NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGN (PART 2): CONFUSION AT THE CROSSROADS

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Napoleon’s invasion of Belgium on the 15th of June, 1815 had caught the Duke of Wellington unprepared, with 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 9 am, he moved off with his Guard towards Fleurus.

(PART ONE HERE)

Arriving at Fleurus Napoleon 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 Blücher’s Prussians with 68,000 men.

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Napoleon established his command post beneath a windmill at Fleurus as his troops prepare to assault Ligny

At Ligny the Prussians were defending a strong position. Their front was protected by a meandering stream, about fifteen feet wide and four feet deep, with steep, heavily overgrown banks. 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 the Prussians had barricaded, carving loop holes in the windowless walls and turned each into a bastion. Behind these forward positions, Blücher’ army 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 1815 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 atop the windmill at Fleurus, Napoleon’s eagle-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.

The Emperor 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 the fight. Then he, in turn, 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 2 pm, 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  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, at least in the eyes of Napoleon and Soult. However, these instructions 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 low 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 darkness over unfamiliar country roads to unit headquarters scattered over a hundred square miles, the next day would witness utter chaos on the south Belgian roads. Setting out from their bivouacs and marching along roads that were little better than farm lanes, many units soon found themselves utterly lost in the darkness. Morning light found 90,000 men and a plethora of beasts clogging the two narrow dirt roads leading to Quatre Bras.

1349675Hannoveran 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 departed was when at dawn he returned to headquarters 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 aksed, “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 the Duke’s control. This severely hampered 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 was preparing to destroy the Prussians at Ligny, Ney had yet to receive Soult’s order issued at 2 pm, ordering him to brush aside those scant forces opposing them (in the morning only General Perponcher’s 2nd Netherlands Division and some supporting elements, about 8,000 men, were defending the crossroads), and to then come to Ligny posthaste. Ney was still following his original orders received from the Emperor in person at breakfast 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) and 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 (the Emperor) 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 understanding that he was merely to seize and hold the crossroads till the Emperor arrived.

Ney had his own problems assembling his forces on the morning of the 16th.

Most of these formations were still crossing the Sambre and marching toward his muster position between Gosselies and Frasnes (where the Guard Light Cavalry, scouting ahead, were observing the Dutch before Quatre Bras). He would eventually have nearly 19,000 infantry 2,400 cavalry, and 46 guns to accomplish the task the Emperor had set before him. He also had d’Erlon‘s I Corps in reserve (though this force was to be held back in case Napoleon should need to draw upon them).

On the morning of the 16th, Ney had only a portion of Reilly’s II Corps and the Guards Light Cavalry Division at his disposal; and the Guards would stay only till General Kellerman arrived with his Corps of Cuirassiers (only one Brigade of which was available that day), at which time they were to withdraw to rejoin Napoleon and the rest of the Guard at Fleurus. It took Ney all of the morning and into the afternoon to prepare even this small force for the task of clearing and securing the crossroads. Only the even greater disorganization plaguing Wellington’s army allowed him the luxury of wasting away these early hours.

1349682Ney attack on Quatre Bras didn’t begin till 2 pm, with an assault on the Prince of Orange‘s position with a mere 5,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry, and 22 guns: all that he could bring to bear at that time.

The attacking French columns, preceded by swarms of skirmishers, drove back the Dutch-Belgians from their positions in front of the farmhouses of Gemioncourt in the center, and Pierrepont farmhouse on the Dutch right. The militiamen broke in the face of the French musketry and cannonade. Only the stalwart 27th Jaegers (many of whom were veterans of Napoleon’s army, some even having served in the Emperor’s own Guard) fought well and stubbornly on the Dutch left, where small farmhouses, rocky terrain, a pond and a stand of woods made the advance of the French line more difficult. On the Dutch right the Nassauers of 2nd Brigade under the redoubtable Prince Bernard of Saxe-Weimar fell back first to Pierrepont farmhouse, till driven out by the newly arrived French division of Prince Jérôme; then into the thick Bosse Woods. This stand of forest proved a vital position, anchoring Wellington’s entire right flank. Saxe-Weimar’s men would hold on to it (with help) throughout the day.

