Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Act II, Ligny and Quatre-Bras

Summoned to Waterloo, Brussels, dawn of June 16, 1815
by Robert Alexander Hillingford
(Source)
"So we are clear Monsieur le Maréchal? You are to advance up the Brussels chaussee to this crossroads at..." the Emperor paused to adjust his reading glasses then looked again at the map, "here, this crossroads, Quatre-Bras! Then you will pivot to the east and move down this east-west road towards Sombreffe. That should put you just behind the Prussians' right flank."

"Yes Sire, provided I don't encounter the English and..." Marshal Ney began but was immediately interrupted.

"Bah, you people do not understand! Wellington is a bad general and the English are bad troops. The whole affair will be no more serious than a petit dejeuner!"

"Sire..." Ney tried again.

"Enough Ney, it is late. Ride to your troops and have them on the march by sunrise."

"Yes Sire, it shall be done."

Le Rougeaud* left the headquarters muttering to himself, "over twenty years a soldier and I'm treated like a subaltern. Bah, I shall show them. I shall show them all who knows how to fight, to make war!"

It was just after midnight in Charleroi, the 16th of June.

Many people know of Napoléon's defeat at Waterloo on the 18th of June 1815. What many don't know is that four battles were fought during this brief campaign. Five if you count Marshal Grouchy's brilliant fighting withdrawal from Wavre the day after Waterloo. (The most energy that Marshal showed during the campaign.)
  • Quatre-Bras: The French left wing under Marshal Ney against the Duke of Wellington's Anglo-Allied Army (British, Netherlanders, Belgians and various German contingents)
  • Ligny: The French right wing under Marshal Grouchy (but with the Emperor on the scene) against Field Marshal von Blücher's Prussian Army
  • Waterloo: The climactic event of the campaign with the reinforced French left wing against Wellington, reinforced by the Prussians as the day drew to a close.
  • Wavre: Grouchy's right wing against the Prussian corps left behind by von Blücher to keep his lines of communication open to Liege and the Rhine beyond.
The main battles though were Ligny and Quatre-Bras on the 16th and Waterloo on the 18th. Napoléon won the first, Wellington fought Ney to a draw at the second (one could argue, quite rightly, that Wellington won that one, but as the British had to withdraw, I count it as a draw) and, of course, Napoléon lost at Waterloo. One could say that the Emperor was one, one and one (1-1-1) on that campaign. But as many students of history can attest, sometimes the only battle that counts is the last one.

The French Empire under Napoléon died on that June day in 1815. But we're not there just yet. Oh no, there were many things which happened prior to that day.

The Main Area of the Campaign from Charleroi to Brussels and Braine-le-Comte to Namur
Detail from "Part of Belgium as engraved by J. Kirkwood" (Source)
The days in June are very long at the latitude where the campaign took place. I lived near there for seven years, in June the sun is up by 0530 and doesn't set until 2200, giving 16 and a half hours of daylight. Of course, that's nowadays with Daylight Saving Time (which is used in Europe as well as the U.S.), in 1815, the sun was up by 0430 and set around 2100. A very long day.

So it is most odd when you read the accounts of the battles on the 16th. Marshal Ney didn't start his attack until around two in the afternoon. Nearly ten hours of daylight were wasted! Though Ney was an experienced commander, he shouldn't have to shoulder all of the blame for this. The Emperor didn't dispatch his orders to both Ney and Grouchy until around 0600. Ney received his orders at 1100. The Emperor himself had joined Grouchy on the field somewhat earlier than that.

Ney could be said to have dithered on the road to Quatre-Bras but the Emperor was no less laconic about getting his own battle started. He went on his own personal reconnaissance at around 1100. It wasn't until then that the French realized that the Prussians intended to make a stand.

The Battles of Quatre-Bras and Ligny, 15 June 1815
EB1911-28-0376-a-Waterloo Campaign, Map II
by Hugh Chisholm editor of Encyclopædia Britannica
 - Encyclopædia Britannica eleventh edition (1911).
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons (Source)
The Battle Of Ligny by Ernest Crofts (Source)
The Prussian position was a strong one. They were positioned in a string of villages along the Ligne brook. The Prussian army was also on a forward slope. Those men not in houses or behind walls would be exposed to the 200 plus cannon the French had available.

The French attack went in between 1430 and 1500 (again, why so late?) and the initial results were bloody. Gérard's (IV Corps) initial attack towards Ligny village was repulsed. Vandamme's (III Corps) advance across the open ground before Saint-Amand suffered heavy casualties. Villages in that area of the battlefield changed hands many times, combat was, at times, at bayonet point.

On the field of Ligny
(Google Street View)
Battle of Ligny
by Theodore Yung (Source)
Buildings began to burn as the fighting continued. The Prussians were being pounded by French cannon and assaulted by French infantry and cavalry. Gradually the Prussian reserves had all been fed into the fight, Vandamme's troops had seized Saint-Amand by 1500.

The Prussians were leaning to their right due to the success of Vandamme's advance. The Emperor prepared his Guard to go forward and clinch the victory. Then reports came in of unknown troops moving towards the French left. Who were they?

Troops were sent forward to support Vandamme and scouts dispatched to identify the mysterious force looming on the flank. The time was around 1800. French hesitation allowed von Blücher time to try and organize his troops. They had suffered greatly from French artillery and the struggle for Saint-Amand.

By 1830 the mysterious force to the left was identified as the French I Corps under d'Erlon. Just as the Emperor had visions of d'Erlon falling on the Prussian flank, that force began to march back the way they'd come.

