British Fiction, 18001829

MAXWELL, William Hamilton. Stories of Waterloo (1829)

Contemporary Reviews

Monthly Review, n.s. 13 (Feb 1830): 268–77.

We confess that we open a publication, coming from the prolific manufactory of Messrs. Colburn and Bentley, with some degree of suspicion. Burlington-street has, within the last three or four years, ejected upon the town such an amazing number of novels, contracted for by the ‘three volumes,’ and written for the purpose of meeting what is called ‘the taste of the day,’ that they seem, in some instances at least, rather to be the production of some mechanical power operating upon arranged designs, than of intellects [268/269] undergoing the ordinary emotions which are excited by the literary propensity. A tale of ‘fashionable life,’ a misanthropic romance, sketches at sea, scenes in the east, west, north, or south, the story of a robber or a seducer, a gambler, or a lover, seem to be executed per order with as much facility in that active region as any pattern of lace at Nottingham, or of chintz at Manchester. The Minerva Press has simply shifted its quarters, and removed with it a colony of authors, or rather of scribes, whose great business it is to keep this great town from looking at any book whose antiquity dates from the last year.

In point of fact, how few of the novels which were published in 1829 will be remembered, not to speak of being read, in 1830? Some, even of those which we endeavoured to rescue from the grave, have baffled all our skill, and mocked our fondest hopes. They have gone off under the effects of consumption,—that dire disease which has infused itself so fatally into almost every branch of our modern literature. The patient looks for a while blooming, and full of promise of a vigorous existence. But a month or two rolls on, the blossom fades from the cheek, and he is—no more.

This being the case, we hardly know what to say for ‘The Stories of Waterloo and other Tales.’ There are in the third volume a few pages really connected with that glorious field of slaughter, but the remainder of the work is occupied with ‘the other tales.’ This, to be sure, is an Irish way of nominating a work. It is as if one should call our Gazetteer of the inhabited world, the history of Constantinople and ‘other places.’ It reminds us of some of our boyish miscalculations, when we attempted to fly a kite no larger than a crow, on his journey homeward, with a tail as long as the monument. But a name, in these delightful bookselling days, is the summon bonum of the trade. A ‘good name’—that is the first thing to be found out—that will sell at least one edition, and the public will be the first to laugh at the little stratagem which has been invented only for their amusement.

The ‘other tales,’ to reverse the order of the title, if we may use the Hibernian privileges of our author, are, notwithstanding what we have said against Burlington-street novels in general, of an order which needed no connecting title to recommend them. We have read them with a degree of interest which perhaps may induce us, at this moment, to exaggerate their merits; yet we may assert that they have at least the charm of variety, and of brevity, which is no common praise to begin with. From deep tragedy we are hurried on to broad farce, from the sunshine of contentedness to the gloom of despair, from the tinkling of the light guitar to the thunder of the battle. Truly we have here the proper picture of a soldier’s life, than which, if well designed, there are few more favourable for the touches of a master.

We cannot say of these ‘other tales,’ that they contain the best written military adventures and sketches we ever read. It cannot [269/270] be denied, however, that the style in which they are thrown off is vigorous and eminently picturesque. The author has carefully avoided that night-mare—sentimentality, and that frightful old maid of modern novels,—‘fine conversation.’ He adheres, for the most part,—either to the narrative or the descriptive, and in both he appears to us equally felicitous.

The scene of the first volume is, if we may liken it to a drama, in Ireland: that of the second on the way from Erin to Quatre-Bras and Ligny; in the third we at length reach the field of Waterloo. The chain by which the stories are connected is ingenious enough. Soldiers on the march to the distant field of action, and reposing after the battle, amuse each other with their different adventures, and our author has contrived by some means or other to render each man’s contribution to the common stock engaging in its own way.

The story of the ‘outlaw,’ in the first volume, presents a striking picture of the remote districts of Ireland some twenty years ago. In the history of ‘Sarsfield,’ the author has put forth his higher powers both of invention and composition, each of which faculties he possesses to an eminent degree. We, shall, however, content ourselves with one or two descriptive passages from the story of ‘Colonel Nilson,’ which are connected with the sanguinary insurrection of 1798.

