By the end of the Waterloo campaign the only French senior commander remaining undefeated was Marshal Grouchy. His action at Wavre and successful retreat to Paris should have been regarded as the peg on which French honour could be hung on. Napoleon made sure that this would not happen, for he and those who desperately needed to believe Napoleon’s defeat was not his own doing, but down to either the treachery or incompetence of his Generals, made sure that Grouchy and indeed Ney would never wash the stigma of blame from their records.
All’s well in the east.
At 3am on the 18th of June 1815 Field Marshal Grouchy issued his orders for the day. They outlined an advance upon Wavre via Sart-a-Walhain. The previous afternoon he had sent a letter to Napoleon which outlined his plan to pursue the Prussians and depending on which road they took, follow accordingly. After allowing his men to spend half the morning in bivouac, at 6 Comte Excelmans’ II Cavalry Corps left Sauveniere. Vandamme’s III Corps left at 7 from Gembloux and Gerard’s IV Corps followed after him at 8. It was an unhappy command. Vandamme and Gerard did not want to serve under Grouchy, who though a proven cavalry commander, had not shown any qualities to suggest that he merited his present position.
The going was slow, the appalling state of the roads meant delays and Grouchy had indolently neglected to route III and IV Corps by separate roads meaning over 25,000 infantry and supporting guns were forced to share the same avenue of advance.
While the infantry stopped and started, in front, Excelmans Dragoons had begun to clash with the Prussian rearguard. The time was 10:30 am and the Comte duly formed his men across the road to Wavre, anchoring his left flank on the wood of La Plaquerie, and sending forward his skirmishers. As the squadrons extended and went through the familiar motions of engaging outposts, Excelman’s sent chef d’Escuadron d’Estourmel to inform Grouchy.
Grouchy had left Gembloux at 8 or 9 he stopped at a notary’s house in Walhain as III corps was marching through to write to the Emperor. Informing him that the Prussians were retreating to Brussels, while he wrote he sent out his aide de camp Pont-Ballanger to reconnoitre, and a local man who professed that he had once served France came forward to report that the Prussians were at Wavre. Pont-Ballanger returned to report that he could see no enemy troops on the banks of the Dyle towards Moustier. Delays had dogged the the Armée du Nord’s progress since day one, and satisfied that all that could be done was being done, and that in general all was going to plan Grouchy despatched Major La Fresnaye to Mont St Jean with the message.
“March to the sound of the Guns!”
At 11 the French cavalry had pressed to within 4 miles of Wavre, the heads of Vandamme’s columns where entering Nil St Vincent, 7 miles from Wavre near Corbais, 3 miles behind him was General Pajol’s cavalry just behind them was Teste’s infantry. Gerard’s Corps was now nearing Walhain.
Fresnaye galloped away through the drizzling rain and heavy atmosphere, just before 11:15. He had no sooner gone when General Gerard and his staff rode into Walhain, ahead of his corps, probably to see what was happening on the congested road, he was directed to Monsieur Hollert’s house.
Grouchy was inside eating strawberries from a basket on the table. The usual splay of maps covered the table in lieu of a tablecloth and notebooks and pencils were out in force. Not long after he came in Colonel Simon Lorriere, Gerard’s chief of staff, thought he heard the sound of gunfire from the west. The convened staffs immediately attempted to ascertain the nature of the action they were hearing. At first due to the distance and heavy weather they thought it might just be a skirmish, but the sound did not die, it increased.
No doubt remained in any mind that a General Action had begun at Mont St Jean. Grouchy convened a conference with Gerard, and Generals Baltus and Valaze which soon grew increasingly heated. Gerard was a tough and capable soldier, whose instincts where good. In his mind the increasing tempo of artillery to the west required only one reaction from a soldier, to head towards the sound. Grouchy disagreed, his orders were to follow the Prussians, if Napoleon had wanted him to enter the main battle, why would he not have recalled him last night? He had his orders and would stick to them.
General Baltus sided with Grouchy because, looking at the map, he said that given the state of the ground they could never get the artillery through the defiles between Walhain and Mont St Jean. General Valaze snorted imperiously that his Engineers could overcome any obstacle and that they should go to Napoleon. Grouchy did not budge, becoming increasing agitated Gerard implored him “It is your duty to march towards the cannon!”
“My duty” Replied Grouchy sharply, offended at the rebuke “is to execute the emperor’s orders, which direct me to follow the Prussians, it would be infringing his commands to follow your advice”
Gérard’s desperation to break Grouchy’s resolve built and he tried once more, he begged to be allowed to take his Corps alone and march to the sound of the guns.
