1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Waterloo Campaign, 1815
WATERLOO CAMPAIGN, 1815. On February 27, 1815, Napoleon set sail from Elba with his force of 1000 men and 4 guns, determined to reconquer the throne of France. On March 1 he landed near Cannes, and proceeded at once to march on Paris. He deliberately chose the difficult route over the French Alps because he recognized that his opponents would neither expect him by this route nor be able to concert combined operations in time to thwart him. Events proved the wisdom of his choice. His advance to Paris was a series of triumphs, his power waxing with every league he covered, and when he reached Paris the Bourbons had fled. But he had soon to turn his attention to war. His sudden return, far from widening the breaches between the allies, had fused them indissolubly together, and the four powers bound themselves to put 150,000 men apiece under arms and to maintain them in the field until Napoleon had been utterly crushed. So, from the first, France was faced with another war against an affrighted and infuriated Europe, a war in which the big battalions would be on the side of the Seventh Coalition; and to oppose their vast armies Napoleon only had in March the 150,000 men he had taken over from Louis XVIII. when the Bourbon hurriedly quitted the throne. Of this force the emperor could have drawn together some 50,000 men within ten days and struck straight at the small allied forces that were in Belgium at the moment. But he wisely refrained from taking the immediate offensive. Such an act would have proved that he desired, nay provoked a war; and further, the engagement of such small forces could lead to no decisive results. Napoleon therefore stayed his hand and proceeded to hasten forward the organization, almost the creation of an army, with which he could confront the coalition. Meanwhile he sought to detach Great Britain and Austria from the alliance. But he did not permit his political enterprise to stay his military preparations; and, by constant attention Napoleon's preparations. to the minutest details, by June 1 he had got together an army of 360,000 for the defence of France, one half of which was available for field service. In this army was comprised his whole means of defence; for he had no allies. On his return from Elba it is true that Murat, the king of Naples, took his side; but recklessly opening an offensive campaign, Murat was beaten at Tolentino (May 2-3), and he found himself compelled to fly in disguise to France, where the emperor refused him an audience or employment. Herein Napoleon wronged France, for he deprived her of the most brilliant cavalry soldier of the period. Shorn thus of his single ally, the emperor realized that the whole eastern land-frontier of France was open to invasion, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. By the end of May he had placed his forces as follows to protect his empire.
D'Erlon's I. Corps cantoned between Lille and Valenciennes.
Reille's II. Corps cantoned between Valenciennes and Avesnes.
Vandamme's III. Corps cantoned around Rocroi.
Gérard's IV. Corps cantoned at Metz.
Lobau's VI. Corps cantoned at Laon.
Grouchy's Cavalry Reserve at Guise.
Marshal Mortier with the Imperial Guard at Paris.
Rapp with the V. Corps (20,000) near Strassburg.
18,500 more troops under Suchet, Brune and Lecourbe guarded the S.E. frontier from Basel to Nice, and covered Lyons; 8000 men under Clausel and Decaen guarded the Pyrenean frontier, whilst Lamarque led 10,000 men into La Vendée to quell the insurrection in that quarter. In 1815 Napoleon was not supported by a united and unanimous France; the country was weakened by internal dissensions at the very moment when it was needful to put every man in line to meet the rising tide of invasion surging against the long curving eastern frontier.
Napoleon now pondered over his plan of campaign. In Belgium, across an almost open frontier, lay an ever-increasing force of Anglo-Dutch and Prussian troops under Wellington and Blücher. The Rhine frontier was threatened by Schwarzenberg's Austrians (210,000); Barclay de Tolly's Russians (150,000) were slowly coming up; and another Austrian force menaced the S.E. frontier of France. The allies determined that they would wage a war without risks, and they were particularly anxious to avoid the risk of defeat in detail. It was accordingly arranged that Wellington and Blücher should await in Belgium the arrival of the Austrian and Russian masses on the Rhine, about July 1, before the general invasion of France was begun. Thereafter, whatever befell, the allied armies would resolutely press forward towards Paris, affording each other mutual support, and with the tremendous weight of troops at their disposal thrust back Napoleon upon his capital, force him to fight in front of it, and drive him when defeated within its works. The end would then be in sight. Thus they had planned the campaign, but Napoleon forestalled them. In fact, the threatening danger forced his hand and compelled him to strike before he had collected a sufficient army for his defensive needs. Consequently he determined to advance swiftly and secretly against Wellington and Blücher, whose forces, as Napoleon knew, were dispersed over the country of their unenthusiastic ally. Thus he designed to crush a part of the coalition before the Russians and Austrians poured over the eastern frontier. Once Wellington and Blücher were destroyed he would move southwards and meet the other allies on the Rhine. He might thus compensate for his numerical inferiority by superior mobility and superior leadership.
His information showed that Wellington held the western half of Belgium from the Brussels-Charleroi road to the Scheldt, that his base of operations was Ostend, and that his headquarters were at Brussels. Blücher, based on Napoleon's plans. the Rhine at Coblentz, held the eastern half from the Brussels-Charleroi road to the Meuse, and had his headquarters at Namur. The emperor was convinced that nothing could be gained by invading Belgium from the S.E. or W.; such a stroke would surely drive the allies together, and that was never Napoleon's custom. On the other hand, if he struck straight at Charleroi—the allied junction point—he would drive the “Armée du Nord” like an armoured wedge between the allies, if only he caught them unsuspicious and unready. Forced asunder at the outset, each would (in all probability) fall back along his own line of communication, and the gap thus made between the allies would enable the emperor to manœuvre between them and defeat them in turn. To gain the best chance of success he would have to concentrate his whole army almost within gunshot of the centre of the enemies' outposts without attracting their attention; otherwise he would find the allies concentrated and waiting for him.
Wellington and Blücher were disposed as follows in the early days of June (Map I). The Anglo-Dutch army of 93,000 with headquarters at Brussels were cantoned: I. Corps (Prince of Orange), 30,200, headquarters Braine-le-Comte, disposed in the area Enghien-Genappe-Mons; II. Corps (Lord Hill), 27,300, headquarters Ath, distributed in the area Ath-Oudenarde-Ghent; reserve cavalry (Lord Uxbridge) 9900, in the valley of the Dendre river, between Grammont and Ninove; the reserve (under Wellington himself) 25,500, lay around Brussels. The frontier in front of Leuze and Binche was watched by the Dutch-Belgian light cavalry.
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Blücher's Prussian army of 116,000 men, with headquarters at Namur, was distributed as follows:—
I. Corps (Zieten), 30,800, cantoned along the Sambre, headquarters Charleroi, and covering the area Fontaine l'Évêque-Fleurus-Moustier.
II. Corps (Pirch I.), 31,000, headquarters at Namur, lay in the area Namur-Hannut-Huy.
III. Corps (Thielemann), 23,900, in the bend of the river Meuse, headquarters Ciney, and disposed in the area Dinant-Huy-Ciney.
IV. Corps (Bülow), 30,300, with headquarters at Liége, around that place.
The frontier in front of Binche, Charleroi and Dinant was watched by the Prussian outposts.
Thus the allied front extended for nearly 90 m. across Belgium, and the mean depth of their cantonments was 30 m. To concentrate the whole army on either flank would take six days, and on the common centre, about Charleroi, three days.
The allies had foreseen the very manœuvre that Napoleon designed to put into execution, and had decided that if an attempt were made to break their centre they would concentrate forwards and on their inner flanks, the Anglo-Dutch army forming up at Gosselies and the Prussians at Fleurus. Here they would be in contact, and ready to act united against Napoleon with a numerical superiority of two to one. The necessary three days' warning of the French concentration they felt certain they would obtain, for Napoleon's troops were at this juncture distributed over an area (Lille-Metz-Paris) of 175 m. by 100 m., and to concentrate the French army unknown to, and unobserved by, the allies, within striking distance and before they had moved a man to meet the onrush of the foe, was unthinkable. But, as in 1800, it was the unthinkable that happened.
