Bravest of the Brave

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A short story about Marshal Ney, evening of the Battle of Waterloo, June 18th 1815.

Submitted: August 18, 2014

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Submitted: August 18, 2014

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Ney watched the Old Garde from the shattered trunks of the farmhouse’s orchard. The Garde marched up the valley rise, slow, like the inevitable flow of lava; creeping, majestic and unstoppable.

‘Here they come, sire!’ Colonel Pierre-Agathe Heymes, Ney’s aide-de-camp, uttered excitedly. He wore a red Hussar jacket with corn-flower blue breeches. ‘My God, what a sight.’

Marshal Michel Ney, 1st Duc d’Elchingen and 1st Prince de La Moskowa, grinned. Ahead of the Garde, the battalions of huge bearskin capped Grenadiers and Chasseurs, rode the greatest man Ney had ever known.

Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Emperor surged forward of the Imperial General Staff, and for a moment a shaft of sunlight  hit him and his grey Arab, Marengo, illuminating them in soft light. It only lasted a second; before the roiling clouds of battle-smoke darkened the advance, but it was enough to make all who saw, gasp in reverence.

‘The battle is over, sire,’ Heymes said, smile threatening to slice his head in to two. ‘We’ve won. We’ve won!’

Ney’s smile vanished and he said nothing. His heart banged in his chest. The Emperor would have sent the Garde only when he was sure of victory, but Ney knew this was Napoleon’s last gamble. A ruse to trick his men in the dying evening’s light that they had won the battle. Marshal Grouchy had reached them on the right flank and Wellington’s patchwork army was doomed. A triumph to match the bitter killing fields of Borodino, Wagram and Austerlitz. But the mass of dark coats swarming towards the flank was not Grouchy and his Corps. It was the Prussians and Napoleon knew that. The Garde were to snatch victory before it was too late.

Too late, a voice echoed in Ney’s head.

On the right were the weary survivors of d’Erlon’s corps. Men who had fought hard all day, as though they had wanted to make up for their absence at Quatre Bras and Ligny two days ago. Incompetence had kept the corps from attending either battle. Marching and counter-marching on the Nivelles-Namur road. Ney bristled. It had not been his fault, but he felt slighted. Napoleon had distanced himself from the cavalryman, knowing that if d’Erlon had engaged in either battle the outcome of the campaign might very well be different.

Ney gazed up at La Haye Sainte, the farmhouse was battered and pock-marked by shot. Hundreds of bodies lay beneath the blood-stained walls, nearly two divisions had fallen so that the farm could be taken. The green-clad German’s put up a very stubborn defence, but were annihilated. A ragged tricolour hung from the rafters. Victory, he thought, at such a cost. To the west, beyond the burning chateau of Hougoumont, the evening sun glimmered the world gold. A great lance of gold cut sparkled through the great clouds of acrid, throat-clogging stink of powder smoke and burning timber. The chateau was now a blackened shell, flames rose from the ground, flickering like orange tendrils of some Hellish world.

‘What time is it, Heymes?’ Ney’s watch had been damaged in the massed cavalry charge and where he lost his fourth mount of the day. British musketry had withered Ney’s cavalry upon the allied-held ridge. Bullets had plucked at him, some a hair’s breadth from his face. A ball had snatched an epaulette away, another had shot through his left boot luckily causing no injury and another had shattered his gold watch. He still wore it clipped to his waistcoat, but it was beyond repair.

‘Twenty-five to eight, sire.’

Too late, the voice said again. He closed his eyes.

‘What did you say, Heymes?’ Ney had to shout over a thunderous artillery barrage coming from the ridge line.

‘They’re playing the Emperor’s march, are they not, sire?’

La Marche des bonnets á poil – the march of the bearskin’s. Ney closed his eyes as the sound made the hairs on back of his neck stand rigidly. He felt his skin prickle with goose-bumps.

Ney had heard it so many times before. The Garde had always prevailed, and yet, he could not shake the anxiety from his mind. It was like a skirmisher fire plaguing a column. It was always there, relentless, but he could not do anything to shake it off. He stared up past the ruined farm, to the powder-wreathed ridge. He would join the Garde and their inexorable march to smash apart Wellington’s ailing lines. Ney had seen the lines falter earlier, had begged the Emperor for more men, but had been rebuked. Now Wellington would suffer the might of the Garde. It was the last battle.

‘Grouchy is here!’ an aide shouted, horse galloping towards Ney. ‘Marshal Grouchy, sire! We must attack!’

