The battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras were fought at the opening of invasion of Belgium in the the hundred days campaign, and Napoleon’s attempt to reassert his control over France. This double battle, fought simultaneously a mere 8 miles apart, had a profound influence on the final battles, fought 2 days later at Waterloo and Wavre which ended the Napoleonic era. The story begins the year before.
Sent into exile by the coalition that defeated him, Napoleon’s restless energy set about improving his new island home.
The call to power still resided within him.
Napoleon’s chance for glory came when his jailer, Sir Neil Campbell briefly left the island. Swiftly, Napoleon and his followers threw their lot in with the fates and the reaction of the French people.
Landing on the southern coast of France, a call to arms was issued to his former army.
Napoleon pressed on further along the Route Napoleon through the Alps, and found the door to power unlocked. At the senior levels of France, the move was regarded with bemusement, rather than alarm. Troops were sent to intercept the rebellion.
The first true test of Napoleon’s gamble paid off.
The 5th infantry fell under the old master’s spell.
Sensing the danger, Louis XVIII sent Marshal Ney and a force to stop Napoleon. The true test had come.
With Ney’s defection, the gamble had paid off. Napoleon continued pressing on to Paris with his growing army and band of supporters.
Vive l’empereur! A bas les prêtres! A bas les nobles! A l’echafaud les bourbons! Vive la liberté! (Long live the Emperor! Down with the priests! Down with the aristocrats! Hang the Bourbons! Long live freedom!) cried the Parisians. Napoleon had regained control of France, and Louis XVIII fled his country.
The rest of Europe resolved to end the rule of Napoleon, once and for all. Meeting at the Congress of Vienna, the powers that fought against Napoleon formed the Seventh Coalition to fight France once more.
The 1814 campaign which first removed Napoleon from power, involved simultaneous attacks on France from the North and South. The strategy was to be repeated on a grand scale. Only the Prussian and Anglo-Dutch armies were in the field in Belgium to oppose the French. They would be joined by Armies from the German States, Austria, Naples, Spain and Sweden, with a large Russian army forming a reserve. Once in place by the end of summer 1815, they would advance on all fronts and overwhelm Napoleon and France.
Aware of the threat coming towards him, Napoleon faced a choice. He could either go on the defensive, using the shorter internal lines of communication to defeat the planned mass invasion, or attack the Prussian and Anglo-Dutch armies in the field as soon as possible and knock them out. This was perhaps the riskier military option, but politically it might force Britain to withdraw from the coalition, and force the remainder to accept Napoleonic rule in France. It would also allow France to capture the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which would accept French rule again, providing more troops if required.
Napoleon chose to attack the Prussians and the Anglo-Dutch, with the assault planned for early June, once the French army of the North was ready.
Opposing them were the Prussians, under the command of Feldmarschall von Blücher.
and the composite Anglo-German-Dutch army, under the command of the Duke of Wellington.
The chosen point of attack would be the ‘hinge’ joining the two armies together.
This method of attack, used successfully by Napoleon many times before was called the strategy of the central position. Schematics of how this was intended to work in the hundred days campaign are shown below. The opening attack aimed to drive a wedge between the two allied armies, with the French advancing with two wings, supported by a reserve.
The French army corps system allowed an individual corps to fight a much larger enemy in a pinning action, releasing further corps to conduct flank attacks on the other enemy pinned down by the second wing of the French. Local superiority of force, combined with flanks attacks would normally be sufficient to rout the first enemy.
Part of the French right wing would pursue the broken enemy, who would fall back towards their line of communication, hence safety. The remainder of the French would rapidly countermarch and relieve the pinning corps facing the other enemy.
The newly composed French force would again achieve local superiority of force and outflank their enemy, thus defeating them.
The French troop concentrations proceeded with great stealth, with the Allied armies unaware of the threat.
The French massed at the border, between the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies.
14th June 1815
The night before the attack, Napoleon issued his order of the day, reminding the French that two famous battles (Marengo and Friedland) were fought on this day. The moment had come to conquer or die!
The Prussians began to stir from their lethargy, as reports of the French Troop concentrations reached them.
Early morning, 15th June.
The French advanced on the morning of the 15th June, initially in three columns, straight for the gap between the Allied armies, brushing aside the Prussian screen.