It will be seen that Blücher covered Fleurus, his concentration point, by Zieten's corps, in the hope of being able to collect his army round Fleurus in the time that Zieten would secure for him by a yielding fight. Wellington on the other hand was far less satisfactorily placed; for in advance of Gosselies he had placed only a cavalry screen, which would naturally be too weak to gain him the requisite time to mass there. Hence his ability to concentrate hung on the mere good luck of obtaining timely information of Napoleon's plans, which in fact he failed to obtain. But the two tracts of country covered by the allies differed vastly in configuration. Blücher's left was protected by the difficult country of the Ardennes. On the other hand, the duke's whole section lay close to an open frontier across which ran no fewer than four great roads, and the duke considered that his position “required, for its protection, a system of occupation quite different from that adopted by the Prussian army.” He naturally relied on his secret service to warn him in such time as would enable him to mass and meet the foe. His reserve was well placed to move rapidly and promptly in any direction and give support wherever required.
The emperor made his final preparations with the utmost secrecy. The Army of the North was to concentrate In three fractions—around Solre, Beaumont and Philippeville—as close to Charleroi as was practicable, and he arranged to screen the initial movements of the troops as much as possible, so as to prevent the allies from discovering in time that their centre was aimed at. He directed that the movements of the troops when they drew near the allied outposts should be covered as far as possible by accidents of ground, for there was no great natural screen to cover his strategical concentration.
Gérard and the IV. Corps from Metz, having the longest distance to go, started first (on June 6), and soon the whole army was The French Concentration. in motion for the selected points of concentration, every effort being made to hide the movements of the concentration every effort being made to hide the movements of the troops. On June 11 Napoleon himself left Paris for the front, and by June 14 he had achieved almost the impossible itself, for there, at Solre, Beaumont and Philippeville, lay his mass of men, 124,000 strong, concentrated under his hand without rousing the enemy's suspicions, and ready to march across the frontier at dawn. Far different were things on the other side of the Sambre. The allies were still resting in fancied security, dispersed throughout widely distant cantonments; for nothing but vague rumours had reached them, and they had not moved a man to meet the enemy.
The opposing armies were of very different quality. Wellington's was a collection of many nationalities, the kernel being composed of his trusty and tenacious British and King's German Legion troops, numbering only 42,000 men. Of the remainder many were far from enthusiastic in the cause for which they had perforce to take up arms, and might prove a source of weakness should victory incline to the French eagles. Blücher's army was undoubtedly more homogeneous, and though it is doubtful if he possessed any troops of the same quality as Wellington's best, on the other hand he had no specially weak elements.
Napoleon was at the head of a veteran army of Frenchmen, who worshipped their leader and were willing to die for France if necessity demanded. But there were lines of weakness, too, in his army. He had left Marshal Davout behind in Paris, and Murat in disgrace; Suchet was far off on the eastern frontier, and Clausel was in the south of France. The political reasons for these arrangements may have been cogent, but they injured France at the very outset. Marshal Soult was appointed chief of the staff, a post for which he possessed very few qualifications; and, when the campaign began, command of the left and right wings had perforce to be given to the only two marshals available, Ney and Grouchy, who did not possess the ability or strategic skill necessary for such positions. Again, the army was morally weakened by a haunting dread of treason, and some of the chiefs, Ney for example, took the field with disturbing visions of the consequences of their late betrayal of the Bourbon cause, in case of Napoleon's defeat. Finally, the army was too small for its object. Herein Napoleon showed that he was no longer the Napoleon of Austerlitz; for he left locked up in far-distant secondary theatres no less than 56,500 men, of whom he could have collected some 30,000 to 36,000 for the decisive campaign in Belgium. Had he made in 1815 the wise distribution of his soldiers in the theatre of war which he made in his former immortal campaigns he would have concentrated 155,000 to 160,000 of his available force opposite to Charleroi on June 14, and the issue of the campaign would hardly have been in doubt. But he failed to do so, and by taking the field with such inferior numbers he left too much to Fortune.
For his advance into Belgium in 1815 Napoleon divided his army into two wings and a reserve. As the foe would he away to his right and left front after he had passed the Sambre, one wing would be pushed up towards Wellington and another towards Blücher; whilst the mass of the reserve would be centrally placed so as to strike on either side, as soon as a force of the enemy worth destroying was encountered and gripped To this end he had, on the 14th, massed his left wing (Reille and D'Erlon) around Solre, and his right wing (Gérard) at Philippeville, whilst the central mass (Vandamme, Lobau, the Guard and the Cavalry Reserve) lay around Beaumont.
The orders for the French advance next day, among the finest ever issued, directed that the army should march at dawn and move to the Sambre at Marchienne and Charleroi. By evening it was expected that the whole would have crossed the Sambre, and would bivouac between the sundered allies. But at the very outset delays occurred. Owing to an accident that befell the single orderly dispatched with orders for Vandamme, the III. Corps remained without other definite The passage of the Sambre. orders than those issued on June 13, warning them to passage to be ready to move at 3 a.m. The corps therefore stood fast on the morning of June 15, awaiting further instructions. This was the more unfortunate as Vandamme was destined to lead the advance on Charleroi by the centre road. But the emperor regarded it merely as “an unfortunate accident,” nothing more, and the advance in two wings and a reserve continued, undisturbed by such occurrences.
Gérard, too, was late in starting, for his corps had not been fully concentrated over-night. Zieten's outposts on the right bank of the Sambre gained still further time, for they fought stubbornly to retard the French advance on Marchienne and Charleroi. But Zieten declined, and very wisely, to fight on the right bank, and he made the most of the screen afforded by the little river. He had to delay the French advance for 24 hours and give time for Blücher's concentration, at the same time retaining his own freedom of manœuvre, and this in spite of the great length of the summer day, the short distance that he lay in front of Fleurus, the tremendous numerical superiority of the French and Napoleon's personal presence at their head.
When the French left wing and centre reached the Sambre bridges, at Marchienne and Charleroi, they found them held and strongly barricaded, and the cavalry were powerless to force the passage. It was nearing noon when the emperor reached the front with the Young Guard, whom he had personally hurried forward. He immediately took action, and under his direction the bridge at Charleroi was stormed shortly after noon. Almost at the same time Reille forced the passage at Marchienne. Instead of drawing his corps together and retreating en masse up the Fleurus road, Zieten wisely withdrew on two roads, using those to Quatre Bras and Fleurus. The defenders of Marchienne used the former, while the brigade which had held Charleroi fell back by the latter The emperor at once began the advance along both the roads. The left wing was directed to push up the Gosselies-Quatre Bras road, and Pajol's cavalry followed the Prussians who retired along the Gilly-Fleurus road. The emperor took post at Charleroi About 3 p.m. Marshal Ney joined the army, was given the command of the left wing, and ordered to drive the Prussians out of Gosselies, and clear the road northward of that place. Ney took over his command just when the attack on Gosselies was impending. The Prussians were driven from the town, but they managed to effect a roundabout retreat to Ligny, where they rallied. Ney pushed on his advance up the Brussels road. When he had left for the front, the emperor proceeded with Grouchy to reconnoitre the Prussian position at Gilly, and handing over the command of the right wing to the marshal, whom he ordered to capture Gilly, Napoleon returned to Charleroi, to hasten the passage of the French army across the Sambre and mass it in the gap between the allies. But the head of Vandamme's corps had by this time crossed the river, and the emperor ordered it to assist Grouchy.
