banner
Book title
banner
 • Mobile Compatible • 

From: Carl von Clausewitz and Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. On Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington, and the Campaign of 1815. Ed./trans. Christopher Bassford, Daniel Moran, and Gregory W. Pedlow. Clausewitz.com, 2010. ISBN-10: 1453701508. ISBN-13: 9781453701508. 318pp. List price: $18.00.

5.
THE CAMPAIGN OF 1815

STRATEGIC OVERVIEW OF THE CAMPAIGN

by Carl von Clausewitz

CHAPTERS 30-39

Note that there is now a Chapter selection button in the nav-bar above.

 

Chapter 30
Bonaparte's Plan of Attack

 

As we know, on the 15th Bonaparte had sent Ney forward on the road to Quatre-Bras with the 1st and 2nd Corps, the light cavalry of the Guard, and a division of cuirassiers, altogether 48,000 men. While this mass of troops was advancing from Marchiennes, where they had crossed the Sambre, Girard's division of the 2nd Corps was employed against General Steinmetz at Gosselies. Since it moved closer to the French center while pursuing [Steinmetz] toward Heppignies, Bonaparte kept it with him. The main army advancing against Blücher now consisted of about 75,000 men. Bonaparte gave it the following dispositions and objectives:

The 3rd Corps (Vandamme), together with Girard's division and supported by a brigade of light cavalry of the Guard, 24,000 men in all, would advance via Wagnelée to attack Saint-Amand.

The 4th Corps (Gérard), 15,000 men strong, would turn to the left and advance to attack Ligny.

Grouchy would advance against Point-du-Jour and Tongrinelle with two corps of cavalry and some infantry (no one says from which corps, but probably from the 4th).

The Guard was placed in reserve to the left of Fleurus. The 6th Corps (which arrived somewhat later) and Milhaut's cavalry corps were placed in reserve to the right.

 These reserves and Grouchy's cavalry, which merely scouted, amounted to a force of about 36,000 men.

Bonaparte did not know the position of the Prussian 3rd Corps. He believed that all three Prussian corps were deployed between Saint-Amand and Sombreffe. He was all the more certain that what he saw in this position was the whole Prussian army because he saw numerous masses of reserves in locations H, I, K, L, and P. Assuming the villages were strongly held, these could easily have comprised the total of 80,000 men he had in front of him. Whether he knew for certain that the 4th Corps had not yet arrived cannot be determined. Later on he claimed as much, in order to put his attack plan in a more favorable light. But it is scarcely possible that he could have been completely sure of this, since even the prisoners he had taken at the start of the battle could not have known for certain. We will therefore leave this question open and turn to his own description.[36] There he saw the Prussian army as being deployed along a line with the Brussels road behind it, which meant that the Prussians had completely abandoned their original line of retreat and had exposed their right flank to him.

In reality, the principal orientation of the Prussian position, even without considering Thielmann's [3rd] corps, was not as Bonaparte conceived it. On the contrary, the Brussels road was more parallel than perpendicular to it. But Bonaparte did not see things this way, and this mistake is quite understandable, because it was very difficult to form an idea of the orientation of the whole shape based on the many individual masses of the Prussian brigades. It was very natural to imagine that the line from Saint-Amand to Ligny, plus the line of the latter village itself, which were the most forward occupied posts, was the dominant line of the whole force. The Prussian deployment amazed Bonaparte and led him to conclude that Blücher was not expecting a battle on that day. Thus Blücher had chosen this position—astonishing under the circumstances—in the hope of gaining time until the next day and of then seeing the English army take up its position in line with the Prussians. Bonaparte attributed the fact that Blücher continued to maintain this deployment while face-to-face with the French army partly to the old man’s audacity and desire to maintain an imposing countenance, and partly to the apparently unthreatening nature of Bonaparte’s own position near Fleurus, where a portion of his troops was completely concealed.

Bonaparte was now almost certain that Wellington could not arrive. On this point he was much more likely to have had definite news than about Bülow. Furthermore, he thought that he had dealt with that threat by the orders he had given Ney. Everything thus depended on Ney, who, having missed his chance on the 15th, was supposed to press forward to Quatre-Bras as quickly as possible on the 16th, thereby holding off whatever aid might have come from Wellington. Ney was then to send 10,000 men back on the Quatre-Bras-Namur road into the rear of the Prussian army. In his enthusiasm for this plan, Bonaparte said to General Gérard, who had come to him for instructions: "It may be that in three hours the fate of the war will be decided. If Ney executes his orders properly, not a single cannon of the Prussian army will escape. They have been caught en flagrant délit."[37]

Chapter 31
Critical Analysis

There is strong reason to doubt that Bonaparte's intentions at the time he gave his orders for the battle were truly as he has stated. In his narratives and dictations he has demonstrated all too often that he is not truthful and forthright. It may well be that in this case he also wished to appear to be less of a gambler, not just in his attack on Blücher but in his whole second appearance on the political stage. He was destroyed by the combined strength of Blücher and Wellington, but his vanity requires that this appear not to have resulted from the force of circumstances, but from mistakes by individuals. This brief for the defense, as the lawyers call it, therefore requires him to argue that the Prussian army would already have been lost on the 16th if Bonaparte's plans had been carried out.

No study to date has been able to show to what extent Marshal Ney actually acted contrary to Bonaparte's orders on the 16th, because Gamot's defense of the Marshal also does not clear this up completely.[38] However, it will definitely contribute to a better understanding of the matter if we present word-for-word the four orders that Marshal Ney received in the course of the 16th, according to Gamot's book.

First Order

 

Charleroi, 16 June 1815

 

Marshal! The Emperor has just ordered Count Valmy, commanding the 3rd Cavalry Corps, to concentrate and head for Gosselies, where he will be at your disposition.

His Majesty's intention is that the Guard Cavalry, which had been on the road to Brussels, remain behind and rejoin the remainder of the Imperial Guard; but in order that it should not have to make a retrograde movement, you can replace it in the line and leave it a little to the rear and he will send its orders for the day there. Lieutenant General Lefebre-Desnouettes will send an officer to pick up the necessary orders.

You will inform me whether the corps has carried out its movement and of the exact position this morning of the 1st and 2nd Corps and of the two cavalry divisions which are attached, informing me what enemy forces are in front of you and what has been learned.

Signed: Chief of Staff,
the Duke of Dalmatia

 

Second Order

 

Charleroi, 16 June 1815

 

Marshal! An officer of lancers has just told the Emperor that the enemy has appeared in force near Quatre-Bras. Unite the corps of Counts Reille and d’Erlon and that of Count Valmy, who is just marching off to join you. With these forces you must engage and destroy all enemy forces that present themselves. Blücher was at Namur yesterday and it is unlikely that he has sent any troops toward Quatre-Bras. Thus you will only have to deal with the forces coming from Brussels.

Marshal Grouchy is going to move on Sombreffe as I informed you, and the Emperor is going to Fleurus. You should address future reports to His Majesty there.

Signed: Marshal of the Empire,
Chief of Staff, the Duke of Dalmatia

 

Third Order

 

In front of Fleurus, 16 June,
at two o'clock.

Marshal! The Emperor has directed me to warn you that the enemy has gathered a body[39] of troops between Sombreffe and Bry, and that at two-thirty Marshal Grouchy will attack it with the 3rd and 4th Corps. His Majesty’s intent is that you should attack all that is in front of you, and that, after having vigorously pushed it back, you should advance toward us to assist in enveloping the force I just mentioned. If this force has already been smashed, then His Majesty will maneuver toward you to speed up your operation in turn. Immediately inform the Emperor of your dispositions and of what is happening on your front.

