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.
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.
Napoleon 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!
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.
Gneisenau 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.
It 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.
Napoleon 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 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.
His 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!
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.
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.
As 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.”
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.
Under 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.
- schwerpunkt – Focal point of the attack
- Grognards – “grumblers”
- Schwertfeger, Geschichte der Königlich Deutschen Legion 1803-1816 2. Vol S. 315