Just after 3 pm Ney finally received Soult’s order from 2 pm, instructing him to secure the crossroads and come to Napoleon’s aid at Ligny as quickly as possible.

Ney was astonished!

He had begun the battle expecting Napoleon to come at any time and roll-up the Anglo-Dutch left while he held them in place with a frontal attack. Now, however, he faced the reality of no support from his Emperor; and, instead, must defeat Wellington and move to Napoleon’s aid!

1349684French Voltigeur’s (“Vaulters”), Napoleon’s light infantry skirmishers, in action. A thick swarm of these screened the French line troops. The Anglo-Dutch army at Quatre Bras had a very hard time dealing with their harassing fire.

Though Ney was making progress against Wellington’s center, securing a line from the Bosse Woods in the west to the Matern pond in the east (only Gemioncourt still holding out, an island of resistance assaulted repeatedly); a constant stream of reinforcements were appearing to bolster the Prince of Orange’s tenuous and wavering line. Picton‘s Division arrived down the Brussels Road, containing crack British and Scots regiments and was sent to the left flank of the Prince’s line, to face Foy’s advancing 9th Division. This was a pattern that would play-out all afternoon: Ney would hurl one punishing attack after another at Wellington’s line, only to have the Duke’s position saved and Ney’s attack thwarted by the nick-of-time arrival of reinforcements.

To have any chance of accomplishing the mission the Emperor had set him, Ney needed to first capture the Nivelles-Namur Road and the crossroads, increasingly difficult with the scant forces at his disposal.

1349680Prince William of Orange, Wellington’s Second-in-Command. He commanded at Quatre Bras until Wellington arrived at 3 pm. Much of went wrong over at Quatre Bras and at Waterloo was, perhaps unfairly, blamed by British sources on “Slender Billy”.

On the other side of the field the Prince of Orange was temporarily in command till Wellington returned from his conference at Brye with the Prussians (see Part One). In an effort to stabilize his line, Orange first allowed a counter-attack by light cavalry under the Duke of Brunswick, leading his own black-coated Hussars, against the advancing French. Their charge drove in the French skirmishers, who scattered back like mice before a cat; but came to a bloody halt before the fire of the supporting French Line Brigades, hastily formed into squares. These fired volleys into the stalled Brunswickers, blasting men from their saddles and dropping horses, till the cavalry was forced to retreat. The gallant Duke of Brunswick himself was shot from his horse and killed.

Black Brunswick Hussars at Quatre Bras (above); the dying Duke carried from the field (below)

After this, the French skirmishers redeployed and continued their advance, harassing the Dutch-Belgians and Picton’s red-coated infantry line with galling fire from the tall rye.

The head-strong Orange now personally led Merlen’s 3rd Light Cavalry Brigade forward, supported by Brunswickers eager for vengeance. Once again the French skirmishers scurried back from the glittering sabers and thundering hooves. This time the French countered the Prince’s attack with cavalry of their own: the lancers and chasseurs of Piré‘s 2nd Cavalry Division.

Piré’s lancers and Chasseurs had massed behind Foy’s infantry, preparing to exploit his attack. As they dipped their lances and spurred forward, the Prince of Orange’s horsemen wavered and broke, fleeing in terror before them. The French horse followed close behind, catching and spearing or sabering the hindmost!

Wellington returned to the battlefield at 3 pm, trotting with his staff up the Namur road from the east,  just in time to view this debacle. Hundreds of fleeing Dutch horsemen swept past him and his staff, impervious to the Duke’s efforts to stem the panic. French lancers and chasseurs, hot-on-their-heals, spotted richer prey and made for the Duke and his staff. Like gentlemen on a fox hunt, other horsemen swept around, attempting to outflank and trap Wellington. Alert to their peril the Duke and his staff spurred hard towards the safety of the nearest infantry square, the 92nd Regiment of Foot (the Gordon Highlanders).

