ARMIES OF THE SUCCESSORS: THE ANTIGONIDS

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(This is the final installment in a series on the militaries of the Macedonian Successor states which grew out of the Wars of the Diadochi,  following the death of Alexander the Great. For the next century these kingdoms were defended by armies that represented the greatest fighting forces in the Hellenistic World. Each differed from the other in fascinating ways, as will be shown.)

Of all the Successors of Alexander the Great none came closer to reuniting his empire than Antigonus Monophthalmus (“One Eyed”) and his son Demetrius Poliorketes (“the Besieger”). For a brief time (circa 315 BC) Antigonas controlled all of Alexander’s Asian Empire. This led his rivals to unite against him: Ptolemy in Egypt, Lysimachos  Satrap of Thrace, Cassander son of the late Antipater “the Regent”, and Seleucus, who from Babylon took over the eastern Satrapies while Antigonus was occupied in the west.

1367952.jpgWhile Antigonas held his own in Asia, he dispatched Demetrius with an Army to Greece to establish control and to war against Cassander in Macedon and the Aegean. From Athens, where he was worshiped as a “Savior God” after reestablishing democratic governance, Demetius extended Antigonid control throughout central Greece. Using the excellent port of Piraeus as base for the large Antigonid fleet, he soon controlled all the Islands of the Aegean as well. Advancing into Thessaly in 302 BC, Demetrius was preparing for a final showdown with Cassander when he was recalled to Asia to support his father on the eve of the Ipsus campaign. He departed Greece leaving garrisons of mercenaries to hold the key fortresses. The bulk of his field army was brought to Asia to fight beside his father.

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Tetradrachma of Demetrius I Poliorcetes (“The Besieger”)

The Battle of Ipsus (301 BC) was the perhaps the greatest battle of the Successor Wars (we have no figures for the number of combatants who fought at Corupedion in 281 BC, but it is likely to have rivaled the earlier battle). In this fight, Demetrius commanded his father’s right-wing cavalry, meant to deliver the decisive charge that would break the coalition left-wing cavalry commanded by the son of Lysimachus; and then to attack the coalition phalanx from behind. Antigonus’ plan was undone when Demetrius, after routing and pursuing Lysimachus’ horsemen from the field, was prevented from returning to the battle by Seleucus’ numerous elephants, which witing in reserve interposed themselves between Demetrius and the battle. (Diodorus claims that Seleucus brought 480 elephants of the 500 he supposedly received from Chandragupta in return for ceding the Punjab (1). Bar-Kochva argues persuasively for a number closer to 150 elephants (2). In either case, the coalition used their elephant force to decisive effect.) The elderly Antigonas was slain amidst his crumbling phalanx, while Demetrius retreated with some survivors to Ephesus.

For the next 4 years Demetrius, reduced to a freebooter, relied upon the strength of his fleet. From Athens, he controlled nothing more than the islands of the Aegean. After Cassander’s death in 297 BC, however, Cassander’s sons fell out and civil war divided the Antipatrid family. Demetrius took advantage of the chaos by first supporting and then murdering one of the contenders; making himself King of Macedon in 294 BC.

Over the next few years Demetrius worked to make himself the dominant power in Greece, reestablishing strong garrisons at Corinth (the Acrokorinth, the mountain-top citadel towering over the city, was the strongest fortress in Greece); Chalcis on the Island of Euboea; and at his newly-built fortress in Thessaly, Demetrias (near modern Volos). These fortresses (which in the next generation came to be called “the fetters of Greece”) supported a network of lesser garrisons Demetrius established.

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The Acrocorinth towers over the ruins of ancient Corinth. In the Hellenistic Era it was the strongest fortress in Greece, one of the key Macedonian garrisons during the early Antigonid period. It was one of the three so-called “Fetters of Greece”. 

Demetrius was an unpopular king with the Macedonians. Raised in Asia at the imperial court of his father he was ill-equipped to deal with the prickly and plain-spoken Macedonians. In 288 BC an alliance of Pyrrhus of Epirus with Lysimachos of Thrace invaded the country, and the Macedonian soldiers deserted him. Demetrius fled, taking to the sea again for a time, raiding his enemy’s possessions. Then, while campaigning in Cilicia against the Seleucids he was captured (285 BC), and remained under “house arrest” until his death by natural causes three years later.

Demetrius left to his son, Antigonas Gonatas (possibly meaning either “Knock-Knees”, “Armored Knees”, or simply a man of Gonnoi in Thessaly) little more than a few loyal garrisons in Greece, the powerful Antigonid fleet having deserted to Ptolemy in Egypt upon Demetrius’ capture. However, Antigonas proved an exceptionally patient and crafty statesman; exploiting every opportunity to his advantage. He had also learned his military lessons at the feet of his mighty grandfather and father, proving a very able general as well. As a ruler and statesman, he perhaps owed even more to his mother, Phila, the wise daughter of Antipater whom he resembled in both looks and farsightedness.

When the Celts invaded Macedon and Greece in 279 BC, they slew the Macedonian king, Ptolemy Keraunos (who had seized the throne after murdering Seleucus) when he foolishly took the field against them without calling up the Macedonian levy.  The Celts swept south with Keraunos’ head decorating a spear, leaving Macedon plundered and without a ruler. Antigonas led a force of mercenaries against the barbarians, ambushing and defeating a branch of the invading tribes at Lysimachia in Thrace (277 BC). After this victory, Antigonas was acclaimed king of Macedon. He would hold the throne against many threats and contenders for the next 38 years, firmly establishing a dynasty.

1367989.jpgAntigonas found Macedon destitute and its manpower exhausted by losses and migration (Macedonian soldiers were highly sought-after mercenaries in the armies of the other Successor Kingdoms; and most who went abroad never returned, dying in service or settling down as kleruchs in their new homelands). Throughout his long reign Antigonas relied on mercenaries, allowing the Macedonian population a generation to replenish. He maintained his hold on Greece by establishment of client-tyrants in the various cities, and by strong garrisons at Athens, Corinth, Chalcis, and Demetrias. He also painstakingly rebuilt the Antigonid fleet, with which he drove the Ptolemies out of the Aegean with the naval victories at Kos and Andros, 258-248 BC.(3)

Antigonas left his successors a strong, stable, modest kingdom. Unlike the other Successor states, the Antigonids never aspired to empire, content instead to hold the Macedonian homeland, and to dominate Greece and the Aegean. The army they fielded in time of war was relatively small, and only in its last days attained a measure of the strength it had enjoyed in the days of Philip II and Alexander, prior to the Asian conquests. But the quality of the Macedonian army was highly respected throughout the Hellenistic world.

PHALANX

The Macedonian phalanx of the Antigonid Kingdom was famed throughout the ancient world; and while other Successor kingdoms had their own “Macedonians”, these were primarily kleruch military settlers, descendants of the Graeco-Macedonian veterans of Alexander and his Diadochi and their Asian/Egyptian wives. The ancient world put great stock in blood, and only Macedon could field true Macedonians of pure blood. (The Macedonians were larger and heartier than the average Greek, an important factor when it came to the “push of pike” that was a feature of phalanx warfare.) Until finally defeated by the Romans, the Macedonian phalangite was considered the premiere heavy infantryman in the world.

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Phalangites of Philip II and Alexander. Though his equipment differed in some particulars from the later Antigonid phalangites, the sarissa changed little over the centuries except for length.

Unlike the armies of the other Successor Kingdoms (and of Alexander himself) in which cavalry and light troops comprised the majority of the army, the phalanx was the largest component of the Antigonid army. Against the Romans at Kynoscephalae, Philip V’s army was 62% phalangites (the phalanx never exceeded 40% of the troop totals in Alexander’s day). Under his son and successor, Perseus, who took pains to reestablish a balanced force structure, the phalanx shrunk proportionately to 49% of the army: still a far higher proportion than in other Successor armies.

The phalanx was divided into three divisions, or strategiai, each commanded by a strategos. These divisions were the Peltastoi, the Chalkaspides, and the Leukaspides. The first provided the core of the “standing army” for the kingdom, while the other two were “reserve” formations. The strength of each fluctuated on campaign (and these divisions may in fact have been ad hoc), but a “paper strength” of 5,000 has been suggested.

The Peltastoi (“Peltasts”, named for the small bronze shields they carried; not to be confused with the 4th century light troops of the same name) were the elite of the army. They were likely comprised of younger men, doing their “hitch” of regular army service before returning to civilian life and the ranks of one of the other two reserve strategiai.

1368008.jpgWithin this body was an elite force, the Agema (which means “Vanguard”, and to whom Livy gives the colorful unit name of Nicatores, “The Conquerors”, “chosen for their strength and enduring energy(4); though all of the Peltasts were crack troops. At Sellasia in 222 BC Antigonas Doson had 3,000 Peltasts. At Kynoskephalai in 197 BC Philip V had only 2,000 (though in 219 BC this unit had numbered 5,000, the difference in strength perhaps reflecting losses in earlier skirmishes against the Romans). At Pydna in 168 BC the number had risen again to 5,000; of which 2,000 were the Agema, or “Conquerors”.

Unlike the army of Philip II and Alexander, their was no body of elite light infantry hypaspists. The term “hypaspists” was used in Antigonid Macedon only for members of the King’s inner circle and bodyguards. It has been suggested, however, that either the Peltastoi as a whole or the Agema within this corps could perform the same functions as the hypaspists of Alexander’s army. Which is to say, that they were a multipurpose force, capable of being dispatched on light infantry missions, or taking their place in the line of battle as a division of the phalanx.

1368001.jpgThe second and third strategiai in seniority was the Chalkaspides (the “Brazen/Bronze shields”), and the Leukaspides (“White Shields”). The Brazen Shields are often seen on distant expeditions, while the White Shields only appear in major wars of the Kingdom. It has been inferred from this that the Chalkaspides were more of an “active reserve”, comprised either of younger men who had recently served in the Peltastoi or were those younger men not selected for service in that elite corps (a more likely possibility). The Leukaspides may have been the older veterans, kept in reserve and called-up only when necessary. (It should be noted, however, that historian Nicholas Secunda doubts the existence of the Leukaspides as a unit of the Macedonian phalanx, suggesting instead that the many references in multiple ancient sources refers to a unit(s) of thureophoroi. (5)

All Macedonian phalangites were armed much alike from the royal arsenal at Amphipolis. Cuirasses of bronze (for officers and front-rankers) or quilted linen (the Ptolemaic Egyptians called this type of linen cuirass a kothybos) was augmented by a bronze helmet and greaves. Their shields, called alternatively aspai or peltai, were bronze (or bronze-faced) and relatively small, not more than 22” – 24” diameter and slightly concave. This was slung on a baldric over the shoulder till needed, and when advancing to contact in battle they swung these over their shoulders and into position, while leveling their pikes.

1368030.jpgThe main weapon of the phalanx was a two-handed pike, called a sarissa. This varied in length over time; from an estimated 15-18’ at the time of Alexander to an impressive 21’ at the time of Pydna (there was even experimentation with 24” sarissa during the mid-2nd century, but this extreme length was apparently found to be unwieldy). It was composed of two sections of cornel (wild cherry) wood or perhaps ash;  the two half-sections joined by a 6” tubular metal sleeve. The two halves could be broken down, allowing for ease of storage or carry on the march, and allowed the phalangite to use a half section as a spear when the longer pike was impractical (such as when climbing a siege ladder or fighting aboard ship). The sarissa sported a 20” iron spear head at one end, and an 18” iron buttspike/counterweight at the back end. The head was narrow, allowing for great penetration.

1368037.jpgThe sarissa was a heavy, sturdy weapon, not easily broken or severed. There are several accounts of these pikes punching into the face of Roman “scutum” shields, and pushing the legionaries backwards as the phalangites steadily advanced. There are also accounts of Roman soldiers attempting to cut the heads off of sarissai with their gladius (short swords), with limited success. They were even capable of punching through light shields and armor, as seen in several incidents during Alexander’s reign.

The phalanx arrayed and advancing was apparently a terrifying sight. Livy writes of Aemelius Paulus, the Roman general who defeated the Macedonians at Pydna:

“Aemilius the consul, who had never seen a phalanx until this occasion in the war with Perseus, often confessed afterwards to certain persons in Rome that he had never seen anything more terrible and dreadful than a Macedonian phalanx, and this although he had witnessed and directed as many battles as any man.”