What meanwhile were the allies doing? There is no doubt that, surprised by the suddenness of the French advance, they were caught unprepared. But on the 15th the critical nature of the situation dawned on them, and naturally on Blücher first, as his headquarters were nearer to the frontier than Wellington's, and Blücher had had previous experience of Napoleon's powers. As soon as the Prussian marshal got the first real warning of imminent danger, he ordered (in accordance with the prearranged plan) an immediate concentration of his army on his inner flank at Sombreffe. Unfortunately for him the first orders sent to Bülow by Gneisenau, chief of the staff, at midnight June 14-15, were written in so stilted and hazy a style that Bülow did not consider any especial display of energy was required. Hence the IV Corps was neutralized until after the 16th. The other two corps commanders (Pirch I. and Thielemann) received clearer orders, and acted promptly enough. They concentrated their scattered men and hastened to march to the appointed rendezvous. By nightfall Pirch I. had bivouacked the II. Corps at Mazy, only 4 m. short of Sombreffe, and Thielemann and the III. Corps had reached Namur, within easy distance of the Ligny battlefield. Blücher wisely shifted his own headquarters to Sombreffe on the afternoon of the 15th.
Wellington's position at nightfall was very different, and can hardly be termed safe or even satisfactory. Definite news of the French advance only reached Brussels about 3 p.m. on the 15th; and even then the duke was by no means certain of the direction of Napoleon's main stroke. Hence the first orders he issued were for his divisions to concentrate at their respective alarm-posts, intending later to send them further orders when the situation had somewhat cleared up. For whatever reasons, Wellington thought Napoleon would attempt to turn his right and cut his line of communications. Had Napoleon attempted this he would (if successful) have driven the Anglo-Dutch army back upon the Prussians, instead of separating the allies, as he actually tried to do and very nearly succeeded in doing. Failing to appreciate this fully, Wellington omitted to order an immediate concentration on his inner (left) flank as Blücher had done, and the danger of Blücher's position was thus enormously increased.
Curiously enough, the allies do not appear to have decided upon the course to be taken in case they were surprised, as they virtually were, and their system of intercommunication—if system it can be called—was most imperfect. They ought to have arranged loyally and promptly to let each other know every move it was proposed to make and the reasons for moving, for thus only could concerted action be ensured when confronted with Napoleon, “in whose presence it was so little safe to make … a false movement.”
Wellington's subordinates at the critical point, however, acted with admirable boldness. Prince Bernard, in command of a brigade at Quatre Bras and Frasnes, recognizing the pressing danger that threatened on the Brussels road, retained his position there to check the French advance, instead of drawing off westwards and massing with the rest of his division at Nivelles; and in this action he was firmly supported by his immediate superiors. It was due to their presence of mind that Wellington maintained his hold on the important strategical point of Quatre Bras on June 15 and 16. Consequently, as Ney's wing advanced northward from Gosselies along the Brussels road, it came upon an advanced detachment of this force at Frasnes. The detachment was quickly forced to retire on its supports at the cross-roads, but here Prince Bernard firmly held his position; and by his skilful use of cover and the high standing corn he prevented the French gauging the weakness of the small force that barred their way. The day was now drawing to a close, and Ney decided wisely not to push his advance any farther. He was in front of a force of unknown strength which appeared resolved to stand its ground, his men were tired, and the cannon-thunder to his right rear proclaimed clearly that Grouchy had not made much headway on the Fleurus road. To push on farther might isolate the left wing among a host of allies. He therefore halted his command, and, later, made a report to the emperor.
Meanwhile two long hours had been wasted on the right whilst Grouchy and Vandamme deliberated over their plan of action in front of the Prussian brigade at Gilly, and it was not until the emperor himself again reached the front, about 5.30 p.m., that vigour replaced indecision. There was a brief bombardment, and then Vandamme's corps was sent forward with the bayonet to drive out the foe. The shock was too great; the Prussians gave way immediately and were chased back into the woods by cavalry. Grouchy now pushed on towards Fleurus, which was still held by Blücher's troops, and there the advance came to a halt, as the light was failing and the troops exhausted.
Thus, thanks to Zieten's fine delaying action, Blücher by nightfall on June 15 had secured most of the ground requisite for his pre-arranged concentration, for one corps was in position, and two others were at hand. Bülow's corps was unavailable, for the reason already given, but of this fact Blücher was still necessarily ignorant Wellington, owing to his original dispositions and the slowness of his concentration, had only retained a grip on Quatre Bras thanks to the boldness of his subordinates on the spot. His other troops were assembling: I. Corps, Nivelles, Brainc-le-Comte and Enghien, II. Corps, Ath, Grammont and Sotteghem, heavy cavalry at Ninove; Reserve at Brussels During the night of the 15th orders were sent for the divisions to move eastwards towards Nivelles, and at dawn the Reserve marched for Mt. S. Jean. Thus Wellington did not even yet realize the full significance of the emperor's opening moves.
But if the intelligence which the duke rightly relied on had come to hand on the 15th, it cannot be doubted that he would have effected a more expeditious concentration on his inner flank. His trusted intelligence officer, Colonel Colquhoun Grant, was at this time in France, and it had been arranged that his reports should be received at the duke's outposts by General Dörnberg, for transmission to the duke. On June 15 Grant wrote to Wellington stating that the French were advancing, and that French officers spoke freely about a decisive action being fought within three days. But Dörnberg, arrogating to himself the right of selecting the reports which were worth forwarding, sent it back, saying that, so far from convincing him that the emperor was advancing to give battle, it assured him of the contrary. Owing to this officer’s presumptuous folly Grant’s information only reached the duke on June 18, too late to be of use.
The Army of the North on this night was disposed as follows:—The left wing stretched from Frasnes back to the Sambre at Marchienne and Thuin. Reille’s corps was to the front and was covered by the light cavalry of the Guard and Piré’s lancers. Ney’s headquarters were at Gosselies; one division (Girard’s) was at Wangenies and acted as a link between the two wings. The right wing, under Grouchy, had come to a halt in front of Fleurus. It was covered by Pajol’s and Exelmans’ cavalry corps. Vandamme’s was the leading infantry corps, and it bivouacked with its head at Winage. Gérard’s corps (with which was Kellermann’s cuirassier corps) halted astride the Sambre at Chatelet. Gérard’s advance had been delayed owing to the commander of his leading division deserting with his staff to the Prussians. Consequently the IV. Corps had not assisted at all in the passage of the river; though had it only been present, it would have been magnificently placed to co-operate with Grouchy in the action of Gilly. Thus each of these strategical covering forces was itself protected by an adequate tactical advanced guard, to perform the service of local protection. The centre (or reserve) was meanwhile disposed as follows: The Guard was halted between Gilly and Charleroi; the emperor’s headquarters being at the latter place. Milhaud’s Cuirassier corps and Lobau’s (VI.) corps were south of the Sambre, between Charleroi and Jamioulx. In this particular the execution on June 15 fell short of the original conception, for at nightfall about one-third of the French army was still on the right bank of the river. This, however, signified little, for the emperor still occupied a dominant strategical position.
Napoleon had now perfected his arrangements for the invasion of Belgium, and his army was organized definitely in two wings and a reserve; the latter being so placed that it could be brought “into action on either wing as circumstances dictated.” As circumstances dictated, either wing would fasten upon one of the allied armies and detain it until the reserve had time to come up and complete its destruction; the other wing meantime detaining the other allied army and preventing its commander from coming to his colleague’s assistance. The emperor was not in possession of the Namur-Nivelles road. The allies were thus afforded an opportunity of committing the very blunder which Napoleon longed for, namely to attempt a risky forward concentration. His dispositions on the night of the 15th–16th were skilfully calculated to encourage the allies to mass at Quatre Bras and Sombreffe, and his covering force were pushed sufficiently forward—to Frasnes and Fleurus—to grip whichever ally adventured his army first. At nightfall the Army of the North lay concentrated “in a square whose sides measured 12 m. each; and it could with equal facility swing against the Prussians or the Anglo-Dutch, and was already placed between them.”
Early on the morning of June 16 Prince Bernard was reinforced at Quatre Bras by the rest of his division (Perponcher’s), and Wellington’s other troops were now all on the march eastward except the reserve, who were heading southwards and halted at the cross-road of Mt. S. Jean until the duke had resolved that their objective should be Quatre Bras. They then marched in that direction. Blücher meanwhile was making his arrangements to hold a position to the south of the Namur-Nivelles road and thus maintain uninterrupted communication with Wellington at Quatre Bras. In this way he would keep open the Namur road, and also that from Gembloux for Bülow’s arrival.
