Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Waterloo 200 - Today 16th June 1815, "The fate of France is in your hands."

Marshal Ney would, not for the last time in this campaign, be responsible for decisions that would dramatically affect its outcome - On finally receiving his orders to attack the Allies at Quatre Bras, Napoleon's orders concluded with the words, "The fate of France is in your hands"
The night of the 15th and morning of the 16th June 1815
At about the same time that Wellington, at the Duchess of Richmond's ball, was learning the news of Saxe-Weimar's clash with the French at Quatre Bras, Napoleon was receiving a visit from Marshal Ney at his headquarters in Charleroi. It was then that Napoleon discovered that Quatre Bras and its lateral road was still in allied control.

In his discussions with Ney he became increasingly convinced that Blucher would retire from his exposed position in front of Sombreffe and that he should pursue the offensive against Wellington with the object of taking Brussels before turning to deal with Blucher. At the same time it was important to ensure Blucher was not able to send aid to his ally along the lateral road and thus he determined to order Grouchy to to begin a preliminary manoeuvre against Gembloux and Sombreffe.

Thus when Ney left the Imperial HQ to return to his army he cannot be blamed for thinking that the Emperor and his reserve would be joining him the next day on the Brussels Road and that he and his army would be leading the offensive with Grouchy's wing in support.

The relative positions of the the three armies overnight on the 15th June
It had been Napoleon's normal habit to confirm verbal orders with a written confirmation and he would often dictate these at 02.00 for delivery at 06.00. However, perhaps due to fatigue from the previous days manoeuvres, he did not dictate his orders in writing to Ney until 06.00 on the morning of the 16th June and this message did not leave headquarters until two hours later. The command system built up over the years under Marshal Berthier, who died falling from a window earlier in the month, was not operating in the same fashion under Marshal Soult the new chief of staff, and these command issues would cost the Emperor dearly over the next few days.

If this mis-understanding was not enough, the orders for Ney when he finally received them at about 10.00 contained an ambiguous phrase that implied he should wait for the Reserve's arrival, holding his divisions in readiness to march whilst sending one out a division to the north west of his position as a flank guard and another to the east towards Marbais to act as link between him and Grouchy. This ambiguity was another new factor in the command process, in that Berthier had been in the habit of rewriting Napoleon's often unintelligible scrawl and clarifying what exactly the Emperor intended the recipient to do.

These somewhat vague orders to Ney may well explain why the Marshal made no moves to attack and take the crossroads at Quatre Bras until 14.00 by which time the Allied Reserve was drawing close after its march from Brussels.

Fortunately for Wellington, Napoleon had, by mid morning, been made aware of the continuing concentration of Blucher's army in and around Ligny and what had been originally been planned as a pinning action by Grouchy was changed into a plan for a general engagement. Joining Vandamme's corps at 11.00 facing Zeithen's troops near St Armand, Napoleon could perceive through his spy glass that there was a sufficient concentration of Prussian troops to warrant the change in plan.

Ligny by Ernest Crofts 1875
Napoleon joins Vandamme's troops in front of St Armand, deciding his change of plan to attack the Prussians around Ligny.
This picture shows the Emperor close to windmill at Fleurus which became his HQ during the battle
With his decision to attack the Prussians made, the subsequent change in the orders for Marshal Ney to now support Grouchy's wing by forcing the allies away from Quatre Bras and sending forces to march on the Prussian right flank should have been issued immediately, however Ney was not to comprehend this change of emphasis until mid afternoon.

There was no possibility of attacking at Ligny immediately, as time was needed to allow Gerard's IV corps to come up into the line and for the Guard to move up in support. Time was also needed to allow Ney to defeat the allies at Quatre Bras and march on the Prussians right, arriving in time to support the final coup de grace.

The plan was to amass 68,000 men including 12,500 cavalry and 210 guns for the battle of Ligny, but this full force would not be ready until about 14.00.

Field Marshall Blucher arrived in Sombreffe the previous afternoon at about 16.00 and, determined to hold his ground, was busy assembling his army on the morning of the 16th July 1815. By noon the Prussian general had three corps either present or arriving. Zeithen's I corps was occupying a salient along the line of the Ligny brook with about 32,000 men, with his left holding the village of Ligny, his centre holding St Armand and his right in possession of Wagnele. Next arriving was Pirch's II corps which was placed in the rear of I corps, and then at about 15.00, Thielmann's III corps marched into the line to be placed between Sombreffe and Potey.