1368026.jpgEach man would swing his shield from over his shoulder into position, the sun no doubt gleaming off of their bronze face. The sarissa would come down, the first four ranks level, the next four angled over the heads of the comrades ahead of them, and the pikes of the last eight ranks upright. To attack or withstand attack from this dense hedgehog of points must have demanded supreme confidence and courage. It is not surprising that the phalanx was the most feared fighting force of the ancient world for two hundred years.

CAVALRY

Cavalry had been a major component in the armies of Philip II and Alexander, both the elite Companions and Thessalian cavalry, and contingents of ethnic light horse from various Balkan allies. However, immigration by much of the Macedonian nobility to the new conquests in the east had depleted the ranks of the ethnic Macedonian cavalry to a few hundred.

The proportions of cavalry in the Antigonid army averaged a mere 5%; compared with that of 20% in the army of Alexander. Whereas at the start of his reign Alexander had at his disposal 3,900 cavalry (3,300 of which were aristocratic Companion heavy horse), at the Battle of Sellasia in 222 BC, a century after Alexander’s death, Antigonus Doson had only 300 Macedonian cavalry. A generation later, at the Battle of Cynoscephalae, Philip V had 2,000 Macedonian and Thessalian horse. Perseus, with the benefit of a generation of peace and deliberate policies to grow the population, could raise 3,000 horse from Macedonia alone; the closest the Antigonid Kingdom was to come to the numbers enjoyed under Philip II and Alexander.

Within these numbers were a body of “Household” cavalry, called by the sources the Sacred Squadron (“hiera ile”). Philip V had 400 in 219 BC, and the 300 horsemen Doson had at Sellasia may have been this unit.

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Philip V (1) armed with lance (“xyston”); followed by javelin-armed members of the “Sacred Squadron” (Hiera Ila) (2)

Unlike Macedonian cavalry of Alexander’s day, who were lance-armed shock cavalry (using the 12’ long xyston), these later Macedonians were skirmish cavalry. Though wearing armor and bearing a large, Celtic-style shield, they appear to have been armed with javelins. Livy describes their consternation when charged by Roman cavalry, being unaccustomed to close-quarter battle. The same author describes Philip V as fighting on horseback, throwing javelins.

Auxiliary cavalry provided by Balkan allies and mercenaries could mildly inflate the number of cavalry on campaign. At Sellasia, 300 mercenary and 600 allied horse augmented Doson’s forces. For the Pydna campaign, Perseus had 1,000 “elite” Thracian/Bastarnae cavalry.

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Balkans light horsemen served as auxiliaries in the Macedonian army

MERCENARIES

From the beginning the Antigonids relied upon mercenaries to both spare the limited (and, at times, exhausted) Macedonian population and to augment them on campaign. Mercenaries also formed the bulk of the garrisons of the major fortresses (though Acrokorinth was guarded by a mixed force including 500 Macedonians, presumably because such a key fortress required troops whose loyalty was assured). After the Celtic invasion, Antigonas Gonatas made wide use of Celtic Galatians; at one time hiring a whole tribe! These were plentiful, fierce in battle, and relatively cheep. Later Antigonids primarily relied on Greek and Balkan mercenaries, particularly Illyrians and Thracians.

1368057.jpgThracian tribesmen made fierce light infantry and were common in Macedonian armies

At Sellasia, Doson had 1,000 Agrianians, as well as 1,600 Illyrians, 1,000 Galatians, and some number of Cretan archers. At Kynoskephalai Philip V had 2,000 Trallians (an Illyrian tribe) mercenaries, as well as 2,000 Thracians. For the Pydna campaign, Perseus raised 3,000 Cretan archers, 1,000 assorted Greek mercenaries (mostly spear-and-javelin armed thureophoroi), 2,000 Galatian infantry, and 3,000 “free” Thracians (earlier in his reign, Perseus had settled a mixed force of some 3,000 Agrianians, Paionian and Thracian skirmish infantry in Macedonia, and these may be that same force).

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Thracian auxilia showing Philip V the heads of Romans killed in an earlier skirmish

Interestingly, Philip V’s garrison in Sikyon in 198 BC included Italians. These were both deserters from the Roman fleet, and former Italian veterans of Hannibal’s army who dared not return to their homes in Italy.

FLEET

Under Antigonas Gonatas Macedon became (once again, briefly) a naval power. Antigonas gathered or built a fleet of warships to challenge Ptolemaic supremacy at sea and dominance of the Aegean. Little is known about either the size of this fleet or the types of warships which composed it. W. W. Tarn has suggested they were the larger quadremes and penteres/quinqueremes, and that this fleet numbered roughly 150 ships. The flagship, whose original name is unknown, but which was later renamed the Isthmia (it was perhaps built at Corinth) was a wonder of its age; having supposedly 3 decks, two banks of oars with 9 rowers manning each sweep, and was thus called an “18er”. It was supposedly a fast and well built ship, leading the line of battle. Tarn further suggests that Antigonas won the Battles of Kos and Andros by manning his fleet with his excellent Macedonian infantry; and like the Romans at Cape Ecnomus against the Carthaginians a decade earlier, turned the battle into a boarding action, favoring his superior “marines”. (It is speculated that the Macedonian phalangites used javelins or the upper half of their sarissa as spears when operating on ship-board as marines.) These victories drove the Ptolemies out of the Aegean, rule over most of their islands passing to the victor, Antigonus.

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Following these victories, Gonatas dedicated his flagship to Apollo at Delos.

After Gonatas’ reign, the fleet declined both in size of ships and overall number.

By the time of Philip V the main warship of the Macedonian state was the light Lemboi, an open-decked galley of 50 oars, smaller than the earlier pentekonter. In 219-215 BC, Philip manned this fleet of light galleys with his own phalangites, teaching these to row, and with this squadron campaigned in the Ionian Sea against the Western Islands.

In 201 BC Philip V brought a fleet of 200 warships to the Battle of Chios, of which only 53 were decked (cataphract) warships, while 150 were light Lemboi. Here his fleet was badly defeated by a coalition which included Rhodes (the master sea power of their day) and the Seleucid break-away state of Pergamon.

1368098.jpgPhilip V

By the Roman Wars Philip was facing a coalition which included the naval power of Rhodes and Pergamon as well as the Romans, who, since defeating Carthage in the First Punic War, had become a preeminent naval power. Faced by such strength at sea, the Macedonian fleet was disbanded for all intents and purposes. Macedon would never be a major naval power again.

CONCLUSION

The Antigonid Kingdom was the dominant power in the southern Balkans and the Aegean throughout the 3rd century BC, until defeated and ultimately annexed by the Romans in the first half of the 2nd century. Throughout that time, its focus was in keeping its Greek possessions intact and the independent Greek states on its periphery weak and divided. Its chief rival was Ptolemaic Egypt in the first half of the 3rd century, till driving them out of the Aegean. Thereafter, their greatest opponents were the Achaean League and the Aetolian League. When the rising power of Rome in the west began to cast its dark shadow over Greece, Philip V attempted to forge a pan-Hellenic coalition to oppose this powerful threat. In this he had limited success, gaining the alliance of the Achaean League, but failing to bring into coalition the powerful Aetolian League. This latter power ultimately allied with and invited the Romans into Greece.

1368075.jpgMacedon failed in its resistance against the Romans, with Philip defeated at Cynoskephalai in 197 BC. Following that defeat, he became a loyal ally of Rome while quietly rebuilding his kingdom’s strength. His son, Perseus, inherited a Macedonian kingdom and army stronger than it had been since the accession of Alexander the Great. He challenged Rome, but was also defeated at Pydna in 168 BC. After this, the last king of Macedon was sent in chains to Rome and Macedonia became a province of the Roman Empire.

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The uneven nature of the ground at Pydna created gaps in the phalanx; which allowed the highly-experienced and aggressive Roman infantry to break into the Macedonian formation and defeat the phalanx at close-quarters. Here, led by a centurion, the Romans use a gully to infiltrate into the phalanx’s ranks. This image inaccurately depices the Antigonid phalanx as bearing silver shields. The “Argyraspides” were a Seleucid army formation, not an Antigonid. However, this might be meant to be white shields of the “Leucaspides” division. 

 

If you enjoyed this piece, check out the other parts of this series:

 Armies of the Successors: The Seleucids

Armies of the Successors: The Ptolemies.

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Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
www.ospreypublishing.com

NOTES:

1. Diodorus XX, 113

2. Bar-Kochva, Bezalel, “The Seleucid Army: Organization and Tactics in the Great Campaigns”; CambridgeUniversity Press, 1976. Page 75

3.  Tarn suggests that the famed Winged Victory of Samothrace was a dedication by Antigonas following one of these two victories.

4. Livy 42.51.4-5

5.  Secunda, Nicholas, Macedonian Armies after Alexander 323 – 168 BC; Osprey Publishing LTD, 2012. P. 36-37

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
www.ospreypublishing.com

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PHALANX vs LEGION: CLOSING THE DEBATE

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With the popularity of such films as “Alexander”,  “300”, and its sequel “300: Rise of Empire” a broader audience is being introduced (sometimes for the first time) to the warriors of ancient Greece. These films are generally poor educational tools, leaving the audience with many misconceptions and often more questions than answers.

INTRODUCTION

From the Persian Wars (499–449 BC) till the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC) the Greek hoplite phalanx was the dominant battle formation of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Against Persians, Carthaginians, and Etruscans this compact formation of Greek armored infantry (supported by small numbers of light infantry and cavalry) everywhere triumphed. At Chaeronea in 338 BC, however, the Greek hoplites of Athens and Thebes met a superior tactical system, that of Philip II of Macedon. While the Macedonian Army was a well-balanced, combined-arms force of light and heavy infantry and cavalry (as were most Greek armies by this time, though to a lesser degree) it is the Macedonian phalanx that revolutionized warfare for the following century-and-a-half, superseding and mostly replacing the earlier Greek hoplite phalanx. The Macedonian phalanx, in turn, dominated the battlefield until the coming of the Romans; who brought a very different formation to the battlefield utilizing a markedly different tactical system: the legion. The Romans defeated armies relying upon phalanxes at nearly every encounter, and with the growth of their empire the phalanx as a tactical system largely disappeared.

Polybius and Livy examined the differences and advantages of each tactical system in depth, and these historicans were MUCH closer to the events than we are; so their opinions should be given due weight. Based upon their analysis and that of other sources as well, we will briefly compare and contrast the three dominant tactical systems of the Classical World, from the Persian Wars to the Roman conquest of the Hellenistic Kingdoms.

TACTICS OF GREEK HOPLITE WARFARE

It is important to understand that the Greek hoplite phalanx, which defeated the Persians at such battles as Marathon (490 BC) and Plataea (479 BC) was a formation consisting of citizen-soldiers, filled with civic (and national) pride and zeal, but (with the exception of the Spartans and a few elite units in some cities) essentially a part-time militia. They fought primarily as “heavy” infantry: closely-ordered, trained to fight at close-quarters with spear or sword. These citizen-soldier of the Greek city-state (polis) are referred to as a hoplites (men-at-arms).

The hoplite’s weapons and equipment consisted of a large round shield (aspis), 36″-40″ in diameter; and a long, relatively heavy[1] thrusting spear (dory) 7-9 feet in length. A sword (either the straight, double-edged xiphos, or the forward-curving, single-edged kopis) was his backup weapon, and for additional defense he wore various pieces of armor, collectively referred to as his panoply.

13408525th century Greek hoplite. 1-11: shield, deconstructed into various parts. 12: Corinthian-style helmet, with crest. 13: arming cap of felt, worn under helmet. 14: “lineothorax” style of cuirass. May have been made of layers of glued line, or leather covered with linen. 15: bronze greaves. 16: garters tied around ankle to support greaves, and limit chaffing. 17: “dory” with leather wrapped around grip.

