Tag Archives: Grouchy

The Battle of Waterloo 18 June 1815

Napoleon defeated Prince Gerbhard von Blücher’s Prussian army at Ligny on 16 June 1815, forcing it to retreat to Wavre. The battle of Quatre Bras between the French and the Duke of Wellington’s Allied army on the same day was a draw. Napoleon intended to outflank them the next day, but his slowness in acting allowed Wellington to pull back ‘to a ridge line south of Mont St Jean, a position that had been carefully noted by Wellington and his staff some time ago as being an excellent defensive position.’[1]

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On 18 June the two armies at Waterloo faced each other on two low ridges that were separated by a gentle valley, which was bisected by the Charleroi to Brussels road. The frontage was about 5,000 yards and the battlefield measured no more than three square miles. The small hamlet of La Belle Alliance was on the road in the centre of the French line. In front of the Allied line were the Château of Hougoumont on their right, the farm of La Haye Sainte on the road in the centre and the town of Papelotte on the left.[2]

Wellington had 53,850 infantry, 13,350 cavalry, 5,000 artillerymen with 157 guns and 1,000 others (staff, engineers, medical, supply etc) for a total of 73,200 troops. Only 36 per cent of them were British, with 13 per cent Dutch and 9 per cent Belgian: Belgium was then part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The other 45 per cent were Germans: 10 per cent were part of the King’s German Legion, Germans serving as part of the British Army; 17 per cent were from Hannover, whose King was also King George III of the United Kingdom; 10 per cent were from Brunswick; and 8 per cent from Nassau. A further 17,000 Allied troops had been positioned at Hal to cover an alternative road to Brussels; they did not take part in the battle.[3]

Napoleon’s army was only slightly bigger, except for a superiority in artillery: 53,400 infantry, 15,600 cavalry, 6,500 artillerymen with 246 guns and 2,000 others for a total of 77,500 men. He had sent 30,000 troops under the newly promoted Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy to cover the Prussians at Wavre.[4]

Blücher had 100,000 men and 283 guns available for combat, but only 49,000 men, made up of 38,000 infantry, 7,000 cavalry, 2,500 artillerymen and 1,500 others, and 134 guns fought at Waterloo.[5]

At a post breakfast meeting Napoleon’s chief of staff, Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult, said to the Emperor that he should recall at least some of Grouchy’s troops. Napoleon replied that:

‘You think because Wellington defeated you he must be a great general. I tell you he is a bad general, that the English [sic] are poor troops and that this affair will be no more serious than eating one’s breakfast.’[6]

General Honoré Charles Reille, the commander of II Corps and like Soult a Peninsular War veteran who had fought Wellington and the British many times, argued that the British firepower meant that the French should manoeuvre rather than launch a frontal assault, but the Emperor dismissed this. He decided to postpone the attack from the original 9 am start in order to allow the wet ground to dry, which would aid manoeuvre and allow artillery rounds to ricochet off the ground. The army was also behind its timetable. The Emperor would not have delayed in the past, having once said that ‘space we can recover, but time, never.[7]

The delay meant that the Prussians were getting closer to Waterloo. General August von Gneisenau, Blücher’s chief of staff, wanted to keep the majority of the Prussian army at Wavre until at least noon, but Blücher insisted that two corps should head to Waterloo immediately. General Friedrich von Bülow’s IV Corps, which had not been at Ligny, had set off at daybreak.[8]

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The artillery bombardment began about 11:30 am. Grouchy heard it, but declined the advice of General Étienne Gérard to march to the sound of the guns. Had he done so he would have intercepted Bülow before the Prussians reached Waterloo.[9]

As the artillery opened fire the French 6th Infantry Division, commanded by Napoleon’s brother Jérôme, attacked Hougoumont. This was supposed to be a diversion, but Jérôme was determined to take the objective, regardless of losses. He called up another division, meaning that much of Reille’s II Corps spent most of the battle fighting a single brigade.[10]

