Friday, 3 July 2015

Wavre and the Prussian march to Waterloo - Belgium 2015

The opportunity for Blucher and the Prussians to take their revenge for all the contempt they had suffered from Napoleon over nine years after Jena/Auerstedt are finally realised. It's pay back time.

In my previous post covering the Battle of Ligny, I inadvertently left out some of the identifying point numbers from the map that showed where particular views were taken. I have updated that post so if you came away unsure of what you were looking at and from where, you might want to have another look. Sorry about that.

So back to our journey from Ligny to Wavre following in the steps of Marshal Grouchy.

Prussian General Thielemann and the 15,200 men of III Corps were given the difficult job of tying down the 33,765 French troops under Marshal Grouchy as General Blucher took the other three Prussian corps over the hills on the ten mile march to support Wellington in his battle with Napoleon.

Based on a huge amount of hindsight which is a lot more to go on than any of the actual commanders had; it seems strange that Blucher didn't leave two of his corps at Wavre that should have been sufficient to deal with Grouchy whilst taking Bulow's and another over to Waterloo. This option would have been one more corps than the Duke of Wellington requested and still sufficient numbers to affect the final outcome of the battle. Another great what if from history from another sitting room general.

There would be no reinforcements for Thielemann as he and his men took on the unglamourous role that would ensure Napoleon's army received no reinforcements on the 18th of June 1815.

The River Dyle, playing a key part in the campaign, not for the first time.
The force multiplier that Thielemann was able to make full use of for most of the afternoon was the River Dyle that together with some well placed barricades and liberal use of loop-holed walls was able to frustrate Grouchy's force and hold them in place as events elsewhere rendered the battle of Wavre unimportant in the grand scheme.

Eventually Grouchy's numbers told and by attacking on less defended points, a crossing was made forcing the Prussian corps back and away from the river. But with the time it took the French to win the battle at Wavre, General Thielemann had gained a strategic victory and Grouchy would end up in full retreat to France and condemned to defend his choices on the 18th June for the rest of his days.

Main street Wavre, close by to the bakery that caught fire, holding up the Prussian moves over the River Dyle
As Thielemann made his dispositions around Wavre, the other three Prussian corps set of west at about 04.00 in the early dawn of the 18th June led up the hill to Pont du Jour by Bulow's corps, where at the split in the road Zeithen led off I Corps to join up with Wellington's left flank. Our journey would follow Bulow's and Pirch's corps on the southern route to Plancenoit.

Map to illustrate the routes taken by I, II and IV Prussian corps from Wavre to Waterloo. We followed the route south taken by II and IV corps.
The route through this pretty hilly countryside is winding and twisting with occasional steep gradients to negotiate and on un-metalled  roads must have proved quite a challenge particularly to the artillery drivers. As you will see parts of the route remain as they were in 1815, just muddy tracks over the high ground.

Passing close to Bierges and the Mill attacked by Hulot's division we came upon a house bearing a plaque commemorating the fighting in this area. If the French had attacked here earlier, they may have seriously affected Blucher's march and eventual support for Wellington.

The plaque on this house marks the close encounters (nose to nose) between the enemy forces near Bierges (see map above)  
This map better illustrates the gradients and march formations in the first stage of the march 0400 - 15.30
The map above shows the route of Bulow and Pirch covering the next four pictures as we picked our way along narrow side roads to the River Lasne.

The road leading west, this one with tarmac!
The map above shows the contours close to Wavre and the climb up to Pont du Jour. You can see the difficulty of moving guns though this terrain when you drive through it.
This is a very pretty part of Belgium
The road leading to Lasne
The River Lasne, and specifically the little bridge crossing it, caused a two hour delay on Bulow's march explained by various commentators as the result of this natural choke point combined with the weight of traffic and muddy road conditions which were bound to cause problems.

David Chandler lays the blame on Bulow and Gniesnau, suggesting that the Lasne was the Prussian "Rubicon". Once crossed they were committed to supporting Wellington and it seems that it took a frustrated Blucher to take control and order the march to continue at best possible pace.

As you can see the Lasne is not as significant a linear obstacle as the Dyle so it makes an interesting debate as to its significance on the reported delay.

