Mist hung over the fields, mixed with smoke from the Allied cooking fires and those of the French on the opposite ridge. Steam rose from cheap tea brewed in iron kettles. The smell of clay pipes and officers’ cigars mingled with the stench of wool still sodden from the night’s rain. Shots split the air as soldiers fired their guns to clean them.
“Waste of ammunition,” Davenport said to Charles. “It’s going to be a long day.”
And it had yet to properly begin. A breeze gusted over what would be the battlefield, stirring the corn, cutting through the curtain of mist. Wellington had taken up a position before the small village of Mont-Saint-Jean. Fitzroy had said that the duke would have preferred the position across the field at the inn of La Belle Alliance, which Bonaparte occupied, but the Allied position had its advantages. Wellington had seen the ground when he was in Brussels the previous year. Charles remembered the duke mentioning the slope of the land to the north which would allow him to keep most of his troops out of sight of an enemy across the field.
To the left stood the fortified farm La Haye Sainte, with white-washed walls and a blue-tiled roof that gleamed where the sunlight broke the mist, and still farther to the left the twin farms of Papelotte and La Haye. To the right, in a small valley hidden by cornfields, was Hougoumont, a pretty, walled château surrounded by a wood and a hedged orchard. Both had been garrisoned with Allied soldiers.
The ground before them sloped down to a valley, through which the road to Charleroi ran, then rose to the ridge on which stood La Belle Alliance. On this ridge, the French army had begun to deploy. An elegant, masterful pageant. Charles lifted his spyglass. Lancers with white-plumed shapkas on their heads, Chasseurs with plumes of scarlet and green, Hussars, Dragoons, Cuirassiers, and Carabiniers, and the Imperial Guard in their scarlet-faced blue coats. Gunners adjusted the position of their weapons. Pennants snapped in the breeze and gold eagles caught the sun as it battled the mist.
“Sweet Jesus,” Davenport murmured.
“Bonaparte understands the value of theatre,” Charles said.
“Unless he’s also a master of illusion, there are a bloody lot of them. I hope to God the Prussians get here.”
Charles cast a glance along the Allied lines. “We happy few.”
“Shakespeare was a genius, but he’d never been on a battlefield. Do you know what you’re in for, Fraser?”
“I’ve seen battles before,” Charles said, scenes from the Peninsula fresh in his mind. “But I don’t think any of us has seen anything like what’s about to unfold.”
That’s an excerpt from Imperial Scandal (on which I’m finishing up revisions), which finds Charles/Malcom and Harry Davenport (estranged husband of Cordelia Davenport, whom you met in last month’s teaser) on the morning of the battle of Waterloo. Yesterday, 18 June, was the 196th anniversary of Waterloo. In June 1815 the British, the Dutch-Belgians, and the Prussians were spread out along the border between Belgium (part of the Netherlands after Napoleon’s downfall) and France, the British and their Dutch-Belgian allies to the west of the old Roman road from Bavay to Maastricht, the Prussians to the east. Eventually, when their Austrian allies were ready, they would advance into France to take on Napoleon, returned to power after his escape from Elba. But if Napoleon, as seemed likely, crossed the border first they would close in and trap him. Only of course it was a long border and there were any number of ways the master strategist Napoleon Bonaparte could move. Together, the Allies and the Prussians outnumbered the French. But if he could separate them, Napoleon would have the advantage.
Last Wednesday, 15 June, was the anniversary of the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, at which rumors were already rife that the French had crossed the border. Earlier in the day, the Duke of Wellington, commander of the Allied British and Dutch-Belgian army, knew there had been attacks on Prussians outposts and the French had been seen to the south around Charleroi. But he suspected the attacks were a feint and the real attack would come from the west, to separate the Allies from the sea and their supply routes. He’d ordered the army ready to march, but he was waiting for confirmation of where the French attack was coming from. Wellington let the ball (given by his good friends the Duke and Duchess of Richmond) go forward because to have canceled it would have led to panic in the city and encouraged the many Bonapartists among the Dutch-Belgian citizens. Also, most of officers of rank would be there, and it was a good chance to speak with them.
At the ball, Wellington received confirmation that Napoleon had crossed into Belgium through Charleroi to the south to separate the British and Dutch-Belgians from their Prussian allies. He famously exclaimed “Napoleon has humbugged me by God!” He then went into the Duke of Richmond’s study to look at a map of Belgium and said he had ordered the army to concentrate at the crossroads of Quatre-Bras, but they wouldn’t stop him there. “In which case,” Wellington is reported to have said, “I must fight him here,” pressing his thumb down on the mao. In Imperial Scandal, Malcolm/Charles is present for the scene. He moves to the duke’s side to see that Wellington’s thumbnail rests on a small village called Waterloo.
The Allies fought the French, under Marshall Ney, at Quatre-Bras on 16 June. The results were inconclusive, but on 17 June the the Allies had to fall back north toward Brussels to keep close to the Prussians, who had been driven back by Marshall Grouchy. The retreat took place in torrential rain, thunder, and lightning. Wellington and the other senior commanders and their staffs spent the night of the 17th in quartered in the village of Waterloo. The battle took place the next day, 18 June, on a nearby stretch of ground between two ridges on which each army assembled.
Waterloo was a particularly bloody battle with some 47,000 soldiers killed or wounded. At the end of the day, the field, a relatively confined stretch of ground, was strewn with dead or dying or wounded men and horses. The 5th division was reduced from four thousand to little more than four hundred. General Cavalié Mercer of the Royal Horse Artillery reported that “of the 200 fine horses with which we had entered the battle, upwards of 140 lay dead, dying, or severely wounded.”
The Waterloo scenes in Imperial Scandal are some of the most challenging I’ve ever written, both in terms of trying to get all the details right and trying to capture the characters’ experience. As with any action scene involving multiple people, it’s hard to give a sense of the sweep of the whole scene while being true to a character’s POV and their visceral reality (an individual probably doesn’t have a sense of how the full battle is unfolding). In An Infamous Army, Georgette Heyer uses an omniscient POV for much of her Waterloo description. Bernard Cornwell also moves into omniscient POV at times in his Sharpe novel Waterloo. Both use omniscient POV to great effect to convey the battle as a whole, while then moving back to their main characters to give immediaacy. I didn’t do that (my goal is less to describe the whole battle than to try to capture my characters’ experience of it), but I did use multiple POVs, both British and French, to try to capture different aspects of the battle and also different characters’ experience of it. I invented Harry Davenport initially because I knew I needed a major character who was a soldier (which Charles/Malcolm isn’t). And Harry is an aide-de-camp to Wellington so he moved about delivering messages. Malcolm/Charles also ends up delivering messages (apparently Wellington really did press civilians into service to carry messages, as so many of his aides-de-camp were killed). And then I also have Raoul to give a French perspective on the events (and he and Charles/Malcolm have an unexpected encounter on the battlefield).
Do you have a favorite fictional depiction of Waterloo or another battle? How do you feel about battle scenes in novels? What makes them work or not? Writers, what do you think are the particular challenges of writing battle scenes?
This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Mel/Suzanne to Raoul about the Carrousel and the plot Princess Tatiana uncovered.