By 3 pm the French had sent 12,500 men of the 6th and 9th Divisions against 2,500 men of the 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards, 2nd Battalion, 3rd (Scots) Guards and 1st Battalion, 2nd Nassau Regiment. Light companies of Hannoverians and the 2nd and 3rd Battalions 1st Foot Guards also took part in the desperate and successful defence. The key event came at 12:30 pm, when Lieutenant Colonel James McDonnell ordered the closing of the North Gate, which had been left open to facilitate the movement of Allied troops. About 30 French troops, led by the axe wielding Sous-Lieutenant Legros, nicknamed L’enfonceur, got inside before McDonnell’s guardsmen shut and barricaded the door. Legros and his men were killed, except for a drummer boy.[11]

At 1 pm the Comte D’Erlon’s I Corps was ready to attack when Bülow’s 30,000 men were spotted approaching the French right flank. Napoleon ordered cavalry and the 10,000 infantrymen of Comte Lobau’s VI Corps to take up a defensive position facing them.[12]

D’Erlon’s attack began at 1:30 pm. For some reason he adopted an outdated and inflexible formation that meant that heavier casualties were suffered in the advance and that it was harder to deploy once in musket range. The attack also lacked adequate cavalry support. Papelotte was taken and the French almost reached the crest of the ridge. Sir Thomas Picton’s division then advanced to the crest and opened fire from 40 yards before charging and forcing the French back. Picton was amongst the dead.[13]

Two British heavy cavalry brigades, the Household and Union Brigades, then charged D’Erlon’s corps, sweeping them away, inflicting 4,000 casualties and capturing two eagles. The Allied cavalry commander, the Earl of Uxbridge, led them personally. However, the British cavalry carried on instead of stopping to reform and were themselves charged by French cavalry. The British suffered 1,000 casualties and the 1,500 survivors were spent for the rest of the battle. Around 3 pm the fighting died down everywhere except Hougoumont, enabling the Allies to reinforce La Haye Sainte and recapture Papelotte.[14]

At 3:30 pm Napoleon ordered Marshal Michel Ney to capture La Haye Sainte regardless of casualties. The first attack, by the only two brigades of D’Erlon’s corps that had rallied, failed. However, Ney mistook a column of Allied ambulances, empty ammunition wagons, wounded and a small number of cavalry heading towards Brussels for signs of a retreat. He launched a series of cavalry attacks, which the Allied infantry were able to beat off by forming square.[15]

By 5 pm Ney had committed almost 9,000 cavalry, 6,000 of them armoured cuirassiers or carabiniers. Between 5 pm and 6 pm another 4,500 cavalry attacked after a heavy preliminary bombardment. A total of 76 guns in 12 batteries either gave preliminary fire support or, in the case of horse artillery, accompanied the cavalry. The guns inflicted heavy casualties on the squares but none broke. The Allies had 14,000 infantry in 25 squares and 65 guns.[16]

None of the attacks were supported by infantry until 8,000 men from Reille’s II Corps attacked at 5:30 pm. By then the tired cavalry had withdrawn to regroup and Allied musket fire beat off the attack with 20 per cent casualties.[17]

Napoleon, after observing Wellington’s position, ordered Ney to attack La Haye Sainte again. This time he made a combined arms attack using cavalry, infantry and artillery, which took the farm. The French were now able to position artillery to fire on the Allied centre. This was Wellington’s ‘great crisis of the day…his centre was wavering.’[18]

Ney now requested that the Emperor send him reserves, but Napoleon replied ‘Some troops! Where do you expect me to get them from? Do you want me to make some?’[19]

David Chandler argues that if Napoleon had ‘sent forward the Imperial Guard (or even half of it), the battle would almost certainly had been won.’[20] However, he adds that the Emperor had good reasons to reject Ney’s request: he did not know what state Wellington’s army was in; Ney’s performance so far in the battle had done nothing to make Napoleon trust him; and the Emperor was also worried about his right flank.[21]

Bülow was threatening Napoleon’s right by 4 pm. He nearly turned back after hearing gunfire from Wavre, a town with two stone bridges across the River Dyle, where Grouchy had attacked the Prussians. However, Blücher insisted that Bülow continue. Grouchy won a tactical victory at Wavre, but it made no difference to the outcome of the campaign. He briefly renewed his attack on 19 June, taking Wavre by 10 am. However, he heard the news from Waterloo half an hour later and withdrew.[22]