Napoleon spent the early morning in closing up his army, and writing what proved to be the most important letter of the campaign to Ney (Charleroi, about 8 a.m.): “I have adopted as the general principle for this campaign to divide my army into two wings and a reserve. . . . The Guard will form the reserve, and I shall bring it into action on either wing just as circumstances dictate. . . . According to circumstances I shall weaken one wing to strengthen my reserve. . . .” Here, in its simplest form, is the principle that underlies Napoleon’s Strategy in 1815. Only on the wing on which the reserve is brought into action will a decisive result be aimed at. The other is to be used exclusively to neutralize the other enemy, by holding him at bay.
Napoleon’s original plan for the 16th was based on the assumption that the allies, who had been caught napping, would not attempt a risky forward concentration; and he intended therefore to push an advanced guard as far as Gembloux, for the purpose of feeling for and warding off Blücher. To assist this operation the reserve would move at first to Fleurus to reinforce Grouchy, should he need assistance in driving back Blücher’s troops; but, once in possession of Sombreffe, the emperor would swing the reserve westwards and join Ney, who, it was supposed, would have in the meantime mastered Quatre Bras. In pursuance of this object Ney, to whom Kellermann was now attached, was to mass at Quatre Bras and push an advanced guard 6 m. northward of that place, with a connecting division at Marbais to link him with Grouchy. The centre and left wing together would then make a night-march to Brussels. The allies would thus be irremediably sundered, and all that remained would be to destroy them in detail. Napoleon now awaited further information from his wing commanders at Charleroi, where he massed the VI. Corps (Lobau), to save it, if possible, from a harassing countermarch, as it appeared likely that it would only be wanted for the march to Brussels. Ney spent the morning in massing his two corps, and in reconnoitring the enemy at Quatre Bras, who, as he was informed, had been reinforced. But up till noon he took no serious step to capture the cross-roads, which then lay at his mercy. Grouchy meantime reported from Fleurus that Prussian masses were coming up from Namur, but Napoleon does not appear to have attached much importance to this report. He was still at Charleroi when, between 9 and 10 a.m., further news reached him from the left that considerable hostile forces were visible at Quatre Bras. He at once wrote to Ney saying that these could only be some of Wellington’s troops, and that Ney was to concentrate his force and crush what was in front of him, adding that he was to send all reports to Fleurus. Then, keeping Lobau provisionally at Charleroi, Napoleon hastened to Fleurus, arriving about 11. He found that Grouchy had made little progress beyond the town. As he surveyed the field from the windmill north of Fleurus it struck him as significant that Blücher’s troops were disposed parallel to the Namur road, as if to cover a forward concentration, and not at right angles to it, as they would be had they been covering a retreat. Still, at the moment, only one corps was showing. Possibly, however, the decisive day of the campaign had come. By the emperor’s arrangements Vandamme, Gérard, Pajol and Exelmans would be available after 2 p.m. to attack whatever force Blücher might command, and the Guard and Milhaud would be at hand to act as reserve. The wonder is that he did not now order Lobau to move to some intermediate position, such as Wangenies, where he would be available for either wing as circumstances dictated. At 2 p.m. Napoleon ordered Ney to master Quatre Bras, and added that the emperor would attack the corps which he saw in front of him. Whichever wing succeeded first would then wheel inwards and help the other. Not yet had Napoleon grasped the full significance of the allied movements, for the derisive flank had not yet become clear.
Blücher had already determined to fight. Meanwhile, Wellington having reached Quatre Bras in the morning, wrote to him to concert the day’s operations; then, as all was quiet in his front, he rode over to meet Blücher at Brye. The two chiefs, surveying the French army in their front, considered that no serious force was in front of Quatre Bras, and Wellington terminated the interview with the conditional promise that he would bring his army to Blücher’s assistance at Ligny, if he was not attacked himself. This promise, of course, was never fulfilled, for Ney employed the duke all day at Quatre Bras; and, furthermore, the duke’s tardy concentration made it quite impossible for him to help Blücher directly on the Ligny battlefield. On his return to Quatre Bras be found that a crisis had already been reached.
|Emery Walker, sc.|
Ney had allowed the valuable hours to slip away when he could have stormed Quatre Bras with ease and ensured Quatre Bras co-operation with his master. Remembering the surprises that the battles in Spain had provided for the marshals opposed to the duke, he massed nearly the whole of Reille's corps before he advanced. The prince of Orange, in command at Quatre Bras, had only 7500 troops. But by boldly scattering his force and by making use of the Bossu wood and the farms, he covered the cross-roads and showed a firm front to the very superior force which Ney commanded. It was then 2 p.m. The Dutch-Belgian troops to the east of the Brussels highway were at once forced back by the mass of men moved against them, and it looked as if the whole defence would crumple up. But about 3 p.m. timely succour reached the field—Van Merlen's cavalry from Nivelles, Picton and the 5th division from Brussels—and Wellington returned and took over the command. Picton at once stopped the victorious French advance to the east of the road, but the remaining division (Jérôme) of Reille's corps now reached the front and Ney flung it into the Bossu wood to clear that place and keep his left flank free. A fierce fight now broke out all along the line, in which Jérôme steadily made ground in the Bossu wood, while Picton showing a dauntless front maintained his position. The Brunswick contingent now reached the field, but their duke whilst leading a charge received a mortal wound and the attack failed. It was nearly 4.15 p.m. when Ney received Napoleon's 2 p.m. order, and in obedience to it he made another attack, in which the Bossu wood was virtually cleared of its defenders. However, about 5 p.m. further reinforcements reached Wellington, Alten's (3rd) division coming in from Nivelles. Ney now realized that he could only capture Quatre Bras with D'Erlon's help.
But shortly afterwards (about 5.15) he heard that the I. Corps, without his direct order or knowledge, had moved eastwards to assist in the battle of Ligny. Immediately afterwards (about 5.30) he received an order from Napoleon to seize Quatre Bras and then turn eastwards to crush Blücher, who was caught at Ligny. Napoleon added, “The fate of France is in your hands.” Ney's duty was merely to hold Wellington for certain at Quatre Bras and allow D'Erlon to carry out the movement which must ensure a decisive result at Ligny, in accordance with Napoleon's plan of campaign. In any case D'Erlon could not come back in time to give him effectual help. But incapable of grasping the situation, and beside himself with rage, Ney sent imperative orders to D'Erlon to return at once, and immediately afterwards he ordered Kellermann to lead his one available cuirassier brigade and break through Wellington's line. The charge was admirably executed; it overthrew one British regiment which it caught in line, but being unsupported it achieved nothing further of importance, and was beaten back. When this attempt to master the cross-roads had ended in failure, Ney received a verbal message from the emperor, enjoining him that, whatever happened at Quatre Bras, D'Erlon must be allowed to carry out the movement ordered by the emperor. The bearer, Major Baudus, knowing the importance of the manœuvre which the I. Corps was carrying out, strove to induce Ney to reconsider D'Erlon's recall; but the marshal refused and ended the discussion by plunging into the fight. Shortly afterwards (about 7 p.m.) Wellington received further reinforcements (Cooke's division of the British Guards), which brought his force up to 33,000 against Ney's 22,000 men. The duke then attacked strenuously all along the line, and before darkness stopped the fight he drove back the French to their morning position at Frasnes. The losses were as follows: Anglo-Dutch 4700, and French 4300. At 9 p.m., when the battle was lost and won, D'Erlon's corps arrived. It had already reached the edge of the Ligny battlefield when the counter-order arrived, and conceiving, that he was still under Marshal Ney (for the officer who bore the pencil-note directing Ney to detach D’Erlon, had on his own initiative ordered the I. Corps to the eastward) the general considered he ought to return to the left wing, and leaving one division at Wagnelée he withdrew his force. The incident was immeasurably unfortunate for the French. Had the I. Corps been thrown into the doubtful struggle at Quatre Bras, it must have crushed Wellington; had it been used at Ligny it would have entailed Blücher’s annihilation. But oscillating between the two fields, it took part in neither. When the fighting was over, at 10 p.m., Ney wrote a short and somewhat one-sided account of the action to Soult.
