Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Breastplate of Antoine Favreau

Since I was a child I have been fascinated by the Battle of Waterloo.  Maybe it is the colorful Napoleonic uniforms that has captured my attention. Regardless, there are great personal stories surrounding the battle.  

Antoine Favreau served as one of Napoleon's heavy cavalrymen during "The Hundred Days."  The Waterloo campaign is referred to as The Hundred Days, because such is the amount of time between Napoleon's return to France after his escape from the island of Elba and his final  defeat near the small town of Waterloo, Belgium.  Heavy calvarymen, such as Antoine Favreau, played a significant role in Napoleon's victories.  They would be wasted in the defeat which ended the Napoleonic Wars. 

Messr. Favreau served as a Carabinier a Cheval -- a heavy cavalryman who wore armour on the battlefield.  Specifically, Favreau would have worn a helmet made of brass and iron with a red horsehair crest.  On his chest and back he wore  a brass and iron breast and backplate over his white tunic.  As a mounted man, he wore white leather riding pants and black riding boots that extended past the knee.  His primary weapon was a long, straight bladed sword, but he would also have carried a pair of pistols in holsters mounted on his saddle and a carbine.   The Carabiniers a Cheveaux must have been something to see with the sun shining off of their brass armour.  Of course, it is debatable how complete the French uniforms were at Waterloo, given the hasty assembling of the army.  

Waterloo and Gettysburg are similar battles and battlefields.   Both have armies  facing each other from opposite ridges with a valley in between.  In both battles, desperate attacks were issued against fixed positions.  The "ground" played a major role in each battle as did the failure of a commander's  subordinate to perform as expected.   As Richard Ewell failed Robert E. Lee at the end of daylight on July 1, 1863,  Michel Ney failed Napoleon on the afternoon of June 18, 1815. 

Napoleon was a master of battlefield tactics.  Many of his victories involved flanking maneuvers and deception   rather that brute force to win the day.  Waterloo was different.  At Waterloo, Napoleon would attempt brute strength to push Wellington and his multi-national army off of the field.   Much like Robert E. Lee, Napoleon attempted to defeat his enemy with massed  assaults on the flanks as well as the center.  

Napoleon was not well at Waterloo and the fates took advantage of his predicament.   In the afternoon when by chance Napoleon was indisposed, Wellington issued an order for his entire line to redeploy several yards to the rear.  Michel Ney, Napoleon's second in command, misinterpreted the redeployment to be a retreat.  As any good commander seeing a retreating enemy would,  Ney ordered the French cavalry to charge and rout the Anglo-Allied army.  

Mother Nature also did not shine on Napoleon at Waterloo.  The night of June 17, 1815 was marked by torrential rain.  Thus, the ground was saturated when Ney's charge took place.  The French cavalrymen charged down the ridge, across the valley and up the opposite ridge to a plateau where they met the enemy infantry formed in squares.  In the days of linear tactics,  infantry  threatened by cavalry formed square.  The defensive position required the men in the  front rank of each side of the square to kneel with the butts of their muskets grounded and the bayonets angled upwards and out.  The remaining men faced out and fired at the cavalry.  Horses will not charge into the line of bayonets.  Thus, the charge is broken and the cavalrymen are picked off.  To defeat infantry in square,  either  infantry or artillery were brought up with the cavalry.  The infantry in square either stayed in square and were blown apart by musket or  cannon fire or the broke square and were run down and sabred by the cavalry. 

Because of the wet soil, the French cavalry could barely get above a gallop. They were under artillery fire the whole way and upon cresting the hill found infantry not retreating, but in square.  Looking behind, a French cavalryman saw neither supporting infantry or artillery.  No one had his back.  

One charge and Ney should have known everything -- the soil is too wet to reach a charge,  British artillery is effective and, most importantly, the British are not retreating, but rather are formed in square.   While the initial charge was not improper, the successive charges ordered by Ney were.  Again and again the French cavalry were sent against the British squares.  Ney could have sent infantry and artillery support, but he didn't.  Ney could have ordered the British cannon hauled off or spiked (the British artillery man serviced their guns until the last second and then ran to the safety of the squares), but he didn't.  Rather, he wasted a valuable asset of Napoleon's army.  Ney failed his commander. While the French defeat cannot be blamed solely upon poor old Ney, he shares a good portion of the blame. 

But what about Antione Favreau?  Well, he died at Waterloo.  He suffered a mortal would when a cannon ball pierced his gleaming breast plate.