The hoplite fought in a tightly-packed, rectangular formation called a phalanx. Within the phalanx each man’s shield overlapped that of the man to his left, and he partially sheltered behind the shield of the man to his right. The hoplite phalanx deployed for battle in six, eight, or twelve ranks deep (referred to by contemporaries as “shields”); though the later Theban phalanx was famed for the greater depth upon which it relied, deploying in anywhere from twenty-four to fifty shields deep.

The Classical Age hoplite phalanx relied on a tactic called othismos, the push of shields; a shoving contest in which the hoplites braced and pushed their shields into the backs of their comrade in the rank in front of them; and the weight of the phalanx as a whole attempted to push the enemy back or to bowl them over. In this formation only the first and perhaps the second rank could actually use their spears (or swords), while the rest merely added their weight to the shoving contest.

Pushing the enemy back was more important than actually killing them during this initial phase of the melee. Once large formations of soldiers began to stumble backward, they lost cohesion and began to crumble. So the point of othismos was to drive the enemy backward, and eventually to shatter their formation. Once shattered and routed, the victorious hoplites would pursue, cutting down the fleeing enemy from behind. It was during this later phase of the fighting that most of the casualties were sustained by the losing side; cut down from behind as they attempted to flee. (For this reason among the Spartans wounds upon a corpse’s back were deemed dishonorable, a sign that the victim had turned coward and ran in battle. Likewise, leaving one’s shield on the battlefield was a disgrace, inferring that the hoplite had dropped it to allow for swifter flight.)

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A segment of a Greek hoplite phalanx, 8 ranks deep. Note the flute player in the rear: hoplites marched to the sound of flute, rather than drums or horns. These men are advancing in a looser order than used when facing another phalanx; at which time they massed to the right and braced the man in front with the flat of their shield in his back.

If a hoplite found himself engaged during this later stage of the fighting in personal combat, he relied on his thrusting spear, sword and shield. The individual combat techniques of the hoplite warrior were called hoplomachia. It is suggested by the scenes of hoplites in combat depicted upon ancient Greek vase paintings that spearmen used both over and under-handed methods of thrusting. Practice with the dory by the author showed that a hoplite could rapidly and dexterously change from one grip to the other, as the situation dictated.

The face and throat were the main target areas using the overhand thrusting method, while the enemy’s inner thigh and groin were prime targets for the latter (underhanded) thrust. The edge of the shield may, too, have been used as a weapon. Modern tests have shown such shield strikes to be very deadly, indeed[2].

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Note the different methods of spear-handling displayed in these ancient paintings depicting hoplite duels. While scholars often suggest “artistic license” on the part of the painters, its is important to remember that every free-born Greek city-state citizen trained to fight in the phalanx (or some supporting arm, if he couldn’t afford the panoply of a hoplite). So even the painters of these images likely had first-and experience in hoplite training and warfare, as in most cases would their customers buying the vases, plates and bowls upon which these scenes were painted

It was difficult for the average body of Greek hoplites to change direction once deployed and advancing in the great rectangular block that was the phalanx. Sub-divisions were mostly absent, and there is no record of an under-officer or NCO class to help maneuver a Greek phalanx. However, the Spartans, who were well-drilled professionals, divided their phalanx into companies, battalions, and regiments; and did have sub-classes of officers for each of these sub-units. Thus the Spartans were uniquely capable of complicated maneuver and change-of-face-or-front.

Hoplite phalanxes tended to “drift” obliquely to the right as they advanced, the tendency of hoplites to shelter behind the shield of their comrade to their right causing this phenomenon. So the right-wing of opposing phalanxes tended to overlap the left of their opponents. A battle between two phalanxes often tended to pinwheel as the right of each overlapped and drove back the left of the other.

PRIMACY OF THE MACEDONIAN PHALANX

The hoplite phalanx was bested by the Macedonian phalanx in the 4th century at Chaeronea, Issus, and Megalopolis during the reigns of Philip II and Alexander the Great. The pike-armed Macedonian version of the phalanx largely replaced the spear-armed hoplite version of the Classical Age. By the time the Romans arrived on the scene in Greece at the beginning of the 2nd century (first as allies of the Greeks against the Macedonians, then later as conquerors), they were facing armies whose infantry component was either lighter infantry (of the type called thureophoroi) or Macedonian-style phalangites.

Unlike the hoplites of the earlier phalanx, the Macedonian and Hellenistic phalangite (called a pezhetairos or “foot companion” during their earliest days under Philip II and Alexander the Great) was armed with a 15-21 foot two-handed pike called a sarissa. As both hands were necessary to wield this longer, heavier weapon the phalangite was forced to compensate by carrying a smaller shield (only 22″-24″ in diameter) than did the traditional Greek hoplite, relying on the length of his pike to keep the enemy at bay rather than sheltering behind the larger aspis of the traditional hoplite. The size of both pike and shield varied from the time of Philip II in the mid-4th century to that of Perseus I in the mid-2nd century BC, but was largely within that range (though the shield of Alexander’s infantry does not appear to have differed much from that of the southern Greek hoplites of his day; being about 34″-36″ in diameter) [3].

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Macedonian phalangite, mid-late 4th century BC. Philip and Alexander called their phalangite infantrymen “pezhetairoi” (Foot Companions). They were armed with the 15′-18′ sarissa; which was made in two pieces, joined together for battle with a metal sheath. Note the figure on the left is phalangite on the march; with his sarissa disassembled.

In contrast to the Greek hoplite, who relied upon the push of shields described above, the Macedonian phalangite relied upon the “push of pike”: driving his heavy sarissa into the shield or body of the enemy before him and pressing forward in mass. The longer reach of the sarissa allowed 4-5 ranks to engage the enemy at a distance, with subsequent ranks raising their pikes over the heads of the ranks ahead of them; this partially sheltering them from in-coming missiles.

1340947A syntagma (company) of the phalanx: 256 men, 16 deep and as many shields across. The first four to five ranks could engage the enemy at various ranges; while subsequent ranks raised their sarissas above the heads of their comrades; creating partial cover against missile attack

While the Classical Age Greek hoplite typically formed his phalanx 12 ranks deep the Macedonian phalanx drew up in 16 ranks. In certain circumstances, it could double to 32 ranks or spread out to give greater frontage, deploying in only 8 ranks.

Supported by lighter infantry and by cavalry on its wings the Macedonian phalanx served as the core of a tactical system that dominated the battlefields of the eastern Mediterranean and near east for two hundred years. The Phalanx was the solid anvil upon which skilled commanders could fix their enemy, and then hammer them with cavalry, elite light infantry, or even elephants. It has been stated by both ancient and modern “authorities” that frontally the phalanx was invincible. This is mostly true. But as we will examine below, circumstances of terrain and tactics make this a qualified truth only; and an opponent was to appear who would change the tactical arithmetic on the battlefield: the Roman legion.

LEGION VS PHALANX

The Roman Republic, cradled in the hills of central Italy, developed a very different tactical system. From the 4th century onward, the Romans relied upon self-contained units called legions (legiones) instead of phalanxes of spear or pike-armed infantry. These legions were composed of citizen-soldiers, who enlisted only for the duration of each campaign. However, there was a deep professionalism permeating the Roman citizen body, as Roman citizens of the middle and upper classes (those who served in the legions) trained with arms from the time they reached adolescence just outside the city, on Mars Field. As many reenlisted for long-duration or on multiple campaigns, the legions that followed the Consuls and Proconsuls were often highly experienced veterans, professional soldiers in all but name. The soldiers who faced the Macedonians in the first decade of the 2nd century BC were just such long-serving veterans; many of which had first joined the legions during the deadly days of the Second Punic War.

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Roman soldiers of the early Republic, 3rd century BC. The man on the left with the red shield is a principe of the second line; and has discharged his pilum and drawn his gladius. The man on the right is a veteran triari, carrying a thrusting spear. The man behind both is an Italian allied infantryman.

 

The legion changed throughout the long history of the Roman Republic and Empire. But what we will describe is the legion that fought the Macedonian and other Hellenistic phalanxes, from the late 3rd through the 2nd centuries BC; as described by Polybius.

Each legion numbered 3,600 infantry who formed up for battle in three distinct lines, one behind the other. Each of these three lines was comprised of ten maniples (“handfuls”), the tactical unit of the legion. Thus each legion was divided into 30 maniples. Each maniple was further divided equally into two centuries of 60 men. The maniple was commanded by a pair of centurions, tough and seasoned under-officers, each directly leading one of the two centuries. It was the use of so many small, well-organized sub-units that allowed the legion the great flexibility it displayed on the battlefield.

The first line of maniples consisted of young men, and were called Hastati. The second line were of men in the prime of their lives, and were called Principes. Both of these first two lines were equipped in the same fashion: with a short sword and javelins, and a large oval shield (scuta). The third line was comprised of half-maniples of older veterans, called Triarii. Unlike the first two ranks of maniples, the Triarii were armed with a longer thrusting spear instead of the javelins of the Hastati and Principes. Each legion had its own intregal light infantry, provided by 10 half-strength maniples of javelin-armed skirmishers, called Velites. These were recruited from the teenage boys just beginning their military service. The maniples of Hastati and Principes were 120 men strong each; while those of the Triarii and Velites were only half that number, 60.

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The maniples were compact, deep formations meant to melee with the enemy. The usual order for the first two lines of maniples, the Hastati and Principes, was 10 men per rank, with the maniple 12 ranks deep overall. Thus the first two lines of the legion were each 12 ranks: as deep as a typical Greek phalanx. The third line of Triarii were only half as deep, and was meant to be a final reserve that could cover the withdrawal (in order) of the first two lines if they were unsuccessful in defeating the enemy.

Unlike the phalanx that fought in a single line, engaging the enemy simultaneously across the entire front, the legion deployed its maniples in a checkerboard pattern; leaving deliberate gaps between each maniple equal to its frontage. These gaps were covered by the successive line of maniples, so that when a legion engaged it did so in waves, delivering multiple successive shocks against the enemy all across its front.

First the Hastati would charge the enemy line, and begin to weaken and disorder them. Next the Principes could come up through the intervals and deliver yet another wave of attacks. Or, if the Hastati were in real trouble, they could withdraw in order back through the gaps in the second line of Principes. If the attack was a complete failure, both the first two lines could withdraw, in turn, through the final reserve of veteran Triarii, all seasoned veterans who could be counted upon to stand firm and cover their withdrawal.

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It was a hallmark of Roman warfare that a fortified camp was always prepared, and the Romans never fought far from it. So if defeat was imminent, the legions could retreat back into their camp, covered by the steady Triarii, and regroup for another day. Thus a tactical defeat was seldom turned by the enemy into a major disaster by a prolonged pursuit.

Unlike the Greeks and Macedonians, the Roman legionary fought as an individual within a larger formation. The Roman soldier didn’t lock shields or stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his comrade to either side. Each Roman soldier maintained a space around him of three feet, enough room to maneuver and wield his sword, either to cut or thrust.

“Now, a Roman soldier in full armor also requires a space of three square feet. But as their method of fighting admits of individual motion for each man—because he defends his body with a shield, which he moves about to any point from which a blow is coming, and because he uses his sword both for cutting and stabbing—it is evident that each man must have a clear space, and an interval of at least three feet both on flank and rear if he is to do his duty with any effect.” [4]

While the Greek hoplite phalanx of old relied on the massive shoving contest known as othismos, and the Macedonian phalanx upon the “push of pike” to overbear their opponents; the Romans relied on multiple shocks all along the line, and on an individual level employed a combined-arms tactical system revolving around the sword and javelin.

The Roman sword (the gladius hispanicus, or “Spanish Sword”) was a finely tempered steel weapon, 24″ long, effective both for stabbing or cutting. In fact, it was sharp enough to hack through a limb, and was feared for the ghastly wounds it inflicted [5]. The legionary also carried two special javelins, one light and one heavy. These were called pilum (pila). They were made of a wooden shaft with a long iron shank ending in a small head.

1341868.jpgThe pilum resembled the 19th century whaler’s harpoon, and can be characterized accurately as a sort of anti-personnel harpoon. The construction was such that pila tended to imbed themselves in the shields of their opponents, and to either break or malform on impact; so as to render them both difficult to pull out of the shield or impossible to throw back at the Roman sender. The lighter of the two pila was for longer range, and the heavier to be used just before closing with sword, at about 20 paces from the enemy. While the first ranks of the maniples were engaged with the enemy, rear ranks could hurl their javelins over the heads of their comrades, into the enemy formation.

