Saturday, 2 March 2013

I Thought All Was Over - Lucy Inglis

 

We are re-watching Band of Brothers. My husband loves it as he loves all military history but I find it morbid and difficult. However, one such remarkable account from the field at Waterloo has long stuck with me - that of Frederick Ponsonby, the brother of Lady Caroline Lamb. He was a career soldier, like others in his family, and he was 32 the year of Waterloo in 1815. As a cavalry officer, he was part of the charge of the Light Company and they overshot their mark, badly, after having made the charge downhill. The following is his account of what happened after that.

'In the melee I was almost instantly disabled in both arms, losing first my sword, and then my reins; and followed by a few men, who were presently cut down, no quarter being allowed, asked, or given, I was carried along by my horse, till, receiving a blow from a sabre, I fell senseless on my face to the ground.

Recovering, I raised myself a little to look around, being at that time, I believe, in a condition to get up and run away; when a lancer, passing by, cried out, 'Tu, n'es pas mort, coquin!' and struck his lance through my back. My head dropped, the blood gushed into my mouth, a difficulty of breathing came on, and I thought all was over.

Not long afterwards (it was impossible to measure time, but I must have fallen in less than ten minutes after the onset) a tirailleur stopped to plunder me, threatening my life. I directed him to a small side pocket, in which he found three dollars, all I had; but he continued to threaten, and I said he might search me: this he did immediately, unloosing my stock and tearing open my waist coat, and leaving me in a very uneasy posture.

But he was no sooner gone than an officer bringing up some troops, to which probably the tirailleur belonged, and happening to halt where I lay, stooped down and addressed me, saying he feared I was badly wounded; I said that I was, and expressed a wish to be removed to the rear. He said it was against their orders to remove even their own men; but that if they gained the day... every attention in his power would be shown me. I complained of thirst, and he held his brandy-bottle to my lips, directing one of the soldiers to lay me straight on my side and place a knapsack under my head. He then passed on into action...Of what rank he was, I cannot say: he wore a great-coat. By and by another tirailleur came up, a fine young man, full of ardor. He knelt down and fired over me, loading and firing many times, and conversing with me all the while. At last he ran off, exclaiming, 'You will probably not be sorry to hear that we are going to retreat. Good day, my friend.' It was dusk when two squadrons of Prussian cavalry, each of them two deep, came across the valley and passed over me in full trot, lifting me from the ground and tumbling me about cruelly.

The battle was now at an end, or removed to a distance. The shouts, the imprecations, the outcries of 'Vive l'Empereur!' the discharge of musketry and cannon, were over; and the groans of the wounded all around me became every moment more and more audible. I thought the night would never end. Much about this time I found a soldier of the Royals lying across my legs—he had probably crawled thither in his agony; and his weight, his convulsive motions, and the air issuing through a wound in his side, distressed me greatly; the last circumstance most of all, as I had a wound of the same nature myself.

It was not a dark night, and the Prussians were wandering about to plunder...though no women appeared. Several stragglers looked at me, as they passed by, one after another, and at last one of them stopped to examine me. I told him as well as I could, for I spoke German very imperfectly, that I was a British officer, and had been plundered already; he did not desist, however, and pulled me about roughly. An hour before midnight I saw a man in an English uniform walking towards me. He was, I suspect, on the same errand, and he came and looked in my face. I spoke instantly, telling him who I was, and assuring him of a reward if he would remain by me. He said he belonged to the 40th, and had missed his regiment; he released me from the dying soldier, and, being unarmed, took up a sword from the ground and stood over me, pacing backward and forward. Day broke; and at six o'clock in the morning some English were seen at a distance, and he ran to them. A messenger being sent off to Hervey, a cart came for me, and I was placed in it, and carried to the village of Waterloo...'

Happily, Frederick survived his seven wounds, was nursed back to health by his sister Caroline, married, fathered six children and went on to a successful career in the Army, but the British aristocracy would never recover from the battle of Waterloo - too many of its young men died in the field and the landscape of British society was changed forever. Frederick Ponsonby's experience of battle is timeless and universal to all those who have fought and continue to do so. That he survived to relate it is a testament to the human spirit.

9 comments:

Joan Lennon said...

Good HEAVENS! Your post left me breathless - I'm so glad he survived. Thank you for posting!

The Virtual Victorian said...

Great post, Lucy.

Susan Price said...

Incredible! A wonderful post - thank you!

Caroline Lawrence said...

A wonderful account, Lucy. Frederick Ponsonby's descendants should be very grateful to the French officer who gave him brandy and the Englishman who stood guard till help came!

Theresa Breslin said...

This is absolutely fascinating -and amazing that he recalled small details like the amount of coins in his pocket. Thanks for this, Lucy

Annis said...

Fascinating story of survival! A while ago I read "A Week at Waterloo", a moving eye-witness account of the battle's aftermath written by a Scottish lady, Magdalene De Lancey. A bride of only 3 months, she accompanied her husband William, the Duke of Wellington's Chief-of-Staff, to Brussels. He was grievously wounded during the battle, and she stayed on at a peasant's cootage on the edge of the battlefield, struggling for several days to nurse him back to health. Sadly this story didn't have a happy ending, but it's one well worth reading.

LenoreJ said...

My heavens. To survive all that speaks to an iron constitution and a lucky escape from severe infection. Amazing, but somehow I don't think war changes all that much over the centuries, sadly.

jean hart stewart said...

Absolutely amazing. Thanks so much. I thought I was conversant with the battle of Waterloo but this is a terrific account.

Patrick Baty said...

I served in the Army with one of his descendants. They're a tough bunch.