The Battle of Quatre Bras was a vital action for both sides. However it was of greater strategic significance to Blucher and Napoleon than Wellington and Ney. In some ways it is very similar to the Battle of Busaco in 1810, but not for the reasons most people think.
The Prince’s Battle.
All had been quiet at the crossroads since last light on the 15th. At 6:00 am the Prince of Orange, dashingly attired in a braided pelisse and dolman with a feathery crest crowning his hat, rode into the village with his staff. There he met Constant Rebecque who he had sent on ahead from Braine Le Comte. In front of the inn was Saxe Weimar and his staff sitting quietly on their horses in the half light watching the fields begin to brighten. The 2nd Division’s commander, General Perponcher was there too, a thin, severe, sad eyed man with a tight pertinent frown. The two boy General’s and the two elder ones then discussed the situation and toured the outposts. The position was a subtle one, and one of some pastoral beauty. A sprinkling of brown farm buildings were scattered carelessly across a gently rolling landscape of tall crops, dipping down now and again into stream beds and pooling into ponds to the east around Thyle. Just a few hundred yards down the road was a sheep farm, and further on the farm of Gemioncourt. To the west the fields were bordered by the thick sprawling emerald woodland of the Bois de Bossu that extended southwards from the crossroads to a farm called Grande Pierpont, and to the east lay the Bois de l’Hutte. The main road to Brussels bisected the fields and crossed the shallow right angle of the Namur road creating the intersection of the “Four arms” at Quatre Bras, following the gentle slope South to Gemioncourt and Frasnes. The field is ridiculously small, from Bossu to L’Hutte is 2,500 yards, and from Gemioncourt to Quatre Bras just over 1,500. The Bossu wood itself exceeded about a mile west from the road, but the main fighting would occur in that 1,500 by 2,500 yard stretch of fields and farms in the middle of the two forests. It was not good ground, and it was not the place Wellington envisaged having to fight a battle, with barely half his army.
The Duke had left Brussels early that morning and met Picton’s division in the forest of Soignes near Mont St Jean. He arrived at the crossroads and after touring Orange’s dispositions and approving them he wrote to Blücher optimistically promising support based on an outdated memorandum from De Lancey. As time went on Wellington realised that his sentiments would prove false and rode to Bussy to meet with Blücher personally.
Leaving the Prince’s small force of about 8,000 men deployed on a wide front, to trick the French into thinking he had more men than he did he set off. Aggressive skirmishing by a detachment of Prussian Cavalry helped to cement the impression of strength. By 2:00 pm Orange’s men had held their position for almost 10 hours with hardly a shot being fired. Marshal Ney now ordered General Reille to attack and take the crossroads irrespective of what opposed him. Reille was an experienced veteran, many of his Corps was too, he had some misgivings on the matter and had a bad feeling that this would turn out to be like all those other battles in Spain, but he had his orders. Despite popular opinion there is little evidence to suggest that himself Ney shared these thoughts, (he is though commonly thought to be suffering severe mental trauma from his long years of combat), the ground was entirely different with only a shallow rise and high crops to hide troops behind, and his tardiness is more likely attributed to his unfamiliar command, over extended troops, a wish to be as precise as possible to avoid mistakes, and the cautious military logic of a personally courageous man.
The opening salvo of the French artillery put the allies on their guard. Most would have been uncomfortably aware that they had no cavalry support as they saw the lance pennants of Piré’s cavalry fluttering forwards. The first troops to strike were the skirmishers, jogging in fighting pairs ahead of the columns, the dense swarm of darting sharpshooters came weaving through the high crops, taking cover and opening a sharp and careful fire on Gemioncourt and Petit Pierrpont.
Despite his doubts Reille held all the cards in this attack and Orange’s overstretched troops soon felt the pressure. On the left flank between Materne Pond and Thyle stream lancers and Chasseurs charged the 27th Jägers, who were caught extended in skirmish order. At a stroke Piraumont was lost to a rapid advance of the infantry, and suddenly the allied left was in danger of being turned. In the centre the 5th Dutch Militia and the 7th Line advanced under heavy artillery fire in support of Gemioncourt. As prescribed by manual, the battalions formed to the rear of their objective and fed in company strength detachments. The fields were infested with French skirmishers who hid in the hedges and high crops and took a severe toll on their numbers.
As the militia’s flank companies attempted to hold the buildings, the French cavalry appeared and charged. The centre companies of the 5th remained steady and repelled four cavalry charges, on the extreme right Grande Pierrepont farm was evacuated and its garrison retreated to the woods, held by Saxe Weimar.
The Duke Returns.
