NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGN (PART 4): THE MARCH TO WATERLOO

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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”. 

(This is Part 4 of a series. For Part 3 go here. It is recommended that you start with Part 1.)

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.

1370067To 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.

1370087 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.

1370070 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.

Why?

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.

012-022_MHM020_Waterloo_SC_v2.inddUnfortunately 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.

1370031As 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.

1370035.jpgDuring 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.

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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.

NEXT: HOUGOUMONT and D’ERLON’S ATTACK

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NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGN (PART 3): OPPORTUNITY SQUANDERED

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At Ligny the battle raged, as Napoleon drew Blücher and Gneisenau’s reserves into the vicious fighting around the villages and farms that warded the front of the Prussian position.

(FOR PART TWO GO HERE)

The Battle of Ligny began on June 16, at just after 2 pm, with blue-clad columns of French infantry advancing, their bands playing and with banners waving, against the cordon of defended villages behind the Ligny Creek.

1360597All day, the French hammered the Prussians, with villages and buildings frequently exchanging hands, the battle swinging first one way and then another. Artillery took its toll of both sides, but particularly so the French heavy guns upon the Prussians. The fighting was often at close-quarters, house-to-house, even amidst burning buildings; set alight by the heavy bombardments. Thirty-two years later, Captain Maduit of the Grenadiers of the Old Guard recounts the intensity of the fighting:

“Ligny… Consisted of hand-to-hand fighting that lasted for hours together; and with this was combined, not a fusillade and cannonade carried out at ranges of four or six hundred yards as occurred in most other battles, but these were replaced by point-blank discharges of musketry and canister fired at fifty yards range. At Ligny, more than 4,000 dead soldiers were piled in an area less in measurement than the Tuileries’ (Napoleon’s palace in Paris) garden; some three or four hundred yards square.”

After hours of fighting, Blücher was beginning to run out of reserves to throw into the fight. He and Gneisenau kept looking for Wellington to march down the Nivelles-Namur Road from Quatre Bras, or for the arrival on the opposite (east) flank for von Bülow’s IV Corps, marching hard to arrive on the battlefield (it would fail to do so that day).

1342898Prussian guns pound French positions during Battle of Ligny

Across the field, Napoleon watched from his windmill perch near Fleurus, as the battle developed. By late afternoon the time was near for the final push that would see the Prussians streaming from the field.

The Emperor was unaware of the magnitude of the battle raging at the crossroads at Quatre Bras when he dispatched his second (3 pm) message to Ney (see Part Two). Shortly after this was sent, Napoleon received a message from the Comte de Lobau, commanding the VI Corps (still assembling in reserve at Charleroi) that Ney was engaged in a fierce fight at the crossroads and so could not be expected to attack the Prussian right as requested.

D’ERLON’S CORPS 

However, there was still Jean-Baptiste Drouet, Comte d’Erlon’s First Corps at Frasnes, in reserve behind Ney’s force. His plan to crush the Prussian right could still be realized, if d’Erlon’s 20,000 were to come immediately. Orders were dispatched for the General to march post-haste up the old Roman Road to the hamlet of Brye; and from there to assault the right-rear of the Prussian line .

Napoleon worded the order to d’Erlon with characteristic hyperbole:

“Monsieur le Comte d’Erlon, the enemy is falling headlong into the trap I have laid for him. Proceed immediately with all your forces to the heights of Ligny (at Brye) and fall on St-Armand (rightmost of the Prussian-held positions). Monsieur le Comte, you are about to save France and cover yourself with glory!”

All along the line, the battle raged. Napoleon only waited d’Erlon’s arrival on the right to make his final assault, this time with the Imperial Guard. The best soldier’s in Europe, they would penetrate the Prussian line just as d’Erlon was assaulting their right. The entire Prussian right would be pinched off and destroyed. Simultaneously, Marshal Grouchy on the right would press hard on Thielmann‘s  Corps; while the reserve Cavalry Corps of Pajol, Exelman, and Milhaud cut through the routing Prussians and, riding toward Gembloux, “bag” the fleeing Prussians; perhaps even capturing Blücher and his entire staff.

1360602But it all hinged on d’Erlon’s arrival.

D’Erlon received the order and immediately began marching his Corps towards the battle at Ligny. The head of his column was observed by the combatants on both sides in the distance at 5:30 p.m. No one could tell whose troops they were: French or Wellington’s Dutch-Belgians (many of which wore very similar uniforms to the French). Due to the Emperor’s poor handwriting (or Marshal Soult’s, Napoleon’s Chief of Staff) d’Erlon had taken the wrong road. Instead of arriving at Brye just west of the Prussian line, he was appearing further south, opposite the French left at St. Armand.

At St. Armand the men of General Dominique Vandamme’s III Corps were thrown into near-panic by this unexpected force on their flank. Vandamme hastily sent to Napoleon appraising him of this new threat. The Emperor was perplexed as well: this was not where he was expected d’Erlon to arrive; and the General was not expected before 6 p.m. in any case. Napoleon sent an aide riding west to identify this force, meanwhile delaying the attack by the Guard, in case these were Wellington’s Belgians.

Panic spread among the French III Corps, and newly-taken St. Armand was abandoned as Vandamme’s men began falling back. Blücher, observing this, incorrectly assumed that the new arrivals must be Wellington’s long-expected reinforcements. He therefore launched an attack by his last reserves upon Vandamme’s retreating forces.

Napoleon’s battle plan was unraveling before his eyes.

Then, just as quickly as they had appeared, the distant columns disappeared the way they had come!

It had indeed been d’Erlon’s I Corps, arriving earlier and at the wrong location, but almost in a position to join the battle. However, fate and the fury of Marshal Ney intervened in the eleventh hour, stopping and turning d’Erlon around again.

Back at Quatre Bras, the fiery Ney had flown into a fury when informed that the Emperor had stripped him of d’Erlon’s 20,000 reserves just as he was preparing a final push to break Wellington and fulfill the Emperor’s orders to clear the crossroads. He immediately sent an order to d’Erlon, who was after all assigned to his command, to turn about immediately and return. Ney in his anger failed to consider that by the time the I Corps returned to Quatre Bras it would be too late to be of any help. Worse, their brief appearance on the periphery of the Ligny battle had caused Vandamme’s men to panic and lose ground gained in bloody fighting earlier in the day.

Sadly, this mishandling of d’Erlon’s Corps, which marched back-and-forth taking no part in the fighting that day doomed both Napoleon and Ney’s engagements on the 16th to bloody and inconclusive slugfests. With insufficient forces at both battles, the French lost the opportunity to defeat one or both of the Allies then-and-there.

CLIMAX AT QUATRE BRAS

 

In the meantime, the Anglo-Allied army had been reinforced to some 29,000 men and 42 guns, and outnumbered Ney’s forces (three tired divisions of foot, some 18,000 at the start of the battle but now depleted by hours of fighting, along with 48 guns and just under 2,000 horse). Wellington was beginning to take the offensive on his left: the 95th Rifles and Kielmansegge’s 1st Hanoverian Brigade were ordered to attack from Thyle and take Piraumont farm buildings. At the same time, Halkett’s 5th Brigade of Alten’s division was moved to the center-right of the line, occupying the space between the Charleroi Road and the Bossu Wood; linking the defenders there with Picton’s Division in the tall rye to the east of the road.

Seeing Wellington moving against Bachelu’s 5th Division on his right, and needing time till d’Erlon could return Ney now decided to relieve pressure on Bachelu with a cavalry attack on Wellington’s right-center. There, Halkett’s Brigade had been commanded by Wellington’s Second-in-Command and their Corps Commander, the Prince of Orange to stand in line, rather than squares as Picton’s men were to their left.

During the Peninsula Campaign, Wellington’s infantry had won battle-after-battle by standing firm in line and delivering withering volleys upon oncoming French infantry columns. They had been able to do so, in part, because the French cavalry in Spain had never been as numerous (nor as well mounted) as what they were facing now, in Belgium. All day the French had menaced the Anglo-Dutch infantry before Quatre Bras with Lancers and Hussars. In response, Picton’s men were forced to remain in squares; safe from cavalry but perfect targets for Ney’s guns and the withering attrition-fire of the French skirmishers.

The 22 year old William Frederick, Prince Orange was a military dilettante who had served as an aide-de-camp in Wellington’s headquarters in Spain. He had been rapidly promoted due to his station, and now held the ranks of lieutenant-general in the British Army, despite never holding a combat command. But he had read his lessons, and fancied himself quite capable of handling troops in battle. Surely it was better to meet the French in line, as Wellington had proved in Spain, than huddling together in square, a formation that severely limited a battalion’s fire. As Wellington was planning an advance by Picton’s men on Gemioncourt farmhouse in the center, Halkett’s men could much better support that advance in line than square.

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It was an unfortunate set of circumstances (or a stroke of luck for the French) that Orange made this decision just minutes before Ney decided to launch his cavalry assault on the Allied center!

Across the field, Ney turned to General François Étienne de Kellermann, commander of the III Cavalry Corps, whose cuirassiers were in reserve. Kellermann was perhaps Napoleon’s most capable heavy cavalry commander. At Marengo in 1800 he led the charge that won the day for Napoleon (ultimately making the latter Emperor of France). Now, Ney ordered him to repeat this famous feat of arms, and to charge the Anglo-Dutch infantry and break them.

General François Étienne de Kellermann, 2nd Duc de Valmy

Realizing that in his anger Ney had lost all judgment, Kellerman pointed out that he had but one of his four brigades on hand and that 1,000 horsemen, no matter how valiant or well led, could not break 25,000 men. But Ney was adamant, and the now equally furious Kellerman (a soldier who had never disobeyed an order) stormed off, resigned that if he was ordered to commit suicide, so be it!

Sword drawn, Kellerman led his sole brigade forward. As he said later recalled, “I made great haste so that my men would have no chance to shirk, or to see the full danger facing them”. The trumpet sounding the charge, the riders spurred forward at a gallop, sun glinting off helmets, cuirasses and raised swords. Suicide it might be, but glorious suicide nevertheless!

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But as Kellerman led his steel-clad riders thundering out of the tall rye to either side of the Charleroi Road, his horsemen saw with astonished glee that the red coated British battalions of Halkett’s Brigade were still in line formation. Though the rye gave some cover to the coming onslaught, the thundering of 4,000 hoofs gave sufficient warning for some of Halkett’s battalions. The 30th and 33rd Regiments of foot succeeded in forming hasty squares, and the cuirassiers swirled past them.

The 69th Regiment of  Foot was not so fortunate.

