May 4 1816: Lord Byron At Wateroloo

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“May 4. — Having risen, foolishly paid 40 naps, to the coachmaker. My Lord and servant stepped into the caleche. I and a servant got on horseback, and  went to Waterloo. We soon entered Soignies, which on both sides formed a beautiful wood (not forest, for it was not wild on either side) for several miles. The avenue it formed varied in length : sometimes the end was formed by a turn of the road, sometimes by the  mere perspective effect of narrowing. The trees are all young — none of above thirty years’ growth. We then reached Waterloo, where were the head-quarters of Napoleon. An officious host pressed us to order dinner. We ran from his pressing, and advancing came to St. Jean, where the boys continued the offerings we first had at Waterloo of buttons, books, etc. This was the village which gave the French name to the battle, I believe, as it was the spot which Napoleon tried to gain. The view of the plain, as we advanced to the right, struck us as fields formed almost with the hopes that spirit and war would make their havoc here. Gentle risings, sufficient to give advantage to the attacked — few hedges — few trees.

There was no sign of desolation to attract the passerby;  if it were not for the importunity of boys, and the glitter of buttons in their hands, there would be no sign of war. The peasant whistled as blithely, the green of Nature was as deep, and the trees waved their branches as softly, as before the battle. The houses were repaired. Only a few spots with white plaster between the bricks pointed out the cannon’s ruin ; and in ruins there was only Hougoumont, which was attacked so bravely and defended so easily — at least so I should imagine from the few killed in the garden and the appearance of the whole, while so many French lay dead in the field. In the garden were only 25 English killed, while in the field 15CX); and on the other side 600 French, not counting the wounded, were slain. Indeed, the gallantry, the resolution and courage, which the French displayed in attacking this place, guarded from the heights by our cannon, and by our soldiers through the loopholes, would alone ennoble the cause in which they fought.

Before arriving at Hougoumont, the spots where Hill, Picton, and the Scotch Greys did their several deeds, were pointed out to us. The spot which bore the dreadful charge of cavalry is only marked by a hedge. The cuirassiers advancing, the Scots divided — showed a masked battery, which fired grape into the adverse party’s ranks — then it was the Scots attacked. I do not now so much wonder at their victory. The cuirasses which we saw were almost all marked with bullets, lance- and sabre-cuts. Buonaparte and the French, our guide said, much admired the good discipline and undaunted courage of the short-kilted Scot. Going forward, the spot at which the Prussians, the lucky gainers of the battle, emerged, was pointed out to us — and, a little farther on, we were shown the spot where Colonel Howard, my friend’s cousin, was buried before being carried to England. Three trees, of which one is cut down, mark the spot, now ploughed over.

At Hougoumont we saw the untouched chapel where our wounded lay, and where the fire consumed the toes of a crucifix. We there inscribed our names amongst cits and lords. We found here a gardener who pointed out the garden — the gate where the French were all burnt — the gap in the hedge where the French attempted, after the loss of 1500 men, to storm the place — the field, quarter of an acre, in which were heaps of Gallic corpses. The gardener and the dog, which we saw, had been detained at Hougoumont by General Maitland in case of a retreat. The peasants declare that from 4 to 5 the affair was very, very doubtful, and that at the last charge of the Imperial Guards Napoleon was certain of being in Brussels in quatre heures, Wellington, after the defeat of the Prussians etc., on the 17th went to Waterloo, and determined where he would place each corps. This was a great advantage: but, in spite of the excellence of his position, he would certainly have been defeated had it not been for the fortunate advance of the Prussians.

From Hougoumont we went to the red-tiled house which is the rebuilding of the house where was Buonaparte’s last station and head-quarters. It was from this spot that he viewed the arrival of the Prussians, under the idea of their being the corps of Grouchy. It was here he felt first the certainty of defeat, just after he had led the old Imperial Guard, in the certainty of victory, to his last attack.

La Belle Alliance next appeared along the road, here where Wellington and Blucher met. The name is derived from a marriage in the time of peace : it is now applicable to a war-meeting. Thence we returned to St. Jean, after going again to Hougoumont.

There we were shown cuirasses, helms, buttons, swords, eagles, and regiment-books. We bought the helms, cuirasses, swords, etc., of an officer and soldier of cuirassiers, besides eagles, cockades, etc. Beggars, the result of English profusion. A dinner, measured by some hungry John Bull’s hungry stomach. We rode off the field, my companion singing a Turkish song — myself silent, full gallop cantering over the field, the finest one imaginable for a battle. The guide told us that the account Buonaparte’s guide gave of him after the battle was that he only asked the road to Paris, not saying anything else.

At Hougoumont various spots were pointed out: amongst the rest the one where Maitland stood watching a telegraph on the neighbouring rise, which told him what was going on on both sides.

We rode home together through Soignies forest — black. The twilight made the whole length of the road more pleasing. On reaching home, we found the coach was jogged ; so much so that it would not allow us to put confidence in it, etc. At last we gave it into Mr. Gordon’s hands. My friend has written twenty-six stanzas to-day — some on Waterloo.

— John Polidori, travelling with Lord Byron, writes in his diary for May 4 1816.

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