By 5 pm after an hour’s fighting Bülow had forced Lobau back to the village of Plancenoit, which the Prussians soon captured. Their artillery could now threaten Napoleon’s line of retreat, so he sent a division of the Young Guard in an attempt to retake it.[23]

The Young Guard recaptured Plancenoit, but was then thrown back. Napoleon prioritised the threat to his communications, putting 11 battalions in square on his right flank and sending two Old Guard battalions to retake Plancenoit. They succeeded, forcing 14 Prussian battalions to retreat, but then pushed on too far and had to fall back. However, Plancenoit was now occupied by the Young Guard and the right flank was stable by 6:45 pm, allowing several battalions to return to the reserve.[24]

They failed, but two battalions of the Old Guard then recaptured it, throwing back 14 Prussian battalions from the immediate area. Both sides then stopped to regroup, allowing Napoleon to bring some of the battalions that had been sent to his right back to his central reserve by 7 pm.[25]

The right flank was temporarily stabilised, but more Prussians were on their way. Napoleon therefore decided that now was the time to commit the Imperial Guard units from his central reserve against Wellington’s centre. He personally led them to within 600 yards of the enemy, before handing command over to Ney.[26]

The advance began at 7:30 pm with five battalions of the Middle Guard and a battery of horse artillery in the first line and three battalions of the Old Guard in the second line. Another Middle Guard battalion was positioned as a reserve about half way between Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. The attack was intended to be a general one led by the Imperial Guard rather than one by the Guard alone. Some cuirassiers and Guard cavalry moved forward, but the main support from other units was from artillery.[27]

The French Guard were attacking in echelon, meaning that their battalions did not arrive together. The first two, the 1/3rd and 4th Grenadiers, encountered the British 2/30th, 33rd, 2/69th and 2/73rd Foot of Major General Sir Colin Halkett’s Brigade as they approached the top of the slope. All these British units had suffered heavy casualties at Quatre Bras. Ney was now on foot after having had his fifth horse shot from under him. The two French Guard battalions were forced to retreat by the British musket fire at 40 metres range. The British were then ordered to about face and get behind the hedge at the top of the crest. However, they came under fire from Duchand’s horse artillery, which had approached to within 100 metres of the crest, as they did so, becoming ‘a mere mob.’[28]

When the 1/3rd and 2/3rd Chasseurs à Pied, which had taken significant casualties from artillery fire, reached the crest they appeared to face no opposition. However, the 1,400 guardsmen of Major General Peregrine Maitland’s Brigade stood up 25 metres away when Wellington shouted ‘Now Maitland! Now’s your time!’, firing a volley that hit over 20 per cent of the surviving Chasseurs, with the others retreating.[29]

The British Guards charged the retreating French with fixed bayonets. The 4th Chasseurs then appeared. Maitland ordered his two battalions to stop and reform; the 2/1 Guards on the right did so, but the 3/1 misunderstood and formed square. The 4th Chasseurs continued, but then were confronted by the largest battalion in Wellington’s army, over 1,000 men of Colonel Sir John Colborne’s 52nd Foot. The two battalions briefly exchanged fire before the French retreated.[30]

Wellington now ordered a general advance. The discipline, courage and experience of the Old Guard allowed many, including Napoleon and his entourage, to escape.[31]

Waterloo was a joint victory for Blücher and Wellington. Napoleon planned to defeat Wellington’s multi-national army before Blücher’s Prussians arrived. He could have beaten either of the two Coalition armies but not both together. Wellington could not have won if Blücher had not arrived, but he would not have fought had he not been sure that Blücher was coming. Blücher could not have won had Wellington not stood and fought on ground of his own choosing.

The French lost because they made many mistakes, most of which were the responsibility of Napoleon for appointing the wrong men to key jobs. Ney was unsuited to independent battlefield command, Soult had no experience of staff work and Grouchy none of infantry command. Napoleon did not supervise operations as closely as he had done previously. He would not in the past have wasted so much time in the morning, allowed so many troops to be sucked into the battle for Hougoumont or permitted Ney to make several uncoordinated attacks on Wellington’s squares.