‘After some hours’ marching, we came up with the rebel outposts. I was conducted to a place of security, in the centre of the insurgent army, and as the summer night was nearly passed, I lay down, guarded by a centinel, on a sward of newly-cut hay, to repose after my wearying, and, as it had proved, calamitous journey.

‘The morning had dawned some time before I awoke. I had been much fatigued by the exertions of the preceding day, and, urged by thirst, had drank a considerable quantity of spirits and water before I lay down to sleep. I looked about like one bewildered. I was in a country of whose appearance I was profoundly ignorant, and, for some time, I imagined the body of men who, I was aware, had occupied the ground on the last night, had moved off while I slept.

‘But soon, from the rising ground where I stood, I discovered the cause of the extraordinary stillness of the rebel forces. They were lying in ambuscade, concealed by the high fences; and from a careful look-out kept by their leaders, I was aware that an enemy was speedily expected.

‘The position chosen by the rebels for attempting to surprise the king's troops was admirably selected for that purpose, but was a place where a successful attempt at an ambuscade was most unlikely. Near the villa of Clough, the country, which is flat and open, with large and spacious fields running parallel with the road, and offering every facility for an army to deploy and form easily, if necessary, suddenly changes its character. The road then becomes deep, narrow, and intricate, with clay banks on each side, having wide ditches at their bases, and rows of close bush on the top. The fields, also, are small and difficult, interspersed into [270/271] numerous parks, and separated by full-grown hedges. At this time of the year, the trees being in full leaf, and the ground occupied by rich potato crops, standing corn, and unmown grass, afforded ample concealment for any force which chose to occupy it. Here, accordingly, the rebels awaited the attack of the royalists; and the movements of the latter on the Camdin road were soon apparent.

‘The rising of a dense, continuous cloud of dust gave notice, that the king’s troops were approaching. For security, I presume, I was placed about a hundred paces from the insurgents, who lined the hedges. To enable themselves the better to obtain a view of the expected conflict, my guards posted me on the crest of a Danish fort, which not only commanded the rebel position, but had an unbroken prospect of the road, by which their assailants advanced for several miles. I had not, fortunately, been deprived of my telescope, and was thus enabled to remark the occurrences of this calamitous morning with painful accuracy. A sudden angle of the road cleared the advancing military of the dust, which had hitherto obscured their march, and at once I perceived, to my astonishment, that they were moving in close column, without either flanking parties or skirmishers. The dragoons were in the front, the infantry succeeded—in the centre of which I perceived three or four pieces of artillery, and a squadron of cavalry brought up the rear.

‘The country, as yet, was open. The troops could easily extend, if required, on the right and left of the road, but still there was a want of military caution in their order of march, which struck me as being blameable. Presently they halted—“Now,” thought I, “the rebel plan is known—we shall soon see this formidable position turned.” I looked attentively; there was as yet no partial movement—no light troops extending—no advanced-guard pushed forward. Did my eyes deceive me?—was it possible? By heaven! the march in close column was resumed: and without a single precautionary measure, the doomed leader moved to his destruction.

‘On came the royalists, and in a short time the leading squadron of the advanced cavalry entered the fatal pass of Tubberneering. None but a soldier can conceive the feelings of despair, of madness, with which I viewed my devoted comrades, in the gorge of those enclosures, from which few would return with life, and none without dishonour. In profound silence the rebel ambush lay concealed—not a pike glittered—not a man was seen, and the advanced-guard rode on without suspicion. The infantry had now entered the defile. As the road narrowed, the progress of the column became slow and difficult: they passed, and the unhappy cause of the day’s disgrace, surrounded by his aides-de-camp and staff, rode forward.

‘Colonel Walpole, to whom, unfortunately, the direction of this ill-fated detachment had been entrusted, was a man totally unfitted for command. He was vain, ignorant, and imprudent; arrogant in his manners, and averse to communicate with his officers, or avail himself of the experience of others. He held a situation in the Castle of Dublin, and had unfortunately been dispatched with confidential orders to General Loftus from whom he received the command, which was so fatal to his followers. He was a remarkably fine-looking man, and being dressed in a field-[271/272] officer’s full uniform, and mounted on a tall gray charger he formed a most conspicuous object for his latent enemy.

