Waterloo, Belgium, June 18, 1815
John Freemantle felt every burst from the cannon as a jolt through his breastbone. At least the blasts no longer tore through his eardrums; his ears had been ringing for hours now, muting the roar into something almost manageable. His horse, a big bay possessed of considerably more battlefield experience than its rider, bore the noise stolidly, with no more sign of discomfort than the occasional twitching of an ear.
The British and their Belgian allies had been under heavy fire for most of the afternoon. In Freemantle’s opinion, “heavy fire” made it sound more civilized than it really was. The term did not adequately convey the experience of facing down cannonade while enormous iron balls ripped through the ranks, leaving bloody pieces of men wherever they struck. The senior officers seemed unfazed by the carnage, but John Freemantle, only twenty-five, had not long served as aide-de-camp to the Duke of Wellington, and it was all he could do to feign calm.
The pounding crashed to a halt, and Freemantle would have stumbled if he had not been mounted. The battlefield was not quiet, not by any means, but the relative silence was as abrupt as being doused by cold water.
“Prepare to receive cavalry!” came the shout, and Freemantle, wrenching his nerves back under control, looked about for the Duke. His Grace was for once near at hand, and moreover actually headed toward the position of relative safety his rank demanded he assume. Freemantle spurred to his side and the square slammed closed around them, infantrymen three ranks thick. The outermost rank knelt with bayonets at the ready. A bugle call pierced Freemantle’s ringing ears, and then the square was surrounded by the thunderous rush of men on horseback. The wave crashed against the infantry squares. The ground shook under Freemantle’s feet.
And the charge broke, as it had broken eleven times before. Horses could not be made to leap into bayonets. The men within the square, Wellington and his aides-de-camp, were as safe as it was possible to be on the battlefield of Waterloo. For a long time afterward, the only sounds outside the square were of swords clashing and men screaming. Then the French cavalry retreated for the twelfth time, and the artillery resumed.
Wellington swatted aside the broad red infantry backs at once, ignoring the entreaties of the aides who wished he would not so expose his person to danger. No one could possibly replace him, as his subordinates pointed out again and again, but the Duke paid no more attention on this occasion than he had on any other. He was invariably to be found riding along the lines, demonstrating to the men his calmness and composure, giving terse orders and the rare word of encouragement. Wellington was not a demonstrative man and had not the gift of inspiring his troops with words — but he was right there with them, in the thick of the fight, and his men respected his courage as they did his skill. Sometimes, Freemantle reflected, that respect went farther toward encouraging battle-weary soldiers than warm words would have done. He did appreciate why Wellington so publically scorned attempts to keep him safe.
He judged the men to be in need of Wellington’s encouragement at the present moment. The British force had never been strong to begin with — “my infamous army,” Wellington had once said bitterly in Freemantle’s hearing — and after the day’s pounding by Napoleon’s troops, they were in a sorry state indeed. Between injuries, deaths, and desertion, the line along the ridge was stretched nearly to breaking. An entire Belgian brigade had fled in panic, the British cavalry had destroyed itself in a useless charge on the French line, and General Blücher’s Prussian reinforcements, promised the night before and sorely needed, were still nowhere to be seen.
Freemantle followed the Duke back onto the open field as other aides emerged from their own infantry squares. Wellington’s staff re-gathered itself around him, eyeing the battlefield and shaking their heads.
“If the Prussians do not come, there is no way we can hold until nightfall,” Canning muttered, and Freemantle gave his fellow aide-de-camp a startled glance. No one had dared say it quite so bluntly before now.
“They will come soon.” General Muffling spoke unhappily. He somehow managed to appear at Wellington’s side, like a drooping-mustached Greek chorus, whenever anyone raised the question of the missing reinforcements. Muffling was Blücher’s liaison to Wellington, and he had been predicting the imminent appearance of said reinforcements since first light, over and over in almost exactly the same phrasing, while the sun rose high and men died under fire and the hopes of their comrades dwindled. “General Blücher attacks the Emperor’s flank down in the village, but once that skirmish is won, then … then, surely …”
He trailed off. No one nearby gave him any aid in completing his sentence.
