Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber


General Wellington, who commanded the English army, was at a ball in Brussels when the surprising news suddenly arrived that Napoleon was advancing. Quietly excusing himself, Wellington hurried to rejoin his troops, only to find Napoleon trying the old plan—so often successful—of driving the two allied armies apart, so as to overwhelm each separately.

The French army first defeated Blucher and his Prussians, with heavy losses, at Ligny, but did not succeed in routing them. Napoleon then sent part of his army, under Grouchy, to drive the Prussians farther away, while he himself, with most of his troops, made ready to attack the English army on the hill of Waterloo. He rightly felt that everything depended upon the result of the coming battle; and, although strangely depressed, inspired his soldiers as usual by a stirring address, concluding with the words, "Soldiers, for all brave Frenchmen the time has come to conquer or die!"

On the English side, those who had encountered Napoleon in battle before, were far more apprehensive of the result than Wellington, who declared, "I, at least, will not be frightened beforehand!" Like Napoleon, he knew that the whole campaign would be settled by the coming battle; for if he were driven back, he could no longer keep in touch with Blucher. When asked for instructions, therefore, he exclaimed, "Stand here till the last man falls!"

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


This battle of Waterloo, fought on June 18, 1815, was one of the most thrilling in history, and has been described so interestingly by great writers that you will like to read their accounts of it. There were brilliant charges and countercharges, and skillful cannonading, and through it all the troops behaved so well that Napoleon could not restrain the admiring cry, "How beautifully those English fight!" Still, they were even then being so hard pressed, that Wellington, knowing it would be impossible for his men to hold out much longer without aid, kept looking at his watch, and despairingly exclaimed, "Blucher or night!"

Meantime, Napoleon was hoping that General Grouchy might rejoin him after beating Blucher. On beholding troops in the distance, Napoleon joyfully concluded they were his own, and was thunderstruck on learning that they were Blucher's men joining his foe! The last chance of success was gone, although the French, exhausted by many hours of fighting, still made desperate efforts. Ney even surpassed his former feats of daring on this day, and at the end of the battle led a charge, crying, "Follow me; let me show you how a marshal of France dies!" But he did not have the good fortune to perish on the battlefield, as he wished: The Imperial Guards also distinguished themselves, standing and fighting to the very last, thus proving the truth of their general's boast, "The Guard dies, but never surrenders!"

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


When Napoleon saw that the day was lost, he, too, would fain have plunged into the fray, to die with his men; but one of his officers, seizing his horse's bridle, galloped away with him, and he thus became involved in the general stampede. The losses in this battle, where H5,0'00 foreigners were engaged in the fight against 70,000 Frenchmen, were enormous; and Wellington, gazing at the dead on the battlefield that evening, justly said, "A great victory is the saddest thing on earth except a great defeat!" All these dead were buried under mounds and in trenches, and the famous battlefield is now a military cemetery, where both the English lion and the French eagle serve as monuments to commemorate the brave soldiers who fought and died on either side on that awful day.

Realizing that all was over, Napoleon hastened back to Paris; and when his brothers urged him to make another attempt and "dare everything," he sadly exclaimed, "I have already dared too much." Knowing how few were willing to support him any longer, he abdicated a second time in favor of his son, saying: "Frenchmen, I offer myself a sacrifice to the hatred of the enemies of France. My public life is finished. I proclaim my son under the title of Napoleon II., Emperor of the French." Although the Senate recognized Napoleon II., thereby giving him a place among the rulers of France, their action was ignored by the allies, whose armies again poured into France for the purpose of forcing the French to accept Louis XVIII. as their master, and made them purchase peace at a high price.