Tag Archives: D’Erlon

The Battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras 16 June 1815

The first stage of Napoleon’s 1815 campaign was to concentrate the 123,000 men of his Armée du Nord just south of the junction of the Duke of Wellington’s 112,000 Anglo-Dutch Army and Prince Gerbhard von Blücher’s 130,000 Prussians.[1]

Napoleon’s plan was to position his army between his two enemies, preventing them uniting. He would then defeat one of them, making it retreat along its line of supply and leaving it unable to support its ally, which Napoleon could then turn on.[2]

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The Emperor had an experienced army with high morale. but he made a number of ‘unsuitable appointments’ to high command.[3] His long serving chief of staff, Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier, had fallen from a window to his death on 1 June: whether this was an accident, murder or suicide has never been resolved. However, Napoleon had already given this job to Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult, an experienced battlefield commander who had never held such a position. The best choice would have been Marshal Louis-Gabriel Suchet, who was instead commanding the Army of the Alps.

Command of the left wing was given to Marshal Michel Ney, a very brave and inspiring leader, but unsuited to independent command. Emmanuel de Grouchy, a fine cavalry commander with little experience of infantry, was promoted to Marshal after the battle of Ligny on 16 June and put in command of the right wing. Marshal Louis-Nicholas Davout, Napoleon’s best Marshal, was left in Paris as its Governor and Minister of War. Davout on the right and Soult on the left were Napoleon’s best options for wing commanders.

The Emperor also declined to employ Joachim Murat, King of Naples, the best cavalry commander of the Napoleonic Wars. He had good reasons to do so: Murat had defected to the enemy in 1814 and then attacked the Austrians in Italy too soon in 1815. His consequent rout at Tolentino on 2-3 May allowed the Austrians to redeploy troops from Italy to France. Grouchy would have been a good alternative, but Napoleon did not appoint an overall cavalry commander.[4]

Wellington’s army was a multi-national one, including Dutch and Belgians from the Netherlands army and a large number of Germans, including men from Brunswick, Hannover and Nassau, plus the King’s German Legion, who were Germans in British service. The quality of Wellington’s troops was mixed. Some were veterans, whilst others were inexperienced conscripts. Many of the veteran British troops and commanders had been sent to North America to fight in the War of 1812. Major-General John Lambert, who had taken over command at New Orleans after his superiors were killed or wounded, returned home in time to also fight at Waterloo, but many others were still in or on the way home from North America. The veteran Dutch-Belgians had obtained their experience fighting for Napoleon.[5]

One of Wellington’s corps commanders was the very experienced British General Sir Rowland Hill but the other was the very inexperienced 22 year old Prince of Orange. His second in command and cavalry commander was the Earl of Uxbridge. He was a much better cavalry general than Wellington had had for most of the Peninsular War, but their personal relations were poor, since Uxbridge had eloped with Wellington’s sister-in-law. The army did have good division commanders, both British and Germans who had gained their experience fighting against Napoleon and Dutch and Belgians who had fought for him.[6]

Over half of Blücher’s army consisted of Landwehr, who were inexperienced and poorly equipped but often highly patriotic. There were also a number of men from parts of Germany that only became Prussian in 1814, many of whom had fought for Napoleon until then. They included 14,000 Saxons and Silesians who mutinied and had to be disarmed before the campaign even began.

The French began to move at 2:30 am on 15 June, taking Blücher and ‘especially’ Wellington by surprise.[7] The Duke and many of his senior officers were attending the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels on the evening of 15 June.

About 2 pm on 15 June General Jean Victor de Constant Rebecque, the Prince of Orange’s chief of staff, authorised General Count Perponcher-Sedlnitzberg, commander of the 2nd Dutch-Belgian Division, to move Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar’s brigade of Nassauers to the crossroads at Quatre-Bras, a vital junction on the road from Charleroi.

Ney had sent 2,000 cavalrymen under General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouëttes to reconnoitre ahead of the main body of the left wing of the Armée du Nord. They encountered Bernhard’s advance guard, which retired on the rest of his brigade.

