On June 16th, at the village of Ligny, Napoleon inflicted a sharp defeat on Marshal Blücher’s Prussian army. All day, the French had hammered the Prussians, who suffered 20,000 dead or wounded, and lost 20 guns (as compared to a loss of only 6,000 French). Blücher himself was nearly killed or captured, when he was pinned under his horse and his position overrun by French cavalry. It was only the force of his indomitable presence (and the skillful staff work of his Chief of Staff, Marshal Von Gneisenau) that held the Prussians together. Beaten but not defeated, Blücher and his army escaped toward the northeast.
(This is Part 4 of a series. It is recommended that you start with Part 1.)
To the west, Napoleon’s subordinate, Marshal Michel Ney failed to defeat the Duke of Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch forces as they arrived piecemeal at Quatre Bras. Despite having a numerical advantage throughout most of the day (Wellington’s army suffered from atrocious staff work, and his dispersed forces had a great deal of trouble assembling in a timely fashion at Quatre Bras). Confusion as regards to the mission and disposition of d’Erlon‘s 1st Corps, which marched back-and-forth between the two battlefields without ever engaging in either of the battles of the 16th; contributed to neither Napoleon or Ney having sufficient forces at their disposal to achieve a decisive result. The arrival of these 19,000 men and 44 guns at either Ligny or Quatre Bras could certainly have overwhelmed the already strained Allied resources; ending the campaign for all intent and purpose that first day of fighting. (For the battles at Quatre Bras and Ligny, go to Part 2 and 3.)
The allies had escaped destruction on the 16th. But on the morning of the 17th of June, 1815, both armies were still in deadly danger of annihilation.
the allies withdraw
That morning, Wellington was still in ignorance of the outcome at Ligny. The Duke had spent the night a few miles north, in an inn at Genappe; where he and his staff had enjoyed a late supper after the battle. At 11 PM their sleep was disturbed by the clatter of thousands of hooves, the jingle of steel scabbards, and the rumble of artillery carriages. The British and German Legion cavalry were finally arriving, and passed on south towards the battlefield. Wellington awoke at dawn, and dressed in his customary blue frock coat and matching cloak, rode with his staff to join his army.
His army woke to a ad-hoc breakfast, the kitchen wagons having not arrived at Quatre Bras from the various regimental depots. The soldiers ate what they carried in their knapsacks, or resorted to cooking hunks of horse flesh cut from the carcasses of the many dead animals littering the field. Meanwhile, thousands of wounded still lay where they had fallen the day before; and litter parties were organized and sent to scour the field for survivors.
At Quatre Bras he had some 46,000; only about a half of his army. The rest were scattered along roads to the west. The Duke had no knowledge yet of what had happened the day before at Ligny; or word from Blücher of his intentions. If the Prussians had triumphed, they would be expecting him to advance on their western flank. However, Ney still sat before him to the south; with as many men at hand as he had himself. If the Prussians were defeated, the Duke would be in a very precarious position: an army to his front (Ney’s), and Napoleon perhaps bearing down at that very moment with an even larger army to fall upon his left flank. Worse, the true nightmare scenario, another French corps could be crossing the border at Mons, where Wellington had all along expected them; and marching north role up his scattered detachments and cut off Wellington’s communications with the ports along the coast.
Before 7 AM, Colonel Sir Alexander Gordon and a detachment of hussars were sent east, to find Blücher and ascertain his plans. Meanwhile, the Duke…
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