‘The column had now completely entangled itself; and, at once, from the enclosures a wild yell burst forth, accompanied by a stream of musketry. Colonel Walpole fell in the first fire; the confusion was tremendous and to fight or retreat impossible. The height and number of the fences on every side made the ground most favourable for irregular and desultory warfare, and the long pikes of the rebels reached nearly across the narrow road; and those of the distracted soldiers who escaped the first close fire, were perforated from behind the hedges by invisible opponents. The surprise of the troops was complete; dragoons and infantry were thrown, in helpless disorder, on each other, and a scene of butchery ensued.

‘I mentioned that I had been placed apart from the rebel body; my guard had been gradually diminished, after the mélée commenced, by their savage anxiety to join in the work of slaughter; but two now remained, I looked down the next enclosure; it was entirely open; for those who had originally lined it had advanced to close with the struggling soldiery.

‘I was aware that escape was practicable. A pikeman and a musketeer were my retainers. I waited till the latter had discharged his piece, and then flinging the spearman down the steep bank, I sprang over the next fence, and rushed towards the flank of the royalists.

‘Fortunately, some of the officers had managed to disengage the rear-guard, and form them across an open field, to cover the broken column, A steep and expansive rock rose abruptly within a few paces of the road and was crowded by the rebel musketry, who, from its superior elevation were enabled to throw a destructive fire into the helpless mass below. To extricate the column, while that commanding spot was occupied, was impossible. I instantly took command of the artillery and having levelled a hedge, got one of the six-pounders across the fence, where its fire would traverse the rebel position. The gunners behaved with admirable steadiness; with a few discharges we swept the rock of its occupants ; and a few of the 4th Dragoons, and the Ancient British cavalry, having threatened a flank movement on the rebels, the remains of the column were disengaged. We were reluctantly obliged to abandon the guns; for the horses, being untrained to fire, carried off the limbers in the commencement of the attack, and made it impracticable to remove them. We fell back in great confusion, and retreated through the town of Gorey, followed closely by the insurgents, and annoyed, as we retreated through the streets, by the rebel inhabitants, who fired on us from their houses.’—vol. i. pp. 310–317.

The author’s account of the celebrated battle of ‘Vinegar Hill,’ is also well given, as far as it goes.

‘General Duff, to whom I was attached with the artillery, advanced on the Ferns road, having his right flank on the river Slaney. Our march was parallel to the rebel lines upon the hills; and, during this movement, I protected the columns, throwing shells into the lines from the howitzers while the light infantry under General Loftus supported me by a flanking fire. Late in the evening we arrived on the ground we were directed to occupy, and after a day of immense fatigue, rested on our arms on Vinegar Hill, in front of the rebel position. Our’s being the light brigade, was, of [272/273] course, considerably advanced, and I employed the little remaining light before the night closed, in surveying the ground and selecting a fit position for placing the guns in battery.

‘The night was mild and warm; the rebel fires were lighted along their lines, and in the fort which crowned the crest of their camp. Every necessary precaution against surprise was taken, and we lay down to sleep, and refresh ourselves for the exertions of the morrow.

‘We were already apprised that the assault upon the rebel camp would commence with the morning’s dawn. All but the pickets and centries [sic] were consequently anxious to obtain as much refreshment and repose as possible. A soldier’s supper is readily disposed of; and soon after dark our bivouac was profoundly silent, and no sound or step was heard but those of the guards and outposts.

‘Not so the rebel camp. All within their lines was mirth and music: groups of figures were seen moving opaquely round the watch-fires, and the dance, and laugh, and song, only ceased a short time before their lines were formed for the engagement.

