How Napoleon stole a march on the allies, but stumbled at the first hurdle. The opening of the Waterloo campaign shows the type of Napoleonic warfare that not many people think about.
The seat of war in Belgium 1815. The key towns and villages underlined in red.
Bridges of the River Sambre.
At around five o’clock on the morning of the 15th of June Colonel von Schutter, commander of the Prussian advanced outposts on the frontier listened as General de Division Bourmont told him that Napoleon would attack Charleroi in the course of the evening. Bourmont had defected two hours earlier, after riding out from his division, and sending away his escort, donning the White cockade when they were out of sight. A polite letter explaining his motives would be in the hands of General Gerard within the hour.
Bourmont was passed on to General von Zieten’s headquarters where he was questioned by Colonel Reiche, Zieten’s aide de camp. He told them the strength of the French army and its intentions. From there he was sent to Sombreffe to meet Blücher. The Marshal was of a wonderfully obtuse nature when it came to the niceties of war, he had served in the 7 years war, when officers often bowed to each other before a battle. Frederick the Great had actually replied to one of his letters of resignation saying “Cavalry captain Blücher can go to the devil”. When at 3 PM he heard that a man wearing a General’s uniform had defected and was now selling out his country, he was furious and treated Bourmont like a bad smell, observing to a staff officer in Bourmont’s presence “Cockade be hanged, a cur must always be a cur”
This defection was only the first of many annoying blips that beset the otherwise admirable plans set out for the invasion of Belgium, and it had happened very early in the game. Napoleon had been specific down to the last detail about how and where his divisions were to enter the country. Unfortunately, perfect as arrangements were, they did not take into account deviations or delays, such as defection and Chief of Staff Marshal Soult had overlooked some vital administrative rules, only one rider per dispatch was sent out with orders, and headquarters didn’t record accurately whether the orders were received, as a consequence some commanders decided to take alternate routes and started out an hour later than intended, and during that hour two Corps had no idea they were supposed to already be on the road.
At about 3:30 am advance elements of the Armée du Nord, concentrated between Bavay Mauberge & Avenses, crossed the French frontier in three places, while in the rear relative chaos reigned. Each of the three main columns was fronted by light cavalry, behind which came the light infantry and behind them the sappers and pontoniers. At 5 am, Pirch II’s 2 Brigade’s outposts at Ham sur Heere were surprised by General Domon’s cavalry, who came riding out of the heavy morning mist and forced them to surrender after a deft encirclement. At the same time Thuin came under attack, the post was maintained for an hour by a battalion of Steinmetz’ 1 Brigade before the Prussian’s were surrounded and attempted to cut their way out, and again had to surrender after heavy loss.
General Zieten had been ready for these reverses, indeed with cold military logic he had already decided to sacrifice his outposts to delay the French. Pirch had been ordered to avoid a serious engagement, hold the line of the Sambre as long as possible and retire on Charleroi and Gilly. Steinmetz was ordered to pull back towards Gossellies, both were to support each other. Meanwhile Zieten created a corps reserve at Fleurus where they would eventually concentrate at.
Pirch and Steinmetz withdrew as one in a skilful fighting retreat in which both brigades performed superbly, delaying the French advance, who were now advancing at perhaps only a mile per hour. It should be noted as well that the roads were poor, and usually sunken and the countryside trappy, a bonus for the Prussian light troops, the lack of maps and good staff work lamed the French as much as their musketry. The light infantry fighting reminiscent of hedge combat after D-Day. It was 8:00 am by the time General Pajol’s cavalry arrived at the bridge over the Sambre at Charleroi, Prussian Jaegers were withdrawing behind a barricade that blocked it, a structure made of every piece of furniture conceivable, and held by a single battalion. Because of the delays in setting off Pajol was without infantry support. He tried forcing the barricade with mounted and dismounted hussars but was repulsed and had to be satisfied with merely holding the Prussians in place until help arrived. The French advance was now halted again at Marchiennes, upriver were another barricade, held by elements of Steinmetz’ brigade, blocked the bridge there too. Three hours later the Emperor arrived with the Marines and Sappers of the Imperial Guard, the Division of the Young Guard coming up behind them. After appraising the situation he promptly ordered the Marines and Sappers to clear the bridge. Gloriously attired in majestically trimmed classical helmets these specialists stormed the barricade with the bayonet and cleared the blockage with professional acumen, allowing Pajol’s Hussars to charge through with a cheer and the clatter of hooves on road. The Prussian’s however retired in good order, and a similar story unfolded at Marchiennes, where the bridge held by 2/1 West Prussian IR, was stormed by the 2nd Légre. Steinmetz’ rearguard fell back steadily and Zieten ordered up support for his retiring brigades to check the French cavalry pushing up the Brussels road. Observing the new enemy the French paused, allowing Steinmetz to retire to so as to guard I Corps’ right flank.
The way cleared, the infantry columns marched through to Charleroi. The Emperor sat by the roadside outside the Bellevue Inn and silently watched them pass, every now and again giving orders and direction to an officer and then allowing himself to doze, which disconcerted some of his staff, who remembered how tireless he had been in previous campaigns. They hoped he was just out of condition after Elba.