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Roman legionaries of the late Republic

As the legion closed with an enemy, the maniples of velites, deployed in front of the legion and screened it from both observation and from being harassed by enemy skirmishers. The velites used an even lighter javelin, called a verutum, to skirmish with the enemy. As the opposing lines drew close, the velites would withdraw through the intervals between maniples to the rear.

As the first line of heavy infantry maniples, the Hastati, approached the enemy line they would hurl their lighter pila into the ranks of the enemy. Then, ast they began their charge, they would hurl their heavier javelin before closing to sword range. This pre-melee shower of pila would distract and at time disorder the enemy ranks with casualties just moments before the impact of the legionaries. Their shields encumbered or disabled altogether by embedded pila an enemy would be at a disadvantage as the maniples smashed into their ranks, driving forward with large shield and deadly swords.

All along the line, individual maniples impacted the enemy line, causing shock and disruption. This was a crucial difference between the Roman system and that of the Greeks and Macedonians: the use of multiple shocks by small units, to break the enemy line rather than a single push by the mass of a phalanx.

The Romans first faced a Macedonian-style phalanx first at the Battle of Heraclea in 280 BC, when warring against King Pyrrhus of Epirus, a kinsman of Alexander the Great. In this as in the subsequent encounter at Asculum, the phalanx was unable to make headway against the push of the legions, and was at many points in great danger, suffering high casualties. Pyrrhus won these first two battles against the Romans not by the push of pike, but because of the destruction and chaos his elephants caused to the unprepared Romans (who had never encountered these great beasts before). In his third, unsuccessful battle against them, at Beneventum the Romans were able to defeat or trap the elephants in bad ground; and went on to defeat the phalanx (some of which entered the battle exhausted from a night march through bad terrain). In all three of these battles, the legions inflicted terrible carnage upon the hitherto invincible phalanx; though receiving heavy casualties of their own in the process.

Later, in their wars against first the Macedonians, and then against the Seleucids and later the Pontians the Romans defeated phalanxes through superior maneuverability, and because of the phalanx’s unfortunate weakness when it lost cohesion. Either because of bad terrain (as at Pydna in 168 BC) or because of “extenuating circumstances” (such as elephants routing back through and disrupting its order, as at Magnesia in 190 BC), or because the unique checkerboard formation of the maniples caused the phalanx to lose order as some sections were pushed back while others advanced into the gaps; the phalanx always tended to become disordered against the legions. Then the swordsmen would come to close-quarters, where their training and equipment was superior to that of the phalangite.

“The Romans do not, then, attempt to extend their front to equal that of a phalanx, and then charge directly upon it with their whole force: but some of their divisions (maniples) are kept in reserve, while others join battle with the enemy at close quarters. Now, whether the phalanx in its charge drives its opponents from their ground (as initially at Cynoscephalae and Pydna), or is itself driven back, in either case its peculiar order is dislocated; for whether in following the retiring, or flying from the advancing enemy, they quit the rest of their forces: and when this takes place, the enemy’s reserves can occupy the space thus left, and the ground which the phalanx had just before been holding, and so no longer charge them face to face, but fall upon them on their flank and rear.”[6]

In theory the long pike of the phalangite could keep the sword-armed legionaries at a distance. But in every battle the Romans found ways to penetrate the wall of pikes and close with the phalangites. At very close quarters the larger shield and better sword-training of the Romans always proved decisive.

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CONCLUSION

While modern historical aficionados and gamers debate the relative effectiveness of spear-armed hoplite phalanx vs pike-armed Macedonian phalanx, and of phalanx vs legion, the verdict of history is certain and unarguable. The pike phalanx bested and replaced that of the spear-armed hoplite; and the Roman system proved superior to the pike phalanx.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It is telling that after a century of experience against the Macedonians in battle (both as enemies and as occasional allies) the southern Greek city-states (including the Spartans) by-and-large adopted the Macedonian-style of phalanx, replacing their own traditional spear-armed hoplite phalanx. (Though, in even more cases, the citizen-levy of the Greek states fought as light-infantry thureophoroi, armed with spear-and-javelin.)

Similarly, by the mid-2nd century BC the Seleucids were retraining a portion of their elite Silver Shields (Argyraspides) phalangites as “imitation Roman” legionaries [7]; arming them in the Roman fashion. By the 1st century BC, the Ptolemaic army of Egypt had abandoned the phalanx altogether, and were using troops who were equipped with spears and javelins as either thureophoroi or imitation legionaries (scholars debate this point). Or, they were hiring Roman veterans wholesale as mercenaries [8].

The last pseudo-Successor state to challenge Rome, the Pontians in the Mithradatic Wars of the 1st century BC, started with a Macedonian phalanx of Chalcaspides (“Brazen Shields”) as the core of their infantry. But after very rough handling by Sulla’s legions, Mithradates rearmed his infantry in the Roman fashion, even hiring renegade Roman soldiers as trainers.

Clearly, the men on the ground at the time recognized which tactical systems were superior. They adopted these as best they could, as their very life (and the safety and independence of their nations) depended upon it.

While the debate will no doubt go on the verdict of history is, I submit, final and should be accepted.

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Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
www.ospreypublishing.com

NOTES:

[1] Modern reconstructions of the Greek dory (hoplite spear) weigh from 4-5lbs.

[2] While working on the television show, “The Deadliest Warrior”, the author worked on the scientific testing of the Greek/Spartan aspis. The targets used for the testing were human skull replicas surrounded by an appropriate amount of ballistic gel to simulate the soft tissue of the head; and impact “crash” dummies, as used by experts in the Transportation Safety Administration and the automotive industry. The results showed a tremendous amount of impact delivered by the edge of Greek aspis against a human skull when utilizing the method invented by the author (though based upon research of ancient vase paintings); enough to snap the human neck or cause a depressed skull fracture at the impact site.

[3] Based upon the size of the shields depicted in the contemporary “Alexander Sarcophagus”, there is reason to believe that the phalangites and Hypaspists of Philip II, Alexander, and his immediate Successors might have used the larger Greek aspis. Certainly by the end of the 3rd century, the Macedonian and Hellenistic armies had adopted a smaller shield, sometimes referred to as a “pelta”.

[4] Polybius, The Histories, Book XVIII, Chapters 28-32

[5] Titus Livius: Books XXXI-XLV describes vividly the terrible wounds inflicted by the Roman gladius on its Macedonian victims in early skirmishes with the legions; and the shock of Philip’s troops when they saw the hacked and maimed bodies of their dead comrades.

[6] Polybius, The Histories, Book XVIII, Chapters 28-32

[7] See my earlier article, Armies of the Successors: The Seleucids

[8] See my earlier article, Armies of the Successors: The Ptolemies.

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NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGN (PART TEN): THE ATTACK OF THE IMPERIAL GUARD!

With Laye Haye Saint taken and Ney decimating Wellington’s center with close-range cannon fire, Napoleon decided upon a final push. A last roll of the dice, committing his Imperial Guard  to breaking Wellington’s decimated center.

(To read Part Nine, go here. Or, to read this series from the beginning, go here)

Turning to Ney, he ordered him to prepare to lead forward 9 battalions of the Old and Middle Guard against Wellington’s center. These, formed in battalion carré ( massive squares, each side 3 ranks-deep), each battalion echeloned right. Between each battalion were horse-guns of the Imperial guard. Behind and supporting the advance would be the Imperial Guard cavalry.

Napoleon kept the two senior battalions, the 1st and 2nd of the 1st Foot Grenadiers Regiment, in reserve, guarding his person at La Belle Alliance. Ney’s attack force would be supported by every other infantry brigade not actively in combat: the men of Reilly‘s II Corps and D’Erlon‘s I Corps, battered by a long day of bloody fighting, but heartened by the appearance of the Guard advancing. In the past, the advance of the Guard had always been a harbinger of victory, committed when the enemy was near to breaking.

The Guard had never known defeat.

With the regimental bands playing gay Imperial marches and drums beating the pas de charge, the battalion squares marched majestically down into the valley. The Emperor led them himself, mounted on his grey Arabian stallion, Marengo. At 600 yards from the Allied line, he wheeled his horse to a stop, and watched his Guard march past, as though on review. With cries of “Vive le Emperor”, the Guard moved up the slopes toward the plateau where waited Wellington’s infantry. Ney, his 5th horse having been shot from under him, led them forward on foot.

Wellington had not been idle. Pulling off troops from his far left, he’s reinforced his center with these odds-and-sods. (This was only possible because the first Prussian brigade of Ziethen’s I Korps had arrived on the British flank, shoring up the left and allowing this transfer of Brunswick and Dutch regiments to the center.) Every man and gun available to him were massed to face this final onslaught.

As the Guard marched up the slope, they were met with canister; ripping great wholes in their squares. With the iron calm the old veterans closed ranks and continued on; seemingly unstoppable. It was nearly 8 pm, and in the setting sun the bright rays cast the Guards’ shadows high against the clouds of smoke above the battle, giving them the eerie appearance of giants marching relentlessly up the hill.

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Overrunning the British batteries along the crest, the Grenadiers were met by Sir Colin Halkett’s 5th Brigade. These were driven back, as were a battalion of Brunswickers. Then, as the 3rd Regiment of Chasseurs approached the ridge opposite Maitland’s Brigade of Foot Guards (2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 1st Foot Guards regiment), Wellington called to the brigade commander, “Now Maitland! Now’s your time”.

The Foot Guards, who had been laying in the tall rye, now stood: 1,500 strong and four ranks deep. At 20 yards they fired a devastating volley into the Chasseurs, and charged with the bayonet; driving the French back. The 4th Chasseurs, coming up in support, rallied the 3rd and both fired a volley into the pursuing Foot Guards; sending them retreating back over the ridge.

At that moment an unsung hero delivered the coup de grâce to the Guard’s assault.

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Sir John Colborne, on his own initiative, wheeled his elite 52nd (light) Foot round to outflank the Guards column as it passed his brigade. 500 yards long, his line now fired a destructive volley into the exposed left flank of the Chasseurs. At the same time, a Hanoverian Brigade came around from Hougoumont, and fired into the rear-flank of the stricken Guards. Sir John then ordered an attack into their flank with bayonet.

The Battle of Waterloo

Halted in front and assaulted in flank, the Guard was driven back down the hill and began a general retreat. The brigades of Reilly and d’Erlon’s Corps, advancing in support on either flank, witnessed this reverse with utter astonishment; and from these the panicked cry of “La Garde recule” echoed across the valley!

NEXT: ZEITHEN BREAKS THROUGH

From the film, “Waterloo” (1970), depicting this portion of the battle. Though picturesque and dramatic, the scene is fraught with historical inaccuracies. Particularly the timing of the arrival of the Prussians: by this point in the battle (7:30-8:00 PM) the Prussians had been attacking the French right for several hours. It also shows the Guard advancing in column, rather than squares.

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NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGN (PART NINE): THE STRUGGLE FOR PLANCENOIT AND LA HAYE SAINT

At 6 p.m., Marshal Ney called off the fruitless cavalry assaults upon Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch regiments around Mont-Saint-Jean. His torn uniform covered with mud and his face blackened with gunpowder smoke, Ney was now ordered by Napoleon to capture La Haye Saint at all costs.

(To read Part Eight, go here. Or, to read this series from the beginning, go here)

Forward of and warding Wellington’s center, the farm complex called La Haye Saint had been held all day by elements of the King’s German Legion. Thus far, it had held out against every French assault, and fire from its defenders had harried the flanks of every French attack on Wellington’s position that had been forced to bypass it.

1414402.jpg1414527.jpgNapoleon understood that the key to cracking Wellington’s position lay in taking La Haye Saint. Why it had not been stormed at the same time Ney’s cavalry were forcing the Allies into defensive squares is a mystery. But with this gadfly and breakwater gone, the Emperor could advance his final reserve, the Imperial Guard, up the Charleroi Road and break Wellington’s decimated infantry; which he was certain could take no more punishment.