“No” announced Grouchy firmly “it would be an unpardonable military mistake to separate my troops and make them act on both banks of the Dyle” it was firm military logic and perfectly in accordance with his orders.
Now a breathless Major d’Estourmel arrived from Excelmans at Neuf-Sart. The report confirmed that the Prussians had a rearguard posted at Wavre and had crossed the bridges there in order to get closer to the British, Grouchy read this however as proof that the enemy was retiring North, and felt vindicated in resisting Gerard. The new Marshal knew that Gerard and Vandamme thought themselves superior in intellect to him, and the excitable nature of Gerard made him resolve to ignore his advice, here he stood his ground and confirmed the right wing’s march to Wavre.
Grouchy left Walhain and rode forwards with the main column to where Excelmans’ cavalry were engaging the Prussian outposts. As he drew near the heights of Limalette at about 1.00 pm, an Imperial courier overtook him and handed him a message written by Soult at 10.00 am. The order seemed to vindicate his decision to advance on Wavre, a Prussian column had been discovered retiring on Wavre he was therefore to press the column to his front, while keeping a lookout to his right. He rode on and met with Excelmans who had been intending to force the river, Grouchy however decided to await the infantry and guns, while they waited they could observe the battlefield. Wavre was a modest town that sat in the bottom of the Dyle valley, with the river running past its south edge. Two bridges spanned the current which was swollen and racing after the downpour, the most important being the stone bridge called the Pont du Christ. The river was fordable by bridges at the hamlet of Bas Wavre 750 yards along the left bank, at the Mill at Bierges, over 1,000 yards South west, and 2 miles further still at Limale and Limalette, around these built up areas were fields and forest intersected by lanes and roads. The time was 4.00 pm and Grouchy issued orders to Vandamme, whose corps was now moving along the road over the low heights overlooking the town, he was to form up on the heights and reconnoitre the bridges.
Vandamme held Grouchy’s opinion in as much esteem as Gerard did, observing the barricade on the Pont du Christ and what was apparently a small force guarding it, he decided to attack at once.
The appearance of the French cavalry at the fords of the Dyle had caused consternation in the rear elements of Ziethen’s Korps. Between 2 and 3.00 pm the rear elements of I Korps were still south west of Wavre guarding the bridge at Limale. Grouchy had called back his cavalry from Wavre, and ordered Vandamme to advance towards the town but not to attack it. By 4.00 Wellington’s reinforcements were away, and indeed could be seen on the heights of St Lambert by Napoleon.
General Thielmann had been given the task of covering the rear of the army with his 17,000 men. However he had orders to withdraw by divisions on the main army if he was not attacked. With nothing pressing at 3 except the skirmishing, he issued orders to pull back to Couture where he would turn west. At 3:30 His reserves were just starting out and those troops still on the opposite bank crossing the river, when, he was alerted to the large about of French infantry now arriving on the heights across the river, the movement was instantly countermanded and the reserves returned to their positions. Skirmishers were sent into the houses and lined the steep banks of the river in large numbers. Out in the countryside around St Lambert and Lasne von Gneisenau commented that it hardly mattered whether Thielmann stood and died at Wavre, so long as they got to Mont St Jean.
“Forward Follow Me!”
The opening salvos of four batteries of artillery on the heights north of Wavre alerted Grouchy to Vandamme’s peremptory attack. The General was irritated by Grouchy’s apparent caution and decided to force the river, guarded so it seemed by a token force. There was a sudden and violent increase in musketry from the Pont du Christe and a cheer signalling that the 1st Brigade of Habert’s 10th Division had rushed the bridge.
Watching in the second line of the 2nd brigade was Colonel Jean Francois Uny of the 70e Ligne. In better times the 70e had been a proud regiment, whose most celebrated soldier Lt. Poiret had shielded Bonaparte during the Coup of 18 Brumaire, earning the nickname “The saviour of France”. On the 18th of June Uny had grave doubts as to how his men would perform. Looking along the ranks of muddy conscripts, who to his shame had broken at Ligny two days before, he could only hope they would perform better if called upon today.
It soon became clear that this would be the case however. For the drumming of musketry and artillery had risen in pitch, the smoke was building in thick banks, and the 1st brigade was falling back in disorder.
3/1. Kurmark LIR cheered victoriously as the French retreated, leaving their dead piled upon the barricade and the mouth of the bridge after two determined attacks. The officers noticed however that their men were running out of ammunition
General Habert rode to his 2nd brigade and ordered it to take the bridge. The 22e moved forwards steadily, through the French occupied houses on the right bank, but despite successive attempts, likewise failed to force the enemy from their positions. As the first regiment of the brigade retired it fell to Uby to seize the Pont du Christ, and he was ordered to do so with the bayonet.
