On June 16th, at the village of Ligny, Napoleon inflicted a sharp defeat on Marshal Blücher’s Prussian army. All day long the French had hammered the Prussians, who suffered 20,000 dead or wounded, and lost 20 guns. Another 8-10,000 dispirited Prussians soldiers deserted during the retreat the following day. As Wellington had predicted, Blücher had been “damnably mauled”.
Blücher himself was nearly killed or captured, when he was pinned under his horse and his position overrun by French cavalry. Only the coming of night that allowed the Prussian army (and their commander) to escape.
After this stinging reverse, it was the force of Blücher’s indomitable spirit and the skillful staff work of his Chief of Staff, Marshal Von Gneisenau that rallied the Prussian army and held it together.
Beaten but not defeated, Blücher’s Prussians escaped to fight another day.
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. This 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 and conflicting orders for d’Erlon‘s 1st Corps, which marched back-and-forth between the two battlefields without ever engaging in either of the twin struggles on 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 with a decisive French victory.
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
On the morning after Quatre Bras Wellington was still in ignorance of the outcome at Ligny. His own soldiers 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. It is a shocking fact that wounded soldiers were routinely left unattended overnight to suffer and to survive as best they could on pre-modern battlefields.
Wellington had spent the night a few miles north, in an inn 3 miles north 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.
Wellington spent the night after the Battle of Quatre Bras here, at the village of Genappe.
Bivouacked at Quatre Bras he had some 46,000 men , only about a half of his army. The rest were still scattered along roads to the west. The Duke had no knowledge yet of what had happened the day before to the Prussians at Ligny; nor word from Blücher of his intentions. If the Prussians had triumphed, they would be expecting him to advance south towards France on their western flank. However, Marshal Ney still sat before him to the south with as many men at hand as he had himself.
On the other hand, if the Prussians were defeated, the Duke would be in a very precarious position: an army to his front (Ney’s), with perhaps Napoleon 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 to role up his scattered detachments and cut off Wellington’s communications with the ports along the coast.
The situation was, to say the least, fluid.
Before 7 AM, Colonel Sir Alexander Gordon (a staff officer) and a detachment of hussars were sent east to find Blücher and ascertain his plans. Meanwhile, the Duke drafted orders for his army to retreat, in case the worst was happening.
At the village of Tilly Col. Gordon found the commander of the Prussian First Corps, General von Zieten. What he learned was both gratifying and deeply disturbing. Blücher had lost the battle, and his army was scattered. However, the Prussians were not broken; and their army was reassembling to the north at Wavre, 19 miles north of Ligny.
This meant that Napoleon might indeed be preparing to turn west to attack Wellington’s army sitting at Quatre Bras. Galvanized, Gordon galloped hard to return this information to the Duke. At 10 AM Gordon pulled up on a lathered horse beside Wellington and his staff, where he delivered to his news.
Wellington now showed his true genius: if Napoleon had “humbugged him” in the first days of the campaign, he now redeemed himself. That very hour his army was rapidly (and in orderly fashion) withdrawing on every road towards a pre-arranged rally point 12 miles to the north: Mont-Saint-Jean. Here a year earlier, while reconnoitering Belgium and inspecting British troop placements, he had mentally selected this piece of terrain as a splendid place from which to defend the approaches to Brussels.
Withdrawal, though, in the face of the enemy is not without peril. It is, perhaps, the most difficult and dangerous operation a general and an army can undertake. Wellington’s problem was that the single road would not support his entire army marching at once. As each brigade, one-at-a-time, formed march column and set out north (infantry on either side, the road itself left to artillery caissons and supply wagons) the force left at Quatre Bras grew ever smaller and more vulnerable to attack: from Ney to the south or Napoleon from the east. Either could come at any moment.
But as brigade after brigade formed-up and marched off the field, in the end leaving only the British cavalry under the redoubtable Lord Uxbridge to form the rearguard of the withdrawal, no attack materialized. Finally, as the last of the infantry regiments departed the bloody field of Quatre Bras, Uxbridge and the massed heavy cavalry of the Household and the Union Brigades, screened by the 7th Hussars and the 23rd Light Dragoons, began their withdraw. They would be the army’s rearguard.
Just as the cavalry too began the march north, French forces began to press upon the crossroads.
Wellington raises his hat in salute to the cavalry rearguards as his army marches away from Quatre Bras. On the upper right, British Horse Artillery fires upon the distant French.
For all that late morning and into early afternoon, as Wellington masterfully extracted his army from the lion’s mouth, the French sat idle.
