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La Haye Sainte

The farm of la Haye Sainte lies, as is well known, close by the side of the high road which leads from Brussels to Genappe, in the centre of the two positions, and about midway between them

The dwelling-house, barn, and stables were surrounded by a rectangular wall, forming a court in the interior. Towards the enemy’s side was an orchard, surrounded by a hedge, and in rear was a kitchen-garden, bounded by a small wall towards the road, but on the other sides by a hedge. Two doors and three large gates led from the court to the exterior; but of these, that of the barn had been unfortunately broken and burned by the troops.

The battalion consisted of six companies, which did not number four hundred men; I posted three companies in the orchard, two in the buildings, and one in the garden.

Important as the possession of this farm apparently was, the means of defending it were very insufficient, and besides, I was ordered, immediately on arriving there, to send off the pioneers of the battalion to Hougoumont, so that I had not even a hatchet; for unfortunately the mule that carried the entrenching tools, was lost the day before.

As day broke on the 18th of June, we sought out every possible means of putting the place in a state of defence, but the burned gate of the barn presented the greatest difficulties. With this employment, and cooking some veal which we found in the place, the morning was past until after eleven o’clock, when the attack commenced against the left wing.

Every man now repaired to his post, and I betook myself to the orchard, where the first attack was to be expected; the farm lies in a hollow, so that a small elevation of the ground immediately in front of the orchard, concealed the approach of the enemy.

Shortly after noon, some skirmishers commenced the attack. I made the men lie down, and forbad all firing until the enemy were quite near. The first shot broke the bridle of my horse close to my hand, and the second killed major Bösewiel, who was standing near me. The enemy did not stop long skirmishing, but immediately advanced over the height, with two close columns, one of which attacked the buildings, and the other threw itself in mass into the orchard, shewing the greatest contempt for our fire. It was not possible for our small disjointed numbers fully to withstand this furious attack of such a superior force, and we retired upon the barn, in a more united position, in order to continue the defence; my horse’s leg was broken, and I was obliged to take that of the adjutant.

Colonel von Klencke now came to our assistance with the Lüneburg battalion. We immediately recommenced the attack, and had already made the enemy give way, when I perceived a strong line of cuirassiers form in front of the orchard; at the same time captain Meyer came to me and reported that the enemy had surrounded the rear garden, and it was not possible to hold it longer. I gave him orders to fall back into the buildings, and assist in their defence. Convinced of the great danger which threatened us from the cuirassiers, in consequence of the weak hedge, so easy to break through, I called out to my men, who were mixed with the newly arrived Hanoverians, to assemble round me, as I intended retiring into the barn. The number of the battalion which had come to our assistance, exceeded, by many degrees, that of my men, and as, at the same time, the enemy’s infantry gained the garden, the skirmishers having been driven out by a column attack, the former, seeing the cuirassiers in the open field, imagines that their only chance of safety lay in gaining the main position of the army. My voice, unknown to them, and also not sufficiently penetrating, was, notwithstanding all my exertions, unequal to halt and collect my men together; already overtaken by the cavalry, we fell in with the enemy’s infantry, who had surrounded the garden, and to whose fire the men were exposed in retiring to the main position. In this effort a part succeeded. Notwithstanding this misfortune, the farmhouse itself was still defended by lieutenants George Groeme and Carey, and ensign Frank. The English dragoon guards now came up, beat back the cuirassiers, fell upon the infantry, who had already suffered much, and nearly cut them to pieces.

In this first attack I lost a considerable number of men, besides three officers killed, and six wounded; on my requisition for support, captains von Gilsa and Marschalck were sent to me, with their companies of the 1st light battalion; to these, and a part of my own battalion, I gave the defence of the garden, leaving the buildings to the three officers who had already so bravely defended them; the orchard I did not again occupy.