By this time there were about 84,000 Prussians, including 8,000 cavalry and 224 cannon holding a seven mile front along the marshy banks of the Ligny and occupying ten villages. Blucher placed his HQ at the windmill at Bussy above the village of Brye. His plan was to rely on the Ligny stream to force the French to attack over the four available bridges whilst his troops fought taking advantage of the cover of the nearby buildings. In the meantime he hoped for reinforcement by Bulow's IV corps, but would be disappointed in this hope as they were still too far distant. The weakness in his plan was that the Ligny brook was not a formidable obstacle and the troops present in support of the villages were drawn up on the exposed forward slopes above them acting as an open invitation for Napoleon to mass his artillery against them.

The Battle of Ligny 16th June 1815

The Duke of Wellington arrived at Quatre Bras at about 10.00 on the 16th June and finding the crossroads quiet rode over to Ligny to meet with Blucher, arriving at about 13.00. He pointed out the advantages of placing the troops in cover where possible, but Gneisnau riposted that Prussian troops like to have a plain view of their enemy. Wellington then turned to head back to Quatre Bras promising to bring part of his army in support provided he was not himself attacked.

With Napoleon's detailed reconnaissance of the Prussian positions complete, he issued orders that Ligny was to be the main effort as opposed to Quatre Bras and that to this end Pajol and Exelmann's cavalry corps were to pin the Prussian left, whilst Vandamme and Gerard's corps would attack the Prussian centre and right, by means of frontal attacks over the Ligny. The.The Imperial Guard infantry and cavalry were held in reserve ready to deal the final blow in conjunction with the arrival of Ney's force around Marbais expected at about 18.00.

"In three hours time the campaign will be decided. If Ney carries out his orders thoroughly not a gun of the Prussian army will get away." - Napoleon at Ligny.

The battle of Ligny opened at just after 14.30, whilst Wellington was between the positions on his way back to Quatre Bras, where Ney, having finally received his orders had begun his somewhat belated attack half an hour earlier at about 14.00.

With Grouchy's cavalry manoeuvring to occupy the attention of the Prussian left flank, Vandamme's four divisions advanced to attack the village of St Armand. At the same time Gerard sent two divisions against Ligny, to pin the troops there and hopefully draw in the Prussian reserves on the facing hillsides. A nasty close in struggle developed, causing heavy casualties to both sides, for control of the built up areas whilst the French massed artillery started to take a heavy toll of the Prussian troops deployed on the hill sides in front of them. No news had come from Ney to confirm that he was marching to support the battle and so a further message was sent by Soult at 15.15 instructing him to attack the heights of St Armand a Brye without delay.

As soon as this order was sent, news was received that the battle for Quatre Bras was in full sway with 20,000 allied troops, making it obvious that it was unlikely that Ney would be arriving in time in force. Thus a follow up order was issued instructing Ney to release d'Erlons corps to march in support of the forces at Ligny. In addition Napoleon remembered he had 10,000 men of Lobau's IV corps awaiting orders at Charleroi, and incredibly they were finally ordered to march via Fleurus to join the main effort.

It took the French five separate attacks to secure a foothold in Ligny with General Girard being killed in the fighting to control St Armand. However the French plan was working as more of the Prussian reserves were gradually sucked into the ongoing battle, with 58,000 French troops tying down 84,000 Prussians, and with the Guard still in hand.

By 18.00 the Emperor believed that, d'Erlon's men must now be close at at hand and that the time was right to deliver the coup de grace. Selecting Ligny as the target, he ordered the Imperial Guard to prepare to attack only to have his attention drawn to an unidentified strong column of troops approaching the French left flank. As d'Erlon was expected further to the north, the Guard's attack was suspended while the identity of the newcomers was confirmed.

