The Battle of Waterloo as Recounted by one of Napoleon’s Personal Aides (June 1815)
Jardin Ainé (the elder) was responsible for Napoleon’s horse and had a firsthand view of the momentous events that definitively ended Napoleon’s career.
This source is a part of the The Napoleonic Experience teaching module.
Napoleon, left the Elysée at four o'clock on the morning of 12 June to join the army, passing by Laon, Avesnes, Beaumont, Charleroi and Fleurus, where the first battle between the French and Prussians was fought. Having reached Laon at six o'clock in the evening, he mounted his horse and made a tour of the town and the defenses: at eight o'clock he returned to the Prefecture where he lodged; at four o'clock on the morning of the 13th, he again set out for Avesnes, his general headquarters. He remained there on the 13th and on the 14th, he proceeded on horseback at 10 a.m. to Beaumont where he slept: he rose very early and walked upon the balcony, taking note continually of the weather and conversing with his brother Jerome. On the 15th he climbed the hill at Charleroi, after having driven back the enemy who only surrendered it towards three o'clock in the afternoon. There he made the whole army march past him in column. At seven in the evening he proceeded to the outposts, returning at ten o'clock to sleep at a citizen's house in the Place de Promenade at Charleroi. During the night various officers of the staff kept coming and going to give Napoleon accounts of the movements made by the different army corps. From their investigations they reported to him that General Bourmont had joined the enemy. Napoleon considered it necessary to make fresh plans, being pretty sure that this General from his treachery would give the enemy an exact account of the position of the French army. Napoleon, therefore, left Charleroi at ten a.m. on the 16th and visited one or two places where he found strong columns of the enemy's army. He continued his observations until a sufficient force had arrived to enable him to commence the battle. Towards three in the afternoon the firing began with much fury and lasted until nine o'clock in the evening when the Prussians were completely defeated. Napoleon spent the evening on the battlefield, until eleven o'clock, when he was assured on all sides that the position had been taken. He passed through the ranks in returning to a village (Ligny) towards Fleurus where he slept. There several of the brave men who had accompanied him from the Isle of Elba, said to him, “Sire, Your Majesty has here, far from Elba, the brave men of Elba.” He replied “I rely wholly upon you and the courage of the brave army.” On his return in the evening, an infantry Colonel who had just had his arm carried away said to the Emperor, “Sire, I have one arm less, the other remains at the service of Your Majesty.” The Emperor stopped and asked him what regiment he commanded; he replied, “The first Grenadier regiment of your Guard.” He was carried to the village with Napoleon's orders that the greatest care must be taken of him.
On the 17th of June, Napoleon left the village where he had slept, and visited the battlefield of the evening before as he always did on the day after a battle. He went very quickly up the hill to Genappes where he remained making observations on the movements of his advance guard; the cavalry attached to which several times charged the British cavalry as it passed out of the town. At this time a violent storm threw into confusion the whole French army which, owing to their many days of rapid marching, lack of provisions, and want of rest was in a most pitiable state. At last the courage of the French overcame the horrible weather. The troops struggled on with unparalleled valor; in the evening Napoleon visited the outposts in spite of the heavy rain and did his utmost to encourage the men. At seven o'clock, p.m. he took out his watch and said that the troops had need of rest, that they should take up their positions, and that the next day early, they would be under arms.
At this moment shouts were heard from the British army, Napoleon asked what these could be. Marshal Soult (then Chief of Staff) replied “It is certainly Wellington passing through the ranks that is the cause of the shouting.” At seven o'clock, Napoleon said he wished to bivouac; it was pointed out to him that he was in a ploughed field and in mud up to the knees, he replied to the Marshal, “Any kind of shelter will suit me for the night.” He retraced his steps at its height owing to the passing of the whole of the Imperial Guard which was hastening to seek shelter from the bad weather. Napoleon went into a kind of Inn out of which the troops, who had installed themselves in it, were turned, and here he fixed his General Headquarters, because he did not wish to go to the town of Genappes, which was only a league distant, saying that during the night he would here receive more readily reports from the army. At the same time everyone had found the best available quarters in which to pass the night. Generals Corbineau, La Bedoyere, Flahaut, aides-de-camp on Napoleon's staff, spent the night in riding between the various army corps and returning to him to give an exact account of the movements which were taking place.