‘The short hours of the summer night passed, and the first blush of morning was expected anxiously. We were all at our posts. A highland regiment was formed on the left of the ground, where my guns, six six-pounders and two howitzers, were in battery, and the light brigade, being the flank companies of the Irish militia, and forming the finest battalion I ever saw, were extended on the right. Our watches were momently consulted: in a few minutes the gray dawn would break, and then the work of death was to commence! At this instant an aide-de-camp came up with orders. When the light broke sufficiently to lay the guns, my fire was to open and that would be the signal for the columns who were now resting round the hill to press forward.

‘But natural causes, for a time, forbade the flow of human blood. Suddenly a thick dense fog rolled in huge fleeces across the hill; the soldier could scarcely distinguish his next file, and all around was enveloped in dark continuous clouds, into which the human eye found it impossible to penetrate.

‘It was six o’clock before the light broke upon the morning of the 21st June. The mist rose gradually from the low grounds, and as it rolled up the hill, the columns of Generals Wilford, Dundas, and Duff, commenced ascending with it. When I heard the advance sounded on their bugles, I apprised General Loftus, who had stationed himself beside me, that the fog was now dispersing. The word of readiness was given to the light troops, and immediately the mist curled upwards in one huge fleece, and showed us the advancing columns below displayed in a dazzling glare of sunshine. The cloud rolled majestically forward, and in a few minutes more, the double lines of the insurgents, five or six files deep, appeared encircling the ridge and summit of the mountain.

‘The opening light showed me that, on the preceding evening, I had not calculated my distance wrong, when I chose the ground on which I had parked my guns. A long deep ditch and breastwork had been thrown up in front of their position by the rebels, and to defend it they had filled it with their choicest musketry. A few paces from me the ground rose, and I ascertained that from that elevation I could enfilade their whole line. I changed the guns instantly, and waited orders to commence firing. [273/274]

‘The mist had now cleared off the rebel fort, which was situated on the cone of the mountain, and the scene around was beautiful and imposing. Above, the rebel lines displayed a forest of glittering pikes; along the ranks a number of green flags were waving; and their leaders mounted and dismounted, were seen completing the necessary arrangements. One was particularly remarkable, and seemed to hold a principal command. He was a man of huge stature, arrayed in green uniform with cross-belts and cavalry pistols; and being mounted on a showy gray horse, and constantly engaged in reconnoitring, he had greatly attracted the attention of the soldiery. He appeared to remark the change of my guns, and rode forward to the breast of the hill to observe my battery nearer.

‘As yet not a shot was fired; the troops pressed up the hill at a moderate step, and in perfect silence; and the rebels waited steadily and quietly for them to close. General Duff rode up—“Hilson are you ready to open?” I answered in the affirmative. “Well, begin in God’s name!”

‘The rebel chieftain on the gray horse was now within good range. He was observing us through a glass, with the reins on the neck of his charger which I afterward learned had belonged to the unfortunate Colonel Walpole.

‘I laid the gun carefully, and desiring those around to observe the rebel leader, applied the match, and horse and man were hurled lifeless to the earth. Instantly the guns, loaded with grape and canister, opened with destructive effect on the crowded trenches, and the howitzers shelled the fort with fatal precision. The bugle sounded the assault: under cover of the cannon the light brigade, with a tremendous cheer, rushed up the hill, and after a short resistance, the rebel breastwork was carried by the bayonet.

‘On their several points of attack the columns were equally successful. The rebel position was every where forced, and the cavalry having got open ground to charge, rushed forward and completed their overthrow. Fortunately for the insurgents, one of the columns failed in reaching its destination in sufficient time to co-operate with the others, and thus afforded them an opening to escape by. Owing to this mistake, an immense column succeeded in retreating by the eastern bank of the Slaney; and the troops, after a long and bloody pursuit, halted for the night.

‘With the loss of their camp the energies of the insurgents appeared to decline. All their cannon, fifteen pieces with a large quantity of arms and military stores, fell into the hands of the royalists. Wexford next day was re-taken, and their forces from that time were constantly harassed and broken by the King’s troops, and never afterwards were capable of any formidable opposition.’—vol. i. pp. 320–326.

These passages would almost induce us to suggest to the author, that the history of the Irish rebellion is still untold, and that it would afford his vigorous pen a favourable field for exercise.