Meanwhile, however, a crises was developing on the Emperor’s right flank. Another battle was raging there, independent of that being conducted against Wellington’s position: Blücher’s Prussians had arrived in strength, and were threatening to cut his line of retreat!

PLANCENOIT

All that long June day (only three days short of the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year) the Prussians had marched towards the sound of the guns. Leaving a single corps (Thielmann‘s III Korps) to hold the river crossing at Wavre against interference by the hapless Grouchy, Blücher and Gneisenau had come with every man, horse, and gun at their disposal. At 4 pm, even as Ney was preparing his grand cavalry assault on Wellington’s position, the Prussian vanguard was massing under the cover of the Bois de Paris forest along Napoleon’s right (eastern) flank. Here the lead elements of Von Bülow‘s IV Korps: two infantry brigades, two batteries of guns, and a regiment of Silesian Hussars were poised to strike toward the village of Plancenoit. Behind them and still marching forward was the rest of the Corps, in total some 32,000 men.

1414531.jpgGneisenau had convinced Blücher that a direct assault against the right of the French line would be less advantageous than striking southwest toward Plancenoit. Capture and occupation of the hamlet would allow the Prussian guns to sweep the Charleroi road. As the rest of the Prussian Army arrived, rolling up the French flank, Von Bülow could advance south of the French forces, cutting off their line of retreat. Thus, all but the French left wing (which could still escape to the southwest, using the Nivelles Road) would “fall into the bag”, and Napoleon’s army would be annihilated.

1414556.jpgIt was originally the Prussian commander’s intent to hold off attacking till all of IV Korps was ready. But with Ney’s ferocious assault threatening to shatter Wellington’s position around Mont-Saint-Jean, it was decided between 4-4:30 pm to order Von Bülow to begin his attack with what he had on hand.

Two Prussian brigades stormed from out of the woods; one to either side of the track from Wavre to Plancenoit. Along the road itself, the two batteries advanced to lend their shot to the assault. On the higher ground before them, their opponent, the men of Lobau’s Corps, awaited.

1414414Napoleon was prepared for the Prussian attack on his flank. Earlier in the day, cavalry patrols in the Bois de Paris had reported the coming of the Prussian spearheads. To defend against this threat, he had positioned Lobau’s VI Corps at a right angle to his main line, facing east towards the woods. These 10,000 men now faced attack by some 14,000 Prussians, as Von Bülow’s two brigades attacked.

Seeing immediately that the Prussian schwerpunkt[1] was aimed at undefended Plancenoit, Lobau extended his right flank to the south, one of his reserve brigades racing the Prussians to occupy the village. (It is surprising that the French had not occupied the village earlier in the day, and prepared it for defense. This seems, in retrospect, a gross oversight.) Meanwhile, his veterans stood firm, engaging the Prussians all along their front. On his left was the hamlets of Smohain and Papelotte, which now took on new importance as the hinge point between the north-facing main line of French attack and the right-flank, facing to the east. Lobau ordered Durutte’s division to capture these buildings (they had fought earlier in the day to drive-out the Saxe-Weimar defenders); while shifting the rest of his Corps to the south to better support the fighting at Plancenoit. This effort to attack and hold Smohain and Peepelotte in the north, on the one hand, and to fend off the Prussians at Plancenoit in the south on the other stretched Lobau’s Corps precariously thin. To compensate, Lobau ordered his supporting light and medium Corps cavalry to cover the gap this created between Smohain and his main forces around Pancenoit; with orders to attack as opportunity presented the flank of the Prussians coming out of the wood.

Thus began the fierce, see-saw fight for Plancenoit; a battle within a battle. Both Lobau and Von Bülow’s corps were relatively fresh: Lobau had been kept in reserve all day, while Bülow’s Prussians had missed the fighting at Ligny two days earlier. Here, at Plancenoit, they found themselves engaged in a close-quarter street fight every-bit as ferocious as the one they missed on the 16th at Ligny.

The French barricaded themselves in the village’s buildings, and created a strong-point behind the circular wall of the cemetery in the center of the town. This position, with high trees that provided both cover and perch for French sharpshooters, vexed the Prussian’s efforts to break in. Around 5:30, a frustrated Blücher brought up a fresh brigade and cannon to fire canister at point-blank. This swept the French defenders from the wall, and leveled the trees to the same height as the wall. The Prussians charged forward in mass, driving the French from the cemetery at bayonet point.

Lobau sent to Napoleon in nearby Belle Alliance for reinforcements. Cognizant of the threat this attack posed to his line of retreat, and with Prussian cannon shot beginning to land around his headquarters, the Emperor now ordered General Guillaume Philibert Duhesme to lead the eight battalions of his Young Guard to counter-attack and drive the Prussians out of Plancenoit. The spirited attack of these 4,200 elite soldiers rolled-up the Prussian brigade that had just stormed the cemetery, and relived Lobau’s weary troops; allowing them to concentrate in the open ground to the north, between Plancenoit and Smohain/Papelotte.

It was 6:30 pm and the Prussian plan to cut the French line of retreat was in jeopardy. A messenger from Wavre arrived, saying that Thielmann was hard-pressed by Grouchy and requested reinforcements. Preoccupied with the fearsome struggle before him, Gneisenau replied, “Let Thielmann defend himself as best he can; it matters little if he is crushed at Wavre, so long as we gain the victory here”.

Taking personal command, Gneisenau now led two newly-arrived brigades of Pirch’s II Korps against the village, while Blücher ordered Ernst Karl, Graf von Zieten‘s I Korps, coming in along the northern road from Wavre and originally intended to link-up with Wellington’s left at Papelotte, to turn southwest and direct their attack between this village and the left of Lobau’s Corps . These, however, were still an hour away, and the forces available were held by Lobau’s infantry and cavalry. In Plancenoit, though, the division-sized Prussian brigades succeeded in driving the Young Guard back after hard fighing.

1414416His right flank in danger, Napoleon now took the extraordinary action of detaching two battalions of the Old Guard, the elite-of-the-elite, to reinforce the Young Guard and take the village at bayonet point. At 7 pm, with drums beating, the 1,100 men of the Old Guard advanced into Plancenoit. Not a shot was fired: the site of their bearskins was enough to route their Prussian opponents: fourteen battalions sent packing by two!

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In all their previous campaigns, the Prussians had only seen the Old Guard committed at the head of the entire Imperial Guard Corps, with Napoleon upon his grey Arab leading them in person. Perhaps assuming they were being counter-attacked by the entire Guard may have caused the Prussians to break. By the time they realized their mistake, the French had reoccupied the key ground, and the situation was temporarily restored.

Napoleon left these two Old Guard battalions to stiffen their junior comrades of the Young Guard; who, aspiring themselves to one day gain admittance to the Old Guard, would fight all the harder to impress these, Napoleon’s storied grognards.[2]

His right for now secure, Napoleon could once again turn his full attention to events in the center, where Ney was clearing the way for a decisive attack.

LA HAYE SAINT

For want of engineers or proper tools on the early hours before the battle, the farm complex of La Haye Saint had never been properly fortified (as had Hougoumont) with loopholes in the walls or a firing step for the defenders to mount and fire down from. Even the gates to the courtyard had been taken down and burned as firewood by the cold and wet troops on the night of the 17th. With only 60 rounds per man for their muskets, it was a testament to the heroic resistance of Major Georg Baring and the men of the King’s German Legion that the farm complex had held out this long.

Time and again, the French had breached the defenses and entered the courtyard, only to be thrown back at bayonet point. Now, leading the reconstituted battalions of D’Erlon’s I Corps and supported by Kellerman’s cuirassiers and point-blank artillery fire, Ney succeeded in storming the defenses after Baring’s men ran out of ammunition. Of the 400 defenders, only 43 (including Major Baring) managed to fight their way out.

1414422.jpgAs the survivors fell back onto the plateau, they were pursued by victorious French infantry. As these approached the 3rd Division formations behind La Haye Saint, General Charles Alten, the division commander, ordered Colonel Christian Freiderich Wilhelm von Ompteda of the 2nd Brigade, King’s German Legion to leave square, form line and counter-attack. Ompteda protested that this was too great a risk, that through the dense, fog-like smoke that shrouded the area he had spotted cuirassiers. While these officers were in discussion their Corps commander, the Prince of Orange, arrived. Overhearing the argument, the ever-impetuous “Slender Billy” peremptorily interrupted, commanding Colonel Ompteda to leave off and obey General Alten’s orders immediately.

Leading forward the 5th Line battalion, Ompteda crossed the sunken road to their front and met the advancing French columns with a volley, and charged forward with bayonet. The French immediately fell back without engaging.

However, Ompteda had been correct in his observations: French heavy cavalry were indeed in the vicinity. From out of a fold in the ground, a regiment of Kellerman’s cuirassiers now charged into the flank of the advancing German infantry. Slaughter ensued, with Ompteda cut down and the battalion colors captured. Of the nearly 400 men who had begun the advance, only 19 survived to return to their position behind the ridge.

This was the third time in three days that the Prince of Orange was directly involved in ordering units to advance from square to line in the face of cavalry, in each time resulting in the destruction of these units and the deaths of hundreds.

Major Baring summed up the situation bleak condition of his battalion after the fighting at La Haye Saint thus:

“of the 400 men with which I had entered the battle I now had no more than 42. According to who I could ask, the answers came: dead!  Wounded!… We buried our dead friends and comrades; among them was the commander of the brigade, Oberst von Ompteda, and many a brave man.”[3]

With La Haye Saint in French hands, Ney was able to bring up guns to rake the British squares at close range. Cannon balls smashed into the squares of the British infantry; who dared not break formation after what had just befell Ompteda’s battalion. The 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of foot was particularly effected. Standing in square at the crossroads where the east-west Ohain road crossed the north-south Charleroi-to-Brussels highway, they were subject to canister fire from Ney’s batteries at a mere 300 yards. The regiment suffered 478 casualties, dead and wounded, of the nearly 700 who had taken the field that morning. This Irish regiment was later described as “lying dead in a square”. The Inniskillings suffered the highest proportion of casualties of any British regiment that day.

1414431Under this relentless pounding, the British center was beginning to crumble and give ground.  Of course the obvious question is why wasn’t the capture of La Haye Saint, with the dividends it was now paying, made a priority before Ney launched his massive cavalry attack at 4 pm? Had all those magnificent squadrons been still waiting in reserve, the outcome of the battle might have been very different.

But now Ney was desperate for more troops with which to exploit his belated success. He returned to Napoleon at La Belle Alliance for consultation.

He arrived just as word that Durutte’s Division had captured Smohain and Papelotte, anchoring this vital angle-joint connecting his main line facing Wellington with the right-wing holding back the Prussians. Along with this news came a (false) report that there was fighting behind the Prussian line. Napoleon took this as a sign that Grouchy had come at last, and was attacking Blücher and Gneisenau’s brigades from behind.

With the situation on his right temporarily stabilized, Napoleon now saw a final opportunity to win his battle. A strong push against Wellington’s faltering center would shatter the “Sepoy General’s” army and send it fleeing from the field. With Wellington routed, he could then turn upon Blücher. With Grouchy’s Corps as the anvil, Napoleon could hammer the Prussians into bloody pulp. The Allies in Belgium decisively defeated, Brussels would be open for the taking.

Turning to Ney, he ordered him to prepare to lead forward the 14 battalions of the Old and Middle Guard against Wellington’s center.

NEXT: THE FINAL THROW OF THE DICE

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Notes:

  1. schwerpunkt – Focal point of the attack
  2. Grognards – “grumblers”
  3. Schwertfeger, Geschichte der Königlich Deutschen Legion 1803-1816 2. Vol S. 315
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NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGN (PART EIGHT): NEY’S CHARGE – EYLAU REDUX!

philippoteau Charge_of_the_French_Cuirassiers_at_Waterloo

At 4 pm, with no reserves immediately available but his Imperial Guard,  which he was unwilling to commit at this point, Napoleon ordered  Marshal Ney to lead his large and formidable cavalry reserve to a massive but unsupported attack on Wellington’s center!

