Monday, April 25, 2011

Major General Jean-Baptiste Van Merlen

One of the remarkable Belgian soldiers of the Napoleonic period and who played a key role in the crucial Waterloo campaign was Major General Jean-Baptiste Van Merlen. He was born in Antwerp on 15 April 1773 and had a long record of service in the Dutch army before 1811. He excelled to the rank of colonel on 11 November 1810 as commander of the Hussards de la Garde du roi de Hollande. When Napoleon annexed Holland to the French Empire he transferred to the 5th Squadron of the new 2nd Regiment de Chevau Lanciers de la Garde, better known as the Dutch or “Red” Landers of the Guard. Most of this regiment had been previously members of the Dutch Royal Guard and they retained their red uniforms from this service. It was a very colorful unit with their red Dutch uniforms, lances and Polish drill sergeants (the Poles being considered the sort of experts on lancer cavalry troops). With this unit Colonel Van Merlen served in Russia where his troops fought in fierce battles and suffered heavy casualties in the French service from 1813-1814. On 12 January 1813 he was given the rank General de Brigade and on 13 September 1813 was awarded the medal of Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur.

When Napoleon abdicated (the first time) as emperor General Van Merlen returned home and joined the military forces of the newly planned United Kingdom of the Netherlands (which was to be a dual Dutch-Belgian state) thinking, like many, that Napoleon was gone forever. However, in 1815, Europe was surprised when Napoleon came back and quickly assumed power for himself again. Belgians like General Van Merlen who had fought in the French service were looked at with some suspicion, however, he was loyal to his new country and remained in the service of the Dutch-Belgian Army. This was particularly painful for General Van Merlen since his younger brother was, at the same time, on the other side, fighting in the service of the French II Corps of General Reille. At the battle at Quatre-Bras General Van Merlen led his forces into battle against the French. He commanded the 2nd Netherlands Light Cavalry Brigade which consisted of two regiments: the 6th Dutch Hussars and the 5th Belgian Light Dragoons.

At 3.00 PM General Van Merlen charged his horsemen into the battle against Foy and his advancing infantry. His men cut and slash in the French lines but were hopelessly outnumbered by the arriving cavalry of Piré. Everyone was hard pressed and the fighting was desperate, even the Duke of Wellington had to jump behind the line of the 92nd Highlanders to save himself from the French. General Van Merlen and his brigade lost 171 men at Quatre-Bras. When the main battle of Waterloo began, Van Merlen was kept back with Collaert in reserve in the fourth line near Mont St Jean farm. However, when the French cavalry charged the Allied lines, riding through the infantry who formed squares, Van Merlen had numerous occasions to make counter-attacks against the French horsemen all afternoon. There is a story that in one such frenzied fight he captured a French general who had been an old acquaintance of his when in the service of Napoleon. Rather than make him a prisoner, Van Merlen saluted the Frenchman and said, “General, this is my side of the battlefield, yours is over there. Take care of yourself; farewell!” and let him go back to his side. However, only a short time after this act of chivalry, he was badly wounded and taken to the Mont St Jean farm where he suffered for two hours before finally his death came. He had fought all over Europe in several services but his last words were that he died peacefully because he had never harmed anyone.

No comments:

Post a Comment