The realm of chance intervened, with General de Bourmont defecting to the Prussians, taking the initial French war plan with him, and confusion in III corps due to a riding accident.
Unable to hold back the attack, the Prussian I corps fell back towards Ligny. The Prussians hurried to concentrate; a potentially dangerous move without support from the Anglo-Dutch army.
Afternoon, 15th June.
News of the invasion reached the Duke of Wellington in Brussels some 12 hours after the French invasion. Initially Wellington chose to disbelieve the direction of the French advance, believing it to be a feint.
de Rebecque, Chief of Staff to the Prince of Orange, ordered troops to hold the vital crossroads at Quatre Bras. This act of independent action saved the allied armies, by preserving the road link between them.
Evening, 15th June.
The Duke of Wellington appeared calm when he attended the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on the evening of 15th June. This event was planned in the social calendar well in advance of the French attack. Bryon’s poem, ‘The Eve of Waterloo’, captures the change from careless sang froid, to heart felt partings, and preparations for war, as news arrived of the French attack.
With the French before Quatre Bras, and the Prussians concentrating for battle tomorrow, Wellington finally understood how exposed his army and the Allied position was.
Meanwhile, the Prussian army rushed to concentrate their four corps, ready for battle the next day.
Napoleon rested at Charleroi, secure in the knowledge his plan had succeeded so far. He could attack either the Prussians or the Anglo-Dutch as conditions allowed.
The initiative lay with the French if only they would act fast enough.
Early morning, 16th June.
At Charleroi, sent a message to Marshal Ney outlining his intention for the campaign. News soon reached him that the Prussians were concentrating their troops for battle.
Napoleon began concentrating his troops on the right flank to strike the Prussians first.
Meanwhile, Marshal Ney headed to Quatre Bras on the morning of 16th June. Napoleon’s orders reached him late in the morning, which stirred Ney into action against the few thousand Dutch troops before him.
The Duke of Wellington was also on the move on the 16th June, and rode down to Quatre Bras, ahead of the troops he’d ordered there. Seeing a quiet position, he rode over to the battlefield to meet the Prussians.
Midday, 16th June, at Quatre Bras.
Marshal Ney received a dispatch from Marshal Soult, Napoleon’s Chief of Staff, urging action against the crossroads before him.
The battlefield at Quatre Bras had a number of fortified farmhouses, a feature of the countryside. There were two thick woods, of which Bossau wood was to be sternly contested. Cornfields covered the ground, which were exceptionally high for the time of year. Some gentle slopes were also located between the farmhouse of Gemioncourt.
The main roads ran south – north, from Charleroi to Brussels, and south east to north west, from Namur to Nivelles, with the crossroad formed at Quatre Bras. The French could expect reinforcements from the south (Charleroi), and the Anglo Dutch from the north (Brussels) and north west (Nivelles).
Midday, 16th June, at Ligny.
Napoleon’s sappers built him an observation platform on a windmill for him to survey the Prussian position.
The French would accept the offer of battle from the Prussians and fight them this day.
On the other side of Ligny Brook, a meeting took place between Feldmarschall von Blücher and the Duke of Wellington, as they surveyed the impending battlefield.
‘At this moment we noticed in the distance a party of the enemy, and Napoleon was clearly distinguishable in the group. Perhaps the eyes of the three greatest military commanders of the age were directed on one another.’
von Reiche, Chief of Staff to Ziethen I Corps
Wellington offered his advice on how he would deploy the troops if they were his army, making use of reverse slopes, to shelter them from any French artillery fire and to keep them guessing. Despite his reservations regarding the outcome, he pledged to bring his army to their aid provided he was not attacked himself at Quatre Bras.
Between ~ 2:00 and 3:00pm
At Quatre Bras
At the start of the battle, the French had close to 3:1 superiority in overall numbers of troops, compared to the Dutch troops facing them. Despite this clear advantage, their progress in taking the key defensive farmhouses on the southern edge of the battlefield was slow. The Duke of Wellington arrived on the battlefield. It was clear his commitment to Blücher and the Prussians would be delayed, as his army would have to fight their way past the French first.
Despite being outnumbered by a 5:4 ratio, Napoleon felt confident of victory as he expected Marshal Ney to support his attack in a flanking move. Similarly, von Blücher expecting reinforcements from Wellington also felt confident.
