French cavalry advance towards Namur

French cavalry advance towards Namur

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French cavalry advance towards Namur

Here we see a column of French cavalry advancing towards Namur in 1914, with the intention of aiding the defenders. After Namur fell to the Germans the movement was stopped.

French cavalry advance towards Namur - History

Marching from near Maastricht toward Namur, Marlborough threatened to gain a position in which he could either march on Brussels or cut off the French army. Villeroi marched south from Louvain to intercept. A choke point along the Allied line of advance was at Ramillies where a plain one and a half miles wide stretched from the Mehaigne River to the town of Ramillies with a marshy creek, the Little Geete, beyond. Marlborough hoped to march beyond this choke point and reach Mont St Andre - then do battle with the French before they could withdraw behind the safety of the River Dyle. Delayed by waiting for the Danish contingent, which had not been paid properly, Marlborough got to Ramillies after the French, who positioned their cavalry in the plain south of town and their infantry behind the marshy creek north of it. At Ramillies Villeroi could block an Allied advance straight ahead - or he could threaten the Allied flank if Marlborough advanced from there to south to Namur. So Villeroi assumed the defensive.

Marlborough immediately deployed his cavalry in front of the French cavalry, pinning the French in position while the rest of his army arrived. Pinning the French cavalry also made a battle likely. At 2pm on May 23rd an artillery duel began. Villeroi's line was a long one - four miles for around 60,000 men - but it included several villages to aid the defense. With rough terrain to the north, the French left was anchored on Autre-Eglise. South of there was the village of Offus then Ramillies - and the marshy Little Gheete provided a significant barrier to an Allied attack in this sector. Ramillies sat on higher ground between the two watersheds. Plains extended south to the River Mehaigne where the French right flank was anchored at the town of Taviers. This was the area defended by cavalry. Perhaps Villeroi had not originally envisioning a fight here, so he neglected to clear out a jumble of wagons this portion of his line. Villeroi's line was shaped so that both flanks were in front of his center. Marlborough's line was the opposite shape, with his flanks bent back. As a result Marlborough could more shift troops from on flank to the other more quickly and easily than Villeroi could.

This is the approximate view of the French defenders of Ramillies looking toward the Allied attack. Marlborough ordered Orkney to attack north of here, but at Ramillies he had his brother, Charles Churchill, attack. The first attack by four brigades was repulsed, in part due to French artillery. In response Marlborough sent in a brigade from Orkney's second line, which had shifted south.

It was only as the battle was ending that the Allies captured Ramillies. By that point more important things were going on other parts of the field.

This is the view from just north of Ramillies from the Allied side across the valley of the headwaters of Little Gheete. French infantry defended the opposite ridge. Marlborough's plan included Allied infantry under Orkney, the northern wing of the army, crossing the Little Gheete and advancing on the French.

Further north is the town of Offus. The farm building complex on the left of the panorama existed during the battle. Like further south, here at Offus Orkney's Allied infantry crossed the Little Gheete and advanced on the French position. This advance was on the right side of the panorama. This section of the Little Gheete at the time was quite marshy and a serious barrier. A failed Allied effort might be pushed back into the marshy ground and smashed.

The Allied infantry attack extended to Autre-Eglise on the northern flank. The panorama above is the view looking north from the church's burial ground. Although the area shown is largely beyond the area of fighting, it shows the terrain well, and Allied infantry may have crossed the Little Gheete on the right side of the panorama and attacked into town.

You can see the steeple of Autre-Eglise on the right side of the panorama. The road here is climbing the from the Little Gheete up the ridge on the left side where the Allied infantry began their attack. Next we will continue up this road to the top.

We have driven up the road from the left - coming from Autre-Eglise and the Little Gheete to an intersection. The Allied infantry attack, once it had reached the enemy held ridge, and once the supporting Allied cavalry under Lumley was across the Little Gheete, was withdrawn by order of Marlborough himself. The local commander protested but followed his orders. Marlborough had intended the attack merely as a diversion, and in this it succeeded. Villeroi believed that this was Marlborough's main effort. British troops had been used in the effort after all. Marlborough's main attack, however, was to be in the south against the French cavalry. The cobblestone road to the right of the corn leads to the Allied rear, and it was along this axis that Orkney's second line went to the rear then moved south.

Now we will drive down the cobblestone road.

We have driven down the road from the left side, and we will continue down this road on the right side of the photo into the Allied rear. In front you can see the low ground that Marlborough used to hide his troop movement. This is a watershed that drains into the Little Gheete toward the left side of the panorama.

We have continued on these treacherous roads behind Marlborough's line toward the southern sector of the battlefield, in the process becoming confused. The terrain, however, looks much like this - flat to rolling plains with few if any obstacles. It was ideal cavalry country, and it was where Marlborough made his main effort. Although the standard cavalry formation resembled a checkerboard, for his attack Marlborough massed his cavalry in a single unbroken line, knee to knee, or en muraille - and without the customary pistol and carbine fire. This shock attack filled the intervals in the French formation and placed the finest of France's cavalry into confusion. The French did recover and made a fight of it, even riding over Marlborough himself, who had been thrown from his horse. Then Marlborough's aide was decapitated by a French cannonball. In the end, though, with Allied reinforcing troops from the north entering the battle, the French cavalry began to tire. Meanwhile the Allies shifted the cavalry around the vulnerable French flank at Taviers.

Combatants [ edit | edit source ]

Brunswickers during the Battle of Quatre-Bras.

At the beginning of the battle the left wing of the Armee du Nord, with 18,000 men (including 2,000 cavalry and 32 guns) under Marshal Michel Ney, faced 8,000 infantry and 16 guns, under the command of the William, Prince of Orange. The Dutch (with the Nassauers of 2nd Brigade) were thinly deployed south of the crossroads of Quatre Bras. Fresh allied troops started to arrive two hours later, along with Wellington, who took over command of the allied forces. As the day wore on, fresh Dutch, British and Brunswickers arrived faster than fresh French troops (who eventually numbered about 24,000).

French cavalry advance towards Namur - History

Having pursued the French from the field, the Prussians pushed on all night with their cavalry beating drums and blowing horns to disconcert any attempt to rally the French troops. All attempts at forming a rearguard failed with the first cry of ‘Prussians’ and soon the scattered remnants of a once magnificent army flooded back over the border. By midnight, Blucher had installed himself at the inn at Genappe and began to write his report to King Frederick William.

Blucher then wrote orders for his corps commanders the I and IV Corps would march to the vicinity of Charleroi. The III Corps still faced Grouchy at Wavre, the outcome of which was still unknown, but the II Corps was to attempt to cut Grouchy’s retreat into France and the exhausted men, having fought all afternoon for Plancenoit, now marched overnight towards Mellery which they reached at 11 a.m. only to find that Grouchy had gone.

Wellington had returned to Brussels to complete his Waterloo despatch where he met the politician Thomas Creevey, and admitted a number of times that it had been ‘so nice a thing – so nearly run a thing’ and without any sign of arrogance stated honestly his view that

By God! I don’t think it would have done if I had not been there!

His army spent the morning repairing their equipment and searching out the wounded to be transported to the hospitals in Brussels, but that afternoon they then marched to Nivelles at the commencement of their march to Paris.

The French had outrun the Prussian pursuit which had lost contact with the rump of the French army and it was now beginning to rally although many others had simply returned to their homes. About twelve thousand men of the 1st and 2nd Corps had now collected near Avesnes and these were soon augmented by the remnants of the Guard, the 6th Corps and the reserve cavalry. Meanwhile Soult had arrived at Phillipeville in France where he managed to gather about five thousand fugitives from the army.

Blucher had already turned his thoughts to Paris and he arranged with Wellington that the Prussian army would march towards the capital on the east of the Sambre, whilst Wellington’s troops marched on the west side of the river. He also arranged for the British to provide huge amounts of musket ammunition and cannon balls to resupply his army and the Duke would also supply siege guns and a pontoon train for bridging rivers. The two generals would supply units from their respective armies to cover and in some cases invest the French border fortresses as they passed. But Blucher secretly planned to arrive at the French capital before his ally so as to gain the glory of entering Paris for Prussia alone. Blucher ordered the army to march to Beaumont and Maubeuge the next day, but still had no news of the III Corps or Grouchy at Wavre since the battle of Waterloo. The Prussian supply chain had broken down under the strains of the last few days, but this did not deter the field marshal, who rather than resting his troops, ordered continued forced marches and allowed his men to provide for themselves by simply taking what they needed from the French towns and villages they passed. This plundering, added to the deep seated Prussian hatred of the French for the humiliations their country had endured over the last decade and produced unbridled savagery, where looting for food was accompanied by wanton destruction, rape, pillage and even murder in some cases. News that the Prussians were arriving led to French inhabitants fleeing for their lives, returning only when they had passed to find the complete and systematic destruction of absolutely everything.