“Well, gentlemen,” the Duke said, as though offering commentary upon an inconvenient rain shower, “they are hammering us hard, but we will see —” He stopped, attention arrested by a sight in the distance. Freemantle turned to follow his gaze, and saw a British officer on a black horse tearing down the ridgeline, mud spraying from each striking hoof. The officer waved as he rode, screaming something over the sound of cannonade, words no one could possibly hear. The Duke raised a hand in acknowledgment.
The black charger skidded to a halt, and the rider nearly fell from the saddle as he saluted. Freemantle recognized him, though his face was drawn and splattered with mud: a staff officer named Kennedy.
“My lord,” he gasped. “La Haye Sainte — the farm — fallen. Overrun. The French pursued our men — engaged Von Ompteda’s battalion — destroyed it. The whole battalion, my lord. Gap in the center of the line.”
Wellington did not hesitate. “I shall order the Brunswick troops to the spot. Go and get all the German troops you can and all the guns you can find.” Kennedy saluted and wheeled his horse, and the Duke swung to his aides. “Canning, my compliments to Colonel von Butlar, and the Brunswick Corps is to advance to the center immediately. I shall join them there. Gordon, my compliments to Major Norcott, and I wish a small detachment of the 95thto go into the forest and retrieve those Belgians who retreated so precipitously a short time ago, as their presence is desired to reinforce the center. Freemantle!” Freemantle barely had the chance to touch his heels to his horse’s side before Wellington was galloping away from him.
Gun smoke hung thick over the crossroads that had once been defended by Van Ompteda’s battalion, and Freemantle winced to see the pitiful stratagems being employed to fill the gap in the line. As Wellington rode up, officers from all over the ridge made for him, and their reports were identical to a man. The center had suffered the heaviest of Napoleon’s heavy fire since early that day, and so many of their men were now dead or injured that, even with the Brunswick troops supporting them, they would be unable to hold their positions in the event of another French attack. And the French would attack; it was only a matter of time.
“The Prussians must come,” someone muttered. “If they do not —”
“I am not saying I mean to retreat,” another officer said, speaking the word aloud for the first time, “but the line may break, and we must decide what to do if it does … ”
Wellington ignored that, turning to greet yet another officer stumbling toward him. “How do you get on, Halket?”
“My lord, we are dreadfully cut up,” the man said simply. “Can you not relieve us for a little while?”
Wellington paused one beat. “I fear I have no one to send.”
“Surely,” Muffling said weakly, “surely it cannot be much longer before General Blücher …”
“But until that time,” Wellington said, “it is impossible.”
There was silence among his officers. Even the noise of the artillery seemed to be faltering. Freemantle strained his ears — everyone was straining their ears — trying to discern if there were drumbeats mixed in with the musket fire. Was the French infantry preparing to march?
“Very well, my lord,” General Halket said. “Then we will stand until the last man falls.” He turned to gaze where everyone was gazing, at the crossroads hidden from sight by swirling dust and smoke, from which a column of French troops would doubtless shortly appear.
“Damn me,” Wellington said softly. Freemantle gaped at him, for that was more emotion than anyone had ever seen the “Iron Duke” betray, on the battlefield or off it. Wellington stared into the smoke, heedless of Freemantle’s eyes, lips moving slightly as though working out a complicated sum in his head. He reached the solution, examined it for a moment with distaste, then nodded once. When he turned to Freemantle, any trace of uncertainty had vanished from his face. “My compliments to General Burnley, Lieutenant Colonel. Tell him if you please that I am in desperate want of troops not yet battle-weary, who can join the fight upon the left so that I may move some of my men to plug the gaps in the center. It would seem the Prussians are delayed, and therefore —” He paused only for a fraction of a second. It would scarcely have been noticeable to anyone who knew him less well than did an aide-de-camp. “— therefore the General is ordered to bring up his special battalion.”
“Yes, sir!” Freemantle snapped a salute, clapped his heels to his horse’s side, and clung tight.
The animal shot away from the ridgeline, up the Louvain road and toward the Forest of Soignes, and Freemantle did everything possible to encourage its speed, making good use of good road while he had it. To enter the forest, he must turn off the road and slow the horse to a saner pace. Maddening, but if the animal broke a leg on the uneven ground, the rider would be lost, and thus also the message, the battle, the war, the kingdom —
The forest closed over his head like a shroud. The ground still shook from the artillery a couple miles off, but it was a dull, meaningless sound under these thick green branches. He might have entered an entirely different world.