The approach from this unexpected direction not only delayed a critical attack but caused the French left to become decidedly nervous requiring the Young Guard to be deployed to bolster them and requiring General Lefol to turn his guns on panic stricken men deserting the line. It was at 1830 that the strangers were identified as d'Erlon's troops whose poorly written orders instructed him to march on Wagne instead of Wagnele. The delay however had allowed Blucher enough of a respite to reinforce his beleaguered garrisons and even start an attack on the shaky French left around St Armand. Then as if to compound the situation still further, d'Erlon's column was observed to turn back towards Quatre Bras, having just received a recall from Ney and leaving the corps destined to be involved in neither of the two battles.

With the Guard readied for action Napoleon issues the order for the final attack at Ligny -  18.45, June 16th 1815
Despite the comings and goings on the French left flank, everything was set for the final attack. The Young Guard smashed their way in against the Prussians holding St Armand, followed at 19,30 by a grand assault on the Prussian centre in and around Ligny preceded by a preparatory barrage of two hundred French cannon on the already desperately thinned Prussian infantry reserves. At 1945 nature added her accompaniment to the Guards attack as a terrific summer thunder storm broke over the battlefield. The 6,000 men of the Old Guard swept through Ligny and beyond into the Prussian lines.

In shear desperation to stem the assault and offer some possibility to extricate the survivors of his army, Blucher personally led Roder's cavalry division in amongst the now forming Guard squares only to have them counter-attacked by Milhaud's cuirassiers. Blucher's horse was shot from under him and he lay pinned for some time, ridden over by the victorious cuirassiers, until rescued by his aids badly battered and bruised, but alive.

Blucher pinned under his dead horse is rescued by aides as the Battle of Ligny draws to a close
Meanwhile the Prussian army was in disarray, with no leader to issue orders, Gneisenau and the corps commanders were forced to act quickly and decisively to save the situation. On first look at the map the most obvious place to fall back to on their route back to their centre of operations at Liege was Wavre. Interestingly, probably the last place Napoleon expected them to head to thinking they would move towards Namur and then on to Liege. The chosen route still left them the unlikely option of supporting Wellington before Brussels, but that was the last thought that Gneisenau was considering.

Blucher's thirty two squadron cavalry charge did enough to buy the Prussian's time to fall back, and as the gloom closed in on the carnage of battle the battered Prussian columns marched away leaving 16,000 dead and wounded and twenty one guns on the field of battle.

A younger Napoleon in command of a French army of earlier years would have been busying himself with organising an immediate pursuit designed to increase still further the losses on the Prussian army. Instead he set himself up in a large farm house in Ligny, believing the Prussians were a shattered force beyond repair desperately trying to get back to Liege. The French army was exhausted having suffered 11,500 casualties and camped on the field of battle allowing the Prussians to break contact. The repercussions of this decision would reveal themselves in the next forty-eight hours.

The Battle of Quatre Bras 16th June 1815

Marshal Ney had allowed six precious hours to slip by before he ordered Reille's II Corps to advance. At 14.00 the allied forces only totalled 8,000 men and sixteen guns, and Wellington was still absent, in the process of riding back from his meeting with Blucher at Ligny.

Wellington's "Spanish battle" reputation was working well for him in his absence as Reille, a veteran himself of fighting Wellington in the Peninsula, with 20,000 men and sixty guns was loathed to get caught out by Wellington's hidden reserves; seeing thousands of redcoats in and behind every fold in the ground and clump of woodland.

The fact was, that the thick woods to the west of the French position were only sparsely held as were the substantial farmsteads to the south of the crossroads, namely Pierrepoint, Gemioncourt and Piraumont.

At 1400, fourteen French guns blazed into action and forward went General Pire's cavalry followed by Bachelu and Foy's 5th and 9th infantry divisions, supported by Jerome Bonaparte's (Napoleon's younger brother and former King of Westphalia) 6th Division.

Perponcher had covered his entire front with men from the 27th Jagers, placing the rest of his battalions behind and to the west of the road, some lining the Bossu Wood whilst the 5th Militia occupied Gemioncourt Farm

The height of the standing corn together with the rolling countryside and large woodland areas caused the French to advance steadily but cautiously. Consequently Perponcher was able to hold his main position although losing Piraumont Farm on his left flank at 15.00 and with Gemioncourt Farm falling to Foy's troops soon after. Those Dutch troops that broke, fled back to the cover of Bossu Wood, with Pire's cavalry in hot pursuit. Pierrpoint Farm proved a tougher nut to crack and it was only after Foy's troops were supported by Jerome's 8,000 men and eight guns that the farm was taken and the sweep of Bossu wood could begin, supported by Pire's cavalry driving Bylandt's brigade back.