 

The Scotsmen were in four-ranks deep square, a glittering wall of bayonets no horsemen could breach. To open their ranks and let the Duke enter was to risk catastrophe, with French lancers following so close behind. Wellington, fortunately, was always superbly mounted, and on this occasion (as two day’s later at Waterloo) the fleetness and strength of his steed saved him from death or capture. As he drew near the Duke shouted, “Down! Down!” The four files before him dropped to the ground. Copenhagen, his magnificent Thoroughbred-Arab mix, gathered itself and jumped, sailing over the 16 crouching men!

The Iron Duke, mounted on Copenhagen. The former race horse saved Wellington from death or capture on numerous occasions at Quatre Bras and Waterloo.

Frustrated at the loss of their prize, the lancers and hussars assailed the Highlander’s square, only to be met by a thunderous volley of musketry, which emptied saddles and sent the troopers reeling.

1349688French Lancers and Hussars swarming around British square. The ever-present French cavalry forced Anglo-Dutch infantry to spend much of the battle in square formation, where they were ready targets for cannon and skirmisher harassment. Those attempting to fight in traditional line formation paid dearly on several occasions, savaged by cavalry charge.

Now occurred one of those unfortunate incidents of war so often experienced in battle, where friend fires upon friend. As Merlen’s fleeing horsemen streamed past the squares of the 92nd and 42nd regiments along the Namur Road, they too were struck by the volley fire. Some was incidental, some deliberate: the Scots mistook the Netherlander’s green (the 5th Light Dragoons) and blue (6th Hussars) uniforms for French cavalry; whose colors were identical. More mounts than men were struck down, and Merlen’s stricken brigade reformed behind the crossroads, to await remounts from their depot, effectively hors de combat.

Meanwhile, facing musket and cannon fire, Piré withdrew his horsemen behind the French lines.

With the arrival of Jerome’s 6th Division, Reilly’s II Corps was now at full strength, and Ney’s attacking force numbered some 22,000. At 4 pm Ney pressed hard on Wellington’s center, pushing back the Dutch forces and beginning a ferocious assault on Gemioncourt.

Gemioncourt today, little changed since the battle. (Below) Dutch-Belgian militia, well-led, held this strongpoint through much of the day, a thorn in Ney’s side. Like La Haye Sainte and Château d’Hougoumont two days later at Waterloo these walled farm enclosures made natural fortresses, very tough nuts to crack.

This farmhouse was typical of Belgian farms of the period: strongly built of stone with adjacent outbuildings, surrounding a central courtyard. The entire complex was enclosed by high surrounding walls, which along with the windowless outer walls of the buildings made a natural fortress. Gemioncourt was held by the 5th Battalion of Dutch-Belgian National Militia, under good leadership: their commander, Lt. Col. Jan Johannes Westenberg had formerly commanded a battalion of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard. The fierce fighting there was a prequel to what would be seen two days later at Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. Foy’s Division threw attack-after-stubborn-attack at the farmhouse, till the Dutch were forced from the place.

Throughout the day the French cavalry, now including a brigade of Kellerman’s Corps of cuirassiers, menaced the Anglo-Dutch infantry, forcing them to stay in squares or risk overrun. In these close formations they were wonderful targets for the French artillery batteries, who took a steady toll. They were also harassed by the swarms of French skirmishers, in greater number than the British had seen in previous engagements.

Wellington had fought the French throughout the Peninsular War, but had never faced anything like the skillful use of combined arms he experienced at Quatre Bras (and two days later at Waterloo). The French in Spain had always had troubles supplying adequate remounts for their cavalry, and the harsh conditions of the country took a dreadful toll of both man and mount. Here he was facing a better mounted and more numerous body of cavalry, working in close support of infantry and guns, than he had ever seen in Spain. The entire French army was more experienced and more highly motivated than those he’d handily defeated before. Combined with the utter disorganization of his army, which would only arrive in haphazard fashion throughout the day, Quatre Bras was altogether an unpleasant affair; the worst-fought battle of his otherwise illustrious career.

