the prince, that [Marshal Emmanuel] Grouchy had attacked on the Allied left and that therefore the battle had been won. Deceptive news. Nevertheless, the general formed us up and marched us forward, positioning us in front of the road next to a squadron of Red Lancers.

Soon enemy batteries, which had been kept back, were brought forward again to their previous positions. They showered us with round shot. Then, suddenly, we caught sight of a battalion of the Guard falling back in retreat. Seeing that this battle was nothing like the victory that had been announced, I took it upon myself to form what remained of our 1st and 3rd battalions (the commander of which had prudently disappeared) up into a column. The commander of the 2nd followed my example, but, not long after I had issued these orders, I was hit in the stomach by a bullet fired from a copse nearby. I fell from my horse.

Two chasseurs from my battalion carried me to the rear. I regained consciousness there, and, despite the agony, I forced myself to march. Bullets and round shot were falling on us in quantity. A round shot shattered the musket of one of my chasseurs without, however, harming him. As we gained the road it became apparent that our troops were in headlong flight, but I continued to limp along despite my wound, hoping, perhaps, that the disorder would cease when we reached a more favorable position. Alas, it was not to be—the farther I marched the more disorder I witnessed.

Before long I arrived at Genappe [a small town between Waterloo and Quatre Bras]. There wagons, caissons, and artillery were so jumbled up that those who attempted to get through ran the real danger of being crushed alive. My companions, who, despite my orders and instructions, refused to abandon me, guided me into an alleyway. There, overcome by exhaustion and loss of blood, I collapsed inside a house.

There were a few other wounded in there along with a medical orderly. He placed some lint on my wound and gave me some beer and bread. This restored my spirits a little, and I stretched out on some straw on the floor, happy to get some rest and hoping that our troops would rally on the Genappe heights and that they would take their revenge tomorrow.

Suddenly, and just at the point we were least expecting it, we heard the sound of trumpets as the Prussian cavalry galloped into the town’s streets. I will never forget the temptation I felt when I heard that triumphal music. We whispered to each other “Poor France! Unfortunate army!” and realized with shame and anger that nothing could prevent us from falling into their hands.

However, ever hopeful, one of us extinguished our candle and pushed the door closed. We heard the Prussians passing by just about all night long, but nobody came into our building. I was suffering so much from my wound and was so depressed that I could not get any sleep.

It was dawn when there was a loud and repeated knocking on our door. We had to open it, and a Prussian officer and NCO entered and obliged me to hand over my watch and most of my money (the rest was hidden in one of my shoes). They also took my epaulettes and anything else of value. As they pillaged me, they did it in such a manner as to suggest that I should be grateful that at least they were sparing my life. No sooner had they left than some new ones arrived, demanding money and pushing us about in their search for plunder. I should add that some of them, seeing my bloodstained clothes and my poorly dressed wound, refrained from touching me. But a Prussian drummer got busy pulling at my boots, even dragging me twice round the room to get them off me. His indignant comrades threw him out of the door.

I stayed like this until noon, rolled over again and again, jostled, threatened with death by soldiers from all the passing regiments. They took my braces, my cravat, my belt, my shirt, but had the magnanimity to leave me my greatcoat and my breeches.

Meanwhile, my good chasseurs appeared and announced that a field hospital had been set up virtually opposite the house. Once again supporting me on both sides, they led me out into the street undressed, bloody, my breeches slipping from my waist, my head covered with a black silk bonnet. In this state, we had to traverse Prussian columns whose men jeered and mocked us. I eventually made it to the hospital, where a surgeon examined me in a summary fashion and where I then lay down upon some straw.

The hospital had been established in an inn where Marshal [Gebhard Lebrecht von] Blücher had spent the night. One of his aides-de-camp had been left there, and he took pity on me and gave me a glass of wine. Soon, however, a convoy of Prussian wounded arrived, and we had to make room for them.

