Monday, 15 June 2015

Waterloo 200 - Today 15th June 1815, "Napoleon has humbugged me by God!"

At 2.30 on the 15th June the Waterloo campaign opened when French troops assembled at their bivouacs around Beaumont. The concentration of the L'Armee du Nord had started under the strictest security on the 6th June and with the arrival of Napoleon on the 14th June the army had assembled in complete secrecy and all was set for them to begin moving in to their pre-arranged positions. As twelve regiments of cavalry jingled and clattered off through the darkness to form the spearhead on the invasion of Belgian territory, the first critical phase of the campaign had begun.

Evening of the 14th June 1815 and the positions of the l'Armee du Nord, Orange's Allied I Corps
and Zeithen's Prussian I corps and showing the French lines of advance at dawn on the 15th June 1815
Things did not get off to an auspicious start despite the success of the preliminary moves to concentrate the army undetected. 

Vandamme's corps only received their orders to march at 0700 due to the original messenger having a riding accident. This caused a moment of chaos as Lobau's corps received their orders and marched on time causing the two corps to become intermixed.

In response to this early mix up, Napoleon ordered Gerard's Corps to cross the Sambre via Chatelet and thus avoid the traffic jam on the approach to Charleroi. Again the French were delayed as the commander of Gerard's leading division, General Bourmont, decided to desert to the Prussians at the last moment, severely undermining the division's morale and delaying the advance still further.

Only Reille's corps advanced on schedule destroying a Prussian battalion at Thuin but ending up being delayed by poor roads and fierce resistance from a Prussian brigade encountered at Marchienne. It was only firmly in French possession by midday and further tough fighting occurred around Gosselies as Steinmetz fell back. 

Napoleon had, despite the setbacks in getting his army advancing, achieved a substantial strategic surprise. The defection by Bourmont was a break for the Prussian command now having details of the French plan and Blucher was quick to order II, III and IV corps to concentrate forward of Sombreffe, reaching the town himself by 1600.

Napoleon could be very satisfied with his position on the evening of the 15th of June. He had grabbed the central position and was well concentrated to deal a significant blow against the Prussians who were conveniently concentrating ahead of his main force. 
Pajol's cavalry corps reached Charleroi at about 0800 on the 15th but could not take the bridges over the Sambre without infantry support. His supporting infantry, from III corps, was caught in the traffic jam further back. It was not until Napoleon arrived at 1100 with a Guard detachment that the town was cleared and the advance continued.

Zeithen was ordered by Blucher to observe and delay the French advance receiving his orders just as his forces were ejected from Charleroi forcing him back onto a new line based on Gosselies - Fleurus. It was important for Zeithen to hold his position to allow the Prussians to reach their concentration point between the latter town and Sombreffe.

With Charleroi clear  and both banks of the Sambre secured Napoleon ordered Ney at 15.30 to take I and II corps plus the light cavalry of the guard up the Brussels road towards Quatre Bras, although it remains unclear whether his instructions were to take the crossroads. Marshal Grouchy received orders at the same time to take III and IV corps plus cavalry and to move and take Sombreffe.

Grouchy was too slow in advancing for Napoleon's liking and so he joined the French right column arriving in Gilly at about 17.30 which immediately revitalised the progress, seeing III corps fighting its way into the outskirts of Fleurus where, after an advance of some nineteen miles, a halt for the night was ordered.

On the right flank Ney's forces made quicker progress driving the last Prussians out of Gosselies late in the afternoon allowing Lefebvre Desounette's  cavalry to probe up the road towards the small village of Frasnes. It was here that the French cavalry came under fire from infantry outposts that retired through the village with the cavalry following cautiously. On reaching the far side of the village the French came under fire from eight cannon drawn up further on, causing Lefebvre to pull back and request further orders. An infantry battalion was sent forward to support a further probe but with the light fading and high standing corn restricting visibility, Ney, mindful of Wellington's reverse slope tactics and the possibilities of being ambushed, decided discretion was the order and called a halt for the night at about 20.00. The forces under his command had covered twenty two miles that day and were very weary after their fighting advance.

At 21.00 Napoleon rode back to Charleroi very satisfied with the days progress, following a rather chaotic start. He had grabbed the central position and he now knew that the Prussians were obligingly gathering their forces at Sombreffe and straight into the arms of the French army. However unknown to the French command that evening, Quatre Bras and control of its lateral road was open for the taking. The force that Ney's column of 50,000 men had run into at Frasnes was just 4,000 infantry and a single battery of eight guns. The force of Nassuers commanded by Price Bernard of Saxe Weimar were acting against orders when he decided to contest the ground with his isolated brigade.

On receiving word of the French attacks that afternoon, Wellington discreetly issued orders for his officers to leave the ball and join their regiments preparatory to marching on Quatre Bras. " Napoleon has humbugged me by God!"
All through the 14th of June Wellington believing the French were concentrating around Lille on the Belgian border, preparing to cut his line of communication to the coast, and having no news from Blucher, directed his army to concentrate west and south west of Brussels under the cover of a cavalry screen. This disposition, unwittingly aided Napoleon by separating the allied army further away from the Prussians. 

As soon as the chief-of-staff to the Prince of Orange, General Constant de Rebecque learnt of the action at Frasnes late on the afternoon of the 14th he ordered Bylandt's brigade to move to the support of the Nassauers, rather than following Wellington's orders to the Prince of Orange to concentrate his forces around Nivelles. This action by Rebecque, on his own initiative, was to have dramatic consequences on the whole campaign as later events would prove.

By the afternoon of the 15th, Brussels was full of rumours and considerable concern which Wellington decided to calm by attending a ball that evening given by the Duchess of Richmond. Before leaving at 21.00 he received a message from Blucher indicating that the Prussians were marching on Sombreffe and another from Dornberg that all was quiet around Mons. An hour later Wellington issued orders for a small detachment of his army to protect his lines of communication through Ghent while the rest of the Allied army was to shift to the south of Brussels concentrating around Nivelle.

Rebecque's report that the French were threatening Quatre Bras reached Wellington whilst at the Duchess of Richmond's ball and in response he discreetly ordered his officers to join their troops and 
begin the march to the crossroads.

The picture was becoming clear. In his meeting with his general officers that evening Wellington  had exclaimed "Napoleon has humbugged me, by God! He has gained twenty four hours march on me". The Duke of Richmond replied "What do you intend doing?" Wellington replied "I have ordered the army to concentrate at Quatre Bras; but we shall not stop him there, and if so, I must fight him here", passing his thumb nail over the map on the table at a place called Waterloo.

Wellington was only too aware that his troops might arrive too late to stop the French left wing and that it all depended on the events of the next morning. If Ney stirred early the next day and made a serious probe against Saxe-Weimar's troops and discovered the bluff they represented, his attempt to send reinforcements may well be in vain. It was a race against time. With bugles blaring in the streets of Brussels at dawn, the Duke his staff and the Reserve were marching south by 07.30 the next morning.


  1. Great post! I'm looking forward to the next installment!

    1. Hi Mark, thank you.
      Hopefully these posts will set the scene for our battlefield visits next week.