At this crucial juncture the Duke of Wellington came riding along the Namur high road from his meeting with the Prussians. It was now about 3:00 pm and things looked bleak, Orange rode up to him and explained what was obvious, the French were pushing his men back, though he added that Bossu Wood was holding. Shells and round shot were flying, the rattle of musketry was angry in the air towards the Bois de Bossu and his troops were very thin on the ground. French infantry in battalion columns were forming on a wide front that had hitherto been the Netherland’s front line. With just a handful of Orange’s reserves to hand Wellington galloped the length of the position and observed a strong column massing at the far edge of Bossu wood. He quickly ordered Orange to withdraw his guns from the high road and positioned himself at the edge of Quatre Bras, but his gaze was as much directed to the north where he expected Picton’s Division to appear as it as was to the south were the French were.
Marshal Ney had probably sighted his command post initially on the heights of Delsot, and being the sort of man he was, had likely ridden up towards the front near Gemioncourt by now, observing his skirmishers and cavalry as they pushed ahead to clear the way. To their rear was Jerome Bonaparte’s Division coming up from Frasnes part of which he would direct into the woods which was still successfully resisting, the Reserve Cavalry under Kellerman was now appearing too. Certain that the enemy was on the point of snapping Ney seems to have taken his time in organising his next move after successfully forcing the Prince back. Foy’s and Bachelu’s Divisions, with strong cavalry support and fronted by thick bands of skirmishers rolled onwards. His artillery had established itself on the low heights at Delsot Farm. They overpowered the opposing Dutch guns and Captain Stevenart was killed, and as per instructions Orange had them withdrawn.
A cry alerted Wellington to advance guard of the 5th Division. They were riflemen under Colonel Andrew Barnard, at once he had Sir Fitzroy Somerset ride over and send them to the left flank. As they came past the Duke himself gave them specific orders to either retake Piraumont or hold the woods at Thyle.
The Colonel of the 1st/95th split his battalion to send four companies directly against the buildings and the rest to hold Thyle. As they left Wellington ordered Picton to deploy along the road behind them and sent a further battalion of Brunswick infantry to their assistance. As the redcoats began marching through the village and struck out along the road The Prince of Orange rode to the head of the 5th Militia, he called out to them encouragingly and waved his plumed hat in the air as the signal to advance, thinking the 28th foot were about to come up behind him. He led the 5th back towards Gemioncourt. The gallant advance was doomed however, as they moved up Gemioncourt fell. With the infantry installed at the farm the 5e Lancers and 6e Chasseurs rode up to support them, bringing them into the path of the advancing 5th militia. They charged and this time threw them into disorder. The cavalry having got them on the run reformed charged again. The militia broke and were ridden down, forcing the Prince of Orange to seek shelter with the 7th Line. All in all it was a miracle that he survived capture or death. Orange arrived back at the crossroads, desperate to rectify the situation, to find that Van Merlen’s Light Cavalry Brigade, of 1,266 Sabres deploying behind a battery of guns. No sooner had they halted than Orange ordered the General to advance and check the French cavalry now riding towards the village.
Merlen ordered forward the 6th Dutch Hussars, who though had not properly formed trotted forward resolutely. They were however first charged by the 6e Chasseurs before they could show a proper front and after a wild fight were forced to retreat. The French pursued them hotly and overran the dead Captain Stevenart’s Dutch battery as they passed, it was a surprise to the French when they and many of the Dutch cavalry were suddenly fired upon by a battalion of British infantry formed in square, and as they took losses they fell back.
Leading General Bachelu’s division on the French right was four battalions of the 2e Léger under Colonel Maigrot supported by two regiments of Chasseurs a cheval, the ground on the far eastern end of the field was extremely trappy, hemmed into an irregular box by the Meterne pond which fed the Gemioncourt stream, the road above it from Namur, the Bois de l’Hutte and the various hamlets and farms of Piraumont and Thyle, in short it was light infantry country. The French skirmishers had been pushing back the remnants of the Netherlands troops that had been scattered by the French cavalry at the outset. They cannot have gotten much farther than the stream, the last obstacle before the road apart from the hedge of the nearest field, when a series of shrill whistles and bugle calls erupted from ahead of them. All of a sudden the air was filled with the irregular crack of rifle shots, striking men to the ground with deadly accuracy. A crackling exchange of shots now spat back and forth, which the French light infantry felt unequal to answering and withdrew onto the main body. The 2e stood ready and soon observed a swarm of green coated infantry following after the skirmishers, determined orders were shouted, and muskets resolutely levelled. At the command they let off a crashing volley into the crops which caused the enemy to withdraw to covered positions.
Barnard had gone into action with customary acumen, the rifles were old hands and shook out into open order and attacked. But having driven back the French they misunderstood the warnings of the Dutch Jägers to be cowardice rather than caution and pressed the attack, not realising how close the French main body was behind their skirmishers, they suffered at least 2 officers wounded in the ensuing rush, and fell back to Thyle.
Bachelu’s columns now met Picton’s redcoats. The British suddenly appeared along the road before them, “There is the enemy” called the stentorian voice of Sir Thomas “And we must beat him!”, there was a series of crashing volleys along the line, and then the sound of cheering as the British charged. The surprised French infantry fell back in some disorder pursued steadily by elements of Picton’s brigades, whose skirmishers rushed out in a thick band to line the hedges in the middle of the field. As Gleig put it “the sharp, quick and reverberating sound which, which tells when light troops are engaged rang with a ceaseless clamour throughout the day” .
