|Retreat from Quatre Bras - Mark Churms|
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|
"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|
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|
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.
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