The special battalion was encamped a good way into the forest, an inconvenient distance at the present moment, but it would have been worse to have them nearer by. They could not be trusted to restrain themselves with a battle clashing before them and would turn on their allies if lacking other prey. The Duke had made it plain that he did not intend to use them unless he had absolutely no other choice and that, in the meantime, they were to be kept sufficiently far away that the rest of his army would not be hampered in the execution of its duty. It was particularly important to keep them from frightening the cavalry and thereby reducing its effectiveness. Horses did not like the members of the special battalion.
Few of Wellington’s generals or aides-de-camp liked them either. Wellington himself liked them least of all, considering them to be the most infamous part of the infamous army with which he had been provided. His Grace would have far rather relied on the Prussians, Freemantle thought, and wished the Prussians had come in time.
The bay stumbled and Freemantle lurched forward, narrowly avoiding being thrown headfirst over its neck. The horse snorted and plunged, but regained its balance before it fell to its knees. “Easy,” Freemantle said, “easy, whoa —” The horse stopped its forward stagger and stood, quietly enough but trembling.
Freemantle swung out of the saddle, heart pounding. No rabbit holes met his swiftly searching eyes. Thank God for that at least, but what had caused the stumble?
He ran a hand first down one foreleg and then the other, listening with all his might to the wood that surrounded him, trying to hear anything nearer than the distant rumble of cannon. Were there enemy here? Had someone hit his mount with a missile meant for him? He could find no sign of actual injury to the bay.
He picked up the animal’s left foreleg, and saw the problem at once: a stone wedged between shoe and hoof. Freemantle fumbled for a knife. His heart hammered with the need for haste, but for that very reason, he could not grudge the delay to pry out the pebble, or he would be forced to race the sands of time on an increasingly lame mount.
With every instinct screaming at him to hurry, and the forest all around watching him with cold intent eyes, he set to work. Carefully, taking care not to damage the tender hoof any further, he probed with the blade.
The stone hopped out. The bay blew a breath. Freemantle led it forward a few steps and it put its feet down strongly. No lasting damage, thank heaven. Freemantle swung himself back up into the saddle, and the horse moved forward without hesitation or complaint. Freemantle, still unable to shake the sensation of eyes watching from the shadows beneath the trees, set his mount trotting once more.
The bay kept the pace easily until they were nearly upon the clearing where the special battalion was encamped — and then it checked again, shaking its head and snorting. Freemantle fought the animal’s fear with both hands tight on the reins, keeping its head pointed toward Burnley’s camp through the exertion of every muscle in his body. The horse shook and reared and struggled. Cannon fire could not disturb its calm, but it shrank from the unnatural things beyond the trees.
A few moments later, Freemantle could smell them, too — an odor more like a swamp than a stable — and at that moment, a red-coated sentry stepped out to challenge him. “From the Duke,” Freemantle said. “Message for General Burnley.” The sentry at once stepped aside, pointing to a man in officer’s livery who stood a short distance away. Behind him stretched crudely cleared swathes of forest, trees cut down to make and to make room for three enormous corrals with slatted fences ten feet high.
The smell grew, and it took something perilously close to cruelty to keep the horse from bolting. Here actual eyes of actual monsters watched through the slats of the corrals, and the bay knew it. General Burnley looked up, saw Freemantle’s struggles, and raised his voice in an effortless bellow for men to come and hold the Colonel’s mount. Actual men rather than special battalion members came running in response to the order, Freemantle was glad to see. One grabbed the horse’s bridle and the other two tried to calm it as it reared in ragged circles.
Freemantle did not dismount so much as fall from the saddle. He turned the slide into something that at least landed him on his feet, and Burnley did not seem disposed to comment on his lack of grace. “What news, Colonel?”
“It goes badly,” Freemantle said, and rapped out the rest of Wellington’s message.