On the other flank there had meanwhile been waged the bitterly fought battle of Ligny. As Blücher’s dispositions gradually became clearer the emperor realized that the first decisive day of the campaign had actually come, and he promptly made arrangements for defeating the Prussian army in his front. Blücher, to cover the Namur road, held with Ligny. the I. Corps the villages of Brye, St Amand and Ligny, whilst behind his centre was massed the II. Corps, and on his left was placed the III. Corps. Wellington and Bülow on arrival would act as general reserve. Blücher’s army, as he finally disposed it, was quite visible to Napoleon on the bare open slopes which it occupied above St Amand and Ligny, the II. Corps being especially exposed. The emperor decided to bear down Blücher’s centre and right with the corps of Vandamme and Gérard and with Girard’s division which he had drawn into his operations, containing the Prussian left meanwhile with the squadrons of Pajol and Exelmans, assisted by a few infantry. The Guard and Milhaud were in hand at Fleurus. Further, he could order up Lobau, and direct Ney to move his rearward corps across and form it up behind Blücher’s right. When the battle was ripe, he would crush the Prussian centre and right between the Guard and D’Erlon’s corps. It was a somewhat complicated manœuvre; for he was attempting to outflank his enemy with a corps that he had subordinated to Marshal Ney. Much depended on whether Ney would grasp the full purport of his orders; in a similar case at Bautzen he had failed to do so, and he failed as badly now. The usual Napoleonic simplicity was wanting at Ligny, and he paid in full for the want.
It was just after 2.30 p.m. when Napoleon, hearing the sound of Ney’s cannon to the westward and realizing that Wellington was attacked and neutralized, commenced the battle at Ligny. Blücher’s force was numerically very superior. The Prussians numbered about 83,000 men to Napoleon’s 71,000 (including Lobau, who only came up at the end of the day). A fierce fight was soon raging for the villages. Vandamme and Girard attacked S. Amand, whilst Gérard attempted to storm Ligny; on the right Grouchy held Thielemann in play, and in the centre near Fleurus were the Guard and Milhaud in reserve, close to the emperor’s headquarters on the mill. At 3.15 p.m., when the battle was in full swing, Napoleon wrote in duplicate to Ney, saying, “The fate of France is in your hands,” and ordering the marshal to master Quatre Bras and move eastwards to assist at Ligny. Immediately afterwards, hearing that Ney had 20,000 men in front of him, he sent the “pencil-note” by General La Bédoyère which directed Ney to detach D’Erlon’s corps to Ligny. This, as we know, the A.D.C. in a fit of mistaken zeal took upon himself to do. Hence the corps appeared too soon, and in the wrong direction. But neither order made it sufficiently clear to Ney that co-operation at Ligny was the essential, provided that Wellington was held fast at Quatre Bras. In other words, Ney had merely to hold Wellington with part of the French left wing all day, and detach the remainder of his force to co-operate in the deathblow at Ligny. This is clear when the first letter to Ney is studied with the orders, as it was meant to be; but Ney in the heat of action misread the later instructions. Meanwhile the emperor ordered Lobau to bring up his corps at once to Fleurus where he could hardly be of great service, whereas had he been directed to move on Wagnelée he might have co-operated in the last struggle far more efficiently. The fight for the villages continued to rage fiercely and incessantly, each side behaving as if its mortal foe was in front. The villages were captured and recaptured, but generally the French had the better of the fighting, for they compelled Blücher to use up more and more of his reserves, and prevented the Prussians from breaking through to the southward of S. Amand. Eventually the fighting became so furious that the troops engaged literary melted away, particularly at Ligny, and the emperor was finally compelled to call on his reserve to replenish the troops first engaged. But hardly had the Young and Middle Guard marched off to reinforce Vandamme and Gérard, when Vandamme sent word that a hostile column, over 30,000 strong, was threatening the French left (in reality this was D’Erlon’s corps). Vandamme’s exhausted troops were unnerved at the sight of this fresh foe, and an incipient panic was only quelled by turning guns on the fugitives. It was now between 5.30 and 6. The emperor concluded that this could not be D’Erlon, because he had arrived too soon and was marching in an evidently wrong direction. He at once sent an officer to reconnoitre. Meanwhile the reinforcements which he had dispatched were most opportune. The Prussians had seized the opportunity offered by the slackening of the French attacks to rally and deliver a counterstroke, which was parried, after achieving a small measure of success, by the bayonets of the Young Guard. It was about 6.30 before Napoleon learned that the unknown force was actually D’Erlon’s, and somewhat later he heard that it had counter-marched and withdrawn westwards. Repeated orders sent to the commander of the division left by D’Erlon failed to induce him to engage his command decisively, and thus Napoleon obtained no direct co-operation from his left wing on this, the first decisive day of the campaign. Thus relieved about his left, but realizing that D’Erlon had returned to Ney, the emperor had perforce to finish the battle single-handed. Blücher now delivered a general counterstroke against Vandamme. Massing every available man he led the attack in person; but he vainly attempted to make ground to the south of S. Amand; the exhausted Prussians were overpowered by the chasseurs of the Guard and forced to retire in disorder. Napoleon’s opportunity to finish the battle had come at last. He could at least beat Blücher and render the Prussians unfit for any serious operation except retreat on June 17, although he could no longer expect to destroy the Prussian army. Lobau’s corps, too, was now arriving and forming up on the heights east of Fleurus. The artillery of the Guard, therefore, came into action above Ligny to prepare Blücher’s centre for assault. Some delay was occasioned by a thunderstorm; but, as this passed over, the guns opened and the Old Guard and Milhaud’s cuirassiers proceeded to form up opposite to Ligny. About 7.45 p.m. a crashing salvo of 60 guns gave the signal for a combined assault to be delivered by Gérard and the Guard, with Milhaud moving on their right flank. Blücher’s worn-out soldiers could not withstand the tremendous impact of Napoleon’s choicest troops, and the Prussian centre was pierced and broken. But the gallant old marshal still had some fresh squadrons in hand, and he promptly launched them to stem the French advance. While leading one of the charges in person his horse was shot and fell under him, but he was rescued and borne in a semi-conscious condition from the field. Without doubt, the personal risk to which Blücher exposed himself at this crisis was far too great; for it was essential that the command of the Prussian army should remain vested in a chief who would loyally keep in touch and act entirely in concert with his colleague. In this way only could the allies hope to obtain a decisive success against Napoleon. By 9 p.m. the main battle was over, and everywhere the French pushed resistless forward. Napoleon was master of Blücher’s battlefield, and the beaten Prussians had retired to the north of the Namur-Nivelles road. Under the circumstances, the late hour, the failing light and the lack of information as to events on the left wing, immediate pursuit was out of the question.
The execution had again fallen short of the conception; Blücher though beaten was not destroyed, nor was his line with Wellington cut. If the Prussians now retired northwards, parallel to the direction which Wellington would follow perforce on the morrow, the chance of co-operating in a decisive battle would still remain to the allies; and Gneisenau’s order issued by moonlight, directing the retreat on Tilly and Wavre, went far to ensuring the possibility of such combined action. However, Gneisenau was very remiss in not immediately reporting this vital move and the necessity for it to the duke, as it left the Anglo-Dutch inner flank quite exposed. Gneisenau apparently selected Wavre, not with the intention of assisting his ally, but rather to re-establish his own line of communication, and the presence of the Prussians on the field of battle of Waterloo must be put down to the immortal credit of Blücher and Grolmann, his quartermaster-general. Gneisenau at this crisis in the affairs of the allies does not appear to have subordinated everything to co-operation at all cost with Wellington, and he allowed supply considerations and the re-establishment of his communications to over weigh the paramount necessity of arranging concerted action with his ally. Probably Wellington's failure to co-operate at Ligny had heightened the Prussian chief-of-staff's unworthy suspicions of the good faith and soldierly qualifications of the British marshal; and it was well for the allies that Blücher was able to resume command before Napoleon had time to profit from the dissensions that would probably have arisen had Gneisenau remained in control. The casualties in the hard-fought battle of Ligny were very heavy. The Prussians lost about 12,000 men and 21 guns, and the French 8500; in Ligny more than 4000 dead lay on an area of about 400 sq. yds., and in one of the hamlets of S. Amand there lay, almost to a man, the gallant 82nd of the line (Girard's division). So close was the fighting that most of the 20,000 casualties lay on about 2 sq. m. of ground. It was a really Napoleonic battle.