Confusion in orders had one company still in line while others attempted to form the walls of the square. The result was disaster, as cuirassiers burst through the regiment, cutting men down and wresting the King’s Colors from the guard whose job it was to protect it. The survivors fled into the nearby Bosse Woods, seeking refuge.

The 33rd found only temporary respite: exposed on a knoll, the regiment found itself the target of the Horse Artillery battery attached to Kellerman’s Brigade. Raked by canister fire, the soon broke and fled into the woods as well. The adjacent Second Battalion 73rd Regiment of Foot, witness to the carnage inflicted upon its neighbors, panicked and fled as well!

Riding over the bloody detritus of Halkett’s Brigade, the cuirassiers thundered on to the crossroads. An astonishing feat of arms, they had penetrated clean through the center of Wellington’s army. Kellerman’s advance had been so rapid, Ney was unprepared to follow it up with either Piré‘s 800 lancers and hussars or the infantry of Foy’s Division.

1361608 Sketch made at the time of the Quatre Bras battle. Beyond the “X” formed by the crossroads (Quatre Bras Inn is to the left, foreground) smoke rises from the British squares formed by Picton’s battalions, assaulted by French cavalry.

As the cuirassiers charged through the wreck of Halkett’s Division, Wellington was once again forced to find refuge within the square of the 92nd, to the rear. From there he directed fire upon the cuirassiers by surrounding regiments. Kellerman’s horse was shot out from under him, and the general only avoided death or capture by grabbing onto the stirrups of riders on either side of him, allowing himself to be carried to safety.

The victorious survivors rode back the way they had come, having covered themselves in glory.[2]  Their retreat was covered by Piré’s light horse, which veered to the right and kept Picton’s still intact battalions occupied. The lancers again savaged the squares from out of the tall rye again, but none broke.

By 6:30 p.m. more of the British Guards arrived from the west. They were thrown into the Bosse Wood, to help their fellows against Prince Jérôme’s Division, which had succeeded in setting up guns on the southwest edge of the wood and firing upon the Nivelles Road. At this point Wellington’s position was strong, and he began pushing south all along the line. Ney pulled his forces south of Gemioncourt, and by 8:30 both sides were back where they had started at noon.

The fighting at Quatre Bras was over. Wellington had lost 5,000 men, and though he still held the crossroads, he had been unable to aid his Prussian ally, as he’d promised. Ney had failed in his given objective, to clear the crossroads and come to Napoleon’s aid. However, he had kept Wellington from aiding Blücher, and that was worth something.

A HOLLOW VICTORY AT LIGNY

Meanwhile, 6 miles to the east at Ligny, that battle had reached a dramatic conclusion.

Vandamme restored order to his corps and successfully held the Prussian counter-attack on the French left. By attacking here in force, Blücher had expended his final reserves. Napoleon decided that with-or-without help from Ney he needed to act decisively. Time was not his friend, as dark would allow the Prussians to either retreat intact or (if Von Bülow arrived as expected) be reinforced. It was time to throw in the Guard, and break the Prussians.

A fierce cannonade by the heavy guns of the Guard Artillery and the IV Corp’s artillery reduced the villages and farm buildings along the Ligny Creek to blazing ruin. Within the fires the heart-rending screams of the wounded trapped within could be heard over the sounds of musketry and cannon. With drums beating the pas-de-charge, two massive columns, each spearheaded by a battalion of the Old Guard, advanced against the Prussian center-left. The left-most column was supported by Napoleon himself, at the head of the Guard Heavy Cavalry (“The Gods”), the right-most column by Milhaud’s Corps of Cuirassiers.

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This video captures the terrible pageantry of the French attacks during the Waterloo Campaign. The music is accurate from the period; including the pas-de-charge beaten on the drums by underage drummer boys. Though chiefly from “Waterloo” (1970), it includes clips from the BBC’s “Sharpe’s Waterloo” (1997)

The most feared soldiers in Europe, the Guard smashed through the Prussian defenders. The Prussian center collapsed in rout, one that threatened to infect both wings of the Prussian line as well.

It was now Blücher’s turn to act. The 72 year old former Hussar now collected every available horseman still in the saddle, some 32 squadrons, and launched them at the Guard. Against lesser men this charge might well have sent the French reeling back in disorder if not downright rout. But the Imperial Guardsmen were all veterans of countless campaigns. They held their fire till the horsemen were at point-blank-range, then opened fire, doing terrible execution. The Prussians recoiled, and the Guard continued a slow, almost majestic advance in squares.

However, the appearance of their old general in their midst heartened the Prussians and stopped the flow to the rear.

blu 4 Blücher’s close-call at Ligny: Pinned under his horse, he was helpless on the ground as his position was overrun by French cavalry. The passing French failed to notice him, and the Marshal recovered. But history would have taken a very different turn had Blücher been killed or captured that day at Ligny!

This charge very nearly proved personally disastrous for Blücher himself, who was nearly a casualty of his own valor: Leading the charging squadrons, his horse was shot from under him and the old Marshal found himself pinned beneath. Worse, Milhaud’s cuirassiers now counter-attached and scattered the Prussian horseman. Blücher and a lone aid found themselves isolated and alone, French armored horsemen riding past them. Fortunately for the Allied cause, in the smoke and gathering darkness Blücher’s presence was undetected. He was later found and rescued that night by a Prussian patrol.

Both wings of the Prussian army withdrew in the twilight gloom, leaving Napoleon holding the stricken field. The Prussians suffered 20,000 dead or wounded, and 20 guns. Another 8-10,000 dispirited Prussians soldiers deserted during the retreat the following day. The French had by contrast lost a mere 6,000 men, and held the field. A clear victory; but not the decisive one it could have been.

Beaten but not defeated, Blücher and his army escaped toward the northeast.

1361621 NEXT: NAPOLEON MARCHES ON TO WATERLOO

NOTES:

  1. This long straight sword was both awkward and badly made. Had Napoleon’s cuirassiers been armed instead with a lance, like the Poles, they might have been the most effective heavy cavalry in history.
  2. The British had faced French cavalry in Spain: Hussars, Lancers, and Dragoons. But as effective as any of these could be under the proper circumstances, none could compare for sheer bone-crushing power to the charge of the Gros Freres , the “Big Brothers”. Cuirassiers were recruited from the largest men and rode the largest horses. When they attacked they cantered forward, every man’s thigh touching that of his comrade to either side. Before contact they broke into furious gallop, long stabbing swords thrust forward.[1] Their impact on infantry improperly formed to receive them was devastating. The British had not faced French cuirassiers in Spain and they made a lasting impression after meeting them on this campaign. Soon the British converted several of their heavy cavalry regiments into cuirassiers, including the Household Cavalry.
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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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ATTILA IS STOPPED AT THE CATALAUNIAN FIELDS!

On June 20, 451 on a broad plain in the Champagne region of France, Attila the Hun, “the Scourge of God”, engaged in his greatest battle. The fate of western civilization lay in the balance.

The Huns and their greatest leader, Attila, have come to be remembered as the epitome of the savage barbarian; a “barbarian’s barbarian”, if you will. From the late 4th century till the break-up of their empire in the mid-5th, the Huns were the terror of Europe and their leader “the scourge of God”; thought by the Catholic Church to have been sent by the Creator to punish his people for their wickedness.

The origin of these fierce nomadic warriors is something of a mystery.

In Chinese history, the Huns are tentatively identified with the people known in their histories as the Hsiung Nu (“Fierce Slaves”). In the Second Century A.D., the Chinese Han Empire drove the Huns away from their borders in a series of campaigns. The Huns then began their long migration westward, ever searching for fresh pastures for their sheep and new peoples to plunder and subjugate.

Modern scholarship theorizes that the Huns were not ethnically one people, but a confederation of Mongolian and Turkic nomadic clans. By the time they entered European history in the 4th century, these peoples had fused into one cultural group.

The Huns were first-and-foremost mounted horse archers. From infancy male children were taught to ride by being placed on the backs of sheep, to prepare them for a life in the saddle. They practiced daily with their primary weapon, the powerful and deadly composite bow. To make themselves appear more ferocious and terrifying to their enemies, their cheeks were slashed with knives and allowed to scar.

1546442.jpg 19th century depiction of the Huns; showing them as nearly sub-human barbarians!

Like all nomadic horsemen of the Asiatic steppes, the Huns’ concept of war was the grand hunt writ large. Spreading out over hundreds of miles, columns of fast-riding raiders would scour the lands of an enemy, plundering outlying farms and driving refugees before them. Their victims were lassoed like sheep or cattle; to be yoked and sold as slaves. In the course of their raids, the Huns were particularly known for their sadistic brutality. Like the later Mongols, they seem to have used terror as a weapon.

Mounted on swift and hardy steppe ponies, the Huns used their superior mobility to keep just out of reach of slower, heavier opponents; all the while wearing them down with a storm of arrows. Only when an enemy force was sufficiently weakened by archery would the Hun warriors close in with lance, lasso, and sword to finish them off. Like many nomadic armies of the steppes, the Hunnic nobles fought as heavily armored cavalry lancers. These were a force of last resort, used to deliver the final, decisive charge when the enemy was deemed weakened and on the point of breaking.

1546445.jpg Hun light horseman preparing to lasso Alan warriors; 4th century.

Legend has it that the Huns first encountered European societies in the 4th century; when in pursuit of stray sheep, their herdsmen crossed the swampy lands around the mouth of the Volga River. There, on the western side of the river, they entered the lands of the Goths.

Under their great king, Ermanaric, the Goths had established a large Kingdom in southern Russia. The Goths were a warrior people, who had raided the Roman Empire for centuries. But upon meeting the Huns, the Goths (and the other Germanic tribes of Europe whom they subsequently encountered) found that they had no adequate response to their former’s mobile skirmish tactics. (The Medieval Russian principalities would have the same problem in dealing with an identical threat posed by the Mongols, who, like the Huns, relied on raiding and mobile skirmish tactics to wear down their opponents.) The Huns, appearing like demons from some previously unknown dimension of hell, shattered Ermaneric’s kingdom and sent the Goths fleeing before them.[1]

It was this invasion of their homeland by the Huns that forced the Visigoths, the western branch of the Gothic people, to enter the Balkans seeking refuge in the Eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, would lead to the Battle of Adrianople, a demoralizing defeat for Roman arms and the death of the Emperor Valens with much of his Army. Ultimately, this movement of the Goths into the Balkans would destabilize the entire Roman Empire, leading to the fall of the Western portion.

Those Goths unable to flee were subjugated, and became part of the Hunnic Empire. This was a pattern that continued with every tribe and nation in their path as they advanced westward into central Europe.