Signed: Chief of Staff,
Marshal of the Empire,
Duke of Dalmatia

 

Fourth Order

 

In front of Fleurus, 16 June 1815,
at three-fifteen

 

Marshal! I wrote to you an hour ago that the Emperor would attack the enemy at two-thirty in the position he has taken between Saint-Amand and Bry. At this moment the engagement is very fierce. His Majesty has directed me to tell you that you must maneuver onto the field in such a manner as to envelop the enemy right and to fall with full force on his rear. The enemy army will be lost if you act vigorously. The fate of France is in your hands. Therefore do not hesitate an instant to move as the Emperor has ordered, and head toward the heights of Bry and of Saint-Amand to cooperate in a victory that may be decisive. The enemy has been caught en flagrant délit while trying to unite with the English.

Signed: Chief of staff,
the Duke of Dalmatia.

 

In contrast, Bonaparte wrote in his previously mentioned memoirs:

An officer from the staff of the left wing reported that, at the moment when Marshal Ney was marching into position in front of Quatre-Bras, he was stopped by the sound of cannon on his right flank and by reports that the Anglo-Dutch and Prusso-Saxon armies had already linked up in the vicinity of Fleurus; that had he continued his movement under these circumstances he would have been outflanked; and that he was ready to execute any commands the Emperor should send him, once His Majesty became aware of this new development. The emperor blamed him for having lost eight hours already. What Ney claimed was a new development had in fact existed since the day before. The emperor reiterated to Ney the order to carry all before Quatre-Bras, and that as soon as he had taken the position he was to detach a column of eight thousand infantry, together with Lefebre-Desnouettes's cavalry division and twenty-eight guns, via the road through Marbais, in order to attack the rear of the enemy army on the heights of Bry. With this detachment gone, there would still remain to him thirty-two thousand men and 80 guns at Quatre-Bras, which will be sufficient to hold in check the detachments of the British army that might arrive on the 16th. Marshal Ney received this order at 11:30 a.m. He was near Frasne with his advance guard; he ought to have taken up his position in front on Quatre-Bras at mid-day. Now, from Quatre-Bras to the heights of Bry is eight thousand yards; the column that he detached against Marshal Blücher's rear should therefore have reached Marchais by two o'clock. The line that the French army occupied near Fleurus was not aggressive. Part of it was masked; the Prussian army should have had no cause for concern.[40]

Although it cannot be said that this narrative contradicts the four orders, the following must be noted:

1. A specific mission such as the one described [in the Memoirs] cannot be found among the orders to the Marshal. Perhaps it was verbal, perhaps it has been lost.

2. The third order does not make reference to any previous order along similar lines, but instead presents the situation differently; Soult would probably have been the one who wrote the order mentioned by Bonaparte, or at least would have had precise knowledge of it.

3. Anyone who has a little experience in these matters will find that the four orders reproduced by Gamot have a greater ring of truth than the account given by Bonaparte in his memoirs.

4. Finally, Bonaparte’s account lists the Guards Cavalry Division among the forces allocated to Marshal Ney, while the first of the three orders clearly calls for it to remain behind. On St. Helena Napoleon may have forgotten this situation, but not a few hours after he gave the order.

And now for the internal consistency of this deployment.

1. Ney is to advance nine miles toward Brussels with around 40,000 men, where he is likely to encounter 50-60,000 English and Dutch troops. He is supposed to defeat them, and no doubts are raised about the certainty of his success, even though English troops led by Wellington had on many occasions defeated French marshals quite decisively.

2. Around midday the main body of Marshal Ney's force was still at Gosselies, three hours’ march from Quatre-Bras. This force must first cover that distance, for even though Ney himself is with the advanced guard at Frasnes, that is not sufficient. Then he must begin and end a battle, and afterward march 10,000 men three hours toward Saint-Amand to help end another battle, which has been going on at the same time. If all this was not completely impossible, it was certainly not very realistic.

3. Why should the appearance of 10,000 men in the rear of the 80,000-man Prussian army, in open countryside with complete visibility all around, have necessarily caused it to collapse completely? By simply appearing on the field they might tip the scales in an undecided battle and force Blücher to retreat earlier; but that is still a long way from collapse, i.e., complete destruction such as at Jena.[41]

We must therefore conclude that this Bonapartist narrative, written in solitude on St. Helena, is a kind of bombast, and that at the moment of action Bonaparte's entire concept was simpler and more natural.

He saw the greater portion of Blücher's army in front of him, estimated it as smaller than it really was (because he thought the 3rd Corps arrived only during the course of the battle), and hoped in any case to defeat Blücher quickly. In the meantime Ney, with around 40,000 men, would be able to hold off the assistance being rushed over by Wellington and to send any extra troops against Blücher's rear. This was more or less his plan. Just how big his victory over Blücher would be was something Bonaparte could not determine in advance, given his situation. He would have to be satisfied with whatever results a very forceful blow could bring. Time, forces, and circumstances were insufficient for an overwhelmingly destructive plan to be realized. If a moderate victory would not help him, if it did not pull him back from the abyss toward which he was tottering like a great daredevil, then it only shows how insecure his position was, how dangerous his game—and it is precisely about this that he wants no word to be said.

Chapter 32
Principal Moments of the Battle

There are three distinct but simultaneous acts to distinguish among in relating the course of the battle itself: the fighting around the village of Saint-Amand; the fighting around the village of Ligny; and the demonstration against the 3rd Corps.

The first of the three acts was the bloodiest, the second the most decisive. The third was unimportant in itself but must be considered an effective feint by the French.

[1. The Fighting at Saint-Amand]

Events regarding the fight for the village of Saint-Amand can be grouped roughly as follows.

 

1. The southernmost village, that is Saint-Amand proper, was attacked at 3 p.m. by Lefol's division of the French 3rd Corps. The Prussian 1st Brigade, which had six battalions posted behind the village, supported the three battalions of the 3rd Brigade inside it. 1st Brigade maintained the action for an hour, during which the village changed hands several times, and the three battalions that had stood in Bry were brought forward and used up. At 4 p.m. the village was lost and the 1st Brigade was no longer able to continue fighting; it was withdrawn and reformed behind Bry (See item G on Map 1). The advance of Girard's division into Saint-Amand-la-Haye presumably contributed to this success.

2. Field Marshal Blücher decided on a strong attack in two columns in order to retake the villages of [Saint-Amand and] Saint-Amand-la-Haye.

One column, consisting of the 2nd Brigade, which had stood in reserve near Bry with its eight battalions, was to attack the broad side of the latter village. Meanwhile, General Jürgass with the 5th Brigade and seventeen squadrons of cavalry—namely ten from his own brigade and seven from Marwitz's brigade brought over from the 3rd Corps—was to advance through and alongside of the village of Wagnelée so that he could attack the left flank of Girard's division defending Saint-Amand-la-Haye. In this manner the Prussians hoped to regain possession of this village and subsequently also Saint-Amand itself.

General Pirch [II] made two attacks. The first miscarried completely; the second, under Blücher’s personal leadership, went right into the village and resulted in the capture of the churchyard.

General Jürgass also made two attacks, but these do not appear to have been well coordinated with those of General Pirch [II]. In the first attack, the 25th Regiment, which was leading the advance out of Wagnelée, fell quickly into disorder, and the attack must be considered a total failure. General Jürgass then renewed it with the same troops after reforming them in the rear, and this time he was more successful; that is, he pressed forward into the area around the village of Saint-Amand-le-Hameau, and here the fighting ground to a halt for some time.

In response, Bonaparte reinforced his left wing with a division of the Young Guard and the French renewed their attacks. Because the 2nd Brigade was exhausted and had expended all its ammunition, four battalions of the 6th Brigade were brought forward from its position behind Bry and General Pirch moved the 2nd Brigade back behind that village. The 7th Brigade likewise advanced to reinforce the 5th. There is no precise account as to what took place on either side at this point. The fighting was probably confined to a rather small space, fluctuating back and forth. Both sides may have been in nearly the same situation, since each occupied a portion of the village of Saint-Amand-la-Haye. From what we can garner from the various accounts, it would appear that the battle always remained on the far side of the small brook where the villages of Saint-Amand are located.