The Death of Brunswick.
General Best’s Hanoverians, and some of the Duke of Brunswick’s corps were now moving into the line as
The French cavalry quickly moved forwards to counter the advance and the British pushed no further. Duke Frederick Wilhelm had spent the day leading his troops to battle. His sangfroid was impenetrable, lying in the grass studying maps, but as they drew near the fighting his excitement showed as he ordered his men to load.
His first two infantry battalions and avantgarde arrived as fresh artillery batteries were now coming up to challenge Ney’s guns, and the 6th Hussars were repulsed. Wellington ordered Brunswick to advance and show the enemy he was in strength. The deep black lines, with their vivid yellow colours, moved forwards through the green and ochre fields as far as the sheep farm of la Bergerie and sent out skirmishers, which immediately set to duelling the French Tirraleurs. The Duke of Brunswick now extended his line to make contact with the Bois de Bossu and sent his Guard riflemen into the forest, while Wellington sent down his hussars to support him. The fighting in amongst the trees had been confusing for the Nassauers under Saxe Weimar, now having maintained the right flanking difficult terrain against a skilled and determined enemy for over an hour. The appearance of the grey uniformed Brunswickers, real woodsmen drawn from the gamekeepers and hunters of the Duke’s estates, armed with short rifles, was of great moral value.
With Brunswick now present in force Ney detailed a battalion of Jerome’s Division to the woods, and the rest to the Gemioncourt line and the reserve. He now prepared to hit Brunswick hard. His wish for action was fired by the arrival of a 3 hour old letter dictated to Soult from the Emperor urging Ney to defeat the enemy in front of him and come to his assistance for the sake of France.
At about 4:30 Ney ordered Jerome to engage the Brunswick infantry, and sent Piré to support him. Jerome pressed forwards, with one hand in the forest and one in the fields. A large column emerged from the shelter of Gemioncourt and split into smaller ones between the woods and the road. The French artillery found Brunswick’s range and soon roundshot and canister were whistling though the air, the Duke’s horse was hit, but he rose unscathed and remounted to the relief of his men. Frederick Wilhelm was a beloved leader, in true German style he called his men children and they called him father.
Wellington rode to Brunswick and ordered him to hold as long as practical and then withdraw upon his supports. Brunswick moved his Hussars into the open fields to the left of the road and brought forward his lancers to check the French advance, he now placed himself at the head of his Uhlans and charged.
The advancing French infantry calmly halted and lashed the enemy cavalry with a disheartening volley. As the the Uhlans wheeled away a regiment of French Dragoons advanced up the highway to threaten the infantry, who formed square and were subsequently pummelled by artillery fire.
Brunswick ordered his battalions to retire to await the rest of his force, and slowly they shuffled backwards. However at the sheep farm his Life Guard battalion became disordered, and panic threatened to sweep the ranks. The gallant duke had maintained his position with admirable firmness, and encouraged his men by riding slowly amongst his infantry talking and chatting, calmly puffing on his pipe as if out for a midday hack. His young soldiers were ashamed to feel fear in the presence of their sovereign’s bravery. Now as they fell back Brunswick immediately rode to the square to steady his men. As he did French skirmishers who had rushed forwards through the tall crops paused to bring their fire to bear on them and shots began to fly. The conspicuous form of the mounted officer was not missed by the sharp eyed skirmishers. Brunswick was hit through the wrist by a bullet that passed through his body leaving him mortally wounded. He fell and Major von Wacholtz had some of his lifeguard carried him in a blanket to the rear. Water and a surgeon were sought but neither could be found and he was carried further to the back past his arriving artillery, as the French advance pressed his men, now under Colonel Olferman back. At some time towards six, he felt himself slipping away and wishing to impart a few last words he asked “Ah my dear Wacholtz where is Olferman?”, his second in command was sent for, but the Colonel was with the Brunswick squares, at last a staff surgeon arrived but the brave Duke died before Olferman could reach him, the second Duke of Brunswick to die in battle, facing the enemy with a French bullet in him.
Cameron holds the line.
With Ney leading them on Jerome’s Division surged on to the attack supported by General l’Hertier’s Dragoons. The Brunswick Hussars now wheeled about to withdraw after their infantry, as they did the French guns at Gemioncourt targeted them. The Hussars had already lost their second in command and the raking fire bounded from one end of the regiment to the other causing terrible casualties and panic ensued. The Hussars broke as the enemy cavalry approached and streamed away towards Quatre Bras, the French Dragoons charged after them.
Sir John Cameron of Fassifern, had received notice of his elevation to the order of the
Bath on the 15th. He had commanded the 92nd since 1809, and along with Colonel Barnard of the Rifles and Colborne of the 52nd, was probably one of the most experienced line officers in army, and was certainly so at Quatre Bras. His proud regiment on the right of General Pack’s brigade of the 5th Division had already seen off the French cavalry once, and now stood in line as the Dragoons chased the Brunswick Hussars towards the road. Cameron appraised the situation and ordered his Grenadier company to wheel back and refuse his flank. Wellington now appeared and attempted to stem the flight of the fleeing Brunswick cavalry but it is likely they just rode past him and a legendary piece of Wellingtonia occurred.
