Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Waterloo 200 - Today 17th June 1815, "I suppose in England they will say we have been licked."

Retreat from Quatre Bras - Mark Churms
Napoleon could be well satisfied with the previous days business. True, the mix up over d'Erlon's orders had allowed more Prussians to escape Ligny than he would have liked, and his failure to pursue after the battle had prevented the victory from being a greater one than it was, but he had kept the two allied armies apart, beating one and holding the other to a draw. Two French corps the I and VI were still untouched, thus the morrow might still see a complete French victory.

Neither Wellington or Blucher can have felt as comfortable as Napoleon about the events of the 16th. Only by 0730 on the 17th did Wellington learn of the result of Ligny and how the retreat of the Prussians imperilled his own army. Overnight the Prussians had been in full retreat exposing his position at Quatre Bras to a possible attack from Ligny.

The Prussians had not followed their expected retreat to the south east towards Namur and Liege but had settled, after a hasty roadside conference between Gneisenau and the Corps commanders, on Wavre as their rendezvous point. Field Marshal Blucher was missing feared lost but, after his rescue during the closing stages of the battle, turned up later in the day at Mellery and rejoined his headquarters. Having dosed himself with regular shots of gin and garlic the old Prussian general was recovered enough to challenge Gneisenau's idea of retreat on to Liege and insisted Prussian honour dictated that they should support Wellington to the uttermost. This would prove to be possibly the most important decision of the campaign

Situation: Overnight, 16th -17th June
As the Prussians had broken contact with the French, the main focus of attention fell on Wellington's sector. The news of Ligny had convinced the Duke that he must waste no time in similarly retreating from Quatre Bras.

"I suppose in England they will say we have been licked. I can't help it; as they are gone back, we must go too."

He immediately sent a message to Blucher saying that he intended to stand and fight at Mont-St.-Jean, if the Prussians would support him with a single corps, it being only ten miles west of Wavre. In preparation for his withdrawal the allied army started from midday to direct units back up the Brussels road and Wellington still with an eye to guarding his line of communication to the coast ordered General Hill to take two divisions worth of troops to Hal.

The fact that Wellington was able to commence his withdrawal without any French interference was down to a combined lethargy from both Napoleon and Ney on the morning of the 17th. Napoleon contented himself with walking the field at Ligny unaware that Wellington had only just discovered the fate of the Prussian army and not suspecting for one minute that the Duke would still be holding his position that morning. He thus sent a rather incoherent order stating that Marshal Ney should conclude operations at the crossroads by securing Quatre Bras in due course.  The pursuit of Blucher was only authorised at 11.00 despite several requests by Grouchy to be allowed to start sooner.

Likewise Ney seemed to be in no hurry to get started on the 17th, allowing his men to lounge by the roadside around their bivouac fires awaiting orders that never came, hour after hour. An attack by Ney even up to midday would have compelled Wellington to hold his position, but the wasted hours gave the allies a head start on the race to Mont-St.-Jean.

With the order to pursue the Prussians finally issued to Grouchy, the Emperor seemed to regain his urgency. His cavalry patrols reported that the enemy were still in strength around Quatre Bras and yet there was no sound of any fighting. Suddenly Napoleon was aware of the opportunity slipping from his grasp and was galvanised into action, galloping off with his staff towards Marbais with the Guard and Lobau's corps following behind.

Napoleon reached Marbais at 13.00 and with still no firing heard ahead was furious to find Ney's troops lounging beside the roads on his arrival. The preparations needed to commence the pursuit meant the troops were not ready until 14.00, by which time it was clear that Wellington had abandoned Quatre Bras and was retreating northwards. D'Erlon's men were sent off in hot pursuit of Wellington's rearguard, but the allies had gained a good start and Napoleon was heard to exclaim "France has been ruined."

Situation: Nightfall, 17th June
The French were renowned for their rates of march and the allied troops could not count on their good fortune to keep themselves clear of the pursuit. That was until the elements decided to to take a hand, with another summer thunderstorm accompanied by torrential rain that turned the country lanes, that the French troops were using in their rush to catch the allies, into quagmires.