Although we, and most of our readers, have perused at least a hundred different accounts of Napoleon’s return from Elba, yet we venture to say, that our author’s brief and animated narrative of that ominous event, as well as his description of the scenes [274/275] which followed it, in Paris and Belgium will be perused with unwearied interest. We cannot resist the pleasure of extracting the chapter which is devoted to the ‘Champ de Mai.’

‘A hundred cannon, discharged from the Bridge of Jena ushered in the Champ de Mai. In front of the Military School, a mighty amphitheatre was formed for the accommodation of the spectators, as well as of those who were to assist in the ceremony. An altar, surmounted with a canopy, and surrounded by seats for priests and choristers, occupied the centre of the immense temporary building, which was supposed to be capable of containing twenty thousand persons. A throne, destined for Napoleon, stood before an extensive pyramidical platform; and benches, ornamented with eagles, were divided into several tiers, and, each inscribed with the name of the respective department, were filled by the Deputies who represented them.

‘The intervening spaces of this mighty area were crowded by the grand officers of the court and the members of the public bodies. Arrayed in dresses of unequalled splendour, the appearance of the assembled dignitaries was strikingly grand; and the élite of the French army, comprising Buonaparte’s own guards, and the finest regiments of the line, with their glittering arms and appointments, completed a spectacle of majestic brilliancy.

‘Amid the thunder of artillery, and the acclamations of thousands of the citizens who occupied the exterior of the splendid ampitheatre, surrounded by the marshals and nobles of the empire, Napoleon presented himself to the assembly, and placed himself upon the throne. His dress was sumptuous: he wore a mantle of purple velvet, ornamented with ermine and embroidery, with a black Spanish hat, richly plumed, and looped in front with a diamond of transcendant beauty. For a time, the roar of cannon, and the acclamation of the populace that hailed his entrée, were deafening. Bowing repeatedly to the assembly, while all beside remain uncovered, he seated himself on the throne, with his brothers Joseph, Jerome, and Lucian, on either side; and the artillery being silenced, the ceremony opened by the celebration of mass by the Archbishop of Tours, and Cardinal de Bayánn.

‘The religious portion of the pageant appeared to excite little interest in Napoleon’s mind. His opera-glass wandered over the countless multitude who composed the spectacle; and his attention was not recalled until the mass was concluded, and the central deputations from the electors of the empire, comprising five members of each electoral college, marshalled by the conductor of the ceremonies, ascended the platform and stood before the throne. Dubois, deputy of Maine and Loire, in a loud and commanding voice, then proceeded with his address. The harangue teemed with sentiments of patriotic attachment, and breathed towards the person of the emperor expressions of inviolable fidelity.

‘As the orator proceeded, Napoleon marked his approbation with nods and smiles, till Dubois, after alluding to the pacific overtures which had been just submitted to the Allies, concluded with these bold and ominous words:—“If they leave us only the choice between war and infamy, the entire nation will rise to war. It absolves you from the too moderate offer which you have made to save Europe from fresh convulsions. All Frenchmen are soldiers. Victory will attend our eagles; and our ene-[275/276]mies, who calculate upon our discord, will bitterly repent that they have incensed us.”

‘Amidst thunders of applause, the deputy ceased speaking; when the Arch-Chancellor arose, and advancing to Napoleon, notified the acceptance of the constitution. It was ratified by a million and a half of affirmative suffrages; and with a flourish of trumpets, a herald proclaimed, in the name of the Emperor, that the additional acts to the constitutions of the empire were accepted by the French people.

‘Again the batteries saluted, and a sustained cheer resounded from the assembly. A golden table and standish were placed before the Emperor; and while the Arch-Chancellor unfolded the parchment, and Joseph Buonaparte presented the pen, Napoleon ratified the deed by placing his signature to the Constitution.

