Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Ligny - Belgium 2015

Napoleon can be seen atop the Tomb de Ligny (top right corner) as the artillery to his front blasts the Prussian troops in and around Ligny. The Prussian reserves are clearly visible behind the two towns as Vandamme's troops assault St. Amand in the foreground

Map of the battle of Ligny to illustrate key points visited
After a well earned post Quatre Bras lunch, we headed off down the Nivelle road turning off right after the town of Marbais and towards the little village of Brye. It was to this village that Wellington road on the morning of the 16th to meet with General Blucher at the Mill at Bussy arriving at about 1pm.

During his conversation with the Prussian commander he pointed out the advantages to be gained by putting more troops behind cover, but Gneisnau riposted that Prussian troops like to have a plain view of their enemy. Wellington then promised to bring at least part of his army over to Ligny.... "provided I am not attacked myself".

The Mill at Bussy would have proven near impossible to have found had it not been for Alan's research of the area. The base of the mill is all that remains, almost hidden behind the back garden wall of the house garden in which it sits.

Point 1. The base of the Mill at Bussy, below the level of the garden wall
Finding the exact spot though is more than worth it just to get the amazing view out over the battlefield of Ligny and imagine the Prussian troops arrayed on the upper slopes above the towns of Ligny and St Amand that caused Wellington to politely make his observation.

Point 1. View of the heights between Wagnelee and La Haye seen from the Mill at Bussy
The other aspect that strikes the first time visitor is just how spread out Ligny is compared to Quatre Bras and Waterloo.

Point 1. View of St Amand from the Mill at Bussy

Point 1. View of Ligny from the Mill at Bussy
From Bussy we headed down the hill into Ligny and passed a rather anonymous grassed embankment that once formed the back stage to a very important episode in the history of the Hundred Days campaign.

Point 2. The spot where Blucher's horse was shot
We were looking at the spot where it is believed that Field Marshal Blucher was pinned under his dead horse for several minutes after his failed attempt to stop Napoleon's final attack with elements of the Guard supported by Milhaud's cuirassiers, the fire of sixty guns and followed up by the Guard heavy cavalry.

Marshall Blucher, determined to blunt this French attack charged into the fray at the head of thirty-two Prussian cavalry squadrons, having little effect other than to buy his infantry time to pull out and by 9pm the last Prussian cavalry elements were driven off after a skirmish near the Mill of Bussy leaving 16,000 dead and wounded on the field of battle.

A window on two hundred years ago
During this last Prussian counter-attack, the old Prussian general lay trapped under his dead horse, ridden over by friend and foe alike, leaving him badly shaken. Fortunately his loyal aides remained close at hand waiting for an opportunity to rescue the Prussian leader, leading him away on a fresh horse under the noses of the victorious French troops.

Given Gneisnau's somewhat poor opinion of Wellington, it is difficult to imagine the Prussian support at Waterloo being so fulsome had the old Marshal been killed or captured at that moment.

Moving on in to Ligny we stopped at the General Gerard Centre which houses an excellent museum focused particularly on this particular battle and its part in the campaign as a whole.

General Gerard Centre-Battle of Ligny Museum

Point 3. Tom takes a moment to check out the French 8lbr and limber displayed on the grass at the Gerard Centre - Ligny museum
This has to be one of the best of the smaller museums dedicated to the campaign and should be on the list of places to visit if you are going to Ligny.

Dotted among the pictures, maps weapons and other associated artifacts were some lovely well painted 54mm figurines that were for sale in the shop at about 75 euros.

French musket picked up off the battle of Quatre Bras. Some of the figurines depicting troops from the campaign can be seen on the shelves
A very nice rendition of the Emperor sat observing events from his original view point at Fleurus

Relics in the form of buttons and belt plates picked up at Quatre Bras, together with some fine models to illustrate the associated regiments - in this case the 42nd Foot or Black Watch

The museum has a very interesting display illustrating the techniques and skills of the surgeons who were kept very busy if not somewhat overwhelmed during this bloody campaign.

The major gap in their knowledge was their unawareness of bacterial infections in the pre Pasteur era, although it seems that some surgeons recognised the need to amputate earlier rather than later to give a better chance of survival. Of course all this work done with little or no pain relief.

At the back of the centre was a display of a supply waggon, field forge and military ambulance. Ok I could fault the paintwork, a little to yellow for my liking, but very nice to see none the less.

Will doing his impersonation of Baron Larrey

As a final word on the pleasure that is visiting the Gerard Centre museum, I was able to purchase some battlefield treasure in the form of some pipe fragments together with two musket balls, one badly deformed after hitting something or someone. These items found in the grounds of the centre are sold in little bags for 5 euros and make a nice little memento.

Fragments of soldiers clay pipes and a couple of musket balls from Ligny
Much of the original town of Ligny was destroyed by the fires caused during the French artillery barrage and only a few buildings from that period still stand today. Two farms in the town are key features captured in the artwork illustrating the fighting.

Point 4. Ferme d'en-Haut, Ligny
Lieutenant von Schmeling selling his life dearly to French infantry in front of Ferme d'en Bas, Ligny
Point 5. Ferme d'En Bas

The Ligny brook was one of the key features that Blucher and his Prussian army thought they could defend behind, forcing the French to attack through the towns which they intended on disputing with the bayonet.

However, as can be seen, the Ligny is not that a formidable obstacle, and Prussian bayonets were countered with French roundshot.

Point 6. The Ligny Brook in full summer spate! 

