Napoleon tries for a decisive victory against the Prussians at Ligny.
Tilting from Windmills.
The thick columns of dusty blue sweltered in the summer sun as they marched unsteadily past Fleurus, weighed down with full packs. The jaded, set faces of III and IV Corps’ long suffering infantry were hollowly following the road ahead. Cavalry and rumbling artillery passed by. In front officers rocked stiffly in the saddle, or rolled lazily with the motion of their horses. Now and again staff riders came galloping up and down the side of the column bearing messages for brigades or divisions. Some such message might mean the death of five hundred men, when the fighting started, any of which would be ignorant to its true import and meaningless to the rank and file who were living out the campaign by each step, each meal and each place they could lie down to sleep. Strategy was a matter for the officers to think on as they marched ahead. The campaign would be won by the army who could march best, as much as who could shoot the fastest.
As the foremost brigades approached their destination, another peasant village as far as they were concerned they found it empty. It had been secured by the light cavalry earlier in the day after the Prussian cavalry pulled out. A solid pillar like windmill with a raised wooden platform around its base stood on the outskirts, it’s brown sails motionless in the still air. Into which was introduced the sound of raised voices coming from the rear. Cheering spread up the column as a group of riders travelled up the side of the road, aiming for the windmill, amongst them was the unmistakable figure of the Emperor. The escort of the Chasseurs a Cheval rode up and dismounted, then unclipped their carbines and stalked out to mark off four points around the position, eyes watchful. The imperial suite came in tow setting out all that was required. Napoleon climbed the steps, followed by Soult, Grouchy and various feathered & bedecked aides and generals. From the platform he made a detailed study of the Prussian army deploying on the high ground along the S bend of a brook called the Ligne. This small passage of water, visible by the thick line of foliage growing from its banks was dotted by no less than ten villages and hamlets which the Prussians had occupied and built their defence around. After scanning the enemy dispositions with his field glass, Napoleon deduced that he faced about one corps of about 40,000 men and determined to attack, he had just finished an inspection of his troops and felt that the Prussians were vulnerable. Thinking that Marshal Ney, over to the west, would now have been ready since dawn, he had wrote and ordered him to move instantly to take the crossroads at Quatre Bras and then hit the Prussians on the right and rear.
At a near identical windmill, perched commandingly on the heights of Brye, north of Fleurus and a few miles away at Bussy, Field Marshal Blücher was likewise studying the movements of the French. His troops had been moving up into positions since early morning. Whenever they saw “Alte Vortwards” they cheered him and Blücher acknowledged them but now and again seemed so lost in thought that he scarcely heard their raised voices.
Also at the windmill was his indispensable army chief of staff von Gneisenau and chief of headquarters staff von Grolman. Several aides and generals were clustered nearby. It was 1:00 pm when Colonel Henry Hardinge, British Liaison officer, alerted them to a group of riders approaching from the west. The officers turned to see a body of cavalry riding up from the direction of Namur. Hardinge identified them as being British from the docked tails of the dragoon escort. It soon proved to be the Duke of Wellington with several of his staff, escorted by Baron Müffling and General Dornberg. Hardinge, rode out to meet them and guided them to Blücher.
Wellington dismounted and climbed the steps to the platform, where after greetings, he, Müffling, Gneisenau and Grolman had what would prove to be a very controversial meeting. The talk was held in the common language of French, Müffling doubtless interpreting Blücher’s German, for though he could understand the hated language he disdained from using it unless he had to. Gneisenau informed Wellington that the Prussians intended to stand and wished the Duke to march to their assistance. Wellington had come from Quatre Bras to clarify a memoranda he had sent earlier, which was somewhat optimistic about how fast his army would be concentrated. When he had left, the situation had been stable and so he felt perfectly able to offer the assistance of about 20,000 men by 4:00 pm so long as he was not attacked himself. Though he favoured an advance to cut Napoleon’s retreat, the Prussians much preferred a direct thrust against the French left rear and Wellington agreed, as the fate of the campaign appeared to be playing out here, naturally any battle in which Napoleon was present gave the ally principally opposing him the ability to dictate strategy. Both Napoleon and Blücher were hoping for help from the west for a decisive victory. About an hour later, Wellington having finished the interview went to leave. It is possible the opposing commanders, the greatest captains of the last twenty years of war, actually saw each other through their telescopes at this time without realising it.