Wellington, with his allied force, took a very different approach. He announced to his troops in a General Order of 20 June that they were entering France as liberators of the French people from the tyranny of Napoleon and as the allies of King Louis XVIII. As such, no person or property was to be harmed nor any supplies taken without payment. He ordered his troops towards Mons and when his slow progress was questioned by Muffling, Wellington explained that by moving more slowly, his supplies could be maintained and his army kept in check. Wellington simply refused to join a race for Paris with Blucher.

As the Duke caught up with his army on the march that day, he stunned the 3rd Division by instantly ordering Count Kielmansegge to place himself under arrest. He was relieved of his command. His performance at Waterloo had unfortunately been misreported by General Alten. Although Wellington, after hearing from a deputation of British Staff officers, soon reprieved Kielmansegge, he did not reinstate him in command of the 1st Hanoverian Brigade.

Napoleon had now found his way to Phillipeville where he hoped to hear of Grouchy whilst he sent orders to every other unit he could muster to make rapid marches on Paris, but these orders do not seem to have ever arrived, or were simply ignored. Laon was designated the rallying point for the infantry corps, the reserve cavalry were to march towards Rheims and the Guard to Soissons. Napoleon also wrote to his brother Joseph at Paris, informing him of the defeat and revealing his fear that Grouchy’s entire force had been forced to surrender before he rode on to Laon, in the hope of finding his army there.

It is almost always assumed by historians that the march on Paris was virtually unchallenged by the French army and that there were few if any casualties, with the outcome inevitable. This ignores the regular small actions fought with the Prussians in an attempt to stem the allied advance, even though the British advance in their wake was largely uneventful.

On the 20 June there was a sharp rearguard action between Pirch’s Corps and Grouchy’s troops, but the French managed to pass through Namur and escape the Prussian pursuit by setting fire to the only bridge for miles around over the strongly flowing River Meuse. Grouchy had escaped the clutches of the Prussians and could safely retreat into France with a sizeable force which would be invaluable to his Emperor.

By the 21st Blucher had surrounded Maubeuge and Ziethen’s I Corps had arrived at the fortress of Avesnes, which the Prussian artillery immediately commenced bombarding but with little chance of a quick resolution. However, during the early hours a Prussian shell fortuitously landed in the magazine of the fortress, causing a tremendous explosion and the garrison immediately capitulated, thereby supplying huge amounts of heavy cannon and ammunition to the Prussians and also providing a secure base for their supply lines.

The same day Wellington’s forces advanced to Bavay, leaving forces blockading Valenciennes and the fort of Le Quesnoy.

On the 22nd the Prussians blockaded Landrecies and III Corps moved to blockade Givet and Phillipeville here II Corps was allocated to Prince August of Prussia who would continue besieging the frontier fortresses, whilst the main army proceeded towards Paris. Wellington advanced to Cateau Cambresis and Gommegnies, whilst Prince Frederick of Orange’s Corps took over the investment of Valenciennes and le Quesnoy.

The following day the Prussian forces moved towards Laon where it was reported that the remnants of the French army were reforming, whilst also sending parties to reconnoitre Guise and St Quentin. Meanwhile Wellington ordered his troops to rest this day, except for a detachment under Colville which sought to induce the small garrison of Cambrai to surrender.

Napoleon Abdicates

HMS_Bellerophon and Napoleon ‘Scene in Plymouth sound in August 1815’
oil on canvas by John James Chalon, 1816

By the 24th reports were arriving that the remnants of Grouchy’s Corps, some 40,000 strong, were marching from Reims to Chateau-Thierry as the Prussians approached Laon. Guise capitulated to the Prussians after a short bombardment and Cambrai was stormed by the British, with the French garrison putting up minimal resistance. But the news that shocked everyone that day was delivered from Paris, Napoleon had abdicated! The emissaries of the French Chamber had reminded Wellington and Blucher that war had been declared on Napoleon, therefore they demanded that the allies now called an immediate cease fire and halt to their march on Paris, Blucher ignored them, whilst Wellington encouraged them to open negotiations with Louis. Both generals however were determined to keep the pressure up by continuing their march on Paris.

It was now suspected that the French would contest the crossing of the River Oise and Blucher sent detachments to all the river crossings in an attempt to seize one or more intact. Wellington however, was not interested in chasing Blucher, his advance cavalry had now reached St. Quentin but his infantry were still near Cambrai.

On the 26th, Blucher ordered an attempt to take La Fère fortress which controlled the crossing of the rivers Oise and Serre, but failed from inadequate artillery. However the fort at Ham did capitulate.

Marshal Davout, on behalf of the Chambers, had ordered Soult’s and Grouchy’s forces to unite at Soissons and when Soult resigned in preparation for his returning to the king’s side, Grouchy was given supreme command of the army of around 29,000 infantry and cavalry but with little artillery. Since the news of Napoleon’s abdication, desertion had also increased markedly.

Having allowed his troops two days rest, Wellington now became more active and his troops set off for Vermand and its surroundings, whilst a detachment sent to Peronne quickly forced the fortress to capitulate.

On the 27th Blucher ordered his army to make a forced march to Compiegne, where they captured the bridge over the Oise intact. d’Erlon made a number of half hearted attempts to regain Compiegne whilst every available French unit marched as fast as they could through Villers-Cotterets to Senlis and on to Paris, to prevent the Prussians arriving at their capital city before them.

That evening, the Prussians caught one French column completely by surprise, near Viller-Cotterets, capturing 14 cannon and numerous prisoners. The following morning they drove into the town, scattering the defenders who fled in disorder, some back towards Soissons and only a few towards Paris. Further attempts were made by the Prussians to prevent the French forces at Soissons reaching Paris, but they were eventually brushed aside by Vandamme’s troops and the French marched on to Nanteuil-le-Haudouin. Continual skirmishes dogged the French cavalry rearguard with further Prussian and French cavalry clashes at Senlis.

Meanwhile Wellington had accelerated his advance, crossing the Somme on the 27th at Villecourt and proceeding through Nesle and Roye towards St Just-en-Chaussee.

By the 29th all the scattered remnants of the French army had crawled into Paris, but it was clearly in no position to put up a serious defence against the allies.

Blucher’s forces now faced Paris, the ultimate prize, with Wellington a couple of day’s march behind, but Blucher was unsure what he faced. As early as 1st May Napoleon had ordered Davout to prepare the defences of Paris three hundred ship’s cannon had been ordered to Paris and five thousand labourers organised to prepare a line of defences along the heights of Montmartre, including a number of strong redoubts. The crossings over the Ourcq canal were defended by earthworks and to the east the fortress of Vincennes was fully prepared to defend itself. The preparations for the defence of Paris on the north bank of the Seine were strong, but those to the south had yet to really begin. To the west a number of bridges had been destroyed but some still remained intact, making them a valuable prize.


Paris could boast about eighty thousand defenders, mostly National Guards and six hundred cannon, but morale was very low and few were keen to continue the fight. The Chambers declared that Paris was in a state of siege and that every able bodied male was required to aid the construction of the defences.

Blucher moved his army up to St Denis and Gonesse on 29 June and reconnoitred the heights of Montmartre. He immediately ordered the IV Corps to attempt to cross the Seine at Argenteuil but all available boats had been removed by the French. But early that morning, Blucher received information that Napoleon was at Malmaison with only four hundred men. Major von Colomb was ordered to launch a daring raid on Malmaison with a combined force of cavalry and infantry they marched through the night but were thwarted by finding the bridge burned down and then received news that Napoleon had already left. However, von Colomb heard that the bridge at St Germain had not yet been broken down and hurrying there, surprised and overwhelmed a small French force whilst in the act of demolishing it and soon captured another bridge at Maisons.