Despite D'Erlon's misadventure the emperor had the game still in his hands, for Ney's failure had actually placed the Anglo-Dutch army in a precarious position. So true is it that a tactical failure encountered in carrying out a sound strategical plan matters but little. Again Napoleon's plan of campaign had succeeded. The emperor having beaten Blücher, the latter must fall back to rally and re-form, and call in Bülow, who had only reached the neighbourhood of Gembloux on June 16; whilst on the other flank Ney, reinforced by D'Erlon's fresh corps, lay in front of Wellington, and the marshal could fasten upon the Anglo-Dutch army and hold it fast during the early morning of June 17, sufficiently long to allow the emperor to close round his foe's open left flank and deal him a deathblow. But it was clearly essential to deal with Wellington on the morrow, ere Blücher could again appear on the scene. Wellington was by no means so well acquainted with the details of the Prussian defeat at Ligny as he ought to have been. It is true that, before leading the final charge, Blücher dispatched an aide-de-camp to his colleague, to tell him that he was forced to retire; but this officer was shot and the message remained undelivered. To send a message of such vital importance by a single orderly was a piece of bad staff work. It should have been sent in triplicate at least, and it was Gneisenau's duty to repeat the message directly he assumed temporary command. Opposed as they were to Napoleon, Gneisenau's neglect involved them in an unnecessary and very grave risk.
Napoleon was unwell, and consequently was not in the saddle on the 17th as early as he would otherwise have been. In his June 17. absence neither Ney nor Soult appears to have made any serious arrangements for an advance, although every minute was now golden. During the night more reinforcements arrived for Wellington, and on the morning of June 17 the duke had most of his army about Quatre Bras. But it was 24 hours too late, for Blücher's defeat had rendered the Anglo-Dutch position untenable. Early in the morning Wellington (still ignorant of the exact position of his ally) sent out an officer, with an adequate escort, to establish touch with the Prussians. This staff officer discovered and reported that the Prussians were drawing off northwards to rally at Wavre; and about 9 a.m. a Prussian orderly officer arrived from Gneisenau to explain the situation and learn Wellington's plans. The duke replied that he should fall back on Mt S. Jean, and would accept battle there, in a selected position to the south of the Forest of Soignes, provided he was assured of the support of one of Blücher's corps. Like the good soldier and loyal ally that he was, he now subordinated everything to the one essential of manœuvring so as to remain in communication with Blücher. It was 2 a.m. on June 18 before he received the answer to his suggestion.
Early on the 17th the Prussians drew off northwards on three roads, Thielemann covering the withdrawal and moving via Gembloux to join hands with Bülow. The French cavalry on the right, hearing troops in motion on the Namur road, dashed in pursuit down the turnpike road shortly after dawn, caught up the fugitives and captured them. They turned out to be stragglers; but their capture for a time helped to confirm the idea, prevalent in the French army, that Blücher was drawing off towards his base. Some delay too was necessary before Napoleon could finally settle on his plan for this day. The situation was still obscure, details as to what had happened on the French left were wanting, and the direction of Blücher's retreat was by no means certain. Orders, however, were sent to Ney, about 8 a.m., to take up his position at Quatre Bras, and if that was impossible he was to report at once and the emperor would co-operate. Napoleon clearly meant that Ney should attack whatever happened to be in his front. If confronted by a rear-guard he would drive it off and occupy Quatre Bras; and if Wellington was still there the marshal would promptly engage and hold fast the Anglo-Dutch army, and report to the emperor. Napoleon would in this case hasten up with the reserve and crush Wellington. Wellington in fact was there; but Ney did nothing whatever to retain him, and the duke began his withdrawal to Mt. S. Jean about 10 a.m. The last chance of bringing about a decisive French success was thus allowed to slip away.
Meanwhile Napoleon paid a personal visit about 10 a.m. to the Ligny battlefield, and about 11 a.m. he came to a decision. He determined to send the two cavalry corps of Pajol Grouchy's operations. and Exelmans, and the corps of Vandamme and Gérard, with Teste's division (VI. Corps), a force of 33,000 men and 110 guns, to follow the Prussians, penetrate their intentions and discover if they meditated uniting with Wellington in front of Brussels. As Exelmans' dragoons had already gained touch of the III. Prussian corps at Gembloux, the emperor directed Marshal Grouchy, to whom he handed over the command of this force, to “proceed to Gembloux.” This order the marshal only too literally obeyed. After an inconceivably slow and wearisome march, in one badly arranged column moving on one road, he only reached Gembloux on June 17, and halted there for the night. His cavalry gained contact before noon with Thielemann's corps, which was resting at Gembloux, but the enemy was allowed to slip away and contact was lost for want of a serious effort to keep it. Grouchy did not proceed to the front, and entirely failed to appreciate the situation at this critical juncture. Pressing danger could only exist if Blücher had gone northwards, and northwards, therefore, in the Dyle valley, he should have diligently sought for traces of the Prussian retreat. Had Blücher gone eastwards, Grouchy, holding the Dyle, could easily have held back any future Prussian advance towards Wellington. Grouchy, however, went to Gembloux as ordered. By nightfall the situation was all in favour of the allies; for Grouchy was now actually outside the four Prussian corps, who were by this time concentrated astride the Dyle at Wavre. Their retreat having been unmolested, the Prussians were ready once more to take the field, quite twenty-four hours before Napoleon deemed it possible for the foe defeated at Ligny.
On the other flank, too, things had gone all in favour of Wellington. Although the emperor wrote to Ney again at noon, from Ligny, that troops had now been placed in position at Marbais to second the marshal's attack on Quatre Bras, yet Ney remained quiescent, and Wellington effected so rapid and skilful a retreat that, on Napoleon's arrival at the head of his supporting corps, be found only the duke's cavalry screen and some horse artillery still in position. Can we wonder that he gave vent to his anger Napoleon's pursuit of Wellington and declared that Ney had ruined France? This was the fatal mistake of the campaign, and Fortune turned now against her former favourite. Although the smouldering fires of his old energy flamed out once more and Napoleon began a rapid pursuit of the cavalry screen, which crumpled up and decamped as he advanced, yet all his efforts were powerless to entangle the Anglo-Dutch rearguard to such an extent that Wellington must turn back to its assistance. The pursuit, too, was carried out in the midst of a tropical thunderstorm which broke at the roar of the opening cannonade, and very considerably retarded the French pursuit. It was not until the light was failing that Napoleon reached the heights of Rossomme opposite to Wellington's position and, by a masterly reconnaissance in force, compelled the duke to disclose the presence of practically the whole Anglo-Dutch army. The French halted, somewhat loosened by pursuit, between Rossomme and Genappe and spent a wretched night in the sodden fields.
