A matter of three lost hours would underpin the rest of the campaign. Contrary to popular belief there was not really a pause in the fighting the day after the twin, almost unanimous battles at Ligny and Quatre Bras, rather a lull or lessening of the action occurred between 11pm and next midday. The fighting did not so much stop, it merely reduced in its intensity. However the consequence of that day, leading as a it did from the dramatic events of the day before all lead towards the final penultimate act.
A maid opening the curtains of Lady Dalrymple Hamilton’s boudoir on the 15th of June had seen the Duke of Wellington leaving Brussels. “There he goes God bless him” she told her mistress naively “And he won’t return till he’s King of France”. It just so happened that almost three days after that glowing prediction, late on the night of the 17th at an inn called the “King of Spain”, Wellington was preparing for the eventuality of having to return to the city and make do with just his Dukedom, still less a little blessing. That he was able to even do this much as due to the inactivity of Marshal Ney, and the skill of the Earl of Uxbridge.
At daylight the French army at Ligny awoke having spent what must have been an uncomfortable night in the field, the ground possibly covered with over 24,000 casualties. Already the two day old campaign had cost an estimated total of over 35,000 men, and no meaningful gain had been achieved by either side. Allied casualties were even now pouring into Brussels by the Porte de Namur.
However Napoleon’s plan was still largely intact. Having knocked the Prussians for six, there was a slight chance he could now perhaps swing west and crush Wellington between himself and Ney, or at very least cause some damage. Orders had gone out to Ney to move once more against Quatre Bras and press the allied vanguard, which would with any luck still be at the crossroads, if Ney moved quickly he could pin Wellington to his ground.
So much for the big picture. Of more immediate import to the Emperor was the care and evacuation of his wounded, a “Sacred Duty” in his words, and the pursuit of Blücher. Napoleon’s failure to pursue the Prussians has been a black mark against his name, not only that but his subsequent orders given that morning to Marshal Grouchy, have contributed to the destruction of several forests in discussion.
The newest Marshal of France had not had a particularly glorious campaign so far. He had shown his timidity on the 15th, and had played only a minor role in the battle the day before. Today Napoleon ordered him to head after Blücher and “Treading on his heels” keep his sword in Blücher’s back. The problem with giving orders that gave a bottom line but with little detail should by now have been apparent to Napoleon, or at least to Soult. Grouchy was in truth probably too new at such a high level command to be allowed out of his sight, however as the day progressed it would transpire that both his lieutenants were having fatal problems in finding out how best to serve the Emperor, and in the case of Grouchy, would certainly show an appalling lack of military judgement. Napoleon visited the battlefield that morning, it was something he tended to do out of habit, and after seeing the wounded he saw that the 2nd Division of III Corps was left at Ligny to help them and then rode for Quatre Bras.
Napoleon’s intention for the day was to concentrate 69,000 men on Wellington’s forces at the crossroads. Ney now had Count D’Erlon’s full and complete attention which would allow him to act with his two Corps’, and in addition General Lobau’s Corps had been sent ahead to outflank the allies. Napoleon. arrived as Lobau’s Cavalry vanguard was approaching Marchais. He was disconcerted to discover that the enemy was still in control of the crossroads, and worse, they had not been attacked by anything more than probing cavalry which had been roundly beaten back. Some came galloping past Napoleon as he rode up, pursued by the British, the massed cavalry and infantry of Lobau’s Corps dissuaded them from further pursuit, but Napoleon now needed information. A woman was brought in by a patrol, she was an English camp follower and from what she said, Wellington had retreated upon the news of the Prussian defeat and the troops in front of him were the allied cavalry rearguard under Lord Uxbridge. The emperor was dumbfounded and sent scouts out to make contact with Ney’s force, he could not understand why he had not moved when he should have been on the march by 6.
Lobau reformed his men and pushed ahead, and the enemy cavalry began to withdraw as the French appeared from the woods. Napoleon drew up 12 guns and engaged the Royal Horse Artillery. As the first guns recoiled, their reports shattering the silence of the morning, a clap of enraged thunder pealed from the overcast sky above. Soon torrents of rain were falling over the countryside in quantities few outside of the tropics had ever seen before. Napoleon sent back orders urging Ney’s commanders to get a move on and presently I Corps began to appear from the trees, followed slowly by II Corps, and at long last Ney appeared. The Emperor met him sharply and openly showed his temper, Ney had cost him three precious hours. Offended and probably furious at Napoleon, Ney made some excuses that he had not known Wellington had withdrawn, but Napoleon wasn’t interested and as the rain darkened his greatcoat, he rode forwards to follow the pursuit personally.
“Ballet de Guerre”.