(To read Part Seven, go here. Or, to read this series from the beginning, go here)

Napoleon had been in a similar situation before: at Eylau in 1807. There, by mid-day he had lost one Corps, Augereau’s; his center was stripped bare with nothing to plug the gap but the Imperial Guard, which he dared not commit. With the Russians advancing on his center his response then had been to throw in Murat and the massive cavalry reserve against the advancing Russians. In one of history’s greatest charges the French cavalry had galloped forward in a snowstorm, shattering the first and second Russian line; and then, covered by the Imperial Guard Horse, withdrawn back to safety, the situation restored.

Here, at Waterloo, Napoleon perhaps saw himself in similar circumstances, and resorted to the same response.[1] This task was given to Marshal Michel Ney, who before the Revolution had been a Sergeant Major in a Hussar regiment.

To accomplish the task of shattering Wellington’s center, Ney massed Milhaud’s IV Heavy Cavalry Corps; supported by Gen. Lefebvre-Desnouettes’ Imperial Guard Light Cavalry Division. Together, these numbering some 5,094 superb (and superbly mounted) horsemen. Milhaud’s command was composed of two divisions of cuirassiers, each of two brigades or four regiments of horse: a total of nearly 3,000 of the French cavalry’s much feared “Gros Freres” (Big Brothers). To these should have been attached a dozen guns, 6lb cannon and 5.5″ howitzers, to deal with the enemy infantry should they form square. But earlier in the day these guns had been stripped away to support the attacks on Hougoumont, and not returned.

1396108.jpgLefebvre-Desnouettes’ Guard Light Cavalry Division was composed three of the most celebrated cavalry regiments in Europe: the famed Chasseurs à Cheval, the men responsible for the Emperor’s personal safety when on the road or in the field; the 1st Polish Lancers of the Imperial Guard (1er Régiment des chevaux-légers [polonais] de la Garde Impériale), the famed Polish Lancers; and the 2nd Regiment of Lancers of the Imperial Guard (2e régiment de chevau-légers lanciers de la Garde Impériale), the striking “Red Lancers“. No finer light horsemen existed in Europe (or perhaps the world). Their role was to exploit the breakthrough achieved by their “Big Brothers”, the cuirassiers.

1396113.jpgOfficer of the famed Chasseurs a Cheval

The Polish Lancers of the Imperial Guard

Rank after rank set forth at a walk, then a canter, up the slopes toward the ridgeline and Wellington’s Army waiting for them on the Mont-Saint-Jean plateau beyond. What neither Ney nor his master could see beyond the ridge, through the dense smoke that now swirled across the battlefield, was the 18,000 infantry (in this sector) of Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch army, fronted by 56 guns and backed-up by as many cavalry as the French now approaching.[2] The infantry was prepared to receive cavalry, deployed in some twenty large, regimental squares. Each square was four ranks of glittering bayonets, a veritable hedgehog of steel-tipped muskets.

As Ney’s massed squadrons neared the crest of the ridge, Allied batteries opened fire; spewing canister at 100 yards. Nearly the entire front rank of Ney’s horsemen went down, including the Marshal himself (one of the many times the dauntless Ney would be unhorsed). The cavalry thundered on, over the bodies of their fallen comrades. The Allied gunners abandoned their guns (as ordered by Wellington), sprinting to the safety of the infantry squares beyond.

1396129The French cavalry, now in full gallop, flooded over the ridge and onto the plateau. Past the Allied batteries, they found themselves facing the impenetrable squares.

From the 1970 film, “Waterloo”, depicting (erroneously) this portion of the battle. 

These were drawn up in checkerboard fashion, with hundreds of yards between each. Into the gaps between rode the great mass of horsemen, like a tide rushing onto shore; swirling around and past the squares, striking at the kneeling or standing wall of men when opportunity allowed.

Though safe from overrun, standing in square was not surety against death: the long lances of the chevaux-légers or the large horse pistols carried by the cavalrymen took a toll. The corners of the square were always particularly vulnerable to attack, and many a English or Dutch soldier manning these points of maximum danger was speared or sabered from his blind-side by a trooper experienced in the best way of dealing with this otherwise wall of death.

1396123.jpgAs the mass of horsemen pressed forward, pressure from the rear echelons, arriving on the plateau of Mont-Saint-Jean, drove the first waves further on; to where Wellington (who had taken refuge within a square of Brunswickers) had positioned his reserve of Allied cavalry. These (along with the reconstituted survivors of the Household and Union Brigades of British heavy cavalry, who had charged so nobly earlier in the battle) now counter-charged the cuirassiers, sending them back the way they had come. The entire mass of French cavalry withdrew, riding back over the edge of the plateau.

From out of the squares gunners scrambled, to re-crew their guns. (As with the British cavalry earlier in the day, when they had charged across the valley and overrun the Grande Batterie, the French horse failed to spike the guns and render them useless; a gross oversight resulting in their failure to carry the nails necessary to do so.) These now sent canister into the retreating French squadrons, hot iron giving them a warm send-off!

1396161CZTScQSW0AAudzg.jpgFrench cuirass, holed by a cannon ball; mute testament to the fate of one of Ney’s troopers that fateful day!

However, the French had only begun.

Ney, remounted, quickly reordered the horsemen for a second charge. While he was doing so, the guns of the Grande Batterie re-commenced their bombardment of the Allied position. Cannon balls and shells, flying high over the ridge crest, landed among the squares, where bouncing balls cut swathes through the dense formation, reducing men to pulp. Shells were even more unnerving: fiercely burning fuses causing the balls to spin on the ground where they landed, before exploding. Landing in or near a square, they could take out a dozen tightly packed men.

As the French charged again up the slope toward the plateau, the Allied gunners greeted them again with canister. After two volleys, the gunners once more took refuge within the nearest friendly square.

Here the 2e régiment de chevau-légers de la Garde impériale (better known as the Red Lancers, they were also nicknamed the crayfish, after their red uniforms), led by the gallant General Pierre de Colbert, assails the square of  a Highlander regiment!

Ensign Gronow of the British 1st Foot Guards recounts that second charge against the stolid squares:

“Not a man present who survived could have forgotten in after life the awful grandeur of that charge. You perceived at a distance what appeared to be an overwhelming, long moving line, which, ever advancing, glittered like a stormy wave of the sea when it catches the sunlight. On came the mounted host until they got near enough, whilst the very earth seemed to vibrate beneath their thundering tramp. One might suppose that nothing could have resisted the shock of this terrible moving mass. They were the famous cuirassiers, almost all old soldiers, who had distinguished themselves on most of the battlefields of Europe. In an incredibly short time, they were within twenty yards of us, shouting “Vive l”Empereur”! The word of command, “Prepare to receive cavalry!” had been given, every man in the font ranks knelt, and a wall bristling with steel, held together by steady hands, presented itself to the infuriated cuirassiers.”

Once again the waves of horsemen washed around the unmovable squares of red-coated infantry. Again, they inflicted some damage upon the defenders, though in frustration many riders vented their spleen on the occasional victim found outside of a square’s protection, even those wounded laying helpless on the ground. Ensign Gronow paints a portrait of the carnage among the defenders:

“During the battle our squares presented a shocking sight. Inside we were nearly all suffocated by the smoke and smell of burnt cartridges. It was impossible to move a yard without treading upon a wounded comrade, or upon the bodies of the dead; and the loud groans of the wounded and dying was most appalling. At four o’clock our square was a perfect hospital, being full of dead, dying and mutilated soldiers.”

philippoteau Charge_of_the_French_Cuirassiers_at_WaterlooIt should be noted that the majority of the casualties inflicted upon the Allied squares was caused by the dreadful cannonading they received between each fresh cavalry charge; rather than from the sword, lance, or pistols of the horsemen. However, as has been mentioned previously, it was the menacing presence of the French cavalry that forced the British to spend the entire battle in deeper formations than was their want, formations much more vulnerable to artillery bombardment than the usual line-formation they were accustomed to fighting in.

Stripped of their horse artillery batteries Ney’s charges had no way of shattering the squares and opening holes for his horsemen to exploit. Considering how devastating was the bombardment from the distant Grande Batterie upon the British squares, one can only imagine the effectiveness of point-blank fire from horse guns, had they been available as they should.

Ensign Gronow of the Guards illuminates Wellington’s activity during this second charge by Ney’s cavalry; when the Duke took refuge in his square:

“I should observe that just before the (second) charge the Duke (Wellington) entered by one of the angles of the square, accompanied only by one aide-de-camp; all the rest of the staff being either killed or wounded. Our Commander-in-Chief, as far as I could judge, appeared perfectly composed; but looked very thoughtful and pale.”

Pale indeed, for Wellington must have known that his army was being tested to its utmost limits. Many of the squares were comprised of Dutch-Belgians, men whose reliability was in question. Though they held firm all day, it was a source of concern that they would fail. Further, even his British troops, famously steady under fire, were receiving greater punishment than they ever had before. Not once in Spain had Wellington’s army been subjected to such a royal mugging, by a masterful use of combined arms: steady infantry, supported closely by masses of cavalry[3], and such an expansive amount of heavy artillery.

1396143.jpgOnce again, the French horse were driven back by a charge of the Allied supporting cavalry, and sent off with a hail of iron from behind by the re-crewed batteries.

Ney now rode back to La Belle Alliance, to Napoleon’s command post. There he found the Emperor busily directing a detachment of his Imperial Guards to reinforce Lobau‘s Corps, now engaged to the east against the Prussian spearhead debauching from the Bois de Paris woods on the French right-rear. The Prussians were threatening to take Plancenoit, behind Napoleon’s right flank, and cut the Charleroi road, his line of retreat. To repel them he had committed Lobau’s Corps, and now sent elements of the Guard to stiffen them. Distracted, he had not perhaps kept a close eye on the progress of Ney’s assaults.

Ney now asked for reinforcements, more horsemen to complete his task and break Wellington with one more titanic charge. Napoleon is recorded by an aide, present at this brief conference, to have been displeased with his Marshal’s handling of the attack; but saw no other option but to accede to Ney’s request:

“There is Ney hazarding the battle that was almost won, but he must be supported now, for that is our only chance.”

In for a penny, in for a pound: with Blücher now threatening his right flank, time was not on the Emperor’s side. He had to break Wellington and break him now!

Ney was given another 5,300 superb cavalry: François Étienne de Kellermann’s III Cavalry Corps, and Claude-Étienne Guyot’s Guard Heavy Cavalry Division. The former was composed of four regiments of cuirassiers and two of dragoons, as well as the two elite regiments of Carabiniers-à-Cheval .

1396128.jpg The Carbiniers à Cheval

These latter were the elite of the line cuirassier regiments, sporting brass cuirasses and red-crested brass helmets. The Guard Heavy Cavalry was composed of the Empresses’ Dragoons (Dragons de la Garde impériale), the Gendarmerie d’Elite, and the finest (and most feared) heavy cavalry in Europe: the elite Grenadiers à Cheval de la Garde Impériale. The Grenadiers à Cheval, the senior “Old Guard” cavalry regiment of the Imperial Guard, were looked upon by all other French cavalry with something akin to awe. Their proud nickname in the army was “The Gods”.

1396125.jpg The Grenadiers à Cheval: “The Gods”

These now thundered forward, to join what remained of the first wave, Milhaud’s Corps and Guard Light horse. Nearly 9,000 horsemen now advanced in 10 echelons, covering the nine hundred yards between Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. Ney, mounted now on his third horse, led them thundering once again  up the slopes and onto the plateau of death.

While he was preparing this attack, the Grande Batterie had again pummeled the Allied squares around Mont-Saint-Jean. It was something of a relief when the French cavalry crested the ridge, bringing the cannonading to a temporary halt.

Again, as each time before, Allied guns met the advance with canister; and the infantry in their squares raked the horsemen as they flowed past. Far more French died here than British, the riders packed together as tightly as cattle in a pen, making excellent targets. Unable to force their horses to charge home into the hedge of bayonets, the best cavalry in Europe were impotent against an enemy who refused to break. “Never”, wrote an English witness, “did cavalry behave so nobly, or was received by infantry so firmly.”

1396134Too late Ney attempted to support the attacks with infantry and guns, brought up in close support. But the infantry were unable to get past the walls of their own retreating horsemen; and the guns were nearly lost when Allied horsemen, pursing the retreating cuirassiers, attempted to ride them down before they could limber-up and likewise escape.

