Sunday, June 16, 2019

Death of an Empire

On a long weekend in June of 1815, Napoléon Bonaparte took to the field for the very last time. In a last cast of the dice, he set forth to cement his position on the throne of the French Empire as Emperor. He would be facing the armies of Field Marshal Sir Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington and Generalfeldmarschall Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, Fürst von Wahlstatt.

The Duke of Wellington commanded a polyglot army of English, Scots, Welsh, Irish, Dutch, Belgians, and a smattering of German contingents from any number of small duchies, principalities, and bishoprics of the old Holy Roman Empire, which Napoléon had shattered in 1806 with his devastating defeat of the Prussian Army at the dual battles of Jena and Auerstädt. Some of the regiments he had led to victory in Portugal and Spain were in the process of returning from America and Britain's defeat in the War of 1812. Many were young, some of his Dutch, Belgian, and German troops had fought with Napoléon in days past.

Old Field Marshal Blücher's Prussian Army wasn't any more established than that of the Great Duke's. There were a few experienced regiments which had fought Napoléon in 1813 and 1814 but there were a number of young, hastily recruited regiments, some of whom were only recently made Prussian by the annexation of their homes by the Prussian Empire.

Napoléon's army was, for the most part, made up of old veterans of many campaigns, many returned from  captivity, many still bitter about the forced abdication of the Emperor in 1814. They hungered for revenge, yet they didn't trust their senior officers. It was a fragile army, capable of extreme valor in combat, yet never far from breaking in the face of further setbacks. Treason was everywhere, they thirsted for the blood of their enemies.

I have written a number of times of the events of the 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th of June 1815, that constitute the Campaign of Waterloo. Rather than attempt to top what I have written before, I decided to repeat the posts I wrote on the 200th anniversary of the battle. You will get two today, covering the 15th and 16th of June. On Tuesday, the posts covering the 17th and the 18th will be presented for your reading enjoyment.

I have walked the field of Waterloo many times. I have stood on the very spot where the Imperial Guard assaulted the British Guards atop the ridge behind La Haye Sainte, I have stood on the spot where Herzog Friedrich Wilhelm von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, was killed in action leading his troops at the age of 43, just as his father Herzog Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel before him fell in action at the head of his troops fighting the French at Auerstädt. (He had been badly wounded at that action, dying of his wounds that November.)

That field haunts me, I have studied this battle since I was very young. 47,000 men (and not a few women disguised as men) were killed or wounded on a very small parcel of land. The entire battlefield is no more than eight square miles, roughly four miles east to west and two miles north to south. The most intense fighting took place in an area even smaller.

The dead were buried where they fell, the ground above the mass graves was still springy for years afterwards. It is probably not a place to linger when the sun has fallen below the horizon.

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.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Act II, Ligny and Quatre-Bras

Summoned to Waterloo, Brussels, dawn of June 16, 1815
by Robert Alexander Hillingford
"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!

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...


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.

Aux morts...


  1. These accounts bring back memories of the times spent with SPI's Napoleon at Waterloo, we just about wore those counters out playing that when it first came out. Amazing how one man affected so many.....

    1. Was that the Quad Pack? Played those myself.

    2. NAW along with NAW Expansion were intro games while Napoleon's Last Battles was a quad set covering Quatre Bras, Ligny, Wavre and Waterloo that had, I believe, mods for lines of communication and command & control. NAQ was on a small map maybe 18 by 22 inches?...... with a small number of counters but replay was very good and the game was short, ideal for impromptu tournaments. Geeezz... that's going on a half century ago now.....the battles were 200 years ago........hmmmm.... shall hoist a glass today after grass cutting then.

    3. Oh yes, you're right. It was a long time ago.

  2. About all I know of that is the song by Stonewall Jackson. I did recognize the Faubian star fortification on the map. I always thought that would make a fine house design.

    Seeing those sweeping fields in France, there was lots of room to maneuver huge armies... Makes my inner digger want to find some history.... I will have to re-read this and follow the links. I don't know much about this time in military history.

    Down here, there was a battle in the 1820's, kind of a precursor to the 1836 rebellion. The soldiers were left where they fell, and the field was lost to history. The spots they think it happened are not conducive to a battle for the amount of men on the field at the time. I found a bowl shaped area that would have been perfect for a few thousand to square off, with hills on each end for the commanders to overwatch and direct... But, who knows....

    1. There are bits of history everywhere, lost to later generations sadly enough.

  3. Replies
    1. As for the late start to the battles (and without reviewing Chandler's "Campaigns of Napoleon"), my experience as a Civil War reenactor says it was due to deployment. It takes quite a while to shake out those road columns in to combat formations. Consider how long a column of fours for a division if 5000 men would be, and multiply that by a couple of corps' worth. It's a lot simpler on the wargaming map.

    2. Absolutely right, it takes a while to maneuver.

  4. "Four Bras..." He said "Four Bras..." Snerk. Teeheeheee...

    (just had to make sure you knew I was alive.)

    And they were well worth re-reading. Napoleon definitely didn't accept defeat very well, did he?

    1. Ahem, four ARMS, as in a crossroads. But when I was a lad, I giggled at that a few times.

      Wasn't any quit in that fellow.

    2. Would have been more popular as a tourist spot even way back when if it was Holdeurs des Tetons Quatres or something.

      Just saying.

    3. It was chagrin that I am forced to admit that you might be on to something there.

      (Four nipples?)

  5. *Ahem* "Brassière" actually derives from the French word for "arm"...back in the '20s, when it its purpose was flattening out that portion of the anatomy, as if an arm was held across them...

    1. My knowledge increases, thanks to my readers.

      Or, "I did not know that."

      Thanks Captain O!

    2. Neener-neener. I was right, I was right, neener-neener!

    3. Oh no, Captain Obvious, what have you done?

    4. Does the German word still sound like boostenhalter? Or is is Schtoppendiefloppen??

    5. Yes, it does. The latter is an urban legend.


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