‘When the popular approbation, which this part of the ceremonial occasioned, had subsided, the Emperor prepared to address the assembly. Although short of stature, and not gifted with the commanding exterior which is so requisite to arrest the attention of the populace, the fire of his penetrating eye, and the peculiar energy of his action, amply compensated for inelegant demeanour, and the defects of a voice, neither sweet nor powerful—and now, when raised beyond its compass, shrill and indistinct. He read his speech from a written paper, and the style and language left little doubt that the composition was his own:—

‘ “Emperor—consul—soldier I hold every thing from the people. In prosperity, in adversity, in the field and in the council, in power and in exile, France has been the sole and constant object of my thoughts and actions.” A tissue of invective against the monarchs, “violators of all principles,” mingled with allusions to the national attachment towards himself, succeeded, until he thus wound up his harangue:—“Were it not my country alone which the enemies of France aim at, I would surrender to their mercy the life which they so inveterately pursue. But say to the citizens, that so long as they preserve for me those sentiments of affection which they have so frequently manifested, the rage of our enemies shall be impotent. Frenchmen! my will is that of the people—my rights are theirs—my honour, my glory, my happiness, can never be separated from the honour, glory, and happiness of France.”

‘He ceased amid rapturous applause. When the tumult excited by his address had subsided the Archbishop of Bourges, Grand Almoner of the Empire, presented the Evangelists, on his knees, to Napoleon, who swore to observe, and cause the Constitution to be observed. The Arch-Chancellor then tendered his obedience to the Constitution and the Emperor—and, animated with one feeling, the whole assembly swore submission to the laws, and fidelity to Napoleon.

‘When this act of allegiance had been performed, the steps of the throne were cleared, and the central deputation was withdrawn, displaying a long line of dazzling splendour, from the throne to the altar. Carnot in a white Spanish dress of great magnificence, carried the eagle of the national guard. Davoust bore that of the first regiment of the line, and that of the marine corps was supported by Decrès. A scene, unequalled in effect, followed.

‘Buonaparte sprang from his throne, and, casting aside his purple mantle, rushed on to meet his eagles; the momentary silence was instantly [276/277]changed into an enthusiastic shout, which seemed to thrill through the hearts of all. Taking the eagles respectfully from the bearers, he returned them to each, with a spirited exhortation to follow them to glory, and perish in their defence; while at the close of each address the oaths of the excited soldiery responded to the adjurations of their Emperor.

‘Buonaparte, habited in a crimson tunic, and surrounded by marshals, nobles, and dignitaries, from the platform in the open area distributed the eagles to the different regiments, and viewed the troops attentively as they filed off in slow time before him. Nothing could be more imposing than this part of the splendid pageant. Amid the crash of military music, the blaze of martial decoration, and the glitter of innumerable arms, fifty thousand men passed by. The countless concourse of spectators, their prolonged vociferation, the occasion, the man, the mighty events which hung in suspense, all concurred to excite feelings and reflections which only such a scene could have produced.

‘Nor was Napoleon himself unmoved. When the last files of the long array had passed, he boldly resumed his seat upon the throne; and while his face beamed pride and joy, and confidence, he witnessed the close of the ceremony; and retiring amidst fresh bursts of enthusiastic approbation which he repeatedly and graciously acknowledged, in all the pomp and glory of a king, and a conqueror, under the thunder of artillery, he again alighted at the Tuileries.

‘Thus ended the Champ de Mai, a spectacle of unrivalled grandeur, a ceremony which seemed to mark the dynasty of France as settled for ever, and the diadem placed upon Napoleon’s brow beyond the possibility of being removed. But, in one short month, the red field of Waterloo too fatally demonstrated the fallacy of human calculations.’—Vol. II. pp. 15–24.

The reader must not conclude that, because we have extracted from these volumes sketches which are exclusively of a military character, there is nothing in them that touches the gentler sympathies. Had that been the case, our author would but have accomplished half the picture of a soldier’s life, who for one day dedicated to Mars, sacrifices months to the deity of love. There are, in fact, few of his stories that do not turn upon some adventure, in which a woman is of course the presiding power. The tale of Maurice Mac Carthy which occupies a considerable portion of the second and third volumes, is particularly fraught with this kind of attraction. It is a story of fearful interest, and marked by great boldness as well as originality of invention.

Notes: Format: 3 vols 8vo. Publisher: Colburn & Bentley.

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