“This is where I saw the Emperor on his white horse, there is where we crossed the valley with our own cannon shot roaring over our heads, while theirs tore great bloody gaps in our ranks. Over there, at the hedge, is where we met the Dutch infantry, and the Scotsmen.”
I remember the sights, sounds and smells of that day, the mud,........ and the ghosts come.
I stood that day behind the battery, with Marcognet’s 3rd Division of the 1st Corps under General, Count, d’Erlon.
We were drawn up in four divisional columns, ours being the furthest right.
On the opposite slope there was nothing, except a few batteries below the crest and hedges which probably lined a road along the top. But those of us that knew the game, knew the British infantry was waiting on the reverse slope, laying on their bellies, waiting for us to come.
d’Erlon had faced the British before, in the Peninsula, as had I. He had our divisional columns formed up in an unusual configuration. So that when we engaged the British Infantry, we could deploy quickly into line.
So, each of our division’s eight battalions were deployed in the three deep line formation. Our battalions in line were placed one behind the other.
When we were confronted with the thin red lines of the British, the leading battalion of the column would be in line formation and every man could use his musket while the following battalions would march sideways, like sliding doors, to extend the line on both flanks.
This moment of deployment into line would be the most vulnerable one, especially facing the experienced troops we expected to find on the other side of the slope.
But before all this, we would have to cross the wide valley before us, under the fire of the British and Dutch guns.
We waited as the eighty guns of the Grand battery filled the air with a percussive pounding. Huge clouds of smoke rise and drift eastwards across the valley.
There was a brief speech, “Today, you must conquer or die!” A tremendous shout of ‘Vive l’Empereur.’ The drummers began beating the pas de charge and, with ported arms, the columns moved off .
The leading battalion of our division’s column was the one to which I belonged, the 1er Bataillon, 45e Regiment d’Infantrie de Ligne of Grenier’s Brigade.
As we passed through the Grand Battery, they stopped uselessly hurling their balls and shells into the mud on the other side of the valley until we passed, reformed and descended into the shallow valley.
As we cleared the smoke of the battery, the enemy guns tore at our ranks with ball shot and shells. The occasional case shot burst overhead, spraying hissing shrapnel.
Looking ahead, the ridge was not that far distant. Only about a five or six minute walk would cover the ground. But, the soft mud and the tall rye slowed our progress and the English gunners had plenty of time to do their job.
The Grand Battery began firing again, sending shot and shell over our heads. The noise of the round shot passing over sounded like a barrel being rolled across a wooden floor.
Then, as we came within 300 yards of the guns, the canister began ripping huge gaps in the line, the officers screaming, ‘Close Ranks!’
Soon, our formation began to fall into disorder, we were tired and the churned up mud tore off gaiter straps and even pulled shoes off men’s feet.
Ahead of the columns a battle was being fought between the skirmishers.
The allied gunners sent one last blast of canister to rip bloody holes in our close packed mass before they abandoned their cannon to take shelter with the infantry we knew was waiting beyond the crest.
Our skirmishers drove their opponents back beyond the hedges, then fell back to join their battalions.
Our guns ceased firing for fear of hitting us as we ascended the gentle slope to the crest.
Behind us were great swathes of bloodied rye and bodies, some lying still, others writhing, crawling, stumbling back toward the Grand Battery.
But on the ridge, the Eagles glinted bright above their tricolors.
CAPTION – The eagle of the 45th is currently on display at Edinburgh Castle.
From behind them came a line of red coated riders, tall bearskins on their heads, screaming, pointing their long swords at us, atop huge gray horses, heads down, manes flowing, tearing up the turf as they came.
No time to form square.
The next instant they were among us, down in the sunken road. Everyone was separated from his comrades and fought for his own life. We stabbed at the mounted men but we couldn’t reach far enough to bayonet them. The few shots that were fired were as likely to hit our own men as theirs.
Intoxicated with the killing, they slaughtered us with almost no risk to themselves. They sabered everyone, even our drummers and fifers.
It was then that our eagle was captured.
CAPTION – Sgt Charles Ewart, 2nd Royal North British Dragoons, the Scotts Greys, capturing the 45th’s eagle.
I saw a group of men from various battalions trying to form a square together. I turned to run and join them. It was then that I felt the blow to the back of my head, then blackness.