Before he left, Wellington cast his eye over the Prussian position & voiced a concern. “Everyone knows their own army best; but if I were to fight here I should expect to be beat”, he said indicating that they should adopt covered positions in dead ground so as to deceive the enemy artillery. To which Gneisenau, knowing Wellington’s predilection for cover, proudly replied “My men like to see their enemy”. Blücher rode with him for a small distance to the cheers of the troops on the roadside. As the field marshal turned back Wellington exclaimed to Fitzroy Somerset “What a fine fellow he is”. Despite his predictions he held out hope that Blücher could hold his own, at that time he had every intention of getting troops to him as soon as practicable, however the Battle of Quatre Bras had by now already begun.
The First Attacks.
Napoleon’s initial plan called for a heavy assault upon the Prussian right flank. This meant storming five strongpoints, those of Ligny, and villages and hamlets of St Amand, (St Amand, downstream from Ligny, St Amand La Haie, to the north of St Amand and St Amand le Hameau just to the west) once these posts were taken the weakened Prussian position would be ripe for a final killer blow. At his disposal Napoleon had 66,000 men and 232 guns, but he was unaware that he was facing over 80,000 Prussians, and in fact this was not even Blücher’s full compliment, his fourth Korps was still coming up, but it was unlikely they would arrive in time. The Prussian right was held by I Korps under Zieten, the left by III Korps under Theilmann, with Pirch I in reserve with II Korps. The Prussian defence was in a way triple tiered, with a strong front along the twisting brook between Wagnelee and Balatre formed by Ziethen and Theilemann, comprising an uneven front of about six miles. I Korps had a cluster of close reserves to the centre right were the brook looped southwards between Brye and Ligny. While on the heights running across the Namur Road from the Tiolet Junction Sombreffe was the dense ranks of Pirch II’s Korps.
Napoleon’s deployment resembled an sharp zigzag with two projecting points. Vandamme’s III Corps was massed on a northwest, southeast axis on the front from Wagnelee to St Amand, each brigade massed in battalion columns fronted by artillery and skirmishers. Likewise deployed, at a right angle stretching to the northeast along the front of Ligny was Gerard’s IV Corps whose right bent backwards following the bend of the river Southwest to Balatre. The majority of the right flank was covered by the Reserve Cavalry under overall command of Marshal Grouchy. Napoleon told Count Gerard that he wondered it the fate of the campaign would be decided that day. “It is possible that in 3 hours the issue of the war will be decided” How right he was, but he continued; “If Ney carries out my orders well, not a single gun of the Prussian army will escape; it is caught red handed”.
Napoleon’s careful deployment took advantage of the main weakness of the Prussian position. In that it bowed out in the centre right following the southern loop of the brook, creating a salient with St Amand at the centre, Wagnelee on the left and Ligny on the right. The Emperor had deployed two Corps on either side, this instantly this gave Napoleon a local superiority over Ziethen, whose single corps was tightly packed in the hollow cavity formed by the heights to the rear and the brook to the front, and thus if things went wrong it would be difficult for any reinforcements to get through from II Korps. Nevertheless this did not necessarily mean disaster, the high concentration of troops and reserves could be of great value to a defender, therefore it would all come down to generalship.
Not yet realising he was outnumbered, (not that it would have made much difference) Napoleon blithely continued on his course. He ordered that his main attack was to be carried out by Vandamme’s and Gerard’s Corps, with Garde in reserve, Grouchy would hold the Prussian left in place. Together they could dominate the St Amand salient from two sides and squeeze the life out of it, forcing Blücher to commit his reserves, and leaving himself weakened for the final attack. Lobau’s VI Corps was still marching up from Charleroi when the battle began.
It had taken until 2:45 for the majority of the French to deploy, and at 3 Vandamme was ordered to attack the St Amand hamlets and shortly thereafter, Gerard too advanced on Ligny. The regular three shot salvos from the Garde artillery signalled the commencement of the action. The Prussian signal guns had been fired almost simultaneously, starting a general bombardment of the salient. The shallow valley resounded with the percussion and explosion of artillery. Vandamme gave the 7th and 8th divisions the honour of leading the attack. Napoleon’s initial campaign speech was read at the head of the 8th Division under General Lefol, and with these words and the sound of the preparatory bombardment ringing in their ears, the columns advanced in high spirits wading through the pastures and fields towards the little huddle of buildings that so many would soon call their graves. To their left Girard’s 7th Division marched resolutely forwards with them.
