Monday, April 25, 2011
Major General Jean-Baptiste Van Merlen
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.