Captain Fortune Brack’s Letter of 1835

This is taken from the letter written twenty years after the battle by Captain Fortune Brack of the 2nd Chevaux-légers Lancers of the Guard, who might well have been instrumental in catapulting Ney’s cavalry towards its disastrous series of attacks against the British squares. It was originally quoted in Digby Smith’s Charge!: Great Cavalry Charges of the Napoleonic Wars (Greenhill Books) in 2003. Considering what catastrophe sprang from Captain Brack’s actions, it is unlikely that he would have wished to invent his testimony. Certainly, one may search in vain for the name of Captain Brack in books on Waterloo. In my view Mr Smith has made a significant contribution to the sum of our knowledge of why, ultimately, Napoleon fell from power. Here is Brack’s explanation, which is worth reprinting at length not only for its intrinsic evidence, but also for the superb description of what it was like for a lancer to charge a square:

Impassioned by our recent success against Ponsonby, and by the forward movement that I had noticed being executed by the cuirassiers on our right, I exclaimed, ‘The English are lost! The position on which they have been thrown back makes it clear. They can only retreat by one narrow road confined between impassable woods. One broken stone on this road and their entire army will be ours! Either their general is the most ignorant of officers, or he has lost his head! The English will realise their situation — there — look — they have uncoupled their guns.’

I was ignorant of the fact that the English batteries usually fought uncoupled.

I spoke loudly, and my words were overheard. From the front of our regiment a few officers pushed forward to join our group. The right hand file of our regimental line followed them; the movement was copied in the squadrons to the left to restore the alignment, and then by the Chasseurs-à-Cheval of the Guard. This movement, of only a few paces at the right, became more marked [as it was copied] to the left. The brigade of the Dragoons and the Grenadiers-à-Cheval, who were awaiting the order to charge at any moment, believed this had been given.

They set off — and we followed!

That is how the charge of the Imperial Cavalry took place, over the reason for which so many writers have argued so variously.

From that moment, lining up to the left, we crossed the [Charleroi-Brussels] road diagonally so as to have the whole Guard cavalry on the left side of this road. We crossed the flat ground, climbed up the slope of the plateau upon which the English army was drawn up, and attacked together.

The order in which that army was drawn up, or the part exposed to our view, was as follows:

To the right were the Scots Foot, close to the undergrowth which extended to the bottom of the slope. This infantry delivered heavy and well-directed fire.

Then came the squares of line infantry, ordered in a chequerboard pattern, then similar squares of Hanoverian Light infantry; then a fortified farm [La Haye Sainte].

Between the squares were uncoupled batteries, whose gunners were firing and then hiding under their guns, behind them some infantry and some cavalry.

We were nearly level with this farm, between which and us our cuirassiers were charging. We rode through the batteries, which we were unable to drag back with us.

We turned back and threatened the squares, which put up a most honourable resistance.

Some of them had such coolness, that they were still firing ordered volleys by rank.

It has been said that the Dragoons and Grenadiers-à-Cheval to our left broke several squares, personally I did not see it — and I can state that we Lancers did not have the same luck, and that we crossed our lances with the English bayonets in vain. Many of our troopers threw their weapons like spears into the front ranks to try to open up the squares.

The expenditure of ammunition by the English front line and the compact pattern of the squares which composed it meant that the firing was at point-blank range, but it was the harm which the artillery and the squares in the second line were doing to us, in the absence of infantry and artillery to support our attack, which determined our retreat.

We moved slowly and faced front once again in our position at the bottom of the slope, so that we could just make out the English front line.

It was then that Marshal Ney, alone and without a single member of his staff accompanying him, rode along our front and harangued us, calling out to the officers he knew by their names. His face was distracted, and he called out again and again, ‘Frenchmen, let us stand firm! It is here that the keys to our freedom are lying!’I quote him word for word.

Five times we repeated the charge; but since the conditions remained unchanged, we returned to our position at the rear five times.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!