1546441.jpgIn the generation after Adrianople, the Huns settled in the devastated Roman province of Pannonia (modern Austria and Slovenia), and in the lost province of Dacia (modern Hungary and Romania). They had come a long way from their original home, north of the Great Wall of China.

From this base of operations along the Roman border, the Huns conducted large scale raids into the Balkans and into lower Germany. Eventually, the Romans found it more expedient to simply bribe the Huns to leave them alone, by payment of an annual tribute. The southern German tribes were not so fortunate. Most of these were incorporated into the Hunnic Empire as subject nations, forced to send their best warriors to serve as “canon fodder” for their Hunnic masters; and to furnish the beds of Hunnic lords with young women.

The Romans  found the Huns to be effective mercenaries. During the early decades of the 5th century, one particular Western Roman commander used his personal connections with the Hunnic court to fill the ranks of his Household Bucellarii with Hun warriors: Flavius Aëtius . Aëtius had been sent to the Huns as a diplomatic hostage early in his life. There he had made friends with many influential Hunnic lords. When later in his life he rose to prominence as a soldier he used these friendships to recruit the deadly Hun horsemen into his bodyguard and into the ranks of the Roman army as foederati.

Flavius Aëtius and Huns of his personal guard, or bucellarii

Aëtius’ Hunnic retainers and mercenary soldiers gave him an effective fighting force with which to battle Rome’s chief enemies at that time: the Visigoths, the Vandals, and the Franks. These Germanic “barbarians” had invaded the Western Roman Empire in the first decade of the 5th century, settling in large portions of North Africa, Gaul and Spain.[2] The Western Roman government was often engaged in low-intensity border conflicts with these interlopers. It was in just such skirmishes that Aëtius’ Huns were most effective.

When Attila assumed the Hunnic throne in 432 A.D., he began making things more difficult for the Eastern Roman Empire. Tributes were raised and large-scale raids were conducted into the Balkans, devastating wide swathes and leaving once prosperous towns sacked and burned in their wake. But Attila also cooperated with the Western Roman government, where the general Aëtius  had become the power behind the throne of the ineffectual Emperor Valentinian III. Attila was even granted the honorary title of Magister Militum, or “Master of Soldiers”, the late Romans term for a high-ranking general.

But in 450, Attila overreached. He announced his intent to make war upon the Visigoth Kingdom of Theodoric, based around the Roman city of Toulouse in southern Gaul. He also demanded the hand in marriage Honoria, the Emperor Valentinian’s older sister; who, in an ill-advised piece of political intrigue, had corresponded with the Attila, inviting his marriage suit. Aetius and the Western Empire had no love for the Visigoths, and would have liked to see them expelled from the empire altogether. But the prospect of Gaul falling under the control of the powerful King of the Huns was even less palatable.

When Attila’s polyglot army of Huns and German subject-nations invaded Gaul the following year, they spread rapine and murder. Many towns were sacked, and Christian churches were particularly targeted. The Hun king was seen as divine punishment on a sinful empire, sent to torment test the faithful. For this Attila was called “the Scourge of God”.

1546463.jpgAt Aurelianum (Orleans), in the territory occupied by the Alans, Attila was expecting the city to open its gates; as promised by Sangiban, the Alan King, with whom he had negotiated safe passage. However, the Bishop of the city organized its defense, and the Roman townsmen prepared to withstand siege. The Huns were in the process of storming the city when Attila got word that Aëtius was approaching from the south with an army.

Aëtius had reacted swiftly to the Hunnic invasion, hastily patching together an alliance of convenience with the equally threatened Theodoric and the Visigoth Kingdom of Toulouse in the south of Gaul. Deprived of his usual Hunnic auxiliaries, Aëtius and the Romans’ only chance of defeating the Hunnic horde lay in an alliance with the numerous and warlike Visigoths. He also arranged a temporary alliance with the Franks to the north, and even Sangiband of the Alans (who seems to have been playing a double game).

1546465.jpgModern reenactors, representing late Roman horsemen.

Atilla lifted the siege of Orleans, and moved eastward to await Aëtius on ground more to his liking: the broad Catalaunian Fields, a great, open plain near the town of Chalons.

The battle that resulted was, perhaps, among the most decisive in history.

THE BATTLE OF CHALONS

The decisive battle for Gaul, and with it perhaps the future of Western Civilization, has been called the Battle of Chalons by western historians since at least the 18th century. It has also been referred to as the Battle of Campus Mauriacus, or the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains (or Fields). The exact site of the battle has never been determined, but it is thought that the Catalaunian Fields were somewhere between the city of Troyes and the town of Châlons-en-Champagne.

The ridge of Montgueux, 17 km from Troyes. Could this be the hill taken by Thorismund that dominated the battlefield, as described in Jordanes account?

Plain around Troyes, south of Chalons,  possible site of the battle. Perfect cavalry terrain, one can see why Attila may have picked such a place to fight. 

Much of our information on the battle comes from Jordanes,  the 6th century Roman historian.[3] In his account on the night before the main battle a band of Aëtius’ allied Franks engaged a band of Attila’s Gepids in a preliminary skirmish. Jordanes’ states that 15,000 were killed on either side. It was a particularly bloody prelude to a most sanguine battle. 

In ancient battles, it was customary for to take the auguries before battle. The morning of the battle, the diviners examined the entrails of the sacrifice in Atilla’s camp. What they saw left them dismayed: they foretold disaster for the Huns. However, they also foretold that one of the enemy leaders would be killed. While this story, recorded in the following century, may well be apocryphal, benefiting from hindsight, if true these auguries were remarkably prescient.

The superstitious Attila was perplexed by this augury of defeat. Battle was imminent, and he could not avoid it and maintain a siege in his lightly defended camp. He decided to delay battle until the mid-afternoon, so that should the coming struggle go poorly, his troops could flee into the gathering darkness.

As for Aëtius, his battle plan is unknown, and can only be deduced from his deployment and the manner in which the battle unfolded. The Roman commander drew up his forces with his steady, professional Roman troops and his Frankish allies on the left wing. The Visigoths, who had the most to lose in the advent of a Hunnic victory, were posted on his right wing (which, as the place of honor in ancient battles, would have satisfied their touchy pride). Finally, he placed  Sangiban‘s Alans in the center.

It is often stated that Aëtius placed the Alans in the center of his line because he questioned their steadiness and loyalty; and that in the center they would have difficulty fleeing, with Roman and Visigoth troops on either flank. This is of course nonsense. In the height of a battle, in which both his own Romans on the left and the Visigoths on the right would be fully committed, their hands full in their own sectors of the battle, they would be unable to keep the Alans in check as well. It would have been both unpreventable and disastrous if the Alans in his center had either turned-tail or, worse, gone over to Attila. Aëtius was too seasoned a general to leave so much to chance.

Instead, we can deduce that he had another plan.

The Alans were a Sarmatian people, their army composed of armored cavalry armed with both bow and lance, backed-up by lighter skirmish cavalry armed only with bow or javelin. Aëtius placed them in the center, opposite Attila’s own Huns, who were mostly elusive light cavalry. He did so for a very specific reason: defeating Attila decisively would require crushing the Hun contingent on the field (and perhaps killing or capturing the Hunnic king himself). But to do that, he would have to fix them in place, without the ability to fall-back or flee. So, considering the course of the battle, it is entirely possible that Sangiban’s Alans had orders to engage the Huns in the center in a prolonged skirmish battle; and slowly give ground, as though losing the engagement.

This would pull the Huns forward, deep into the allied center. Meanwhile, on either flank, the hard-fighting Visigoths on the right and his own Romans and the Frankish allies would close with and defeat Attila’s less reliable subject tribesmen on either flank. Once this was accomplished, the allied wings would turn inward, enveloping and trapping Attila and his Huns in a vast pocket, from which they would be unable to flee. At close quarters, the Hun light cavalry would be at a disadvantage against the heavier Visigoth, Roman, and Frankish forces. Attila’s Huns could be crushed decisively, once-and-for all.

1546447.jpg Germanic warriors (above) , Frankish warrior (below). The Franks chief tactic was to charge in a dense infantry column, weakening the enemy as they came with a shower of throwing axes and spears. This warrior carries their distinctive throwing ax, the “francisca”, capable of splitting or encumbering an enemy shield.

Attila deployed his forces with his Huns holding the center (as indicated above), his Ostrogoth subjects opposite their Visigoth cousins on his left, and the Gepids and other miscellaneous subject German peoples on his right facing Aëtius’ Romans and the Franks. His battle plans are also unknown. But it appears that he was going to attempt to erode and break through the allied center with his Huns, after a prolonged skirmish fight, and exploit this if possible. Or, if not, to survive into night and withdraw should events in the battle “go south”.

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Aetius directs the battle from behind a wall of Roman infantry

Numbers are disputed, with historians giving wildly different estimates. It is likely that somewhere between 40,000-50,000 troops were arrayed on either side. The actual “Roman” contingent must have been a very small force, likely not more than 12,000. The Roman army, deprived of much of its recruiting grounds and revenues by Germanic conquests of the early 5th century, had withered to a shadow of its former self. Aëtius main strike force was likely the heavy cavalry of his own bucellarius; supported by what remained of the old comitatensis  (mobile field army) of Gaul and local garrisons.

According to Jordanes, the Catalaunian plain rose sharply on one side to a hill. This geographical feature dominated the battlefield and became the focal point of the battle. It was seized early in the day by Thorismund, son of the Visigoth king, from where he was able to attack downhill into the Ostrogoth (left) wing of the Hunnic army.

In the center, the Huns routed the Alans (or, perhaps as suggested above, the Alans gave ground deliberately) and pushed into the center. However, Aëtius’ wing pushed back the Gepids, while the Ostrogoths were driven back by their Visigoth kinsmen. Jordanes relates that King Theodoric, whilst leading his own men forward, was struck by a thrown javelin and toppled off his horse; where he was then trampled to death by his own charging horsemen. 

1546449.jpgJordanes claims that Thorismund’s Visigoths fell upon Attila’s own Hunnic household unit. The Hunnic center gave way (horse archers prefer to keep their distance, and what began as a tactical withdrawal may have turned to near rout) and the Huns fled back to Attila’s camp. Thorismund pursued too closely, following the fleeing Ostrogoths into Attila’s encampment. There he was wounded in the ensuing mêlée before his followers could rescue him.

Darkness fell, and the battle ended in some confusion. Separated from his own men, Aëtius spent the night with his Gothic allies, unaware of whether the battle was won or lost.