I awoke in agonizing pain. A figure sat on my chest, pulling my teeth with pliers. I could move only one arm but I managed to grab him by the throat, squeezing until I crushed his windpipe. I remember his terrified face, eyes bulging, as this bloody corpse rose to drag him down to Hell with it. A bag of teeth fell from his hand as he died, spilling them in the mud.
CAPTION - Battle scenes are from the video game Totalwar: Napoleon, by SAGA
The description of the attack of Napoleon’s 1st Corps is adapted from the memoirs and letters of some of the men present at the battle, which can be found in a number of books written about the battle. Notable among these is “Waterloo; the History of Four days, Three Armies, and Three Battles,” Bernard Cornwell, Harper Collins Publishers 2014.
Working my way from under him, I examined myself. My left arm was half severed from a sword cut and I could feel my brain, barely held in my skull from another slash. My mouth was bleeding from the teeth the #%&*$# had been able to pull before I reawakened. My right foot appeared broken, probably from being trampled by the horses.
It was night or early morning, there were figures, like the ghoul I had killed, moving about among the dead and wounded. Fires could be seen here and there along the ridge.
I bound up my head and arm, drug myself among the dead, found a canteen that still held water, half a loaf of bread hidden in a dead man’s shako, and cheese in another’s haversack, a bayonet with which to defend myself. I crawled away into the ruined rye to let my body recover and move on. Napoleon’s dream was over.
This morning it’s being reported that the British have launched a heavy attack on the Flandernsanatorium*
Eighteen** has received orders to transfer from .4 Armee to .6 Armee as part of the response to this new threat.
We’ve begun packing up already and it appears we’ll be reestablishing ourselves at Houlpin, about fifty miles to the south.
*Flanders Convalescent Home- A slang term for the area of the front before Cambrai. It was a reasonably quiet front and units worn out in the Flanders fighting were frequently sent there for a period of recuperation.
**Staffels were sometimes referred to by their numbers only.
In addition to the preparations for the move, Malmann and I have a task to perform before we leave on the 24th.
Our motor pool supply room was raided last night. They took rubber tires, inner tubes, batteries and other car and truck parts.
Malmann is certain which unit was responsible, a transport unit on the other side of Kortrijk. “They were sniffing around here about a week ago.”
They attacked the young recruit who was on duty at the time, giving him a beating.
Malmann gave him another when he discovered the theft. His arm is almost back to its old self now after two and a half months but is still stiff and painful at times.
He had to make Vater aware of the theft and, of course, Vater wanted to call in the Kettenhunden,* but Malmann convinced him that they won’t do anything. He knows “who it was and they know how to cover these things up.” Just as he does.
*Chained dogs - military police, so called because of the gorget they wore on a chain around their neck during WW1 and WW2.
He suggested instead, a raid of our own, and asks for me. Vater finally agreed but we’re not to take more than was taken from us. “ The transport service has its mission to perform for the Feldgrau and shouldn’t be handicapped.”
I make a suggestion of my own, I want to take the kid who was on duty with us. Malmann doesn’t want to. “He’s a useless Oesche* and should be sent up to the front as cannon fodder.”
I ask that he give the boy a chance to redeem himself, “It may help him grow up.” Malmann shrugs.
As we depart the office, I interject that I don’t understand how they managed to get in.
Both Vater and Malmann look at me. Vater asked, forgetting my new rank, “What do you mean Vize?”
“Well…we have that big sign on the road out there that says no other troops are to trespass on the aerodrome.”
Malmann laughs, but it makes Vater cross, “Must you always make a joke of everything? Both of you get out!”
Two others from Malmann’s motor pool will join us as does Johann Rief, Seppl’s Motorschlasser and the boy.
The six of us dress in the black Schwarzer Mann work uniform and take out a covered truck about two in the morning, pushing the empty truck the last few hundred meters so as to make as little sound as possible.
I sneak in first and find the man on guard asleep. I immobilize him, and we gag and truss him up. The kid recognizes him as one of the thieves and I have to pull him off the man.
We get most of our own back and Malmann relieves the bound guard of his money and we’re off and home before the sun is up.
The transport unit didn’t report the crime. Most criminals know it’s best to keep such activity between themselves and not involve the authorities.
The kid feels better about himself for having participated in correcting the problem, as I knew he would.
I bring him over to my quarters with Malmann and we have a few celebratory drinks. He’s only seventeen and a skinny, immature looking one at that. You’d mistake him for a fourteen year old.
He says he’d like to fly but has never been in an aeroplane and doesn’t know how to go about applying.