General Burnley whipped around, calling for aides and shouting orders. “All right, lad,” he added, “you’d better get back, and tell His Grace I’ll have them there directly.” It took two men to hold the horse still enough for Freemantle to get himself back in the saddle, and the bay shot away from the clearing like a bullet from a rifle.
Freemantle was only too glad to put the unnatural air of the special battalion behind him. He gave the horse its head and damned the consequences. Brush flew by in a streak of muddy green, and tree branches whipped at him from all sides, but the bay somehow managed to make it out of the forest without snapping a bone on any of the obstacles within. It burst onto the road with a leap, and pounded toward the ridge and the bellowing cannons as though making for the place it most wanted to be.
Freemantle found himself plagued by nightmare visions of what he would find on the other side of the ridgeline. He imagined cresting the hill to find the line broken and his countrymen slaughtered, a line of French infantry bayoneting the last few who could no longer offer any defense. The scene etched itself so plainly before his eyes that he was almost surprised to find it untrue when he reached the ridge. The French infantry had not yet advanced. The British were still holding. Wellington was where Freemantle had left him, and the Iron Duke swung to look at him with no more than a mildly inquiring expression.
“They’re coming,” Freemantle said.
Wellington nodded once, as though the conversation concerned a dinner invitation.
The French guns roared, paused, roared again. Freemantle, following Wellington as the Duke rode from the center to the left, thought he could catch in the moments of relative silence a faint drumbeat carried in the air behind him. He turned, straining his ears, straining his eyes.
He was not imagining it. The drumbeat from the Forest of Soignes grew louder, more distinct, resolved itself into a definite infantry beat.
And they came.
Out of the wood, through the trees, and down the road, huge slavering things marched in something approximating formation. The flesh of their faces hung slack off the bone, and drool trailed from the corner of the mouths they could not completely close. Their overlong arms and thrust-forward necks strained at the fabric of a simplified private soldier’s uniform. A mockery of the uniform, it had been called by some.
Most of them carried muskets. It was in fact easy enough to train them to fire, for they had proven not much more stupid than the average raw recruit. None, however, bore a saber or bayonet. Their primary weapon was instead a large battle-axe, two-headed and spiked like something salvaged from Britain’s savage past, for the special battalion was at its best in close combat. Its members were resistant to discipline and incapable of learning sophisticated tactics, but they could be taught to slaughter anyone not wearing a red uniform and to mostly refrain from slaughtering anyone who did.
General Burnley led them on foot, but managed to preserve a certain grim dignity even while marching like a common soldier. The special battalion was coming up on the left flank. Wellington turned and barked an order to get the remnants of the cavalry out of there.
The cavalry went to reinforce the desperate men at the center crossroads. Wellington followed their progress through a spyglass, and his lips turned upward just slightly at the corners. He slapped the spyglass into Freemantle’s hand and moved to give another order. Freemantle lifted it to his own eye, curious to see what Wellington had seen.
It was astonishing how much the set of a man’s shoulders and the tilt of his head could tell you. Even with the spyglass, Freemantle could not read anything as specific as expressions, but he saw the shift in posture move from man to man, all along the center of the ridge as the cavalry came to reinforce the position. The men in the center had considered themselves under an inevitable sentence of death a moment ago. Now they glanced over their shoulders at the horses and straightened as though they still had a fight left in them after all.
The reaction of the men on the left was even more dramatic. Positioned as they were, they could not see what manner of reinforcements approached from their rear, but they heard the drums and the marching feet, and some caught a glimpse of the flag. The words ran through the ranks of exhausted men like wind through a field of rye: “Reinforcements have come.”
The French artillery chose that moment to crash to a stop. The relative silence rang in Freemantle’s ears, more deafening than the noise. He made out a drumbeat, slightly out of cadence with the British one behind him. The French infantry advance.
He heard his name in the Duke’s distinctive bark, and hastily kneed his horse to follow Wellington higher up onto the ridge. The Duke put out his hand for the spyglass, and Freemantle handed it over.
Even without it, Freemantle could see clearly enough. This high up, the visibility almost qualified as good, and even through the powder smoke that still hung densely over the valley Freemantle could discern precisely which French troops were marching over the churned mud. The Emperor, expecting imminent victory, had sent in the Garde.