About half an hour’s respite was now given us by the enemy, and we employed the time in preparing ourselves against a new attack; this followed in the same force as before; namely, from two sides by two close columns, which, with the greatest rapidity, nearly surrounded us, and, despising danger, fought with a degree of courage which I had never before witnessed in Frenchmen. Favored by their advancing in masses, every bullet of ours hit, and seldom were the effects limited to one assailant; this did not, however, prevent them from throwing themselves against the walls, and endeavouring to wrest the arms from the hands of my men, through the loop-holes; many lives were sacrificed to the defence of the doors and gates; the most obstinate contest was carried on where the gate was wanting, and where the enemy seemed determined to enter. On this spot seventeen Frenchmen already lay dead, and their bodies served as a protection to those who pressed after them to the same spot.

Meantime four lines of French cavalry had formed on the right front of the farm: the first cuirassiers, second lancers, third dragoons, and fourth hussars, and it was clear to me that their intention was to attack the squares of our division in position, in order by destroying them to break the whole line. This was a critical moment, for what would be our fate if they succeeded! As they marched upon the position by the farm, I brought all the fire possible to bear upon them; many men and horses were overthrown, but they were not discouraged. Without in the least troubling themselves about our fire, they advanced with the greatest intrepidity, and attacked the infantry. All this I could see, and confess freely that now and then I felt some apprehension. The manner in which this cavalry was received and beaten back by our squares, is too well known to require mention here.

The contest in the farm had continued with undiminished violence, but nothing could shake the courage of our men, who, following the example of their officers, laughing, defied danger. Nothing could inspire more courage or confidence than such conduct. These are the moments when we learn how to feel what one soldier is to another - what the word "comrade" really means - feelings which must penetrate the coarsest mind, but which he only can fully understand, who has been witness to such moments!

When the cavalry retired, the infantry gave up also their fruitless attack, and fell back, accompanied by our shouts, and derision. Our loss, an this occasion, was not so great as at first; however, my horse was again shot under me, and as my servant, believing me dead, had gone away with my other horse, I procured one of those that were running about.

Our first care was to make good the injury which had been sustained; my greatest anxiety was respecting the ammunition, which, I found, in consequence of the continued fire, had been reduced more than one half. I immediately sent an officer back with this account, and requested ammunition, which was promised. About an hour had thus passed when I discovered the enemy’s columns again advancing on the farm; I sent another officer back to the position with this intelligence, and repeated the request for ammunition.

Our small position was soon again attacked with the same fury, and defended with the same courage as before. Captain von Wurmb was sent to my assistance with the skirmishers of the fifth line battalion, and I placed them in the court; but welcome as this reinforcement was, it could not compensate for the want of ammunition, which every moment increased, so that after half an hour more of uninterrupted fighting, I sent off an officer with the same request.

This was as fruitless as the other two applications; however, two hundred Nassau troops were sent me. The principal contest was now carried on at the open entrance to the barn; at length the enemy, not being able to succeed by open force, resorted to the expedient of setting the place on fire, and soon a thick smoke was seen rising from the barn! Our alarm was now extreme, for although there was water in the court, all means of drawing it, and carrying it were wanting, every vessel having been broken up. Luckily the Nassau troops carried large field cooking kettles; I tore a kettle from the back of one of the men; several officers followed my example, and filling the kettles with water, they carried them, facing almost certain death, to the fire. The men did the same, and soon not one of the Nassauers was left with his kettle, and the fire was thus luckily extinguished; but alas! With the blood of many a brave man! Many of the men, although covered with wounds, could not be brought to retire. "So long as our officers fight, and we can stand," was their constant reply, "we will not stir from the spot."

It would be injustice to a skirmisher named Frederick Lindau, if I did not mention him: Bleeding from two wounds in the head and carrying in his pocket a considerable bag of gold which he had taken from an enemy’s officer, he stood at the small back barn door, and from thence defended the main entrance in his front. I told him to go back, as the cloth about his head was not sufficient to stop the strong flow of blood; he, however, as regardless of his wounds as of his gold, answered: "He would be a scoundrel that deserted you, so long as his head is on his shoulders." This brave fellow was afterwards taken, and lost his treasure.