The mighty Lasne stream that held the Prussian advance up for nearly two hours!
As we passed the Lasne and climbed the hill out of the village on the road to Plancenoit we were entering no man's land patrolled by the French light cavalry of Domon (4th, 9th & 12th Chasseurs) and Subervie (1st & 2nd Lancers and 11th Chasseurs) , backed up by Lobau's corps which halted to the west of the Paris Wood. These forces were sent by Napoleon to cover his flank at about 13.30 as reports of the Prussian approach was brought to his attention.

First contact and first casualties
These first contacts in the mid afternoon of the 18th June are commemorated by a stone column in the corner of a field surrounded by a laurel hedge marking the final resting place of Colonel Schwerin killed in these early exchanges.

Colonel Schwerin commanded the 1st Prussian Cavalry brigade, two regiments of which (6th Hussars and the 1st West Prussian Uhlans) were with him as the Prussian advance guard climbed the hill up from Lasne on to the plateau ahead of the Paris Wood. They had already had several running skirmishes with the French pickets from Marbot's 7th Hussars, when they came under fire from the tree line. The French had brought up a battery of horse guns in support and Colonel Schwerin was killed by the first rounds as he attempted to get forward and assess the situation.

Two years later the Colonel's wife retrieved his body and the remains were reburied under the commemorative column you see today.

Colonel von Schwerin, buried where he died. A later descendant, another von Schwerin, was the officer given the job of waking the Fuhrer on the morning after D-Day. Living dangerously was part of the territory for the von Schwerin's
The final stage of our journey was perhaps the most interesting as we left the tarmacked road and continued along on what we would call a "green lane" in Devon.

These old routes have been used over centuries and enable the history buff to get a real feel for the conditions of the roads two hundred years ago. The muddy ruts would have been a common sight back then and would have added to the fatigue suffered by the Prussian troops marching since 04.00.

This is the final stretch of road towards Plancenoit. I use the word "road" loosely, but it is not hard to imagine Bulow's Corps advancing along here, unchanged for hundreds of years.

The muddy ruts werea common sight when this road was being used just over two hundred years ago. Up ahead the trees of the now much reduced Paris Wood or "Bois de Paris".
Suddenly we crested a ridge and I became immediately aware of the significance of the view and a sense of the euphoria, Blucher and his Prussian troops must have felt.

There was the Lion Mound off to the right indicating Wellington's line and what would have been the open right flank of a French army heavily committed to battle with by now little in the way of reserves. For Blucher, after all the years of struggles and the numerous defeats inflicted by Napoleon, it must have been like all his Christmas' come at once.

The picture below is the road that Bulow's IV Corps used on its march on Pancenoit. At about 16.30 the Prussian 15th brigade (18th Infantry, 3rd & 4th Silesian Landwehr) under General von Losthin deployed to the right of the road, with the 16th brigade (15th Infantry, 1st & 2nd Silesian Landwehr) under Colonel von Hiller on the left.

Wow!! The Eureka moment. Imagine Blucher's delight at seeing the French right flank open to his advance with French forces fully committed to battle. The Lion Mound gives the view its reference point.
The French 3rd Cavalry Division (Domon) supported by 19th Infantry Division (Simmer) opposed von Hiller and the 5th Cavalry Division (Subervie) and 20th Infantry Division (Jeanin) opposed von Losthin.

By 17.00 Bulow had driven Lobau's troops off of the plateau and by 18.00 was preparing to assault Plancenoit.

From the Prussian position it is difficult to see  how close Plancenoit is to Napoleon's rear area and I guess the troops involved pushing Lobau's corps back into the town and out of it would only have been aware when they in turn were driven back by the Young Guard as the fighting here became a too and fro affair as Napoleon desperately tried to deal a knock out blow to Wellington as he fended off this threat.

The battle for Plancenoit
Plancenoit - "Vorwarts mien kinder, I will shoot the first man who shows pity!"
At 18.00 the first all out assault on Plancenoit began with six Prussian artillery batteries bombarding the village followed in by ten battalions (6,500 men) of Prussian infantry. The French defenders holding the houses and gardens numbered no more than 4,000 men, with a further 3,000 holding the road running north from the village.

Resistance was determined, particularly with the defenders lining the cemetery wall around the church, becoming the central strong-point of  resistance as both sides sought to gain control of it and the village.

Prussian troops drive into Plancenoit
If the walls of the buildings in this square could replay what went on before them, this peaceful scene would be changed forever.
Plancenoit today on a sunny afternoon is a sleepy place and gives no clues to the drama that was played out in and around the village square other than the plaques on the church wall and the little information board mounted in the centre of the grassy area.