Nothing clear and definite can be said about the effect and the employment of cavalry and artillery because the accounts of the use of these arms are too disjointed, perhaps because their employment was, too. Many units from these arms do not even appear in the accounts of this action. If we add together the reserve artillery of the 1st Corps as well as the batteries of the 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 7th Brigades, which were undoubtedly there, this makes ten batteries or 80 guns. There were probably several reserve batteries of the 2nd Corps also in action here as well, and taken all together this makes a total of 100 guns that were fighting in a space of around 3,000 paces.

The artillery of the French 3rd Corps consisted of 38 guns, that of Girard's division 8 guns. If we add to this around 30 guns belonging to the Guard and the reserve cavalry, the total number of French guns must have amounted to only 76. At any rate, the number was considerably smaller than that of the Prussians. If we are nevertheless obliged to agree that the Prussians lost more in killed and wounded, this is surely due to the fact that we hold too much artillery in reserve and relieve a battery as soon as it has expended its ammunition. For this reason some gunners try to expend their ammunition as quickly as possible.

Cavalry seems to have been employed very little on either side and merely observed each other. Three French regiments attempted to turn the Prussian right wing but were checked by the eight squadrons sent against them by Colonel Marwitz.

3. Finally, we must consider as the third principal act in the fighting about Saint-Amand the time when Field Marshal Blücher, believing on account of the movement of the French Guard that the French army was retreating, led the last available battalions—three from the 8th Brigade—to Saint-Amand in order to break through the French there and then pursue them. This decision reveals that the fighting at Saint-Amand must have hung in the balance, for otherwise the thought of attempting a breakthrough and pursuit with fresh troops could never have arisen.

A summary of the results of this entire struggle shows that our side had gradually committed around 40 battalions, thus perhaps 28,000 infantrymen, while on the French side, the 3rd Corps, Girard's division of the 2nd Corps, and Duhesme's division of the Guard, altogether about 24,000 infantrymen, had been committed and had maintained the fight for six hours, for the Prussians retained possession of the villages until 9 o'clock. But on the whole we were somewhat at a disadvantage, since we had lost all of Saint-Amand and half of Saint-Amand-la-Haye, we had suffered more casualties in killed and wounded, and overall we had been weakened more, with more of our units burnt out and fewer that could still be employed compared to the French, for it is not likely that all of the French battalions had been involved in the actual fighting. It was therefore a setback for us that we had already suffered noticeably more in this fight than the enemy. However, this success was clearly not decisive, but rather an almost imperceptible tipping of the scales.

[2. The Fighting at Ligny]

We now turn to Ligny. Here the action was even simpler than at Saint-Amand. It consisted of a five-hour-long firefight, principally in the village itself, during which the French were generally in possession of the half of the village lying on the right bank of the brook, while the Prussians had the other half.

The attack on Ligny was carried out by the French 4th Corps under Gérard, and the decisive stroke was made by the Guard itself under Bonaparte. It began somewhat later than the attack on Saint-Amand. The following events can be considered the most important ones:

1. Ligny was occupied by four battalions of the [Prussian] 4th Brigade. The attack advanced in three columns, consisting of the three divisions that made up the [French 4th] corps, though we must assume that the greater part of these divisions was held back in reserve. The two remaining battalions of the 4th Brigade also moved into the village, and the first attack was repulsed.

2. The French renewed the attack, the 4th Brigade gradually became too weak to resist, and the 3rd Brigade, after leaving two battalions to protect the artillery batteries, moved four battalions into the village for support. General von Jagow wanted to advance with them out of the village and go over to the attack, but the fire of the enemy batteries made it impossible to break out. This led to disorder among the troops in the village itself, which is probably why half of it was lost.

3. So as not to lose the other half, the remaining four battalions of the 6th Brigade were ordered to Ligny. (One battalion had already been used up in Ligny, and four others had been employed by General Pirch in the attack on Saint-Amand.) These were later followed by five battalions of the 8th Brigade, which had previously moved from the area around Sombreffe to the mill of Bussy. Of the remaining four battalions of this brigade, one stayed at the mill and the other three were those that Field Marshal Blücher led into Saint-Amand. With respect to the use of cavalry and artillery, we know even less than we do concerning Saint-Amand. Assuming that the Prussian artillery at Saint-Amand consisted of 100 guns, then there could not have been more than 60 at Ligny, for the whole complement of artillery for both corps was only 160 guns.

The French 4th Corps had forty cannon, but it is likely that part of the Guard’s artillery, as well as that of the cavalry reserve, was employed here, so at this place it is unlikely that our side had any superiority in artillery.

The Prussian cavalry had for the most part been drawn away to the right wing, for when the French cavalry broke through later on only three [of our] regiments were found here.

The contest in Ligny now continued in a very confined space and with the most bloody exertions. The mass of Prussian infantry employed there amounted to 20 battalions, thus about 14,000 men. The French 3rd Corps may have been equally strong in infantry.

At about 3 p.m. Field Marshal Blücher ordered General Thielmann to send a brigade of his reserve cavalry. This was done, and Colonel Marwitz was placed under the command of General Jürgass, as we mentioned in describing the action near Saint-Amand. Around four o'clock, General Thielmann received orders to send a brigade of infantry, too, whereupon the 12th Brigade marched off to Ligny. It was placed in reserve between Sombreffe and Ligny in place of the 8th. The 12th Brigade pushed its skirmishers forward as far as Ligny Brook and covered the left flank of the troops in Ligny in an engagement that was not without importance. The brigade did not suffer very heavy losses, however, and thus could still be considered a reserve.

Bonaparte resolved to break through the position at Ligny with the main body of his Guard and thereby force a decision in the battle. This thrust occurred at about 8 p.m. and was the final phase of the action at Ligny.

4. Eight battalions of the French Guard and 3-4,000 cavalry advanced for the decisive blow against Ligny, and drove the Prussian troops out of the whole place. The French cavalry pushed through the center of the Prussian position, which was nearly devoid of infantry. The reserve cavalry of the 1st Corps rushed over by brigades to counterattack the enemy's cavalry and infantry, but was repulsed at all points. Field Marshal Blücher’s horse was wounded while he was leading one of these counterattacks, and he escaped capture only by chance.

[3. The Action of the Prussian 3rd Corps]

Two corps of cavalry and some infantry, probably from the 4th Corps under Grouchy's command, were employed to demonstrate against the Prussian troops between Sombreffe and Saint-Balâtre and thus keep them occupied. This goal was accomplished, because the 10th and 11th Brigades (with eleven battalions) and the 2nd Brigade of the reserve cavalry (with six squadrons) were thereby fixed in place. On the other hand, the 12th Brigade and one brigade of the reserve cavalry moved over to the other two corps, and the 9th Brigade, posted behind Sombreffe, can be considered as a reserve. The infantry action was unimportant in itself and took place almost entirely on the terrain occupied by the 10th Brigade between Tongrinelle and Boignée.

Between 7 and 8 p.m. General Thielmann saw the skirmishers of his 12th Brigade, which was between Sombreffe and Ligny, crossing the stream. He saw also that the cavalry opposing him was dwindling down to few troops. He therefore believed that the enemy was retiring, and decided to advance across the defile with his remaining brigade of cavalry. Two squadrons were sent forward, and a battery of horse artillery imprudently followed close behind. Scarcely had these units approached the nearby heights when some enemy regiments threw themselves on the two squadrons and took five guns from the horse artillery battery, which had attempted to unlimber its guns instead of turning back. The remaining three guns had time to save themselves.

To summarize our impression of the battle as a whole, it is—like all recent battles—a slow consumption of the forces opposed to each other in the front line, where they engage in a firefight of many hours' duration with very little fluctuation, until at last one side acquires a noticeable superiority in reserves, that is, in fresh masses of troops, with which it then gives the decisive blow to the already shaky enemy force.

Bonaparte advanced with about 75,000 men against Blücher, whose three assembled corps together made a force of 78,000 men, thus a force of comparable strength.