At 8 pm Rebecque authorised the other brigade of Perponcher’s division, Dutch-Belgians commanded by the Count of Bylandt, to move from Nivelle to Quatre Bras. Soon afterwards Rebecque received an order sent by Wellington in the afternoon that stated that all of Perponcher’s division should move to Nivelle. Rebecque showed it to Perponcher, saying nothing, and the latter decided to ignore it. [8]

David Chandler quotes the British general and military historian J. T. Fuller as saying that ‘this act of intelligent insubordination saved Blücher’, adding that it also ‘saved Wellington’s reputation.’[9] Geoffrey Wootten argues that Perponcher and Bernhard showed ‘the benefits of their French training at Quatre Bras where bold initiative and intelligence – the hallmark of the French approach – were to be critical to Wellington’s survival and eventual success.’[10]

However, Perponcher’s 8,000 infantry, 16 guns and 50 cavalry were faced by Ney’s 25,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry and 60 guns, with 20,000 more French close behind and another French corps and the Imperial Guard expected.[11]

Reports of the French advance reached Wellington during the ball. He realised that a move by Napoleon towards Mons was a feint to draw his army west in order to protect its line of supply. He told the Duke of Richmond that Napoleon had ‘humbugged me…He has gained 24 hours’ march on me…I have ordered the army to concentrate at Quatre Bras; but we shall not stop him there, and if so, I must fight him here’, pointing to Waterloo on the map.[12]

Napoleon expected Wellington to fall back and had therefore planned to attack him before he could concentrate his army. He told Ney of this verbally, but the exhausted Emperor did not dictate his written orders until 6 am, four hours later than his usual practice. There was a further two hour delay before they left his HQ, and Ney did not receive his written orders until 10:30 am.[13] They told him to ‘hold yourself in readiness for an immediate advance towards Brussels once the Reserve reaches you’ so he issued no orders until 11 am and did not attack until 2 pm, by when Wellington reinforcements were arriving.[14] Wellington reached Quatre Bras at 9:30 am, saw that the French were cooking food and headed to Ligny to meet Blücher.

The attack by General Honoré Charles Reille’s II Corps began at 2 pm. It was initially successful and had broken through the thin defensive line by 3 pm. However, Sir Thomas Picton’s 5th Division then arrived and stabilised the situation. Wootten notes that if ‘Reille had started just a short while earlier…the battle would now have been over almost before it had started.’[15] The arrival of Picton’s 8,000 men meant that 25,000 French troops were now facing 17,000 defenders.[16]

About 4 pm Ney received a message sent at 2 pm ordering him to attack and drive back whatever force he was facing, before turning to envelop Blücher. However, he did not realise that his sector was now the secondary one: Blücher’s forward disposition had made Napoleon to make the Prussians at Ligny rather than the Anglo-Dutch at Quatre Bras the main target.[17]

Ney sent an aide to hurry the advance of the 20,000 men of the Comte D’Erlon’s I Corps to Quatre Bras. However, the Comte de la Bedoyère, carrying orders to Ney to send I Corps against the Prussian flank encountered I Corps before he met Ney. De la Bedoyère sent it towards Ligny, but an error meant that it headed for the French rather the Prussian flank. Ney was furious when he discovered this; soon afterwards the appearance of another of Wellington’s divisions led him to send a message ordering I Corps back to Quatre Bras. It had nearly reached Ligny when the message arrived; it ended up fighting in neither battle.[18]

At 4:15 pm British squares beat off an attack by French lancers at the expense of heavy casualties. More reinforcements were arriving, giving Wellington 26,000 men and 42 guns. At 5 pm Ney ordered General François Étienne de Kellermann to attack with his heavy cavalry, although only one of his four brigades had arrived. The charge almost succeeded, catching two British infantry battalions in line, but it lacked infantry and light cavalry support and was thrown back by fire from a King’s German Legion gun battery and two British infantry battalions.[19]

By 6:30 pm Wellington had 36,000 men and 70 guns, outnumbering Ney. He counter-attacked and by 9 pm had regained almost all the ground lost earlier in the day. Total casualties (dead, wounded, captured and missing) were 4,100 French and 4,850 Coalition, 250 of the latter in the retreat the next day.[20]