On the 18th Napoleon having left the bivouac, that is to say the village Caillou on horseback, at half-past nine in the morning came to take up his stand half a league in advance upon a hill where he could discern the movements of the British army.
There he dismounted, and with his fieldglass endeavored to discover all the movements in the enemy's line. The chief of the staff suggested that they should begin the attack; he replied that they must wait, but the enemy commenced his attack at eleven o'clock and the cannonading began on all sides; at two o'clock nothing was yet decided; the fighting was desperate. Napoleon rode through the lines and gave orders to make certain that every detail was executed with promptitude; he returned often to the spot where in the morning he had started, there he dismounted and, seating himself in a chair which was brought to him, he placed his head between his hands and rested his elbows on his knees. He remained thus absorbed sometimes for half-an-hour, and then rising up suddenly would peer through his glasses on all sides to see what was happening. At three o'clock an aide-de-camp from the right wing came to tell him that they were repulsed and that the artillery was insufficient. Napoleon immediately called General Drouet in order to direct him to hasten to reinforce this army corps which was suffering so heavily, but one saw on Napoleon's face a look of disquietude instead of the joy which it had shown on the great day of Fleurus. The whole morning he showed extreme depression; however, everything was going on as well as could be expected with the French, in spite of the uncertainty of the battle, when at 6 o'clock in the evening an officer of the mounted Chasseurs of the Guard came to Napoleon, raised his hand and said “Sire, I have the honor to announce to Your Majesty that the battle is won.”
“Let us go forward,” Napoleon replied, “We must do better still. Courage mes braves: Let us advance!” Having said this he rode off at a gallop close to the ranks encouraging the soldiers, who did not keep their position long, for a hail of artillery falling on their left ruined all. In addition to this, the strong line of British cavalry made a great onslaught on the squares of the guard and put all to rout.
It was at this moment that the Duke of Wellington sent to summon the Guard to surrender. General Kembraune replied that the Guard knew how to fight, to die, but not to surrender. Our right was crushed by the corps of Bülow who with his artillery had not appeared during the day but who now sought to cut off all retreat.
Napoleon towards eight o'clock in the evening, seeing that his army was almost beaten, commenced to despair of the success which two hours before he believed to be assured. He remained on the battlefield until half-past nine when it was absolutely necessary to leave. Assured of a good guide, we passed to the right of Genappes and through the fields; we marched all the night without knowing too well where we were going until the morning. Towards four o'clock in the morning we came to Charleroi where Napoleon, owing to the onrush of the army in beating a retreat, had much difficulty in proceeding. At last after he had left the town, he found in a little meadow on the right a small bivouac fire made by some soldiers. He stopped by it to warm himself and said to General Corbineau, “Et bien Monsieur, we have done a fine thing.” General Corbineau saluted him and replied, “Sire, it is the utter ruin of France.” Napoleon turned round, shrugged his shoulders and remained absorbed for some moments. He was at this time extremely pale and haggard and much changed. He took a small glass of wine and a morsel of bread which one of his equerries had in his pocket, and some moments later mounted, asking if the horse galloped well. He went as far as Philippeville where he arrived at mid-day and took some wine to revive himself. He again set out at two o'clock in a mail carriage towards Paris where he arrived on the 21st at 7 a.m. at the Elysée whence he departed on the 12th, in the same month.
Certified correct by me,
Equerry to the Emperor Napoleon
Mackenzie Macbride, ed., With Napoleon at Waterloo and other Unpublished Documents of the Waterloo and Pennsular Campaigns (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1911), pp. 181-185.