The Tomb de Ligny is a neolithic mound south of the town and provides panoramic views of the battlefield making it an obvious vantage point for Napoleon to use whilst coordinating his attacks on Ligny and St Amand. The modern views are more interrupted by tree lines that were not present in 1815, but the panorama is easily identifiable from contemporary pictures such as the one heading this post.

Point 7. View from the Tomb de Ligny
View east towards St Amand from the Tomb de Ligny
View of Ligny from the Tomb de Ligny as illustrated in the header picture for the post
It was 11am on the 16th June 1815 when Napoleon arrived at the Fleurus Mill to observe for himself the reported build up of Prussian troops deploying around Sombreffe. From the mill he could observe Vandamme's corps facing Zeithen's troops near St Amand, and the view convinced him that this was where he should direct his main attack, moving the emphasis away from Ney's flank, writing a new order to the Marshal directing him to clear the crossroads at Quatre Bras and swing his army in on the Prussian right flank at Wagnele.

The remains of the old mill record Napoleon's last victory alongside two previous French triumphs of arms, including a familiar name who features in my Talavera project, Marshal Jourdan, the chief of staff to King Joseph.

Point 8. The Mill at Fleurus

The battle of Ligny, although Napoleon's final victory does not in my mind rank anywhere near his best. It rather feels that here as in most of the campaign the Emperor was simply going through the motions. The frontal assaults combined with massed artillery barrages certainly did the trick against an almost naive Prussian deployment, and the thought of bringing some or all of Ney's force in on the enemy right flank to seal their fate has an obvious logic. But Ney was ordered to do something similar in 1813 at Bautzen and that didn't exactly turn out as planned.

In the end, after observing D'Erlon's corps march away from the battle, Napoleon was forced to commit the Guard to "seal the deal" but the time taken to deploy the two French corps before starting the battle at about 14.30 allowed the Prussians to take advantage of nightfall and a summer storm to cover their disorderly retreat.

The failure, on forcing the Prussian retreat, to organise an immediate pursuit was a glaring error that Napoleon should have been aware of and was only compounded the next morning with an incredible lethargy that also ended up allowing Wellington to escape from Quatre Bras. These errors would cost Napoleon dearly and he would go on to add a few more for good measure as the campaign continued.

Other sources used in this post:
Waterloo the hundred days - David Chandler
Waterloo, Battle of Three Armies - Lord Chalfont

Next up, we follow Grouchy in his pursuit of the Prussians to Wavre, then trace Blucher's march to Waterloo, which gave me a completely different perspective on the famous battle.


  1. Fantastic travelogue, Jonathan! Excellent photo of the old mill with past battle honors' memorial.
    You lucky chap!

    I am confused by the yellow color on that French 8lber. What is the story behind that?

    1. Thanks Jon, glad you are enjoying it. I really got a new appreciation of Ligny and the Prussian march from Wavre, to come in the next post, when visiting these sights and seeing them on the ground. Reading a book and viewing maps only provides part of the appreciation, seeing with your own eyes completes the impression.

      I have a feeling that the artillery and vehicles were originally done in the familiar olive green paintwork, but time exposed to the elements has faded the colour to the green yellow you can see in the pictures. Still nice to see and the museum is a must see in Ligny.

    2. I concur with seeing with your own eyes! Recently returned from Peru with a visit to Machu Picchu. The photos and video documentaries do not do the place justice.

    3. I loved the pictures of Machu Picchu, that is very much on my to do list.

  2. Keep them coming Jonathan you do realise the amount of painting awaiting you on your return !
    Regards Furphy .

    1. Yes the painting schedule is beckoning, so once these Waterloo posts are done it's back to the plan.

  3. I had the good fortune to visit in the mid '90's, and I can recall being surprised at the size of the Ligny battlefield. I seem to remember that the drive distance from Sombreffe to the western end of the Prussian line equalled, very nearly, the distance between the battlefields of Quatre Bras and Ligny. It put into perspective just how close those two actions actually were.

    Great travelogue - keep it coming!

    1. Thanks Nigel.
      I was thinking of your game when I was touring Ligny and your ideas on handling fights in built up areas. These close knit little Belgian villages make perfect little bastions. I can see why Napoleon just brought the guns up and blasted them into submission.

      I have never really studied the Hundred Days this closely before and like the 1814 campaign last year, being their and seeing the reality of the ground leaves a lasting impression.

      Congratulations on the Waterloo game, really very impressive and a feast for the eyes

  4. I am always interested to see the kit that supported an army. The "ambulance" is tiny and the cross country ride must have been bone shaking. I bet you had to be tough to survive the care of the medics, not least as the diagram of how to perform an amputation is terrifying !


    1. These ambulances look pathetic when you consider the casualties were in the thousands and then you remember that the French were well ahead of any of the other warring nations in having ambulances at all.

      The stoicism of these guys was amazing or perhaps we think so looking through twenty first century eyes. They didn't expect pain relief so probably reacted differently to a modern casualty. The account of the 42nd Highlander losing a leg at Corunna and yelling and wailing about it only to be told to bear his pain with a little more acceptance by Sir John Moore, and promptly becoming quiet, never ceases to amaze.

      We also saw some of Bell's pictures that he drew of wounded soldiers, the first real detailed physiological drawings of battle wounds. His picture of the poor soldier with tetanus and with his spine locked in an arch brought on by the muscle spasm, I think was done post Corunna and is a terrible illustration of what terrors these men faced.