Brushing through the tall crops in the intense heat, the thick cordon of Tirailleurs thrown out before the columns began to duel the Prussian Jaegers of Jagow’s Brigade, who manned the walls and hedges that obstructed the way. Amongst these enclosures and narrow lanes the dense columns started to take casualties, as soon as the Prussian artillery officers on the heights saw that the attack was general, their batteries came alive. A ghastly welter of iron and lead assailed the French, but stolidly they closed the gaps in the ranks, stepped over their dead comrades and to the beat of the drums and the encouragement of their officers Lefol’s first brigade under Baron Vernier cleared the hedges and coverts with the bayonet.
The push ended just outside the village where heavy enemy fire halted the brigade which was now disorganised and fell back behind the lane that skirted St Amand, however help was at hand.
Into the storm of musketry rushed the fresh 2nd brigade, with bayonets fixed they stormed the
outer buildings and killed every man they found. There was a brief halt in the advance to reorganise meanwhile Girard’s men had pushed back the Prussian Skirmishers and had come up against firm resistance on the outskirts of St Amand la Haie, from IR. 2/29, which held on stubbornly until Major von Kleist of IR 1/29 on the left was forced back prompting IR. 29 to pull out. While Girard was trading volleys, Lefol came on again at St Amand. The 15eme and 23eme Ligne lead the attack, with the 2nd brigade in reserve. The French infantry went grimly through the streets, chasing the Prussian skirmishers before them, smoke and brick dust swirling in the heat, shell fire burst overhead and exploded in the rooftops which soon brought black smoke and orange flame to the growing inferno. Emerging panting, dirty and disorganised on the northern side they looked over the Willow lined Ligne brook and saw the dark columns of General Steinmetz’ brigade, weapons glittering in the sunlight, colour’s flying, ready to advance.
As Vandamme’s men had come under fire, Comte Gerard, commanding IV Corps, bade Baron Pécheux’s 12th Division take Ligny. It was a picturesque rural place with a little a church square and a common, all surrounded by typical Belgian cottages and country houses. It’s structure was based around two streets that ran parallel either side to the willow lined brook, and connected by small wooden bridges. On the south bank was the rue d’En-Haut and to the north the rue d’En-Bas
The 1st Brigade under Baron Rome advanced in echelon through a plunging curtain of iron from the Prussian batteries to the southwest, and engaged the enemy skirmishers in the hedges and fields. The right hand column was first into action, deploying in line 200 yards from the buildings with bayonets fixed, pushing the troops to their front across the Ligne which bisected the hamlet, here they rallied and kept the French from getting over. The left column also met a torrent of musketry and was further stalled by a barricade in the streets and had to fall back, pursued by the enemy who retook the hedges and houses. Here a second French attack was also repulsed, but Rome was determined and he called up the 12th division’s artillery, which unlimbered and hammered the Prussian positions with roundshot and shells. Leading 100 volunteers Rome, mounted at the head of this brave band, led a charge on the village square. Here the two hated foes came to grips, and for a few ghastly minutes they fought with bayonet and musket butt, for a short period neither side thinking of flight or asking for mercy, yet Rome saw that he was gaining the upper hand and he called for reinforcements. The 96eme Ligne charged and the Prussians broke for the far bank of the brook, allowing the French to extend their position and assault the chateau that stood proudly to the south west and was now a hive of Prussian skirmishers. It’s towers and castle like walls were ringed by a moat and the garrison made of stern stuff, again a request came for the artillery to shift its sights. Meinwhile the Prussians rallied on the far bank, and reinforced by battalions from General Henckel’s Division fired from the cover of the banks and from the houses of the rue d’En-Bas.
The Fight for the Salient.
From his observation post at the windmill at Naveau, Napoleon observed the great palls of smoke boiling up from the hamlets along the little rivulet of Hell that had once been the Ligne. But by watching the attacks develop he was able to gauge the Prussian reaction, the movement of reserves indicated that the enemy were deployed in surprising numbers, hitherto unforeseen. He had thought the main army to be at Sombreffe, with only the Corps he had been fighting on the 15th to his front. This did not daunt him, indeed he observed that the forward position of the enemy right indicated that they were vulnerable to envelopment. He began writing orders. At 3:15 a rider galloped for Quatre Bras with a message ordering Ney to manoeuvre to the heights of Brye and St Amand, however he failed to press the urgency of the situation. Feeling that Ney was well acquainted with the facts, at 3:45 he wrote to General D’Erlon, somewhere about 6 miles to the south supposedly marching to close up with Ney, to come to St Amand instead.