Wellington was now confronted with the charging French Dragoons. At once he reined around and headed for the nearby 92nd who had been waiting by the roadside ditch. Depending on who you believe there was a hedge as well. If you believe the Gordon Highlander’s the Duke either shouted “Lie down 92nd” and jumped his horse across hedge ditch and highlanders, or if you believe Sir George Scovell he more prosaically called out “Make way men” and passing through their ranks probably had to make a short jump to clear the ditch. The first is possible, Wellington was a fine horseman even if he wouldn’t have won many equestrian competitions based on form, and the presence of the ditch would have allowed the highlanders to step into it and disappear. The Duke would likely have leapt many such obstacles while hunting, yet while emergencies require invention, the idea of this Derby Jump is very un-Wellington like.
Wellington then gave the order to present and fire, but the French Dragoons had pulled up and sheered away as they saw the highlanders rise to meet them and the volley fell short, however one officer must have lost control of his horse and raced on, the Duke had him brought down.
As the Frenchman fell wounded, Wellington sent his adjutant General, Sir Edward Barnes to the right to observe the French advance. Barnes had served long enough to be able to sense the timing of a battle, he rode over and quickly perceived that the French infantry had taken the sheep farm. He wheeled his horse around and waved his hat in the air as a signal. “Now, Cameron, is your time, take care of that road” Wellington ordered. He then rode to Picton’s division which was to advance en echelon from the left to maintain a front with the 92nd.
The Gordon’s formed number one and Grenadier companies into columns and advanced with the other companies marching in line slightly behind. As they approached the pens and hedges, directed by Barnes’s waving hat and his cry of “Follow me!”, the French skirmishers opened up a scattered but accurate fire on the highlanders that killed the officer bearing the regimental colour. The 6 foot square of yellow silk bobbed down crazily for an instant before being raised again. The regiment seemed to waver and Cameron rode to the front and personally lead his companies forward. Amongst the rattle of French musketry Cameron seemed to convulse suddenly and sickeningly sagged forwards and then slumped over the neck of his horse. At once his servant, his foster brother two privates and Augustus Frazer of the Artillery were leading him to the rear, where he was gently lifted down from the saddle to the grass were he breathed his last. The effect of seeing their beloved colonel falling before their eyes had an infuriating effect on the highlanders, who instantly rushed the buildings with the bayonet and cleared the French from the road.
As the Gordon’s repulsed Jerome, the order passed down Pack’s Brigade to advance in line with the 92nd, it also appears that Kept’s brigade also moved to the front as well.
A storm of lancers.
Wellington sent two battalions of Pack’s brigade and two of Kempts, (42nd and 44th, 28th and 79th) across the road, echeloned from the left. They advanced 200 paces to their front, entering the high corn, somewhat trodden down by now yet still as tall as a man in places. They halted and went through the familiar operation of sending out the skirmishers. General Pack and his second in command now saw a body of cavalry appear from the direction of the Bossu Wood and cross the high road on their right. Even without the benefit of a horse the men of the 42nd (Black Watch) saw them too and as they got closer they voiced concerns that this new formation was not friendly. The officers didn’t feel convinced, thinking the horsemen to be Brunswick Lancers reforming to support them. Above them Wellington saw differently and he dispatched one of his escort to gallop down to warn them. Meanwhile the veterans were getting nervous. No, protested a former POW NCO the cavalry were distinctly French, the 3e lancers no less, he was sure, but would not Lt Munro allow a shot to see either way. It was made so. One round, on the cavalry, Fire! The battalion being loaded and ready the sergeant stepped out of line and fired a warning shot. The crack hung for a moment in the hot air and instantly the line of horsemen began to move towards the highlander’s right flank. All of a sudden Wellington’s warning came. A light dragoon, though it was hard to tell now the Hussars had also started wearing shakos, from Dornberg’s KGL came racing up to the 42nd and frantically wheeling around and around waved his hand in the air yelling “Franchee! Franchee!” before setting his horse back for the road. “Form square!” Was the urgent order, the line converged on itself, hurriedly attempting to fold inwards to present the traditional defensive box in an orderly manner, men ran breathlessly into position, bumping and jostling. Their bayonets were fixed, but the light company would never form up in time and the grenadiers likewise, this would leave an open side to the formation, before the square was even formed the cry “Prepare to receive cavalry!” Rang out from the middle were the colours were clustered. The sergeant was wrong, it was not the 3e lancers, but this hardly mattered now as the trumpeter of the 6e Lancers of Count Piré’s formidable division sounded the charge.