The Ligny battlefield was encompassed by a series of villages, heavily fortified by the Prussians. Before the villages, the marshy Ligny brook ran, aiding the defensive line the Prussians had occupied. The French would assault, the Prussians defend.
It was a very hot summers day, making the battle more wearisome for the combatants.
Between ~ 3:00 and 4:00pm
At Quatre Bras
Marshal Ney received an order from Napoleon urging the taking of the crossroads. Before the farmhouses of Gemioncourt and Piramont could fall to the French, British reinforcements were seen approaching from Brussels.
The 5th Division of Peninsular veteran troops, togther with a brigade of Brunswickers appeared at just the right time for the Allied army. The battle line now formed an arc. During the course of the fight, the Duke of Brunswick was killed in action.
The sound of cannons firing at the battle of Quatre Bras convinced Napoleon that his own flank was secure, and that he could begin his battle plan. This was to be a battle of attrition, steadily wearing down the Prussian front line until all their reserves were committed. At that point, the Imperial Guard could attack the weakest point in the Prussian line.
The assault began at St Amand, by Vandamme’s III Corps, and countered by troops from the Prussian I corps.
Followed quickly by an assault on Ligny, by Gérard’s IV Corps. The battle here was contested strongly by both sides.
On the eastern flank, the action was more limited, with the Prussian II corps holding off probing attacks by the French. Eye witnesses, including von Clausewitz, the Chief of Staff to III Corps couldn’t believe anyone could survive in the village of Ligny as it went up in flames.
In the midst of the action, Marshal Soult, Chief of Staff sent a dispatch to Marshal Ney at Quatre Bras, requesting his assistance by a flanking attack on the Prussians.
But news soon arrived that Ney was fighting a considerable force. d’Erlon’s I Corps, at present uncommitted to either battle would have to suffice for Napoleon’s planned flanking movement, and messages were sent to that effect.
Between ~ 4:00 and 5:00pm
At Quatre Bras
Marshal Ney received another message from Napoleon. He failed to understand the Emperor’s intention.
Meanwhile, the realm of chance intervened. A messenger intercepted I Corps on its way to Quatre Bras. The commanding officer, d’Erlon was ordered to march to the battlefield at Ligny, which he duly did. But the messenger failed to ride on and tell Marshal Ney of the change of plan.
Back at Quatre Bras, a fierce action broke out between Pack’s brigade (42nd ‘Black Watch’ Highlanders, and 44th East Essex) and an attack by French lancers. The cavalry almost caught the Highlanders before forming a defensive square and being repulsed. The 44th regiment had no time to form square, but turned around to face the attack from their rear in line. After a brief exchange of fire and nearly losing their colours, the attack was beaten off.
Sergeant James Anton of the 42nd Highlanders, gave a vivid account of being in action during this phase of the battle.
“Our sudden appearance seemed to paralyse their advance. The singular appearance about dress, combined, no doubt, with our sudden debut, tended to stagger their resolution – we were on them, our pieces were loaded, and our bayonets glittered, impatient to drink their blood. Those who had so proudly driven the Belgians before them, turned now to fly, whilst our loud cheers made the fields echo to our wild hurrahs.
We drove on so fast that we almost appeared like a mob following the rout of some defeated faction. Marshal Ney, who commanded the enemy observed our wild unguarded zeal, and ordered a regiment of Lancers to bear down upon us. We saw their approach at a distance, as they issued from a wood, and took them for Brunswickers coming to cut up the flying infantry; and as cavalry on all occasions have the advantage of retreating foot, on a fair field, we were halted in order to let them take their way; they were approaching our right flank, from which our skirmishers were extended, and we were far from being in the formation fit to repel an attack, if intended, or to afford regular supports to our friends if acquiring our aid. I think we stood with too much confidence, gazing towards them as if they had been our friends, anticipating the gallant charge they would make on the flying foe, and we were making no comparative motions movement to receive them as enemies, further than the reloading of the muskets, until the German orderly dragoon gallops out, exclaiming, Franchee! Franchee! and wheeling about, galloped off.