Malmann scoffs at his ambitions, reiterating to his face that he’s not good for anything.
I know, and tell them both, that this is an advantage in the Army when you want to change jobs. The unit you’re in doesn’t fight to keep you.
And with the Amerika Program starting up, they’ll be looking for bodies to fill cockpits.
I don’t think much of this politically motivated reorganization. It’s the Bavarians who are pushing for it. The Luftstreitkräfte certainly needs to be expanded in response to the interference of the Amis* but I think this unnecessary shuffle of personnel into segregated Staffeln is a Verschlimmbesserung. **
An air unit demonstrates that cooperative regionalism can work within the German national military framework that was created after the Franco-German War of 1870-1871.
The Fliegertruppe has become a melting pot for Germans from all points of the Reich. There were, to be sure, some Bavarian, Saxon and Württemberg Staffeln, but, while most air units bare the ‘Royal Prussian’ designation, they were made up of men from around the country. As time went on, even the regional air units had to accept replacements from places outside of their own sections of the Reich.
In a local regional unit, a soldier can freely converse in his own dialect and be readily understood by all present. But in the Imperial German Navy, which has no localized ships or units, Hochdeutsch (high German) has to be used as a common medium of oral communication. This situation quickly became the same in the Fliegertruppe, where clear communication is essential.
As I expound on this, I see both their eye’s glaze over so I change the subject.
Another thing I told Kurt; the boy’s name is Kurt Henke, was that “In the air, the balance is different. A scrawny little b@$tard like yourself can hold his own, even against a bull neck like Malmann here.” I ruffled his hair to take some of the sting out. But it’s true, look at Fliegern like the late Kurt Wolf and our own cadaverous Schlange.
They look as though one could knock them over with just a harsh word. Wolf’s Staffel-Kameraden. (Squadron mates) called him ‘zarte kleine Blume’ (delicate little flower.) But, in the air he was a tiger and few could match him.
I promise to take him up in the Staffel hack before we transfer out, if I can manage it, and, if he doesn’t $h!t his pants, help him with the application and the rest of the amtsschimmel,*** maybe even sweet talk Vater into endorsing it. I can be charming when I wish.
He’ll probably end up in the trenches if he doesn’t manage to become a pilot or gunner on a bomber or ground attack machine.
** an attempted improvement that makes things worse.
CAPTION – I don’t know if Jasta 18 even had a Staffel hack at this time. This is just a standard white Aviatik C-1, overpainted with the Staffelkennung . To have some old crate for this purpose was quite common. It would probably have been unarmed.
On Mitwoch, in the morning, I get permission from Vater to take Kurt on a quick joy ride. I manage this easily because Vater is so busy with preparations for our move. He just looks at me distractedly and waves his hand in a ‘Sure, go ahead, just get out of my hair’ gesture.
Having never flown before, Kurt wonders if I don’t sometimes get sick.
“No…I get a bit dizzy from time to time in a Kurvenkempf but seldom any other time. Your mind can’t grasp the fact that you’re really so high in the air.”
“If you look to your right and left overboard or straight ahead you can tell yourself a thousand times that you’re soaring higher than the highest alpine peaks, but your mind just doesn’t register it any more than it does when someone tells you the earth is spinning around the sun.”
“The only thing that gives you a perspective that allows you to measure distances and have the feeling of great height, is looking straight back during a steep climb. Then you may feel a bit sickened.”
I don’t go easy on him. I put the uralte Tantenkiste* through as many maneuvers as I dare.
He’s as excited as a boy, which he is, when we come down, and now determined to put in for a transfer.
The application will have to wait until things settle down a little.
Sigi drove the Benz to the Feldlazarett where Berthold and I were treated to pick up one of the young nurses. He met her during his visits to us and as it so often happens, they develop a romantic attachment just before the young man must transfer out to another station.
He shows her his Pfalz and gives her a tour of the aerodrome. They make a fine looking couple.
Hopefully Morta won’t decide to cut his thread before they see one another again. That too seems to so often happen in war.
Our orders are in now. We go to Houlpin in the .6 Armee sector on the 24th.
WE WILL TAKE A BREAK AGAIN HERE AND PICK UP THE STORY AGAIN FOR THE BATTLE OF CAMBRAI
Most of the Staffel’s equipment went off by rail early yesterday. What’s left has been loaded onto our trucks and cars.