The tall rye concealed both the French cavalry and skirmishers. The latter were able to approach very close to the Anglo-Dutch defenders of the Namur Road; and harass the close-packed infantry. The French cavalry used both the tall rye and bits of low ground to conceal their presence until ready to launch devastating attacks upon the unwary.

The confusion of uniforms also worked against the British. In one case, the 42nd Highland Regiment (the famed Black Watch ) stood idly as French lancers bore down upon them from their rear-flank; thinking they were observing allied Brunswickers. They made no move to form square till a galloper from Wellington (a German dragoon from the Kings German Legion) rode up, crying “Franchee! Franchee!!”  before riding off. The Highlanders immediately began forming a rally square. But it was too late, as the green-uniformed lancers were already among them.

Sergeant James Anton of the Black Watch described the horrors of the scene:

“Our skirmishers having been impressed with the same opinion that these were Brunswick cavalry, fell beneath their lances. Few escaped death or wounds; our brave Colonel (Sir Robert Macara) fell at this time, pierced through the chin until the point reached the brain. Captain Archibald Menzies (commanding the regiment’s Grenadier Company) fell covered in wounds… The grenadiers whom he commanded pressed around to defend or avenge him; but (they too) fell beneath the enemy lances. Of all cavalry certainly the lancers seem the most formidable to infantry, as the lance can be projected with precision, and with deadly effect, without bringing the horsemen within range of the bayonet. It was only by the rapid and well-directed fire of musketry that these formidable assailants were repulsed.”[2]

So decimated was the Black Watch that it had to be brigaded with the neighboring 44th (East Essex) Foot thereafter, where they formed a single square. They held this position throughout the rest of the day, harassed by French skirmishers and intermittent cavalry attack. The death toll for the 42nd that day at Quatre Bras was a ghastly 300 officers and men out of the 550 they had started the battle with; an unprecedented (for the regiment) 55%.

The 42nd wasn’t the only regiment to fall prey to charging French cavalry. Worst was in store for Wellington’s hard-pressed infantry later in the day.

Meanwhile, fresh British reinforcements were steadily arriving from the west. Sir Colin Halkett’s Brigade of Alten’s 3rd Division took up position on Wellington’s right, their flank on the Bosse Woods, and their left on the Brussels Road. Elements of Maitland’s First Brigade of the 1st Division, the Guards, were arriving as well and being fed into the Bosse Woods to bolster Saxe-Weimar’s exhausted men. Relieved, these fell back toward their depot northwest of the wood to replenish their ammo supplies, leaving the Guards to hold the woods against Prince Jérôme. Missing still was Uxbridge’s vital British Cavalry brigades, necessary to restore the offensive balance of Wellington’s army. They would, in fact, arrive too late to partake in the battle; only providing rear-guards the following day.

By 5 pm Ney had pushed as far as he could with the Reille’s Corps and needed fresh troops to accomplish his mission of securing the crossroads. This meant calling upon d’Erlon’s I Corps, in reserve along the road south of Gossilies. It was thus with dismay that he received the news from d’Erlon’s own Chief of Staff that, upon the Emperor’s orders, d’Erlon’s 20,000 men were on the way to Ligny!

At the moment of decision, when one last push by these fresh troops could break Wellington’s line, the Emperor had inadvertently sabotaged Ney, stealing his reserves. The fiery Ney was apoplectic with rage.

At that very moment, Soult’s second message arrived, telling him the “fate of the Empire” was in his hands.

What was Ney to do?

NEXT: OPPORTUNITIES LOST

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[1] Hamilton-Williams, David: Waterloo: New Perspectives ; The Great Battle Reappraised. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1994; p. 186

[2] Idid, p.208

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4 Responses to NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGN (PART 2): CONFUSION AT THE CROSSROADS

  1. Pingback: NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGN | The Deadliest Blogger: Military History Page

  2. Pingback: NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGN (PART 3): OPPORTUNITY SQUANDERED | The Deadliest Blogger: Military History Page

  3. ritaroberts says:

    Stunning history. Thanks for sharing your brilliant knowledge.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      Thank you, I will continue releasing new parts in the series through today in over the next few, as we reach the 202 anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo on the 18th.

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