No one spoke it out loud, but Sir William Paget, 1st Earl of Uxbridge, was not the most popular member of the General Staff on the morning of the 17th of June. Wellington was displeased that Uxbridge had taken so long to get his men moving. One staff officer, sent back to discover how far along the cavalry was, reported that Lord Uxbridge had only just awoken when he arrived. Wellington had dinner at the Roi de Espagne and waited for news of the Prussians, while his army slowly gathered. A waiter listened attentively as he went about his business.
The stiff and tired troopers of his cavalry divisions arriving from Ninove, got the message though. Arriving at the stricken field of Quatre Bras as the darkness drew a blanket over its horrors, battle weary infantrymen were only too willing to tell of their woes. Lurid tales of the power of the French cavalry, so dramatically displayed the day before, made many of the cavalry apprehensive and it was clear that the infantry felt betrayed by the lack of support. Critically it was known by all the infantry regiments of the British contingent that the only cavalry there on the 16th had been from the Dutch-Belgian force and that of Brunswick, no allowances were given their noble allies. The infantry cut the cavalry no slack as it was and they had let them down. No sooner had the first shots been fired therefore, than national prejudice was looming its ugly head, the first cracks were showing. The men of the 95th for instance were dead certain that the Nassauers they had encountered in the defence of Thyle were cowardly rather than cautious. The Guards were somewhat less than impressed by Saxe Weimer’s men, last seen exiting the woods. Meinwhile the Dutch-Belgians weren’t to pleased that they had been without any kind of support, four legged or otherwise, for an hour after the battle began.
Wellington had returned to the crossroads at 6, and asked the Gordon’s for “A little fire” the highlanders obliged and a grateful Duke stood by it, outside a “Mansion” made of branches, conversing with George Bowles about Blücher. Henry Hardinge’s brother had told them the Prussians had at the very least been severely mauled, but he had left to find a surgeon for Henry and could not be sure they had not been defeated. The Duke’s friend and Aide de Camp Alexander Gordon rode out with a detachment of the 10th Hussars to find out what happened. They had to wait in agonising suspense until 9 for Blücher’s messenger to arrive.
In the interim Wellington and the staff heard cheers heralding the arrival of II Corps, but thinking it portended an attack the Duke rushed outside his small hut only to see Hill riding up. Wellington laughed his distinctive laugh and went back inside. The highlanders would have known Sir Rowland Hill anywhere, they had served under him in Spain since 1812, and it was their voices that could be heard welcoming “Daddy” Hill to Gennapes. Hill was a Shropshire man and the most beloved General officer in the army, where Wellington and Picton swore at their men, Hill could muster no more than a fatherly chiding, he had sworn only once in his life to date that anybody knew of, yet his reprove was felt the most keenly, for his genuine and paternal care was remarked on throughout the old Peninsular army. Hearing them cheer, the big honest head turned, to show his rosy complexion, heightened by the Spanish sun, and the kind, intelligent, sleepy blue eyes recognised one of his old regiments. Doubtless with a delighted smile Hill turned his horse off the road and walked it amongst the Scots, talking with the men in his usual simple gentlemanly manner, asking after their welfare. Most felt he was more of a country squire than a field officer, and he represented home to many country bred soldiers, but his quietude was deceptive, he was an exceptionally talented soldier and something of a tiger in the heat of battle. The General was also well known for his superb manners and such affecting scenes won him the respect of most men he met, since Abercromby and Moore few had been so favoured by the rank and file as Daddy Hill. This went for Wellington too, apart from General Graham, Hill had been the only man that the Duke trusted out of his sight, hence II Corps had been deployed far to the west under this trusted officer, and thus had not been engaged on the 16th.
At 7:30 Gordon returned, his horse in a lather, and not looking so good himself. He dismounted and whispered to Wellington the grim news. The Duke reacted with his customary reserve, and betrayed little, he told Bowles that Blücher had had a “Good licking and gone back to Wavre, eighteen miles. As he has gone back, we must go too” he mused about how the opposition party in London would view what he was about to do but knew that politics could not be helped. General Müffling arrived and found the staff inside the hut trying to find Wavre on the map, Müffling surprised them all by pointing it out, it was much farther north than anyone had thought. “Ma foi, C’est fort loin” he said Christie’s Poirot could not have been much more succinct, and the Duke had a suspicion that Gneusenau had deliberately suppressed the nature of the defeat to get him to cover their retreat. Despite this brief attack of xenophobia he later realised that the Wavre decision was the defining moment of the century and “The moment was Blücher’s”.