Liar, though Ney. It was the Emperor’s last bid to raise morale to gather the fighting spirit of his army. One surge up the ridge. Glory awaited those who dared to come.

Too late.

Ney massaged his tense neck muscles with a grimy hand. ‘Heymes, my mount,’ he called and immediately the aide brought forth his fifth horse. He climbed up into the saddle. He could hear the litany’s called by the sergeants to keep the files in perfect order. There were flashes of light on the gilded bronze Eagles, on the bayonet-tipped muskets and on plates and finery. Such glamour. The way of the soldier. Soon there would be screaming, blood and dying. Ney was a veteran of war. Seen everything that there was to offer. Nothing shocked him.

He thought of his wife Agalé and his four sons. Duty called as always. He would die here today. He knew it. It was fate. He did not regret joining his old master, but he regretted not being able to hold Agalé again. One last time. To feel her body against his. To hold his four boys, and to play with them. They loved climbing up onto his back, pretending to be cavalrymen and Ney being the horse. He smiled at that. They would grow up without him and his smile vanished as a prick of tears stung his eyes. He was glad they were spared the ghastly sights and the battlefield smell of blood, shit and putrefaction. This was no place for the innocent, only for the wicked.

Agalé could bring out the man in him though and lock the monster away.

He clenched a fist. Better to die on the battlefield than in Royalist hands. He was a soldier and deserved a soldier's death. There would be no peacetime.

Ney rode to meet the Emperor, who watched his approach grim-faced and without any recognition.

Napoleon’s eyes flicked up to the ridge. ‘You must lead the Garde, Ney. You must lead them.’

‘Sire,’ Ney nodded.

‘Up to the ridge and destroy what is left of Wellington’s centre. I cannot go, but I offer you that honour.’

‘Thank you, sire.’

Napoleon’s eyes were serious. ‘The Sepoy General will not stand. The British are badly lead. Glory awaits you, Ney. Take it. Seize it.’

Too late.

Ney’s ruddy and sweaty face turned to the staff. They looked at him in a mixture of intrigue, suspicion and awe. ‘I will, sire. I’ll break them apart like rotten wood.’ He looked back to Napoleon, but the Emperor tugged Marengo’s reins and rode back to the lines.

Ney, hatless and decorated coat almost hanging from his frame, kicked his horse to the front of the nine battalions that were beginning the climb up the valley slope.

‘Forward! For glory, for France and for the Emperor!’

Les Grognards, the grumblers, cheered and the ground shook under their feet.

Vive l’Empereur!

His new horse was well-behaved. Good temperament. Ney noticed its mane was caked with dried blood, obviously from the previous owner. Its hooves sucked at the mire, which had once been crop fields, churned and battered by the Grand Battery. Roundshot was slick with mud and gore. Blue-coated bodies were scattered, some unnaturally together. As though the shot had killed them where they had stood. Then, there were bodies in red and green and black. Wellington’s patchwork army. Ney looked up at the crest. The British were behind the reverse slope, beyond the dense clouds of smoke. Their muskets would be waiting for him. Would this be Bussaco again? Ney had been humiliated, shocked and defeated by Wellington’s men who had stopped the French advance by murderous volley fire. Five years on he remembered the sound of the clockwork musketry dealt by experienced soldiers. Masséna had shrugged and considered one English battalion would be overrun, but Ney had watched the French tumble down the ridge, bloodied and pursued by bayonet-tipped warriors. The Emperor scorned the English as bad troops. But Ney decided Napoleon had not fought them before.

Ney glanced over his shoulder, there was no need to speak. No words would come anyway. The blue ranks marched solidly on. A Grenadier had his eyes closed, mouth moving in prayer. Ney looked to Heymes who offered a wan smile.

‘What is it?’ Ney asked him.

‘I think you should fall back, sire,’ Heymes said. It had sounded like a plea.

A smile twitched on Ney’s face. ‘I must lead the Garde. The Emperor’s wish.’

Perhaps this would be the moment to prove himself, Ney considered. For not taking the crossroads and marching to his aide at Ligny. Or perhaps because of the massed cavalry attack in the day, which had utterly failed. Perhaps this was retribution and the Emperor wanted him to die at the head of the Garde. There was no other he trusted or perhaps wanted dead. Either way, it was an honour to lead the Immortals.

He glanced at Hougoumont. ‘I want two battalions to block that chateau and protect the flank. Send the furthest two. Act as a reserve.’

Heymes nodded. ‘Yes, sire.’

The slope was not steep and the Garde begun their climb to glory. Ney could not see any troops, just a few mounted officers and a handful of guns at the top of the ridge.