The main French attack, however, had been made against the Prussians at Ligny. The Prussian defence was based along the Ligny, a marshy stream that was hard to cross other than at its four bridges. A defensive line based on ten villages and hamlets covered them. The ground rose to the rear. However, the defensive line was vulnerable to flanking fire and troops on the forward slope could be bombarded by artillery. Napoleon intended to demonstrate with cavalry on the Prussian left whilst attacking their right and centre. When Ney appeared on their right the Guard would destroy the Prussian centre.[21]

The Prussians had 84,000 men, including 8,000 cavalry, and 224 guns to defend seven miles. Despite the favourable terrain, this was too few to defend that distance: 20,000 men per mile were then believed to be needed in defence. The Prussians hoped that a further 31,000 of their troops plus Wellington’s force would support them, but the former were too far away and the latter too heavily engaged. The French had 68,000 infantry, 12,500 cavalry and 210 guns, but could choose where to concentrate their attack and expected support from Ney.[22]

The attack began at 2:30 pm. Napoleon assumed that Ney had taken Quatre Bras and was heading for Ligny, since no gunfire had been heard from that direction.[23]

Grouchy’s cavalry on the French right pinned the Prussian left. A fierce battles for the Ligny stream and the villages beside it took place in the centre and on the Prussian right, French left. The Prussian reserve infantry was drawn up close enough to the line to be bombarded by French artillery, but too far away to use their muskets to support their front line.[24]

At 3:15 pm Napoleon sent an order telling Ney to envelop the Prussian right and rear. Almost immediately, he received news of Quatre Bras, so ordered that only D’Erlon’s I Corps should move to Ligny. Shortly afterwards, he realised that he had left the 10,000 men of the Comte de Lobau’s VI Corps near Charleroi without any orders, so ordered them to Ligny.[25]

By 5 pm Blücher had been forced to commit virtually all his reserves, but Napoleon still had 10,000 fresh troops. He intended to launch his Imperial Guard at 6 pm to strike the decisive blow, but about 20,000 men then appeared on the French left flank, causing the French troops there to waver. At first they were assumed to be hostile, but by 6:30 pm it was apparent that they were the French I Corps in the wrong place. D’Erlon had failed to follow the normal practice of sending officers ahead of his force. Napoleon ordered him to the correct place on the Prussian right flank, but by the time that the messenger arrived I Corps was on its way back to Quatre Bras.[26]

Blücher now led personally a counter attack by six battalions, which briefly retook the village of St Amand, but the French rallied and recaptured it. The Guard finally attacked at 7:30 pm in heavy rain. The infantry was supported by 60 guns on their right and heavy cavalry. Blücher then led another counter attack, this time by 32 squadrons of cavalry. It was repulsed and his horse was killed. French cavalry rode over him without recognising him, and he was eventually rescued by an aide. The Prussian centre had been crushed, but both wings were able to withdraw under cover of darkness.[27]

Total dead, wounded, missing and captured at Ligny were 13,700 French and 18,800 Prussians, with another 120 French and 10,000 Prussians being lost in the retreat the next day.[28]

Napoleon had defeated Blücher at Ligny, but the Prussians had escaped to fight again. Wellington and Ney had drawn at Quatre Bras, but the Anglo-Dutch army was forced to retreat because of the result of Ligny. If D’Erlon’s corps had fought at either battle, it would have been a decisive French victory. If Reille had attacked earlier, Ney could have won Quatre Bras soon enough to arrive on Blücher’s flank and make Ligny a decisive victory. These mistakes were Napoleon’s fault for making the wrong appointments.

[1] M. Adkin, The Waterloo Companion (London: Aurum, 2001), p. 29.

[2] G. Wootten, Waterloo 1815: Birth of Modern Europe (London: Osprey, 1992), p. 29.

[3] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 1023.

[4] The last three paragraphs are based on Ibid., pp. 1021-22.

[5] Wootten, Waterloo, pp. 21-23.

[6] Ibid., pp. 16-17.