Malmann is walking down the line of trucks, cursing at his drivers and I see Kurt getting his fair share of his attention on the back of one of the trucks.
We have a new pilot, just arrived yesterday, Leutnant d R Hans Villinger. Max has the position of honor in the back of the Benz with our Offizier zbv and Villinger, and Bella, being of lower rank, rides shotgun. The rest of the Staffel’s menagerie occupies places in the trucks.
It’s horrible flying weather, but, Befehl ist Befehl.* It stormed last night and another is coming as we take off for our positioning flight at 1045.
We travel in separate Kette formations. Paul is better now and flies with Vater and Alter Herr Dingel.
The wind is from the southwest and we have to fly right into it. Antiope and I are tossed up and down and I think occasionally, taken back.
Rudi and die Schlange keep their distance to avoid being blown into me or one another, and are having a hell of a time staying with me. One of them disappears from time to time but then I see them again, usually coming from another quarter.
Alternatively we fly above or below the clouds to avoid the heavy storms and showers as much as we can.
We’re below the clouds, following the glistening white highways, as we approach the industrial city of Tourcoing and the suburban Roubaix.
Both of these towns, with their gleaming red roofs whose rows of houses grow into each other, are good reference points for flyers moving endlessly in the sea of air. To make it from here to the Front, you simply turn right and follow the course of the Lys River.
As we reach the aerodrome at Wesaquehal, we pass through a heavy thunderstorm.
Coming over Lille at a relatively low altitude, we can see the outlines of the city’s famed citadel, whose angular lines are a welcome point of orientation even in this poor visibility. The big northern train station of Lille passes beneath us like a black blur, from which thin, fine tracks branch out in all directions. *
*These descriptions of the area are adapted from Carl Degelow’s writings about an orientation flight over Lille. He was flying in the opposite direction. From “Black Fokker Leader – Carl Degelow – The First World War’s Last Airfighter Knight,” Peter Kilduff, Grubb Street 2009.
CAPTION – German aerial photo of the citadel, 1916. The map of Lille above, is from 1909.
Following the rail lines southwest for eight or nine kilometers we reach our goal in less than ten minutes. The flight itself was only a little over a half hour, but seemed hours long in the misery of the driving rain.
CAPTION – British trench map from December 1917. The red spots indicate observation posts. The Xs out to the east, along the canal, are wire obstacles, while the little red dots are dugouts. There are trenches out in front of these, right on the canal itself.
The airfield’s unoccupied, although there are a few alten Kisten in some of the hangars. So we have the run of the place and there are hangars enough here for everyone to have one to themselves. Vater assigns us to four on the north end of the field.
There is a chateau on the grounds for our quarters, which we occupy. But Vater tells us not to get too comfortable, as we’ll be moving on soon.
Where? This is unknown.
We’re confined to the aerodrome, so we sit about and play Chess, Skat and Doppelkopf, drink, eat and work on our machines with our crews. No parties in Lille for us.
We have some time to get to know Villinger. He’s a young fellow, 19 years old, just a schoolboy really. We tell him tall tales about our exploits and I get a little drunk and tell them all stories fit to make the house beams bend, having centuries of ribald tales to draw on.*
Most of the Mannschaften are kept busy in the usual way, picking up stones on the airfield, pulling guard, picking up trash, digging latrines.
Jasta 24 is still at Harlebeke but will soon be moving to Emerchicourt to our south, while Jasta 36 is now at Kuerne (Ceurne). It appears that Jagdgruppe 7 is being broken up. We are now a part of Jagdgruppe Armee Nord, which combines us with Jasta 30, Obtlt Hans Bethge commands. I think this is a relief to Vater.
Oblt Preissler is in acting command, as Bethge is on furlough. He’s expected back on 10 Dezbember.
* ‘das sich die Balkan biegen’ a phrase used by Rudolf Stark in his “Die Jagdstaffel unsere Heimat” (The Jagdstaffel our homeland) translated and edited by Jason Crouthhamel for “Memoirs of German Pilots in the First World War, Vol.3” from Aeronaut Books.
We make no flights from here, not even for orientation, and continue to be confined to the aerodrome. It rains constantly. To go along with the rain today is a strong northerly wind.
We get some news at our morning formation in the first Ställe.* Our next destination is Avalin but how long we’ll stay is unknown. The Higher beings at headquarters don’t seem to know what they want to do with us.
*Ställe – stables, sometimes used to refer to a hangar