The last stand of the Napoleon Old Guard                           

View point 5


And here about 7.30 p.m, on the road where it slopes down to the valley, the Napoleon old guard made its last celebrated stand, retreating in good order until its formations were swept away in the tumult. Here also, later in the evening, Wellington and Marshal Blucher met on the roadway outside the inn and briefly greeted each other on horseback, while the Prussians took over the pursuit of Napoleon's stricken army, down the road towards France by which it had come.


This is close to the old inn of La Belle Alliance. It can be reached on Root by the diagonal track mentioned above. To drive there from Hougoumon it is best to go back past the Lion Hill and turn right down Charleroi road. The viewpoint itself is a short distance from the side road which turns off at La Belle Alliance to Plancenoit. However, it is worth pausing at the inn itself, where it is usually easy to find parking space off the road. This is another building which has changed very little, at least on the outside, since 1815.


There was no fighting on this side of the valley, except in the brief moment of the British cavalry charge and in the final retreat of the French: all the rest of the day, the French were in attack and Wellington's army in defence. So the building played no part in the battle. But outside it in the morning, Napoleon reviewed his troops as they marched up the road and deployed to right and left along the edge of the valley. It was a scene of military splendour and intense enthusiasm unmatched in Wellington's army: 70,000 men in gorgeous uniforms cheered and waved their caps on their swords and bayonets, and shouted 'Vive L'Empereur' above the sound of the drums and the regimental bands.


       


The viewpoint itself is marked by a plaque on the right side of the Plancenoit road, where some steps lead up the bank to the field above. From the top, there is a commanding view of what the French soldiers saw when they took up their positions in the morning: the wide valley they had to cross under Wellington's artillery, and the formidable ridge they had to attack beyond it - where they could then see the long line of their enemies.


This position is usually known as Napoleon's observation post, but all French reports agree that he only came here very late in the day. After the review in the moming, he rode back to the farm of Rossomme, which is three quarters of a mile further down the Charleroi road, and he did not come forward to this point until after 4.30 pm, when the cavalry attack was in progress. There is no final agreement about the reasons why he stayed at Rossomme. One, without doubt, is that he was ill and in pain, some said he was sufferring from hemorrhoids. Another may be that he was concerned, in the afternoon, with the threat of the Prussians, who took the village of Plancenoit and held it for a while, threatening his line of communication down the Charleroi road. Finally, it was his habit, unlike Wellington's, to leave much of the conduct of a battle to his marshals.

Whatever the reasons, the most important thing about this commanding position at La Belle Alliance is that for most of the day there was nobody here. This was a fatal gap. From Rossomme, the Emperor could not see into the valley, and his- second in command,

Marshal Ney, could not see out of it - he was down in the bottom of it all day, in the thickest of the fighting. Neither could see what was happening on Wellington’s ridge in all three of the major attacks the troops advanced believing that the enemy line had already broken and fled. The strangest thing about Waterloo is that neither Napoleon nor Ney had any comprehensive view of the battle until its final stages.


If you are driving, you may go on from here to Plancenoit, and also down the main road to Rossomme and Le Caillou. Plancenoit is a pleasant village, which the Prussians held for about two hours in the afternoon, until they were counter-attacked by elements of the Garde Impériale.


There is a Prussian memorial. At Rossomme, rather obscured by recent buildings, one cannot identify the exact spot where the Emperor's servants placed a chair from the farmhouse for him. But pausing here, you can observe how very little he could see of the battlefield. Le Caillou, on the left another three-quarters of a mile beyond Rossomme, is the house where Napoleon spent the night before the battle and received his senior officers in the moming. The building remains as it was, and it has a collection of Napoleonic relics.






Finally, you will perhaps drive back across the valley again, and thence to the town of Waterloo on the way to Brussels. Wellington rode that way in the moonlight that evening; but the road as far as La Haye Sainte was entirely blocked by abandoned French equipment, and he had to ride beside it. In the field on either side, and in the farms and cottages, 40,000 men and 10,000 ( horses lay dead or dying or too badly hurt to move. He was silent and the few officers with him sap tears running down his face. 'A victory, said Wellington afterwards, 'is the greatest tragedy in the world except a defeat.



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