Monday, June 15, 2015

Act I - Charleroi

Charleroi, Belgium circa 1775
The bridge across the Sambre appeared as empty of defenders as the portion of the town south of the river had been. The Chef de l'Escadron decided to roll the dice, turning to the nearest troop, he ordered the troop commander to rush the bridge with his chasseurs. There was no time to wait for Vandamme's infantry, no doubt they were back there, somewhere, trying to sort themselves out after the morning's comedy of errors, mishaps and screw ups.

"En avant! Vive l'Empereur!" The cavalrymen went forward with considerable élan, and fell back with equal velocity as the Prussian defenders, just outposts really, opened fire from the houses near the bridge.

Several green-coated
chasseurs were left on the bridge along with two of their mounts. The bridge would not be taken without infantry. Reports went up the line, tempers were flaring already as the sun rose higher in the sky.

General Pajol's frustration mounted with the sun. "Gaudry, send dispatch riders to Vandamme ask him, with my compliments, where the Hell are his fantassins!*"

Riders were sent. The day had started badly enough and was going further downhill with each passing minute.

The 1815 campaign seemed doomed to failure from the start. Many of the Emperor's old marshals decided to sit the campaign out. Yes, they owed their careers, titles and riches to Napoléon but his day, they felt, was done. Many of the marshals had sworn allegiance to the Ancien 
Régime of the Bourbons and did not wish to throw away what they had gained.

This campaign was a crap shoot and most of the senior officers knew it.

That very morning of the 15th, Général de Division Count Louis de Bourmont, commanding a division in Général de Division Comte Étienne Maurice Gérard's IV Corps had deserted to the enemy, leaving that division rather shaken.

The Duke of Wellington, when informed of this, is said to have observed that while a few high ranking officers of 
Napoléon's army were no doubt of questionable loyalty, the rank and file would fight. And fight hard. (The Prussian commander, Field Marshal von Blücher refused to speak with Bourmont, calling him a traitor to his face!)

Another thing which had gone wrong was because of who the Emperor had chosen to be his Chief of Staff. Marshal Nicholas (also known as Jean-de-Dieu) Soult was a very capable soldier whom Wellington had faced in the Peninsula and for whom the Duke had a great deal of respect. However, Soult was a combat officer and the skill set required of a Chief of Staff is far different from that needed by a fighting general, which Soult certainly was.

The orders sent out to the various corps of the army were allegedly carried by single dispatch riders. The one carrying the orders for Vandamme's III Corps had had an accident and never delivered his dispatch.

The Emperor's long time Chief of Staff, Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier, was "unavailable" to act in that role for the 1815 campaign. He had left France for Bamberg in Bavaria (he was married to a Bavarian duchess) upon Napoléon's return to France. There he met his death on the 1st of June, just before the start of the campaign. He died in a "fall" from an upstairs window. Legend has it that he was either pushed by assailants unknown or threw himself from the window, perhaps in despair at seeing enemy troops heading out to invade France.

Berthier would have sent multiple riders by differing routes to the units of the Armée du Nord. Pajol would not have had to wait for infantry, they would have been right behind him.

But Berthier was dead. Perhaps murdered?

Another, perhaps bad, choice made by the Emperor was to leave his arguably best Marshal, Louis-Nicholas Davout, behind in Paris as Minister of War.

Now the Emperor's position in Paris was quite weak, he did need a strong hand there to keep the government under control.

Still, one wonders what the outcome of the Waterloo campaign would have been with Marshal Davout leading one wing of the 
Armée du Nord and the Emperor commanding the other.

One more omission from 
Armée du Nord must be mentioned, Marshal Louis-Gabriel Suchet. He had been told off to command along the Alpine frontier with Piedmont. A very capable man for the job but this was definitely a secondary theater.

Suchet was the one man who came out of the Peninsular Campaign with his reputation not only intact but enhanced. The area of Spain for which he was responsible was considered "pacified" within two years of his taking command. By a combination of wise administration and superb generalship.

One wonders how the pursuit of the Prussians after Ligny would have gone had Suchet been available to take over the right wing of the army.

The two marshals who did accompany the Armée du Nord were excellent fighting generals, but...

Michel Ney was perhaps the most famous combat general in the French Army. It is said that he was the last man out of Russia after that disastrous defeat. Legend has it that he stopped, turned to face the pursuing Russians and fired a musket round in their direction.

The legend doesn't mention whether he had hit anything with that shot.

Ney had been one of the original marshals, originally an enlisted man he rose quickly in the Wars of the Revolution and served valiantly and capably no matter where posted. However, by 1815 he was a bit "addled," to put it politely.

Napoléon had landed in the south of France that spring, the King had ordered him south to stop the putative Emperor's advance and take him into custody, he swore to Louis that he would bring Bonaparte back to Paris "in an iron cage."

Instead his troops went over en masse to the petit caporal. Leaving Ney two choices, return by himself to Paris, in shame, or rejoin the Eagles and his old commander. He chose the latter. (For which he was executed in December of 1815 by a royalist firing squad.)

Emmanuel de Grouchy had become a Marshal upon the Emperor's return to France from his exile on Elba. Though he was a brilliant cavalry commander he had not commanded a combined arms force made up of infantry, cavalry and artillery on a large scale. Yet he was ear-marked to command the right wing of the Armée du Nord!

As the Emperor himself was initially with that wing, Grouchy's command was in name only. However, the events of the 16th of June left him on his own to pursue the retreating Prussians. The Emperor was needed elsewhere. To say Grouchy bungled that task is something of an understatement.

Pajol greeted the arriving infantry with relief, his cavalry had been skirmishing with the Prussians all morning but could not get the blue coated bastards to budge. With the arrival of the Emperor and his Imperial Guard the Prussians didn't stand long.

The "Immortals" of the French Army quickly drove the Prussians out of Charleroi, who fell back on the main body of the Prussians under 
von Blücher gathering to the north. The main event would have to wait until Friday, the 16th.

Though reports were coming in of Anglo-Allied troops holding the crossroads of Quatre Bras on the Brussels road, the Emperor was confident that Ney would sweep them aside. Once he had crushed the Prussians, Napoléon would show the world just how contemptible were the redcoats and their Dutch, Belgian and German hirelings.

The Emperor would, no doubt, dictate peace from Brussels in just a day or so. Watching the Prussians fall back convinced him of that. Even with the delays, misunderstandings and treasonous behavior of that morning, things were back on track.

For an excellent account of the events of the 15th of June 1815, go here.

* Fantassin = a slang term for a French infantryman of the period.


  1. I love these history lessons. Another example of the need for the right man in the right spot.

    1. Thanks c w. Having the right person in the right job is usually critical.

      Witness the current administration.

  2. More great stuff Sarge. I really enjoy your historical posts. You have a great way of telling the tale and pointing out important little snippets of detail. Unfortunately, I'm then required by federal law to look into those little snippets, which always lead to more little snippets...

    Fortunately, there's kindle and shady trees.

    "Able was I ere I saw Elba." Can you believe I learned a bit about Napoleon and his exile -- including that palindrome -- while watching an episode of "I Dream of Jeannie" back in the stoner age of the late 60's?

    1. I do believe I saw that episode.

      Barbara Eden, sigh...


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