Waterloo 1815 - Captain Mercer's Journal, ed. W.H. Fitchett.

Waterloo 1815 - Captain Mercer's Journal, ed. W.H. Fitchett.

Alexander Cavalié Mercer was a successful British artillery officer, who rose to the rank of general later in his career. At the time of Waterloo he was a captain, and officially second in command of troop G of the artillery. The official commander was Sir Alexander Dickson, but as he was absent on other duties Mercer was effectively in command of the troop.

This edition of Mercer's journal covers the period from Mercer's batteries departure from Harwick on 9 April to the day after the battle of Waterloo. We start with Mercer's chaotic arrival at Ostend, where he was met with a scene of confusion and a lack of clear orders. We follow his battery as it advanced towards the main British army. There was then a short period of inaction before Napoleon began the dramatic three day campaign that ended at Waterloo. Mercer's battery rushed towards the battlefield of Quatre Bras, but arrived just as the fighting ended. They were then heavily engaged during the retreat to the Waterloo position and suffered heavy losses at Waterloo, where they were engaged a battle with the French cavalry.

For me the most interesting feature of Mercer's journal is that he chose to only report things that were known to him at the time being described. As a result we get an unusually vivid description of the fog of war, starting at the moment Mercer's horses were dumped unceremoniously off their ship and continuing all the way to the field of Waterloo. On the day of the battle Mercer's battery spent much of its time in reserve, before being heavily engaged late in the day. In the morning Mercer didn't notice that the battle had actually begun, and someone had to draw his attention to the start of the French retreat at the end of the battle. For much of the time he and his men were effectively isolated with no real idea of what was going on and at best a smoke-veiled view of the battlefield.

We get an interesting idea of the amount of effort needed to support a small number of guns. Mercer's Troop G contained five nine-pounders and one five-and-a-half inch howitzer. These six guns required eighty gunners, eighty-four drivers and 226 horses, a massive effort. These horses and their drivers had to move the guns, their ammunition wagons and limbers and all of their food and other supplies. The effort of moving this sizable convoy across unknown country takes up a sizable part of the journal, and makes it clear just how complex a Napoleonic army had become.

The sections on combat cover several types of action. We start with the retreat from Quatre Bras, where Mercer's battery formed part of the rearguard, so was alternately firing and retreating (fleeing on several occasions). This comes across as a chaotic manoeuvre where one mistake could leave the battery dangerously isolated. At Waterloo the troop's most significant action came during the period where the French cavalry was attacking British and allied infantry squares, fairly late in the battle. Mercer's men found themselves between two squares, successfully fighting off a series of impressive cavalry charges.

Mercer's journal was originally published in 1900 and the modern editor had chose to use Fitchett's Victorian supporting text, adding a second level of historical interest. Fitchett was writing at a time when Waterloo had yet to be overshadowed by the two World Wars and was still as the most significant British battle of modern history. Mercer's fascinating journal is the star attraction here, but Fitchett's introductions are also of value.

The Soldier in Literature
1 - Waiting for the Guns
2 - On March to the Field
3 - Quatre Bras
4 - The Retreat to Waterloo
5 - Waterloo
6 - After the Fight

Author: Alexander Cavalié Mercer
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 128
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2012 edition

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