Once again, as would be seen throughout the campaign, French staff work had broken down. Throughout his long career Napoleon had at his side Marshal Berthier, his extremely capable Chief of Staff. Berthier turned Napoleon’s curt commands and stream-of-consciousness utterances into coherent orders to the appropriate formations and commanders. He acted like an extension of the emperor’s brilliant mind. He had at his service an extensive and competent corps of aid-de-camps and gallopers to carry detailed and legible orders to far-flung detachments. These orders were always sent by multiple riders along several different routs to ensure delivery.
In this, his final campaign, Napoleon was without Berthier’s invaluable services. The Marshal had inexplicably thrown himself (or been thrown) from a window in Bamberg two weeks earlier. For this campaign Napoleon had to rely upon the inexperienced Marshal Soult, the Duke of Dalmatia for his Chief of Staff.
Soult was a officer who’d served with much distinction in Napoleon’s wars, called by the British the “Duke of Damnation”. He was not of the first-tier of commanders (a place occupied by Davout, Murat, Massena, perhaps Suchet, and the now-dead Lannes), but was a competent corps commander. However, in the role of Chief of Staff he was deeply out of his depth.
Either because of incompetence or deliberate sabotage (see Part One) he was once again guilty of not facilitating orders and communications between Napoleon and his detached subordinate, Marshal Ney.
After waiting most of the morning for cavalry patrols to inform him as to the location and movements of the Prussians, Napoleon decided that Blücher’s badly mauled army was in full retreat, commenting to his staff that Blücher “couldn’t possibly fight another battle for at least two days”. Wellington, however, was still sitting at Quatre Bras, inviting defeat in detail. Napoleon therefore decided to personally lead the bulk of his army against Wellington’s forces. To facilitate the destruction of the Anglo-Dutch he sent orders for Ney to press a fresh attack on the crossroads, to pin Wellington in place while he marched upon the Duke’s exposed left flank.
A good plan.
However, no such clear or strongly-worded order was sent by Soult. Instead, belatedly, at noon Ney was informed that the Emperor wished him to follow his orders of the previous day and that Napoleon would be coming from the east to join him. In other words, Ney was to capture the crossroads. Unaware that Wellington was already withdrawing his army, Ney was unwilling to attack where he had met so little success the day before until he heard the sound of Napoleon’s guns, heralding the Emperor’s attack on Wellington’s flank.
Meanwhile Napoleon had detached Marshal Grouchy with two infantry and one cavalry corps (approx. 30,000 men) to pursue Blücher and “keep a sword in his back”, preventing him regrouping his army or coming to Wellington’s assistance.
In this task the plodding Grouchy proved singularly inept.
Throughout the morning and early afternoon of the 17th, both Napoleon and Ney expected the other to attack first. By the time the confusion was cleared up, Wellington had extricated his army and was well upon his way north, to Waterloo.
MARCH TO WATERLOO
When Napoleon arrived at Quatre Bras and found that Ney had allowed Wellington’s army to withdraw unmolested, the incredulous emperor exclaimed, “You have ruined France”! Exhibiting a furious energy conspicuously missing in the last 15 hours, he hurriedly arranged for his army to assemble and give chase; and personally set-off with a force of the Guard Cavalry in pursuit of the retreating Anglo-Dutch column. Only by catching and bringing Wellington’s army to battle could he hope to stop the Duke from escaping, or taking up a position on ground of his choosing.
Unfortunately for Napoleon, even the elements now turned against him. With a clap of thunder, black clouds overhead released a torrent of rain. A constant drenching, punctuated by thunder, began and would continue all afternoon and evening, turning the roads into a morass. This thunderstorm would prove Wellington’s salvation, badly slowing the French pursuit. The French heavy guns, the Emperor’s battle-winners, had a particularly difficult time on roads turned to sucking mud. This contributed to the Allies putting time and distance between themselves and the French forces.
However, it was a close pursuit nevertheless. Napoleon himself, mounted on a quick and nimble Arab, personally commanded the advance force of the Imperial Guard light cavalry and horse artillery. An officer of the Guard Artillery described the scene thus:
“(The pursuit)… resembled a steeple-chase rather than the pursuit of an enemy in retreat… Six pieces of Horse Artillery of the Guard, supported by the Headquarters Squadrons, rode at the head, and vomited forth canister upon the masses of enemy (British) cavalry as often… as they attempted to retard our pursuit. The Emperor, mounted on a small and very active Arab, galloped at the head of the column; he was constantly near the pieces, exciting the gunners by his presence and by his words, more than once in the midst of the shells and bullets which the enemy artillery showered upon us. “
Clearly, as he saw his chances of destroying Wellington’s army on the march disappearing down the rain-drenched road, Napoleon in desperation reverted to the young officer of artillery who’d once saved the government of France by dispersing a revolutionary mob with a “whiff of grape”. No doubt having great fun in the process!
