W.H. Fitchett, editor,
Waterloo 1815: Captain Mercer's Journal
(Pen & Sword, 2012)

The battle of Waterloo signaled an end to Napoleon Bonaparte's long campaign for European domination. Captain Alexander Mercer, an artillery officer in the British army, commanded a battery in the retreat to Waterloo, and his men and horses withstood a withering fire on the day of the great battle -- June 18, 1815 -- suffering heavy losses.

Mercer was something of a literary man, and he kept his observations in a journal. Pen & Sword, a British publisher of military history, has brought these observations back into the light in Waterloo 1815: Captain Mercer's Journal, edited by W.H. Fitchett and published in the Military History from Primary Sources line.

There are a few times in the text where I questioned Mercer's competence, as he seemingly blundered his way into various situations, often wasn't where he was supposed to be and rarely seemed able to keep track of his ammunition wagons; he even missed the start of the battle because he was busy digging potatoes in a nearby garden. He also seems to lack compassion at times -- for instance, turning away from one of his men who had just had his arms blown off, and allowing a mutilated horse to continue for hours in agony simply because he was weary of bloodshed and didn't want to deal with any more.

On the other hand, he stands bravely in the face of assaults that killed the majority of his men -- at one point capering on horseback within gunshot of the foe, bullets passing close to his head, in order to bestow courage to his men.

Say what you will, Mercer certainly had a knack for prose. Here, for example, is an excerpt from Mercer's view as a French column advanced on his position:

The column was led on this time by an officer in a rich uniform, his breast covered with decorations, whose earnest gesticulations were strangely contrasted with the solemn demeanour of those to whom they were addressed. I thus allowed them to advance unmolested until the head of the column might have been about fifty or sixty yards from us, and then gave the word 'Fire!' The effect was terrible, nearly the whole leading rank fell at once; and the round-shot, penetrating the column, carried confusion throughout its extent. The ground, already encumbered with victims of the first struggle, became now almost impassible. Still, however, these devoted warriors struggled on, intent only on reaching us. The thing was impossible.

And this, from the aftermath of the battle:

The night was serene and pretty clear; a few light clouds occasionally passing across the moon's disc, and throwing objects into transient obscurity, added considerably to the solemnity of the scene. Oh, it was a thrilling sensation thus to stand in the silent hour of the night and contemplate that field -- all day long the theatre of noise and strife, now so calm and still -- the actors prostrate on the bloody soil, their pale wan faces upturned to the moon's cold beams, which caps and breastplates, and a thousand other things, reflected back in brilliant pencils of light from as many different points! Here and there some poor wretch, sitting up amidst the countless dead, busied himself in endeavours to stanch the flowing stream with which his life was fast ebbing away. Many whom I saw so employed that night were, when morning dawned, lying stiff and tranquil as those who had departed earlier. From time to time a figure would half raise itself from the ground, and then, with a despairing groan, fall back again. Others, slowly and painfully rising, stronger, or having less deadly hurt, would stagger away with uncertain steps, across the field in search of succor.

It's a pretty brutal tale, and Mercer's first-hand perspective is very different from the usual historical narratives of the battle. You won't learn much about tactics and maneuvers here -- unless they dealt specifically with Mercer's battery -- but you'll get a taste of what it was like on the lines.

In a surreal scene near the end, Mercer takes a moment after the battle to stroll through a nearby walled garden. His description focuses on the fruit trees and other flora there, the order among the chaos outside -- despite the dead bodies that lie there among the foliage.

You won't find that kind of detail in very many history texts.

book review by
Tom Knapp

22 June 2013

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