The light company was caught retiring in the open, the lances came down to the engage and the French washed through the skirmish line to break upon the Grenadier company. Amidst a hurried crash of muskets the lancers swarmed over the grenadiers, manically stabbing with lances and cutting with their Sabres. The highlanders rallied into a rough mass, back to back and tried to regain the safety of the battalion. Casualties were awful as the lance easily out reached the bayonet, officers and men went down fighting covered in dozens of wounds, yet slowly the Grenadiers crawled backwards shooting and stabbing as they went.
Sir Robert Macara was in command of the 42nd, and as the French cavalry crashed towards the gaping culdesac, he ordered companies 1 and 8 to wheel inwards. It was a desperate and calculated order that cut off the beleaguered skirmishers and grenadiers but would save the regiment from utter destruction. This manoeuvre was completed at top speed and doubtless with little attention to parade ground nicety. A horde of lancers had ridden past the knot of Grenadiers to attack the square and rushed inside before the swinging doors closed shut. There was a violent melee as the trapped lancers set upon the officers, bringing Macara down before the highlanders were able to drag them from their horses and shoot and bayonet them where they lay. With the square closed the 42nd now began volleying into the swirling cavalry, and the lancers pulled back.
As the 6e Lancers enveloped the 42nd the 5e lancers charged the 44th. General Pack was certain these men were Belgians and again the officers of the battalion largely ignored the concerns of their NCO’s. Luckily Colonel Hamerton was a man made of stern stuff, and when he awoke to the danger his battalion was in, he quickly decided that getting the battalion to form square would be disastrous. An order rang out that had last been heard by the 28th in Egypt in 1801 “Second rank, to the rear, about face! Present, fire!” A close range volley checked the advance of the 5e, but as the 44th reloaded a daring lancer rode through the bank of smoke and made a grab for the colour. The standard bearer who fell to the ground, half blinded, by the lance wound in his eye and took the flag to earth with him leaving the lancer with a small scrap of silk as a prize. Now sooner had he wheeled around than he was shot from his horse and bayonetted were he lay for his trouble. It was probably as the lancers were reforming that the Black Watch unwisely tried to evacuate their wounded colonel. He was wrapped in a blanket and carried out of the square by four men, who having got a certain distance were immediately set upon by a group of roving lancers and were killed to a man before the eyes of the men, Macara was murdered in his improvised stretcher.
Seeing that they had caused all the damage they could do, the two regiments of lancers withdrew, and so did the British infantry. Most, especially the 42nd and 44th were now low on ammunition and fell back to the road. Despite their experience Picton had to quickly dart back down with them to check the advancing the French skirmish line. It was an audacious advance on a two company front, which forced the skirmishers to retire and allowed the battalions to form a single square when the enemy cavalry predictably appeared. The then retired again, slightly ahead of them Kempts brigade also fell back with them. At the roughly the same time the 92nd which had come under a furious cannonade abandoned la Bergerie, and with this general withdrawal the fighting entered its next stage.
Ney on the back foot.
Both sides had started the fight without their full compliment present, however both expected reinforcements. Thanks to Ney’s slow start, which was somewhat unavoidable, and the timely intervention of the British 5th Division and Brunswick corps, Wellington had been able to maintain his position. Lack of allied cavalry was proving a liability for the Duke though and cavalry were the only reinforcements that Ney was getting, and as had recently been demonstrated, the French were riding at will across the battlefield charging down whatever they came across. On the other hand Ney’s infantry were making no impression against the enemy centre and left, which is somewhat surprising as a General with an even mix of cavalry artillery and infantry, even without numerical superiority should have been able to drive a mostly infantry based army from the field.