It was now the turn of Uxbridge's cavalry and horse artillery to fight a model, ridge by ridge, fighting withdrawal, continually turning at bay to check the closest French pursuers; it was, as Captain Mercer of the Royal Horse Artillery described it, "a fox chase".

Lord Uxbridge the Marquess of Anglesey by George Dawe
Henry William Paget, 1st Earl of Uxbridge was probably the finest British cavalry commander of his time who had displayed his prowess in managing a previous rearguard/pursuit scenario in 1808/9; when his masterful command of the rear guard during the retreat to Corunna led to several key checks made against another French army under the direction of Napoleon at Sahagun and most notably Benavente. It was at Benevente, under the eyes of the French Emperor, that his Chasseuer a Cheval of the Guard were bested attempting to force a crossing of the River Elsa, losing about 130 of their number and having their commander Lefebvre Desounettes captured in the process.

By the morning of the 17th June all but one regiment of Uxbridge's six cavalry brigades had arrived at Quatre Bras and with the last allied infantry formations well and truly off up the road to Brussels preparations were well in hand to cover the retreat from what was becoming an increasingly energised French response.

Uxbridge arranged his cavalry into three columns. The right or western column consisting of Dornberg's brigade was ordered to cross first the Dyle and the Fonteny rivers to the west of Genappe. To the east of Genappe was the left or eastern column consisting of Vivian's and Vandeleur's brigades, who were to fall back over the Dyle at the tiny hamlet of Thy. The bulk of Uxbridge's cavalry, consisting of the heavy brigades of both Somerset and Ponsonby as well as the 23rd Light Dragoons and 7th Hussars passed through the centre of Genappe.

7th Hussars
At Genappe, Uxbridge turned yet again to check the lead elements of the French cavalry. Deploying his two heavy brigades, 600 yards away from the town, on the slope, covering the Brussels road; he placed the 7th Hussars about 200 yards further forward with the 23rd Light Dragoons in support. About twenty minutes later scores of French lancers were observed probing their way through the town. Uxbridge, with rain dripping from his busby, gave the order to charge and the 7th Hussars crashed into the lancers causing a wheeling melee among the cobbled streets as the Hussars struggled to get past the wall of lance points that met their attack. The 7th saw their commander cut down whist also cutting down the commander of the lancers and after making no headway were compelled to withdraw.

Life Guards
Uxbridge then turned to the 23rd Light Dragoons to finish the business, but un-enthused by the response from the 23rd, instructed them to clear the road, stating that "The Life Guards shall have this honour". The Life Guards led by Major Kelly crashed into the lancers, driving them back through the town where "they punished them severely". The bigger horses of the Life Guards made a notable contribution against the lancers riding on their smaller mounts.

By 18.30 it was obvious that Wellington had pulled off a successful retreat and it was at that time that Napoleon, under torrential rain, reached the little inn of La Belle Alliance, less than a mile from the ridge at Mont-St.-Jean. General Milhaud was ordered to probe ahead up the road with his division of cuirassiers. The sudden roar of cannon that greeted the cavalrymen confirmed that Wellington was clearly present in strength. With the light fading fast in the dire weather, both armies settled down for what would be a very long wet night.

The two commanders had very different concerns on their minds as the night brought the day's activity to a close. For Napoleon his night was a disturbed one as he constantly sent orders to confirm that the allies were still there and that Wellington was not retreating further. The Duke of Wellington, on the other hand, had to sleep on his judgement that his army would hold its ground the next day and that Blucher would be true to his word.

Next up - A personal tribute to the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo


  1. Superb reading once again - I have thoroughly enjoyed this recent series or yours and all your Napoleonic content. Cant wait for you get back to your Peninsular project as well!

    1. Hi Mike, thank you, I'm glad you are enjoying the posts. A bit of an indulgence on my part as I prepare for touring around the battle sites next week.

  2. Enjoy it - it only comes around every ... erm

    1. Oh I will, don't worry. Big post to follow.