We headed off toward a clean-looking house in front of which were two French officers. They were two of General [Guillaume Philibert] Duhesme’s aides-de-camp, and they informed us that their general had been wounded so badly in the head that they had left him to die in peace. They pointed out a small house to us, saying there was a vacant room on the first floor and that we could get there by means of a very narrow staircase. Despite the agony, I managed to climb those accursed stairs, and I found myself in a small bedroom. The dragoon captain, who could not lie down because of his wound, placed the mattress on the floor and sat down with his back to the wall. I lay down on the bed and finally got some rest.

We could hear the cursing and moaning of some wounded sitting on a dung heap below our window. A few others came to join us, and we spent five days there without receiving any food or any medical attention or, indeed, any attention of any other kind. A young lieutenant, who had received two saber wounds but who could walk, went out each morning to find what food he could and bring it back for us.

Finally, on June 25, we were informed that we would be sent to Brussels, and so I was placed in a Belgian peasant’s miserable cart with seven others. Although the road was unpaved, we suffered comparatively little, as the horse was moving slowly.

However, one of our Prussian guards felt that we were going too slowly. Throwing himself at our driver, he gave him several blows with the flat of his sword in order to encourage him to speed up. The poor peasant therefore urged his horse into a trot. For a quarter of an hour, the joltings of the cart gave us untold misery. Finally, I managed to get the attention of a Prussian officer who was passing by on a horse. He understood me and, without further ado, began to whip the peasant. That’s always the way: You poor peasants will always be the victims of war; whatever you do you will be robbed, abused, pillaged, and beaten. Our cart slowed to a more comfortable pace.

As we passed through the forest of Soignies [north of Waterloo], we came across a mass of overturned wagons, broken limbers, dead horses, and the corpses of unburied English soldiers. This debris and disorder seemed to prove that without the arrival of Blücher and his Prussians, the English would have been thrashed on the 18th. This was some small consolation to us.

Soon the cart entered Brussels, and we passed along streets surrounded by onlookers. A few insulted us, but the majority, more sympathetic, gave us linen, tobacco, and refreshments. No sooner had we established ourselves in the attics of the Petit-Château than the good women of Brussels descended upon us with food, wine, syrup, soup, and fresh linen. This procession lasted all day.

The next day was the same, but I think that the English must have grown a little jealous, and the women were thereafter limited to coming for a short period each day. All of us, wounded and discouraged by a week of suffering, were comforted by such care, and we shall always remain grateful to the good women of Brussels.

We had hoped, given that the war was not going to last long, that they would keep us in Brussels. However, on the evening of June 29, we were placed in a barge on the Scheldt canal and taken to Antwerp. We reached that place on June 30, at around noon, and were led through the streets between a double rank of English soldiers.

After having been a part of this triumph of the English, we were placed in a house, the attics having been prepared for our accommodation. The English officers told us that we were going to stay in Antwerp and that somewhere more comfortable would be made available to us. We spent a restful night, buoyed by this hope. On the morning of the following day, however, we were told that, in fact, we would be sent to England. We were plunged into despair, as all of us knew someone who had suffered on the English hulks.

Nevertheless, we were prisoners and had to obey. We marched back along the way we had come, escorted again like criminals. We were then embarked on a merchant ship captained by a John Cleart. The man was a stranger to humanity, and he made us endure all kinds of bad treatment in the twenty days we spent on his boat before arriving in the Portsmouth roads.

Jolyet was among thirty-eight officers who disembarked at Portsmouth and had to pay their way to Odiham [Hampshire]. Those officers who couldn’t afford to pay had to walk the thirty-seven miles. When the officers reached Odiham, townspeople treated them as pariahs and the town’s women insulted them. Jolyet spent six months there, treated like a bandit (except by the vicar, who lent him books and music and fed him some pudding— “a mess of grease and flour,” as Jolyet described it) before being taken to Portsmouth where, on December 28, 1815, he embarked for France. Finally, for Jolyet and his companions, the Napoleonic wars were over.

 

Originally published in the Spring 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.

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