[7] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1027.

[8] The last three paragraphs are based on Ibid., pp. 1030-32.

[9] Ibid., p. 1032.

[10] Wootten, Waterloo, pp. 15-16.

[11] Ibid., p. 31.

[12] Chandler, Campaigns, pp. 1032-33.

[13] Wootten, Waterloo, pp. 31-32.

[14] Ibid., p. 32.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1050.

[17] Ibid., pp. 1040, 1050.

[18] Ibid., pp. 1051-52.

[19] Ibid., pp. 1052-53.

[20] Adkin, Waterloo, p. 74.

[21] Wootten, Waterloo, p. 40.

[22] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1038.

[23] Wootten, Waterloo, p. 40.

[24] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1041.

[25] Ibid., p. 1043.

[26] Ibid., pp. 1044-45.

[27] Ibid., pp. 1045-46.

[28] Adkin, Waterloo, p. 74.

 

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The Battle of Sorauren, 28-30 July.

On 25 July 1813 French troops commanded by Marshal Nicolas Soult attacked the Allies at Maya and Roncesvalles with the intention of relieving the siege of San Sebastian and the blockade of Pamplona. The Allies, contrary to Wellington’s orders, gave ground.

Wellington, accompanied by only his ADC, Fitzroy Somerset, rode towards the Allied army on 27 July. They reached the village of Sorauren, 10 miles from Pamplona, just ahead of the advancing French. The Allied army was drawn up along a ridge to the southeast, latter called Cole’s ridge after General Sir Lowry Cole. Wellington joined it to the cheers of the troops.

The French took up position along a ridge to the north of the one occupied by the Allied army, later called Clausel’s ridge after General Bertrand Clausel.  They were not ready to attack that day. A thunderstorm in the afternoon boosted Allied morale because there had been one before the battle of Salamanca. It delayed the arrival of reinforcements to both sides.

On 28 July Soult’s 30,000 men attacked Wellington’s 24,000 across the valley between the two ridges. Fighting was fierce, but the French assaults were beaten off. Allied casualties were 1,358 British, 1,102 Portuguese and 192 Spaniards dead or wounded. Around 4,000 French troops were killed or wounded.[1]

Soult’s offensive had failed, and his army was now in a position where it could not be supplied. His obvious course of action was to retreat the way that he had come. However, he was informed that the three divisions of General Jean-Baptiste Drouet, Count D’Erlon, which had missed the battle, were now to his right and rear. Soult decided to join Drouet in an attempt to cut Wellington off from San Sebastian.

Soult’s attempt to disengage on the night of 29-30 July could have succeeded only if it was conducted in complete secrecy, but Allied pickets heard the sound of troops moving in the early hours of 30 July. At daybreak French troops could be seen withdrawing, and were bombarded by the Allied artillery.

Wellington then launched a series of co-ordinated attacks. The Allies were out-numbered, but French morale was very low and they were routed. The battle was over by noon.

Soult was able to withdraw the survivors of his army to France without another major battle, but his nine day offensive cost him 13,500 casualties out of 60,000. The Allies lost 7,100 out of 40,000 men actually engaged in combat.[2]

Charles Esdaile notes that it is hard to see what Soult hoped his offensive would achieve. He could not have resupplied Pamplona even if he reached it, and it would have been difficult to keep his attacking force supplied.[3]


[1] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 296.

[2] Ibid., p. 300.

[3] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 460.

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The Battles of Maya and Roncesvalles, 25 July 1813

Following Wellington’s victory at Vitoria his Allied army pursued the retreating French towards the Franco-Spanish border. The French, however, still held the fortresses of San Sebastian and Pamplona. Wellington’s siege train was too small to carry out two sieges simultaneously, so he surrounded Pamplona. The siege of San Sebastian began on 7 July.