Ney wiped his face, his blue sleeve was dark with sweat. ‘Not far now, Heymes,’ he said on his ADC’s return. ‘Keep close to me.’

‘I will, sire.’

Then the British guns opened fire. The ridge flared brightly, clouds of acrid smoke pumped out and the grass and remaining crops were flattened by the blasts of canister. Balls whipped and whistled as they struck the veterans of the Grande Armée. Ney heard the butcher’s sound of lead punching into flesh. Men gasped and screamed around him, but he was unhurt.

Vive l’Empereur!

The drums beat the march. It’s sound was menacing.

Ney watched the ridge line, eyes staring at the smoke where bright flashes indicated the field pieces. Another blast and Ney’s mount was struck in the head. Blood misted and Ney kicked his boots free of the dying animal. The ground was churned to mud and he sank. He half-stumbled, but walked on.

‘Take my horse, sire.’ Heymes returned and offered the Marshal his reins.

‘I’ll walk the rest,’ Ney said over his shoulder. The horse jerked and eyes rolled white. Blood showed at its lips. ‘It’s not too far and besides the men can still see me.’ He turned to the ranks that the sergeants had kept in perfect formation. One or two men dropped as they advanced, but the rear and middle ranks were pushed into the gaps to the column seemed to soak up the damage. ‘You bastards can hear me, can’t you?’

‘They hear you, sire,’ General Friant replied. He crossed to Ney’s side. ‘We’ll batter these stubborn bastards into submission. My men won’t stop. I’ll march all the way to Brussels and my cock will be in a duchess’ cunt by sundown.’

Ney laughed. Dear Friant. An old soldier from the Revolutionary days. ‘We’ll all be enjoying what Brussels has to offer, you rogue. Wine and women, eh?’

Friant grinned, knowing that Ney was not one for adultery, but was enjoying the familiarity. ‘Wine and women, sire.’

There were bodies of cuirassiers everywhere now. Bullet holes and scorch marks on the breast plates. The armoured horsemen, le gros frères, had died trying to capture the English guns. He had to pick his way through the bodies. The blue ranks split into two, then three because of the uneven ground. Even so, the battalions were struggling to keep cohesion.

‘Close the ranks,’ he found himself saying, then realised that the order was not needed. He scowled at his aide. ‘Where the hell is our artillery?’

Heymes twisted in the saddle and pointed. ‘There, sire.’ A ball nicked the side of his red shako.

‘Direct attack on the centre of the line. Now,’ Ney ordered as the black-clad German Brunswickers and a green-coated line sent out skirmishers to meet them. The fire bit into the Garde, but it had little effect. Why should it? Does the eagle fear the mouse? Ney smiled and cursed the enemy as they ran away like frightened children. Most were boys from the plough. Not soldiers. This was unfair of Napoleon to send his elite against them. Then, the crimson coats faced them. English soldiers, cool under fire and musket’s levelled. Proper men. Veterans from Portugal and Spain. The line fogged white and suddenly the Garde’s front rank was jerked back by a thunderous volley. The Garde halted and returned fire. Ney thought he saw dozens fall in the red ranks. What he needed was cavalry. One troop of carabiniers or cuirassiers and the red line would be chopped into offal. But the flower of the French cavalry was no more.

Too late.

Vive l’Empereur!

The redcoats poured fire again at pistol range and this time, Ney noticed that the column inched back.

‘No!’ he shouted. ‘Stand!’ The English advanced and Ney grabbed the nearest officer and pointed his broken sabre at the enemy. He had slammed it over a British field gun in frustration during the afternoon’s cavalry charge because the French had not spiked the guns and could not penetrate the red-coated bayonet-walls. ‘You bastards stand! For France! For the Emperor! Advance!’

‘Look, sire!’ the moustached officer exclaimed. He wore a surtout with a greatcoat rolled over one shoulder.

Ney turned to see the redcoats turn and march back up the hill. He laughed and the Garde resumed its march.

They were the immortal undefeated Garde. Victory was a sweet as ripe fruit.

Vive l’Empereur!

‘They don’t have the men! We’ll beat them! We’ll be in Brussels tomorrow! Think of the women!’

I’ll have to do it with just the Garde, Ney uttered to himself. There was no one else. The infantry was thinned, bloodied and bone-weary. The cavalry had been destroyed three hours earlier. The field was full of twitching and tangled bodies. Red meat, steaming, bleeding, a butcher’s yard of horror. The wounded called from the earth. Some were trapped under the weight of their breastplates, their mounts and some under the piles of their comrades. The finest cavalry that the world had ever seen was not gone. How could the Emperor replace them? Veterans of the Prussian, Russian and Austrian wars. Europe had been tamed by them, and now on a sodden Belgian valley they had been slaughtered. It was enough to choke him with bitterness.