It was 4:00 pm when the Prussians struck back. General Zieten seeing the French establishing themselves in Ligny committed his 3rd Brigade, which expelled the enemy from the centre of the village and held off a counterattack, but suffered from galling close range canister fire. They were then quickly flanked by French Tirraleurs and charged by the 96eme Ligne which caused great confusion. 2 battalions of Prussian reinforcements advanced but these were also pushed back, however the French pursuit stalled around the farm of d’en Bas allowing a respite to to reform.
Around St Amand the French advance had also stalled due to heavy artillery fire that was hammering the perimeter of the villages. The advance of more Prussian infantry prompted Vandamme to commit another division to the fight, this fresh reinforcement ejected the enemy from the village who reformed on the heights above. Vandamme’s guns now began to get some juicy targets and pounded the exposed slope were the Prussian reserves were standing. Solid iron shot tore gaping holes in the tight packed ranks, Gneisenau’s men could indeed see the enemy, but the enemy could also see them. General Steinmetz now reported to Ziethen that St Amand had fallen and he had no more reserves. Blücher saw the peril that this put his right flank and committed Pirch II’s brigade, stirring them up with a short address. Fired up by the words of “Old forwards” cheered him and advanced “In God’s name” on the enemy. These men had passed “Papa Blücher” earlier that morning with cheers. Then had been resting, cupping his head on his hand, they cheered him now and he acknowledged them.
The attack struck at St Amand La Haie, held by Baron Girard’s Division, which lashed the
Prussians with devastating volleys as they advanced, under the intense musketry of the General Villiers’ 1st Brigade holding a key farmhouse the attack wavered. However the Prussian second line was thrown in which dislodged Girard’s 2nd brigade, wounding its commander, General Piat, and drove it from the neighbouring street. Girard saw the brigade falling back and rode into the confusion to rally them, as he called out the Prussians fired a volley, his horse was hit and reared up, as it rose the Baron was hit by several rounds, one of which was mortal. He fell unconscious to the ground and was rescued by four grenadiers of the 82e ligne. The brave man succumbed five days later after being given the title of Duc de Ligny. Though Piat’s men were in confusion, Villiers boys held on in the hot choking rooms of their fortress farmhouse. However Pirch II rallied the IR. 2/28 and some sharpshooters and lead them through the wood between St Amand and St Amand La Haie. After driving the French before him he swung around against Villiers’ rear, a movement that threatened to cut off the farm, prompting the defenders to evacuate. As they fell back Baron Villiers was wounded, and it fell to Colonel Matis to extricate them, which he did, rallying with the 2nd brigade at St Amand le Hameau.
Vandamme’s left flank was now open at Ligny and he quickly rushed up 2 brigades from the 10th division to guard against envelopment. A firefight began and grew, spluttering and spitting along either side of the brook, not 50 yards distant from each other. As more troops were fed into the line it lengthened, more batteries were brought to bear but despite the awful casualties the Prussians hung on, giving as much as they got, pouring two tiers of fire into the hamlets. As yet neither side saw defeat loom, Gneisenau fed his reinforcements into the fight slowly but confidently expecting General Wellington to arrive in the course of the evening, while Blucher from time to time darted forwards personally to order one of the villages to be retaken.
Napoleon pressed back hard, desperate to keep the Prussians fixed until Ney arrived from Quatre Bras. Knowing know that he was surely outnumbered he needed to restrict the Prussians to fighting for these key positions, it was a high risk strategy when his own army was now dangerously strung out before a largely concentrated force. He desperately hoped for reinforcements from D’Erlon.
With a shaky balance now achieved, Blücher sought to tip it in his favour and ordered Major General Tippelskirch to occupy the rear of the village of Wagnelee, to the north of St Amand La Haie. By taking this position it would allow them to flank St Amand. Nine battalions of the 7th brigade of Pirch’s II Korps advanced against the east of the villages, however the nature of the ground forbid them to coordinate attacks against both Wagnelee and La Haie.