The Prince of Orange rallies the Dutch Belgians at Quatre Bras
Timely assistance to the allied cause came when General van Merlen's Belgo-Dutch cavalry brigade arrived from the direction of Nivelles and shortly thereafter the 8,000 veterans of Picton's division with twelve guns. In addition the Duke and the Prince of Orange were now on the scene to help direct the new arrivals into the line. The sight of fresh troops arriving seemed to stem the French drive and the infantry started to fall back. Only the French lancers came on surrounding pockets of Dutch infantry, whilst others headed for Picton's Highlanders who calmly formed square and drove them off with well directed volleys.

Under Wellington's personal direction the British brigades now lined the Namur road to the east of the crossroads, with the 95th Rifles placed in the woods opposite Lac Materne where they brought their well directed fire to bear on Bachlu's voltigeurs, The 92nd Highlanders were detailed to hold the buildings at the crossroads thus anchoring the right of the British line; and, with the arrival of the Duke of Brunswick's 4,000 men, Wellington was able to stabilise the Dutch to the right of the crossroads. Thus the allies now had 21,000 men against Ney's 25,000 as the struggle for possession of Quatre Bras continued to escalate.

Lady Butler - Quatre Bras 1815
Allied infantry spent much of the day at Quatre Bras in square fighting off marauding French cavalry 
It was now that Ney's thirty eight gun massed artillery turned its full force against Picton's brigades who, taking advantage of the hedge-lined, ditch-lined, and partly sunken Nivelle road, were ordered by Wellington to lie down. Whilst this barrage was happening Ney was organising four brigade sized columns designed to smash their way through the thin British line.

As the four French columns advanced the barrage lifted and Wellington ordered Picton's men over the hedges to stand in line with the Brunswick battalions to their right. The French columns came on with shouts of "Vive l'Empereur!" and were allowed to close. The volley when it came smashed in the heads of the columns forcing the survivors to halt and try to deploy to return the fire. However Picton's men were too long at their profession to allow that and the French broke back to their lines as the first of the redcoats came charging in with bayonets lowered.

Against the youthful and less experienced Brunswickers, the French had more success, breaking their line and causing them to fall back on Bossu Wood allowing Jerome's infantry to begin again the process of clearing it again. The Duke of Brunswick tried to stabilise the situation by bringing forward his hussars, which were decimated by French musketry on their way in and broken by a charge from Pire's cavalry. The Duke of Brunswick was one of the casualties in a charge that proved costly in casualties but one that had stemmed the tide long enough to allow the Brunswick infantry a chance to fall back and regroup.

Successful on his left but checked on his right it was now that Ney prepared to bring forward d'Erlon's I Corps to finish the fight and secure the crossroads only to find that I Corps was no longer behind him. It was about 16.00 and still having a slight numerical advantage, Ney received the order written by Napoleon at 14.00 instructing him to take the crossroads and fall on the Prussian right and rear.

The battle now subsided into a slogging match as Reille's infantry were being worn down by the British firepower and Wellington was able to start to move troops to help shore up his unstable right flank. The French cavalry had been tireless in their attacks into the allied lines but now disordered were forced to retire back to the French lines. The battle was slipping away from Ney and with more allied reinforcements arriving in the form of Halkett's and Kielmansegge's brigades from Alten's division the pressure was building on his front and starting to push the French right flank back.

It was then that Ney discovered where d'Erlon was, not knowing that the Corps commander was following orders from the Emperor delivered directly to him by General de la Bedoyere and not through Ney, this an act by Bedoyere, to save time. This act of improvisation had put Ney in a developing crisis, as the arrival of Alten's troops heralded an immediate counter-attack on the French right, driving them back further and causing the now apoplectic Ney, not to mention impetuous, to fire off an order to d'Erlon to return without considering how far away he was and whether he could return in time to aid the situation. His rash act condemned the French to be without d'Erlon's troops at either battle.