Realising that the Montmartre front could only be taken with a very powerful attack which would inevitably be very costly, Blucher looked to the west to cross the Seine and then to attack the south of Paris which he saw as a major weak point.

Orders from Blucher to assault Aubervilliers on 30 June, to seek a passage over the Ourcq Canal led to the Prussians being repulsed with a bloody nose. However with the news that von Colomb held the bridges at St Germain and Maisons, Blucher ordered his troops to march as quickly as possible to reinforce this position.

Wellington meanwhile had now neared Pont St Maxence and on the 30th the Duke met Blucher at Gonesse to coordinate their response to the continued pleas for a cease fire from the French delegates.

The Prussians moved rapidly to the bridges and crossed before the French realised what was happening. On the 1st July the French counterattacked at Aubervilliers, driving the Prussian forces back until they were heavily reinforced. The Prussians then recovered and held the position until relieved that night by Wellington’s troops which had finally arrived near Paris.

Wellington now held Gonesse and Aubervilliers and Bulow’s troops marched to join Blucher at St Germain. Von Sohr was sent forward again with two regiments of Hussars and actually reached Versailles, where 1200 National Guards declared for the king and opened the gates, he then continued his march to Longjumeau. Hearing of this Prussian advance, Exelmans launched twelve regiments of cavalry with a small number of infantry, some marching towards the Prussian front and some passing around each flank to cut off their retreat. Sohr discovered the French cavalry column and a regular cavalry action occurred at Villacoublay with the Prussians initially gaining the upper hand. But with further French cavalry approaching, the Prussians were forced to make a fighting withdrawal towards Versailles. At this point, the Prussians found every exit from Versailles sealed and with Exelmans troopers soon arriving, they realised that they were trapped and only a lucky few escaped death or capture.

On the 2nd of July Blucher planned a concerted advance on Paris on a broad front from the south west, but the French were expecting them. The Prussian advance was held up by intense musketry as it neared Sevres but they forced their way slowly forward until finally stopped by the French at the river, as they threw off the already loosened planks as they crossed the bridge.

During the night, Prussian pioneers completed two pontoon bridges at Argenteuil and Chatou which secured the communications between Blucher’s and Wellington’s armies.

French attempts to attain a cease fire had so far achieved little but on 28 June Grouchy had made direct proposals for his corps alone, which would have taken his force out of the defence of Paris but Blucher’s demands were too much for the Frenchman to stomach and the negotiations failed. The French negotiators then requested and were granted permission to go to Wellington on 29th. The commissioners were informed by Wellington that the removal of Napoleon was not enough to secure a cease fire, Napoleon’s son was unacceptable as the replacement as head of state and neither were any of the French princes effectively the return of Louis XVIII was the only acceptable alternative. However, the French commissioners continued a dialogue with Wellington, whereas Blucher declined to discuss matters further and simply threatened to sack Paris if it did not surrender.

On 2 July Wellington wrote to Blucher explaining his position, believing that an attack on the city would be costly and was doubtful of its success. He proposed that the French army would need to draw off beyond the Loire and that the ‘vain triumph’ of entering Paris should be foregone to allow Louis to enter Paris without an escort of foreign troops. Blucher could not agree to these terms, the return of Louis not being a priority for Prussia whilst the capture of Paris was seen as a major point of honour.

Marshal Louis Nicolas Davout by Victor Adam

Davout was informed on 2 July that the Provisional Government had decided to seek a cease fire by sending the army out of Paris, but the marshal was not going to leave without even a token resistance. All the available French troops remaining were moved overnight to Montrouge and at 3 a.m. on the 3 July a heavy barrage commenced on the Prussians at Issy followed by a strong infantry attack. The Prussians fought stoutly and eventually drove the French columns back, both sides each losing over a thousand men killed and wounded these were the last shots of the Waterloo campaign fired in anger.

At 7 a.m. that morning, the French artillery fell silent and the French offered to sign an immediate capitulation. Blucher arranged to meet Wellington at St Cloud and later that day the Convention of Paris was signed.

The French army commenced the march out of Paris on the 5th of July, whilst order was maintained at Paris by Marshal Massena with the National Guard. Wellington had occupied the northern and western suburbs of Paris and on 6 July the Prussians placed troops near each of the 11 gates of Paris south of the Seine and began repairing the bridges.


Marshal Grouchy had moved slowly north east from Ligny during the afternoon and evening of 17 June, unsure in which direction the Prussians had retreated. Napoleon had assumed that the Prussians had been so heavily defeated, that they were retreating rapidly along their lines of communication into Germany via Namur. This error was largely due to early French cavalry reports of a sizeable mass of routed troops discovered on the Namur road and the capture of an artillery battery, which were assumed to be part of the rearguard. It did occur to Napoleon that this could simply be a party of Prussian troops who had become detached from the main army in the confusion. But it did serve to further confirm his assumption that Blucher would be unable to reform his army for days and would not be able to support Wellington a strange presumption, given Napoleon’s experience during the final campaigns of 1814, where Blucher often showed his ability to take a beating and to return to the attack within days, sometimes the very next day. As a precaution however, he had sent a large force of thirty three thousand men and ninety-six guns in pursuit of the Prussians, which further reports indicated were massed around Gembloux, this, Napoleon realised allowed Blucher not only the option of retiring on Namur but also on Wavre which would draw him nearer to Wellington.

Napoleon had sent Grouchy with verbal orders to maintain his sword in the backs of the Prussians and to prevent them reforming to chase them away. However, Napoleon soon reconsidered these orders to Grouchy and decided to provide further written instructions to clarify his role. These confirmed that his force would consist of General Vandamme’s III Corps General Gerard’s IV Corps General Teste’s Division which was seconded from VI Corps with General Pajol’s Cavalry Division and General Exelman’s II Cavalry Corps and associated artillery. The orders were for Grouchy to proceed to Gembloux, then to reconnoitre towards Namur and Maastricht, pursuing the enemy. However, Napoleon clearly realised the possibility that at least part of Blucher’s force might proceed towards Brussels to link up with Wellington, as he particularly ordered Grouchy to:

‘discover the intentions of Blucher and Wellington, if they intend to unite their armies to cover Brussels and Liege and if they intend to give battle.’

However, it was very late before Napoleon ordered any cavalry patrols in the direction of Wavre. Grouchy’s troops had arrived at Gembloux late in the day, where information from locals indicated that a significant portion of the Prussian army had been moving on Wavre. Grouchy bivouacked in the frightful weather of 17-18 June at Gembloux, only sending out cavalry patrols to establish their line of retreat. However he was convinced enough by 10 p.m. to write to Napoleon that the Prussians had passed Sauveniere where they had split into two columns, one heading towards Wavre and the main part had marched on Liege, with some others marching to Namur. However, he did state that:

‘If after their reports [his cavalry patrols] it appears that the mass of the Prussians is retiring on Wavre, I will follow them in that direction so that they cannot reach Brussels, and to separate them from Wellington.’

At dawn on the 18 June, Bulow’s troops began the march to join Wellington’s army at Mont St. Jean and it was only as his rearguard moved off some hours later, that Exelman’s French cavalry began to approach, causing the rearguard to turn back to hold them off. At 6 a.m. that fateful day, Grouchy again wrote to Napoleon confirming that all reports now indicated that Blucher was marching to Brussels, where he would join Wellington and offer battle.

At 10 a.m. Grouchy updated his report by indicating that he was following the Prussians and that he would only reach Wavre that day stating that:

‘Blucher’s I, II and III Corps are marching in the direction of Brussels…This evening, I will be standing before Wavre en masse, and in this way, be situated between Wellington, who I assume is falling back before Your Majesty and the Prussian army. I require further instructions…’

It is clear that Grouchy had no idea of Napoleon’s present position nor his movements or intentions for within ninety minutes of his letter, one of the greatest battles in world history was to commence no more than twenty miles from him and he had no idea, nor had any expectation that a battle would be fought that day.

At 11.30 a.m. Grouchy, apparently whilst enjoying a breakfast of strawberries at Sart-a-Walhain some six miles south of Wavre, was violently awoken from his torpor by the unmistakable distant rumble of a great artillery barrage, the fanfare for Waterloo. A council of war was soon held where Gerard demanded that the army immediately marched towards the sound of the guns, which to experienced ears came from the area of the Bois de Soignes. Grouchy however decided against such a move Napoleon had not sent any orders for him to join him, he was to continue pushing the Prussians back to the north and east.