The Imperial Garde was the elite of the elite of Napoleon’s troops, distinctive by their height and the bearskins that were part of their campaigning uniforms, usually held in reserve until the moment of victory and partially for that reason never defeated. The day was traditionally as good as won when the Garde took the field, and certainly the rest of the French troops assumed this would be the case at Waterloo as it had been so often before. They cheered as the tight columns passed, a wave of sound that started faint but grew into a crescendo from every part of the valley.
The monsters of the special battalion were not particularly suited to defensive fighting. No one, including Freemantle, had expected them to hold the left flank, and they did not. But they came screeching over the ridge instead, howling and brandishing axes as tall as men, and the French Garde — said to know how to die, but not how to surrender — took one look at this terrible vision and broke.
“The Garde is retreating!” It was shouted all over the battlefield, in triumph by the British and in horror by the French. The rest of Napoleon’s infantry stopped, gaped, then turned and likewise fled for their lives. The French cavalry squealed and trampled, trying to get away from the horrible things advancing on them. The monsters pounded in pursuit, huge and bloodthirsty and completely unfatigued, leaving gore and destruction wherever they passed.
Leaving, too, some fair bit of consternation in the British ranks behind them. It took fast talking and firm handling to keep the British troops who had gotten a good look at their new allies from sprinting away in the opposite direction. No one but the Iron Duke could have managed it, and for a moment Freemantle feared it would be beyond even his powers. But Wellington rode hard up and down the lines, visible and shouting, and soon enough had his men organized to join the monsters’ pursuit of the French. By then some isolated fire had resumed from the French side, but Wellington acted as though he did not care. “Forward and complete your victory, my lads!” His voice pierced the chaos. “Look, they fly before us! See them off our land!”
“For God’s sake!” Freemantle heard someone else shout in exasperation. “Don’t expose yourself so!” He turned his head in time to see another horseman come pounding past. The man reined up beside Wellington, and Freemantle saw that it was Lord Uxbridge, the Duke’s second in command. Uxbridge’s words were lost in the surrounding noise, but his gestures suggested he was attempting to persuade the Duke of the need for some caution. Wellington shrugged him off, as he had shrugged off all other similar arguments that day. Uxbridge persisted, and Wellington seemed to answer tersely, then made an obvious gesture of impatience and drew his mount an exaggerated step backward. He turned from Uxbridge to continue the coordination of the pursuit.
A sound like the snapping of a tree branch hit Freemantle’s ears, and he looked over just in time to see the red stain blossom and spread fast on the white cloth of Uxbridge’s trousers. Wellington swung around in the saddle, catching his second before he could slide to the ground, holding him with one arm as Freemantle struggled through the press toward them. Uxbridge’s face had gone the color of whey. “By God —” he said in hoarse surprise as Freemantle reached them. “I’ve lost my leg.”
White fragments of bone poked from the mangled hole that had been his knee, stark against the dark blood. “By God,” Wellington said, “so you have.” Uxbridge’s eyes fluttered closed. “Freemantle —” the Duke commanded, and Freemantle reached to take his limp burden. “See to him,” Wellington said, already turning to the job still to be finished. “Get him behind the lines.”
Freemantle summoned a couple of soldiers with a snap of his fingers and with their aid managed to ease Uxbridge off his mount. As they turned for the relatively safe ground where the wounded were being tended, he paused to take one last look at the battlefield. The road that led out of the valley, the route back to France, was choked with a sickening swarm of fleeing humanity. Nightmarish things pressed close at their rear, hacking through their back ranks.
It was well into the evening and the light was fading before General Blücher’s long-promised Prussian reinforcements emerged from the red setting sun.
But Wellington’s troops no longer had any need of their aid. By the time the Prussians arrived on the ridge, the French army was thoroughly routed, and England’s monsters were observed making for a steadfast square of Gardes who put up such a passionate defense that they must surely be guarding something worth capture — the Emperor himself, perhaps, or at least the Imperial Eagles.
Freemantle, now returned to Wellington’s side, watched the special battalion at its work and supposed he ought to be thanking God for its presence. Somehow, the words would not come to his lips. Wellington turned abruptly from the massacre, and for the second time that day Freemantle could read his expression. Only for a moment: then the helm of the Iron Duke came down.