On the following day, finding the battlefield was “piled high with bodies and the Huns did not venture forth”, the Visigoths and Romans besieged Attila camp, knowing he must be low on provisions. His situation now growing desperate, and vowing not to be taken alive, Attila “heaped up a funeral pyre of horse saddles”. The Hun king was determined to cast himself into the flames should the camp fall to the enemy, “that none might have the joy of wounding him and that the lord of so many races might not fall into the hands of his foes”.

While Attila was trapped in his camp, the Visigoths searched the battlefield and found Theodoric’s corpse beneath a mound of bodies.  They bore their king away with heroic songs in sight of the enemy. Upon learning of his father’s death, Prince Thorismund wished to call upon his followers to assault Attila’s camp, and avenge their king. But Aëtius dissuaded him.

1546452.jpgAccording to Jordanes, Aëtius feared that if the Huns were completely destroyed, the Visigoths would break off their allegiance to the Roman Empire and become an even graver threat. While this was no doubt true (and in fact came to pass in the following years), Aëtius was also no doubt concerned about regaining the services of the Huns as mercenaries in Roman service.

The Roman commander therefore entered into negotiations with Attila, whom he allowed safe withdrawal from Gaul, back across the Rhine. He also convinced Thorismund that his best move was to return south and secure the throne for himself, before his brothers could. The Visigoth army withdrew, returning to Tolosa, where as the hero of Chalons Thorismund was proclaimed king.

Thus the battle to save Gaul ended with a whimper, not a bang.

AFTERMATH

Attila invaded Italy the following year, but stopped short of Rome and withdrew before taking the city.  This was largely due to a plague then raging in Italy; though the Christians considered it because of the saintliness of Pope Leo, who met with Attila outside the city to attempt to dissuade him. Attila died shortly afterwards, on his wedding night, in his capital in Pannonia.

Aetius was himself murdered soon after, victim of his Emperor’s jealousy. He had long been the power behind Valentinian III. His victory perhaps made him too great a threat to the jealous and insecure ruler. Rome would soon miss his excellent leadership and military skills: the Vandals, based in Africa around Carthage, would land near Rome and viciously sack the city just a year after his death.

The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains was more than just another bloody battle in an age of blood. Had the Huns prevailed, the Dark Ages that followed would have been much, MUCH darker than that which actually began within a century of the battle. The Huns were not “Romanized”, as were the Goths and (to lesser extent) the Franks who actually inherited most of the Western Roman Empire after its collapse, a generation later. The pagan Huns would have done a poor job of keeping the flame of Hellenic/Western civilization alive after Rome.

1546455.jpgHistorian John Julius Norwich says of the Battle of Chalons:

“It should never be forgotten that in the summer of 451 and again in 452, the whole fate of western civilization hung in the balance. Had the Hunnish army not been halted in these two successive campaigns, had its leader toppled Valentinian from his throne and set up his own capital at Ravenna or Rome, there is little doubt that both Gaul and Italy would have been reduced to spiritual and cultural deserts.”

 

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  1. Those Goths that fled westward to avoid the Huns became the Visigoth nation. Those who remained behind to become subjects of the Huns became the Ostrogoths.
  2. For the Germanic invasion of the Western Roman Empire in the first decade of the 5th century, see the first chapter of the author’s AGE OF ARTHUR series.
  3. Jordanes,  De origine actibusque Getarum (“The Origin and Deeds of the Getae/Goths”)

 

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NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGN

Napoleon Bonaparte bestrode his world like a colossus. Rising amidst the bloody chaos of the French Revolution, he established a new order; and left France a mythic hero to surpass Charlemagne.

Napoleon began his career as a young officer of artillery. He first made his mark in 1794 during the Siege of Toulon, and in the following year he saved the Republican government (The Directory) from a Parisian mob, unleashing canister fire into the crowd (the “whiff of grapeshot”). He was rewarded with command of the French Army operating against the Austrians in northern Italy. All this by the age of 27.

Once in command of his own army the young Bonaparte went from victory-to-amazing-victory, never looking back.

After defeating the Austrians in Italy (1796) and conquering Mameluke Egypt (1798), he returned to France to take over the reigns of government as First Consul of the Republic. After defeating the Austrians in Italy again in 1800 at the Battle of Marengo, his popularity and political dominance over France were assured. In 1804 he crowned himself Emperor of the French (L’Empereur des Français).

At the head of a well trained and drilled “Grande Armee“, he went on in the next eight years to conquer an empire surpassing that of Charlemagne. At its peak, the Napoleonic Empire spanned Europe from the Tagus to the Nieman; from Straits of Messina to the Skagerrak.

1342045.jpgBut after the disastrous Russian Campaign of 1812, which resulted in the destruction of the Grande Armee, Napoleon faced a determined coalition of hostile nations financed by the wealth of the British Empire and determined upon his overthrow. In the battles of 1813-1814, he was continually worn down and forced to retreat; ultimately to the very outskirts of Paris. Despite a brilliant defensive campaign defending France by the now-aging Emperor, the will amongst his Marshals to continue the struggle eroded away. One-by-one they surrendered to the Allied armies invading France.

Napoleon was forced to abdicate. In 1814, according to the terms of the Treaty of Fontainebleau, he was granted a genteel exile upon the Island of Elba, near Corsica, the place of his birth. After his departure, the Bourbon monarchy was restored, backed by allied armies that ringed the country.

In February of 1815, in response to growing national disaffection with the Bourbon government and the arrogance of the returning expatriate aristocracy, as well as a belief that the Allies were planning to violate the treaty and exile him to a small island in the South Atlantic; Napoleon returned from exile. Marshal of France Michel Ney was dispatched with forces to arrest the exile. Ney promised the King he would bring “the Ogre” back to Paris in a cage. Instead, he and the veterans he commanded rallied around their former master with cries of “Vive L’Empereur“! The Bourbon’s were once again forced to flee from France. and Napoleon again assumed the diadem of Emperor of the French.

1342050Immediately the Allied Powers surrounding the country prepared to invade France. For the next 100 days, Napoleon’s fortunes and the map of Europe lay in the balance, as events hastened toward the climatic battle of the Napoleonic Wars. Though Napoleon attempted in a flurry of diplomatic correspondence to assure the Allies of his peaceful intentions; the allied armies were massed along the border, preparing to invade France and drag the “Ogre” from his throne.

Showing a level of energy and organizational genius reminiscent of his earlier years, Napoleon quickly raised an army of veterans (many of which had spent the latter part of his campaigns as POWs in England, or stuck in isolated garrisons, and had returned to France remembering still the glorious triumphs of the past). When his peace overtures were spurned, the Emperor decided to strike first, before the Allied armies could move in concert against France.

He targeted first those nearest to Paris, the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies in Belgium. He knew that the British and Prussians were widely dispersed, and could be defeated in detail. Further, that the British and their Dutch allies were of dubious quality. Much of Wellington’s Peninsular War veterans had been sent to America for the (disastrous) New Orleans Campaign; while many of the Dutch-Belgians had once been a loyal part of his own army, and their willingness to fight for their new masters was questionable.

OPPOSING FORCES AND COMMANDERS

The combined British, Dutch-Belgian and Hanoverian forces in Belgium numbered some 93,000, scattered in bivouacs across the southern part of the country. They were of mixed quality, but most were inexperienced and unreliable (particularly the Dutch troops, under the Prince of Orange). They were commanded by the redoubtable “Iron Duke”, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.

1342063 Wellington had been enormously successful in defeating some of Napoleon’s best Marshals in Spain. But he had never crossed swords on the battlefield with the master himself. Napoleon had scant respect for Wellington, who he disparagingly called “the Sepoy General”,  a reference to Wellington’s early career commanding British forces in India. Wellington for his part had the utmost respect for Napoleon as a commander: “His presence on the (battle) field made the difference of forty thousand men.”

The Prussians in eastern Belgium were commanded by crusty old Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, an old foe who Napoleon had faced during the campaigns of 1813-1814. He was a dogged, aggressive, and determined (if unimaginative) commander. Blücher had a deep and abiding hatred for Napoleon and the French, due to the perceived humiliation Napoleon had inflicted upon his nation in 1806. On the approach to Waterloo, he commanded his men to take “No prisoners! Show no pity! I will shoot any man I see with pity in him.” His forces in Belgium numbered 116,000, and were headquartered about Namur.

1342064

Napoleon’s Armee du Nord, numbering 128,000 men, was qualitatively the best army he had commanded since the debacle in Russia in 1812. Many of them were veterans of the victorious campaigns of Marengo, Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena and Auerstedt; some perhaps even remembered battling at the foot of the Pyramids! Thousands of these had spent the last few years in garrisons throughout the empire, in Spain, or as prisoners of the Allies. Having missed the bloody defeats of recent years, they remembered only Napoleon’s invincible days of old. They were well rested, and ready to reclaim the lost glories of their youth. The cavalry, in particular, had benefited from the brief peace since 1814, and were more numerous and better mounted than any Napoleon had at his disposal in the terrible campaigns of 1813-1814.

But though his troops were first-rate, and the Emperor seemed at the start of the campaign to have regained the vigor of his youth, many of the advantages once enjoyed by French forces were no more.

For one thing, the wildly successful methods of warfare employed by the French armies of the Revolution and the early Napoleonic campaigns had been studied and learned by the enemies of France. Now Prussian infantry lines were as well screened by swarms of loose-ordered skirmishers as were the French, and they were even better at it now than their French teachers. All European armies by 1815 employed heavy cavalry in the shock-role once again (something that had declined in Europe prior to Napoleon). And Wellington at least had learned to avoid concentrated French cannonade by deploying his main force on the reverse slopes of a ridge line. (Wellington would say of Waterloo that the French, who practiced attacking in columns screened by skirmishers, ” came on in the same old fashion; and we defeated them in the same old fashion!”)

Another factor weighing against Napoleon was the quality of his lieutenants. Many of his best Marshals were not present with the Armee du Nord. Masséna was retired; Lannes dead; Davout remained behind in Paris, organizing the rebuilding of Napoleon’s future armies; and Suchet was posted at Lyons, in command of the troops guarding the Alpine frontier.

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Murat, his legendary cavalry commander and former King of Naples, had offered his services and been refused (Napoleon was furious with him for his mishandling of the Neapolitan War and the loss of his Kingdom). His skill and boldness (particularly in the pursuit of a broken enemy) would be distinctly lacking in his replacement, Grouchywhose tentative and plodding pursuit of Blucher following Ligny would never have occurred had Murat, instead, been in his customary place as commander of the Reserve Cavalry Corps.

The greatest loss was that of Marshal Berthier, Napoleon’s amazingly able Chief of Staff. He was the man who, throughout all of Napoleon’s campaigns, had turned the Emperor’s often disjointed and nearly incomprehensible exclamations into coherent written orders and directives to Corps and Division commanders. He was the man who ensured that the various Corps of the Grande Armée operated on a wide front in well-coordinated fashion.