We instantly formed a rallying square; no time for peculiarity; every man’s piece was loaded, and our enemies approach that for charge; the feet of their horses seemed to tear up the ground. Our skirmishers having been impressed with the same opinion that these were Brunswick cavalry, fell beneath their lances, and a few escaped death all wounds; our brave Colonel [Sir Robert Macara] fell at this time, pierced through the chin until the point of demands reached the brain. Captain Menzies fell, covered with wounds, and a momentary conflict took place over him; he was a powerful man, and, hand to hand, more than a match for six ordinary men. The Grenadiers, whom he commanded, pressed around to save or avenge him, but fell beneath the enemies’ lances.
Of all descriptions of cavalry, certainly the Lancers seemed the most formidable to infantry, as the lances can be projected with considerable precision, and with deadly effect, without bringing the horse to the point of the bayonet; and it was only by the rapid and well directed fire of musketry that these formidable assailants were repulsed.
Colonel Dick assumed the command on the fall of Sir Robert Macara, and was severely wounded. Brevet-Major Davidson succeeded, and was mortally wounded; to him succeeded Brevet-Major Campbell. Thus, in a few minutes, we have been placed under four different commanding officers. An attempt was now to make us form in line; for we stood mixed in one irregular mass — Grenadiers, light, and battalion companies — a noisy group; such is the inevitable consequence of the rapid succession of commanders. Our covering sergeants or called out on purpose of each company might fall on the right of its sergeant, an excellent plan had been adopted, but a cry arose that another charge of cavalry was approaching, and this plan was abandoned.
Our last file had got into square, and into its proper place, so far as unequalised companies could form square, when the cuirassiers dashed on two of its faces; their heavy horses and steel armour seemed sufficient to bury us under them, had they been pushed forward onto our bayonets. A moment’s pause ensued; it was the pause of death. General Pack was on the right angle of the front face of the square, and he lifted his hat towards the French officer, as he was wanted to do when returning a salute. I suppose our assailants construed our forbearance as an indication of surrendering; a false idea; not a blow had been struck nor a musket levelled, but when the general raised his hat it served as a signal, though not a preconcerted one, but entirely accidental; for we were doubtful whether our officer commanding was protracting the order, waiting for the general’s commands, as he was present. Be this as it may, a most destructive fire was opened; riders cased in heavy armour, fell tumbling from their horses; the horses reared, plunged, and fell on the dismounted riders; steel helmets and cuirasses rang against unsheathed sabres as they fell to the ground…”
The French II Corps under the command of General Girad attempted to storm La Haye, a move spotted by Blücher.
At Wagnelée the battle also raged.
And at Ligny the fight went on, as recounted by these two accounts. The first is French.
“When within two hundred yards of the hedges which concealed thousands of Prussian sharpshooters, the regiment took up battle order, while still on the march. The charge was sounded and the soldiers went through the hedges. The 1st Brigade’s left half battalion, to which I belonged, went down a hollow track blocked by felled trees, vehicles, harrows and ploughs, and we got past these only after considerable difficulty and under extreme fire from the Prussians hidden behind the hedges, which were extremely thick. Eventually we overcame these obstacles and, firing as we went entered the village. When we reached the church, our advance was halted by a stream, and the enemy, in houses, behind walls and on rooftops, inflicted considerable casualties, as much by musketry as by grapeshot and cannon balls, which took us from front and flank.
In a moment Major Hervieux, commanding the regiment, and the two battalion commanders, Richard and Lafolie, had been killed; another battalion commander, Blain by name, was slightly wounded and had his horse killed from under him; five captains were killed and three wounded, and close on seven hundred rank and file killed or wounded.
As for me, I escaped with nothing worse than bruises on my thighs and right leg. Not for a long time had I fought with such dash and devotion. The confusion into which the enemy threw us made me curse my existence. I was so angry at seeing a fight conducted so badly that I wanted to get myself killed. No one was in command. No generals, no staff officers, no aide-de-camp were in sight. The regiment lost two thirds of its strength without receiving either reinforcements or orders, and were obliged to retreat in disorder, leaving our wounded on the ground. We rallied near our batteries, which were firing like hell at the enemy’s guns.
Captain Christophe and I rallied what remained of the regiment, and I can say to my own glory that the troops were pleased to see me still among them, and they asked me to lead them back into action. Despite the setback, the battalion had taken some five hundred prisoners.
