Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Prelude, 16 - 17 June 1815

The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras
(Painting by Lady Butler)
On this date 199 years ago, Napoléon's Armée du Nord was regrouping after two events which had taken place on Friday the 16th. One event was a check to the advance of the Emperor's left wing under Marshal Ney at Quatre Bras. The other was the Emperor's last victory, the right wing of the army, under Napoléon's personal command having defeated the Prussians at Ligny.

Quatre Bras (Black Watch at Bay)
(Painting by William Barnes Wollen)

Quatre Bras was a meeting engagement. The French did not expect the Angle-Allied forces under Sir Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington to make a stand. The French forces on this wing were under Michel Ney, Le Rougeaud assumed that the British, their German and Dutch-Belgian allies would flee after a few perfunctory volleys.

He completely misjudged the Duke.

Brunswickers at Quatre Bras

"The Highlanders will advance!"

French Cuirassiers catch Halkett's Brigade in line.

As the fighting surged back and forth at Quatre Bras, the Prussians under Generalfeldmarschall Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher were enduring a heavy pounding from the bulk of three French Corps plus the Imperial Guard. (Ney had one corps at Quatre Bras, another, the I Corps under d'Erlon, spent the day marching and counter-marching between the two battlefields. Their intervention at either battle would have been decisive. Instead, they marched.)

Vicious fighting within the Village of Ligny

The struggle over the farm of En Haut

The fighting was vicious and unrelenting, many men, years later, recalled the screams of the wounded lying where they fell in the numerous villages upon the field. The villages were burning, no time could be spared to pull their comrades out of the buildings where they had taken shelter.

At 1900, the Field Marshal received a message that the Duke was heavily engaged and could not march to assist the Prussians. Von Blücher called for one last push to throw the French back.

Vorwärts!

The Prussians move out, the exhausted French are reeling. Then the French heavy cavalry, the Cuirassiers, counter-charge!

En Avant!

The Field Marshal is unhorsed and ridden over at least twice.

General von Gneisenau, the Prussian Chief-of-Staff cannot find his commander. Word arrives that the Field Marshal is missing, presumed dead. All hope is lost.

Fearing that the English have betrayed them, von Gneisenau prepares to fall back. Then word comes from Major General Krafft, whose troops are holding the village of Ligny, we cannot hold. Then the French Imperial Guard weighs in, Ligny is lost!

Serrez vos rangs!

A retreat is ordered.


Wellington, upon hearing of the Prussian retreat, realizes that he will have to withdraw as well. He waits until the morning of the 17th to give the order.

The Prussians are falling back in fairly good order but a large group of newly created "Prussians" retreat in great disorder towards the Rhine. The Emperor assumes that this is the bulk of the Prussian army. So he decides to let the troops eat breakfast. He feels the campaign has been won. All that is left is the triumphant march into Brussels.

Then he learns that Ney has been roughly handled at Quatre Bras. He mounts his horse, leaves orders for Marshal Grouchy to pursue the Prussians, and heads west to Quatre Bras.

There he finds the French under Ney in no great hurry to drive the British and their allies who can be seen pulling away to the north.

The British cavalry covers the retreat.

Then the rain which has been threatening breaks. Both sides are drenched and the side roads are rapidly being reduced to mud. But the Emperor has roused the men under Ney, they are on their feet and moving.

The Emperor places himself at the head of the duty squadron of the Imperial Guard Chasseurs à Cheval, leading the way, the pursuit begins with a vengeance. According to Captain Cavalié Mercer, commanding a battery of British horse artillery, the pursuit becomes a fox hunt. The cavalry and its attendant batteries of horse artillery manage to hold off the French long enough for the infantry and foot artillery to get away north.


North to Mont St Jean, a small village south of Brussels. Where the Anglo-Allies halt their retreat and prepare to fight the French again on the morrow.

At a place known to history as Waterloo.

13 comments:

  1. "The Emperor places himself at the head of the duty squadron..." Like that would happen today.

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  2. d"Erlon's actions STILL aren't understandable even today... And who gave him what orders is still being debated...

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    1. General d'Erlon seemed to show a startling lack of initiative and common sense. One has to wonder what was going through his head.

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  3. In re: the painting titled Vorwärts!

    Close examination of the troops on the right reveals a "YGBSM!" expression on their faces. It also looks like at least one of the horse-mounted ossifers is somewhat incredulous, too. Or mebbe it's just me.

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    1. Good eye Buck. The Prussians were being pounded. Those troops on the right were probably Landwehr, not quite militia but not hardened regulars either. So the "YGBSM" expression makes sense.

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  4. I love your history lessons. If I had you for a history teacher, I would have done a damn sight better than the B's and C's I got.

    By the way, some names are just too good to have been made up. Marshal Grouchy? LOL.

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    1. Hahaha, thanks Suldog.

      You know, in my 45+ years of studying this battle I never once noticed that Marshal's name before in that context. In French it's pronounced Groo-she, but I will be chuckling about Marshal (ahem) Grouchy for the rest of my days.

      Now that's what I call a "fresh perspective."

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  5. Nice post Sarge. Unfortunately I cannot join you at the moment as I am currently with general Wolfe on a knoll behind the Louisbourg Grenadiers with Monckton. I may have to traverse the line to the Northern left flank to offer support to the Royal Americans as they are being irritated by Canadian irregulars militia and Indians. . Must dash. Quebec awaits us. God save The King (kraut though he may be).

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    1. In New England we find ourselves often irritated by Canadian irregulars.

      'Ware the Plains of Abraham!

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