Following Napoleon’s abdication in 1814, Berthier had retired to private life, making his peace with the Bourbons and concentrating on his hobbies of falconry and sculpture. Just weeks before the Waterloo Campaign, he had fallen from an upstairs window in Bamberg and died. His death was proclaimed a suicide, but many to this day suspect foul play. Whether Berthier was the victim of suicide or murder (by the extreme monarchists) is unknown. But his presence would be sorely missed in the coming campaign.

He was replaced as Chief of Staff by Marshal Nicolas Soult. Though an able commander, Soult had nothing of Berthier’s genius for staff work. Much of the confusion and mistakes made in the coming campaign can be laid at Soult’s feet. (In The Fall of Napoleon: The Final Betrayal author David Hamilton-Williams postulates that Soult was part of a conspiracy to undermine Napoleon in the 1815 campaign and ensure his downfall. Thus his “mistakes” in staff work were, according to Hamilton-Williams, actually deliberate sabotage of Napoleon’s plans.)[1]

1342878

Marshal Nicolas Soult, Duke of Dalmatia, mockingly called “the Duke of Damnation” by his British opponents in Spain

Whether or not there was a secret plot to betray Napoleon amongst those in his inner circle can never be known with certainty, short of new and convincing documentation coming to light. However, by choosing the likes of Ney, Soult, and Grouchy as his top subordinates in place of Murat, Davout, and Suchet (the latter two, in particular, intrepid and capable commanders in their own right) shows that at the least the Emperor was not interested in men who could exercise independent judgment. It was a decision that would come back to bite him in the coming campaign.

But the most marked disadvantage facing the French on this, Napoleon’s last campaign, was the failing health of the Emperor himself. Though not quite 46, he had gained weight during his forced retirement to Elba, and was showing other signs of aging.

1342065

Napoleon over the course of his career,  from the young firebrand of the Italian campaigns who dazzled Europe with his furious energy,  to the bloated and tired-looking Napoleon in 1815 

Historians are in disagreement as to whether or not Napoleon was suffering from a debilitating illness at this point of his life; and, if he was, what it could have been. Everything from hemorrhoids to dropsy has been suggested. He certainly was erratic in his energy levels, at times as sharp and lively as when he was the young General Bonaparte, the man who dazzled Europe with the rapidity and decisiveness of his maneuvers. But at other, crucial moments his energy and powers of decision flagged, most notably in the late afternoon at Waterloo when he had to turn over command to Ney while he took a nap. Napoleon was aging prematurely, and was no longer the wizard of the battlefield who had defeated foes from the Pyrenees to the Pyramids.

This said, Napoleon began the Waterloo Campaign displaying all of the brilliance of old. Moving rapidly north, he captured the river crossing of Charleroi. From here he was in good position to split the allies and to engage and destroy each separately.

(Order of Battle for all forces, Waterloo Campaign)

A BOLD PLAN

Napoleon’s operational plan was both simple and audacious: to divide the Allies by maneuvering between their forces, driving the Prussians northeast and the Anglo-Dutch northwest. His strategic goal was to capture Brussels, the newly-acquired second capital of the Netherlands.

By separating the Allies and driving a wedge between them he was certain he would set in motion a positive chain of strategic events.

First, as neither the Anglo-Dutch nor the Prussians were strong enough to fight his whole force alone, they would retreat before him if unable to link up. Thus by threatening each with defeat-in-detail they would give ground: Blücher’s Prussians falling back on their supply depots to the east, Wellington retreating towards the ports of Ostend and Antwerp, vital if he needed to evacuate his forces by sea.

To achieve this, Napoleon organized his army into two wings and a strong reserve. He himself would command the latter, composed of his powerful Imperial Guards Corps and the Reserve Cavalry Corps. The Left (western-most) Wing was placed under the command Marshal Ney. His orders were to march directly north in stages; threating Brussels and preventing Wellington from using the east-west roads to link-up with or support Blücher. The Right Wing, commanded by Marshal Grouchy, was to maneuver from Charleroi towards Fleurus and Gembloux beyond; cutting the Namur-Brussels road and preventing Blücher from marching west to join Wellington in defending Brussels (where Napoleon expected Wellington to attempt to stand).

Either wing might meet strong resistance, and neither by themselves were strong enough to crush the Anglo-Dutch or Prussian armies. However, from his reserve position, Napoleon could rapidly reinforce and take command of either wing with his strong reserve, if battle was imminent. It should be emphasized that Napoleon fully expected no such battle to present itself early-on; that both Allied forces would instead retreat before him and present him an opportunity to take Brussels without first having to fight a major battle. However, if the Allies did decide to stand and fight he was confident he would be able to defeat each separately, in detail, and capture Brussels in any case.

The fall of Brussels promised to pay immediate political dividends.

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First, the wavering elements in the newly-created Dutch kingdom (which had been part of the French Empire until 1813) would return to their French allegiance. Secondly, from Brussels he would be in position to turn on Wellington if he was still undefeated, driving upon him toward his vital supply ports. Wellington would be forced to either fight at a numeric disadvantage or evacuate his forces by sea. Meanwhile, if Blücher attempted to interfere or counter-attack from the east, one of his wings could fight a delaying battle till Wellington was defeated, after which point Napoleon would be in position to turn and fall upon the Prussians with all his forces.

With the Allies defeated or driven out of Belgium, Napoleon could present King William with the same option he’d presented the Elector of Saxony in 1806: join me as an ally and keep your throne, or lose it when I annex your country. He was certain how the Dutch monarch would decide, especially as loyalty to Napoleon was still strong throughout the Dutch army (much of which had only recently been a part of the Emperor’s army, and some units even serving in his Imperial Guard). With the addition of 30,000 Dutch-Belgian troops, he would then cross the Rhine into Hannover. There he would be in good position to both threaten the right flank of the Allied armies massed along the French frontier and to menace Berlin, the Prussian capital.

This rapid and (for the Allies) catastrophic chain of events, he believed, would cause the Coalition to reconsider his proposals of peace.

It has become cliché that “no plan survives contact with the enemy”. This maxim is, of course, one of those penned by Napoleon himself late in life, while reflecting from exile on St. Helena. Perhaps he had this, his final campaign in mind when he wrote those sagacious words; as the Allied commanders stubbornly refused to react as he anticipated, and his own subordinates proved unable to perform to his expectations.

WELLINGTON HUMBUGGED

All began well enough for Napoleon, as his plan was set in motion by a thrust across the Sambre into Belgium at Charleroi. Here his advance guards met a blocking force of Prussians. But these were brushed aside and the French captured the strategic crossing point.

Even so, the crossing was slower than should have been expected. Pontoon bridges were left behind or late to arrive. Advancing divisions found their way blocked by units ahead of them that had failed to receive their marching orders, and the roads became unnecessarily congested. Marshal Soult was finding Berthier’s boots hard to fill. That, or he was a deliberately inept Chief of Staff.

The Emperor’s carefully concealed plans had, however, deceived Wellington. Due to demonstrations and feigned preparations nearer the coast, Wellington expected the French to cross the frontier further west at Mons, from where they could threaten his communication and supply line to the ports of Ostend and Antwerp. The “Iron Duke” had deployed his forces to cover such a move by the French, with the bulk between Nivelles and the Scheldt. Nor were the French expected before July.

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At 3 pm on June 15, a Prussian courier informed the Duke of Wellington that Napoleon’s army had crossed the border at Charleroi. The Duke was at first suspicious that this was but a feint. When later that night it was confirmed that there was no French activity across the border further west near Mons, and he realized his mistake, Wellington exclaimed: “He (Napoleon) has humbugged me, by God! He has gained 24 hours on me![2]

Examining the map Wellington ordered his army to break camp and move that night, and to concentrate the next day at the crossroads of Quatre Bras. He added, “But we shall not stop him there; and if so, I must fight him here“.

He taped a place on the map north of Quatre Bras: Waterloo.

On the morning, 16 June, Grouchy informed Napoleon that the Prussians were concentrating much further forward than had been expected, around the village of Sombreffe. At breakfast that morning at Charleroi with Ney, Napoleon informed the Marshal that he intended to join Grouchy’s wing and see what Blücher was up to. Napoleon gave Ney his initial action orders for the day: move north with his wing of the army to the crossroads at Quatre Bras.

There, Ney was to brush aside what few troops were then screening the position (that morning only about 8,000 Dutch-Belgian troops and a few guns held the crossroads). The Emperor specified that Ney was to secure the crossroads with six divisions; and to probe as far north along the Brussels Road as Genappe. His mission was to prevent Wellington’s army from linking-up with the Prussians to the east. Meanwhile, he, Napoleon, would see to and drive away whatever pickets the Prussians might have around Sombreffe; and then, if Wellington appeared in force, turn west and attack his flank in support of Ney.

This initial order left Ney expecting a minor role, in which Napoleon would support him should a battle arise, something neither man expected. That this view would run contrary to the reality soon to be thrust upon them led to a fundamental misunderstanding of expectations that would sabotage the French coordination throughout the day.

CONFERENCE AT BRYE

Wellington arrived at Quatre Bras at 10 am, and was surprised to find the crossroads held by a small advance force of 8,000 Dutch and Hanoverian troops, supported by 16 guns, under the Prince of Orange. With great forethought, the Prince’s Chief of Staff, Baron Jean de Constant-Rebecque, had dispatched troops to Quatre Bras the previous afternoon. Rebecque’s decision may have prevented Napoleon from reaching Brussels that day. For without the presence of these early defenders the crossroads would have been overrun and Wellington’s army destroyed piecemeal on the road before it could unite. Rebecque is one of the unsung heroes of that day, and of the campaign.

Wellington was also relieved to find the French had yet to attack, beyond an initial probe by the light cavalry of the Guard, scouting ahead of the Ney’s wing. These had been sent packing by the Dutch-Belgian defenders. Seeing that all was for the time being tranquil Wellington and his staff rode on, down the Namur Road towards Ligny, seven miles away. At the village of Brye he met with Blücher and the Prussian commander’s Chief of Staff and second-in-command, the estimable General August Neidhardt von Gneisenau.

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Wellington, as yet unaware of what Napoleon had in store for him at Quatre Bras, nor how scattered and slow to assemble his forces were going to be that day, promised to come to the Prussian’s aid. He added the proviso, “unless he himself were attacked at Quatre Bras“. This was a promise he would find impossible to fulfill. However, the Prussian commanders made their arrangements accordingly, and all day fought with the expectation of his coming.