Just as we were busy collecting the regiment, General Rôme arrived and ordered us back into Ligny village. The men, not ay all disheartened by their failure, nor disturbed by the loss of nearly two thirds of their comrades, shouted ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ and advanced. Captain Christophe had the charge sounded, the battalion re-entered the village, but was repulsed. It rallied and forced its way in three times more, only to suffer the same reverse each time”.
Captain Charles François, 30th Line at Ligny.
The second account is Prussian.
“Presently the colonel rode up to us and said, ‘Riflemen, you are young, I am afraid too ardent; calmness makes the soldier; hold yourselves in order’; then he turned round: March! – and the dull half suffocated drum, from within the deep columns, was heard beating such delicious music. Now, at last, was all to be realized for which we had left our homes, had suffered so many fatigues, had so ardently longed. The bugle gave the signal of halt; we were in front of the village of Ligny. The signal was given for the riflemen to march out to the right and left of the column, and to attack.
Our ardour now led us entirely beyond the proper limits; the section to which I belonged ran madly, without firing, towards the enemy, who retreated. My hindman fell; I rushed on, hearing well but not heeding the urgent calls of our old sergeant. The village was intersected with thick hedges, from behind which the grenadiers fired upon us, but we drove them from one to the other. I forgetting altogether to fire and what I ought to have done, tore the red plume from one of the grenadiers’ caps, and swung it over my head, calling triumphantly to my comrades. At length we arrived at a road crossing the village lengthwise, and sergeant major had now succeeded in his attempt to bring us somewhat back to our reason. There was a house around the corner of which he suspected that a number of French lay. ’Be cautious’, he said to me, ‘until the others are up’, but I stepped round and a grenadier stood about fifteen paces from me; he aimed at me, I levelled my rifle at him. ‘Aim well, my boy’, said the sergeant-major, who saw me. My antagonist’s ball grazed my hair on the right side; I shot and he fell; I found I had shot through his face; he was dying. This was my first shot ever fired in battle.
Several times I approached old soldiers in the battle, to ask them whether this was really a good sound battle, and when they told me, as heavy a one a Dennewitz (1813), one of the most sanguinary engagements in which our regiment or, in fact, any regiment had ever fought, I was delighted. All I had feared was that I should not have the honour of assisting in a thorough battle”.
Franz Lieber, Colberg Regiment at Ligny.
Between ~ 5:00 and 6:00pm
At Quatre Bras
Marshal Ney finally received the news that I Corps were marching to the Battle of Ligny, not the Battle of Quatre Bras. Furious at the news and the loss of troops he believed he needed to win at Quatre Bras, he immediately ordered I Corps to return to him.
Ney received another message from Napoleon commanding him to wheel about and fall on the Prussians engaged at Ligny. But the French had to fight where they were against an enemy that was steadily growing in strength.
It did not occur to Ney to rescind the orders he’d just given to I Corps, and allow part of his wing to obey Napoleon’s summons.
The long expected appearance of d’Erlon’s I Corps on the western flank had failed to appear, but instead an unidentified column approached the rear of III Corps, stalling the attacks on La Haye and St Amand. Rather than move the Imperial Guard towards Ligny for the coup de grâce, Napoleon had to send the Young Guard to help Vandamme’s III corps.
This created a delay and time for the Prussians to reorganise, and launch a counterattack, led by Blücher himself. The French fell back in disarray.
The Young Guard appeared and they retook St Amand, ending the crisis for the French.
The battle still raged on in Ligny.
With d’Erlon’s I Corps identified as the mystery troops, which had threatened III Corps, Napoleon called for them to join him in the final attack. The realm of chance intervened again, when Ney’s order of recall arrived. A furious argument broke out, with the officers and men wishing to fight in the battle before their eyes.
But d’Erlon obeyed the orders of his line commander, and marched I Corps back to Quatre Bras, this taking no part in either battle.
Napoleon had no time to lose. He still had a battle to win, and sent the Imperial Guard forwards under darkening skies from a thunderstorm.
Between ~ 6:00 and 8:00pm
At Quatre Bras
Faced with increasing numbers of Allied troops, Marshal Ney ordered the newly arrived heavy cavalry reserve to attack.
The finest cavalry in Europe swept forward to be met by infantry; some caught in line, some in square.
