Thursday, May 25, 2023

Battle of Ligny - The Retreat

Gneisenau at the Battle of Ligny
Richard Knötel (PD)
"Herr General! We have no word on the Field Marshal's whereabouts. He was last seen at the head of Röder's cavalry."

Gneisenau knew that the army was in danger of collapse, he really had no choice other than order a retreat. But in which direction?

"Schmitz!" he barked at a nearby aide, "Orders to all four Corps commanders, withdraw north, towards Wavre." It went against his instincts, he wanted desperately to retreat towards Lüttich where the army could regroup and take in replacements.

"Wavre, Herr General?"

"Yes, Generalfeldmarschall Blücher gave his word, the important thing is to break contact with the enemy. Sometime tonight we might reconsider the direction of our retreat, but for now, Wavre."

Gneisenau shook his head, he prayed to God he would not regret this decision.

Blücher is unhorsed as he leads a desperate counter-charge during the final stages of the battle.
"Easy, Herr Generalfeldmarschall, your leg might be broken." Von Nostitz was concerned, the French were all around but they seemed to be more intent on celebrating their victory than in the plight of the Prussian commander.

Unterwachtmeister¹ Schneider was nearby, his carbine at the ready, even though he knew that to fire a shot would probably be the death of them all. He heard his name and he turned.

"Quickly Schneider, your horse, give it to me."

Without thinking Schneider dismounted, then helped the field marshal up onto the horse. Shedding his cloak he wrapped it around the old man's shoulders. "Keep your head down, Herr Generalfeldmarschall."

Amazingly enough, the field marshal grinned at him, "For now my boy, for now. We retreat to fight again tomorrow. Genau?²"

Schneider nodded and said, "Aber natürlich, Herr Generalfeldmarschall³."

Then the young cavalryman began to make his way to the rear as von Nostitz and Blücher galloped off into the gathering dark.

Napoléon snapped his glass shut and handed to the soldier from the duty squadron who had been detailed to act as the Emperor's personal guard for the day. "De la Bédoyère!"

De la Bédoyère nudged his horse closer to the Emperor in order to hear him over the roar of battle, "Sire?"

"Any word from Ney?"

De la Bédoyère lowered his eyes, then looked back up, chagrined to be the bearer of bad news. "Nothing, Sire. After directing the Comte d'Erlon to bring his corps here, we've heard nothing. My aides tell me that d'Erlon has turned his men back towards Quatre Bras."

De la Bédoyère braced himself, the Emperor looked like he was about to explode.

Napoléon wanted to lash out, at someone, anyone. It seemed as if the very Fates were conspiring against him. The desertions from Gérard's corps the day before, now this seeming incompetence on the part of Ney. With a great effort, he controlled himself before speaking.

"Very well, send scouts in the direction of Quatre Bras, then send someone to have Maréchal Grouchy join me here. All things considered, it has been an excellent day. It is 1806 all over again!⁴"

Premier-Lieutenant Horst von Buchholz looked around, the remnants of his ad hoc unit, now down to twenty-five men, followed him like faithful hounds. Buchholz was proud of this little band, they had fought off multiple French attacks. Only when the units to either side of them had fled had he given the order to withdraw.

"You there, Lieutenant! Where is your unit?"

Buchholz looked up to see his battalion commander, he was missing his hat, his left arm was in a sling and the man looked battered and beaten.

Buchholz came to attention and snapped a salute, "Herr Oberst-Lieutenant, I have seven men from my company, the rest are from other units. I haven't seen the rest of the battalion for many hours."

His lieutenant colonel looked to the east and said, "I suspect they've run with the rest of the army, we are defeated Buchholz. That bastard Bonaparte has made fools of us again."

Buchholz remembered, his battalion commander had been a young lieutenant at Jena, he had lived through the disasters of that year. This probably seemed all too familiar, though it was nine years ago, when Buchholz was still a school boy, that the disaster had occurred.

The battalion commander dismounted, he sighed and asked, "Might I tag along with you, my boy? Your lads seem unbeaten, ready to go again."

One of the men, a sergeant, heard that and piped up, "Wherever you lead us, Herr Oberst-Lieutenant, the froggies have won this round, we shall win the next!"

Oberst-Lieutenant Hermann von Lutz gave a wan smile, "With men like you, I have no doubt of that." Turning to Buchholz he said, "Lead on, Lieutenant. I place myself at your disposal."

Buchholz nodded and pointed to the north, "Most of the army seems to be moving north, we shall follow. Are you with me lads?"

With quiet resolve, the Prussians of Buchholz's little command followed their lieutenant north, towards Wavre. They were not done fighting, not by any means.

Maréchal Grouchy reined up, he was slightly annoyed at having to meet up with the Emperor, he was a cavalryman, didn't the man understand the need to pursue a beaten enemy?

"Sire, I need to get my men moving, the Prussians are retreating!"