Bonaparte used about 30,000 men to engage the two principal points of Blücher's position, Saint-Amand and Ligny, from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. He employed around 6,000 men to occupy the Prussian 3rd Corps, and kept 33,000 waiting calmly in reserve, far behind the battle line. Of these he used about 6,000 to maintain the struggle at Saint-Amand.

He decided as early as 6 p.m. to deliver the decisive blow on Ligny with his Guard, but then he suddenly received reports that a sizeable force had appeared an hour's march from his left flank. Bonaparte halted his movement, as this could be an enemy force coming from Brussels. In fact it was d’Erlon who, acting on orders the source of which is still not known, was marching from Frasnes towards Saint-Amand. Scouts were hastily sent to reconnoiter this force, but nearly two hours elapsed before the news was brought back that this was the French 1st Corps. It is for this reason that the thrust against Ligny did not begin until 8 p.m.

Bonaparte did not even deliver this blow with the whole mass of his reserves, but with only about half of it (that is, with the remainder of the Guard), while the 6th Corps remained behind, still in reserve.

At the beginning of the battle, Blücher had the 1st Corps (27,000 men) in Ligny and Saint-Amand, and the 3rd Corps (22,000 men) deployed from Sombreffe to Saint-Balâtre. Only the 2nd Corps (29,000 men) was kept behind in reserve. While it is true that the 3rd Corps had not been seriously attacked, and thus could have been concentrated and used as a reserve, and also that Blücher was counting on the arrival of Bülow, neither of these things occurred, so the ratio of Prussian reserves to those of the French always remained unfavorable. As we have seen, 2nd Corps, the actual reserve, was gradually used up in maintaining the action. Therefore nothing remained with which to deliver a decisive blow if the battle had remained wholly in the balance or had even taken a turn in our favor.

As the end of the day approached, the situation of the opposing forces was approximately as follows.

Blücher had committed 38,000 infantry to the two villages. They had suffered substantial losses and in some cases had used up their ammunition and now had to be considered mere cinders, in which little living energy remained. There were still 6,000 infantry standing behind the villages, scattered in solitary battalions that had not yet been engaged. The remaining 56,000 men in the 1st and 2nd Corps were cavalry and artillery, of whom only a small portion were still fresh.

If the 3rd Corps had been concentrated, or if appropriate steps to do so had been taken in time, it could have constituted a reserve of 18,000 men. One could therefore say that at the decisive moment Blücher still had a reserve of around 24,000 men.

Although originally a few thousand men weaker than Blücher, Bonaparte now had several thousand more fresh troops than his opponent. The reason for this was his greater restraint, his greater economy of force during the firefight.

This small superiority of numbers in the French reserve naturally would not in itself have been very decisive, but it still must be considered as the first reason for the victory.

The second was the unequal results obtained in the firefight thus far. To be sure, when Bonaparte made his advance against Ligny we still held part of that village, but we had nonetheless lost the rest. Likewise we still held on between Wagnelée and Saint-Amand, but here too we had lost villages and terrain. Thus the battle had already turned a little to our disadvantage everywhere, and in such cases the stage is prepared in advance for the decisive blow.

But the third and most important reason for the outcome was indisputably that Blücher did not have close at hand the troops who had not yet been engaged, namely the 3rd Corps. To be sure, the 12th Brigade was near by, but this was too little. The 9th was also not far away, but insufficient attention had been paid to it and to the whole of Thielmann's corps. For this reason the 3rd Corps might as well not have been there at all as far as the decisive moment was concerned. It could only be useful in the retreat. Nevertheless, we may possibly (even probably) consider the scattered disposition of Thielmann's corps to be an advantage overall. If the 3rd Corps had been at hand, it would have been used up in the same manner as the rest, without increasing the prospects for success. Given the turn of events that had already occurred, a successful outcome [for the Prussians] could only have been obtained by a decisive superiority in numbers, as would have occurred with the arrival of Bülow's corps. Had the 3rd Corps been consumed along with the others, our losses in the battle might well have been 10,000 more.

Chapter 33
Critical Observations on the Whole Battle: Blücher

1. Blücher's main mistake appears to have been a certain lack of clarity in his plans, which resulted in the occupation of two fronts and the neutralization of 20,000 men. The position from Sombreffe to Saint-Balâtre was good if the intention was to preserve the line of retreat towards the Meuse. In that case, however, it would have been necessary to remain along that front and to view the connection with Wellington as solely a matter of fighting a common enemy, not one requiring direct union. In such open countryside it would be easy to see if Wellington was advancing on the road from Quatre-Bras, so direct union was so unnecessary as to be a disadvantage. [As it was,] Wellington’s natural line was like that of a corps sent against the enemy's flank, a form of attack that is always sought with the greatest care, and which is warranted as the most decisive form whenever one is stronger and has the broader base.

If, however, it was intended in the worst case to give up the line of retreat to the Meuse, then the position at Sombreffe was quite unnecessary. It should have been held by a single brigade at most, in order to keep the enemy hemmed in. It was not necessary to occupy this position in preparation for Bülow’s arrival. Just as with the preceding example of Wellington, 35,000 men operating as a flanking force would have been able to cross Ligny Brook even if the enemy had held [Sombreffe], which was not all that likely.

In preparing so great an action as a battle, nothing seems more essential than to have a clear idea of the general relationships involved. Of these, none is as important or influential as the roads to be used for a retreat, for these determine the position of the front and all the key lines of possible movement during the battle. In this case Blücher remained stuck in half measures, that is to say, caught between two contradictory ones.

2. Even during the course of the battle, i.e., between about 4 and 5 p.m., orders might have been given to General Thielmann to assemble his corps and to advance from Mont-Potriaux and Point-du-Jour against the enemy right flank. In that case, Gérard's corps would either have had to give way or would have required earlier support from the Guard. Even if General Thielmann had then been attacked by Grouchy and the Guard, and forced to retire back over the brook, the French reserve would still have been absorbed earlier, and the blow against the center at Ligny would probably not have taken place at all. In that case, the battle would probably not have been decided on the evening of the 16th. In any event, it would have weakened the French army much more.

3. With respect to defending the villages, the defense of Saint-Amand proper appears to have been a damaging diversion from the main effort. If Saint-Amand was supposed to be an advanced post, then it must be said that such posts can be justified only on two accounts:

a. If they are inherently very strong, so that they force the attacker to commit disproportionate forces against them because he cannot bypass them; to which must be added that apart from their inherent strength, such posts must also be more or less supported by the front line of the army. If these advantages are not present, such a post will fall to an enemy attack from all sides. It is soon lost, and if you attempt to regain it, you often get involved in unplanned and disadvantageous engagements.

b. Occasionally one is forced to occupy a point that is in front of the line because it would give too much protection to the attacker in his approach. In that case it is a necessary evil.

Saint-Amand proper had no great inherent strength, it could receive almost no support from the front line of the army, and it did not even command this front sufficiently to prevent an attack on Ligny, for instance. Thus there was clearly no reason to occupy the village in accordance with the first consideration. Under the second consideration, it could be linked to the village of Saint-Amand-la-Haye, whose defense became tougher. But Saint-Amand’s connection with this village was only at its narrowest end, in the vicinity of the castle, where this castle offered the means to cut the line of defense. With respect to the front between Ligny and la Haye, Saint-Amand did not represent a threat. On the contrary, its location strengthened this front, because if the French had attacked us from there they would have had to deploy at a distance of 800 paces under the fire of our canister rounds. As a matter of fact, the French never advanced from it against the heights. The defense of this village consumed a whole brigade and probably caused no corresponding losses for the French. Its loss produced the adverse impression that we had lost a portion of our terrain.