Better options for key positions would have been Marshal Louis-Gabriel Suchet, who was commanding the Army of the Alps, as Chief of Staff, Soult in Ney’s job and Grouchy commanding the cavalry. Marshal Louis-Nicholas Davout, Napoleon’s best Marshal, who was left in Paris as its Governor and Minister of War should have had Grouchy’s command.

The table below gives the total casualties (dead, wounded and missing) over the campaign, including those in a Franco-Prussian engagement at Gilly on 15 June. Some men lightly wounded in the earlier battles fought at Waterloo and not every available man fought at Waterloo.

Date and Battle Allied Prussian French Total
15 June – Gilly 2,000 600 2,600
16 June – Quatre Bras 4,600 4,100 8,700
16 June – Ligny 18,800 13,700 32,500
17 June – Allied retreat 250 120 370
18-19 June – Wavre 2,450 2,400 4,850
18 June – Waterloo / retreat 17,000 7,000 46,500 70,500
Army at Waterloo 73,200 49,000 77,500 199,700
Total casualties 21,850 30,250 67,420 119,520
Starting strength 112,000 130,000 123,000 365,000

Source: M. Adkin, The Waterloo Companion, (London: Aurum, 2001), pp. 73-74.

All ranks suffered heavily on the three square mile battlefield of Waterloo. Six French generals were killed and 37 wounded out of 114 present. The Allies, who had relatively fewer generals, had five killed and 14 wounded out of 41 and the Prussians two killed and one wounded out of 26.

The battle did not immediately end the war, as the French were holding on elsewhere, but the large numbers of Austrian and Russian troops approaching France meant that Napoleon had little chance of victory. He abdicated on 22 June, hoping to escape to the United States of America from the port of Rochefort, where a ship had been provided for him. On 3 July he arrived there to find that it was blockaded by the British. He surrendered to them on 15 July, hoping to be allowed to live in Britain, but was exiled to St Helena in the south Atlantic.

Most of Napoleon’s senior commanders eventually regained their titles under the restored monarchy. The restored King Louis XVIII issued the Cambray Proclamation, which stated that those who had been ‘misled’ into following Napoleon would not be prosecuted but that he would not ‘pardon the instigators and authors of this horrible plot.’ Ney and the Comte de la Bédoyère, one of Napoleon’s aides, were tried and shot. This website notes that others named on King Louis XVIII’s ordinance, including D’Erlon and Grouchy escaped abroad, but Ney refused opportunities to do so.

For a discussion of why Waterloo was important see this post by Dr Huw J. Davies in Defence in Depth, the blog of the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London. For a number of articles on the British Army in this period see the latest issue of the British Journal of Military History, a free academic journal: registration is required but not payment.

The Napoleonic Wars of 1803-1815, which had closely followed on from the Revolutionary War were now over. It was also the last of a series of major European Wars that had begun with the Nine Years War of 1688-97. The opposing Coalitions had varied, but France and Britain were always on different sides. It was some time before the two became allies and British and Vichy French forces did fight during World War II, but Waterloo was the last major battle between the two countries.

 

[1] G. Wootten, Waterloo 1815: Birth of Modern Europe (London: Osprey, 1992), p. 47.

[2] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 1064.

[3] M. Adkin, The Waterloo Companion (London: Aurum, 2001), p. 37.

[4] Ibid., p. 51.

[5] Ibid., p. 65.

[6] Wootten, Waterloo, p. 52.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1068.

[9] Ibid., pp. 1071-72.

[10] Ibid., pp. 1072-73.

[11] Adkin, Waterloo, pp. 329-42.

[12] Chandler, Campaigns, pp. 1073-76.

[13] Ibid., pp. 1076-78.

[14] Ibid., pp. 1078-79.

[15] Ibid., pp. 1080-84.

[16] Wootten, Waterloo, pp. 356-61.

[17] Ibid., p. 68.

[18] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1085.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., p. 1086.

[22] Wootten, Waterloo, pp. 49-50.

[23] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1084.

[24] Ibid., p. 1086.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., p. 1087.

[27] Adkin, Waterloo, p. 391.

[28] Ibid., pp. 393-97.

[29] Ibid., p. 397.

[30] Ibid., pp. 397-98.

[31] Ibid., pp. 399-400.

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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 Montereau 18 February 1814.