Harbert’s 1st brigade of the 10th division had moved up after the fall of la Haie to support
the 8th Division, it now stood on the left flank of General Berthézène’s 11th division, creating a link between Vandamme and Gerard. Harbert saw the attack columns deploying and ordered his brigade bring up its left shoulder en potence and wheeled to face the attack. Two battalions extended into skirmish order and the divisional artillery loaded with canister. The galling fire of the infantry and the gutting blasts of the artillery brought the Prussians up short in the tall crops. Stalks of wheat and accoutrements flew high into the air with each discharge. Harbert ordered the charge before the enemy could rally and the Prussians broke before their lowered bayonets, seeking shelter in Wagnelee. Thus stalled Blücher shifted focus back to Ligny and St Amand, sending additional troops from II Corps to reinforce Zieten’s hard pressed battalions. The 6th brigade of II Corps advanced under heavy fire and drove the French into the eastern side of Ligny, but they could not be dislodged from here. The Prussians were in part hampered by the fact that many of their regiments were made up of untested and high spirited volunteers, militiamen and many young recruits, who no sooner had got the enemy on the run, than would be on their feet and chasing them down only to be easily driven back or checked by supporting troops. The engaged elements of both armies had now committed much of their reserves and despairing of help Napoleon had sent for Comte Lobau to hurry to his aid from Charleroi.
La victoire est en nous.
At 6:00 pm, with the battle raging with as much ferocity as the fire that now consumed Ligny and St Amand, General Vandamme received a worrying report. An unidentified column had been sighted on the high ground to his left rear. Napoleon saw it too, a low shadow of marching troops appearing on the hedge-lined horizon. Scouts were sent to ascertain the nationality of the column. As this happened word spread amongst the embattled troops in St Amand La Haie and before Wagnelee that the was enemy in their rear. This obviously triggered a great consternation amongst Vandamme’s Corps, and sparked a roughly general withdrawal from the French in this quarter. At 6:30 Napoleon received a message from Vandamme telling of the column turning his flank, with his scouts as yet unreturned he made provision to shore up his left flank, and at the same time prepare for a final push if it proved to be D’Erlon.
The waiting columns of the Young Garde were well aware that they were the Emperor’s emergency plug-hole. Wherever there was a breakthrough these “Hastati” of the Imperial Garde would be sent to shore it back up, so when the order came to shoulder arms and march to the left at the double, most would know something was amuck. However Napoleon needed a firm second line behind his entire left, and so three battalions of Chasseurs of the Middle Garde followed behind them to support III Corps and three battalions of the Old Garde were ordered up to the rear of Ligny.
Interestingly the appearance of this column and the opposite effect on the Prussians, even after learning that the column was hostile, it promoted a large Prussian attack on the French left, and a mobilisation of reserves in the centre to take Ligny and St Amand. Gneisenau wrote to Wellington urging him to mount a strong offensive so as to be able to send assistance, it was becoming obvious to the Prussian high command that IV Korps would not arrive from Liege in time to be of any use.
Critically Napoleon now found out the identity of the mystery formation, it was indeed D’Erlon, though he was not in the place he was expected to be but that hardly mattered now and the Old Garde and the reserve were ordered cavalry to the heights above Ligny in preparation for a final attack. Napoleon masterfully arranged his divisions so they would strike with maximum effect and hopefully isolate large chunks of the enemy that could be surrounded like at Jena.
At 7:00 pm a massive Prussian offensive, consisting of the last of the left flank infantry reserves, rolled into Vandamme’s corps, which bent under the strain and had to be propped up by the adroitly positioned battalions of the Young Garde, much ground was lost but the Prussians were contained.
For a moment the situation seemed critical, but then a message from Vandamme at St Amand brought welcome news, he had held the Prussian attack, and through his telescope Napoleon realised the Prussians had committed their last reserves. It was the decisive and psychological moment. The watches of most officers read 7:30 pm, the Prussian’s commanding position had been ultimately squandered, for most of their troops were now intermixed, disordered and committed to holding the ruined villages while Napoleon now marshalled his reserves. As he did brooding rain clouds were gathering overhead as if portending a cataclysm. D’Erlon had disappeared but Napoleon merely thought he had decided to realign his advance to cut the Prussian retreat. Up at Brye the Prussian General staff received word from General Kraft, Ligny could not be held except by an extreme effort, the response was simple and grim, he and the remnants of Jagow’s Brigade must hold but the St Amand Salient was collapsing.
“Are You not Prussians!”
“It is with guns that war is made” Napoleon once wrote. The syllables roll out from the pages of history like the grandiose discharge of heavy artillery. Ordinance was the key, the Emperor had a modern commander’s obsession with laying down heavy suppressing fire from massed batteries. Just after 7:30 gallopers had raced to the waiting Imperial Garde. Bring up the artillery was the order. Sweating horse teams were urged towards the burning roofs of Ligny, drivers and gunners bent low and clinging for dear life. The lathered animals were swung around, limbers bouncing and skidding behind them. Soon a line of 60 gleaming 12 pounders of the Guard and IV corps were trained on Ligny and pounded it into even smaller pieces, the bombardment killing as many French as Prussians and was probably a merciful release to the wounded trapped in the burning wreckage. Yet it served the purpose.