Before departing, Wellington and the Prussian staff surveyed the deployment of Blücher’s army around Ligny. Across the valley they could see Napoleon’s forces moving into position. Gazing on the Prussian positions, the Duke noted with concern their deployment on the forward slopes behind Ligny. He told Blücher how he had learned in Spain the prudence of deploying on the reverse slopes, to spare his men the pounding of French cannonade. The crusty old Prussian replied, “My men prefer to see the enemy!” Wellington left the conference at Brye, remarking to his staff, “If they fight here, they will be damnably mauled.”

In this observation he was correct.

NEXT: CONFUSION AT THE CROSSROADS

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ART OF WAR: WARRIORS OF THE PHARAOHS

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Much of our perception of history is influenced by the artists who have drawn and painted scenes from out of the past. This is the second in a series in which we will look at historical armies and warriors through the images artists have given us.

Our knowledge of the warriors of ancient Egypt who served the Pharaohs comes, in large part, from their own artistic renderings.

1476152Here the Pharaoh Thutmose III is depicted in ancient Egyptian art, leading his soldiers against the Canaanite fortress of Megiddo. Atop his head is the khepresh, the Blue War Crown worn by the pharaohs in battle. Thutmose rides the light, two-horse Egyptian chariot, a platform for horse archery.

Another depiction from Egyptian art, this from a chest found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun:

1475465.jpgModern artists take their cue from what we see in art (as well as archeological finds).

1476014.jpgThe late Angus McBride was a master of capturing scenes from military history. Here the Pharaoh rides to battle.

1475481.jpgIn the image above (by the amazing artist Igor Dzis) Egyptian and Canaanite chariots battle each other at Megiddo, 1457 BC. The chariot warriors on both sides were a military elite during the Bronze Age, often drawn from the nobility and their military retainers. Note the bronze panoplies of both chariot crews: these warriors were well protected against the weapons of the day. Mounted upon the chariot and armed with a powerful bow, spears or javelins, the charioteers were the battle tank of their day – armored, mobile, and lethal. In the background, divisions of Egyptian foot soldiers, armed with bow, spear, axe, and the deadly sickle-sword, the bronze khopesh wait in reserve, providing support and a base around which the chariots can maneuver.

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The ever-informative Mike Loades explains the weapons of the Egyptian chariot warrior

Below, the Pharaoh Rameses II is accompanied by his pet lion during the Battle of Kadesh Campaign in 1274.

1476025.jpgKadesh was perhaps the most celebrated battle in ancient Egyptian history (in no small part because of Rameses’ unsparing efforts at self-promotion). Here is another image, of Rameses engaging a Hittite chariot warrior during the battle.

1476026.jpgArtist Giuseppe Rava attempts to capture a moment in the battle when Hittite heavy chariots routed one Egyptian division and caused panic in the Pharaoh’s army.

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Here the artists captures the clash of massed chariots. Bronze Age kingdoms maintained large numbers of chariots, often numbering in the thousands. At Kadesh, Rameses had around 2,000 of the light, fast Egyptian chariots. The Hittites brought as many as 3,700 of their heavier, 3 man chariots. While the Egyptians used their chariots as essentially light cavalry horse archers, the Hittites’ were “shock weapons”, platforms for spear and javelin men, used to break an enemy formation. There emphasis on speed and archery gave the Egyptians a superior “stand-off” killing ability.

Following the death of the boy Pharaoh Tutankhamun and his successor, the Vizier Ay, Egypt was ruled for 14 years by his chief general, Horemheb. Here the general is depicting campaigning in Nubia.

1476080.jpgChariots are seen here scattering Libyan tribesmen:

1476085.jpgThough the charioteers receive the bulk of the attention both in ancient and modern art, the vast majority of Egyptian soldiers were infantry; organized into divisions. At the Battle of Kadesh Rameses II led an army against the Hittites; of which 16,000 were infantry. These were organized into four divisions: that of Amun, Re (P’re), Seth, and the newly-formed division of Ptah. The infantry were both light and heavy, and each division likely had a portion of both. Armor was worn by at least the officers and front rankers of the heavy infantry; made of metal or what appears to be bands of linen.

1476015.jpgHere Egyptian infantry attack the crew of a disabled Canaanite chariot.

1476052.jpgThree types of Egyptian infantry:

1476065.jpgBelow, archers are depicted, along with a mounted messenger. Horses in during the Bronze Age were for the most part too small to effectively bear a fighting man; particularly one in armor. This accounts for the popularity of chariots, in which a team of horse could effectively pull a cart bearing a team of armored warriors. However, unarmored messengers could make use of the smallish horses available.

1476091 (1).jpgIn the 13th and 12th century BC, the lands bordering the eastern Mediterranean were raided and conquered by seaborne fighters called “The Sea People“. They are thought to have been comprised of many different groups acting in alliance; including the Sherden/Shardana, from Sardinia or Corsica, and the Peleset (Philistines). They may also have included Homer’s Achaean Greeks (called the Ahhiyawa in the Hittite sources), and Lycians from the Aegean region; both perhaps veterans of the Trojan War. (See Heroes of Troy and Mycenae) These reivers are thought to have destroyed the Hittite Empire, sacked and torched the cities of the Aegean and the Levant, and founded city-states along the Palestinian coast that became known as Philistia. Egypt was the only great Eastern Mediterranean state that successfully resisted their incursions. Here is an image of the Sea People from an Egyptian temple relief:

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The brilliant Giuseppe Rava brings them alive in this image:

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Here a battle between the Sea Peoples and Egyptian defenders at the mouth of the Nile Delta:

1476127Early in his reign, Rameses II defeated an incursion of one of these Sea Peoples, the Sherden (or Shardana). Impressed with their fighting skill, he took these Bronze Age Vikings into his service as an elite regiment of bodyguards. Here is an image from an ancient stele depicting the Pharaoh’s Sherden Swordsmen:

1476130.jpgThe Sherden were armed with the first great broadsword of history: the bronze Naue II. Modern testing has demonstrated the effectiveness of these strong, flexible swords; capable of both slashing and stabbing.

1476133.jpgFollowing victory, the number of enemy slain was determined by cutting off the right hand of their dead; which were then counted. Here Rameses sits on his chariot, his Sherden guards behind him, as scribes count the Hittite dead.

1476135 (1).jpgAfter the Bronze Age came to a close in the 11th century, Egypt slipped into an internal slumber. Rameses III was the last great ancient pharaoh. After his murder, Egypt’s foreign policy became increasingly isolationist. Its army deteriorated, and the country was eventually conquered by first the Nubians, then the Assyrians, followed by the Persians. When Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemy founded a Graeco-Macedonian dynasty, he found the Egyptians living much as they had in the time of the Pharaohs. Adopting the titles and roles of the ancient rulers of the land, the Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty thrived by respecting the ancient traditions of Egypt and its people; which dreamed of the glories of their Bronze Age past.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy its companion piece –

THE ART OF WAR: HEROES OF TROY AND MYCENAE 

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Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

www.ospreypublishing.com

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ARMIES OF THE SUCCESSOR KINGDOMS: THE PTOLEMIES

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This is the second part in a series on the militaries of the Macedonian Successor states which grew out of the Wars of the Diadochi that followed the death of Alexander the Great. For the next century after his death, these kingdoms were defended by armies that represented the greatest fighting forces in the Hellenistic World. Each differed from the other in fascinating ways, as will be shown.

(To read the first installment in this series, The Armies of the Successor Kingdoms: The Seleucids, go here.)

When Alexander died in Babylon in 323BC, the Macedonian leadership reassigned the Satrapies (governorships) of the empire. Ptolemy son of Lagos, Alexander’s childhood friend and one of the inner circle of “Bodyguards” and generals, was appointed Satrap of Egypt.

Ptolemy arrived with no soldiers and no treasury of his own. But he used the riches of Egypt to hire a large force of mercenaries, and wasted no time in stealing the body of Alexander as it passed through Syria on the way to burial in Macedonia. He took it first to Memphis, and later to rest in his newly-constructed capital of Alexandria. This hijacking of the conqueror’s corpse was a declaration of revolt against the regency of Perdiccas in Babylon; and ignited the subsequent Wars of the Diadochi. Throughout the next 50 years of near-continuous conflict, Ptolemy alone showed no interest in reuniting the Empire of Alexander under his rule; but single-mindedly worked to build a self-sufficient kingdom centered on the Lower-Nile.

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After Alexander the Eastern Mediterranean was awash in unemployed fighting men. These mercenaries were of various types, “light” and “heavy”[1]; the most desired being Macedonian or other nationalities trained to fight like Macedonian phalangites. These were the battle-winners in the wars of the Diodachi. Cavalry were also prized, particularly heavy cavalry lancers of Macedonian or Thessalian origin. Such horsemen were in vary short supply, and when available served usually in the bodyguard regiments of the various Satraps, Successor kings and generals.

Light infantry were more readily available. Of these, Cretan archers, Rhodian slingers, and javelin-and-spear armed Peltasts (particularly those from Thrace) or Thureophoroi  were the most valuable. In the 3rd century, after the Celtic invasion of Greece and Anatolia, Celtic “Galatians” also became much sought after soldiers-for-hire.

With the tremendous wealth of Egypt to draw on Ptolemy I was able to not only hire an army of such mercenaries and hold onto Egypt; he succeeded in creating the longest-lasting of all the Successor Kingdoms. He was remembered by his people and history as Ptolemy Soter (“The Savior”).

His first test came in 321 BC, when Egypt was invaded by Perdiccas, the Macedonian Regent for Alexander the Great’s infant child. Perdiccas led the “Grande Armee” of the Macedonian Empire against Ptolemy, and should have had little trouble in unseating him from his newly-held stronghold. However, he was daunted by the Nile, and unable to cross in the face of resistance. Delay led to disaffection among his troops, who could see no reason they should be fighting the popular Ptolemy to further the ambitions of the haughty Perdiccas (and they took particular exception to seeing comrades drown or eaten by Nile crocodiles in the process). The impasse was solved by Perdiccas’ subordinate officers: Seleucus (the future founder of the Seleucid Dynasty), Peithon, and Antigenes (commander of the elite “Silver Shields” regiment) murdered the Regent in his tent.

The two armies joined as one, and peace within the Macedonian Empire was (briefly) restored. Some of the soldiers of the Imperial army stayed in Egypt to serve Ptolemy; and many settled in the country, becoming the nucleus for a Macedonian military colony.