4. The premature attack against Saint-Amand-le-Hameau and the attempt to mount another one from Ligny were likewise out of harmony with the whole scheme of battle. The defender must naturally incorporate into his defense a certain offensive principle; he must combine resistance with counterattacks. But such a counterattack must take place only when and where it can be done advantageously, e.g., if the enemy’s advance has placed him in the midst of our forces or if he has become severely weakened and can barely maintain himself. As a rule, therefore, [such attacks are wise] only after his forces have exhausted themselves against our resistance. General Jürgass’s attack at Wagnelée against Saint-Amand-le-Hameau obviously came much too early to produce any decisive result at that point. If this general advanced up to the heights of la Haye, as he in fact did, he still had to stop there, and then found himself in a very unfavorable defensive position. But one does not choose the defensive in order to fight under unfavorable conditions. If Wagnelée had been occupied from the very beginning, and strongly provisioned with artillery, the enemy certainly could never have occupied la Haye. Wagnelée would have been a very decisive point, and because of its quite rearward position would have been very troubling to the French commander. But even after la Haye was occupied by the French, it seems that we would have done better to be content with occupying Wagnelée and thus holding the occupiers of la Haye in check. As long as Wagnelée, Bry, and Ligny were in our hands, the enemy could not possibly break out of either of the two villages of Saint-Amand. The whole position seemed instead to be well suited to gain time and inflict terrible losses on the enemy. The moment to break out of Wagnelée would have come only if we could have contemplated achieving a decisive success for the entire battle, in which case the advance should have taken place in greater strength. If, however, the situation was such that a counterattack could not be expected to result in a transformation of the whole battle, then it should have been omitted altogether, for the forces would have been far better employed simply by remaining on the defensive.

General Jagow's attempt to advance out of Ligny is even less justifiable. Even the most favorable outcome of this attack would still have left General Jagow out in the open in the midst of the French divisions, thus in a position that he could not have maintained and where he would have suffered heavy losses.

Our generals are too taken with the idea that it is better to advance than to stand and fire. Each of these actions has its proper place.

5. We consume our troops too quickly in a standing fight. Our officers call for assistance too soon, and it is given them too easily. As a consequence we commit more men than the French without gaining any ground—thus we have more killed and wounded—and we thereby transform fresh masses of troops into burnt-out cinders sooner.

We need not point out here that, with battle plans and all sorts of retrospective accounts in front of us, and with the events behind us, it is very easy to discover the actual causes of failure and, after thoroughly considering all the complexities of events, to highlight those things that can be deemed mistakes. But all of this cannot be done so easily at the time of action. The conduct of war is like movement in a resistant medium, in which uncommon qualities are required to achieve even mediocre results.[42] It is for this reason that in war, more than in any other area, critical analysis exists only to discover the truth, not to sit in judgment.

In considering the above-mentioned mistakes, we must also take into account that the Prussian troops consisted mostly of Landwehr who were only in their second campaign; that among them were many new formations from provinces that had never before belonged to the Prussian state, or at least not recently; that the French army, although also newly formed, still consisted of elements that had belonged to the best army in the world; and that Bonaparte was the greatest commander of his time. Under the circumstances, the overall results of Ligny cannot appear out of the ordinary. It is a battle which 78,000 men lost to 75,000 by a very slight tipping of the scales, after a long struggle, and without any truly glorious results for the victor, since his trophies consisted of only 21 guns and perhaps a few thousand prisoners.

Chapter 34
Bonaparte

1. The simplest way for us to describe Bonaparte's original plan of attack is that, as we have already said, he advanced against Blücher with two thirds of his army (75,000 men) and that he sent one third (some 40,000 men) against Wellington to stop whatever aid might be rushed from there to the Prussian commander. Bonaparte must have calculated that Wellington's force was not a whole army, and that 40,000 men led by a man like Ney would buy him enough time to complete his victory over Blücher. The thought that Ney could participate in [the battle with Blücher] could not yet have occurred to Bonaparte on the 15th or early on the morning of the 16th in Charleroi, because it was based on Blücher's position, which surprised Bonaparte and seems to have given him the idea that if Ney sent a detachment back along the road from Quatre-Bras to Namur, this would make the battle at Ligny much more decisive. This idea is first expressed in the third of the orders we have presented earlier.[43] But the order seems to make cooperation only a secondary consideration—and in the nature of things it could not be anything else, because Bonaparte could not know whether Ney would have a single man to spare. And since the order was written at 2:15, which made it very uncertain whether there would even be time for Ney to do his part, given the three hours' march separating the battlefields, it is impossible to believe that such cooperation was in any way an essential element of Bonaparte's plan. Nor can we believe—as Bonaparte wishes us to—that it was merely an unfortunate accident, a mutilation of his original plan, that the Prussian army was not attacked simultaneously from the front and the rear, which according to Bonaparte would have brought about its complete and unavoidable destruction.

2. Furthermore, the fact that Bonaparte did not try to turn the exposed Prussian right flank and send a column via Wagnelée, but instead preferred to advance on Ligny with the second column—in fact even made his main thrust in this direction—means that we cannot consider his plan to have been based upon the idea of an attack by Ney into the rear of the Prussians, and then cooperating to cause the destruction of the Prussian army. Rather, the direction of Bonaparte's main thrust was determined by the following factors:

a. As Bonaparte saw the Prussian position, the Prussian army’s right flank was at Saint-Amand proper, its center at Ligny, and its left wing at Sombreffe. Saint-Amand-la-Haye appeared to lie to the rear of the right wing. He therefore believed that if he attacked Saint-Amand and had a division march on Saint-Amand-la-Haye, this would already constitute an envelopment of the right wing. He wished to combine this with the attack on the center so that the battle would not be fought in too confined a space, which would have strengthened and prolonged the Prussian resistance. This therefore seems like a very simple and commonplace plan.[44]

b. The attack on Ligny would certainly threaten the Prussian right wing, so one could expect that resistance there would be shaken by it. It was also very possible that part of the right wing would be completely lost as a result.

c. The attack on Ligny threatened the natural line of retreat of the Prussian army, and if they were determined to retain this at all costs, they would suffer heavy losses.

d. Finally, Saint-Amand and Ligny were the nearest possible points of attack for the front line of the French army at Fleurus. A wider envelopment via Wagnelée would have delayed the attack by as much as an hour, but it was already past noon when Bonaparte reconnoitered the Prussian position, so there was not much time to lose.

Thus the reasons for this form of attack seem to be sufficiently motivated by the immediate circumstances, and in war such immediate circumstances have the greatest weight in decision-making.

3. However, if we look at the matter from a more comprehensive point of view, we must first ask ourselves whether it was better for Bonaparte to attack Blücher in such a way as to drive him towards Wellington, or away from him. And we must of course reply that the latter approach would have had a much more decisive impact on the whole campaign.

If Bonaparte had attacked Saint-Amand with his right wing, Wagnelée with his left, and advanced with a third column toward the Brussels highway, then in the event of a defeat the Prussian army would have been obliged to retreat along the Roman road, that is, towards the Meuse. Union with Wellington during the next few days would then have been very uncertain, perhaps impossible.

4. If Bülow had arrived that afternoon, which was possible, and then been employed with Thielmann in an attack from Point-du-Jour, Bonaparte would have been obliged to fight a superior enemy force under the worst possible circumstances, namely with both flanks turned, on the left from Wagnelée, on the right from Point-du-Jour. Since Bülow was expected to come from Liége through Point-du-Jour, this could have been yet another reason for Bonaparte to turn the right flank of the Prussian army.

We do not know whether Bonaparte considered these matters or not, or whether his thinking may also have been influenced by concern that he was not safe from the direction of Brussels despite having detached Ney. If the latter supposition is true, then the form of his attack is sufficiently justified. But if he had no such concerns and organized his attack solely on the basis of the immediate circumstances, one could certainly say that this plan was not entirely worthy of him and also not adequate to his precarious situation.