At 17.00 finding himself outnumbered by Wellington, with growing pressure on his right flank, and now fully aware that with d'Erlon's absence he had no other reserves to help stem the turning tide of battle, he received the final order from Napoleon to hurry up and get to Ligny. Incensed and frustrated by the day's muddle with none of the promised support from the Emperor to aid his attack and now finding the success of his action compromised by the removal of troops placed under his command to enable that success, he needed something to throw at the allies to break their momentum.

The only such force available was the recently arrived cavalry under General Kellermann. The French cavalry commander, rightly questioned what seemed a suicidal order and given that only part of his force had arrived, namely the 750 men of the 8th and 11th Cuirassier Regiments, the 11th having no cuirasses. Ney refused all protests announcing that he would support their attack with the depleted ranks of Pire's cavalry exclaiming to the perturbed Kellermann, "Go! But go now!"

Kellermann moved his regiments up under the cover of Gemioncourt ridge out of sight of the British infantry beyond, many of them still in square after the marauding attacks by Pire's lancers.
Happy with his deployment Kellermann gave the order and the cavalry trumpets sounded the charge. Dispensing with the gradual build up from walk to canter the brigade moved forward immediately at the charge thundering towards the British squares beyond and suffering deadly fire as they broke around them to continue on to Halkett's  brigade beyond. 

The 2/69th foot had been ordered to form square as other units in Halkett's brigade were brought forward to support Picton's division. It was their misfortune that the Prince of Orange came up to the battalion in transition to square and promptly ordered them back into line. There were protests, but the Prince insisted and it was while the infantry were reforming their line that Kellermann's cuirassiers emerged from the squares beyond striking the 2/69th in the flank. The battalion was devastated by the combat that ensued losing their King's Colour in the process. Their quick demise allowed the French cavalry to go on and break the 33rd Foot  and a nearby square of Brunswickers unsettled by the attack. The French cavalry carried their attack almost up to the crossroads, where blown and disordered, deep within Wellington's lines they came under murderous crossfire from the 30th and 73rd Foot supported by a battery of KGL artillery. Kellerman himself had his horse shot from under him and only managed to withdraw  with the survivors clinging to the stirrups of two of his men.

As the French cavalry withdrew, the arrival of 5,000 British Guards heralded an allied attack as the Guardsmen plunged into Bossu Wood driving the French troops back. By 18.30 it was clear to Wellington that the French were done and he ordered a large scale counter-attack across his front driving the French back to their start line, with Bossu Wood cleared by 19.30 and Piraumont and Gemioncourt Farms back in allied control when the battle drew to close at 21.00.

Losses in the battle were about 4,300 French compared with 2,275 British, 369 Hanoverians and 819 Brunswickers but no information on Dutch-Belgian casualties.

Thus ended the actions on the 16th of June with the main French army camped among the grisly remains of battle at Ligny and with Wellington in control of the crossroads at Quatre Bras facing a chastened and frustrated Ney in the fields beyond. 

The previous days had revealed glaring gaps in Napoleon and his Marshals abilities to communicate appropriately their orders and reports. The urgency and drive that characterised Napoleon's earlier campaigns was clearly absent in this one and the morale and durability of his troops showed an obvious nervousness at unexpected events, revealed in the early hours of the offensive on the 15th with the desertion of General Bourmont causing severe morale issues with his division and delaying the advance. We see something similar on the 16th with the unexpected approach of d'Erlon's corps at Ligny, unsettling the troops around St Armand and forcing deployment of artillery and Young Guard units to maintain discipline. These issues would only go on to cause further problems for Napoleon as the campaign continued into its third day.

One really interesting source discovered in the writing of this post

Next up, 17th June and the pursuit to Waterloo.


  1. Hi Jonathan, I know this must take a lot of time to compile and present so many thanks for your efforts .
    Regards Furphy .

  2. Great stuff! Thanks for putting it together!

  3. Cheers guys, I'm glad you are enjoying the read.

    I am putting together notes as part of a plan for our visit to Belgium next week, so I thought that as I was reading and writing about the subject as and when it was happening I might help solidify my own research by jotting it down here.