In 312 BC Ptolemy faced yet another Diodachi opponent at the Battle of Gaza; this time the son and heir of Antigonus “One Eyed” (Monophthalmus), the 23 year old Demetrius (later known as Poliorcetes, “The Besieger”). Ptolemy was triumphant, routing Demetrius and capturing all  of his 43 elephants and some 8,000 of his infantry. Many of the latter were Macedonians or Greek mercenaries. These were taken back to Egypt as prisoners of war.

1384320 Demetrius’ Agema fighting Ptolemy’s Companions at Gaza, 312 BC

Throughout his reign Ptolemy I Soter settled both discharged mercenaries and Macedonian and Greek prisoners-of-war in Lower Egypt (mostly in the Nile Delta region) as kleruchs (military colonists). They and their descendants provided the “Macedonian” kleruch phalanx that made up the infantry home guard of the Ptolemaic kingdom in its first two centuries, as well as the kleruch cavalry. From this population were also recruited the Royal Guards of the Ptolemaic kings. Fresh drafts of mercenaries from Greece, Thrace, and Anatolia were ever-after recruited to garrison far-flung outposts, provide marines for Egypt’s superb navy, and to bolster the fighting effectiveness of the indigenous Ptolemaic army on specific campaigns.

Unlike the Seleucids, who were a land power and had a large pool of European military settlers to draw upon, the Ptolemies were primarily a naval power. Their wealth (in part) and power derived from their overseas’ interests in the Eastern Mediterranean (particularly Cyprus) and the Aegean islands, and from towns and cities they controlled along the Thracian and Anatolian littoral.

Reliance on Hellenic and “barbarian” mercenaries was to become a hallmark of the Ptolemaic kings that followed Soter on the throne. While money was seldom an issue, reliable indigenous troops were always in short supply. The Army reflected this, with the bulk of their forces composed of mercenary garrisons holding towns and fortresses scattered across their empire, and serving as marines aboard their fleet.

As with the Seleucids, the army was comprised of three parts: The guard units stationed in or around Alexandria; the reservists, at first predominantly Greco-Macedonian kleruchs, and later including Egyptian machimoi; and finally the mercenaries.

ROYAL GUARD

Unlike their rivals the Seleucids, the Ptolemies maintained a relatively small force of full-time soldiers to act as a Royal Guard around the sovereign. As previously stated, these were drawn from the Macedonian and other Greek kleruchs, settled in Egypt by the first Ptolemy.

thereo Royal Foot Guards

The guard troops consisted of a cavalry Royal Guard (Hetairoi?) 700 strong; and an infantry Royal Guard (Basilikon Agema) 3,000 strong. The cavalry were lance armed (xystophoroi), and as late as 200 BC were shieldless, using their lance with one or both hands in the traditional Macedonian and Thessalian style. The infantry guard fought on campaign as phalangites (though in their role of palace guard it is more likely that they carried a spear than a long, unwieldy pike). A 1,000 man sub-unit within the Agema may have been trained to fight as more traditional hypaspists or as thorakitai (spear or spear-and-javelin armed, fast moving heavy infantry). It is also plausible that this sub-unit was solely tasked with actual guard duty at the royal palace; the rest of the Agema garrisoning the city at large. Of course this is all mere speculation, as the sources provide little details of these soldier’s actual daily duties.

A further 2,000 “Peltast” are listed at the Battle of Raphia (217 BC), posted next to the Agema. These too might have been a unit of the regular guards (though it is just as likely they were mercenaries). The name should not be confused with the traditional light troop type called “peltasts” in Greek warfare, which referred to a type of light skirmish infantry originating in Thrace. By the late 3rd century BC the term was being used to mean phalangites carrying a small, bronze-faced round shield called a “pelta”. The traditional peltast-skirmishers of old were now called thureophoroi (having replaced their smaller pelta shields with a long, light oval shield called a thureos, and added a thrusting spear to their traditional javelins).

1384324.jpg Royal Guard Cavalry

After Raphia a “picked” unit of native Egyptians joined the guard, referred to in the sources as Machimoi Epilektoi (meaning elite or select machimoi). The machimoi were the native Egyptian warrior caste, which had been suppressed by the Persian authorities and not utilized by the Ptolemies till the crises of the Fourth Syrian War; when Ptolemy IV was forced to draft them into his phalanx to meet the Seleucid invasion (see below). This picked force within the guard, drawn from this Egyptian warrior caste, reflects the reality of a revival of ethnic Egyptian political involvement following their mobilization for Raphia; after which they could no longer be ignored. Neither their numeric strength nor armament are known. As with much of the Ptolemaic army after the reforms of  Ptolemy VI Philometor, they may have been trained and equipped as thureophoroi from the 160s onward .

Finally, the sons of the kleruch military settlers received their military training in a corps of cadets, called the Epigoni (“Heirs”). How long the young men had to serve in this force is unknown. But since they are unlisted at Raphia, it is likely that this was not a combat unit, but instead a training cadre; and that following their training they returned to their father’s farms, to be mobilized as part of the kleroi phalanx if needed.

RESERVISTS

The Graeco-Macedonian kleroi provided the phalanx of the Ptolemaic Empire. At Raphia these numbered 25,000 (according to Polybius). They were all men of at least partial Macedonian or Greek descent. However, it should be noted that the term “Macedonian”, when used in the ancient sources to refer to a Hellenistic body of troops, only meant men who fought in the “Macedonian style”, as phalangites; and not necessarily to exact ethnicity.

1384332.jpgThe Ptolemaic “Macedonian” phalanx was equipped much as their counterparts in other Hellenistic kingdoms, with the two-handed sarissa (pike) and a smallish (22”-28”) shield (called a “pelte” in the later Hellenistic Period). While all phalangites were equipped with a helmet, at least the front rankers (if not all) wore cuirass and greaves. In battle they formed-up 16-32 ranks deep (at Raphia the Ptolemaic phalanx formed 24 ranks deep; perhaps to gain extra weight against their better-quality Seleucid counterparts). The phalanx had two density orders: pyknosis, the standard battle order in which each man occupied 3’ of frontage; and synaspismos (“locked shields”), in which each man occupied a mere 1.5’ frontage. This latter density was only used to receive an assault, and was seldom used when a phalanx was advancing as it allowed little room for maneuver.

The phalanx aside, small numbers of kleruch settlements were assigned to discharged Thracian and Galatian mercenaries; so that such “ethnic” troops, fighting in their own unique national styles, would be available indigenously. 4,000 such “mercenary kleruchs” were available for battle in 217 BC, fighting in their own style.

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Cavalry kleruchs numbered about 2,300 at the Battle of Raphia. The army by that time had degenerated after decades of neglect, and in the previous generation may have numbered twice as many. While their equipment likely came from government armories, each man had to supply his own horse. It is also likely that they fought in their traditional fashion, as either xystophoroi or armed with shield and javelin. Most would have been “heavy cavalry”.

As time went on, the quality of the Graeco-Macedonian kleruch soldiers deteriorated to the point where they ceased to be a military force. Mercenaries, particularly thorakitai and thureophoroi, became the mainstay of the Ptolemaic army. These were just as capable (or more so) than “national” troops to garrison distant fortresses. But in pitched battle were unlikely to be either as loyal or willing to stand and die for their king as the “national” troops of earlier days.

THE MACHIMOI

Egypt was a very old land with a very long history. By the time Alexander the Great arrived in Egypt, the builders of the pyramids were as ancient to him as he is to our time! Ancient Egypt had a pseudo-caste system, and the machimoi were the hereditary Egyptian warrior caste. The Persians had ignored them when they were masters of the land, and under the Macedonian Ptolemies they had never been called to fight in the army; though they did serve in the fleet.

In 219 BC the Fourth Syrian War began with the Seleucid king Antiochus III invading the Ptolemaic lands of Phoenicia and Coele-Syria (“Hollow-Syria”, Palestine). Fortunately for Ptolemaic administration, he paused to consolidate his control of these territories rather than pressing on into Egypt. This gave the court of Alexandria time to prepare.

The Ptolemaic army had been idle for nearly a generation, and was in no condition to face the stronger Seleucid army under its energetic young king. Ptolemy IV, himself a young king newly risen to the throne (Ptolemy IV and Philip V of Macedon both came to their respective thrones in 221 BC, just two years after Antiochus III). Unlike his warlike Seleucid rival, Ptolemy was a weak and dissolute creature, controlled by his corrupt ministers. However corrupt they may have been, they were resourceful. They used the time they had to prepare the army for battle.

The kleruch reservists were called-up and drilled, and mercenaries were hired from Greece and the Aegean. Most consequentially, for the first time, the crises caused the Ptolemaic government to begin recruiting from the native Egyptian population.

They trained 20,000 Egyptian machimoi as phalangites, to fight in their own phalanx beside the 25,000 Graeco-Macedonian kleruch phalangites. It was a bold (and, as it turned out, dangerous) move to arm the machimoi. Macedonian control of Egypt relied more on Egyptian apathy than on the loyalty of the people. Given arms and training equal to the Macedonians, the native Egyptians were soon agitating for greater equality. The next reign was plagued by revolts.

At the Battle of Raphia in 217 BC, the machimoi phalanx gave good service. Standing beside the Graeco-Macedonian kleruchs in the battle line, they faced off against the vaunted Seleucid phalanx of Graeco-Macedonians, and ultimately routed it from the field.

MERCENARIES

As already stated, the bulk of the Ptolemaic army was comprised of mercenary garrisons and auxiliaries. Macedonian mercenaries were primarily available during the early years of the Diodachi Wars, while Macedon was in turmoil and remnants of Alexander’s army were still available for recruitment in Asia. However, as the political situation solidified in the early 3rd century, the later Ptolemies had no access to true Macedonians; as that kingdom was now ruled by their rivals, the Antigonids. Mercenaries from the other Greek states were still both prized and available. 8,000 mercenary Greek phalangites fought in the Ptolemaic ranks at Raphia. At least 6,000 Aetolians were brought to Alexandria by the mercenary general, Scopas, in 200 BC.

1384336From their coastal possessions in Thrace and Anatolia, they were able to recruit the warlike peoples of the interiors: Thracians, Galatians, Lycians and Pamphlians. Most of these fought as thureophoroi. Libyans are mentioned, but whether these are from Greek Cyrene or the Libyan desert-dwelling tribes is unknown. Cretan archers and Rhodian slingers were also prized specialist troops. Judeans and Idumean Arabs were also recruited, but seem to have been used mostly as police and border patrol forces.

Oddly, the Ptolemies seem to have made no use of the Nubian archers of the Northern Sudan; which had served to good effect in the ancient armies of the Pharaohs, and in the Medieval armies of Muslim Egypt.