Another account of being under attack by cavalry in a square was given by Ensign Edward Macready, 30th Foot.
“We soon reached Quatre Bras, and on turning the end of the wood found ourselves bodily in the battle. The roaring of great guns and musketry, the bursting of shells, and shouts of the combatants raised an infernal game, while the squares and lines, the galloping of horses mounted and riderless, the mingled crowds of wounded and fugitives (foreigners), the volumes of smoke and flashing of fire, struck out of steam which accorded admirably with the music. As we passed the spot where the 44th, old chums of ours inSpain, had suffered considerably, the poor wounded fellows raised themselves up and welcomed us with faint shouts,
‘Push on old three tens — pay ’em off for the 44th, – you’re much wanted, boys — success to you, my darlings.’
Here we met our old Colonel riding out of the field, shot through the leg; he pointed to it and cried, ‘They’ve tickle me again, my boys — now one leg can’t laugh at the other.’
Hamilton showed us where our regiment was, and we reached it just as a body of lancers and cuirassiers enveloped two faces of our square. We formed up to the left and fired away. The tremendous volly our square, which in a hurry of formation was much overmanned on the sides attacked, gave them, sending off these fellows with the loss of the number of men, and their commanding officer. He was a gallant soldier, and fell while crying to his men ‘Advancez, mes enfants – courage – encore une fois, Francais.’
I don’t know what might have been my sensations on entering this field truly, but I was so fagged and choked with running and was crammed so suddenly into the very thick of the business, but I can’t recollect thinking at all, except that the poor Highlanders (over whom I stumbled or had to jump almost every step) were most provokingly distributed.
On our impulse of the cavalry, a general outside the Square (said to be St Thomas Picton) thanked us warmly, and some seconds after, in still out of terms, damned us all for making such a noise, and asked if we had no officers amongst us. We were half a minute in the square laughing and shaking hands with all about us, when we were ordered to pursue, and dashing out, was soon brought up by a line of tirailleurs, with whom we kept up a briskish fire…. The cannonade and skirmishing were lively on both sides, while the heavy fire from the wood in our rear showed that the guards and the enemy were hotly disputing it.”
But the Cuirassiers broke one English regiment of foot, and scattered another.
Between ~ 6:00 and 7:00pm
At Quatre Bras, the tide was turning against the French and in favour of the Duke of Wellington and his multinational army, as weight of reinforcements began to tell, with the Allied army having superiority of 3:2.
Another account of the battle is from Captain Bourdon de Vatry.
“Prince Jerome was struck on the hip, but fortunately the ball hit the massive gold scabbard of his sword first and did not penetrate, so he came off with nothing worse than a severe bruise which made in turn pale. Mastering his pain, the Prince remained on horseback at the head of his division, thereby giving us all an example of courage and self-sacrifice. His coolness had an excellent effect. The 8th cuirassiers, commanded by Colonel Garavaque, were about to launch a strong attack on the Scottish Square; the regiment gave the Prince an ovation, and the brave horsemen, having broken the square and captured the enemies colours, presented this trophy to the ex King [of Westpahlia]. The position at Quatre Bras had just been taken by Kellermann’s cavalry. Marshal Ney was impatiently awaiting the arrival of d’Erlon’s 1st Corps, when he learned that the Emperor had altered the direction of this corps and summoned it to join him at St Amand. At the same moment an unaccountable panic seized Kellermann’s cavalry, which fled back hell for leather after knocking over their commander. Kellermann had the presence of mind to cling to the bits of two of his cuirassiers horses and so avoid being trampled underfoot.
As the infantry of the 1st Corps did not come, since it had been sent for to the battlefield of illegally, the enemy reoccupied Quatre Bras position and we were only too happy to prevent the English from going to the aid of the Prussians. This was all we could do in the face of the considerable forces then holding Quatre Bras.
People then set to work to bandage the wounded, and we bivouacked for the night. Unfortunately there were no rations, so the soldiers began to wonder about the countryside, marauding in order to live.”
By now, the Duke of Wellington with extra reinforcements ordered a broad advance, and pushed the French from the battlefield at Quatre Bras.
The battle which had raged all afternoon moved to its climax.
