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From: Carl von Clausewitz and Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. On Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington, and the Campaign of 1815. Ed./trans. Christopher Bassford, Daniel Moran, and Gregory W. Pedlow. Clausewitz.com, 2010. ISBN-10: 1453701508. ISBN-13: 9781453701508. 318pp. List price: $18.00.

III.
LETTERS HOME

by Carl von Clausewitz

Le Plessis-Piquet near Paris
3 July 1815[1]

 

In sight of the great city, towards which the gaze of half the world has again turned, I sit down to write you a few words about the historic efforts of the last three weeks. It is an entirely delightful task to share news with a cherished friend after having completed one’s labors, resting in a wonderful villa, surrounded by a beautiful park, at the foot of the shimmering battlements of the humiliated rulers of the world.

On 15 June, we quick-marched to Namur, arriving in the night. Two hours later, we broke camp and proceeded to Sombreffe, a few hours distant from the famous battlefield at Fleurus. The Prussian army was assembled here, but unfortunately faulty arrangements resulted in the absence of the 4th Corps, the strongest. We arrived at ten in the morning and took up our position on the left wing. The battle[2] began at three o’clock and continued until after ten in the evening. Our participation was limited, but in the evening, after Thiele brought the news that we had been ordered to retreat, and that the retreat was to be toward Wavre—not toward the Meuse but toward Brussels—we found ourselves in a dismal situation. We were cut off from the Field Marshal [i.e., Blücher] and had to make our own way. Our firefight ended with an unfortunate cavalry affair; I only managed to escape the French cuirassiers through great effort. Our troops were scattered in an extended position, out of which they could be extracted only with difficulty. Our strongest brigade was sent to help the 2nd Corps, and we had no more reserves available. The road to Namur, along which we were spread out, was filled and blocked by the countless wagons of the other army corps, who thought that this was the line of retreat because the army had come from there. The enemy cavalry was emboldened and made a charge during the night that was repulsed only by the strong stand of Pochhammer’s battalion. The darkness was deep; the use of couriers impossible; and our retreat was conducted along a secondary road. I believe my hair turned gray that night, and, apart from the few moments it took to write my report to the Field Marshal, I did not dismount from my horse. As always in such cases, the worst did not happen, and before daylight we were able to gather the small band of troops that remained and march to Gembloux. The enemy’s pursuit was weak.

At noon on the 17th, the weary troops arrived at Gembloux in driving rain after having had to wade through a defile for half an hour in water above their ankles.The only food we had to eat for the next 24 hours was that which a small town of 2,000 inhabitants can give to a corps of 20,000 men. At two o’clock we again departed and marched toward Wavre via a detour, because we had to rejoin the Field Marshal’s army. Once again a horrible downpour, once again a defile where the tired soldiers had to march along a slippery sunken road in an unceasing struggle. Half of the corps went through the small town of Wavre and arrived in their positions at 1 a.m. The other half remained on the road in front of the town because the column was constantly bogging down; heavy rain continued the whole night. It was only in the morning that the last of the infantry passed through; the cavalry did so only shortly before the beginning of the battle.

The 18th. The troops had no rations other than meat, yet hardly any time to butcher and cook it. Think what it is like to have to walk for a mile to get wood and water and then be your own cook. Our corps headquarters was in the very lovely Chateau La Bavette. Wellington’s battle began at midday. The Prussian army had already set off in the morning and arrived at four in the afternoon on the left flank of Wellington’s army, which had taken up a position in front of the Bois de Soignie. Our corps remained behind to observe the position at Wavre; in other words to defend the Dyle, thereby covering the road to Louvain, along which the Prussian army would retreat in the event of a defeat. Initially, there was little activity near Wavre, and we had begun our march toward the main body of the army to serve as a reserve force. However, the appearance of a strong enemy formation near Wavre forced us to turn back.

