Those persons who wish to gain a clear idea of the battle of Waterloo
have only to place, mentally, on the ground, a capital A. The left limb
of the A is the road to Nivelles, the right limb is the road to Genappe,
the tie of the A is the hollow road to Ohain from Braine-l'Alleud. The
top of the A is Mont-Saint-Jean, where Wellington is; the lower left
tip is Hougomont, where Reille is stationed with Jerome Bonaparte;
the right tip is the Belle-Alliance, where Napoleon was. At the
centre of this chord is the precise point where the final word of the
battle was pronounced. It was there that the lion has been placed,
the involuntary symbol of the supreme heroism of the Imperial Guard.
The triangle included in the top of the A, between the two limbs
and the tie, is the plateau of Mont-Saint-Jean. The dispute over
this plateau constituted the whole battle. The wings of the two
armies extended to the right and left of the two roads to Genappe
and Nivelles; d'Erlon facing Picton, Reille facing Hill.
Behind the tip of the A, behind the plateau of Mont-Saint-Jean,
is the forest of Soignes.
As for the plain itself, let the reader picture to himself a vast
undulating sweep of ground; each rise commands the next rise,
and all the undulations mount towards Mont-Saint-Jean, and there
end in the forest.
Two hostile troops on a field of battle are two wrestlers. It is
a question of seizing the opponent round the waist. The one seeks
to trip up the other. They clutch at everything: a bush is a point
of support; an angle of the wall offers them a rest to the shoulder;
for the lack of a hovel under whose cover they can draw up,
a regiment yields its ground; an unevenness in the ground, a chance
turn in the landscape, a cross-path encountered at the right moment,
a grove, a ravine, can stay the heel of that colossus which is
called an army, and prevent its retreat. He who quits the field
is beaten; hence the necessity devolving on the responsible leader,
of examining the most insignificant clump of trees, and of studying
deeply the slightest relief in the ground.
The two generals had attentively studied the plain of Mont-Saint-Jean,
now called the plain of Waterloo. In the preceding year, Wellington,
with the sagacity of foresight, had examined it as the possible seat
of a great battle. Upon this spot, and for this duel, on the 18th
of June, Wellington had the good post, Napoleon the bad post.
The English army was stationed above, the French army below.
It is almost superfluous here to sketch the appearance of Napoleon
on horseback, glass in hand, upon the heights of Rossomme,
at daybreak, on June 18, 1815. All the world has seen him before we
can show him. That calm profile under the little three-cornered
hat of the school of Brienne, that green uniform, the white revers
concealing the star of the Legion of Honor, his great coat hiding
his epaulets, the corner of red ribbon peeping from beneath his vest,
his leather trousers, the white horse with the saddle-cloth of purple
velvet bearing on the corners crowned N's and eagles, Hessian boots
over silk stockings, silver spurs, the sword of Marengo,--that whole
figure of the last of the Caesars is present to all imaginations,
saluted with acclamations by some, severely regarded by others.
That figure stood for a long time wholly in the light; this arose
from a certain legendary dimness evolved by the majority of heroes,
and which always veils the truth for a longer or shorter time;
but to-day history and daylight have arrived.
That light called history is pitiless; it possesses this peculiar and
divine quality, that, pure light as it is, and precisely because it is
wholly light, it often casts a shadow in places where people had hitherto
beheld rays; from the same man it constructs two different phantoms,
and the one attacks the other and executes justice on it, and the
shadows of the despot contend with the brilliancy of the leader.
Hence arises a truer measure in the definitive judgments of nations.
Babylon violated lessens Alexander, Rome enchained lessens Caesar,
Jerusalem murdered lessens Titus, tyranny follows the tyrant.
It is a misfortune for a man to leave behind him the night which
bears his form.