On the other side of the barricade the Landwehr were reinforced by 2/IR.30 Fresh muskets and full ammunition pouches now awaited Uby’s two battalions. With the scrape and clatter of metal bayonets were fixed, and Uby ordered the advance. The 1st battalion went forward at the pas de charge, and to their colonel’s delight stormed the barricade in fine style. No sooner had they clambered over and secured the bridge, they came under a murderous musketry to which the 70e had no reply. Unable to deploy properly they broke and began to run back towards the other side of the bridge. Uny was devastated and cried out to them “What, you scoundrels? You disgrace me two days ago and again today. Forward, follow me!” He turned to the standard bearer and snatched the eagle from him. Uby’s gallant gesture inspired his battalions, who followed him back into the fight.
The Mill at Bierges.
Marshal Grouchy galloped up from Limalette to the heights above Wavre at 5.00pm. Grouchy was understandably furious that his Generals had attacked against his orders. As he arrived he had the further displeasure of seeing General Harbert withdraw from his attacks against Wavre, and his staff now came under Prussian artillery fire. Seeing that Vandamme was committed he decided to extend the attacks on either flank. Excelmans was therefore ordered up to Bas Wavre, and Lefol’s Division was detailed to Bierges, one battalion was moved down to attack the Mill. This detachment came up against stiff opposition from the building and heavy chains of skirmishes firing from the opposite bank. Fierce artillery fire thwarted all his attempts to cross the bridge, which had been partially dismantled, and were driven back.
While he waited for his troops to come up General Gerard had been watching with interest as Vandamme vainly assailed the outskirts of Wavre, some houses of which were now burning. At each of the crossing points along the shallow weaving southwestern arc of the Dyle, musket smoke was rising into the air.
His troops were now arriving in force and he received an order to support the attack on Bierges Mill. The mill stood on the French side of the river, near the bridge that gave access to the village. General Hulot’s 14th division, forming the vanguard of III Corps was already heading there, and were immediately ordered to attack. Gerard placed himself at the 1/9e Léger (L’incomparable), and lead them forwards, however as they came under fire the General was wounded in the chest and carried to the rear.
Grouchy immediately ordered a halt to the attacks at Bierges and ordered Hulot to withdraw to the low ground out of sight of the enemy batteries while he considered what to do. This decision was soon made for him as another Imperial courier found him and presented another order dictated by Napoleon and signed by Soult at 1.00pm. Grouchy read it and suddenly realised that the Emperor indeed wanted him to march to the sound of the guns. However there was nothing for it now but to beat the enemy to his front and win through to Mont St Jean the next day. The seriousness of Napoleon’s request was not at all in evidence, and Grouchy was utterly unaware of how badly he was needed. Though at this late hour he couldn’t have done anything even if he had no enemy before him.
Vandamme was allowed to return to the attack at Wavre. His 10th Division’s last reserve the 4th Swiss Regiment under Colonel Staffel stormed the Pont du Christ twice, suffering terrible casualties. Meanwhile Hulot’s 14th Division, lead by Grouchy in person, was thrown back at Bierges. Pajol was directed down to Limale and he arrived to find the bridge poorly defended, indeed it was not occupied all. A quick dash saw Limale under French control, and the Prussian attempt to retake it was thwarted by General Teste’s Division and the French began to flood across the Dyle and threaten Theilmann’s right flank. Prussian reserves, consisting of the 11th, 12th and 10th divisions were quickly channeled down towards Lemal and Bierges as darkness fell and refused the Korps’ flank. Grouchy deployed his troops but in the open countryside it was not possible to do much more. Which was just as well as a disorganised Prussian counterattack bounced clumsily against the French line as night drew on. Darkness had intervened for the Prussians on the right, but the action continued on the left until 11, after the French had been repulsed no less than 13 times from the bridges at Wavre and Bierges. Unable to pursue his advantage at Limale or begin the march to Mont St Jean Grouchy made his dispositions for the night and awaited the next morning, confident that nothing untoward would have happened at Mont St Jean.