With Hill’s men now arrived Wellington discussed the Prussian situation with Müffling, who vehemently assured him that Bluücher would not let him down. The Duke decided to order
the retreat to Mont St Jean so as to try and link up with Blücher, he sent Colonel Sir William De Lancey to survey the ground and begin preparations for encamping and deploying the army. The infantry breakfasted and began to move out, Uxbridge was ready to cover them, yet the French made no move. Apart from a small action during the early morning nothing happened and Wellington began to wonder whether the enemy was retreating as well. Wellington watched in a form of mild amazement as one by one, by brigade and division over 50,000 men, guns and equipment marched unmolested under the nose of the enemy without a shot being fired, and at last disappeared from sight.
As this happen Uxbridge moved his cavalry into the positions just vacated and formed three lines. The Hussars to the front, the Light Dragoons in the middle with the artillery and the Heavy Cavalry in reserve. At 2pm the French cavalry were observed beginning to advance and soon the outposts became engaged. The foot soldiers were now gone and Wellington came riding up to his cavalry commander, waiting to the right of Quatre Bras. Still with some disbelief the Duke exclaimed “Well there is the last of the infantry gone, and I don’t care now”. As he said this the sun sparkled on steel in the distance, bayonets thought Wellington. No lances said Uxbridge, Sir Hussey Vivian presented his telescope to settle the matter, and it indeed proved to be lances. Wellington told Uxbridge to hold his ground as long as he could, but not to be tempted into a general engagement and he rode away. Uxbridge had a relatively leisurely wait for French to open the ball, so he dismounted and sat down on the grass with his telescope and studied the enemy’s movements. The Earl was many things but a poor soldier he was not, indeed he was possibly the most gifted cavalry general in the army, and he was particularly adept at covering a retreat. In 1809 he had covered Moore’s retreat to the mountains and won some of the most famous victories in the history of the cavalry.
When the French got their act together they came on fast. Artillery suddenly engaged his guns from the heights of Frasnes and overwhelming numbers of French cavalry debauched in streams from the woods to the front and left. Uxbrudge’s outposts were recalled and the French made a attempt to cut him off from his route North. Uxbridge leapt to into the saddle at once and ordered his guns to fire once upon the enemy and retire. There was the rumble of thunder and the crash of artillery with the whiz of madly swerving rockets, and after a frantic dash the artillery went rattling over the bridge to Genappes. The heavens opened their sluices in dramatic style as the action commenced, and very soon turned the country into a swamp and flooded the roads and fields, preventing speed of any kind except on the main road to Brussels which was paved. Horses struggled through these newly created paddy fields up to their knees in water snd sucking mud.
The cavalry brigades then retired in three bodies. General Dornberg, who held Uxbridge’s right flank was to retire via the bridges over the Dyle and Fonteny, while his left, consisting of the light brigades of Vivian and Vandeleur by the Dyle bridge at Thy, his centre made up of the two heavy brigades of Ponsonby and Somerset covered by the 7th Hussars and the 23rd Light Dragoons would head for Genappes.
Vandeleur and Vivian got away with little trouble. Though at one point Vivian did feel that Sir John could be moving with a touch more expedition, once they were over the Baker carbines of the 10th Hussars dissuaded further pursuit.
In the centre the Heavies threaded across the narrow bridge to Genappe with the 7th Hussars as rearguard. Uxbridge rode with his regiment, he was its colonel, and praised and encouraged his men as they fell back in the face of overwhelming numbers. The going was slow in the flooded fields allowing the French artillery to tease them somewhat. The redcoats of the heavy brigades at last clattered up the shining main street of Genappe and fanned out over the high ground behind were the artillery had ranged its guns. The 7th showing front again to cover them. There they waited for a quarter of an hour, presently the 7th came riding out and behind them, advancing at a walk came a large body of lancers supported by Cuirassiers. The bottleneck could easily be held by an inferior force and so Uxbridge ordered a squadron of the 7th to charge, a seesaw battle of wheeling, milling horsemen convulsed the end of the street. The fighting was fierce and the French were driven back but the lancers could not be overturned, in a stalemate such as this the attacker was at a disadvantage and Uxbridge ordered the retreat, and rode to front of the 23rd. Exultant at having held the British hussars the French pressed back towards the north end of the village, their officers calling out “En avant, en avant!”. Uxbridge tried to galvanise the light Dragoons. However he sensed by their response that they were shaken and called for the heavies. “The Life Guards shall have this honour!” He said and ordered the 1st Regiment to clear the chaussée. Two squadrons of the life guards went forward with “Right good will”. This charge proved irresistible, it overturned the French in the street and bundled them out the other end, the retreat then proceeded in a slow and orderly manner all the way to Mont St Jean in the prettiest field day of cavalry Uxbridge had ever seen. Major Taylor of the 10th Hussars writing that it was a “Ballet of War”
First Roads End.