At 6 pm Ney, covered with mud and black gunpowder smoke, called off further fruitless attacks. Though Wellington’s infantry were near the point of exhaustion, the French cavalry were a spent force. Casualties were nearly 50% in most regiments. “The Gods” had started the day with nearly 800 swords. When the role was called the following day, a mere 462 answered. Overall, the Guard’s Heavy Cavalry Division sustained 47% casualties.

Napoleon had sought to repeat the success of Murat’s charge at Eylau. In this he was sorely disappointed. Some have blamed Ney for failing to support his attack with infantry and artillery. But the fault here lies with Napoleon, who had stripped those guns from the cavalry Corps in the first place, and who had every opportunity to stay Ney’s actions and order infantry into action. The truth was that Napoleon, whose infantry (other than his Guard) was already committed elsewhere, believed that a mass cavalry charge would do the trick; with-or-without support.

But the circumstances at Eylau, eight years earlier, had been quite different. That attack had been launched in a blinding snow storm, which concealed Murat’s charging horsemen until they were upon the advancing lines of Russian infantry. These had thus been taken unawares, without opportunity to form square. Much like d’Erlon’s Corps in the earlier part of the day, the Russians had been overrun while in line formation. Here at Mon-Saint-Jean the Anglo-Dutch infantry had met cavalry in squares, and both man and formation had proven its worth. For the rest of the century, British infantry would “dine-out” on their reputation for steadiness and of their unbreakable squares, a legend established this day at Waterloo against the pride of Europe.

1396145.jpg

NEXT: LA HAYE SAINT AND PLANCENOIT

Notes:

  1. We have no way of knowing definitively what was in Napoleon’s mind that afternoon. Soon after the battle he began laying the blame on Marshal Ney, a theme picked-up by most later historians. But as explained in the previous chapter, the decision to charge Wellington’s position must lay solely upon the shoulders of the Emperor himself. Why he decided this can only be, at best, informed speculation.
  2. Though the British Household and Union Brigades of heavy cavalry were largely spent after their early charge, there were many thousands of light horsemen, both British and Allied, waiting in reserve.
  3. The British had never faced cuirassiers in Spain. The heaviest cavalry they had seen were dragoons, often riding second-rate horses.

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NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGN (PART SEVEN): MID-BATTLE MUSINGS

1390388.jpg

Looking over the valley below from his position at Le Belle Alliance, Napoleon surveyed a strangely quite scene. It was 3:00 pm, and the tide of battle had temporarily receded. The ground between the two opposing armies was littered with the debris of battle.

(To read Part 6 go here. To start from the beginning, go here)

In the previous two hours, Napoleon’s plan of battle had come unraveled. The attack by d’Erlon’s Corp, his one fresh strike force, had made great progress, decimating Wellington’s center-left before being in turn shattered by the devastating charge of two British heavy cavalry brigades (see Part Six).

At this point his staff presented a messenger from Field Marshal Grouchy, the officer commanding the detached force of some 33,000 men tasked with pursuing Blücher‘s Prussians and preventing them joining Wellington at Waterloo. Grouchy’s man had been delayed for over an hour, as the Emperor’s attention was fixed upon the repulse of d’Erlon and organizing the bloody counter-attack against the British cavalry. Now he read the man’s dispatch, sent 4 hours earlier. It outlined Grouchy’s failure to stay apace and stop Blücher from intervening in the present battle. Three Prussian Corps were on their way, and the closest, Von Bülow‘s IV Corps would soon be threatening the French right-rear near Plancenoit.

1390362.jpgNapoleon was not unaware of this threat. Earlier in the morning he had detached the 7th Hussars under the gallant Marcellin Marbot to scout the woods towards Wavre, to the right of the French Army. His men had captured and sent to the Emperor a Prussian officer, who had bragged that Blücher had concentrated at Wavre and was pledged to march to Wellington’s aid that afternoon. In response, Napoleon had deployed the 10,000 men and 28 guns of Lobau‘s VI Corps earlier in the day to his right, facing at right angle to the main French line and prepared to fend off Prussian attacks from the east.

Orders had already been sent earlier in the day to Grouchy, ordering him to march with all haste to link-up with the right of the French mainbody fighting before Mont-Saint-Jean. The somnambulant Gouchy had been marching at a snail’s pace, a plodding one-mile per hour. However, the Emperor still had high-hopes of victory, and told his staff that if Grouchy were to march west Von Bülow’s Corps could be caught between his force and Lobau’s, and crushed along with Wellington.

1390387.jpgThe problem was that while he had begun the day with an advantage over Wellington of 4,000 men and 90 guns, that advantage was now gone. Nearly twice this amount had been lost with d’Erlon’s reverse: killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Now, of Napoleon’s four infantry Corps on the battlefield, Reille’s was tied up in fierce struggle over Hougoumont on his left; Lobau’s was now facing east, awaiting the Prussians; and d’Erlon’s survivors (some 13,000) were demoralized and reassembling to the east of La Belle Alliance, and would not be ready for battle for some hours. If Wellington were to attack at this point, Napoleon had only 13,000 infantry uncommitted and ready to fight: the 10,000 men of the Imperial Guard and three reserve brigades.

With the Prussians coming the Emperor could not afford to stand on the defensive. He had no choice but to continue to attack and break Wellington before Blücher could arrive in force. While putting together a new plan of attack, he covered his weakness by renewing the intense barrage by his Grande Batterie upon Wellington’s position.

1390371.jpgFortunately for Napoleon, Wellington was in no position to attack, nor had he planned to do so. His right was tied-up defending Hougoumont; and though he still had considerable reserves behind this very strong position Wellington was determined to leave these in place. Throughout the long day, he was alert to a potential French turning movement on this flank, which could cut his line of retreat to the northwest. His left-wing, composed largely of his dark-uniformed Belgic, German and Dutch allies, leavened with red-and-green coated British regiments, had been thoroughly savaged. Huge holes exited in what had been a solid line. Officers were conspicuously absent, and in some regiments sergeants were left to command whole battalions.[1] The senior leadership had not been spared: General Thomas Picton was dead and General Bylandt of the 1st Brigade, 2nd Netherlands Division so wounded he had to turn over his command to a subordinate (Lt. Colonel de Jongh, who, in turn, was so wounded he had to be tied with rope into his saddle). Wellington filled the gaps in Picton’s division with the 10th Brigade, veterans of the Peninsula War commanded by Major General Sir John Lambert. Lambert was only recently returned to Europe from America, where he had commanded troops at the bloody reserve at the Battle of New Orleans. One of his two veteran regiments was the 27th Inniskillings, who within hours would earn the dubious honor of taking the highest casualties of any British regiment on the field that day.

The constant bombardment from Napoleon’s Grand Batterie was taking its toll of the Allied regiments waiting in reserve beyond the ridge. Though they could not be targeted directly, the thousands of French cannon balls fired had skimmed over the ridge and landed among the formations massed beyond; inflicting terrible casualties. Lt. General Sir Charles Alten, commander of the British 3rd Division, said, “Never had the most veteran soldiers heard such a cannonade“. In response, Wellington ordered the line to withdraw 100 paces.

At this junction, Napoleon ordered Ney to begin an assault on La Haye Sainte farmhouse, forward of Wellington’s center; preparatory to a larger assault. One of Quiot’s Brigades was tasked with the mission, and the fighting around the farmhouse was soon bloody and ferocious. Once again, the farmhouse would hold out.

Waterloo Haye-SainteMeanwhile, the Prussians were coming.

BLÜCHER’S PLANS

True to his pledge to Wellington, Blücher’s Prussians were moving as rapidly as they could to join their British allies. In contrast to the moribund Grouchy, Blücher had set his army in motion at daybreak, three hours before the now distant Grouchy had broken camp. However, the terrain and roads were atrocious even by the pitiful standards of the day, and frustrated every effort to hasten the pace. In some places the tracks through the Bois de Paris woods were so narrow that the Prussian columns had to pass along in single file.

Blücher and his Chief of Staff, the methodical and cerebral August Wilhelm von Gneisenau had scouted ahead of their spearheads and assessed the ongoing battle at Waterloo. They immediately comprehended that Wellington could hold his position, fixing Napoleon’s attention. Gneisenau argued for making the main Prussian effort towards Plancenoit with the purpose of cutting the Charleroi Road and trapping Napoleon’s army. When Blücher suggested this threat might bring the whole wrath of Napoleon’s main force down upon their isolated spearheads and destroy them piecemeal before they could be supported, Gneisenau keenly (and accurately) deduced that on the contrary, Napoleon would reply by attempting even more vigorously to pierce the British position, only throwing against the Prussians enough forces to delay them till this was achieved. [2]

Gneisenau knew his enemy: Napoleon reacted in exactly this manner.

Blücher was convinced. Von Bülow’s IV Corps, followed by Pirch’s II Corps were ordered to attack toward Plancenoit. Only Zieten’s I Corps was to take the northern route along the Wavre Road, and link-up directly with Wellington’s left flank north of Papelotte.

1390390.jpgThe vanguard of Von Bülow’s Corps began arriving around 4:30 in the afternoon, where they immediately engaged with Lobau’s troops over the hamlet of Plancenoit. It was good timing for the Allies, as they arrived at precisely the moment Napoleon was attempting to break Wellington’s line elsewhere.

THE EMPEROR’S GAMBLE

At 3 pm, June 18th, as the lull before the storm gave him time to consider his next move, Napoleon had two options: Withdraw or continue to fight. The first was the better military decision (and not just retrospectively, as he knew at the time the Prussians were threatening his flank and line of retreat); the second the better political decision.

Napoleon was not just a general, he was also the political leader of France. Upon his return from Elba on a wave of Republican sentiment against the returned Monarchists, he was forced to make political concessions to regain the throne. Unlike his previous tenure as Emperor of the French, this time he was constrained by a constitutional system in which he shared power with a Parliament (the Chambers). As within any such system, he had political supporters and he had (sometimes bitter) opponents. Even now, as the battle raged in Belgium, his enemies back in Paris worked against him. To maintain his authority as Emperor it was vital to continue to maintain an aura of invincibility. He must appear to still be the world-conqueror he had been before 1812.

Faced with d’Erlon’s defeat, and the blood-bath at Hougoumont, with Grouchy’s 30,000 troops effectively out of the battle and with the Prussians soon to join it, his plan was in shambles. To fall back now, his battered infantry covered by the still-intact mass of his cavalry, was undoubtedly the prudent plan. Lobau’s unengaged Corps had yet to fight that day, and could form a rearguard with the cavalry; Grouchy could fall back and join the mainbody further south. This would preserve the army intact to fight again another day, on more favorable terms.

But to retreat back into France and repeat the situation of 1814 would be a political disaster. The sense of déjà vu created by such a retreat would bolster his enemies in Paris and demoralize his allies (and perhaps the army as well). He could well face the same outcome, his political enemies and even some of his Marshals treating with the Allies behind his back. Retreat risked political disaster every bit as much as fighting on, here at Waterloo, risked military disaster.

On that afternoon, on the field of Waterloo, Napoleon the politician overruled Napoleon the great captain. Ever the gambler, he now decided to risk all and play on.

1390383.jpgMilitarily, he had been in a similar situation before, at Eylau in 1807. There by mid-day he had lost one Corps, Augereau’s, leaving his center was stripped bare with nothing to plug the gap but the Imperial Guard (which he dared not commit). His response then had been to throw in Murat and the massive cavalry reserve against the advancing Russians. In one of history’s greatest charges, they had shattered the first and second Russian line. Then, covered by the Imperial Guard Horse, withdrawn back to safety, the situation restored.

Here perhaps he saw himself in similar circumstances and resorted to the same response.

He ordered Ney to mass Milhaud’s IV Cavalry Corps (Cuirassiers), to be covered and supported by Lefèbvre-Desnoëttes’ Guard Light Cavalry Division: in all some 5,100 men and horses, in the space before La Belle Alliance, between and south of Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte.