Our engagement got underway around four o’clock. The enemy attempted to force his way through the defile, but our position was strong and we turned them back. We had no knowledge that the great battle [at Belle Alliance/Waterloo] had ended by eight o’clock; our fight lasted long into the night. At ten in the evening, a battalion of the 2nd Corps defending one of the defiles left its position without informing us. Consequently, the enemy got into our position and threatened our right flank. Stülpnagel and his brigade[3] charged with a “hurrah” at this point (whereby Tiedemann was wounded), but this failed. The enemy held firm and we fell into disarray; we had great difficulty in restoring order. This continued until midnight. We still had not had any news of the victory. On the 19th at two in the morning, at first light, the newly arrived corps attacked Stülpnagel. I hurried over, collecting as many troops as could be spared. All at once the firefight became very intense, and it lasted until about eleven o’clock in the morning. At ten, we received news from General von Pirch [I] that a brilliant victory had been won. He also informed us that he intended to cut off the corps facing us. However, the locations where he intended to cut them off were so far removed from us that the action promised us no relief. Cut off as we were from the main body of our army as a result of the enemy's flanking maneuver, we were left to our own resources with Vandamme and Grouchy’s superior force of 45,000 men against us.[4] We expected to be able to hold out for only another hour, and still no General Pirch. In addition, as a result of an error that I still find inexplicable, General Borcke marched off toward the main army with our strongest brigade[5]—thus with a quarter of our corps—and could not be recalled. At eleven o’clock we commenced our retreat toward Louvain having lost nothing else [i.e., no major pieces of equipment] than many dead and wounded. We proceeded for two hours along the road, then stopped in order to assemble our extremely weary troops. The enemy did not pursue.

The 20th. At daybreak, we broke camp and prepared to attack the enemy opposite us because we hoped that General von Pirch would now arrive. However, the enemy had already marched off during the night. Thanks to an amazingly rapid march of the cavalry, we reached his rear guard at Namur and captured 4 guns through a bold attack by the 8th Ulan Regiment. From Namur on the 21st we hurried after the main army, which had been in pursuit [of the French] ever since the 18th, and reached it between Avesnes and St. Quentin. From there we continued day and night in never-ending long marches via Ham, Compiègne, Dammartin, Argenteuil, St. Germain, and around Paris, until we reached here. Our exertions were so taxing that several men shot themselves out of despair; others dropped dead. Here on the southern edge of Paris, which is not fortified, the French Army has taken up positions, while Wellington has advanced on Montmartre. Over a two-day period, there were rather violent skirmishes contesting the village of Issy, which we then took and held. Yesterday, negotiations began. The French army will probably pull back over the Loire and we will occupy Paris.

At this point I will end my excessively military travelogue, which deals more with the corps than with me personally. I share this with you because you have sometimes reproached me for never sharing these matters with you. So if this has bored you, it is not my fault. Gneisenau is well and at the pinnacle of his fortunes: He has received the Order of the Black Eagle. The monarchs of Europe are expected in Paris any day; they have already assembled.

Farewell, dearest soul mate! Hopefully we shall be together again soon. Once peace has been concluded, I will write to you. I am already thinking about the arrangements for your journey. Fortunate, I feel inexpressibly fortunate, even after such epoch-making events, that I possess something more valuable to me than any triumph, and I eagerly anticipate a moment that will exceed any other. I never love you more than in moments of great fortune or great misfortune. You are worth more to me than any manifestation of the former, and this overshadows any impact that the latter could have on my fate.

Dohna is no longer with us; he has received command of a cavalry brigade in the 4th Corps and is well.

Le Plessis-Piquet, near Paris
7 July 1815

 

We are still not in Paris yet. Today the 1st Corps will move in and begin a military occupation. We follow tomorrow but will remain only one day and then move to Fontainebleau, which is entirely pleasing to me. Since the tone of my last letter was perhaps too military, I will today add a few lines on more pleasant matters.[6]

Our first march from Namur was to Charleroi on the Sambre....

On the 22nd to Beaumont....

On the 23rd to Avesnes. This place has a rather strong fortress and the city itself is not without significance. General Zieten had shelled it for several days, and by chance one of the shells hit the powder magazine. The explosion was so enormous that two-thirds of the city lay in ruins. I have never seen a picture of such destruction in my entire life. We stayed in the house that had suffered the least damage; even so the door of my room had been lifted out of its hinges and the main entrance to the house had been wrecked to such an extent that it could not be opened. The number of inhabitants killed by the explosion was estimated at more than 100. Entire streets were full of rubble and impassable; in other streets all the roofs were gone. The scene was highly depressing, and I will never forget the impression made on me by a young child, who was looking out the window of such a shattered house and rejoiced at the sight of our troops marching by.

