The tour guide I attended the bicentenary of The Battle of Waterloo with told us lots of facts about the movement of the armies, and Wellington’s and Napoleon’s tactics for the battle, but as always when I research history, what I was fascinated by were the personal stories he mentioned, and the quotes he shared from eyewitness accounts.
On the first day our tour guide said that he believed Marshal Ney was suffering with combat stress – what we call today, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He said he’d tell us later why, but on the last morning he still hadn’t mentioned it, and so when we were in the museum at Waterloo beneath The Lion Mount, I asked him why he thought that, what were the specific things which made him think it? He went on to explain…
Inside the circular building is what the museum calls a panorama, a 360 degree painting, which you stand in the middle of, so that you get a greater sense of the battle, as around you the noise of battle, which I am sure does not replicate even one thousandth of the noise which must have gone on at Waterloo, makes you feel like you are there too – as models below the painting represent the bodies of men and horses who have fallen on the battleground and in the sunken road.
The tour guide, Nick Lipscome, a respected military historian, who knows Wellington’s descendants and is widely published on the subject of the battles in the Regency period pointed at the image of a man with red hair. “Look at him..”
The man in the centre on the dark horse is Marshal Ney. Ney had fought with and for Napoleon for years, and he’d been in some gruesome battles. In the Battle of Bautzen, fought against the Russians and the Prussians, in 1812, he’d faced some very fierce fighting and been wounded in the neck, and in earlier efforts against the Russians he’d endured starvation with his men and freezing temperatures and had to withdraw. He was wounded two more times after this.
Another thing which the guide told us was that the cavalry men were very hard to control, they often suffered with surges of blood lust, because they fought on Adrenalin rushes, charging their unwilling horses on as they used their swords indiscriminately, hacking and slashing at men. (This explained to me why the English cavalry, as I recorded in The Lost Love of a Soldier, beat back the battalion they had been sent in to fight but then galloped on to the French cannons to attack the gunners right at the far back of the French line, only for every man to be killed.) Wellington once said the cavalry ‘were always galloping into anything.’
Ney led a large group of cavalry, and they were known as the best in Europe.
In 1813 Napoleon’s success faded, and although Ney continued as Napoleon’s Marshal into early 1814, in April 1814 it was Ney who became the voice calling for war to be over, and for Napoleon to abdicate. When Louis XVIII returned to Paris, Ney promised his allegiance to the crown, and for his part in bringing King Louis to the throne, he was made a peer. When Napoleon then escaped the island of Elba, Ney said he would “bring Napoleon back alive in an iron cage,” and he put together a force to stop Napoleon’s march on Paris. Ney renegade on his intent to capture Napoleon, however, and instead joined Napoleon’s forces.
As one of the few Marshals Napoleon had at his disposal Ney became Napoleon’s right hand man during the battle, and when Napoleon withdrew from the field to rest, because he felt ill, Ney was left to manage the battle. He called his men to charge against the English infantry, and he persistently repeated the order, charging his men against the squares the allied army formed, even though there was little hope of penetrating the squares. (I’ll talk more about that in another post)
An eyewitness account of this period in the battle describes, ‘horses hooves sinking into men’s breasts and breaking bones, stroke following stroke, slaying men and splattering brains and blood, screams and the the crash of steal becoming the music of the field, drum and pipe silenced. Swing after swing of sword, as dead bodies became the pillows of those who were dying.’
So why in the face of such bravery would my tour guide, an ex colonel, say he believed that Ney was suffering combat stress. “Look at him…” He had taken off his hat. He had red hair. He rode at the front of his men. It would have been obvious to the men on the field who he was and they would have wanted to kill the man who gave the orders. It was a valuable tactic in battle; many junior officers died for that reason. So the commanders of high rank did not fight on the field. High rank commanders are at the back, because from there they can see the whole battle and order their army like chess pieces, which is what Napoleon and Wellington were doing. Instead Ney was at the front, and five times his horse was shot, and five times he got up, grabbed another horse and continued to lead the charge.
Because he had a death wish…
I imagine the pain in his mind was so great, and his personal battle against the wounds in his memories so strong, that he just wished it to end. In April 1814 he had searched for relief from it with peace. In June 1815 he searched for relief from it through death.
He received that relief in December 1815 when he was shot for treason in Paris on the 7th December. He could have even potentially avoided that death, as his lawyer claimed he could not be tried in France, because his place of birth had been taken over by Prussia after Waterloo, effectively officially making Ney Prussian, but Ney interrupted the lawyer, perhaps he still did not wish to be saved. “I am French and I will remain French.”
I gave Paul, in my story The Lost Love of a Soldier, a level of combat fatigue, because I knew men must have felt it then, so it was interesting to hear a military man confirm that. Only Paul, my fictional character, seeks to escape his pain through the love and innocence of young woman whose beauty and mild nature provide comfort to his soul…
If you would like to read my fictional story set around the lead up to the Battle of Waterloo, then now is the time to do it, Harper Collins have put on some amazing deals this month to commemorate the battle. In one country the deal only lasts two weeks, though, I have not put the amounts as they are different in different countries, just click on the cover of The Lost Love of a Soldier in the side bar to find out your great cut price deal.
If you would like to see all the pictures and videos of Waterloo 200 which I will share on my Facebook page, click Like on the Jane Lark Facebook link in the right-hand column.
Look at all the book covers in the side bar to see the fictional stories I write… especially the limited time offer for Magical Weddings, which contains my story,
The Jealous Love of a Scoundrel