Much has been written and debated as to the circumstances of this cavalry assault on Wellington’s center. Often it is blamed on Ney alone, acting on his own initiative while Napoleon was distracted (or, due to illness, taking an untimely nap). It is often cited that Ney, seeing Wellington’s forces withdraw 100 paces (to lessen the effect of the French artillery bombardment) as noted above , interpreted this move as the start of a general withdrawal. That, masked by the ridgeline, Ney could not see the British forming squares on the reverse slopes around Mont-St-Jean. However, many facts weigh heavily against these interpretations of events.

First, Wellington’s lines had been beyond observation on the reverse slopes all day. Only the artillery and skirmishers exposed on the forward slopes, along with the strongholds of Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte, were in plain sight to the French. How, then, could Napoleon (or Ney, acting on his own) have based his decision to launch what is sometimes described as a cavalry pursuit if he couldn’t see the British retrograde movement in the first place? Besides, the hours of cannon and musket fire had shrouded the battlefield in a fog-like smoke, so thick that at times one could not see a regiment of cavalry until it was thundering down upon you. So it is doubtful if Wellington’s retrograde movement was observed at the time.

1390385Secondly, and most compellingly, only Napoleon could order the movement of a cavalry Corps on the battlefield, and especially so elements of the Imperial Guard. As he clarified in his orders of June 16, when he divided the army into two wings, one commanded by Ney, the other by Grouchy:

“General Officers commanding Corps will take their orders directly from me (Napoleon) when I am present.”

That Napoleon had not relinquished his command to Ney when Milhaud’s Corps was ordered to move is illustrated by this incident: When the order to move was given, General Delort commanding the 14th Cavalry Division refused to budge. When confronted by Ney, he responded that no order had come from the Emperor, “but (only) from Count Milhaud” (his Corps commander). Delort could not be persuaded to move till a messenger was sent and returned bearing Marshal Soult’s (Napoleon’s Chief of Staff) signature; confirming that the Corps was placed under Ney’s command for the following operation. Only then did Delort order his cuirassiers to move to the assembly area.[3]

If Napoleon had turned over command to Ney, and was taking a nap, it was unknown to his subordinates.

Finally, it took at least 30 minutes to move and marshal 5,100 cavalry into a tight formation. The suggestion that Napoleon might somehow have missed the thundering of 24,000 hooves, the sound of countless trumpets sounding various and sundry calls and commands, and this all going on directly north of his command post at La Belle Alliance is absurd. Had he wished to countermand Ney’s orders and stop this assault he had ample opportunity to do so.

There has been an attempt by Napoleon’s admirers to shift the blame for his misconduct of the battle to Ney; much as admirers of Lee sometimes attempt to blame Longstreet for Lee’s failure at Gettysburg. This shifting of blame began very soon after the battle, and started perhaps with Napoleon himself.

As early as 23 June 1815, five days after the event, Napoleon was already muddying the water in an effort to shift blame to Ney. In his “Bulletin to the Army of June 21”, published in Paris on the 23rd Napoleon wrote:

“The Reserve Cavalry… charged the English infantry, having noticed a retrograde movement, to shelter themselves from our batteries; which had already caused them serious loss. This maneuver (the charge of the French cavalry) made at the correct time and supported by the Reserves, must have decided the day. But made in an isolated fashion and before affairs on the right were satisfactorily settled, it was fatal.”

This is clearly Napoleon already blaming Ney by implying that the Marshal’s attack was delivered prematurely and without proper support.

As stated above, if he felt the attack should be delayed Napoleon had ample time to cancel it. Instead, with the Prussian threat not yet apparent, and Lobau’s men already in position to deal with it; and with no reserves available, as d’Erlon’s troops would not be fit for battle till 5:30 pm; and given that he was unwilling to commit his Imperial Guard, Napoleon ordered Ney to commit his cavalry reserve to a massive but unsupported attack at or around 4 pm.

NEXT: EYLAU REDUX

1390386[1] D. Robertson, “Journal of Sergeant D. Robertson, Late of the 92nd Foot“; Perth, 1842; p. 157

[2] Von Reiche, “The French Campaigns Against Russia, Prussia, and Austria in the Years 1812-1815“; Duisberg and Essen, 1815; p.261

[3] Hamilton-Williams, David, “Waterloo: New Perspectives, the Great Battle Reappraised“; Wiley & Sons, 1993; p. 320

[4] ibid, p. 389-390, Note 19

 

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NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGN (PART SIX): UXBRIDGE SAVES THE DAY!

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At 2 pm Wellington’s position on the ridge was in danger of being rolled-up. The advance of D’Erlon’s Corps had broken the brigades of his first line, east of La Haye Sainte; and the men of Picton’s Division in the second line found themselves hard pressed, their commander shot dead in the furious fighting. As the situation grew desperate, Wellington turned to his cavalry commander, Lord Uxbridge.

(To read Part 5 go here. It is recommended that you start with Part 1.)

Lord Henry Paget, the Earl of Uxbridge, now ordered his two reserve brigades of heavy cavalry to charge d’Erlon’s approaching infantry.

Uxbridge had two superbly mounted and equipped brigades of heavy (shock) cavalry to throw against the advancing French. The 1st Brigade, also known as the Household Brigade, representing the British monarch’s personal mounted guard regiments, was composed of the 1st and 2nd Life Guards, the Royal Horse Guards (the Blues), and the 1st (King’s) Dragoon Guards. These were the senior cavalry regiments in the British Army. The 2nd Brigade was known as the Union Brigade, as it was composed of a regiment from each of the three parts of the United Kingdom: England, Scotland, and Ireland. These were the 1st Royal Dragoons, the 2nd Dragoons (‘Scots Greys’); and the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons.

1384687Whereas decades of warfare had decimated the horse population on the continent, the British cavalry had been very little used in their campaign against Napoleon in Spain. Thus British cavalry rode perhaps the finest horses in Europe at this time. The British cavalry also possessed terrific individual weapon’s skills, swordsmanship the equal of any. However, in contrast to the veteran British infantry, they were largely inexperienced and possessed of an over-abundance of aristocratic arrogance. While acknowledging their virtues, Wellington had little confidence in their ability to rally after a charge, or to maneuver to any advantage. The Duke expressed his misgivings prior to the battle:

“Our officers of cavalry have acquired a trick of galloping at everything. They never consider the situation, never think of maneuvering before an enemy, and never keep back or provide a reserve… I consider our (British) cavalry so inferior to the French from want of order, that although I consider one squadron a match for two French, I didn’t like to see four British opposed to four French, for as the numbers increased and order became more necessary I was the more unwilling to risk our men without having a superiority in numbers.”

In massed formation the British cavalry were a one trick pony: capable of delivering only one all-out-devil-may-care charge, and little else. However, with the masses of blue and red shakos of d’Erlon’s fusiliers cresting the ridge, it was perhaps just the trick that was needed!

The Napoleonic battlefield was much like a game of “rock-paper-scissors”. Whereas in that childhood game “rock” beats “scissors”, “scissors” beats “paper”, and “paper” in turn beats “rock”; on the Napoleonic battlefield the fire of infantry in line-formation decimated square, square was necessary to foil cavalry charge; while cavalry charge shattered line. On a higher level artillery beat infantry, cavalry beat artillery, and infantry (at least when in square) bested cavalry.

When charged by cavalry, musket-armed infantry had but one expedient: to halt and form square. This formation, of three or four tightly packed ranks, presented the horsemen with a hedgehog of glittering bayonet blades. The first and second rank knelt, their musket’s butt braced in the ground, their bayonets at the horse’s chest level. The third rank (and fourth if available), standing, would fire at point-blank range over the their comrade’s head.

But to go from a spread-out firing line to a tightly packed square took even the best battalions time to prepare. Perhaps only minutes, but in battle minutes can be in short supply. If unable to form square in time infantry would be run down and slaughtered by their nemesis, the galloping horsemen. This had been the fate of several British regiment two days earlier at Quatre Bras.

Now, into the advancing lines of French infantry Uxbridge hurled his massed squadrons!

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To the west of La Haye Sainte the Household Brigade smashed into the Cuirassiers warding the left of Donzelot’s Division, left-most of D’Erlon’s Corps; driving them off in disorder. Lord Edward Somerset, commanding the Household Brigade, recorded the experience thus:

“The blows of the sabres on the cuirasses sounded like braziers at work.”

1384694Continuing down the slope, they likewise destroyed that part of Donzelot’s infantry who stood in their way.

The three dragoon regiments of the Union Brigade, to the east of La Haye Sainte, simultaneously surged over the crest of the ridge and came flooding down into the astonished and unprepared French battalions. In seconds, d’Erlon’s fresh divisions were shattered and sent fleeing back the way they had come!

A senior British cavalry officer present described the scene:

“…the enemy fled as a flock of sheep across the valley; quite at the mercy of the Dragoons.”

At a stoke, Wellington (and Uxbridge) had turned the tables on the French, as D’Erlon’s hitherto successful attack was shattered and his entire Corps reduced to refugees running for their lives.

1384745Capture of the Eagle of the 45th Regiment of Line by the Scots Greys

However, the indiscipline of the British horsemen and the very success of their charge now worked to their detriment. As officers frantically called for them to reform, the British horsemen galloped on in a killing frenzy, pursuing and sabering d’Erlon’s fleeing soldiers.

“(the officers) exhorted themselves to the utmost to reform the men; but the helplessness of the enemy suffered too great a temptation to the Dragoons… The Dragoons were in the same disorder, cutting up remnants of the dispersed enemy.”

The Scots Greys, particularly, over-extended themselves and charging across the valley. At some point Lt. Colonel James Hamilton, the commander of the Greys redirected their charge now against Napoleon’s Grande Batterie, on the opposite slopes of the valley and in the center of the French position. Many of the gunners were sabered or run off, at least temporarily silencing the punishing barrage of Wellington’s position.

1384747 Scots Greys overrun the Grande Batterie

However, this was a “bridge too far”.

Napoleon, watching from nearby Belle Alliance, ordered a counter-attack by the cuirassier brigades of Farine and Travers, and by Jaquinot’s two Chevau-léger (lancer) regiments of the I Corps’ 1st Light Cavalry Division, waiting in reserve behind the right wing. Wheeling into the flank of the disordered British horsemen, the lancers fell upon them and exacted a bloody revenge!

“If only we could have formed a hundred men we could have made a respectable retreat and saved many. But we could effect no formation and were as helpless against their (the lancers) attack as their infantry had been against ours.”

On now-blown horses, the British tried fleeing back to their lines or to either flank of the lancers. But many were overtaken and killed or captured. Among the dead was the Grey’s commander, Col Hamilton, his arm nearly severed by a lance and shot through the face. Worse, the commander of the Union Brigade, Sir William Ponsonby, was also speared by a lancer while attempting to flee across the muddy field on a spent horse.

From the film, “Waterloo” (1970), depicting the charge of the Scots Greys of the Union Brigade; and the death of General Ponsonby. The film inaccurately gives the Greys sabres instead of the strait sword used by heavy cavalry; and  portrays the Polish Lancers of the Guard as conducting the French counter-attack; when in fact it was by the green-uniformed Chevau-légers (below) of Jaquinot’s 1st Cavalry Division.


1384786 French Chevau-léger

By the middle of the afternoon, both combatants had returned to their respective places on either side of the valley; leaving the slopes littered with masses of dead and wounded, men and horses alike. D’Erlon’s Corp had been shattered, and its under-strength divisions would not be prepared to fight again till much later in the day. Wellington’s heavy cavalry was a nearly spent force and had taken severe casualties. Though they would continue to support the British infantry throughout the day, by the battle’s end both Brigades together could muster but a single squadron!

But it had been money well spent: Napoleon’s battle plan was in a shambles, and much time had been lost to the Emperor in his bid to smash Wellington before Blücher could arrive. Uxbridge has been much criticized for joining in the charge himself, rather than organizing a reserve. The Earl later expressed these regrets himself: “I committed a great mistake”

However mishandled, Uxbridge’s charge had saved the army from defeat.

While Napoleon was busy preparing the counter-attack against the British cavalry, a messenger arrived and was kept waiting an hour. He brought news already 4 hours old from Marshal Grouchy: He had failed to keep apace with the Prussians, and Blücher was marching fast to fall upon the Emperor’s eastern flank!

NEXT: NAPOLEON PLOTS HIS NEXT MOVE

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