CONFUSION AT THE CROSSROADS: THE IRON DUKE BATTLES MARSHAL NEY AT QUATRE BRAS, JUNE 15, 1815

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Napoleon’s invasion of Belgium on the 15th of June, 1815 had caught the Duke of Wellington unprepared, his army scattered in bivouacs too far to the west. The Prussians, whose staff work was magnificent throughout the campaign, were already massing to oppose him. Napoleon learned of this on the morning of June 16th (see Part One). At 9am, he moved off with his Guard towards Fleurus.

(PART ONE HERE)

Arriving, he had an observation platform constructed around a windmill. This would serve as his headquarters throughout the coming battle. From here, he surveyed the Prussian movements to the northeast. It was soon obvious that this was Blücher’s main force he was seeing; deploying southeast of Sombreffe, their position centered on the village of Ligny. With Wellington’s forces as yet scattered, Napoleon saw an opportunity to crush Blücher before Wellington’s Army could assemble. Calling upon his reserves to join him and the forces of Grouchy’s right wing, he prepared to fight at Ligny with 68,000 men.

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At Ligny Blücher’s forces were well-positioned. Their front was protected by a meandering stream, about fifteen feet wide and four deep; its steep banks heavily overgrown. Behind this natural moat was a series of habitations and hamlets: Brye, Wagnelle, St-Armand, St-Armand la Haye, and Ligny itself. Ligny contained a number of obstacles: a ruined chateau, two farmhouses, and a church surrounded by a high-walled cemetery. All these places and more around their front the Prussians had barricaded, carving loop holes in the windowless walls, and turned each into a bastion. Behind these forward positions, Blücher’ forces waited in reserve, deployed along a low ridge.

1343532View of the St-Armand, as seen from the French vantage point. The fighting here on 16 June reduced the buildings to rubble; and the fields of rye stood at eye level, blocking much of the view for Vandamme’s advancing battalions.

Surveying their positions from his command post at the windmill at Fleurus, Napoleon’s keen eye discerned their weakness: the Prussian right was hanging on open ground; disposed with the expectation that Wellington’s divisions would soon arrive down the road from Quatre Bras and form-up on this flank. In the meantime, however, that flank was insecure.

Napoleon laid his plans accordingly: while Vandamme’s III and Gérard’s IV Corps probed, assaulted and wore-down the Prussian center; and a cavalry wing under Grouchy pinned the Prussian left, he would watch and wait for Blücher to commit his reserves to that fight. Then he would commit his Guard to drive back the Prussian right. However, to form the anvil upon which this attack would crush the Prussian forces, he would need Ney.

At 2pm, Marshal Soult, his Chief of Staff, wrote Ney a message, describing the Prussian forces and of the Emperor’s impending attack on them at Ligny. It commanded Ney to attack whatever force was before him (Wellington’s) and to “push them back vigorously”. Then Ney was instructed to “turn in our direction and bring about the envelopment of the body of the enemy troops I have just mentioned to you (the Prussians)”. Ney was expected, by this order, to send whatever he could spare eastward along the Quatre Bras-Namur road and fall upon Blücher’s right-wing. A second message was sent to Ney less than an hour later. To the earlier instructions the Emperor rather dramatically added the warning, “The fate of the Empire is in your hands.”

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Marshal of France Michel Ney, Duc de Moskowa; known as “the Bravest of the Brave”. He was given the almost impossible task of defeating Wellington at Quatre Bras, and then aiding Napoleon by attacking the Prussians at Ligny.

Ney’s supporting role in the coming battle at Ligny could not have been made more clear, in the eyes of Napoleon and Soult. However, this was in contradiction of Ney’s earlier orders, which he was preparing even then to execute. By the time these messages arrived, Ney would be heavily involved in his own fight at Quatre Bras; unable to spare (in his mind) a single regiment.

That, however, was not apparent in the morning hours of the 16th. While the Prussians were deploying in force, the Anglo-Dutch army was scarcely to be seen.