During the night Wellington received the reassuring news that Blücher would bring two corps certainly, and possibly four, to Waterloo, and determined to accept battle. Napoleon's plan being to penetrate between the allies and then defeat them successively, the left was really the threatened flank of the Anglo-Dutch army. Yet so far was Wellington from divining Napoleon's object that he stationed 17,000 men (including Colville's British division) at Hal and Tubize, 8 m. away to his right, to repel the turning movement that he groundlessly anticipated and to form a rallying point for his right in case his centre was broken. By deliberately depriving himself of this detachment, on June 18, the duke ran a very grave risk. With the 67,600 men whom he had in hand, however, he took up a truly admirable “Wellingtonian” position astride the Nivelles-Brussels and Charleroi-Brussels roads which meet at June 18. Mt S. Jean. He used a low ridge to screen his main defensive position, exposing comparatively few troops in front of the crest. Of his 156 guns, 78 belonged to the British artillery; but of his 67,600 men only 29,800 were British or King's German Legion troops, whereas all Napoleon's were Frenchmen and veterans. Wellington occupied Hougoumont in strength, chiefly with detachments of the British Guards; and he also placed a garrison of the K.G.L. in La Haye Sainte, the tactical key of the allied position. Both these farms were strengthened; but, still nervous about his right flank, the duke occupied Hougoumont in much greater force than La Haye Sainte, and massed the bulk of his troops on his right. The main position was very skilfully taken up, and care was taken to distribute the troops so that the indifferent and immature were closely supported by those who were “better disciplined and more accustomed to war.” Owing to a misconception, one Dutch-Belgian brigade formed up in front of the ridge. Full arrangements were made for Blücher's co-operation through General Müffling, the Prussian attaché on the duke's staff. The duke was to stand fast to receive the attack, whilst the Prussians should close round Napoleon's exposed right and support Wellington's left. The Prussians were thus the real general reserve, and it was Wellington's task to receive Napoleon's attack and prepare him for the decisive counter-stroke.
Blücher loyally kept his promise to his ally; but the execution left much to be desired. He did not start his corps on their westward march until a considerable time after dawn, and then, owing to bad staff work, the rear corps of all (Bülow) was selected to lead the march. This unnecessary delay was aggravated further by a fire that broke out in Wavre and delayed the march. In spite of his hurts the old marshal was in the saddle.
Meanwhile Napoleon formed his army for the attack on Wellington's position. The wet state of the ground (largely composed of corn-fields) and the scattered bivouacs of the French army prevented the attack from being made at 6 a.m. as Napoleon had desired. It was therefore put off first of all until 9 a.m., and later until 11.30, to permit the sodden ground to dry sufficiently for the mounted arms to manœuvre freely and give time to the French army to close up. During the night the emperor had received a report from Marshal Grouchy, dated Gembloux, 10 p.m., 17th, which stated that the Prussians v/ere retiring in two columns towards Wavre and Peiwez. Grouchy added that if he found that the bulk of the Prussians were moving on Wavre he would follow them and separate them from Wellington. But a glance at the map shows that this was impossible. By following the Prussians Grouchy, who had taken up a position outside the Prussian left flank, would inevitably drive the allies together. It was 10 a.m. when the emperor answered this letter, and he directed the marshal to march for Wavre, thus approaching the French army and entering the zone of the main operations. The underlying idea of manœuvring in two wings and a reserve should be kept in mind when considering this letter. Its meaning will then clearly be, that Grouchy was to endeavour to place his force on the inner Prussian flank and hold them back from Waterloo. But this is just what the despatch does not state verbally and precisely, and accordingly Grouchy, like Ney on the 16th and 17th, misread it.
The French army proceeded to form up in an imposing array some 1300 yards from Wellington's position, and if some misgivings as to the result filled the minds of men like Soult, Reille and Foy, who had had previous experience of Wellington in the field, none at any rate dwelt in Napoleon's mind. The lateness of the hour at which the attack was delivered, and the emperor's determination to break Wellington's centre instead of outflanking the Anglo-Dutch left and further separating the allies, deprived him of whatever chance he still possessed of beating Wellington before Blücher could intervene. Napoleon drew up his army of 74,000 men and 246 guns in three lines, fully in view of the allies. In the first line were the corps of Reille and D'Erlon, who were destined to attack the allied line and prepare it for the final assault. In the second line were Kellermann's cuirassiers, the incomplete corps of Lobau, the squadrons of Domon and Subervie, and Milhaud's cuirassiers. In the third line was the Guard. It was an imposing array of veteran troops, and when their emperor rode along the lines they received him with extraordinary enthusiasm.
The battle of Waterloo may be divided into five phases. About 11.30 the first phase opened with an attack by one of Reille's divisions on Hougoumont. This was a mere Waterloo: first phase. side-issue, destined to draw Wellington's attention to his right, and in this it failed. About noon, however, a battery of 80 French guns unlimbered on the long spur to the S.E. of La Haye Sainte, to prepare the duke's centre for the main attack. Here the form of the ground so skilfully chosen sheltered the defence in some degree from the tempest of iron that now beat against the position. After 1 p.m., and just before he gave orders for Ney to lead the main attack, the emperor scanned the battlefield, and on his right front he saw a dense dark cloud emerging from the woods at Chapelle Saint Lambert. It was soon discovered that this was Bülow's corps marching to Wellington's assistance. A letter was now awaiting despatch to Grouchy, and to it was added a postscript that the battle was raging with Wellington, that Bülow's corps had been sighted by the emperor, and that the marshal was to hasten to the field and crush Bülow. This order at least was precise and clear, but it was sent 12 hours too late, and when Grouchy received it he was unable to carry it out. To neutralize Bülow when necessity arose, the emperor now detached Lobau together with the squadrons of Domon and Subervie. The French general, however, hardly drew out far enough from the French right; otherwise the magnificent resolution he displayed and the admirable obstinacy with which his troops fought against ever-increasing odds are worthy of all praise. Thus as early as 1.30 p.m. the Prussian intervention deranged the symmetry of Napoleon's battle-array.
It did not occur to the emperor that it would be wise to break off the fight now and seek a more favourable opportunity of beating the allies in detail. He was still determined to play the game out to the bitter end, and involve Wellington and Bülow's corps in a common ruin.
|Emery Walker, sc.|
Ney was therefore ordered to attack Wellington's centre with D'Erlon's corps. Owing to a misconception the columns used Second phase. for advance were over-heavy and unwieldy, and the corps failed to achieve anything of importance. As D'Erlon's troops advanced the Dutch-Belgian brigade in front of the ridge, which had been subjected to an overwhelming fire from the 80 French guns at close range, turned about and retired in disorder through the main position. This, however, was the solitary success secured by the I. corps; for the left division failed to storm La Haye Sainte, which was most gallantly defended, and Picton's division met the remainder of D'Erlon's corps face to face, engaging them in a murderous infantry duel in which Picton fell. It was during this struggle that Lord Uxbridge launched two of his cavalry brigades on the enemy, and the “Union brigade” catching the French infantry unawares rode over them, broke them up, and drove them to the bottom of the slope with the loss of two eagles. The charge, however, over-reached itself, and the British cavalry, crushed by fresh French horsemen hurled on them by the emperor, were driven back with great loss. So far no success against Wellington had been achieved, and Bülow was still an onlooker.
Ney was now ordered to attack La Haye Sainte again, but the attack failed. A furious cannonade raged, and the Anglo-Dutch Third phase. line withdrew slightly to gain more cover from the ridge. Ney misinterpreted this manœuvre and led out, about 4 p.m. Milhaud's and Lefebvre-Desnouëttes' horsemen (43 squadrons) to charge the allied centre between the two farms. For several reasons, the cavalry could only advance at a trot. As the horsemen closed they were received with volleys of case from the guns, and the infantry formed into squares. Against the squares the horsemen were powerless, and failing to break a single square, they were finally swept off the plateau by fresh allied horsemen. Kellermann's cuirassiers and the heavy horse of the Guard (37 fresh squadrons) now advanced to support the baffled cavalry, the latter falling in as supports. The whole 80 squadrons resumed the attack, but with no better result. The cavalry gradually became hopelessly entangled among the squares they were unable to break, and at last they were driven down the face of the ridge and the most dramatic part of the battle came to an end. Had these great cavalry attacks been closely supported by infantry, there can be little doubt that they must have achieved their object. But they were not. In his handling of the three arms together, Napoleon on this day failed to do justice to his reputation.