This attack may have lasted about an hour and a half, when the French, tired from their fruitless efforts, again fell back. Our joy may be well imagined. With every new attack I became more convinced of the importance of holding the post. With every attack also, the weight of the responsibility that devolved upon me increased. This responsibility is never greater than when an officer is thus left to himself, and suddenly obliged to make a decision upon which, perhaps, his own as well as the life and honor of those under him - nay even more important results - may depend. In battles, as is well known, trifles, apparently of little importance, have often incalculable influence.

What must have been my feelings, therefore, when, on counting the cartridges, I found that, on an average, there was not more than from three to four each! The men made nothing of the diminished physical strength which their excessive exertions had caused, and immediately filled up the holes that hat been made in the walls by the enemy’s guns, but they could not remain insensible to the position in which they were placed by the want of ammunition, and made the most reasonable remonstrances to me on the subject. These were not wanting to make me renew the most urgent representations, and finally to report specifically that I was not capable of sustaining another attack in the present condition. All was in vain! (it must be observed that the battalion were armed with rifles, and, therefore, could not make use of the ordinary infantry ammunition. This circumstance explains what occurred; but at the same time, shews how dangerous it may prove to have fire arms of different calibres. - Note of the Editor of the Hanoverian Military Journal) with what uneasiness did I now see two enemy’s columns again in march against us! At this moment I would have blessed the ball that came to deprive me of life. But more than life was at stake, and the extraordinary danger required extraordinary exertion and firmness. On my exhortations to courage and economy of the ammunition, I received one unanimous reply: "No man will desert you, we will fight and die with you!" No pen, not even tat of one who has experienced such moments, can describe the feeling which this excited in me; nothing can be compared with it! Never had I felt myself so elevated; but never also placed in so painful a position, where honor contended with a feeling for the safety of the men who had given me such an unbounded proof of their confidence.

The enemy gave me no time for thought; they were already close by our weak walls, and now, irritated by the opposition which they had experienced, attacked with renewed fury. The contest commenced at the barn, which they again succeeded in setting on fire. It was extinguished, luckily, in the same manner as before. Every shot that was now fired, increased my uneasiness and anxiety. I sent again to the rear with the positive statement that I must and would leave the place if no ammunition was sent me. This was also without effect.

Our fire gradually diminished, and in the same proportion did our perplexity increase; already I heard many voices calling out for ammunition, adding: "We will readily stand by you, but we must have the means of defending ourselves!" Even the officers, who, during the whole day, had shewn the greatest courage, represented to me the impossibility of retaining the post under such circumstances. The enemy, who too soon observed our wants, now boldly broke in one of the doors; however, as only a few could come in at a time, these were instantly bayonetted, and the rear hesitated to follow. They now mounted the roof and walls, from which my unfortunate men were certain marks; at the same time they pressed in through the open barn, which could no longer be defended. Inexpressibly painful as the decision was to me of giving up the place, my feeling of duty as a man overcame that of honor, and I gave the order to retire through the house into the garden. How much these words cost me, and by what feelings they were accompanied, he only can judge who has been placed in a similar situation!

Fearing the bad impression which retiring from the house into the garden would make upon the men, and wishing to see whether it was possible still to hold any part of the place, I left to the before-mentioned three officers the honor of being the last. The passage through the house being very narrow, many of the men were overtaken by the enemy, who vented their fury upon them in the lowest abuse, and the most brutal treatment. Among the sufferers here was ensign Frank, who had already been wounded: the first man that attacked him, he ran through with his sabre, but at the same moment, his arm was broken by a ball from another; nevertheless he reached a bed room, and succeeded in concealing himself behind a bed. Two of the men also took refuge in the same place, but the French followed close at their heels, crying Pas de pardon a ces B... verds!, and shot them before his face; Frank had himself the good luck to remain undiscovered until the place fell into our hands.