The church is larger than it was in 1815 and the square wider with more buildings occupying the centre at the time of the battle, thus causing the fighting around the church to become a very up close and personal affair. Both sides deployed cannon as close as they dare, to sweep the streets with canister.

A lot of the buildings along this cobbled street look contemporary to 1815, save the loft conversions
Up close and personal in Plancenoit
It wasn't until 20.00 that the Prussian troops under Pirch's II Corps moved in to support Bulow's men and the shattered and burning village was finally taken and cleared. The final casualty lists were horrendous for the forces involved with the 1st Tirailleurs of the Guard reporting one week after the battle only 92 men present out of 1,100, with the majority of their losses suffered in Plancenoit.

In total the estimated number of infantry casualties for the battle for Plancenoit number about 6,350 Prussian and 4,500 French. Plancenoit changed hands twice before finally falling to the Prussians forcing Napoleon to commit twenty-five of the thirty-six infantry battalions (Imperial Guard, 21 battalions & Lobau's, 15 battalions) that he held in reserve at the start of the battle. In the end he was reduced to only being able to commit eight fresh battalions in the final assault on Wellington's line by the Imperial Guard.

This was the major contribution to winning the battle of Waterloo made by the Prussian army and induced a fulsome recognition by the Duke of Wellington in his dispatches home. In addition the Prussians would complete the victory in providing the fresh forces to pursue Napoleon's broken army from the field late on the evening of the 18th June.

One man among many who fell during the battle for Plancenoit, Lieutenant Louis of the Young Guard, age 28
Mentioned earlier in the post covering Genappe, Young Guard Commander, General Duhesme's mortal wounding in Plancenoit is recorded on the church wall.
Two hundred years later, Europe is at peace and there is time to enjoy a beer on a sunny day
The memorial just on the western edge of the village leaves you in no doubt as to which army it commemorates with or without a Prussian Colour draped on the railings, Established in 1819, I expect many of the Prussian veterans from the battle would have been present at its unveiling.

A great tribute to the brave Prussians killed in the fight for Plancenoit. The memorial was erected four years after the battle

The monument refers to the Battle of La Belle Alliance
The Iron cross, established in 1813, at the top leaves you under no illusion about who is being recognised here
A little further investigating behind the trees and hedges around the Prussian memorial reveals just how close the village is to Napoleon's rear area and the views gained towards Wellington's line revealed that proximity.

The view from behind the memorial on the edge of Plancenoit looking towards Wellington's lines marked by the marquees
from last week's bicentennial commemoration.
Thus ended our journey from Wavre to Plancenoit and our exploration of the wider aspects of the Waterloo campaign. In the next posts I aim to explore Waterloo itself and show the new facilities that have been created for the bicentenary along with the more familiar ones.

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


  1. It never ceases to amaze me how small places like Placenoit actually were. I always thought it was much bigger, but, like Blenheim, it turns out to be a few dozen houses spread over two or three hundred yards.


    1. It's funny how our mind creates a false sense of things, particularly when we have only read about them or seen images. The fun of our hobby, I think, is the multifaceted aspects it offers, talking, writing, reading, painting, playing games, having fun, research and getting out there to verify what we think we know, and I know I've mentioned it a few times but seeing can often be a case of dis-believing; getting rid of pre and misconceptions and arriving at a higher level of understanding.

      Plancenoit is a village not much bigger than say Pinhoe, which is not a lot of real estate to put around 10 - 15,000 men in intent on killing each other whilst systematically destroying everything in front of them. It really makes you think when we try to simulate those kinds of battle on the tabletop, how you recreate those factors. The accounts of these urban battles have a strong similarity with the fights for control turning into a too and fro battle until one side becomes exhausted and withdraws or both are exhausted and settle for control of what they can hold.

      I was thinking about these aspects whilst walking around Ligny, a similar sized hamlet and the way Nigel has modelled the fighting in C&G and playing with ideas for a Fuentes d'Onoro town battle. Hint, hint these little battlefield jaunts are great for stimulating the creative juices and I have a Charles Grant scenario in mind to use as a basis.

      Now look what you've done, you've got me giving away future stuff ideas!!

