Fought two days before Waterloo, the Battle of Quatre Bras took place around the crossroads of the highways from Nivelles to Namur and Brussels to Charleroi, on the same day in which Napoleon was engaging the Prussians at Ligny. The forces engaged included parts of the left wing of the (French) Army of the North (Armée du Nord) under Marshal Michel Ney and elements of the Anglo-Allied army (British, Dutch-Belgian, and various German troops: Hanoverians, Brunswickers, Nassauers, and others) under the Duke of Wellington. Despite being outnumbered, Wellington held this position that day.
Napoleon had crossed the frontier between France and the Kingdom of the Netherlands (Belgium having recently been combined with Holland) on 15 June, driving back the Prussian outposts. Napoleon’s intention on the sixteenth was to crush the Prussian army, now assembling in the Sombreffe position. He sent Ney to brush aside Wellington, preventing him from linking up with the Prussians. Quatre Bras marked the hinge between the two Allied armies. If the French were to take it, the Allies would be separated from each other and unable to bring the superior numbers of their united forces to play against Napoleon, who could then defeat each of their armies alone.
The affair at Quatre Bras was unexpected and took Wellington by surprise. Until 16 June, this important road junction on the line of communication between Wellington’s headquarters in Brussels and that of Field Marshal Gebhard Fürst Blücher von Wahlstatt, commander of the Prussian Army of the Lower Rhine, was held by men from the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd (Dutch-Belgian) Division. These were Nassauers from a German state on the Rhine under the command of Duke Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar. Although Wellington had ordered this force to join the remainder of the division at Nivelles on the evening of 15 June, the commanders on the ground, General Baron de Perponcher-Sedlnitzky and General Baron de Constant Rebecque, used their initiative and did not carry out this instruction. Thanks to them, Wellington was in a position to fight a battle there on the sixteenth.
The hamlet of Quatre Bras consisted of one large farmhouse, an inn, and several smaller buildings. The surrounding countryside was undulating. The other solid buildings included the farm of St. Pierre at Gémioncourt, the village of Pireaumont, and the farm of Grand Pierre Pont. South of the Nivelles road and west of the Charleroi road was the Bossu Wood. The Delhutte Wood was to the southeast. Ney had his headquarters in the village of Frasnes.
The forces at Ney’s disposal that day included I Corps under General Jean-Baptiste Drouet, comte d’Erlon, although this never arrived on the battlefield; II Corps under General Honoré, comte Reille; and General François Etienne, comte Kellermann’s III Cavalry Corps; around 25,000 men, excluding d’Erlon (20,000 men).
At daybreak, Perponcher reinforced Saxe-Weimar with men of the 1st Brigade. He had around 7,000 men in position. At 6:00 A. M. the Prince of Orange arrived from Brussels and expressed his satisfaction with the dispositions. There were some brief exchanges of fire but nothing serious.
On the morning of the sixteenth, Wellington rode from Brussels to Quatre Bras to inspect the situation there. Arriving about 10:00 A. M. he observed the French activity at Frasnes, and judging them to pose little threat he merely ordered up Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton’s division (5,000 men) to support the Netherlanders. The duke then rode to Blücher’s headquarters at the Mill of Bussy, near Brye, to confer with him.
While Wellington was absent, Ney’s forces formed up for the attack. The Prince of Orange perceived the danger and ordered up further forces. The prince’s nine battalions, supported by sixteen guns, were spread thinly over a front of 3.5 kilometers. At the commencement of the battle, part of the Dutch-Belgian artillery was deployed in the center of their position, across the Charleroi road. Some guns were left to cover Quatre Bras. A battalion of Nassauers was posted south of the Bossu Wood. A battalion of Jäger (light infantry) was placed between Gémioncourt and Pireaumont. Part of a militia battalion held the farmhouse at Gémioncourt, while the main part of it took up positions on the hilltop 150 meters northwest of the farm. Four battalions were deployed along the eastern edge of the Bossu Wood. Three battalions were held in reserve.
Facing the Dutch-Belgians were 9,600 infantry and 4,600 cavalry with 34 guns. The French assault commenced around 2:00 P. M., with Reille personally leading his divisions into battle. General Jean-Baptiste Jamin’s brigade opened the assault, attacking part of the 27th Jäger. Gilbert, comte Bachelu’s division advanced on Pireaumont, forcing back other elements of the Jäger. The artillery of the 9th Division (General Maximilien, comte Foy) engaged the Dutch-Belgian batteries, causing heavy losses. General Maximilien Foy’s columns then moved up the Charleroi road, with General Jean-Pierre Gauthier’s brigade engaging the defenders of the Bossu Wood, forcing back the first line. Saxe-Weimar led a counterattack that drove the attackers out of the Wood. The Prince of Orange reinforced this position just before Prince Jérome Bonaparte’s division (8,000 men) arrived.
While weight of numbers told, Saxe-Weimar conducted a skillful defense, only relenting to the pressure slowly. Gauthier used the respite to rally his men. Howitzer shells rained down on the militia battalion, softening it up for an attack from Jamin’s brigade. The 5th Militia fell back to Quatre Bras. With 22,000 men engaged against 8,000, the position of the Dutch-Belgians was critical. However, General Jean-Baptiste van Merlen’s cavalry brigade arrived shortly after 3:00 P. M., followed by Picton’s division. They were able to stabilize the position.