By now Ligny had changed hands well over four definite times, and St Amand about as much, thousands already lay dead and dying in agony amongst the rubble and over the smoke filled fields.
At 8:00 pm two large columns spearheaded by the Old Garde Grenadiers, Chasseurs and Marines, led initially by Napoleon himself, supported by the The Emperor’s duty squadron and the Cuirassiers of Milhaud’s division, passed through the remains of Gerard’s forward divisions and through a sudden violent downpour of rain to push through and around the rubble of Ligny. As the Garde moved in, Vandamme returned to the attack and once more, the columns of the Young Garde led the advance. The St Amand Salient, now choked with dead, debris and confused intermixed troops, was pressed by the French vice behind a heavy bombardment.
Those that had survived the incoming fire at Ligny were now on the receiving end of a cheering wave of French infantry. The bearskins of the Garde clearly visible, appearing from out of the trailing curtains of rain as if dropped from heaven. With the Emperor’s name on their lips and Eagles to the fore they swept through the debris strewn streets, pushing the Prussians back over the small wooden bridges of the brook amongst the wrecked houses of the North bank and made for Sombreffe to cut the Prussians in two.
The Garde, supported by the cavalry, pushed out of Ligny, driving the trails of fugitives before them and a gallant charge by IR. 21 was ridden down by the Cuirassiers. At the foot of the heights they formed square and the Cuirassiers struck out into the fields to the north trailed by their horse artillery which unlimbered to pound the Prussian rear positions above them while the cavalry trotted on in deep glittering lines of breastplates and horsehair crests.
General Kraft could see them coming, he and Jagow had attempted to hold the north bank but it was no use and now they needed time, time they did not have to reform. So the precious minutes required would have to be bought with lives. A series of gallant charges by the Westphalian Landwehr cavalry forced the Garde to halt to repel them, giving a moments ease to ready for the renewed onslaught. After the enemy cavalry battered off their squares the French resumed the advance, the Cuirassiers rode ahead and charged Kraft’s infantry who due to the merciful minutes gained by the Westphalians likewise formed square, or masses, to meet them. Despite artillery fire and pressure from the French heavies, which now included the Horse Grenadiers, the Elite Gendarmes and the Empress’ Dragoons, the Prussians fell back steadily.
In a way it was fortunate that there was no one leading the French attack with particular dash or daring. The battering ram simply rumbled forwards, and forced back whatever was in front of it head on, whatever confronted the attack was bound to slow it up. The breakthrough laboriously strained, to panic the enemy into defeating himself. Nevertheless the danger was real even if the attack was somewhat clumsy. The French had forced back or silenced much of the Prussian artillery and was able to pound away at will. One of the great strengths of the Prussian staff system was its ability to process events with great clarity and speed and react to them. The drawback being that it dangerously isolated the commanders from their field officers, and relied heavily on an efficient stream of communication back and forth. In the mayhem of the struggle for the villages this had not always been possible, and when it did it restricted the commanders to reacting rather than anticipating. By and large the French had been doing this long enough to have gotten quite good at it, but for much of the battle Blücher and Gneisenau had concerned themselves only with feeding reserves, and it was difficult to keep general control over the confused swaying battles in the hamlets, now the battle had come to them. The French artillery found their range and Roundshot began bouncing amongst the mounted general staff with great accuracy, one round crushing Sir Henry Hardinge’s hand.
With the infantry in retreat and the guns in danger Blücher, received the report of his aid von Nostitz, detailing in brief the severity of the situation below. As Artillery Captain Reuter put it to General Pirch II with admirable understatement, “Matters are not looking very rosy”, Pirch complemented Reuter on bringing up No. 6 Battery and grimly ordered him to “Cling to the position at all hazards” until he could cover his retreat, the General then left Reuter to gather some men to protect the guns, calling out “Soldiers, there stand your guns, are you not Prussians!”.
Blücher had only his cavalry to hand but it would be enough to allow the infantry to distance themselves, his exceptional cavalryman’s instinct saved the centre. Blücher rode to General Roeder’s cavalry Division and ordered him to charge. A mixture of Uhlans, Hussars and Kurmark Landwehr of Lützow’s brigade advanced to the front and with lowered lances and drawn Sabres. The French withdrew before them to reform behind the Garde squares.