  2. Thank you so much for these posts. My wife and I are going to Waterloo in October - unfortunately, Alan Lindsey is booked at that time, so we're going to try to do this on our own. Between Buttery's Guide, posts such as yours, and all the reading I can do, we hope to see as much as we can. Please keep up the good work!

    1. Hi Frank, thank you for your comment. I write a lot of this stuff because I enjoy capturing and firming up my own thoughts and impressions and I find writing it down gives me more clarity and consolidates my own learning. I also hope other people might enjoy reading it and occasionally drop by to share their thoughts and so it is really great when people like yourself take the time to say they like it.

      I hope your wife and you have a great time in October. The route I have outlined from David Chandler is pretty straight forward all be it with finding the Bussy Mill and I would suggest checking out Google Earth for the route to Plancenoit as the green lanes might present a bit of a challenge and in October a 4x4 vehicle would certainly be a must have.


  3. Wonderful post - thanks/ I have been there a few times but have never followed the path up into Plancenoit and hence haven't seen your Eureka moment - it must have been an amazing sight to behold.


    1. Hi Richard, thank you for your comment. I would strongly recommend to anyone with a keen interest in Waterloo, to plan to take the time to look at the battle in the context of the campaign and walk in the footsteps of the French and Prussians.

      The anglo centric coverage of the campaign is probably due largely to the amount or written material generated by English participants and, as an English speaker, I consider myself extremely lucky for that. But I wanted to try and get a 360 degree understanding and I think the Chandler/Sandhurst tour program that I have worked around gives a basis for that.

      It is by no means a complete tour. I still aim at some time to look around Frischermont and Papelotte and consider the battle more from the Dutch/Belgian/Nassau view point and the "petit guerre" going on around those parts during the day, together with the "blue on blue" attack on the Nassau troops of Saxe Weimar by Ziethen's Prussians. Sadly not enough time, but something to look forward to on another visit.


  4. A most enjoyable series of posts JJ, thanks again.

    1. Hi Lawrence, thank you. Just two more posts to come on the Waterloo battle itself and that will be my 200th Anniversary tribute over and it is back to Spain for me and the 96e Ligne. I am looking forward to a bit of painting and playing.

  5. There's been a lot of focus on Waterloo this year, and for those of us who haven't been there yet, a post like this is a real gem. I love your angle on the story, following the Prussians up and into Placenoit. What a drama, and what absolutely staggering losses on both sides. It was really a case of make or break... Despite the lulling atmosphere of the present day village, I can imagine that it all comes alive as you walk the same dirt roads and fields as the soldiers of 1815. Thanks for sharing this JJ, really great stuff!

    1. Hi Soren,
      Thank you for your comment.

      As probably most of us interested in Napoleonic's, I anticipated a certain level of coverage during the weeks around the anniversary and I think the coverage, wargame replays and other media outputs have lived up to that expectation and I am not surprised to see a bit of Waterloo fatigue creeping in.

      As I explained in my bi-centenary post, I do not have a keen interest in the Hundred Days Campaign and find the Peninsular War a more interesting period in Napoleonics. That said I wanted to recognise the importance of it in Wellington's record as a "Great Captain" and to, as with my Peninsula posts, pay tribute to the soldiers who participated, many of them veterans of the Peninsular War.

      I really appreciate your comment as my aim was to try and come at this campaign covering the four battles in a different and I hoped more interesting way and try to get an insight from the viewpoint of the different army commanders involved. I have certainly learnt a lot and gained a better understanding than the one I held previous to doing this tour.

      Two more posts to come covering the Waterloo battle itself in the light of the bicentennial work carried out and then it is back to the Peninsula for me.


  6. Craig (Beresford)4 July 2015 at 19:44

    Bravo JJ! For some time I have envied your blog. I have often thought that if I were to do a blog, your approach is the one that I would follow. It had been my intention to attend the 200th this year, and walk the route from Wavre to Plancenoit, following the route of IV Corps. And here you have not only done it, but captured it superbly with a mix of maps, art and photos. Genuis! Thank you so much for sharing. Cheers, Craig

    1. Thank you Craig, I'm really pleased you like the blog. These little historical excursions are fun to put posts together on and are great for inspiration and creativity. I have always done them and now I can write about them to. I think the idea of walking the route is a great idea and would make a brilliant post for a future blog.

      I hope you feel inspired to have a go yourself. I think our hobby leads the way in personal blogging and really creates a great forum for discussing and sharing ideas and if you walk the route you have your first post planned.