Napoléon looked for a moment at his newest Marshal, the man was being presumptuous. "There is time enough for that, my dear Marquis, the men are exhausted, my scouts tell me that the Prussians are moving towards Liege. Let the men make their soup and get some sleep, we shall move at dawn."

"But Sire ..."

"Enough, I shall have Soult give you your orders before midnight, be ready to move in the morning."

"Very well, Sire." Grouchy turned his horse, a most unhappy man. It seemed that the Emperor of old, the man of activity and action, had not returned from Elba, only this tired, slightly overweight, shadow of the man he had been in his prime.

Shaking his head, Grouchy returned to his troops. Disgusted, he looked to one of his aides, "LaSalle, let the men know, we move at dawn. Feed the horses, feed the men, apparently we are in no hurry."

¹ Cavalry equivalent of a sergeant.
² Right?
³ But naturally, Field Marshal.
⁴ 1806 saw the French Grande Armée smash the Prussian army at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstädt, then go ahead to completely occupy Prussia.


  1. Can't imagine wearing those shakos all day and then into battle. The smells on the battlefield, men and horses.......whew.

    1. In camp most armies had a fatigue cap which was much more comfortable.

      Yes, the smell.

  2. I'm using this as a history lesson (The OldAFSarge school of history), was Napoleon that much changed (the last two paragraphs) after Elba?

    1. He wasn't the same man he had been earlier in his career. I read something the other day where someone had remembered Napoléon as a lean, driven man in his early days. As he grew older he was getting plumper and far less active. One could also make the argument that the invasion of Russia in 1812 saw a commander who had bitten off far more than he could chew.

      I've read a number accounts of the Waterloo campaign that pictured moments of the Emperor being very lethargic. SO my contention is yes, he had changed that much since Elba. The fire that drove him was burning low.

  3. The "tension builder" chapter! Repositioning, reorganizing, opportunities both seized and missed.

    Lovely piece of writing.

  4. Sarge, I have read that Napoleon's physical condition was not what it had been in his youth (is it ever, really?) and this may have contributed to his later actions, including at Waterloo (for some reason, I remember him suffering from piles).

    That said, from what you have written and linked out (thanks for those, by the way; great for quick learning on the go) he may not have been as well served by his Marechals as he might have been.

    This is all immensely enjoyable. Thank you!

    1. A very interesting look at Napoléon's health over the years (and during the Waterloo campaign can be read here.

      As to the Marshals present for the Waterloo campaign, Ney and Grouchy, Ney was probably suffering from PTSD, the man had seen a lot of combat over the years and for him this was a gamble. If Napoléon succeeded, he would be riding high again, if he failed ... Ney was executed in December of 1815.

      Grouchy was a freshly appointed Marshal, lots of experience. I'm still trying to figure out what his deal was. But his performance could have been better. To say the least.

  5. And nothing changes. Loss of control, loss of communication, loss of critical personnel or equipment or supplies. Lack of food, lack of water, lack of sleep or rest. Marching and fighting in dirty clothes, made worse by moisture either sweat or rain or both. General wear and tear on one's basic kit.

    Gee. Nothing's changed. Nothing will change.

    And it all comes together in one evil Venn diagram right when you most need it to not happen.

    Seems like Napoleon is having a rather bad few days and it's only getting worse as errors and failures start to cascade upon each other.

    1. The term "tolerance stacking" comes to mind. Every part is within tolerance, just barely, maybe, but still in tolerance. But all those little nudges from ideal work together and the parts don't go together.

    2. I think, Beans, you have synopsized, in your wonderfully accurate comment, just what war is to the man (and now woman) on the front line.

      After the 14th of June, absolutely nothing seemed to go the Emperor's way, a break here, a slightly different move there, and Belgium might be part of France today. But yes, Napoléon was no longer the man he was as late as 1809.

    3. Joe, exactly, nice way of putting it. I haven't heard that term before but it's spot on!

  6. Tolerance stacking can be abused, too. Assemble the machine with carefully chosen close to the center of tolerance parts to demonstrate a successful machine.

  7. Sarge, one little question. Just before Schneider helps Bucher on his horse he has "his carbine at the ready". Carbine?

    1. Yes, that's what they called the cavalry version of the smoothbore musket. It was shorter and had a sling which the rider could use to keep his carbine to hand if need be. Not the carbine you're thinking of. See this.

    2. It sounds modern, but it's been around for a while.

    3. It really was only the .30 US M1" Carbine" that was it's own weapon; otherwise Carbines were usually just shortened versions of the Infantry long arm. More recent examples might be the Springfield "Trapdoor" carbines of 1873
      Boat Guy

    4. Did a little digging, I think you're right. At first I thought, "Wait a minute, what about the Sharps carbine?" looked it up, shortened version of the Sharps rifle. Live and learn!

      (Side note, the standard infantry rifle for the Germans in WWII was the K98k, which stood for Karabiner 98 kurz. So it technically was a shortened version of a carbine! Based on G98 of WWI, G meaning Gewehr.)


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