5. We are completely in the dark about the reasons for the movements of the French 1st Corps. Gamot, Ney’s defender, is convinced that Bonaparte himself pulled it over from Frasnes but is unable to produce any proof of this.[45] Bonaparte believes that Ney left the corps behind out of indecisiveness in order to cover his line of communications.[46] It seems almost impossible that Bonaparte could have called for it himself, for in that case how could its appearance have created his fear that the force was English; how could d’Erlon have turned around again; and how would it have been possible that the dispositions and orders given to Vandamme make no mention of this? One could well ask, however, why did Bonaparte, after finding this corps in his vicinity, not use it to envelop Blücher? In all probability because it was too late. He seems to have received the news of the appearance of this corps only at half past five. It was seven p.m. before news was brought him that it was d’Erlon, and an hour would have been required for d’Erlon to receive the order and perhaps another hour before he could show up in the area around Bry.

But all this is only an attempt to explain the matter, and there is no denying that the meager information that exists concerning the movements of this corps gives rise to suspicions against Bonaparte. Gamot names Colonel Laurent as the man who brought the order.[47] Why does this individual not come forward with an explanation? It cannot be out of regard for Ney's memory, for even if Colonel Laurent were to declare that he had carried no order from Bonaparte changing the employment of the 1st Corps, this would not result in much blame being placed on Ney. There is simply no other way to explain this obscurity than to suppose that loyalty and respect for the former emperor have closed the mouth that could speak.

In any event, this useless movement to and fro of 20,000 men, at a time when forces were needed so desperately, is a cardinal error that must always be blamed at least in part upon Bonaparte, even if he had not himself recalled the corps, because in that case the orders given to Marshal Ney must not have been sufficiently clear and precise.

Given all this, it can already be said that even on the 16th Bonaparte was no longer equal to the task that fate had imposed upon him.

Chapter 35
The Action at Quatre Bras

 

We have already seen how Ney's troops were situated on the morning of the 16th. Ney left his 2nd Corps near Gosselies and instructed General Reille to wait for Bonaparte's orders. He himself hurried to his advanced guard at Frasnes and reconnoitered the enemy, which during the entire morning consisted solely of the greater part of Perponcher's division and two regiments of cavalry, thus around 6-8,000 men.

At eleven o'clock, General Flahaut, Bonaparte's adjutant, came to Gosselies with the order that Ney should advance and attack with his corps. This is probably the order to which Bonaparte refers and which he says was in Ney's hands at 11:30 a.m. By the time the 3rd Division of the 2nd Corps reached Frasnes it was 1 p.m.

At this time, then, Ney was at Frasnes with 3 infantry divisions (of the 2nd Corps) and 3 cavalry divisions (Kellerman and the cavalry of the 2nd Corps), a total of about 23,000 men and 48 guns. He had left the light cavalry of the Guard behind Frasnes, as Bonaparte had specifically ordered this, and the 1st Corps was still on the march.

On the Allied side, Perponcher's division still found itself opposing him alone. At this time the Duke of Wellington was meeting with Blücher. It was only then that he became convinced that the main enemy force stood opposed to Blücher, and it seems that only then did he send the order to the divisions of his reserve, which had been standing at the exit of the Soignies Forest since 10 a.m., to start their movement toward Quatre-Bras. This explains why the first of these divisions—namely Picton's—did not arrive before 5 p.m. It is over 13 miles from Bry to Waterloo, and from there to Quatre-Bras more than nine miles.

The battle itself began at 3 p.m. and can be divided into three main phases.

In the first, Perponcher's division was driven from the terrain it had occupied halfway between Quatre-Bras and Frasnes. It lost four guns in the process and retreated in part into the woods of Bossu.

In the second, Picton's division—which arrived around 5 p.m.—restored the situation, took up a position along the Namur highway, and recaptured the village of Pierremont on its left flank. The Brunswickers arrived a little later and advanced on the road toward Charleroi, where they occupied the sheep farm. Now both sides were nearly balanced, for Wellington was also around 20,000 men strong, but Wellington only had about 1,800 cavalry while Ney had around 4,000.

The fight remained evenly balanced for a few hours. The French retook the village of Pierremont and maintained their hold on the Gemioncourt farm, next to the highway. Ney received Bonaparte's subsequent, urgent order to advance, overwhelm his opponent, and then participate in the Battle of Ligny. Indeed, Ney brought his reserve—Jerome's division—into action and made the utmost efforts with his superior cavalry forces to push through to Quatre-Bras along the highway. It was probably around this time that he sent the order to d’Erlon to rush over to him. Upon receiving it around 8 p.m., D’Erlon turned back in the vicinity of Villers-Perwin. The French cavalry's efforts resulted in their taking 6 or 8 guns, overrunning a few battalions, and penetrating partly into Picton's second line, but this did not lead to overall success. Both Piré and Kellerman were repeatedly forced to retreat when fire poured upon them from all sides. Nevertheless, in general the French seemed to gain the advantage in this fight, and they continued to advance farther into the Bossu woods.

Third Phase. Cook's and Alten's divisions, which constituted the right wing of the Prince of Orange's corps, arrived between 7 and 8 p.m. Cook's division was employed on the right wing in the Bossu Wood, Alten's division on the left wing against the village of Pierremont. Both overpowered the enemy and thereby caused a general turn of fortune in the battle. The resistance of the French remained very obstinate, however, and it was not until 10 p.m. that the Allies became masters of the farm of Gemioncourt. Ney retreated to the area in front of Frasnes, where he took up a good position. The losses were pretty nearly equal and were estimated at 4-5,000 men on each side.

Chapter 36
Reflections

 

Bonaparte and all the critics after him have raised a great clamor that Ney was negligent in failing to seize the position at Quatre-Bras before a substantial English force arrived, just as if Quatre-Bras were a fortress whose capture would have completely accomplished the objective of the operation. The expression "position" here is like one of those terms which, if used blindly like an algebraic formula, leads to hollow phrases and empty assertions.

Ney had been ordered to stop everything that Wellington could send to aid the Prussians. He could accomplish this either by defeating the force sent with this purpose or by simply blocking its advance. The former required superiority in numbers, the latter a good position.

As for the force that Ney could expect to encounter, it was difficult for him to estimate its size because it consisted not only of what could be assembled against him in the course of the 16th, but also what might be there by noon on the 17th. We have seen that this could have been nearly the whole Anglo-Dutch army, or at least 80,000 men of it. Initially, as Ney could have foreseen, he encountered very few enemy troops at Frasnes and Quatre-Bras, or at least far fewer troops than he had himself. If he had defeated this handful, it would have been a small advantage, but would it also have been such an effective opening that he could view it as a virtual guarantee of complete victory? Impossible! Granted, he could have defeated the part of Perponcher's division that stood before him on the evening of the 15th or early on the morning of the 16th, and then taken up the pursuit. But in that case a commander like Wellington would have adjusted his actions accordingly and chosen a position for the first reserves farther back, so that they could receive the defeated division, and then stand fast to gain time for the other divisions and corps to assemble. The farther Ney advanced, the more he hastened the moment when Wellington would be concentrated. Thus no matter how bold and fortunate Ney might be, the result would always be a great inequality of forces and a very dangerous situation. To reach any other conclusion, we would have to assume that the Duke of Wellington’s army would have been literally shattered by Ney, thrown into complete confusion, with individual divisions wiped out and so on. Such a supposition would be completely illusory.

Now one could well say that even if Ney had encountered a far superior enemy on the evening of the 16th or the morning of the 17th, he would still have fully accomplished his objective by preventing this enemy from taking part at Ligny, and that the marshal could then have pulled back. But could Ney know for sure that no such overwhelming force was already facing him at midday on the 16th? Could he be certain—having been ordered to advance with his head down along a single road—that when he finally looked up he would not find himself surrounded and trapped by enemy columns on the right and especially the left? Would he not recall the fate of Vandamme in 1813?[48] What military commander has ever been required to advance 40,000 men up a single road between two enemy forces?

Based on these reflections, we see that Ney could never have thought that his offensive would rout the enemy forces coming toward him, but rather that his objective could be nothing more than to gain possession of Quatre-Bras and drive back whatever might already be there. This was all that Bonaparte had asked of him. One therefore comes to regard Quatre-Bras as a very good position, by means of which the marshal was able to hold off a superior enemy force throughout the 16th.