It was about 5:00 pm Ney was now aware that Wellington was in command, and had deduced that he was receiving intermittent streams of reinforcements, nevertheless the withdrawal of the allied line was a hopeful step. His hopes would be quickly dashed however for as the British brigades fell back up the gentle slope, the 3rd Division under Count von Alten was advancing towards Quatre Bras from Nivelles. His leading brigade was now passing the north side of Bossu Wood. His men were tired and hot, and had expected to halt at Nivelles, however the sound of gunfire from the east urged them on. Alten and his staff came galloping into Quatre Bras ahead of his men and had been met by the Prince of Orange, who desired the Count to come with all speed and deploy for action as soon as they arrived. First to arrive was Sir Colin Halkett’s 5th British Brigade. This consisted of four battalions, one of which had been in Spain, one had served abroad in India before returning to join the other two in Graham’s disappointing campaign in the Low Countries. They advanced onto the trampled grass of the fields and were supported by two guns from Major Lloyd’s battery and the 1st and 2nd Brunswick Line battalions. As they completed their dispositions General Kielmansegge’s Hanoverian brigade marched in, and were led off to the left flank. So a new frontline of up to strength regiments now deployed to face Ney’s now increasingly passive advance east of Bossu. Immediately these new arrivals made their presence felt. The Hanoverians advanced with spirit and daring across the trappy ground before Piraumont, taking the 2e Léger off guard and almost capturing two guns, so quickly did they press the attack. Spearheaded by the Lüneberg Light Battalion and the Grubanhagen battalion, joined quickly by the 1/95th Rifles and the supporting Brunswick battalion that had joined them in the hard fight to retain Thyle, the 1st Hanoverian brigade drove the French from their posts all the way to Northern edge of the Bois de L’Hutte. This reverse now destabilised the entire French advance, which admittedly had stalled except for the cavalry, Ney had committed most of his force, and apart from slow progress in the Bois de Bossu he wasn’t getting anywhere, while Wellington would soon outnumber him. At about the time the 3rd Division was arriving he had written to General D’Erlon, urgently requesting his presence and gilding it up with Napoleon’s rhetoric about the fate of France. No sooner had his messenger left him, than a messenger from the Emperor, informing him of the situation at Ligny and ordering him to manoeuvre without delay to envelope the Prussians at Brye and St Amand, to do this he was ordered to detach I corps for the task. This had left Ney in an impossible situation, however he was confident that D’Erlon would soon be with him anyway and with luck he would be able to take the crossroads and march to Napoleon’s aid by 6 or 7 at the latest. At roughly 5:30, with his right flank being driven back to the edge of the woods, one of D’Erlon’s Aides de Camp galloped up to the heights around Gemioncourt and passed him a message from I Corps’ commander. It was soul destroying news, Napoleon had personally sent a letter to D’Erlon, similarly labouring the Count with the fate of France, ordering him to come to the Ligny battlefield and that was where he was headed. Help was not going to come in time to win the battle, yet Ney still held out hope, and sent the aide back to inform D’Erlon that he was in dire straits and needed to come to him at Quatre Bras.
Charge of the Cuirassiers.
Ney now needed to buy time and with most of his infantry committed to holding their ground, he looked to his only available offensive force. The waiting ranks of General Kellerman’s Reserve Cavalry Corps. He urgently turned to the dark somewhat sinister looking officer beside him, the eager blue eyes and broad face of the Marshal meeting the brown dispassionate gaze of General Kellerman. Advance, overthrow the allied infantry and capture the crossroads. The General may well have raised his thin ironic eyebrows a touch. Kellerman probably figured that Ney as a cavalryman must have known that this was a tall order, but must also have realised that the Marshal was asking for time and acquiesced. Could he have but the support of Comte Piré’s division, Ney nodded and said abruptly “Go! But go now!”. After this brief hesitation Kellerman selected the 720 Sabres of the 2nd Brigade of L’Hertier’s 11th Division, and perhaps knowing the futility of the order placed himself at its head, rather than order Baron Guiton to do it himself. The steel clad ranks of the 8e and darker forms of the 11e Cuirassiers, who were without the benefit of Cuirasses, were formed on the roadside in columns of squadrons. At the order the Brigade moved forwards and an easy walk, the cannons roar adding gravitas to the advance of the most famous cavalry in Europe. Presently after passing through the French skirmish line Kellerman sighted a British regiment standing on the opposite side of the road, somewhat isolated from the rest before him. At once he ordered the 8e, on the right to move on this formation, while he led on the 11e against the others.
The 8e crossed the road and increased its pace towards the 69th Foot which was laboriously forming square, the 11e likewise accelerated however their opponents, the 30th, was already preparing to receive cavalry and from a hedge of bayonets its forward face gave the French a volley as they charged. As the 11e flung themselves against Halkett’s right flank, the 8e too came to the charge. From line the 69th had formed an open column of companies, and was closing up to form square as the French line moved on them, but the evolution from line to column had already taken a precious few minutes to perform and it was as the centre companies were starting to face about to the left and right, that the charge struck home. The redcoats broke and with an exultant cheer the Cuirassiers rode into the mob of milling figures, routing them, cutting and stabbing as they rode amongst the Lincolnshires. A desperate struggle developed around the stand of colours. Despite injury one ensign managed to preserve the hallowed regimental colour, but ensign Duncan was terribly cut up and the flagpole was torn from his dying grasp by trooper Pierre Henry, who raising it in triumph rode back to place it at the feet of Marshal Ney. The 11e found no weak spot or unsteadiness to exploit the 30th, the most experienced battalion, and rallied to press on against the crossroads. Though in doing so they missed a golden opportunity. A little to the rear of the 30th was the 73rd and 33rd, who had begun to form square with a little less address than the 30th had. They witnessed the horror of the destruction of the 69th and though they stood firm at the initial approach of the cavalry, they got pounded by artillery and had to extend into column and line. So when half formed a panicked voice cried “Cavalry!”, a large portion of the 73rd bolted for the cover of the woods, forcing the rest to follow, and the majority of the 33rd went after them. Had but a troop of French cavalry been formed and in observation, it would have spelled disaster, even so it took some time for the 33rd to reform in the woods.