The troops were ordered to march towards Wavre which General Thielmann with his fifteen thousand men had been ordered to hold at all costs by Blucher.

It is unclear at what time Grouchy’s 6 a.m. report arrived, but Napoleon did not send a reply until 1 p.m. when it is claimed that Grouchy was informed that his planned movement on Wavre was conformable to his orders but that due to the now obvious risk of Blucher joining Wellington:

‘…You must always be in a position to attack any enemy troops that might seek to disquiet our right and to eradicate them. At this moment, battle has been joined in the direction of Waterloo before the forest of Soignes. The enemy’s centre is at Mont St Jean. Manoeuvre in such a way that you join our right.’

But a postscript was apparently hurriedly added before it left:

‘A letter has just been intercepted saying that General Bulow is to attack our right flank. We believe we have already sighted this corps on the heights of St Lambert. Thus, do not lose an instant in moving towards us to join with us to wipe out Blucher whom you will catch in flagrante delicto.’

Unfortunately for both Napoleon and Grouchy, this note, even if genuine, had little hope of arriving before it was way too late for Grouchy to act upon it.

General Thielmann made the logical decision of abandoning the southern portion of Wavre and retreating over the River Dyle. He ordered the barricading of the two bridges and the defence of others at Basse Wavre and made preparations for defence in all of the riverside properties to the north of the river.

The French cavalry had been patrolling up to the Dyle for some hours, which was in flood due to the heavy rains preventing any possibility of fording it, and it was fully 4 p.m. before Vandamme’s infantry finally approached the town, when they immediately charged the bridges in an attempt to capture them by a coup de main. Thielmann had just completed his preparations for the defence of Wavre, when two French artillery batteries announced Vandamme’s troops, who immediately attacked the bridges in solid columns but were repulsed.

Grouchy reacted by launching simultaneous attacks on the bridges above and below the town at Bierges and Basse Wavre and further ordered Pajol’s cavalry and Teste’s infantry further west towards Limal and from there to advance on St Lambert. Basse Wavre held, but the bridges at Wavre changed hands on a number of occasions as each side launched fierce bayonet charges with quarter rarely sought or given.

However, on riding towards Limal, Grouchy failed to find the infantry he expected to meet on route, only to find them soon after at Wavre, having taken the wrong road and lost their way. Grouchy force-marched the troops to Limal where they arrived at 11 p.m. finding the bridge held by Pajol. He immediately launched his troops over the Dyle, beating off a Prussian force which was clearly intent on re-taking Limal and Grouchy ordered all available troops to join him so that he could expand his bridgehead in the morning and join forces with Napoleon.

The fighting eventually dwindled with the darkness and both armies settled down to an uneasy night, their commanders painfully aware that the heavy cannonade at Mont St Jean had ended and that they were completely unaware of the outcome. Grouchy had heard rumours of a French victory, Thielmann had heard similar unconfirmed reports of an allied victory. Who was right?

Neither would sleep soundly.

The following day arrived with neither of the contending armies facing each other at Wavre still any clearer of events at Waterloo. Thielmann was still faced by strong French forces opposite Wavre, whilst Grouchy’s main force had crossed the Dyle at Limal. Thielmann placed his 10th and 12th Divisions in front of Point du Jour but they were clearly facing twice as many French infantry, cavalry and cannon, and soon after daylight Grouchy launched a concerted attack on the villages of Point du Jour and Bierges.

Thielmann claims that he did not hear definitive news of the victory at Waterloo until 9 a.m., but it may have been a couple of hours earlier that the wonderful news actually arrived and was quickly spread amongst the troops. Despite overwhelming French numbers, the news spurred the Prussians into counterattacking. Rather than retiring as Thielmann had expected, the French, still ignorant of events, launched an even stronger response. By 10 a.m. French numbers were telling and Thielmann decided to withdraw from Wavre and to retire just beyond Ottenburg, six miles along the Louvain road.

Grouchy now commanded the field, but within half an hour news of Napoleon’s defeat finally reached him and it became immediately apparent that he must retreat. The infantry re-crossed the Dyle at Limal whilst the cavalry was sent on to hold the bridges over the River Sambre, thus securing the route into France. A strong cavalry screen prevented Thielmann learning that Grouchy had retreated until late that night.

Grouchy had handled the withdrawal with skill, but he was far from safe yet, as Pirch’s Corps had also been sent by Blucher to manoeuvre to cut off his line of retreat.

French cavalry advance towards Namur - History

By Don Hollway

In the face of disaster, few military commanders in history maintained the British stiff upper lip as well as Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. In mid-June 1815 he attended a ball given by Charlotte Lennox, Duchess of Richmond, in her Brussels home. Her guest list included all the highest nobility and military commanders of the city: Prince William of Orange-Nassau Frederick, Duke of Brunswick Lt. Gen. Sir Thomas Picton right down to 18-year-old Lord James Hay, heir to the Earl of Erroll. “With the exception of three generals, every officer high in the army was to be there seen,” wrote Lady Katherine Arden, daughter of Richard, Baron Alvanley.

If the Richmond home was practically a military headquarters, it was with good reason. In March Napoleon Bonaparte, the former Emperor of France and would-be conqueror of Europe, had escaped exile on Elba. From the Mediterranean to Paris, the heart of Europe rang once more with cries of “Vive l’Empereur!” And that very day reports indicated that France’s 130,000-strong Army of the North had invaded Belgium.

“When the Duke [of Wellington] arrived, rather late, to the ball I was dancing, but I went to him to ask about the rumours,” wrote the duchess’s 17-year-old daughter, Georgiana. “He said very gravely, ‘Yes, they are true we are off to-morrow.’” As supreme commander of the combined armies of England and the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, which at the time included modern Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg, Wellington would face death in the days ahead. But that was no reason for him to miss the duchess’s ball that evening.

Guests arrived into the night. Colorful gowns and resplendent uniforms swirled across the ballroom floor. The Gordon Highlanders performed a sword dance and reels. Around midnight a messenger arrived with urgent news. Wellington conferred with Prince William, who begged leave to depart. One by one the other officers also began slipping away. “Those who had brothers and sons to be engaged openly gave way to their grief, as the last parting of many took place at this most terrible ball,” wrote Lady Katherine.

Sitting beside Lady Georgiana, Wellington indulged in food and conversation until around 1:30 amand then retired to his guest quarters. Before taking leave he inquired of his hosts if there was a good map in the house. In the study, behind closed doors, he compared field reports to the terrain. The duke had won fame in the Spanish Peninsula as a master of defensive tactics who had fought in nearly 60 battles and never lost however, he had never fought Bonaparte. He had cantoned the Anglo-Dutch army to the southwest, around Nivelles, to protect his supply line from England, but the French had taken Charleroi, due south, and were just 13 miles from Brussels. “Napoleon has humbugged me, by God he has gained 24 hours march on me,” Wellington famously declared.

Across the border, another great general was also trying to keep up with Bonaparte. Marshal of France Michel Ney had risen from the ranks in every major battle his country fought, from Valmy in 1792 to Leipzig in 1813. He had commanded the French rear guard on the retreat from Moscow, even though at one point completely it was cut off from the main army. At the final escape across the Beresina River he became renowned as “the last Frenchman on Russian soil.” His men knew him as Le Rougeaud for his ruddy complexion and fiery disposition. Napoleon himself called Ney the “Bravest of the Brave.” He had promoted Ney to Marshal of France and titled him Prince of Moscow.

Lord Wellington and other Allied officers attended the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in her Brussels home the night before the battle. Wellington spent a good portion of the night in her study reviewing maps behind closed doors and comparing field reports to the terrain.

Yet it had been Ney who, after the surrender of Paris, led the Revolt of the Marshals, refusing to fight on. What is more, when Napoleon went off to exile on Elba Ney joined the royalists. But on Bonaparte’s return, it was Ney whom fat, gouty King Louis XVIII sent to bring him to heel. “Sire, I hope I shall soon be in a position to bring him back in an iron cage,” said Ney.

Ney stormed south but along the way lost his resolve and his royalism. “Embrace me, my dear Ney,” Napoleon told him at their meeting. “I am glad to see you. I want no explanations. My arms are ever open to receive you, for to me you are still the bravest of the brave.” Ney changed sides again, and so did France. On March 19, Louis fled the country, and less than 24 hours later Napoleon rode into Paris.