Napoleon defeated Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia at the Battles of Champaubert, Montmirail, Château-Thierry and Vauchamps between 10 and 14 February 1814. However, Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia had taken the offensive in the Seine sector.

Napoleon’s original plan had been to attack Schwarzenberg’s lines of communication once he had dealt with Blücher. However,. By 15 February it was clear that the French forces facing Schwarzenberg would not be able to hold his advance on Paris for the two to three days that this manoeuvre would take to organise. David Chandler points out that Napoleon ‘could not ignore a direct threat to Paris, and consequently had to adopt a less decisive plan.’[1]

Click here for a campaign map from West Point’s website and here for a map of the Battle of Montereau.

Napoleon left the corps of Marshals Édouard Mortier and Auguste de Marmont to cover Paris in case Blücher resumed the offensive. He took the Imperial Guard and General Emmanuel de Grouchy’s cavalry 47 miles south in 36 hours, with some of his infantry travelling in wagons and carts. He entered Gugnes at 3pm on 16 February.

Including the troops that were already in the Seine sector, Napoleon now had 60,000 men with which to attack the Army of Bohemia. He was heavily outnumbered, but Schwarzenberg’s four corps were widely spread. General Friedrich von Bianchi’s Austrians, General Karl Phillip von Wrede’s Bavarians, Prince Ludwig Pyotr Wittgenstein’s Russians and the Württembergers under their Crown Prince, were advancing along separate roads. Poor connecting roads, mud and the Seine made it hard for them to stay in contact with each other.

Wittgenstein, on the Coalition right (northern) flank had pushed on ahead of the rest of the Army of Bohemia. On 17 February its 4,300 strong advance guard, under General Pyotr Pahlen, was overwhelmed at Mormant by Napoleon’s advance guard, commanded by General Maurice-Etienne Gérard, with supported from Grouchy. Gérard and Grouchy then forced Wrede’s advance guard to retreat from Valjouan. [2]

Marshal Claude Victor’s corps was supposed to have taken part in these two actions, but moved slowly. Victor, Gérard and Grouchy, along with General Claude-Pierre Pajol’s cavalry, were then ordered to advance quickly to Montereau. Napoleon wanted to beat the retreating Army of Bohemia to Troyes.

Victor had been ordered to reach Montereau at 6 am on 18 February, but paused overnight, allowing the Württembergers time to prepare their defensive position. The first French troops to arrive were 1,500 cavalry, 3,000 National Guards and 800 gendarmes under Pajol. They were poorly trained, and were unable to make any progress against the Württemberg corps of 8,500 infantry, 1000 cavalry and 26 guns.

Victor’s advance guard did not arrive until 9 am. His initial attacks were unsuccessful. Napoleon, angry at his tardiness, replaced him with Gérard. Napoleon and the Guard arrived at 3 pm. The French now had 30,000 men and 70 guns on the field, and the Württembergers withdrew in the face of new attacks. They lost 5-6,000 men, 3,400 of them being captured, and 15 guns. French casualties were 2,500 killed and wounded.

The defenders had the Seine behind them, with only one bridge to retreat across. A final French cavalry charge, in which Pajol was so severely wounded that he took no further part in the war, captured both the Seine bridge and one over the Yonne before the Württembergers could blow them. F. Loraine Petre suggests that they should have retreated and destroyed the Seine bridge as soon as they were attacked, but Schwarzenberg had ordered them not to do so.[4]

On the same day the French reached the Seine at Nogent and Bray, only to find the bridges had been blown. As they then had no bridging train, the capture of the bridge at Montereau was vital. They also took a bridge over the Yonne as after the battle of Montereau.

Schwarzenberg now ordered his army to retreat to Troyes, less Wittgenstein’s corps, which was to link up with Blücher at Méry by 21 February. Napoleon, who now had 75,000 men with him, pursued rapidly with the intention of fighting Schwarzenberg near Troyes on 23 February. Schwarzenberg had 90,000 troops and Blücher 50,000. However, Alexander Seslavin, a Cossack commander regarded as ‘very reliable’ by his superiors, had reported that Napoleon now had 180,000 men.[5]

Petre notes that Schwarzenberg was worried about ‘the incalculable results of defeat.’[6] He was also concerned by the threat to his line of retreat of from Marshal Pierre Augereau’s corps in the south, ‘unnecessarily’ according to Chandler. Schwarzenberg therefore decided to withdraw his army to Troyes. He ordered Blücher to retreat his army, including Wittgenstein’s corps, across the Marne.