About 4.30 p.m. Bülow at last engaged. Lobau's men were gradually overpowered and forced back into Plancenoit, the village was stormed, and the Prussian round shot reached the main road. To set his right flank free the emperor called further on his reserve, and sent Duhesme with the Young Guard to Lobau's support. Together, these troops drove Bülow out of Plancenoit, and forced him back towards the Paris wood. But the Prussians had not yet changed the fate of the day. Napoleon now ordered Ney to carry La Haye Sainte at whatever cost, and this the marshal accomplished with the wrecks of D'Erlon's corps soon after 6 p.m. The garrison Fourth phase. (King's German Legion) had run out of rifle ammunition and the French bursting in seized the post. This was the first decided advantage that Napoleon had gained during the day. The key of the duke’s position was now in Napoleon’s hands, Wellington's centre was dangerously shaken, the troops were exhausted, and the reserves inadequate. But the Iron Duke faced the situation unmoved. Calmly he readjusted his line and strengthened the torn centre. Happily for him, Pirch I.’s and Zieten’s corps were now at hand. Pirch I. moved to support Bülow; together they regained possession of Plancenoit, and once more the Charleroi road was swept by Prussian round shot. Napoleon, therefore, had to free his right flank before he could make use of Ney’s capture. To this end he sent two battalions of the Old Guard to storm Plancenoit. The veterans did the work magnificently with the bayonet, ousted the Prussians from the place, and drove them back 600 yards beyond it. But Napoleon could not turn now on Wellington. Zieten was fast coming up on the duke’s left, and the crisis was past. Zieten’s advent permitted the two fresh cavalry brigades of Vivian and Vandeleur on the duke’s extreme left to be moved and posted behind the depleted centre. The value of this reinforcement at this particular moment can hardly be overestimated.
The French army now fiercely attacked Wellington all along the line; and the culminating point of this phase was reached when Napoleon sent forward the Guard, less 5 battalions, to attack Wellington’s centre. Delivered in three échelons, these final attacks were repulsed, the first Fifth phase. échelon by Cohn Halkett’s British Brigade, a Dutch-Belgian battery, and a brigade of Chassé’s Dutch-Belgian division; the second and third échelons by the Guards, the 52nd, and the Royal Artillery. Thus ended the fifth phase.
As the Guard recoiled (about 8 p.m.) Zieten pierced the north-east corner of the French front, and their whole line gave way as the allies rushed forward on their now defenceless prey. Three battalions of the Guard indeed stood their ground for some time, but they were finally overwhelmed. Rout of the French. Afterwards, amidst the ruins of their army, two battalions of the 1st Grenadiers of the Guard defied all efforts to break them. But, with the exception of these two battalions, the French army was quickly transformed into a flying rabble. Bülow and Pirch I. now finally overpowered Lobau, once more recaptured Plancenoit, and sealed the doom of the French army. But Lobau’s heroic efforts had not been in vain; they had given his master time to make his last effort against Wellington; and when the Guard was beaten back the French troops holding Plancenoit kept free the Charleroi road, and prevented the Prussians from seizing Napoleon’s line of retreat.
When Wellington and Blücher met about 9.15 p.m. at “La Belle Alliance,” the victorious chiefs arranged that the Prussians should take up the pursuit, and they faithfully carried out the agreement. Pushing on through the night, they drove the French out of seven successive bivouacs and at length drove them over the Sambre. The campaign was virtually at an end, and the price paid was great. The French had lost over 40,000 men and almost all their artillery on June 18; the Prussians lost 7000, and Wellington over 15,000 men. So desperate was the fighting that some 45,000 killed and wounded lay on an area of roughly 3 sq. m. At one point on the plateau “the 27th (Inniskillings) were lying literally dead in square”; and the position that the British infantry held was plainly marked by the red line of dead and wounded they left behind them.
A few words may now be bestowed on Marshal Grouchy, commanding the right wing. The marshal wrongly determined on the 18th continue his march to Wavre in a single column, and he determined, still more wrongly, to move by the right bank of the Dyle. Breaking up Grouchy’s operations June 18–19. from bivouac long after dawn, he marched forward, via Walhain. Here he stopped to report to the emperor some intelligence which turned out to be false, and he remained for breakfast. Hardly had he finished when the opening roar of the cannonade at Waterloo was heard. Grouchy was now urged by his generals, especially by Gérard, to march to the sound of the firing, but he refused to take their advice, and pushed on to Wavre, where he found the Prussians (Thielemann’s corps of 16,000 men) holding the passages across the Dyle. A fierce fight (called the Action of Wavre) began about 4 p.m., in which the Prussians were for long victorious. Instead of concentrating his force upon one bridge over the swampy and unfordable Dyle, Grouchy scattered it in attacks upon several; and when the emperor’s despatch arrived, saying Bülow was in sight, the marshal was powerless to move westward. Towards the end of the day Colonel Vallin’s Hussars stormed the Limale bridge, and a large part of Grouchy’s force then promptly gained the left bank. The action continued till about 11 p.m., when it died out, to recommence shortly after dawn. Thielemann was at length overborne by sheer weight of numbers, and towards 11 a.m. he was forced to retire towards Louvain. The losses were considerable, about 2400 men on each side.
Grouchy’s victory was barren. In the far higher duty of co-operation he had failed miserably. His tactical achievement could avail the emperor nothing, and it exposed his own force to considerable danger. Whilst pondering on the course he should follow, the marshal received the news of the awful disaster that had overtaken the emperor at Waterloo. In a flash he realized his danger and made prompt arrangements to begin his retreat on Namur, the only line to France that was then available. This retreat he carried out resolutely, skilfully and rapidly, slipping past Blücher and finally bringing his force to Paris. But the rapid advance of the allies gave France no time to rally. Napoleon was forced to abdicate, and finding escape was impossible, he surrendered (on July 14) to the British—“the most powerful, the most unwavering and the most generous of his foes.”
The causes of Napoleon’s failure in the Waterloo campaign were as follows:—The French army was numerically too weak for the gigantic task it undertook. Napoleon himself was no longer the Napoleon of Marengo or Austerlitz, and though he was not broken down, his physical strength was certainly impaired. Ney failed to grasp and hold Wellington on the critical 17th June; and on the 17th and 18th Grouchy’s feeble and false manœuvres enabled Blücher to march and join Wellington at Waterloo. Napoleon’s chance of success was dangerously diminished, if not utterly destroyed, by the incompetence of the two marshals whom in an evil hour he selected for high commands. Another dominant influence in shaping the course of events was the loyalty of Blücher to his ally, and the consequent appearance of the Prussian army at Waterloo. Nor must we overlook Wellington’s unswerving determination to co-operate with Blücher at all costs, and his firmness on June 18; or the invincible steadiness shown by the British troops and those of the King’s German Legion.
Bibliography.—Some of the principal books on the campaign are Colonel Grouard, Critique de 1815; H, Houssaye, Waterloo; General Pollio, Waterloo (1815); Shaw-Kennedy, Battle of Waterloo; Captain W. Siborne, 9th Foot, History of the Waterloo Campaign; Clausewitz, Campagne de 1815; Colonel Charras, Histoire de la Campagne de 1815, Waterloo; L. Navez, Les Quatre Bras, Ligny, Waterloo et Wavre; General H. T . Siborne, R.E., Waterloo Letters; Colonel Chesney, Waterloo Lectures; Wellington, Despatches and Memorandum on the Battle of Waterloo; Correspondence and Commentaires of Napoleon.
In this article the writer has been greatly assisted by the advice and suggestions of Lieut.-Col. H. W. L. Hime, R.A. (A. F. B.*)
- There appears to be no reason to believe that Grouchy pushed any reconnaissance to the northward and westward of Gentinnes on June 17; had he done so, touch with Blücher's retiring columns must have been established, and the direction of the Prussian retreat made clear. The right of Milhaud's cuirassier corps, whilst marching from Marbais to Quatre Bras, saw a column of Prussian infantry retiring towards Wavre, and Milhaud reported this fact about 9 p.m. to the emperor, who, however, attached little weight to it.