Meanwhile the 8e Cuirassiers had ridden on to the right, leaving the trail panic and destruction in their wake, and tested their courage against the Hanoverians, who met them at 30 paces with a steady volley sending their ranks into confusion. The 11e had reformed and rode right up to the crossroads but were also met by the well directed fire of the infantry squares by the roadside, Wellington was again with the 92nd and personally took command “Don’t fire until I tell you” and with critical judgment waited. The volley delivered from the front face of the 92nd knocked a gaping hole through the centre of the unarmored 11e, who had to retire. Somewhere between the Hanoverians and Highlanders General Kellerman lost his horse to one of the fusillades, and was plucked from the ground by two of his troopers, and dragged to safety by their stirrup leathers, he arrived back to Ney powder stained and muddied, having done his duty and sacrificed his men for France.
Things had been going badly for the French fighting amongst the trees, long grass and uncleared scrub of the Bois de Bossu, since about 5:30 pm. Up until that point their progress in this emerald battle within a battle, had been marked with consistent success. Saxe Weimer’s Nassauers, though brave had proved to be no match for the plucky French light infantry, who fought from tree to tree with intelligence and celerity. True there had been those pesky grey unformed Brunswick Riflemen with the odd hats, but there was realistically too few of them to hold up the advance indefinitely. With the perpetual hammer and tong tempo of skirmish fire ringing in their ears, to rise now and again into a spluttering cacophony as a section charged some scrub with the bayonet, the 1er Léger had almost completed its job. Behind the fluctuating firing lines was a relative haven for stranglers who used the forest as a temporary refuge. Many of the Dutch Belgians had passed through here, and the scattered bodies of the 33rd and 73rd, clung to the fringe.
The green and grey coated enemy were retiring behind the small brook that marked the halfway point of the forest. Saxe Weimar’s men were down to their last rounds and he had ordered the retreat, his men were falling back towards the open fields, glimpsed through the smoke and trees to the north, being pressed hard as they did.
The Nassauers burst out into the sunlight, and crossed the road to halt 3-400 paces from the wood. The fields to the west, immediately over the highway was occupied by the stragglers of the Dutch Militia, but since only the British and Hanoverians wore red, the formed body of men now rushing into the forest could not have been Dutch. A cursory glance to the right confirmed that a column of infantry were advancing quickly towards them. Suddenly a group of riders flew past and up to the front of the column, it was the Prince of Orange, and a moment later a body of men of roughy, brigade strength, wheeled off the road and marched towards the trees.
At Hautain le Val the Guards Division under General Cook had heard the sound of the guns from ahead of them. At once they prepared for action. Ten rounds were untied and bayonets fixed with a rattle of metal sockets on musket barrels. Officers were ordered to take post and dismounted, ensigns took up the colours and servants lead horses to the rear, the men shouldered arms and brigades then marched. They were met by the Prince of Orange in sight of Bossu wood, who was spending the rest of the battle acting as a conductor, shunting reinforcements up this road as fast as possible. At his request Cook ordered Lord Saltoun to enter the forest at once with two light companies of the 1st Guards. The 2nd brigade was ordered to March on, while the 1st Brigade entered the woods directly.
Maitland’s 2 battalions of the 1st Guards entered at right angles to each other, two companies at a time as if they were assaulting a building. They momentarily suffered a friendly fire incident before pushing back the stubborn 2e/1e Léger. Slighting ahead to the right, Saltoun encountered no such trouble and easily beat back the enemy before him and joined the other battalions at the eastern edge of the wood. Meanwhile the 2nd brigade had reached Quatre Bras. Six companies of the 2nd Coldstream Guards advanced into the fields near the forest, while the 3rd Scots lay down by the roadside. Colonel Macdonnell extended the light companies of the 2nd and 3rd and engaged the French skirmish line at La Bergerie.
The Allied Advance.
Ney had now entirely lost his advantage in numbers and due to the high quality of the reinforcements that had arrived for Wellington, his superiority in cavalry was offset. By 6:00pm Wellington felt he had concentrated enough infantry to safely switch over to the offensive. He ordering his brigades to advance and push the French infantry back. The Brunswick battalions standing near Quatre Bras were sent with Halkett’s brigade in the centre, and Picton similarly would soon be in motion. Ney had only Piré’s cavalry to slow Wellington down, and proceeded to launch determined charges along the entire front. The Brunswick battalions were forced into square and ravaged by the enemy skirmishers yet again. Halkett’s men came forwards and men pushed back. Picton meanwhile had ridden forward through the smoke to see clearer the movements of the enemy cavalry. As he did, his horse was killed by an artillery round and it fell on him heavily. At this point no one knew that Sir Thomas was already wounded. He had suffered a severe contusion from a spent cannonball during the first advance, but despite the pain, he had remained in the saddle and told nobody. His injury doubtless contributed to his inability to jump clear. The French cavalry were at this time advancing on his division, and his staff quickly set to dragging him to the safety of the square of the 28th foot. As Picton remounted, brusquely shrugging off his fall, two regiments of Chasseurs made their move on the British, separating the 44th from their skirmishers, and riding on to swirl around the hedges of bayonets formed by Picton’s redcoats, who fired away and virtually expended their ammunition. He was moved by the steadiness of his men, standing with perfect calm amidst the trampled crops, colours vivid amongst the clouds of choking smoke, surrounded as they were by dead men and horses and masses of galloping French cavalry, Sir Thomas’ distinctive Welsh bellow “28th Remember Egypt!” was heard above cacophony. Few men in the 28th, or indeed the 42nd would have indeed remembered the Egyptian campaign, but regiments have a collective memory for such things. The the Sphinx’s and bold lettered EGYPT’s emblazoned on their colours were enough, it didn’t matter if they as individuals had never seen the African shore, the regiment had fought there, therefore they had too.