Chandler contends that ‘Schwarzenberg’s inglorious but probably justifiable caution thwarted Napoleon of a decisive action.’[7] He goes on to argue that the Emperor had outmanoeuvred and outfought two enemy armies that both outnumbered him, but could not win a military victory because he lacked the necessary manpower and France was war-weary.[8]

Napoleon could probably have now agreed a peace settlement that would have left him Emperor of France within its 1792 borders. He had reluctantly allowed his foreign minister, the Marquis de Caulaincourt, to negotiate on that basis after his defeat at La Rothière on 1 February. However, his subsequent victories meant that he was prepared to accept nothing less than France’s natural frontiers, stretching to the Rhine, and perhaps even wanted to keep Italy. He told his brother Joseph that:

If I had accepted the historical borders I would have taken up arms again two years later, and I would have said to the nation that this was not a peace that I had signed but a forced capitulation.[9]


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 978.

[2] Troop strengths in this and the previous paragraph are from are from Ibid.

[3] French casualties are from Ibid., p. 980, which says that Württemberg casualties were 6,000. Other numbers in the last two paragraphs are from F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), pp. 83-85.

[4] Ibid., p. 85.

[5] Ibid., p. 88.

[6] Ibid., p. 89.

[7] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 981.

[8] Ibid., p. 982.

[9] Quoted in D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 490.

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The Battle of Vauchamps 14 February 1814

Napoleon defeated two corps of Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia at the Battle of Montmirail on 11 February 1814. However, he soon learnt that Prince Karl Philipp zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia had taken the offensive in the Seine sector, so prepared to move his army south in order to meet this threat.

Click here for a campaign map from West Point’s website.

Blücher, on learning of Schwarzenberg’s actions, guessed correctly that the Napoleon would head south. He therefore ordered his other two corps, commanded by Generals Friedrich Kleist and Petr Kaptsevich, to advance with the intention of threatening Napoleon’s rear. They totalled about 20,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry.[1]

Marshal Auguste de Marmont’s 4,000 men, who had been screening Napoleon’s army from Blücher, were forced to retreat from Vertus. However, Marmont withdrew skilfully, allowing Napoleon time to prepare a counter-stroke by 20,000 men of the Imperial Guard and General Emmanuel de Grouchy’s II Cavalry Corps

At 10am on 14 February Marmont, who had now been reinforced to 5,000 men, was attacked at Vauchamps, about 4 miles to the east of Montmirail, by Blücher’s advance guard, commanded by General Hans von Zieten. Grouchy’s cavalry then arrived from the north, attacked Zieten’s right flank and routed his division.

Click here for a map of the battlefield.

Blücher, who had learnt of Napoleon’s presence from a prisoner and seen the fur caps of the Old Guard in the distance, retreated back the way that he had advanced. The Coalition withdrawal was led by Kleist’s corps. Kaptsevich’s corps, accompanied by Blücher, was harried by French infantry and cavalry.

At 4:30pm Kleist’s corps was attacked by Grouchy’s cavalry, which had got ahead of them by advancing along a parallel road. The Coalition retreat was slow because their infantry had to remain in squares in order to defend themselves against cavalry attacks in territory described by Dominic Lieven as ‘excellent cavalry country.’[2] The Prussians and Russians fought bravely, and their discipline held, allowing them to escape, but with heavy casualties.

David Chandler and F. Loraine Petre both argue that the Coalition army escaped only because Grouchy’s horse artillery got stuck in the mud.[3] Napoleonic infantry could beat off cavalry if they formed square in time, but were then very vulnerable to artillery.

After Blücher had extracted his army from the trap, Napoleon ordered the Imperial Guard and Grouchy’s cavalry to move towards the Seine in order to confront Schwarzenberg. Marmont was ordered to continue the pursuit. The battle cost the Coalition 7,000 men killed, wounded and captured, 16 guns and many wagons. The French lost only 600 men.