The Emperor was livid!

But the battle wasn't over. The Imperial Guard, the "Immortals" went forward and quickly began to gain ground and inflict more casualties on the shaken Prussians. Which is when the old field marshal (he was 72) put himself at the head of 32 squadrons of cavalry and launched a desperate charge.

His horse was shot out from under him and von Blücher was pinned underneath. He was actually ridden over several times by French counter-charges. His aides eventually  managed to extricate him from his predicament but by then the Prussian units were starting to drift away from the fighting. They had had enough. With von Blücher missing in action, his chief of staff von Gneisenau was organizing a retreat.

Though von Gneisenau did not trust the English (he also assumed that von Blücher was dead), rather than order a retreat back on the Prussian line of communications towards Liege, he ordered the army to fall back towards the north, towards Wavre.

At that point, von Gneisenau set the stage for the events of the evening of the 18th, two days hence. The Prussians would remain within supporting distance of their ally, the Duke of Wellington.

The Field Marshal in danger!
(Source)

Now why had those French troops wandered so near the fighting on the Ligny battlefield and then wandered off again? That takes us over to Marshal Ney's wing advancing towards Quatre-Bras.

As mentioned above, no one in the French army was setting any records for speed or initiative on the 16th. Around 1400, the French II Corps, under Général de Division Comte Honoré Charles Reille began to advance. Bachelu's infantry division on the right (towards the Piraumont farm), Foy up the road towards the crossroads, Foy supported by Piré's cavalry.

Reille was a veteran of the Peninsula and was very wary of the Duke of Wellington. Though Wellington had very little strength on the field initially (a division of Dutchmen, not British at all), Reille was used to the Duke concealing his troops behind ridge lines and woods. He had been beaten before by Wellington's tactics so perhaps he was "once bitten, twice shy."

Battle of Quatre-Bras
by James B. Wollen (Source)
The fighting was see-saw and very bloody. The crossroads itself was seized briefly by French cavalry who were soon driven off (their commander clinging to the stirrups of two troopers as his own horse was shot from under him) by arriving troops.

Wellington's army dribbled in throughout the day, often times just in time to reinforce a position or launch a local counter-attack. But it was bloody and somewhat inconclusive, though Wellington's men held their line, French pressure was increasing.

All Ney needed was more troops.

Unfortunately "his" I Corps under d'Erlon was "wandering" between the two battlefields of Quatre-Bras and Ligny, fighting at neither. D'Erlon claimed to have received a written order from the Emperor directing him to fall upon the Prussian right. Napoléon claimed to have sent no such order (though having Ney's force march to his aid had been the plan all along).

At any rate an entire infantry corps of 19,357 men and 44 guns spent the day "strolling" through the Belgian countryside. If they had intervened at Ligny, the Prussians would have been unable to retreat. If they had stayed at Quatre-Bras Wellington would probably have experienced a defeat. There would have been no chance of his inexperienced troops holding off a fresh French corps.

But that didn't happen.

Brunswick line infantry at Quatre-Bras. The Jäger of the Advance Guard are on the left.
by Richard Knötel (Source)
The Anglo-Allied army held it's ground, though the commander of the Brunswick contingent fell in battle as his father had before him against the French some nine years earlier. Though one English regiment, the 69th Foot, lost many dead and wounded and one of their colors to French heavy cavalry when caught deployed in line.

On the field of Quatre-Bras
(Google Street View)
Capture of the King's Color of the 69th Infantry Regiment of Foot at Quatre-Bras
by Victor Huen (Source)
In reality the battle could be counted as a victory for Wellington. But, the Prussians had been defeated, he might now have to face the entire French army on the morrow.

Reluctantly the Great Duke realized that come the next day he would have to fall back to the north, towards Brussels.

Towards a place called Mont-St-Jean. A place we know as...

Waterloo.




For excellent, brief accounts of Ligny and Quatre-Bras, you can go here and here. OAFS recommended. OAFS approved.

* Le Rougeaud = The red faced or ruddy. Ney was a ginger and had a temper to match. This was his men's nickname for him.

8 comments:

  1. Now wait a minute, what was the Kaiser's navy doing at Ligny?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And that you'll have to explain. It's late, I've just finished tomorrow's post and I ain't feeling all that clever.

      I am, how you say, easily confused at times.

      Like now.

      :)

      Delete
    2. Ah, now I get it. It wasn't SMS Blücher that was at Ligny, no it was the ship's namesake.

      You're a clever guy Shaun. I like that.

      :)

      Delete
    3. SMS Gneisenau as well. Each of those fellows had 4-5 ships named after them. Those soldiers were apparently well regarded. The nazis later named a concentration camp after poor ol' Gneisenau though.

      Delete
    4. How could I forget SMS Gneisenau? A later ship by that name gained fame with her sister Scharnhost by sailing through the English Channel.

      In broad daylight.

      The Admiralty was not amused.

      Delete
    5. I was going to mention (and scoff) that many of the ships in the German Navy (WWI and WWII) were named after landlubbers. Then I realized that Ike, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman et al were also landlubbers, yet we have capital ships named after them.

      'Tis best not to hurl stones when one might live in a glass house.

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    6. And then there was the Hipper class cruiser Blücher, which as far as I know was the only major warship to be sunk solely by shore batteries during the '39-'45 war. The mighty Norsemen managed to put her on the bottom of the Oslofjord in April, ‘40.

      Delete
    7. Yes, I remember that ship, the Norwegians still have one of her anchors on display!

      Delete

Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)