Peter Snow and Jac Weller both note that some commentators have argued that Wellington should have ignored San Sebastian and pushed on into France. Snow and Weller both point out that if Napoleon had been able to come to terms with the Prussians and Russians he could have sent reinforcements to the Pyrenees. Wellington thought that capturing San Sebastian and Pamplona would allow his army to defeat any French counter offensive, even if reinforced by troops then in Germany.[1]

Wellington left Sir Thomas Graham in command at San Sebastian. There was a breach in its walls practicable for an assault by 22 July. However, Graham delayed until 24 July, then postponed for another day, allowing the French commander, General Emmanuel Rey, to reinforce his defences.

The attack on 25 July failed, provoking Wellington to immediately ride the 25 miles from his headquarters to find out what was happening. He resolved to keep closer control on events at San Sebastian. A later post in this series will describe the outcome of the siege.

On the same day the French counter-attacked. Marshal Nicolas Soult had been put in command of the French army in the Pyrenees on 12 July. He had rallied and reorganised the army that had been beaten at Vitoria, reinforcing it with troops from Bayonne.

There were, according to Wellington, at least 70 passes across the Pyrenees that could be crossed by bodies of a few hundred troops.[2] However, there were only four roads that a large army could use to cross them, three of which were in the western theatre of operations. The main one, which crossed the River Bidassoa, at Irun,  was the furthest to the west. There were two roads from Pamplona to France. The Roman road, which crossed the Pyrenees at the pass of Roncesvalles, was the most easterly one. The other crossed at the pass of Maya.

As San Sebastian was in danger of falling, but Pamplona was not being attacked, Wellington expected Soult todemonstrate towards Maya and Roncesvalles, but to make his main attack along the Roman road.

Soult, however, concentrated his efforts against Maya and Roncesvalles. On 25 July 20,000 troops under General Jean-Baptiste Drouet, better known by his title of Count D’Erlon, attacked the 6,000 men at Maya . 40,000 men under Soult himself assaulted Sir Lowry Cole’s 13,000 British, Portuguese and Spanish troops at Roncevalles.[3]

Soult attacked with three divisions along the Roman road and another three along a mule track to the west, each facing only one brigade, though Cole had two more in reserve. Soult’s main problem was that the pass was too narrow for him to fully exploit his advantage in numbers.

The attack along the Roman road was initially was halted by no more than 500 British and Spanish skirmishers, who were defending a frontage of only 300 yards and had plenty of cover.

The French columns eventually forced the Allies back along the Roman road. They were able to retreat to a strong defensive position, but in doing so opened up the possibility of them being outflanked to the east.

The narrow mule track went through partially wooded terrain, with a frontage of only 60 yards, meaning that only one battalion could fight at a time.

However, a thick fog descended at 4 pm. Cole, fearing that his force would be outflanked, decided to retreat, disobeying Wellington’s clear orders to hold even if there was a risk to his eastern flank.

Sir Rowland Hill had put Sir William Stewart in command of the two brigades at Maya. They fought fiercely, but had been badly deployed and were eventually forced back. Weller says that ‘British troops have rarely fought so courageously, but have not often been worse commanded.’[4] The British suffered 1,500 casualties, but inflicted 2,000.

Hill arrived at Maya after the battle was over. He organised a successful retreat to a position that continued to block the road.

Wellington reached Hill’s position just before noon the next day, and was happy with Hill’s dispositions. No news was received from Cole until the evening. On hearing of the retreat from Roncevalles Wellington ordered Cole and Sir Thomas Picton to stand east of Zubiri. They had 19,000 men facing 40,000 French.

Early on 27 July Wellington learnt that Cole and Picton had continued to retreat. He described his generals as being:

‘really heroes when I am on the spot to direct them, but when I am obliged to quit them they are children.’[5]

Wellington, accompanied by only his ADC, Fitzroy Somerset, then rode towards the Allied army. They found it and the advancing French at Sorauren, 10 miles from Pamplona. Wellington took command, and prepared to give battle the next day.


[1] P. Snow, To War with Wellington: From the Peninsula to Waterloo (London: John Murray, 2010), pp. 205-6; J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, New ed. (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 275.

[2] Quoted in Weller, Peninsula. Footnote 2, p. 278.

[3] Troop numbers and casualties are from Ibid., pp. 280-90.

[4] Ibid., p. 289.

[5] Quoted in Snow, Wellington. p. 211

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