The 6th Ulhans were in the front of the charge and presented a dark line of blue uniforms and waving tangle of swallow tail pennants. They pressed on through the intervals between the squares, preventing the French from firing on them. This clever tactic however did them little good against the massed Cuirassiers who awaited them on the other side and who cut them to pieces, leaving only 300 remaining in the saddle, and Lützow wounded at their head. Watching the advance of Roeder’s division, was the 1st West Prussian dragoons of Schulenberg’s Brigade of II Korps, who were suddenly joined by the galvanising form of their Field Marshal, brandishing his sabre as if he was still a young Hussar, they cheered as he placed himself at their head, and led them to the charge.
This gallant advance was met by a wall of dark horseflesh and shining steel which charged down on their flank and scattered them. Blücher managed to escape the dispersion of the 1st Dragoons and rode to the head of the supporting 4th Kurkmrk Landwehr regiment accompanied by with some of his staff, this regiment gallantly made two charges against the ever advancing squares before having to break off and retire. As they withdrew the musketry of the Garde brought down Blücher’s horse, a fine grey given him by the Prince Regent when he was in Britain the year before, it was hit behind the girth on the nearside. Terrified and confused, it took the bit and bolted, then suddenly it’s life ebbed away and died. It fell over on its opposite flank, pinning the old hussar who was not limber enough to spring from his stirrups and cried out for his trusted aid Count con Nostitz to save himself as he went down, but how could he? Von Nostitz heard his chief’s call and wheeled around on his own wounded horse. He saw to his horror Blücher’s distinctively snowy head struggling beneath his dead horse, and the impenetrable wall of Cuirassiers mounting the heights to pursue the Prussian cavalry. With no thought for his own safety Nostitz dismounted and ran towards the wave of death and skidded to a halt over the Marshal, with no time to pull the old warrior from his mount Nostitz threw his cloak over Blücher’s head and then dropped to the ground as the French 9e Cuirassiers’ charge broke over them. The storm of flailing hooves passed but then came back in the other direction, followed in hot pursuit by Brandenburg Uhlans and the 2nd and 5th Dragoons of General Treskow’s Brigade. Nostitz was on his feet in an instant and bellowed for help, several Uhlans dismounted and helped pull him from under his horse. Blücher was concussed and contused and was groggily put astride Lt Schneider’s horse and led quickly to the rear by Nostitz and a few others were he was promptly evacuated from the field to Mellery 3 miles to the north.
The last victory.
The long hot day of uninterrupted fighting resulted in several things. Many dislocated or bruised shoulders, a fiery thirst in the mouths of the infantry, many face burns and burnt fingers, plus many dangerous fire burns in general. On top of that and more worrying from a logistical point of view was the many empty cartridge boxes. At 8:45 the dying sun lit the great clouds of powder smoke with a rosy glow as clumps of Prussian infantry who had left the line to replenish their supplies of ball cartridge were accosted by mounted officers ordering them to pack up and withdraw towards Tilly, a small village a mile south of Mellery.
Gneisenau saw that the game was up, and with the centre pierced and the right threatened with envelopment, he risked having the army broken in two by attempting to stand. Therefore he gave an order to retreat, but to where? Von Reiche produced a map and in the half light his eye just discerned the name of Tilly, some miles to the north. Therefore Gneisenau ordered that the army fall back northwards, hoping to avoid pursuit in the dark, the provisional destination being Tilly. The army withdrew in roughly two to three groups. The right by crossing the Namur road towards Villeroux and soon joined with the centre at Tilly, the centre, in poor shape via Marbais towards Tilly and the right by a dogs leg via Gembloux.
Brigades began to march in whatever order they could manage away from the battlefield, the villages burning fiercely behind them. General Roeder’s cavalry were given order to cover the retreat, the stubborn remnants of Zeiten’s indomitable I Korps likewise showed a front to the enemy at Brye, and the break off was accomplished without much collateral damage. The brigades at la Haie and Wagnelee retired in good order towards Brye and Namur covered by alternating battalions as their ammunition ran out.
In the centre the Garde cavalry pressed the enemy up the heights taking one gun from the 2nd Brigade of I Korps as they fell back. On the left Jacquinot’s lancers menaced the Prussian rearguard towards Tilly, meanwhile on the Prussian left, General Theilemann maintained his position for as long as possible and then pulled back. He and Grouchy had been staring one another down for the entire battle, while Blücher siphoned off his troops. During the Prussian advance he had pushed forwards but had no sooner placed his artillery than the French cavalry sent his men running back to their start positions. He lost two guns to the advancing French cavalry before they were checked. He now withdrew his men before Grouchy’s cavalry could cross the brook. With the onset of night the French merely pressed enough to encourage the enemy to retreat, and advanced no further than the heights of Bussy and the Namur Road.