At 6pm Napoleon’s advance guard pursuing Uxbridge’s cavalry approached Mont St Jean and the forest of Soignes. Throughout the remainder of the pursuit they had been unable to exploit any weakness in the enemy due to the cool way in which they fronted and retired by squadrons, and because the weather was atrocious. Whenever the British offered a charge the French were disinclined to accept and despite their cannonade, increased when Napoleon brought up a battery of horse artillery, they were only able to keep in visual contact with the enemy.
The overcast sky, lit regularly by galling flashes of lightning and heavy downpour reduced visibility and turned a grey film over the green countryside. Nevertheless a fair idea of the ground presented itself, Napoleon could see the road stretching up a low ridge, which formed the northern side of a subtle depression in the ground, the bottom of which was the usual flat table of tall crops. On a fine day the area might have been quite picturesque with its small farms, thick copses, forests, fields and village spires. However what was more important was finding out wether the allied army had entered the woods or not. Intelligence from the attentive patron of the Roi de Espangne suggested that Mont St Jean was the Duke’s objective for the day, and so it was probable that Wellington would wish to hold his position until morning. Drawing up his cavalry, Napoleon ordered them forwards as if to seize the ridge, covered of what artillery had been brought up. The movement was met by the sudden unmasking of several batteries ranged along the ridge top which forced the Cuirassiers back. Napoleon deduced that Wellington’s entire army was there, and if that was so, he could force a battle the next morning. The cannonading would last into the night which would cause the ire of Wellington. Much as at Ligny, Napoleon was sure Wellington had committed a fatal error by holding his ground before a forest, and genuinely thought he had managed to prevent him from getting through before dark.
Satisfied the Emperor rode back to his headquarters at the farm of Le Caillou and ordered his army, still struggling through the downpour and labouring with the artillery on the congested roads, to bivouac around Plancenoit and Hougoumont. There was brought some of the British officers captured that day, he had those that were wounded were treated by his surgeon, General Flahaut interpreted their words when he spoke to them, and through these interviews learned something of the nature of Wellington’s losses at Quatre Bras.
The Road to Wavre.
Grouchy had already exhibited a timid nature on the first day of fighting. Then too he had been pursuing an enemy in retreat. He did so again now, and it was a ominous sign. He pursued the Prussians along the Mont Guibert and Gembloux roads with about 38,000 men. However the main body of the enemy was well away by the time he started out and as he shifted north east, following the route he had expected the Prussians to be taking, he was unaware that the troops he was following were actually some 8,000 broken up deserters and stragglers. He arrived at Gembloux at 4pm, there he found information that a Prussian Corps had spent the night, prisoners and sympathetic civilians confirmed the rest, as the the surrounding villages were full of enemy wounded and mistreated civilians complained of looters, there was no shortage of people to interview, but which way had they gone? Had they continued East? Or pushed North towards Brussels? Having managed to do no more damage than snap up enemy wagons and some supply parks Grouchy, thus far always one step behind the game, halted and sent out reconnaissance patrols towards Liege and Wavre, giving the Prussians yet more breathing space. At 6 reports came to him that Blücher was at Wavre, in the appalling weather Grouchy didn’t see much point in pressing on, his men had just began to heat their soup and so, thinking he would have ample time to catch the Prussians the next day, gave no further orders than those niece carry to maintain his position. Whether he knew it or not those 3 hours lost by Ney were still dogging the steps of the Armée du Nord and now Grouchy had lost them too. Gneisenau however must have been full satisfaction, he had been allowed half of his 48 hours that he needed to reorganise the army, it had been done on the run but it was coming together, his only concern was in deciding what to do next. The Army of the Lower Rhine was largely concentrated around Wavre, with the fresh and unused IV Corps ready for action. The next day would see the work finished, or put an end to the matter. Blücher had been up early, revived somewhat from the night, he was soon riding along his columns raising the spirits of the men, and the mood in the ranks was heartening “We have lost once” remarked a Pomeranian soldier to a grumbling comrade “But the game is not yet up, and tomorrow is another day”
The Waterloo Campaign: Napoleon Bonaparte.
Waterloo the birth of modern Europe: Geoffrey Wootten,
Waterloo 1815 (2) Ligny: John Franklin.
One Leg: Marquis of Anglesey.
Wellington’s Right Hand: J. Hill.
Wellington, The years of the sword: Elizabeth Longford.
Waterloo, New Perspectives: David Hamilton Williams.
The Battle: Alessandro Barbero.
Great General’s of the Napoleonic Wars and their Battles: Andrew Uffindell.
A Near Run Thing: David Howarth.