Grouchy ordered Vandamme to abandon his position before Wavre and join him at Lemale, and prepared to crush Thielmann’s right flank the next morning. However Vandamme was unable or unwilling to disengage and fighting continued at Wavre and Bierges into the night. During which the Prussians learned of the victory at Mont St Jean, but suffered some absentees during the course of the morning, as Colonel Stengel’s brigade marched off to rejoin his Korps and further another detatchment of cavalry and guns similarly marched off to their parent unit also. Thielmann expected Grouchy to retreat and so shifted reserves to cover his gaps, however the French had no idea that they were the last formed elements of the Armée du Nord. On the 19th Thielmann attacked with his 12th division under Stulpnegel supported by four regiments of cavalry. Grouchy however had managed to concentrate his artillery and silenced the Prussian guns, he then launched 3 divisions against the wood of Rixensart and Bierges. The Prussians were driven from the wood, however they held on the right flank and at Bierges. A counterattack retook the woods, supported by the 10th division, however Grouchy easily pushed them back out again and once more imperilled the centre of the Prussian line. Theilmann withdrew and anchored his left on Bierges, but the Kurmarkers holding it, had by then been under attack since morning, and at 9 am, the position was successfully stormed. Thielmann would not risk the destruction of his command now that the French had the upper hand, and he ordered the retreat covered by strong bodies of skirmishers and cavalry. All this time Vandamme had stayed put before Wavre, despite orders to the contrary and had committed his entire Corps to over 13 futile attacks. Now his right centre caving in Thielmann was lucky Vandamme left him alone. It was as Grouchy was preparing to pursue the enemy when at 10:30pm he received word of the disaster at Waterloo.
In the following conference Vandamme suggested a daring raid on Brussels to free French prisoners, however Grouchy overruled him, his duty was clear, to preserve the last of the Grande Armée. The cavalry were recalled and Excelmanns immediately sent to secure the bridges over the Sambre at Namur. Pajol was given the rearguard and Gerard’s Corps set in motion back across the Dyle.
Theilmann realised the French had retreated 8 hours later and naturally reversed his direction to pursue. A chance to destroy Grouchy was missed at Mellery where General Pirch, who had been ordered to cut the French off from the frontier, but who didn’t wish to engage 2 Corps and supporting cavalry without news of Theilmann, thus Grouchy reached Gembloux on the evening of the 19th.
Dawn the next morning found the French on the move towards Namur. However Vandamme pushed on ahead too quickly and left Gerard, who was carrying the wounded uncovered not far from Temploux. Here Theilmann’s cavalry caught them but were unable to force an action due to their exhaustion. The arrival of Pirch’s Korps allowed the pursuit to continue as far as Namur, where the Inhabitants supplied the French with food, transport and boats. Grouchy left General Teste’s division as the rearguard, and despite being vastly outnumbered the French repulsed the Prussians from the town.
The light of burning barricades filled the streets of Namur that night, stopping the Prussians from preventing Teste’s escape, which joined the main army at Dinant at dawn on the 21st and by the end of the day Grouchy’s troops where back in France safe behind at least 4 fortresses that the Prussians would be forced to reduce before following, further they had fortified all the narrow defiled behind them to slow the enemy down. The Marshal then headed for Paris, hoping to reach the city before the allies and perhaps link up with rallied elements of Napoleon’s forces.
Grouchy eventually made it to Paris after a series of forced marches which narrowly pipped the Prussians to the post. Once there he handed over command of his gallant force to Marshal Davout, who then made preparations to defend the city and would fight the last actions of the campaign. Napoleon could well have continued to fight, and indeed asked for extraordinary powers to do so. Before 1812 he might have been able to do it, in 1813 even after Russia he had fought on, but after Leipzig and the invasion of France in 1814, his power depended on success. Waterloo was the last straw, the enemies he had left behind in Paris, the monied businessmen wanted him gone, his political enemies cut out his legs from under him and left him no choice but to abdicate once more. On the 22nd of June 1815 Napoleon stepped down for the last time and attempted to flee. His comment on the whole affair, which had seen Fouché and Talleyrand outmanoeuvre him and finish politically what had begun militarily at Waterloo, was:
“If I had hanged just two men, Talleyrand and Fouché, I would still be on the throne today”
The main part of the Waterloo campaign was now over, a campaign that had witnessed not just one battle but just under a week of near constant fighting. Grouchy’s withdrawal had preserved a creditable fighting force that might have served to rebuild an army from, but unfortunately for Grouchy fate had another role in mind for him. Like Ney he was made a scapegoat, unlike Ney he was forced to live with the consequences of apparently letting his country down. He was a poor choice for such a vital role, out of his depth in command of a large independent force, but as far as I can see he did his best with what instructions he had. In the years that followed it was clear that France wished only certain types of Napoleonic heroes, the dead ones, and the same went for Napoleon.
Waterloo 1815 (3): Mont St Jean and Wavre. John Franklin.
The Story of the Battle of Waterloo. Gleig.
Waterloo 1815: The Birth of Modern Europe. Geoffrey Wooten.
Waterloo: New Perspectives. David Hamilton Williams.
The Battle of Wavre & Grouchy’s Retreat. W.H Kelly.
Napoleon’s Line Infantry: Phillip Haythornthwaite.