But is Quatre-Bras such a position? When the expression "position" is used, this seems to be assumed. But such a supposition is quite arbitrary, for no one has proved it, no one has ever suggested it, indeed no one has even spoken of it. Such an unfounded supposition can have no place in critical analysis.

In order to judge the value of Quatre-Bras as a position for Ney, one must have been there, for positions cannot be judged by maps alone and we do not even have a good map of this place. In general, however, we must say that such crossroads are disadvantageous as a position, because it is not possible to have a line of retreat perpendicular to the front. But even supposing that Quatre-Bras was a very good position, it certainly was never a strong one, and as Ney had no time to establish himself in it, he could not expect to gain much advantage from it in attempting to hold off a far superior enemy force.

Bonaparte had ordered Marshal Ney to Quatre-Bras because the two main roads met there, and therefore the road from Brussels to Namur—that is, from Wellington to the Prussians—would be cut. Nothing was more natural than these orders, and if Marshal Ney could have carried them out without danger, he would have been wrong to have failed to do so. But since Ney's appearance near Frasnes prevented Wellington from going to the assistance of the Prussians via the Namur highway in any case, Ney's failure to capture the crossroads was of no consequence. Indeed, in view of the reflections we have made here, one could go so far as to say that, no matter what Ney had done on the evening of the 15th or the morning of the 16th, the events brought about by or because of him either could not have occurred much differently than they did, or would have turned out much worse for the French.

Ney completely accomplished his objective of preventing Wellington from providing assistance [to Blücher]. The idea that Ney could contribute to the battle of Ligny occurred to Bonaparte only much later, namely after he had reconnoitered Blücher's position, and when he had not yet heard from Ney about a considerable enemy force. But by then it was too late to do anything. If Bonaparte had had this idea on the evening of the 15th, it would have been foolish to have made Ney's force so strong. Instead Bonaparte should have sent a corps down the Roman road to attack Blücher in the rear. Making Ney strong at first and then weakening him later was the opposite of what was required, for at the beginning he could just as well have been weak, but with every hour that passed the number of enemy troops opposing him increased.

The whole outcry against Ney is merely an attempt by Bonaparte to make his plans appear more brilliant and splendid than they really were at the time of execution. His intentions were far simpler and more commonplace, and it was impossible for the marshal to have acted on a concept that was developed only after the events.

Admittedly, Ney could easily have driven Perponcher back early in the morning and stood at Quatre-Bras; admittedly he could even have sent an entire corps against the Prussian right flank via the Namur highway, without having the events at Quatre-Bras turn out much worse for him. But it is only now that we can all see that he could have done this, after considering all of the random circumstances that could not have been foreseen back then.

Chapter 37
Movements on 17 June: Blücher

 

The retreat of the Prussian 1st and 2nd Corps through Tilly toward Wavre took place partly on the night of the 16th and partly on the morning of the 17th. That of the 3rd Corps, which did not begin until around four or five in the morning, was directed toward Gembloux and from there to Wavre.

The 1st and 2nd Corps reached Wavre at midday on the 17th and then took their positions on both sides of the Dyle, having left part of their cavalry as a rear guard a few hours’ march behind them. The 3rd Corps remained at Gembloux until 2 p.m. and then proceeded towards Wavre, where it did not arrive until evening. The 4th Corps spent the night of the 16th in Haute- and Bas-Bodecé, two hours’ march behind Gembloux, and then during the 17th went to Dion-le-Mont, where it deployed to receive the other corps.

While the Prussian corps were carrying out the better part of these movements (that is to say, until noon of the 17th), the French were doing very little in the way of a pursuit.

During the night of the 16th, Bonaparte ordered General Pajol to conduct the initial pursuit of Blücher, using his cavalry corps and Teste's division from the 6th Corps. This general set out on the morning of the 17th and sought the Prussians first on the road to Namur. It is impossible to understand how the French failed to see that the Prussian 3rd Corps had [in fact] taken the road to Gembloux, since it did not move off until broad daylight. Even more incomprehensible is the French belief that Blücher would move his entire army toward Namur. This impression may have been prompted to some extent by the actions of a Prussian battery from the 2nd Corps, which was just arriving from Namur when it learned that the battle was lost, attempted to turn back, but was captured on the road. But the main source of this absurd idea was Grouchy, from whom Pajol had received his detailed instructions. Grouchy himself was also supposed to pursue the Prussians, but because his troops definitely needed a few hours of rest, Bonaparte did not rush to send him out. Instead, he took him to the battlefield on the morning of the 17th and did not release him until noon. Grouchy was given Gérard’s and Vandamme’s corps, Teste's division from the 6th Corps, Exelmans’ cavalry corps, and half of Pajol's, which together made a force of 35,000 men.

As we have said, Pajol was put in motion early. Exelmans was sent on the road to Gembloux somewhat later, but Gérard's and Vandamme's two corps were still in their old bivouacs near Ligny and Saint-Amand at 3 p.m. It would be evening before Grouchy was able to combine them at Point-du-Jour.

Bonaparte's intention was to have Grouchy get Marshal Blücher moving so fast that he would not be able to think of supporting Wellington right away. Bonaparte himself intended to turn toward Ney with the remaining 30,000 men, thus uniting a force of around 70,000 men against Wellington, and then achieve a second victory over him.

Since Bonaparte needed to let his troops rest until noon on the 17th, he could not confront Wellington before the evening of the 17th, and thus could not commence this second battle before the 18th.

Bonaparte supposedly instructed Marshal Grouchy to stay between Blücher and the road from Namur to Brussels, for the second battle had to take place on this road and the possibility of Grouchy participating in the battle was thereby greatest. But there is no trace of any such order except in the scarcely credible account by Bonaparte himself[49] and by those who have based their accounts on his. The account that Grouchy gives concerning the movements on the 17th has too much the character of simple truth not to be believed.[50] According to this account, Bonaparte's instructions dealt only in general terms with the pursuit of Blücher, and were expressed very vaguely. At 10 a.m. on the morning of the 18th Bonaparte finally did give Grouchy such an order, but how could it have any effect? It reached Grouchy only when he was already at Wavre.

Bonaparte never thought that Blücher would move towards Wavre in order to unite with Wellington, as his memoirs would have us believe. Instead he assumed that Blücher would above all seek to unite with his 4th Corps and then head toward the Meuse. He thought that 35,000 men under a resolute commander would give the Prussians no rest for several days, and that he would therefore be able to fight his battle with Wellington without having to fear anything from them.

It is truly strange that on the morning of the 17th the Prussian army was not pursued or sought at all in the direction of Tilly and Gentinnes, where two corps had gone, but only in the direction of Gembloux, where just one corps had gone, and in the direction of Namur, where none had gone. Virtually the only explanation for this astonishing fact is that when Bonaparte tasked Marshal Grouchy with the pursuit, his two cavalry corps were [already] facing toward Gembloux, because they had been fighting Thielmann all day. If Bonaparte had ordered the Guard cavalry and the 3rd Corps to conduct the pursuit, they would have picked up the trail more easily. The casual way in which Bonaparte did everything prevented him from giving Grouchy more detailed instructions. Furthermore, Bonaparte himself seems to have held so firmly to the idea that Blücher had to go to the Meuse that no thought was given to any other direction than Gembloux and the Roman road. At any rate we can see that a pursuit along the two roads to Gembloux and Namur must have been Bonaparte's intention, because they are mentioned in a message written by Marshal Soult to Ney from Fleurus on the 17th and published by Gamot.[51] These were obviously instructions to harass the Prussian army on its way to the Meuse, rather than to block its way toward Wellington. If Bonaparte had thought that Blücher was going to Wavre, it would have been more natural for him to send a strong force there via the left bank of the Dyle.

There is still too little explanation for Pajol's movements—first in the direction of Namur, then towards Saint-Denis between Namur and Gembloux, and then back toward Mazy. Whether Grouchy or Bonaparte ordered this strange movement remains uncertain, but the result was that after wandering around aimlessly on the 17th,[52] Pajol and his corps, plus Teste's division, found themselves still near Mazy in the evening, thus more or less back on the battlefield of Ligny.