As the allies slowly crept forwards a Prussian messenger was brought to Wellington. It was 7pm, and as of one hour ago, the Prussians were holding the French at Sombreffe, but Count Gneisenau begged to request that Wellington make a strong offensive so as to joint the fight. The Duke listened and dictated a verbal reply in French. All the while through despite being at the centre of the the fighting Wellington had retained his usual calm stoicism, hardly flinching when a cannonball bounced so close that it threw dirt all over the notebook he was writing on. The Prussian rode away with the message that Wellington had been unable to render support but would indeed attack in the hope of doing so. This coincided with the happy arrival of 2 more battalions of Brunswick infantry that were immediately sent to the attack, and the French began to give ground back towards Gemioncourt. On the right and left the French were now roundly driven from their positions in the woods. The Guards and Brunswick Avantguard in Bossu pushing them to the forest edge and the Hanoverians beating them from Bois de L’Hutte. With his flanks in retreat Ney now pulled his infantry back from Gemioncourt Farm as well, yet due to the nascent threat of the French cavalry the allies had to advance carefully. As the French pulled back, Ney’s artillery also kept up its fire, and as the Guards emerged at the edge of the Bossu wood, they shelled its perimeter. The 1st Guards emerged into the open to be confronted by three battalions of the 1e Léger that Jerome had been in reserve. The sound of metal shrieking through the air and lead smacking into the trees, checked the redcoats. Recoiling under their fire the British recoiled back into the trees as Piré launched the remainder of his Lancers towards the floundering battalion, and the allies advanced no further.
This ended the battle of Quatre Bras. By 8 Ney had pulled his men back towards the heights of Frasnes for the night, he wrote to Napoleon praising his troops and archly pointing out that ultimate victory was denied him by D’Erlon’s absence. There was no doubt about it Napoleon had all but disarmed his best Marshal by commandeering I Corps. Ney had lost 4,200 men in what proved a fruitless effort to take the crossroads, but at least had held his own long enough to prevent a union of the enemy armies. Meanwhile reserves kept arriving at the crossroads through the hours of darkness. At long last the Allied cavalry began to appear, the resentful infantry remembering the terrible lack of cover they had received during the battle, watched them come in on exhausted horses, some having ridden over 70 miles since before dawn. After reshuffling his reserves to relieve his tired troops, 4,800 of which now lay dead. Wellington rode back down the Brussels road to an Inn called the Roi de Espagne, where he had dinner and finished issuing orders for the army to concentrate. In summary both commanders had done exceptionally under the most peculiar circumstances. Wellington and his commanders had skilfully nullified Ney’s initial advance, which was blunted by the time the 5th Division arrived. Wellington harboured his resources and slowly retook his lost ground, little by little forcing Ney to commit reserves to keep up the pressure. The Marshal adroitly offset the growing numbers of allies by neatly exploiting his superiority in artillery and cavalry. Both staving off utter defeat and preventing the other from joining the action at Ligny. Thus the verdict of the battle was decided by the victor at Ligny, and it is most properly classified as an inconclusive, yet tactically a victory for Wellington, however the next day the French could convincingly claim it as a strategic victory, nevertheless this was palatable. A similar thing had happened not a few times in the Peninsular War, especially at Busaco, a victory on the field a reverse on the map. At this time, late on the 16th of June, the Duke had just about recovered from the surprise of Napoleon’s invasion, but had not yet quite bought back his 24 “Humbugged” hours, for Hill’s Corps had yet to arrive and though he had held his ground, he still did not know that to the east Blücher was now in retreat.
A Near Run Thing, the British army at Waterloo: Ian Castle.
Waterloo 1815 (1) Quatre Bras: John Franklin.
Waterloo New Perspectives: Hamilton-Williams.
Waterloo 1815 the birth of modern Europe: Geoffrey Wooton.
Waterloo Companion: Mark Adkin.
Waterloo: Christopher Hibbert,
Waterloo Relics: Gilles Bernard & Gérard Lachaux.
Wellington The Years of the Sword: Elizabeth Longford.
Wellington at Waterloo: Jac Weller.
Rifles. Mark Urban.
Waterloo, 4 days that changed Europe’s destiny: Tim Clayton.
Copy of Memorandum of Service at the Battle of Waterloo: George Scovell.
Story of the Battle of Waterloo from authentic sources: Rev. R Gleig, M.A.