Austria, Russia, and Prussia agreed to contribute 150,000 men each alongside the English, Dutch, and Belgians, a Seventh Coalition to crush Napoleonic aspirations once and for all. “Thus France was to be attacked in the course of July by six hundred thousand enemies,” wrote Bonaparte’s aide-de-camp, General Gaspard Gourgaud. “But, at the beginning of June, only the armies of Generals [Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von] Blucher and Wellington could be considered as prepared for action. After deducting the troops, which it was necessary they should leave in their fortresses, they presented a disposable force of two hundred thousand men on the frontiers.”

But Napoleon intended neither to wait for the Allies to invade France nor fight them all at once. Preparation for war went on without Ney, who for six weeks awaited a command. “Send for Marshal Ney and tell him that if he wishes to be present at the first battles, he ought to be at Avesnes on the 14th,” Napoleon ordered on June 11. “My headquarters will be there.”

Ney and his aide-de-camp, Colonel Pierre-Agathe Heymes, arrived in Avesnes-sur-Helpe, on the Belgian border, on the evening of June 13. Forced to scrounge horses and places to sleep, they tagged along with the army like camp followers as it moved up. Before dawn on June 15, the II Corps under General Honore Charles Reille, supported by I Corps under General Jean-Baptiste Drouet, Count d’Erlon, crossed the border and pushed a Prussian battalion out of Charleroi. By noon nothing lay between Bonaparte and Brussels. He finally summoned Ney to his headquarters and revealed his battle plan.

The emperor expected impetuous Blucher to attack from the east, where Napoleon would knock him out of the war with his main force. All Ney had to do was prevent Wellington from coming to the Prussians’ aid until Bonaparte wheeled about. Together they would defeat the Anglo-Dutch in turn. The Allies would sue for peace before Austria and Russia even entered the fight. “Take command of the 1st and 2nd army corps,” Napoleon told Ney. “I am giving you also the light cavalry of my Guard, but don’t use it yet. Tomorrow you will be joined by [cavalry general François Etienne de] Kellermann’s Cuirassiers. Go and drive the enemy back along the Brussels road and take up a position at Quatre Bras.”

Quatre Bras, which means four arms, was a farm hamlet 10 miles north of Charleroi, where the road to Brussels crossed the route from Nivelles to Namur. By holding it, Ney would block Wellington’s path to Blucher. “Depend on it,” Ney assured Napoleon. “In two hours we shall be at Quatre Bras, unless all of the enemy’s army be there!” And with the same martial spirit he had shown his king, he hurried off in the service of his emperor. “But he forgot that there is nothing worse for a general than to take command of an army the day before a battle,” wrote Heymes.

Ney caught up with Reille’s II Corps at Gosselies, about seven miles short of Quatre Bras. With several hours of daylight left, he called upon the Guards Light Cavalry Division under General Charles Lefebvre-Desnoettes to follow him up the Brussels road to Frasnes, halfway to their objective. When they topped a rise overlooking the village, they came under cannon fire. A battery of horse artillery and a battalion of troops held the town.

Two squadrons of the 2nd Light Horse Regiment of Lancers of the Imperial Guard, General Pierre David de Colbert-Chabanais’s famous Red Lancers, rode around Frasnes in full view of the defenders. “As they observed that we were maneuvering to turn them, they retired from the village where we had practically surrounded them with our squadrons,” wrote Lefebvre-Desnoettes.

The enemy fell back not to the east, but to the north. These were not Prussian troops. They were Dutch: the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Nassau-Usingen Brigade, and the 2nd Netherlands Infantry Division. They withdrew toward Quatre Bras, knowing the entire brigade, four battalions under Colonel Prince Bernhard von Saxe-Weimar, was coming down the Brussels road.

Napoleon, who was confronting the Prussians at Ligny, informed Ney in the clearest language possible that he must engage and destroy the Allied forces massing at Quatre Bras.

“General Colbert even reached within musket shot of Quatre Bras on the high road, but … it was impossible for us to carry it,” wrote Lefebvre-Desnoettes. The Red Lancers spotted the main body of Netherlanders descending on them. Colbert elected not to take on the entire brigade himself but abandoned the town and rode back to Frasnes. By 7 pm,Saxe-Weimar had 4,500 men and six cannons in Quatre Bras.

Given a few more hours, Ney might have organized two divisions to clear the town in a night assault. But the 17,800 men of II Corps were strung out halfway back to France. The 5th Infantry Division under Brig. Gen. Gilbert Desire Joseph, Baron Bachelu, was at Frasnes, 2 1 /2miles to the rear. The 9th Infantry Division under General Maximilien Sebastien, Count Foy, and the 6th Infantry Division under Napoleon’s younger brother, Prince Jerome Bonaparte, were twice as far back, in Gosselies. And d’Erlon’s entire I Corps was still farther south, around Charleroi. Bringing them all up via the one road to Frasnes by night would be quite the exercise in traffic control. With the troops available Heymes estimated they had not one chance in 10 of taking Frasnes before dawn.

So Ney prepared to carry out his orders in the morning. Meanwhile, Wellington’s commanders disobeyed his orders. Overnight, Saxe-Weimar sent word up the road to Nivelles, alerting his division commander, Lt. Gen. Henri Georges, Baron Perponcher-Sedlintsky, of the French invasion. They elected to ignore Wellington’s command to concentrate at Nivelles and to fight instead at Quatre Bras.

The battlefield was a rough triangle, pointed upward, with the crossroads at its apex. The Bossu Wood stretched southwest, offering cover for defenders and attackers alike. Likewise, the Namur road led through a defile to the southeast, past the village of Piraumont, toward Ligny and the Prussians. The Brussels-Charleroi road ran up the middle, across a shallow, rolling valley full of undulations and folds of dead ground carpeted with tall fields of wheat, corn, barley, and rye. Centered in the triangle was a large farmstead, Gemioncourt, which consisted of several buildings and a courtyard enclosed by brick walls, a natural fortress commanding the field. Perponcher and Prince William of Orange-Nassau, arriving before sun up with reinforcements, intended to hold it all with just 8,000 infantry and 16 guns.

“The enemy showed many men outside the wood, around the houses of Quatre Bras and on the Namur road,” wrote Count Foy. Ney’s command totaled nearly 50,000 men, but by noon he had on hand only two divisions of Reille’s II Corps, about 10,000 foot, 2,000 horse, and 30 guns. Ney, Foy, and Reille had all fought Wellington on the Peninsula and well remembered the duke’s use of terrain to mask his true strength. “Reille thought that this might well be like a battle in Spain, where the English troops would only show themselves when it was the right time and that it was necessary to wait and only start the attack when everyone was concentrated and massed on the ground,” wrote Foy.

Ney’s hesitation to attack the small Anglo-Dutch force at Quatre Bras gave Wellington ample time to reinforce his position with Sir Thomas Picton’s 5th Division and the Duke of Brunswick’s troops.

Wellington, who had arrived around 10:00 am, as yet had no reinforcements to hide but saw only a small force of French troops opposing him, their mere presence requiring the English and Dutch to block their way. He took the opportunity to ride down the Namur road to meet Blucher. “If, as seems likely, the division of the enemy’s forces posted at Frasnes, opposite Quatre Bras, is inconsiderable, and only intended to mask the English army, I can employ my whole strength in support of the Field-Marshal, and will gladly execute all his wishes in regard to joint operations,” wrote Wellington.

At Ligny, Napoleon was preparing to attack the Prussians when a messenger arrived from Ney advising that the Allies were massing in Quatre Bras. The emperor had thought the town already in French hands. He immediately fired off fresh orders, in writing and in the strongest terms. “Concentrate the corps of Counts Reille and d’Erlon and that of Count [François Etienne de Kellermann, 2nd Duke de] Valmy, who is just marching to join you. With these forces you must engage and destroy all enemy forces that present themselves.”

D’Erlon’s corps was still far to the rear. “One o’clock came, and still the first corps did not arrive,” wrote Heymes. “There were no tidings of it, yet it could not be very distant. The marshal therefore did not hesitate to begin the battle.”

At Ligny, Wellington and Blucher had climbed up into a windmill from which they could see through a telescope innumerable French troops gathering and even Napoleon himself. They concluded the main battle would be there, and that only a token force faced Wellington. The duke agreed to come to the Prussians’ aid, but as he and his party headed back up the road they could hear cannon fire at Quatre Bras.