Napoleon was stirred from his laxity by cheers of “Here’s the redhead!” Marshal Ney had arrived, a picture of war in the saddle, fierce looking and proud in the uniform of the empire, the bravest man in the French army dismounted and was greeted by the Emperor. The men cried out “All will be well now!”. The meeting was brisk and without ceremony, Ney was given command of the entire left wing, 2 Corps of over 40,000 men. Napoleon acquainted Ney of the situation and then ordered him to advance and occupy the crossroads at Quatre Bras. The marshal may well have felt a little concerned as he rode off to find and take command of his wing, he had only been summoned on short notice he had not arrived in time to fully acquaint himself with his position and would have to adapt on the fly. However neither Ney or Napoleon were the same men they had been before 1812, and though neither might admit it, this was going to be a tough assignment, it has been a common theory since the 1960s that Ney was suffering PTS, or some form of fatigue. His command was spread out over 17 miles of country, with D’Erlon’s Corps only reaching the Sambre at 4:30 pm. Marshal Grouchy meanwhile had moved slowly forwards, his objective was to take Sombreffe. When he reached Gilly he found Steinmetz’ brigade waiting for him and sent back that he had an estimated 20,000 men in his front. Napoleon stirred himself and rode forwards. He arrived at 3:45 pm and decided that there was only 10,000 around Gilly, a fairly accurate estimate, and coached Grouchy how to take it. However two hours later Grouchy was still deploying, while the cavalry rode around to find a flank, at 6:00 pm, Napoleon ordered the guns to open fire and Count Vandamme’s infantry to attack.
The exhausted Prussians of the 2nd Brigade, instantly pulled out, then they were relentlessly pursued and mauled by the Guard Cavalry and Count Exelmans’ dragoons, though the popular General Latort was mortally wounded leading a charge on their “Battalion Masses”. At Fleurus the Prussian cavalry sparred with them and managed to bring them to a halt, Grouchy having failed to take Sombreffe halted around Lambussart for the night.
The exhausted men of the Prussian I Corps ended the day having executed an exemplary rearguard action, against grossly superior numbers, Ziethen having lost about 1,500 men, though some thought 3,000. Because of this superb performance the Prussian’s were able to deny the French, who lost about 600, the advantage of momentum and surprise, and bought 24 hours for Blücher in which to concentrate his forces. As Grouchy had dawdled before Gilly, one allied Brigade was doing similar for Wellington.
Marshal Ney rode through Gosselies in the wake of Steinmetz’ brigade. He had sent aides de camp out to inform his newly appointed subordinates that he was now in command, but he only had 4 hours of daylight left to achieve his objective, the crossroads at Quatre Bras. His command was still spread out over miles of countryside, with D’Erlon’s corps still crossing the Sambre. Those divisions that had arrived at Gosselies were formed into a reserve, he expected little or no resistance to the advance guard of cavalry that was moving up the apparently clear Brussels highway. General Desnouëttes Division pressed up the road with the Red lancers of the Guard in front. At 5:45 the four squadrons arrived at Frasnes, a quarter of an hour from Quatre Bras, their arrival was greeted by artillery fire from Captain Bijleveldt’s Dutch Horse Artillery Battery drawn up behind the village on either side of the road. It as much to alert Major Normann’s Nassaurs as to put the French on edge. Normann’s command was approximately 1,500 of the 2/2nd Nassau of the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Netherlands Division of Wellington’s Army. Normann having heard the firing at Gosselies had moved forward, when he arrived he garrisoned the village with a few companies and formed his battalion up in support of the guns. At 6pm the lancers probed the position and they were sprayed by Bijleveldt’s canister shot as they came in range. The French pulled back and rode around the village on either side, thus flanking the Dutch and Nassau troops and threatening their communications. This manoeuvre ejected their forward companies from Frasnes and the lancers then trailed the main body up to the outskirts of Quatre Bras all the while under fire from the Dutch guns. Desnouëttes arrived and bivouacked at Frasnes awaiting infantry support and after hearing Colbert’s report sent a dispatch to Marshal Ney at 9, which arrived 45 minutes later. The Marshal rode out to Quatre Bras as full darkness settled over the countryside, when he arrived he saw little that could help, but was at least aware from prisoners that the enemy was in possession of the crossroads. He returned to Gosselies to concentrate his corps’ and prepare for the next day.
The commander of the 2nd Netherlands Brigade was the young, Prince Bernard Saxe
Weimar, 23 years old with brown curly hair, fresh plump features and full pouty lips, he had been in charge just under 48 hours, after the previous commander had been kicked in the shin by a horse the previous day. Hearing of the French advance while at Genappes he ordered the brigade to concentrate on Quatre Bras and arriving there himself, he disposed his men as best he could and sent word to Divisional commander, General Baron Perponcher of the situation. Perponcher ordered his men to march to Nivelles and sent Baron
Gagern back to Weimar telling him to hold his ground, or if impossible to withdraw to Mont St Jean. Gagern delivered his instructions and then rode to Braine Le Comte to wait on the Prince of Orange for orders. However the Prince was in Brussels, and would not be back before morning. It was 10:00 pm and he gave the news of the French invasion to Orange’s chief of staff Baron Constant Rebecque instead. Rebecque had no sooner received the news of the attack on Quatre Bras than Wellington’s orders arrived instructing him to move the 2nd and 3rd Divisions to Nivelles, which would mean the abandonment of the crossroads. Realising that Brussels was unaware of the most recent developments, Rebeque second guessed the Duke (usually a dangerous thing to do) he sent Lieutenant Webster back to Brussels with up to date news of his intentions, he then ordered Perponcher to reinforce Quatre Bras and hold it.
Waterloo New Perspectives: David Hamilton Williams.
Waterloo: Christopher Hibbert.
Waterloo 1815 (1) Quatre Bras: John Franklin.
Waterloo 1815 (2) Ligny: John Franklin.
The Waterloo Companion: Mark Adkin.
The Waterloo Campaign: Napoleon Bonaparte.
Great General’s of the Napoleonic Wars and their Battles: Andrew Uffindell.