As I was now fully convinced, and the officers agreed with me, that the garden was not to be maintained when the enemy were in possession of the dwelling house, I made the men retire singly to the main position. The French, pleased, perhaps, with their success, did not molest us in retreat. The men who had been sent to me from other regiments, I allowed to return, and with the weak remnant of my own battalion I attached myself to two companies of the first light battalion, which, under lieutenant-colonel Lewis von dem Bussche, occupied the hollow road behind the farm. Although we could not fire a shot, we helped to increase the numbers. Here the combat recommenced with increased fury, the enemy pressing forth from the farm, and I had the pain to see captain Henry von Marschalck fall - a friend whose distinguished coolness and bravery on this day I can never forget; captain von Gilsa also had his right arm shattered; lieutenant Albert was shot, and lieutenant Groeme, as he swung his cap in the air to cheer on the men, had his right hand shattered; neither would go into the hollow road, notwithstanding all my persuasions, but remained above upon the edge. On the retreat from the buildings captain Holtzermann and lieutenant Tobin were taken, and lieutenant Carey was wounded, so that the number of my officers was very much reduced. I rode a dragoon horse, in front of whose saddle were large pistol holsters and a cloak, and the firing was so sharp that four balls entered here, and another the saddle, just as I had slighted to replace my hat which had been knocked off by a sixth ball.

The fifth line battalion which stood on our right, were now ordered to attack the enemy with the bayonet. ...

The cuirassiers thought this a good opportunity to break through the line, not, perhaps, being aware of the presence of our men in the hollow road; however when they had arrived within about twenty paces, they received such a fire that they wheeled about in the greatest disorder, well marked by our men; at this moment the third hussars advanced. ...

Fresh columns of the enemy again advanced, and nothing seemed likely to terminate the slaughter but the entire destruction of one army or the other. My horse, the third which I had had in the course of the day, received a ball in his head; he sprung up, and in coming down again, fell on my right leg, and pressed me so hard into the deep loamy ground, that, despite of all exertion, I could not extricate myself. The men in the road considered me dead, and it was not till after some little time that one of them came out to set me free. Although my leg was not broken, I lost the use of it for the moment; I begged most urgently for a horse, offering gold upon gold, but men who called themselves my friends, forgot the word, and thought only of their own interest! I crept to the nearest house behind the front. An Englishman was charitable enough to catch a stray horse, place a saddle upon him, and help me up; I then rode again forward, when I learned that general Alten had been severely wounded. I saw that the part of the position, which our division had held, was only weakly and irregularly occupied. Scarce sensible, from the pain which I suffered, I rode straight to the hollow road, where I had left the rest of the men; but they also, had been obliged to retire to the village in consequence of the total want of ammunition, hoping there to find some cartridges. A French dragoon finally drove me from the spot, and riding back, in the most bitter grief, I met an officer, who gave me the above information of the battalion. I directed him to bring my men forward, if there were only two of them together, as I had hopes of getting some ammunition. Immediately after this, there arose throughout the whole line, the cry of "victory"! victory"!, and with equal enthusiasm "forward"! "forward!" - What an unexpected change! As I had no longer any men to command, I joined the first hussars, and with them followed the enemy until dark, when I returned to the field of battle.

The division, which had suffered dreadfully, remained, during the night, on the field. Out of nearly four hundred men, with which I commenced the battle, only forty-two remained effective. Whoever I asked after, the answer was "killed", - "wounded"! I freely confess that tears came involuntarily into my eyes at this sad intelligence, and the many bitter feelings that seized upon me. I was awakened from these gloomy thoughts by my friend major Shaw, assistant-quarter-master-general to our division. I felt myself exhausted to the greatest degree, and my leg was very painful. I lay down to sleep, with my friend, upon some straw which the men had collected together for us; on waking we found ourselves between a dead man, and a dead horse! But I will pass over in silence the scene which the field of battle, with all its misery and grief, now presented.

We buried our dead friends and comrades; amongst the rest colonel von Ompteda, the commander of the brigade, and many brave men. After some food was cooked, and the men had, in some measure, refreshed themselves, we broke up from the field to follow the enemy.