Ney’s opening barrage forced back the scant Dutch batteries around Gemioncourt. With that, hundreds of French skirmishers, tirailleurs, poured down into the man-high grain fields. Their counterparts in Lt. Col. Johann Grunebosch’s 27th Dutch Jäger Battalion withstood them only briefly. An Allied soldier on the campaign remembered the enemy sharpshooters well. “Their fine, long, light firelocks, with a small bore [the .69-caliber Charleville musket], are more efficient for skirmishing than our abominably clumsy machine [the .75-caliber India Pattern Brown Bess],” wrote the soldier. “The French soldiers, whipping in the cartridge, give the butt of the piece a jerk or two on the ground, which supersedes the use of the ramrod and thus they fire twice for our once…. It was astonishing to find how galling the fire of the enemy proved to be, and how many men we lost.”

French General François Kellermann (left) and Lt. Gen. Sir Thomas Picton.

As the jägers fell back at 2:30 pm, Ney launched his main assault. On the right, 4,300 men of Bachelu’s division advanced on Piraumont and the key Namur road. In the center, 5,500 men of Foy’s division started up the Brussels road directly toward Quatre Bras. In the face of such numbers Grunebosch’s 750 jaegers fell back on Gemioncourt. French snipers harassed them all the way, targeting enemy officers and horses.

Perponcher ordered Lt. Col. Jan Westenberg’s 5th Dutch Militia Battalion into the fray. Only about 20 of its 450 men had ever seen action. They immediately received the full attention of the French artillery and, out in the high corn around the farmstead, hidden tirailleurs. They fell back in disarray. French cavalry commander Lt. Gen. Hippolyte Pire unleashed the chasseurs and lancers of his 2nd Cavalry Division on them. The rattled young militiamen barely responded in time. “After we had formed square, we noticed that some men from one company or platoon were mixed with those of other companies and wanted to restore proper order, then Lieutenant-Colonel Westenberg told us we did not have to be so precise,” wrote one soldier.

The French horsemen launched four separate attacks but, confronted with a hedge of enemy bayonets and coming under direct cannon fire, were unable to break the Dutch square. Behind them, Foy’s division had bogged down in soft ground and high grain, and without infantry support Pire’s cavaliers were obliged to fall back.

On the right, though, Bachelu’s division found Piraumont undefended and the Namur road within their grasp. They even came within moments of capturing a small party of horsemen that included Wellington himself, on his way back from meeting Blucher. “By God if I had come up five minutes later the battle was lost, but I had just time to save it,” wrote the duke.

Across the field, at about 3 pm, Ney welcomed reinforcements. Prince Jerome’s 8,000 men of II Corps’ 6th Infantry Division, the largest in the Armée du Nord, brought the French forces to almost 20,000 infantry, 4,500 cavalry, and 50 guns. And fresh word arrived from Ligny, where Bonaparte was having a harder fight than expected. “His Majesty’s intent is that you should attack all that is in front of you, and that, after having vigorously pushed it back, you should advance toward us to assist in enveloping [the Prussians],” wrote Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult.

On the French left, Jerome assaulted the Bossu Wood. Tactics were impossible in the tangled undergrowth formation. The prince, more renowned as a socialite than a soldier, personally led the attack. “Prince Jerome was struck on the hip, but fortunately the ball hit the big gold scabbard of his sword first and did not penetrate, so he suffered nothing worse than a severe bruise which made him turn pale,” wrote his aide-de-camp, Captain Bourdo de Vatry. “Conquering his pain, the Prince remained on horseback at the head of his division, thereby setting for us all an example of courage and self-sacrifice. His coolness had an excellent effect.” With three times the manpower, the French cleared all but the northern edge of the forest. A number of tirailleurs reached the Nivelles road behind it, threatening the Allied rear.

Lord Wellington watches from astride his Arabian stallion as the 42nd (Highland) Regiment of Foot, the famous Black Watch, stands firm in the face of repeated French assaults.

In the center, Foy’s division used five-to-one odds to compel the Netherlanders to abandon Gemioncourt. The Prince of Orange-Nassau took it upon himself to lead a desperate counterattack. Waving his hat overhead, William led the remnants of the 5th Battalion and 27th Jägers forward, but the French now held the farmstead in strength and hurled them back with heavy casualties. Again Pire sent his cavalry among the disorganized infantrymen. Grunebosch’s horse was felled by a French cannonball. He continued the fight on foot, but a French sabreur slashed him about the head and arm, knocking him out of the battle.

At last the Dutch cavalry arrived. Maj. Gen. Baron Jean-Baptiste van Merlen, an ex-officer of Napoleon’s imperial guard, ordered his 6th Dutch Hussar Regiment to the rescue. Having just arrived after a nine-hour ride, the hussars launched a hasty, ill-formed charge, easily repulsed by Pire’s horsemen. The Prince of Orange-Nassau was nearly captured, breaking out of a knot of French cavaliers to the safety of a square formed by the 7th Belgian Line Battalion. He gave their color bearer the embroidered star of the Military Order of William, torn from his own breast, saying, “My brave Belgians, take it, you have won it fairly. You have deserved it!”

Having all but ridden into Quatre Bras, Pire’s cavalry was overextended, disordered, and vulnerable to counterattack. All the Dutch had left was van Merlen’s 5th Belgian Light Dragoons Regiment. A quarter of their riders, including many of the officers, had previously served under Napoleon. Old friends recognized each other in opposite ranks, and several Frenchmen cried, “To us, Belgians, to us!” But the plea went unheeded. The fight devolved into a melee of slashing swords, charges, and countercharges, even more confused since both sides wore green uniforms with yellow trim. Finally, the French 5th Regiment of Lancers arrived to tip the balance. The Belgians broke and fled with the French charging hard after them, about to pursue them all the way into town and win the Battle of Quatre Bras.

Between the horsemen and the crossroads, however, rode the Duke of Wellington on his famous thoroughbred Arabian stallion, Copenhagen. Far from leading a counterattack, the duke wheeled his mount and spurred hard for the safety of the Namur road. And there, from the ditch running alongside, suddenly arose a line of men in bright red uniforms and kilts. These soldiers were the 92nd (Gordon Highlanders) Regiment of Foot. Their guns were raised and their bayonets fixed. The British had arrived.

Duke Frederick William of Brunswick bravely led a cavalry charge but was mortally wounded by a musket ball that knocked him from his horse.

Legend has it that Wellington called to them, “Lie down, 92nd!” The Highlanders, some of whom had been performing the sword dance for the Duchess of Richmond the previous evening, threw themselves flat, and Copenhagen carried his master over them, bayonets, ditch, and all. “On a worse horse he might not have escaped,” wrote the duke’s aide-de-camp.

It must be said that numerous historians find this story too good to be true and doubt Wellington’s leap happened at this point in the battle, or that it happened at all. “It is not true that the Duke on retiring ‘leaped the bayonets’ of the regiment that lined the hollow roadway,” wrote General Sir George Scovell. “I was with the Duke, and we were retiring before a charge of the enemy’s cavalry, when the Duke cried out ‘Make way men, make way!’ and a passage opened for us.” Accounts by officers of the 92nd mention repeated French cavalry charges but not Wellington’s leap. Nevertheless, the story has passed into Quatre Bras folklore.

The French horsemen thundered right up to the British line. “Lord Wellington, who was by this time in rear of the centre of the Regiment, said, ‘92nd, don’t fire until I tell you,’ and when they came within twenty or thirty paces of us, his Grace gave the order to fire, which killed and wounded an immense number of men and horses, on which they immediately faced about and galloped off,” wrote Lieutenant Robert Winchester of the 92nd Regiment.

Their retreat gave the beleaguered Allies a respite as reinforcements finally poured into Quatre Bras from the north. The reinforcements were the 3,500 men of General Sir Thomas Picton’s 5th Division and 4,500 black-uniformed infantrymen and 900 cavalry under Frederick, Duke of Brunswick. Wellington ordered the British to the east to secure the all-important Namur road and deployed Frederick’s Brunswickers to assist them and the Prince of Orange-Nassau, who was on the verge of losing the Bossu Wood.