“I had reason to be satisfied with the conduct of my new regiment on this brilliant day. Having dislodged the Prussians from Saint Amand after repeated attacks, the brigade composed of the 70th and ourselves was ordered to deploy beyond the village to act as a screen. At the approach of the enemy cavalry we prepared to receive them in squares, regiment by regiment, and chequerwise. The 70th, on my left, were attacked by the Prussians with great determination, but in my view the enemy would not have driven home their charge had not the wretched 70th, without even waiting for the Prussians, suddenly taken fright and retreated, only to be caught almost immediately and sabred. Had their panic infected my 22nd, then our brigade would have been lost, but my soldiers stood firm, repulsed the enemies charge, covered the ground with men and horses they had brought down with their accurate firing, and so the situation was restored. The fugitives from the 70th were able to rally behind my square, and they took up their positions again on my left in the same order as before.
Tempted by the weakness of the 70th rather than deterred by my regiment’s firmness and good musketry, other bodies of Prussian cavalry tried to charge us; but this time the 70th, inspired by the voice of their excellent commanding officer, Colonel Maury, did their duty, and the attackers were repeatedly driven off and severely mauled in the process. Seeing that their efforts were useless, the Prussians took advantage of a fold in the ground and brought up two guns. These fired grapeshot at us until a sudden grand effort to, in which the reserve took part – that is to say, the Imperial Guard – swept the battlefield and brought us victory”.
Colonel Fantin des Odoards, 22nd Line at Ligny
The Prussians were broken in their centre, and streamed back in general retreat. The only chance of saving his army was a swift counterattack, to stall the French advance. Blücher gathered all available cavalry units, in a disorganised advance to attack the French, with him leading in person. This attack was swiftly routed and Blücher fell to the ground underneath his wounded horse, and was ridden over by the French cavalry.
This self sacrifice saved a large portion of the Prussian army from disaster. Blücher remained trapped under his horse, ridden over by the French Cavalry, until being freed by his aide de camp, Norstitz.
“The light of the long June day was beginning to fail when our very depleted infantry brigade was sent into the reserve… The men looked terribly worn out after the fighting. In the great heat, gunpowder smoke, sweat and mud had mixed into a thick crust of dirt, so that their faces looked almost like those of mullatos, and one could hardly distinguish the green collars and facings on their tunics. Everybody has discarded his stock, grubby shirts or hairy tunics; and many who had been unwilling to leave the ranks on account of a slight wound wore a bandage they had put on themselves. In a number of cases blood was soaking through.
As a result of fighting in the villages for hours on end, and of frequently crawling through hedges, the men’s tunics and trousers had got torn, so that they hung in rags and their bare skin showed through. In short, anyone accustomed to judging the efficiency of a unit merely from the men’s appearance on a parade ground would have been appalled to watch the 4th Westphalian Infantry Regiment of Landwehr coming out of the battle of Ligny”.
Captain Fritz , 4th Westphalian Landwehr Infantry.
In the evening
At Quatre Bras
The Allied army had succeeded, and secured the crossroads at Quatre Bras. Marshal Ney was quick to blame his failure on I Corps.
“I found him in a farmhouse. The village had been abandoned by its inhabitants, and every building was filled with wounded. No lights, no drinking water, no rations. We were in a small room, in which an oil lamp burned dimly. On the floor wounded men lay groaning. The General himself was seated on a barrel of picked cabbage, with only four or five people around him. Scattered troops passed through the village all night long: no one knew whence they came or whither they were going. The dispersion was as great as after the battle of Jena, and the night was just as dark – but morale had not sunk. Each man was looking for his comrades so as to restore order”.
Impression of Count von Gneisenau.
Napoleon believed he had won a decisive victory over the Prussians, rather than merely wounded them.
He slept in Flereus that night, without ordering a pursuit à outrance.
17th June 1815
The next morning, no reports reached Napoleon to suggest anything other than a major Prussian defeat and retreat towards Germany. Rather than organise a pursuit, he inspected his men on the battlefield to encourage them. Typical of the battlefields of the time, a carpet of cadavers and injured men lined the “field of glory”, especially in the villages so bitterly fought after.
Only later in the day did Napoleon become aware of the strategic position, and he realised the campaign he had so brilliantly started had still to be won.
Casualties from the battles were:
Battlefield memorials are found at