THE GABINIANI

As the kingdom became a virtual client kingdom of Rome following Pompey‘s “Eastern Settlement” in the first half of the 1st century BC, Roman and Italian soldier’s of fortune joined the ranks of the Ptolemaic mercenaries. In 51 BC, Ptolemy XII was restored to his throne by Roman intervention. A force of 2,000 Roman troops were left in Alexandria to keep him in power. These came to be known as the Gabiniani (in reference to the Roman general, Aulus Gabinius who had led the Roman expedition to Egypt); and soon adopted the manners of their new country and became just another group of mercenaries.

So alienated had they become from their mother country that when in 50BC the Governor of Syria, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus sent his sons to Alexandria to summon them to Syria to oppose a Parthian attack, the Gabiniani (happy in their current station) not only refused; they murdered the Governor’s sons!

The Gabiniani became deeply involved in Alexandrian politics, and supported Ptolemy XIII against his older sister, Cleopatra VII. She had earned their enmity after she turned the murderers of Bibulus’ sons over to the Romans for justice. The following year, 49 BC, they helped drive her out of Alexandria.

When Caesar defeated Pompey at Pharsalus in August 48 BC, the defeated former Triumvir fled to Egypt. Ptolemy XIII’s powerful advisers had supported Pompey with troops in the civil war, and now sought to curry favor with the victor by murdering Pompey. It was two leading members of the Gabiniani, a former Tribune Lucius Septimius and a Centurion Salvius who carried out the bloody treachery.

To the surprise of the Ptolemaic court, Caesar was not pleased by the murder of his former son-in-law; and upon settling into Alexandria with a small force, he brought Cleopatra VII back to the capital. This led to conflict with Ptolemy, his advisers and the army (led by a general named Achillas). Caesar and the single legion which had accompanied him found themselves besieged in the capital; a struggle which came to be called the Alexandrian War. The Gabiniani played an important role as the core of Achillas’ army, and were reinforced by “fugitive criminals and exiles” from the neighboring Roman provinces, swelling their ranks. Caesar triumphed in the end, and the Gabiniani suffered annihilation in the final battles.

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A veteran centurion of the Gabiniani

After the Alexandrian War, Caesar carried on an affair with Cleopatra. When he departed Egypt to continue the fight against his remaining enemies, he left three legions in Egypt to safeguard her reign . After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, Marc Antony became the most powerful man in Roman Empire (along with his partner-in-power, Octavian Caesar). He soon became Cleopatra’s lover and ultimately her husband. While resident in Alexandria, he reorganized her guard, now comprised of Romans loyal to the two of them.

SPECIALTY FORCES

The Ptolemies maintained a large arsenal of artillery at Alexandria. Machines of various sizes were built and maintained. These ranged from stone throwing ballistae to bolt-shooting catapults. The torsion-powered catapult was perfected in the Hellenistic Period, with Alexandria and Syracuse the chief centers of scientific experimentation and development of artillery.

This type of engine was the supreme artillery weapon of the world until gunpowder. As late as the second decade of the 18th century, a French military writer (the Chevalier de Folard) argued for returning to torsion-powered catapults; as they were as accurate as the cannon of the day and cheaper to operate! Torsion-powered machines had great range and power, the longest shot recorded being 800 yards, firing a 6’ long bolt. This was an extreme range from a large machine. The average catapult shot a bolt half that size and half as far. Torsion power was provided by tightly bound skeins of sinew or human hair (there was a great market in the Hellenistic Kingdoms for hair, and women of the poorer-classes regularly sold their long locks).

1384344Engines of various size were used in siege warfare (both for attacking and defending cities and fortresses). Tarn argued that they were not used in Hellenistic naval warfare, that it was the Romans who first mounted engines on shipboard; but this view is not generally accepted.2 Artillery was only very rarely used in land battle during the Hellenistic Period, such as by Alexander to force a crossing of the Jaxartes River against the Massagetae; or at the third Battle of Mantinea in 207 BC by the Spartan Tyrant, Machanidas (where it had no appreciable effect on the outcome of the battle). The main reason that the powerful and accurate ancient artillery was not more widely used is likely because of their lack of mobility, the fluid nature of field battles, and the time it took to construct these wooden engines on the battlefield (they were never moved about in one piece, as often shown in Hollywood movies; but instead assembled on site as needed).

Elephants were another specialty force within the Ptolemaic army. Originally, Ptolemy I Soter may have had a few Indian elephants taken from the army of Perdiccas the Regent; and 43 more were captured from Demetrius following the victory at Gaza. But when these died, no source for Indian elephants was available. Starting with Ptolemy II Philadelphos expeditions were sent out to capture and train the smaller Forest Elephant; found along the Red Sea coast and south as far as Abyssinia. Originally these beasts were trained by imported Indian mahouts. Later mahouts were Greek or Egyptian; though they were still referred to as “Indians”. No record exists for the size of the Ptolemaic herd. But at Raphia in 217 BC there were 73 elephants on the Ptolemaic side.

1384390.jpgDuring this battle, the larger Seleucid Indian Elephants dominated their Ptolemaic opponents. According to Polybius, even the smell of the Indian beasts intimidated the smaller African Forest Elephants.

FLEET

With possessions sprawled across the Eastern Mediterranean, the fleet was perhaps the most important element in the Ptolemaic military. While not technically within the scope of this discussion, a few words about this vital arm are appropriate.

1384349 Successor Penteres/Quinquereme (5-rower), ship-of-the-line of the Hellenistic and Roman world

From the beginning of the Wars of the Diadochi, fleet actions had played an important part. Demetrius Poliorcetes was able to wrest control of the sea (and Cyprus) from Ptolemy Soter by victory in the Battle of Salamis-in-Cyprus, in 306 BC. For the next twenty years, Demetrius and the Antigonids controlled the largest fleet in the Mediterranean. After Demetrius’ capture by Seleucus in Cilicia in 286 BC, the Antigonid fleet went over to Ptolemy. This gave the Ptolemies (on paper) somewhere between 300 – 400 warships; with Tarn’s estimate of 336 first-rate warships seeming persuasive.3

1384395 An Octeres (8-rower). Several of these formed the vanguard of Antony’s fleet at Actium in 31 BC. The hypothetical arrangement of the rowers here depicted arranges them in three tiers, as seen in a trireme. Most scholars suggest a two-tier arrangement

For most of the 3rd century, the Ptolemaic fleet was the most powerful fleet in the Mediterranean; surpassing in size that of either Carthage (max of 200 ships) or Rome (250 ships)4; and possessing a variety of much larger and more powerful ships than either (including the largest warship built in the ancient world, a tessarakonteres, or 40-rower).

1384360.jpg Artist speculative reconstruction of the tessarakonteres of Ptolemy II. Some scholars have speculated that this ship may, in fact, have been a double-hauled catamaran; with a single deck overlaying and connecting two large hulls.

During the reign of the dissolute Ptolemy IV, the fleet was allowed to deteriorate (wooden ships rot if left without maintenance and replacement). From 201 BC onward, the fleet only took to the sea in small squadrons. Cleopatra VII, the last of the Ptolemies, was able to furnish but 60 ships for service under Antony for the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. These included some large warships, including a number of deceres (10-rowers). Due to malaria sweeping through the Antonine camp, the entire fleet was undermanned during the battle. This depletion in rowers meant a lack of propulsion; accounting for the unusual sluggishness of the entire fleet, and particularly the great “dreadnaughts”, the larger warships. Octavian’s light libernians were able to maintain a safe distance throughout the battle. This led to a myth that larger warships were lumbering behemoths, more for show than effectiveness. This was untrue, and in most of the fleet actions in the 3rd century very large galleys (particularly the 16er of Demetrius and the 18er of his son, Antigonas Gonatas) were speedy if not nimble warships capable of leading the charge in battle.

SUMMARY

Though neither the largest or best of the Successor Kingdom armies, the Ptolemaic forces were able maintain an empire that controlled much of the Eastern Mediterranean for nearly three centuries. At its “high-water mark”, in the 240’s, a Ptolemaic army under the mercenary general Xanthippus the Spartan marched as far as Babylon (and, by one account, into the Eastern Satrapies). At Raphia in 217 BC it managed to win the greatest Successor battle since Ipsus  84 years earlier against a very formidable Seleucid army. At sea, the Ptolemaic fleet ruled the Eastern Mediterranean for generations. Long after their rivals, the Antigonids of Macedon and the Seleucids of Syria had fallen under the control of the Romans, the Ptolemaic kingdom remained the last independent Hellenistic Kingdom.

1384398.jpgUnder the last Ptolemaic kings, Egypt became a virtual client-kingdom of Rome. Even so, the last Ptolemaic ruler, the famed Cleopatra VII, nearly managed to restore the lost glory of her dynasty through the skilled manipulation of the two most powerful Romans of her day: Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. She was a woman of famous whit and charm, and undoubted intelligence. Cleopatra  has this distinction: Rome only feared two individuals. One was Hannibal; the other was Cleopatra.

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Click here for an excellent write-up on the Battle of Raphia.

  1. The designation of “light” or “heavy” regarding ancient soldiers referred not to the amount of armor they wore, but to their role in battle. “Light” infantry and cavalry were those troops expected to fight in a looser order (more distance between and less rigid formations) than their “heavier” counterparts. They typically fulfilled specialists roles as scouts, skirmishers, missile troops, the mobile links between cavalry and the heavy infantry in battle, and often specialized in fighting in rough terrain. Light cavalry were particularly useful in the scouting role, and in harassing an enemy army on the march or pursuing a broken foe after battle. Because these roles required mobility and (often) rapid maneuver, they tended to wear less armor than the “heavy” troops; though in some cases certain “elite” light troops wore as much body armor as their comrades in the “heavy” units. “Heavy” troops were the mainstay of most ancient army, and in most cases were the greater number of troops. These were expected to “hold the line”, and engage the enemy at close quarters. If cavalry, they were typically used in “shock” role, charging the enemy to disorder or shatter his formations. Heavy infantry were typically the “line” troops, and in the case of the Macedonians and their Successor states usually comprised the phalanx and Greek mercenary hoplites (though these faded very soon from the battlefield by the 3rd century BC, replaced by either phalangites fighting in the Macedonian style, or light infantry armed with spear-and-javelin).

2. See Tarn, W.W., Hellenistic Military and Naval Developments; Ares Publishers Inc, Chicago, 1930; P.120

3. Tarn, W.W., Antigonos Gonatas; Appendix X

4. Polybius puts the Carthaginian and Roman fleets in the First Punic War at an impossibly high number of 330 and 350 warships, respectively. But Professor W. W. Tarn’s careful analysis of Polybius’ figures (JHS, vol. 27) downsizes both to a more acceptable number.

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