“He is a rough, foul-mouthed devil as ever lived, but he always behaved extremely well no man could do better in the various services which I assigned to him,” wrote Wellington of Picton. Wellington ordered the 1st Battalion, 95th Regiment of Foot out to bolster the Allied extreme left flank, where they took cover in several small farmhouses along the Namur road. “We remained very quietly where we were until the French, bringing up some artillery, began riddling the house with round shot,” wrote Private Edward Costello. “Feeling rather thirsty, I asked a young woman in the place for a little water. She was handing it to me, when a cannon ball passed through the building, knocking the dust about our ears. Strange to say, the girl appeared less alarmed than myself.”

At that point, the 79th Regiment of Foot, the Cameron Highlanders, emerged from the road defile. “The rye was so tall before it was broken down that we could see little more than the Frenchmen’s heads above it,” wrote Private Dixon Vallence. “As we charged, we gave them three Highland hurras, and put them to flight, as fast as their legs could carry them, yelling out the most opprobrious epithets against ‘the men without breeches.’”

The 42nd (Highland) Regiment of Foot, the famous Black Watch, received the order to fix bayonets. “There is something animating to a soldier in the clash of the fixing bayonet more particularly so when it is thought that the scabbard is not to receive it until it drinks the blood of its foe,” wrote Sergeant James Anton. But no sooner had the 42nd routed the French infantry than the imperial cavalry was on them. The Scots had time to form only a partial square. Armored horsemen swirled around the clumps of Highlanders in the tall grass. Caught out in the open, Lt. Col. Sir Robert Macara, a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, was wounded and captured. Recognizing the gold epaulettes and embroidered KCB of a high-ranking officer, the French ran a lance point under his chin into his brain.

Regimental command changed hands downward four times in minutes. A ricocheting cannonball clipped Picton himself, who carried on. Finally the musketry, firing over the heads of the ranks kneeling with bayonets up, proved decisive. “Riders cased in heavy armour fell tumbling from their horses the horses reared, plunged, and fell on the dismounted riders steel helmets and cuirasses rang against unsheathed sabres as they fell to the ground shrieks and groans of men, the neighing of horses, and the discharge of musketry rent the air, as men and horses mixed together in one heap of indiscriminate slaughter,” wrote Anton.

Wellington ordered Frederick of Brunswick to fill the gap between the Bossu Wood and Gemioncourt. The Black Duke harbored a notorious grudge against the French, who had incorporated his duchy into a vassal kingdom ruled by Prince Jerome. His black-uniformed mercenaries, with their silver death’s-head badges, had gained a fearsome reputation during the Peninsular War, but in their exposed position the hussars and uhlans took a beating from Jerome’s artillery and tirailleurs. When French infantry advanced, they retreated. Frederick, who had been riding up and down their ranks calmly puffing on his pipe, led a cavalry charge, but a musket ball knocked him off his horse. “The deathly pale of his face and his half-closed eyes indicated the worst,” wrote an eyewitness. The duke was carried to the rear and pronounced dead. “The column of French cavalry that drove back the Brunswickers retired a little, then re-formed, and prepared to charge our regiment but we took it more coolly than the Brunswickers did,” wrote Sergeant David Robertson of the 92nd Regiment.

Some accounts indicate that this was when Wellington made his leap over the 92nd’s bayonets, but there were so many French cavalry charges that day they were easily confused. “When the Duke of Wellington saw them approach, he ordered our left wing to fire to the right, and the right wing to fire to the left, by which we crossed the fire and a man and horse affording such a large object for an aim, very few of them escaped. The horses were brought down and the riders, if not killed, were made prisoners,” wrote Sergeant Robertson.

Wellington ordered the 28th (North Gloucestershire) Regiment of Foot to take over for the decimated 42nd. At Alexandria in 1801, the 28th had stood in two ranks, back to back, to shoot down French cavalry, for which they were permitted the honor of wearing the regimental number both on the front and the back of their stovepipe shakos. At Quatre Bras it very nearly came to that. “Once, when threatened on two flanks by what Sir Thomas Picton imagined an overwhelming force, he exclaimed, ‘28th, remember Egypt.’ They cheered and gallantly beat back their assailants, and eventually stood on their position,” wrote Major Richard Llewellyn. Maj. Gen. Sir James Kempt, commanding Picton’s 8th British Brigade, of which the 28th was part, rode before them waving his hat. “Bravo, 28th!” he shouted. “The 28th are still the 28th and their conduct this day will never be forgotten.”

To the east the battle had flowed back and forth over the vital Namur road. French artillery and infantry drove the 95th off it the British regrouped and pushed the enemy back again. “I was in the act of taking aim at some of our opposing skirmishers, when a ball struck my trigger-finger, tearing it off,” wrote Costello. “On my return to the house at the corner of the lane, I found the pretty girl still in possession, although there were not less than a dozen shot-holes through it. I requested her to leave, but she would not, as her father, she said, had desired her to take care of the house until he returned from Brussels.”

It was about 5 pm. Having taken everything Ney could throw at them, the Anglo-Dutch were exhausted and almost out of ammunition, but now their ranks were replenished by the arrival of 6,000 men of the 3rd Infantry Division under Lt. Gen. Count Carl von Alten. Wellington deployed its British brigade toward the Bossu Wood and its Hanoverian brigade on the left flank. With 25,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry, and 36 guns, the Allies were ready to push back.

But at Ligny, Bonaparte had the Prussians where he wanted them. He called on Ney to deliver the coup de grace. “You must manoeuvre at once so as to envelop the right of [Blucher] and fall quickly on his rear this army is lost if you act vigorously the fate of France is in your hands,” ordered Napoleon. Ney was still awaiting the arrival of d’Erlon with I Corps: some 20,000 men and 50 cannons. But it was almost at this same moment that Ney learned Napoleon had already doomed any victory at Quatre Bras. “The 1st Corps, by the emperor’s order … had left the Brussels road instead of following it, and was moving in the direction of [Ligny],” wrote Heymes. The reinforcements that Ney so desperately required for victory had been marching away from him for over an hour. “The shock which this intelligence gave me, confounded me,” Ney testified after the war.

Ney immediately sent counter orders for d’Erlon to rejoin him, knowing it would require several hours. The only other reserve available was the cuirassier brigade of General Kellermann, Duke Valmy. At Marengo in 1800, these horsemen had ridden over three Austrian grenadier battalions and a dragoon regiment, the resulting French victory confirming Bonaparte in power as First Consul. Ney called on Kellermann to repeat that glory: “My dear general, we must save France, we need an extraordinary effort take your cavalry, throw yourself into the middle of the English army, crush it, trample it underfoot.”

“This order, like those of the emperor, was easier to give than to execute,” wrote Kellermann. It meant sending 800 French cavaliers against nearly 30,000 Allied troops.

“It’s not important, charge with what you have, destroy the English army, trample it underfoot, the salvation of France is in your hands, go!” Ney told him.

Kellermann assembled his brigade and, as he wrote, “without giving them [time] to realize and reflect on the extent of the danger, led them, lost men, into a gulf of fire.” French cavalry usually charged at the trot. “Charge, at full gallop, forward, charge!” he shouted.

Their objective was the open ground to the west of the Brussels road between Gemioncourt and the Bossu Wood. Just to the east of the road, however, the 69th (South Lincolnshire) Regiment of Foot was caught deploying, not into square, but into line. The nearest squadron of cavalry turned on them. “This regiment fired at thirty paces, but without being stopped, the cuirassiers trampled it under foot, destroyed it completely and overthrew everything they found in their path,” wrote a French officer.

Brunswickers fire and advance against the French in a German lithograph. Their timely arrival helped stabilize Wellington’s line.

In the tangle of hooves, blades, and black powder, the 69th’s regimental color bearer gave his life falling on top of his banner, saving it. But the bearer of the King’s Color was ridden down by a cuirassier who tore the standard from him and bore it off, the ultimate disgrace to a British unit in the field. Several squadrons of French riders actually rode completely through the Allied lines and found themselves clattering about in the crossroads of Quatre Bras itself.

“It had completely succeeded, against all probability,” wrote Kellermann. “A large breach had been made, the enemy army was shaken … the English lines were wavering, uncertain, in the expectation of what was going to happen next. The least support of our reserve cavalry engaged on our right would have completed the success.” But Pire’s cavalry, normally called on for one all-out charge in a battle, had already made two. Their horses were spent. Kellermann’s brigade was all alone. “No longer under the control of its leaders, it was struck by the fire of the enemy, who were recovering from their surprise and fear,” wrote Kellermann.