The Emperor was watching, Ney reflected. Watching the attack. Hoping as much as any Frenchman that this final assault would win the day. It had to.

‘Onward!’

French voices shouted and Ney saw that men in blue from the enemy lines were rushing down to meet them. Dutch and Belgian troops. They did not wait, merely charged with French made muskets and bayonets. Ney saw an officer on horseback desperately trying to form them, but the men were overcome with fury.

The Garde stumbled and faltered. Then the great phalanx slowly edged backwards. Ney went back as the men formed square. Musket shot removed the hat from the officer to his side. It was General Michel.

‘Hold!’ Michel was bellowing. ‘Hold!’ And dropped as a bullet took him in the temple.

A big man screamed and fell back, blood pouring from his shattered jaw. Another was pulling a friend into the hollow square, with one arm as the other had been snatched away with canister shot. Both Ney noticed, wore the Légion d'Honneur. Musket’s fired and the world was nothing but flame and smoke.

‘Make ready!’ A calm voice shouted over the din. It sounded like General Cambronne. ‘Aim! Fire!’

The Grenadiers and Chasseurs line exploded with musketry that tore into the charging Dutch and Belgian’s Ney could not see what damage had been inflicted, but as the powder bank lifted, the enemy were streaming back over the crest.

‘Form line!’

Canister raked the front ranks, pulling men down, so the formation was cumbersome. Sergeants hauled at corpses, pushed men into some sort of order. A Chasseur was babbling with pain. An officer crawled and vomited blood.

‘Cheer, you bastards!’ Ney shouted. ‘Let them know you’re coming for them!’

It was then that Ney knew the attack was over. Hundreds of redcoats emerged from the very ground in front of them. Sodden and grimy, but Ney saw the sparkle on the gold and silver finery, the brilliant white pipe-clay belts, the shako plates, buttons, barrels glinted. The officers were straight-backed, smartly dressed gentlemen. British Guards. Ney smiled with admiration. Wellington had held them back from the attack and now the Garde faced Britain’s finest. They looked unbeatable, undaunted and fearsome. Wellington had beaten him again. Ney knew it. Accepted it. And he raised what was left of his sabre in the air as though he was signalling his own death.

‘Agalé!’ he said, voice thick with emotion. ‘I love you!’

Ney stared at the redcoats, and time slowed. Voices became low, actions slower. He thought he could see the hammers strike with each pull of the trigger.

Everything turned white-grey and the Garde were hurled backwards. Blood sheeted Ney’s face, but none of it was his. He saw and heard the men fall. It was if a giant invisible scythe had swept the veteran’s away. Ney had felt bullets pass him, his coat tails were plucked and his scabbard dented by the volley, but he still lived.

He stumbled over the men, hands clasped, but he threw them off. ‘Up!’ he shouted. ‘Soldiers, you are not done yet! You will send your Eagles up there! For the glory of France!’ He made his way to a solid square of Grenadiers. They left him pass through their ranks. ‘We go up there!’ he shouted. ‘To victory!’

The square edged forwards towards the line. Ney thought once the square moved the others would join in, drawn by their confidence. They had to move otherwise they were dead men, huddling together until the bullets found them. Ney licked his dry lips. Was it fight or flight? Men from the rear were brought up. There was still time.

Suddenly, the square’s left flank shuddered and a bandsman next to him folded over his instrument. A man wailed and another staggered. A horse whinnied. Ney’s ears pricked at the sound of rhythmic volley fire. The Marshal strained to see over the Grenadiers’ shoulders. Through the smoky air that seemed to choke and scratch his skin, were redcoats. Green plumes adorned their tall caps revealing them to be a light infantry regiment. Goddamn the bastards! The battalion had somehow descended the slope and wheeled in line and now the volleys were slaughtering the Garde. Ney watched men drop in whole files. It was never-ending, and by the time the first company had loaded, it would fire again and work down the line, loading with absolute precision, until it was time to fire again.

‘Close up!’ the NCOs shouted desperately.

‘Dress the ranks! Make ready!’ An officer shouted, blood streaming from a wound to his neck.

‘Present!’ Ney couldn’t help himself. The officer nodded to him, accepting his command. The Marshal took a deep breath. ‘Fire!’

The volley spat flame and smashed into the redcoats. Men died, some still in the act of loading. Ney saw a ramrod cartwheel in the air. An officer was unhorsed.

