Alexander Cavalié Mercer
Born: 1783 Kingston-Upon-Hull, Yorkshire, England
Died: 1868 Cowley, Devon, England
Alexander Mercer was born in Kingston-Upon-Hull, Yorkshire in 1783. His father was General Alexander Mercer of the Royal Engineers. So following in his father’s footsteps, Mercer went to the Military Academy in Woolwich, SE London and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal Regiment of Artillery in 1799 at the tender age of 16.
In 1798 he served in Ireland following the disastrous events of the Irish Rebellion. In 1806 Mercer was promoted to second captain (a rank unique to the Ordnance). In the same year, Mercer was posted to G Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery and joined Whitelocke’s ill-fated Buenos Aires expedition in 1807.
Mercer did not see any action in the Peninsular War and had to wait till 1815 before he saw action again in the Waterloo Campaign.
In 1815 Mercer was acting commander of what was officially known as G (Dickson’s) Troop, Royal Horse Artillery, but is usually referred to as Mercer’s Troop or Mercer’s Battery.
G Troop served on the 1807 Buenos Aires expedition, but the G Troop of Waterloo was formed from the amalgamation of two other RHA troops before leaving Colchester for Belgium. It picked the best horses from each and was regarded as an exceptionally fine unit. When reviewing the cavalry at Grammont on 29th May 1815, Blucher is supposed to have said “there is not one horse in this battery that is not fit for a field marshal”.
The troop had five 9-pounder guns, to replace the 6-pounders and a 51/2” howitzer. The troop had 80 gunners and 86 drivers with 226 horses.
Mercer’s Troop embarked for Belgium on the 11th April 1815, a few days after hearing of Napoleon’s escape from Elba. From the 1st May until the French invasion on the 15th June it led a quiet life in a small village of Strijtem, west of Brussels.
G Troop rode all day on the 16th June and arrived too late to take part in the Battle of Quatre Bras. On the 17th it covered the retreat from Quatre Bras, narrowly escaping capture by French cavalry. It was in action later that day at Genappe with the cavalry rearguard.
When G Troop arrived on the field of Waterloo, Mercer’s Troop briefly took up a firing position on the famous knoll behind the sandpit, which would feature in the fighting the following day. Mercer was still acting as rearguard for Wellington’s army, not realising that the entire army had halted on the ridge immediately behind him. His troop exchanged fire with arriving French batteries before he pulled back.
After a wet and sodden night, Mercer found himself without orders in the opening phase of the battle, as d’Erlon’s infantry attacked Wellington’s left. He was about to lead his troop into action on his own initiative when he was ordered to move to the right of Wellington’s line. Being in a quite sector, Mercer disobeyed orders to refrain from counter-battery fire. He engaged the French guns, attracting heavy fire from the superior French artillery in return. By mid-afternoon Mercer’s Troop was suddenly ordered into the hottest part of Wellington’s line, between the crossroads and Hougoumont. It deployed immediately behind the ridge road, which was on a low embankment. The bank gave them excellent cover from French artillery and increased the effectiveness of Mercer’s case-shot. The troop was between two squares of Brunswick infantry, whom Mercer regarded as unsteady. He was ordered to lead him men into the squares as cavalry closed in, but decided they would be safer at their guns. Unlike all the other batteries in the sector, the troop’s gunners never abandoned their guns to take refuge in the infantry squares.
From about 3.15 pm, after many massed French cavalry attacks, Mercer’s Troop caused terrible casualties amongst them with case-shot. Between these attacks to steady his troop’s Mercer rode in front of his troop on horseback. In one attack they came in columns, led by cuirassiers. Mercer’s Troop waited for them, double-loaded with case-shot over ball, and fired at 50 or 60 years. Mercer reported that the whole front rank fell with the round-shot tearing through the ranks behind. The ground became virtually impassable with the dead and wounded horses and men. In their final charge, the French cavalry stood little chance of reaching the guns. Shortly afterwards Wellington’s infantry advanced, leaving the guns on the ridge to engage masses of French troops in the valley below.
Towards the end of the action a battery of French guns established itself on the ridge to Mercer’s left and fired into their flank, causing devastating casualties amongst the limber-hoses. This battry was eventually driven off by fire from a newly-arrived Belgian battery. Due to its shortage of horses, the troop was unable to move when the general advance was ordered, ans Mercer slept under a limber, amongst the dead and wounded.
The Troop had 5 killed and 15 wounded and lost a total of 69 horses at Waterloo. It expended 700 rounds of ammunition. Sir Augustus Frazer said after the battle, “I could plainly distinguish the position of G Troop from the opposite height by the dark mass of dead French cavalry which, even at that distance, formed a remarkable feature on the field.”
Mercer’s Troop stayed on the battlefield until 3 pm the following day and when the ammunition and supply wagons rejoined him, the troop moved off towards Nivelles, leaving some guns and carriages behind for lack of horses. Mercer rejoined the army near Mons on 21st June, and marched with it to the gates of Paris without seeing any further action.
Apart from two months of leave in England, Mercer spent much of the rest of the year enjoying tourist pursuits in Paris.
Mercer was transferred to command D Troop RHA at Stains, also near Paris, in July 1815 and he returned with it to England in January 1816.
After the campaign Mercer was put on half-pay from 31st July 1816 until 1821. He was recalled to the peacetime army, he served twice in British North America, first as commander of the 6th company of the 5th battalion Royal Artillery at Quebec from 1823. He was breveted major in 1824, backdated to 1819. He returned to England in 1829 and held commends at Woolwich and Devonport. On 5th June 1835 Mercer was promoted to lieutenant-colonel. He once again served in British North America from 1837 to 1842, commanding the artillery in Nova Scotia during the 1837 border dispute with the United Sates. He was promoted to colonel on 2nd April 1846, to major-general on 20th June 1854 and then to lieutenant-general on 29th August 1857.
Mercer was Commandant of the Dover garrison before he retired from active service, but he was appointed Colonel Commandant 9th brigade Royal Artillery on 16th January1859, and as such Mercer never officially placed on the retired list. He was promoted to full General on 9th February 1865. He became an Author and artist.
Mercer married Frances Rice on 10th November 1813 at Bourton on the Water, Gloucestershire, while he was stationed in Woodbridge Suffolk. She travelled with him to France after his leave in November 1815. They had one son Cavalié A. Mercer, who edited the Journel after his father’s death. Mercer and Frances lived in Berkshire at the time of the Waterloo campaign, but in later life Mercer lived at Cowley Hill near Exeter. He died there on 9th November 1868 and is buried at St David’s Church in Exeter.
Mercer wrote a Journal from April 1815 to January 1816. His journal of the Waterloo Campaign was published in 1870 after his death from original notes Mercer made at that time.
A Brittish 9 Pounder