Napoleon had in six days no more than 30,000 men in any action inflicted losses of 16,000 men killed, wounded and captured, 47 guns and numerous wagons on the Army of Silesia, over a quarter of its strength. Chandler says that

the second week of February is worthy of Napoleon at his best, and many commentators have compared the tactical brilliance he displayed with the great days of the First Italian Campaign.[4]

However, Petre points out that

Napoleon’s movement against Blücher was a brilliant success, but by no means so complete as he hoped for…he had certainly not annihilated [the Army of Silesia].[5]

Marshal Jacques Macdonald’s failure to cut off the Coalition retreat from Montmirail at Château-Thierry and the mud that prevented Grouchy from bringing up his horse artillery against Kleist’s squares at Vauchamps meant that the Army of Silesia survived. Its losses were soon replaced.


[1] Troop numbers are from D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966). pp. 970-75 unless otherwise stated.

[2] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 489.

[3] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 975; F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), pp. 70-71.

[4] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 976.

[5] Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814, p. 75.

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The Battle of Brienne 29 January 1814

Napoleon arrived at Châlons on 26 January to begin his 1814 campaign in defence of France. His available forces consisted of 14,747 men of the II Corps and the 5th Cavalry Corps under Marshal Claude Victor, 12,051 troops of the VI Corps and the 1st Cavalry Corps under Marshal Auguste de Marmont and 14,505 guards commanded by Marshal Michel Ney. The so-called French corps were far smaller than they had been in previous campaigns or Coalition ones were in this campaign.

Marshal Édouard Mortier, with about 20,000 soldiers, 12,000 of them guardsmen, had retreated from Bar-sur-Aube to Troyes after fighting an indecisive battle with Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia. Napoleon intended to attack Prince Gebhard von Blücher’s Army of Silesia before it could link up with the Army of Bohemia, forming a force too big for the French to fight.[1]

The Emperor’s initial plan was to attack Blücher at St Dizier on 27 January, but a brief action showed that the Army of Bohemia had moved towards Brienne, where Napoleon had attended the military academy.

Click here to see maps of the campaign from West Point’s website. There is a map of the Battle of Brienne on this website.

Blücher had about 25,000 men, as General Johan-David-Ludwig Yorck’s corps had become separated from the rest of the army. Napoleon decided to attack with Blücher with 34,000 men at Brienne before the two Coalition armies could join up. Marmont would  hold off Yorck, and Mortier would move to Arcis-sur-Aube, provided that this did not out Troyes at risk.[2]

Blücher believed initially that his opposition was poorly organised, writing on 28 January that ‘nothing more desirable can happen for us’ than an attack by Napoleon.[3] By the next morning, however, he had learnt from captured orders that the French were about to attack the rear of his army and redeployed to face the threat.

At first Blücher had only the 6,000 men of Count Zakhar Olsufiev’s corps at Brienne, but he brought up Prince Fabian von Osten-Sacken’s corps and the 3,000 cavalry of General Pavel Pahlen’s advanced guard of Prince Piotr Wittgenstein’s corps of the Army of Silesia at Brienne after receiving the captured despatches.[4]

F. Lorraine Petre notes that both sides had to commit their troops ‘piecemeal’, as Napoleon had to attack quickly if he was to win, whilst Blücher’s troops were not all present at the start of the battle.[5]

The initial French attacks, by General Emmanuel de Grouchy’s cavalry, went well, but had been beaten back by the time that Napoleon arrived.  A fierce battle then followed until well after dark. Napoleon, who led his raw conscripts into battle, was almost captured by Cossacks at one stage. Later Blücher and General August von Gneisenau, his chief of staff were also almost captured by the French.

Blücher successfully disengaged around 11 pm. His army lost 4,000 men killed and wounded and the French 3,000. Although the French held the battlefield they could not afford such a close ratio of casualties. The battle also forced the Army of Silesia closer to the Army of Bohemia. Its main benefit to Napoleon was that it boosted the morale of his inexperienced conscripts.


[1] F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), pp. 17-18.

[2] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 958.

[3] Quoted in Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814, p. 19.

[4] Ibid., p. 21.

[5] Ibid., p. 24.

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