The fighting was conclusively over, little did Napoleon know, he had won his last victory. His victorious troops slept on the stricken field, often the dubious priveledge of an exhausted victor. The III Corps at St Amand, the IV at Ligny, Grouchy at Sombreffe and the Garde at Brye,
By the evening the smell of warm crops and hedgerows between Lingy, Wagnelee and Brye, was polluted with the stench of death, gunpowder and burning buildings. The night sounds drowned by the cries of the wounded. About between 8-12,000 Frenchmen were dead and wounded and about 12,000 Prussians with them. Exhausted Napoleon retired to Fleurus, were he sent up his headquarters at 11, guarded by a battalion of grenadiers and three squadrons of Chasseurs. Soult wrote to Davout in Paris to inform him of the victory.
At midnight Gneisenau reached the village of Mellrey, where found Blücher. His aide remembered the night being as dark as that after the defeat at Jena in 1806, and the confusion just as bad. The Field Marshal was in a farmhouse filled with the sounds of the wounded, men lay in agony over every space. Blücher was being revived by champaign, schnapps and a rub of a powerful tonic made of gin, rhubarb and Garlic for his bruised and confused right side. He had recovered sufficiently from his concussion to speak intelligently, even though he must have been in some pain. Gneisenau picked his way between the wounded, and sat on a pickled cabbage barrel were together they discussed the situation, as scattered and dispersed troops passed by being pointed to Tilly by staff officers posted at the junctions.
Gneisenau felt vindicated in his suspicion of Wellington, who he suspected of having failed to accurately appraise them of the situation that morning, or indeed been deliberately duplicitous. There was a disagreement as to whether they should retreat to Liege to protect their lines of communication or stay on course, as Blücher said they had only been dented. Ironically Napoleon expected them to retreat to Liege, and Gneisenau had hoped to evade initial pursuit by the direct withdrawal to Tilly, which had the Emperor pressed on, would have lain right in front of his rout to Brussels.
The debate was in part ended by General Grolman who proffered the suggestion that they could still both preserve the army, and Blücher’s honour (a sword he was too old to break), by withdrawing to a small village caled Wavre, and from there decide where to retreat too, or act in further concert with Wellington. A letter was duly sent off informing the Duke of the reverse and asking his intentions. Meanwhile Gneisenau set to work to route the army to Wavre, the Prussian Staff system was back on track, for no sooner had its objective become clear, to get the army back into the fight again, than it began running like clockwork. Already admirable provisions had been made to usher troops this fat, messages were being sent out. Formations rallied and reorganised. By Gneisenau’s calculation the army could be able to fight again in 36 to 48 hours. A far cry from the five days it had taken after the defeat at Etoges in 1814. Neither the French nor the Prussians were the same armies that had fought at Jena, this time there would be no relentless pursuit to the sea, nor would confusion reign amongst the defeated. Based on these estimates the Prussians were able to construct a new plan and move on it quickly, before Napoleon even ordered any kind of pursuit, the Prussians were halfway recovered and the only army with a clear objective. Gneisenau settled down to a night of paperwork, organisation was the key, true it was with guns that war was made, but very often they were won with fast dispatch riders and a healthy supply of paper and ink.
Story of the Battle of Waterloo: Rev. R Gleig. M.A.
Waterloo new perspectives: David Hamilton Williams.
Waterloo 1815 (2) Ligny: John Franklin.
Wellington the Years of the Sword: Elizabeth Longford.
Waterloo: Christopher Hibbert.
Waterloo 1815 the birth of modern Europe: Geoffrey Wootten.
Waterloo 4 days that changed Europe’s destiny: Tim Clayton.
Great General’s of the Napoleonic Wars and their Battles: Andrew Uffindell.
Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars: David Chandler.
Waterloo, Napoleon’s last gamble: Andrew Roberts.
The Armies at Waterloo: Ugo Pericoli and Michael Glover.
Napoleonic Wars Sourcebook: Digby Smith.
Blücher Scourge of Napoleon: Michael V Leggiere
The Battle: Alessandro Barbero.
Waterloo Relics: Gilles Bernard & Gérard Lachaux
The Battle of Waterloo, Also of Ligny and Quatre-Bras, Described by the Series of Accounts.