In their escape from certain destruction, the Anglo-Dutch army owed much to Lord Uxbridge for his handling of the rearguard action. With cavalry squadrons and horse artillery he fended off every attempt by over-eager French cavalry to engage and fix the Allied army in place and allowing the Emperor’s main force to catch-up. At Genappe pursuing French lancers of the Guard caught up with Uxbridge’s rearguards. Charging down the narrow streets of the village, the 2nd Regiment “Red Lancers” scattered the hussars with their longer lances.
As they cleared the village, Uxbridge countered them with a charge of the British Life Guards regiment of the Household Cavalry Brigade. The impact of these “heavies” shattered the lancers, sending them scattering in every direction.
A sharp smack on the snout, just the thing to keep the enemy from sniffing under the skirts of Wellington’s retreating army!
Meanwhile, many miles to the east and on the other side of the Dyle River, the Prussians were marching to their assembly at Wavre, where the Brussels-Namur road crossed the river.
While Gneisenau was for abandoning Wellington (who he believed had failed them by not coming to their aid at Ligny), the bellicose Blücher was far from daunted: “We’ve had a blow and must straighten out the dent”. He was prepared to cooperated on the following day with his British ally, and sent a messenger to Wellington promising to come to his assistance on the 18th.
During the long march on June 17, all the while staying well ahead of Marshal Grouchy, Blücher harangued his troops:
“My children! I have promised my brother Wellington that tomorrow I will be at his side. Do not disappoint me!”
They would not.
Grouchy for his part was following at a snail’s pace. That entire day he never came within 6 miles of the Prussian rearguards. Far from the fiery pursuit required, his “sword in Blücher’s back”, which a cavalry leader of Murat’s ability would have delivered, Grouchy marched like an old man with piles! Once again it is worth noting that Napoleon could have had his old cavalry commander’s services on this campaign if he had merely laid aside his personal pique at the Marshal.
Darkness put an end to any chance for bringing the Allies to battle on the roads the 17th. Instead, all armies trudged on through that rainy night. By 6:30 pm that evening the first of Wellington’s retreating forces arrived at the position the Duke had designated. As the evening wore on, Wellington and his staff would direct new arrivals to the positions they would bivouac in and begin the battle from the following day.
THE ARMIES DEPLOY
On the morning of the 18th of June, 1815, Wellington’s forces were deployed and ready along a east/west ridge south of Waterloo, in front of Mont-Saint-Jean. It is one of the ironies of the battle that it is remembered by different names depending on whose version one refers. While Wellington dubbed it Waterloo, Blücher suggested that the battle should be remembered as la Belle Alliance (where Napoleon had his headquarters throughout the battle), while Napoleon referred to it as the Battle of Mont-Saint-Jean.
The Iron Duke had picked his position well. His line was anchored on his right by the fortified farmhouse of Hougoumont on the forward slope of the ridge and surrounded by a pine orchard. Forward of his center, the British held another walled farmhouse compound, La Haye Sainte; which straddled the main north-south road. On the allied left were hedgerows around the hamlets of Papelotte and La Haye, also garrisoned by Wellington’s forces. Along the crest of the ridge ran a deep sunken lane, which along with the reverse slope allowed Wellington to conceal his strength, with the exception of those skirmishers and artillery deployed on the crest.
Initial deployment of forces, Waterloo, June 18
Massed around the village of La Belle Alliance, Napoleon deployed across the valley from Wellington’s forces. At a glance, he could see that the terrain was broken and difficult on Wellington’s left; and the center and right of the Allied position was defended by fortified strong points. Maneuver was called for, perhaps around Hougoumont to the west. Napoleon in fact began the battle with a faint in just this direction. Wellington, concerned against such an obvious eventuality, had posted 17,000 badly needed troops at Hal to the west.
Another option was to attack to the east, and drive a wedge between Wellington and any possible Prussian reinforcements coming from the east. However, even if fortified and garrisoned Papelotte and La Haye could be taken or turned, the Woods of Ohain and the Forest of Soignes further protected Wellington’s left flank; making exploitation in that direction difficult. Napoleon seems to have ruled out this approach.
Instead, having begun the campaign with such strategic flair just days earlier, Napoleon could now think of nothing more imaginative than a frontal assault against Wellington’s very strong position.
This entailed first taking one or both of the strong-points defending the forward slopes of Wellington’s position, Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. As long as Wellington’s forces held these, any French attack against the ridge beyond must be funneled between them; subject to a withering flanking fire.
Napoleon began his last battle with an assault on Hougoumont.