On the 24th to Nouvion....

On the 25th to Humbier via St. Quentin....

On the 26th to Guiscard via Ham. The latter place has a very strong citadel that contains the famous state prison to which most German prisoners were sent. The original intent had been to destroy this citadel completely once we had gained possession of it, but [its] commander did not want to surrender just because of the few shells we were prepared to throw at him. We finally had to settle for signing a convention with him, whereby the crossing over the Somme would remain open and the citadel would be guarded jointly by us and the French until a future government took it over….

On the 27th to Compiègne on the Oise. There is a royal hunting lodge here that was formerly the prince’s headquarters. It was redecorated by Napoleon, who celebrated his marriage to Marie Louise here, and it is one of the most magnificent fantasy palaces [literally, “air castles”] I have ever seen. The bedrooms and baths, with walls entirely mirrored, show that Marie Louise lacked a noble and virtuous nature—everything breathes of sensuality and feminine vanity. Apart from the questionable furnishings, there are some works of art that make the chateau worth seeing. In particular there are two groups here, Amor and Psyche, one of which is by Canova, as well as several lovely landscapes. The exterior of the chateau is quite beautiful, and the town itself is one of the loveliest of cities.

On the 28th to Crépy on the road from Soissons to Paris….

On the 29th to Dammartin on the road from Soissons to Paris, nine hours distant from the latter city….

On the 30th to Gonesse, four hours from Paris….

On the 1st [of July] our exhausted troops remained at St. Germain. On this day Lieutenant-Colonel Sohr marched with the Brandenburg and Pomeranian Hussar Regiments[7] from St. Germain through Versailles with the goal of reaching Longjumeau on the road between Paris and Bleau. His objective was to determine whether forces were rushing from there to help Paris. As fate would have it, the French had sent out a reconnaissance force from St. Cloud and Paris toward Marly and Versailles at the same time to observe our movements. Sohr seems to have committed some blunders. In any event, after he encountered the enemy between Versailles and Paris, he attacked and pursued them to within two hours of Paris. A superior cavalry force then counterattacked and drove him back; he then found the road behind him occupied by infantry. Both regiments were so badly mauled that of 800 horsemen, 300 were captured; 170 saved themselves, and the remaining 330 were lost. Sohr himself was wounded and taken prisoner. General Yorck’s son, who had volunteered for the regiment, suffered a grave wound.[8] General Gneisenau’s son had fortunately been detached; otherwise he could hardly have avoided a similar fate. The enemy succeeded in driving so close to St. Germain that we barely had time to send the 9th Brigade out to the nearby heights to oppose him and force him back.

On the 2nd of July the other two corps also passed through St. Germain, and we continued our march through Meudon and Chatillon. The royal chateau at Meudon is situated on the edge of the Seine valley, about two hours from the riverbank where Paris is located. From the terrace at Meudon, several hundred feet above the valley that spreads out below, the view of Paris, Passy, Sèvres, St. Cloud, and all the lovely villages and castles that fill the valley is surprisingly beautiful. It all looks like one enormous park. It is the most remarkable view of its kind that I have ever seen, and on the European continent can only be compared with Constantinople or Naples. St. Cloud, location of the Field Marshal’s headquarters, is characterised by fine alleyways and groves of trees. The chateau is more elegant than grand. Grolmann is rolling around in Josephine’s bed.

Dearest Marie, the time has come to close this diary. Once the peace agreement has been signed, then you will come to me, as I have imagined, by way of Compiègne. This route is not much farther and a great deal more interesting than the direct road via Laon. I hope to be able to meet you in Compiègne, and together we will savor what I have seen only in haste. You and I will take the same route, through St. Germain, Versailles, and Meudon, that we have just traversed. In this manner, we shall arrive in Paris through the back way, having relished the beauty that Paris has to offer.

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