CONFUSION AT QUATRE BRAS

Due to the abysmal state of staff-work in Wellington’s army (poor even by the inadequate standard of the day), and the late hour in which the orders went out (carried by a wholly inadequate corps of staff officers, galloping through the dark of night, over unfamiliar country roads, to unit headquarters scattered over a hundred square miles); the next day would witness utter chaos on the roads. Setting out from their bivouacs and marching along roads little better than farm lanes, many units soon found themselves utterly lost in the darkness. Morning light found 90,000 men and beasts clogging the two narrow dirt roads leading to Quatre Bras.

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Hannoveran infantry marching down the narrow roads leading to Quatre Bras from Nivelles.

The worst congestion occurring on the Nivelles east-west road; along which 60,000 of Wellington’s troops were attempting to march. Units became hopelessly intermixed, and interfered with each other’s movement. Others marched without their complete compliment of supplies; or even all of their constituent units. The experience of one officer is illustrative of the confusion amongst Wellington’s scattered regiments in the pre-dawn darkness of the 16th June, as they scrambled to respond to the late-night movement orders. At the village of Soignies, southwest of Nivelles, the 30th (Cambridgeshire) Regiment of Foot had departed in the night, marching east. In their haste none noticed that the regiment’s Light Company, detached on picket duty two miles to the south, had been left behind. The first inkling that company’s commander had that his regiment had gotten movement orders was when he returned to headquarters at dawn to see to his company’s breakfast; only to find the place deserted of its former British occupants! The officer, Ensign (later Major) Neville Macready, later recounted the incident:

I ran into the house and asked, “Where are the troops?” “They marched at 2 this morning”, was the chilling reply. “By what road?” “Towards Braine le Compte”. [1]

Throughout the fighting on the 16th of June, the location and arrival time of Wellington’s formations was a matter of wild speculation, beyond his control; severely hampering his ability to come to the aid of his Prussian ally or even to hold onto the crossroads at Quatre Bras against Ney’s advancing forces. The bulk of the army would, in fact, never make it to Quatre Bras, missing the battle entirely.

DEATH IN THE TALL RYE

While the Emperor prepared to destroy the Prussians at Ligny, Ney had yet to receive Soult’s order issued at 2pm; to brush aside those scant forces opposing them (in the morning only General Perponcher’s 2nd Netherlands Division, spread out in front of the crossroads); and come to Ligny posthaste. Ney was still following his original orders from early that morning: to take up a strong holding position at Quatre Bras (with, the Emperor had specified, not less than six divisions; problematic in-and-of-itself in that throughout the fighting on the 16th Ney only had available to him a mere 3 divisions of infantry and three brigades of cavalry); then to probe northwards up the Brussels Road as far as Gennape; and, finally, to prevent any movement by the Duke of Wellington to link up with the Prussians. Those same instructions, issued before Napoleon was aware of the strong Prussian concentration around Ligny, suggested that once the Emperor had pushed back the Prussian pickets before him that he would swing west to join Ney at Quatre Bras. So far from expecting to aid Napoleon at Ligny, Ney began the Battle of Quatre Bras with the misunderstanding that he was merely to seize and hold the crossroads till the Emperor arrived….

(To continue reading, go here!)

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2 Responses to CONFUSION AT THE CROSSROADS: THE IRON DUKE BATTLES MARSHAL NEY AT QUATRE BRAS, JUNE 15, 1815

  1. Rajiv says:

    Well written!! Sitting in the warm plains of India your description of the battle takes me to the cold plains of Europe and paints a lucid picture of the battlefield.The Duke had just finished his conquests of central India before heading off to settle scores with Napoleon and had more of local Indian troops at his disposal than British ! Most of these Native regiments as they were called by the Brits are still around and on the other hand those British Regts who fought those battles have disappeared not defeated but cut down by modern day economics.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      Thank you for your kind and inciteful words, Rajiv. It is indeed a shame that so many regiments with magnificent histories have been disbanded in the modern British army structure.

      Speaking of Wellington and “Native Troops”, he earned a reputation in India; as you mentioned. But when he returned to Europe and took up the struggle against Napoleon, the Emperor disparagingly referred to him as “the Sepoy General”. As though fighting in India didn’t really count at good military service.

      Napoleon and his marshals would learn to their disadvantage that service in India had indeed prepared Wellington well for the fields of Europe.

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