‘Reload!’

A crashing volley through down much of the left flank and when Ney looked up, the redcoats were advancing through their own powder-smoke. The Garde could take no more, and the last square fractured like a brittle sword. Officers he knew were killed. Men he remembered from Russia, men who had shared the cold, hunger and fear to cover the rear-guard. All gone and now the blue ranks fell back down the slope, over the bodies as more and more musketry drove into them. The drums beat La Grenadiére, the regimental call to rally. A few obedient men stopped, turned and formed, but they were simply too few to make a difference.

Then, there was music. Ney stopped, ears deafened by the chaos, but he recognised the tune. The ridge was streaming with redcoats like a broken wine cask. The bloody fields were flooding with the British. Cavalry charged down, slashing their wickedly sharp sabres into the heads and unprotected backs, and Ney remembered the Cossacks charging out of the snow and mists to take a man’s life. Sometimes two of three in one go. And now the hungry blades took the veterans in their dozens.

A man was shouting. ‘Back! Every man for himself!’

Ney had the urge to cut the bastard down. Except that hot tears flooded the Marshal’s face to mix with the blood and sweat. The Garde streamed back towards La Haye Sainte, wide-eyed, packs and muskets dropped to make their flight easier. Ney was disgusted. He reached the valley floor where the dead were starting to reek. His boots slipped in the quagmire. There were bodies everywhere; some of the wounded were being trampled into the mire. His mind was numbing with so many questions. Where was Napoleon? Had the Prussians arrived? Where was Grouchy? Why had the Garde failed? He would not return to Paris. He would be tried as a traitor.

A tremor went up his arm. Panic? No, he was calm, but angry. Angry at failure.

‘Heymes?’

‘Here, sire,’ answered the indispensable aide.

A line regiment stood like an island in the sea of chaos in the valley’s floor. The infantry wore their great coats and looked like mud-smeared sacks of potatoes.

‘Who are you?’ Ney asked in wonder.

‘The 95th Line, sire,’ a black-haired officer called, hatless and with a bandage around his head. Ney saw the Eagle held by a young officer; a porte-aigle, but flanked by two burly sergeants behind him. It would do.

Ney knew of the regiment. It had a proud history. ‘You fought at Jena, did you not?’

‘Yes, sire. We were with you at Friedland too.’

‘So you were,’ Ney said, nodding at the memory. He smiled warmly. ‘Then you know me.’

‘Yes, sire.’

The Marshal’s coat was filthy and his white breeches were ripped and bloodied. ‘Good. I want you to follow me,’ he said calmly, ‘we’re going up there to make a stand.’

‘Sire?’ the officer, bright-eyed and intelligent, rubbed the black stubble on his chin.

‘Come and I will show you how a Marshal of France dies,’ Ney whipped his splintered sabre in the air. ‘For the Emperor! Forward!’

The 95th obeyed, but they stood no chance, and Ney watched them die like heroes as the redcoats swarmed down the hill. Bayonets glistened and the points ripped into the French. They managed to fire a ragged volley into the enemy, but they were outnumbered and Ney ordered the survivors to retreat. It was a foolhardy decision to attack, but his head felt like it was made of wool. His limbs ached. Fatigued to the point where he could barely walk.

He clambered up to the walls of the farmhouse and saw the last squares of the Garde. The tricolour flapped in the wind, and the Eagles still gleamed; drawing him to them like a beacon. A surge of energy drove him on. Heymes, stunned by the Garde’s destruction, followed mutely behind.

Inside the square was like a charnel house and hospital. Dozens of wounded lay, some unable to get up. There were bodies underfoot.

‘The Prussians are here, sire,’ a voice croaked. It was Friant and he was badly wounded. ‘It wasn’t Grouchy. They’ve taken Plancenoit. We were lied to. The Emperor...he...’

Hot tears coursed down Ney’s cheeks as Friant faltered. He couldn’t stop them. Even as they spoke the whole allied line was advancing. The blue ranks were still dying from musketry and artillery fire. The square was thinning with every second. He ran a hand through his hair that was flecked with mud and dried blood.

Too late.

The battle was lost. Friends and comrades from years past. All dead or dying on this damp field. Worse still is that he still lived. Lived to see it all. He would remember and that was pure agony, like a lance straight to the heart. For how long, he did not know.

The Garde was dead, and with it the Emperor’s dream. Glory. France. All gone in the land of flame and smoke.

Ney tossed his sword onto the ground and walked away.


© Copyright 2020 David Cook. All rights reserved.

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