Even Grouchy with the 3rd and 4th Corps was only able to reach the area around Gembloux by 10 p.m.,[53] where they had to spend the night, while Exelmans was sent forward to Sart à Walhain. But even this corps then sought quarters for the night and had only two regiments in front as an advance guard.

The overall result of this day on the French side was that for all practical purposes they failed to pursue the Prussian army. Blücher was able to reach Wavre unimpeded and unite his corps there on the evening of the 17th.

While this seems to contrast strongly with previous French practices, we must also carefully consider the differing situations. The extraordinarily energetic pursuits that brought Bonaparte such spectacular results in his earlier campaigns were simply a matter of pushing far superior forces forward in pursuit of a totally defeated enemy. But now he had to turn his main force—in particular his freshest corps—against a new opponent who had not yet been defeated. The troops who were supposed to conduct the pursuit were the 3rd and 4th Corps, precisely the ones who had been engaged in a very bloody struggle until ten o'clock in the evening, and now needed some time to get themselves back into order, eat their rations, and replenish their ammunition. To be sure, the cavalry corps had not suffered and would therefore have been able to press the Prussian rear guard quickly. That they did not do so may well have been a mistake, but cavalry alone could not have produced results like those achieved in earlier victories by a general advance of the French army, because the terrain is too broken for cavalry alone to achieve much.[54]

Blücher had abandoned his natural line of retreat in order to maintain contact with the Duke of Wellington, because he felt that the first battle had to some extent been bungled and was therefore determined to fight a second. So he informed the Duke of Wellington that he would come to the duke's assistance with his entire army.

Blücher, who did not know what had become of the French, had naturally assumed, because his rear guard had not been pressed at all, that Bonaparte must have turned his entire force against Wellington. He therefore believed that he had to leave only a few troops at the defile of Wavre and could advance with virtually his whole force to join with the duke.

This decision by Blücher is unquestionably worthy of the highest praise. Ignoring all the false courses of action that traditional practices and misplaced prudence might have suggested in such a case, he followed his common sense and decided to turn toward Wellington on the 18th, preferring to abandon his own line of communications rather than adopt half-measures. The battle he had lost had not been a rout. It had reduced the size of his force by only about one-sixth, and with nearly 100,000 men he could undoubtedly turn the battle that the Duke of Wellington was confronting into a victory. In addition, he felt the need to wash out the stain that his military reputation had received on the 16th. He also wished to achieve the renown that comes from standing by an ally, even supporting him beyond all expectations, even though on the day before, and contrary to expectations, that ally had not been able to provide support [to him]. There can be no greater motivation than this, resulting as it did from both reason and emotion.

We will describe Blücher's movements on the 18th when we consider his role in the battle of Belle Alliance.

Chapter 38
Wellington on 17 and 18 June

 

On the evening of the 16th, Wellington had assembled the Prince of Orange's corps and the reserve at Quatre-Bras, with the exception of Chassée's division and two Dutch cavalry brigades, which remained at Nivelles. During the night and on the morning of the 17th, Clinton's division and a brigade of Colville's division arrived from Lord Hill’s corps, which had constituted the right wing. The remainder of Hill’s corps assembled at Hal under Prince Frederick of the Netherlands.

Wellington therefore had an army of about 70,000 men near Quatre-Bras and Nivelles on the morning of the 17th. He learned of Blücher's retreat around 7 a.m., let his troops cook a meal, and at 10 a.m. began his retreat toward the position of Mont-Saint-Jean in front of the Soignies Forest, where he had found a good battlefield and had resolved to give battle if Blücher could come to his assistance with two corps, thus with about 50,000 men.

Ney was supposed to advance in the early part of the morning of the 17th against Wellington's rear guard, but because the duke did not leave his position before 10 a.m., Ney was not able to advance. The French did not immediately notice his retreat because the duke left his numerous cavalry (7-8,000 horsemen) behind, and Ney therefore remained quietly in his bivouac near Frasnes until 1 p.m.

By midday Bonaparte had put the following forces into motion on the road from Namur to Quatre-Bras: the 6th Corps, the Guard, Milhaud’s cavalry corps, a division of Pajol’s corps, and Domon’s cavalry division belonging to the 3rd Corps. This was his whole force, except for Girard’s division, which according to Bonaparte was deliberately left behind at Saint-Amand because it had suffered too heavily, but which must actually have been forgotten, which is all the more understandable because this division belonged to the 2nd Corps.[55] None of the other corps commanders concerned themselves with it, and General Girard, who had commanded it, had been severely wounded. To have left it behind intentionally would certainly have been an even greater mistake than to have forgotten it.

Around two o'clock this mass of troops advanced from the area around the village of Marbais on the road to Quatre-Bras, and Marshal Ney was brusquely ordered to advance at the same time. The English cavalry began their withdrawal, the two French columns came together on the Brussels road and continued the pursuit until they encountered strong resistance towards evening at Mont-Saint-Jean, and Bonaparte convinced himself that he had the English army in front of him. Torrents of rain and extraordinarily bad road conditions, both on and off the highway, had delayed the march and exhausted the troops, so there could be no thought of giving battle on that day. Bonaparte placed his army in front of Plancenoit and established his headquarters in Caillou.

Chapter 39
The Battle of Belle Alliance:
Wellington's Deployment

 

By the morning of the 18th Wellington had assembled his army—except for the 19,000 men posted at Hal—at Mont-Saint-Jean, giving him a strength of 68,000 men.

When the battle began, his deployment was such that the right wing lay on the road to Nivelles, his center behind La-Haye-Sainte, and his left behind the farms of Smohain, Papelotte, and La-Haye.

The ground between the two roads sloped gently downward, and to the left of the Namur road a sunken way also hindered any approach to the front. The two wings basically had no real anchors, but the right was somewhat protected by the villages of Merbes, Braine, and Braine-l'Alleud, and the left by the low ground near Frischermont. About an hour's march behind the front was the Soignies Forest, which Bonaparte and many armchair critics considered to be a deathtrap for Wellington's army in the event he lost the battle, but which in reality must not have been as bad as they imagined, since otherwise such a careful commander as Wellington would not have accepted having it so close to his rear. A forest traversed by many paths actually seems to offer a lot of protection for a defeated army.

In general the duke's deployment was such that the front was about 5,000 paces long, with 30 battalions of infantry in the first line, some 13 battalions in the second line, sixty squadrons of cavalry in the third and fourth lines. In addition another 38 battalions and 33 squadrons were placed at other points, either farther to the rear or on the flanks, and could be considered as reserves. Thus one could say that the deployment was exceptionally deep.

In front of the lines lay three strong points: the farmhouse of Hougoumont 1,000 paces in front of the right wing, La-Haye-Sainte 500 paces in front of the center on the main road, and La Haye 1,000 paces in front of the left wing. All three were occupied by infantry and more or less prepared for defense.

Wellington expected to be attacked by the whole French army, because it was possible that Bonaparte had left only some cavalry opposed to Blücher. He then would have had to face around 100,000 men with just 68,000, and thus had to count on Blücher's support, which had already been promised on the 17th. For Wellington everything came down to holding out on the defensive until Blücher arrived. Blücher's assistance would then develop independently, in part by supporting the Allied left wing and in part by falling on the right flank of the French. Blücher's support was definitely offensive in nature, which made it all the more appropriate that Wellington should limit himself to the defensive and thereby seek to take full advantage of the terrain. Wavre is roughly nine miles from Wellington's battlefield. From the moment that the Duke of Wellington saw the enemy appear in his front until Blücher could arrive, perhaps six to eight hours might pass, unless Blücher had not already begun his march earlier. A battle against 70,000 men cannot be initiated, fought out, and decided in such a period of time, however, so there was no reason to fear that Wellington could be beaten before Blücher arrived.

Home

Return to top