In just a few minutes, the cuirassiers, crowded into the wedge of the Quatre Bras triangle with enemy muskets and cannons on both sides, lost 300 men. Their general’s own horse was shot out from under him. “Kellermann had the presence of mind to cling to the bits of two of his cuirassier’s horses and so avoid being trampled,” wrote De Vatry. They carried him back to the French lines.

It was the high water mark of II Corps. “If the 1st Corps, or even a single one of its divisions had arrived at this time, the day would have been one of the most glorious for our arms it needed infantry to secure the prize that the cavalry had taken,” wrote Heymes. But there was none.

As evening came on, Maj. Gen. George Cooke arrived from Nivelles with the British 1st Infantry Division and was immediately ordered to retake the Bossu Wood. “The men gave a cheer, and rushing in drove everything before them to the end of the wood, but the thickness of the underwood soon upset all order, and the French Artillery made the place so hot that it was thought advisable to draw back … more out of range,” wrote Captain Henry Powell of the 1st Foot Guards. “A great many men were killed and wounded by the heads of the trees falling on them as [they were] cut off by cannon shot.”

“The wood of Bossu, taken and retaken three times with huge losses, was taken fourth by the enemy, who never left it,” wrote Lt. Col. Marie Jean Baptiste Lemonnier-Delafosse, Foy’s chief of staff. Among the dead, picked off by a tirailleur, was young Lord Hay, the ensign in the Foot Guards who had so enthralled Lady Georgiana at her mother’s ball. Nearly three-quarters of a century later, as 23rd Baroness de Ros of Helmsley, she still remembered “being quite provoked with poor Lord Hay, a dashing merry youth, full of military ardour, whom I knew very well for his delight at the idea of going into action, and of all the honours he was to gain and the first news we had on the 16th was that he and the Duke of Brunswick were killed.” By Sunday night, 11 of her mother’s party guests would be dead, including Sir Thomas Picton.

All along the line, fresh Allied troops pushed the exhausted, depleted French back. In the center, they retook Gemioncourt on the right, Piraumont. As night fell, Ney’s men stood on their original lines before Frasnes, looking out on trampled fields strewn with 4,100 French and 4,800 Allied dead. Winchester remembered he and the survivors of the 92nd Regiment “cooked our provisions in the cuirasses which had belonged to the French Cuirassiers whom we had killed only a few hours before.”

The stout-hearted Scots of the Black Watch only had time to form a partial square before the French Imperial Guard cavalry was upon them.

“About nine o’clock, the first corps was sent me by the Emperor, to whom it had been of no service,” Ney testified after the war. “Thus twenty-five or thirty thousand men were, I may say, paralyzed, and were idly paraded during the whole of the battle from the right to the left, and the left to the right, without firing a shot.” When King Louis returned to power, Ney was arrested, tried for treason, stood against a wall near Paris’s Luxembourg Garden, and executed by firing squad.

The entire Hundred Days campaign turned on D’Erlon’s failure to follow either Ney’s or Napoleon’s conflicting orders to join battle at Ligny or Quatre Bras. Ligny was a tactical victory but a strategic defeat as Napoleon vanquished Blucher’s Prussians but failed to knock them out of the war. Quatre Bras was a tactical defeat in that Ney failed to rout the Anglo-Dutch or even take the crossroads, but a strategic victory in that he prevented Wellington from going to the Prussians’ aid.

The two battles set the stage for the climactic clash of the Napoleonic Wars. Wellington himself predicted as much in the map room at the Duchess of Richmond’s house in Brussels on the eve of battle, when he declared, “I have ordered the army to concentrate at Quatre Bras but we shall not stop [Napoleon] there, and if so I must fight him there,” and pointed on the map to Waterloo.

staff. Among the dead, picked off by a tirailleur, was young Lord Hay, the ensign in the Foot Guards who had so enthralled Lady Georgiana at her mother’s ball. Nearly three-quarters of a century later, as 23rd Baroness de Ros of Helmsley, she still remembered “being quite provoked with poor Lord Hay, a dashing merry youth, full of military ardour, whom I knew very well for his delight at the idea of going into action, and of all the honours he was to gain and the first news we had on the 16th was that he and the Duke of Brunswick were killed.” By Sunday night, 11 of her mother’s party guests would be dead, including Sir Thomas Picton.

All along the line, fresh Allied troops pushed the exhausted, depleted French back. In the center, they retook Gemioncourt on the right, Piraumont. As night fell, Ney’s men stood on their original lines before Frasnes, looking out on trampled fields strewn with 4,100 French and 4,800 Allied dead. Winchester remembered he and the survivors of the 92nd Regiment “cooked our provisions in the cuirasses which had belonged to the French Cuirassiers whom we had killed only a few hours before.”

“About nine o’clock, the first corps was sent me by the Emperor, to whom it had been of no service,” Ney testified after the war. “Thus twenty-five or thirty thousand men were, I may say, paralyzed, and were idly paraded during the whole of the battle from the right to the left, and the left to the right, without firing a shot.” When King Louis returned to power, Ney was arrested, tried for treason, stood against a wall near Paris’s Luxembourg Garden, and executed by firing squad.

The entire Hundred Days campaign turned on D’Erlon’s failure to follow either Ney’s or Napoleon’s conflicting orders to join battle at Ligny or Quatre Bras. Ligny was a tactical victory but a strategic defeat as Napoleon vanquished Blucher’s Prussians but failed to knock them out of the war. Quatre Bras was a tactical defeat in that Ney failed to rout the Anglo-Dutch or even take the crossroads, but a strategic victory in that he prevented Wellington from going to the Prussians’ aid.

The two battles set the stage for the climactic clash of the Napoleonic Wars. Wellington himself predicted as much in the map room at the Duchess of Richmond’s house in Brussels on the eve of battle, when he declared, “I have ordered the army to concentrate at Quatre Bras but we shall not stop [Napoleon] there, and if so I must fight him there,” and pointed on the map to Waterloo.

1 Battle Of Malakoff

The first half of the 1800s was the story of Russia&rsquos rise. By 1850, they were an emerging power on the European stage with a powerful fleet in both Sevastopol and St. Petersburg. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire, the major power in the Black Sea since the Middle Ages, was in continual decline and militarily weak.

This situation didn&rsquot suit the French or the British, who were determined to maintain the status quo in Europe. So when a crisis broke out between the Ottomans and the Russians, the French and the British were quick to assure the Ottomans of their support if it turned into a war.

Sure enough, the Ottomans declared war on Russia shortly after. Britain and France landed soldiers in Crimea, set on removing Russian influence over the Black Sea. From the very start, the key target was the Russian port of Sevastopol, the base of their southern fleet and therefore their power projection in the Mediterranean.

Of course, both sides recognized the importance of Sevastopol, so the Russians fortified it heavily. The French and British laid siege to it, and from then on, the two sides were caught in a stalemate. The French and British lacked the artillery they needed to destroy the Russian defensive positions, but the Russians lacked the military and strategic ability to drive out their enemies&rsquo infantry. [10]

The months dragged on, and both sides lost more men to disease and the weather than to each other. The Russian winter loomed on the horizon, prompting the British and French to act. However, the British were unable to devise a plan to defeat the Russians. After several government crises, withdrawal looked like the only option.

One last effort was planned to take the port: a heavy naval bombardment followed by a joint British-French assault. The French would attack the fort at Malakoff while the British would attack the Redan. Using their ships as artillery, the allies were able to reduce the Russian artillery defenses enough to launch their assaults. But the fighting was chaotic.

The British successfully seized the Redan but were driven out after several hours by determined Russian soldiers. The French assault on Malakoff, however, was successful after a desperate attack along the whole right side of the city. They held out against Russian counterattacks, securing a breach in the defenses that the allies could use to take the port.

The victory was crucial. It meant that the siege wouldn&rsquot continue through the winter, in which hundreds of soldiers would have died. Following the defeat, the Russians evacuated the city and burned their whole fleet in the harbor to prevent the allies from taking them.

Watch the video: Prussian Cavalry - in Training and at War


  1. Kentrell

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  7. Fitzpatrick

    Of course! Don't tell the stories!

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