Picton reinforced the Allied left, deploying his battalions along the Namur road to the east of Quatre Bras. General Carl Best’s Hanoverian brigade also arrived, bolstering the position further. The Allies now had 12,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry, and 27 guns available. The 5th Militia counterattacked, recapturing the farm of St. Pierre. With the Prince of Orange at their head, they fought off several French cavalry charges with volley fire.
Jamin now moved east of Gémioncourt with cavalry support. The Jäger and militia fought them off, but an attempt to charge the retiring French with the 6th (Dutch- Belgian) Hussars did not fare well. A countercharge by two regiments of French cavalry scattered them. This movement continued into the Dutch-Belgian artillery. Losses were heavy, and the Dutch-Belgians were routed. It was at this moment that Wellington returned.
Nassau and British infantry fought off the attacking French. The Brunswickers, nearly 7,000 men, now arrived, the Prince of Orange having ordered them up. With fresh troops, the situation could again be stabilized. Two companies of Brunswick Jäger moved into the Bossu Wood, much to the relief of the Nassauers, who were low on ammunition. The 2nd Light Battalion was sent toward Pireaumont. The remainder, four battalions of infantry and four squadrons of cavalry, drew up between the Bossu Wood and the Charleroi road.
Ney now decided to move on the crossroads at Quatre Bras. Bachelu advanced from Pireaumont against the Allied left, covered by artillery and with Jamin in support. Wellington now took tactical control of the battle. He drew up seven of Picton’s battalions 500 meters south of Quatre Bras. Best’s men were used to defend the Namur road, supported by the 95th Rifles and Captain Thomas Rogers’s Battery. Just as Bachelu crossed the Gémioncourt brook, Picton’s men fired a devastating volley, followed by a bayonet charge. The French retreated, but the 2nd Cavalry Division under General Hippolyte Marie, comte Piré, halted the pursuit and counterattacked. The square of the 42nd Highlanders was broken, and the color of the 44th Foot fought over. The British held on, but only just.
About 4:00 P. M. Wellington ordered the Brunswickers into the fray. They were deployed west of the Charleroi road, near Gémioncourt, and along the northern bank of the brook. The light companies of the vanguard passed through the Bossu Wood to link up with the Jäger. The Life Battalion deployed in line 250 meters south of Quatre Bras at the sheepfold. They re-formed in square, as French cavalry threatened them. By 4:30 P. M. the Brunswickers had taken up their positions. The 42nd and 44th Foot, now having rallied, moved up on their left. A battalion of Hanoverian militia covered this flank. The Brunswick cavalry covered the right. Two battalions were held in reserve, the 3rd Line taking up positions in the farm buildings at Quatre Bras, with the 2nd Line to its right and the 92nd Foot to its left.
Ney now deployed a battery of 12-pounders along the path from Gémioncourt to Pierrepont. These heavy guns opened fire on the Brunswickers, while skirmishers from Foy’s division moved forward, toward the Gémioncourt brook. This bombardment lasted an hour, inflicting heavy casualties. To keep his young and experienced troops calm, the Duke of Brunswick stayed on his horse, smoking his pipe.
Had d’Erlon’s Corps come up as ordered, Ney could have finished the job. Instead, the British 3rd Division now arrived, which the Prince of Orange had also ordered up. It was now after 5:00 P. M. and the Allies had 24,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry, and 39 guns available. The affair was slowly going their way, and the French only had one fresh reserve at hand, a division of cavalry. Ney sent in Foy’s men for another attack. They advanced between the Charleroi road and Bossu Wood, which was now largely in French hands. Piré’s cavalry moved up in support. The ten battalions of French infantry here amounted to nearly 5,000 men. There was little two battalions of Brunswickers could do to stop them. They fell back under the cover of cavalry charges led by the Duke of Brunswick.
The French pressed on, forcing the Duke of Brunswick to seek shelter in the square of his Life Battalion. He then moved forward, leading two battalions in a counterattack, but was mortally wounded by fire from some French lancers. The Brunswickers were demoralized and fell back.
About 6:00 P. M. the British 5th Brigade (Major General Sir Colin Halkett) now went into action. The Brunswickers were rallied and moved up in support. They had only just reached their positions in a field of tall rye when Ney staged his last desperate attack, throwing in what was left of Reille’s corps. Several battalions of Hanoverians and of the King’s German Legion met the French. The British Guards fired several effective volleys. This attack, too, was driven back.
Ney was still expecting the imminent arrival of d’Erlon’s corps. However, a messenger then arrived to inform him that d’Erlon was moving on Ligny. Napoleon had ordered him there without telling Ney. The French had now too few men to win at Quatre Bras. Nevertheless, Ney sent in two regiments of cuirassiers in another attempt to beat a hole through the Allied position. They closed in on Halkett’s brigade. The 69th fired a volley at 30 paces, but the French troopers rode into them, taking a color and scattering the 33rd Foot. Piré’s lancers and chasseurs followed up, but the squares of the 30th and 73rd remained steady. The French cavalry then tried to find a way through the brigades of Major General Sir Denis Pack and Major General Sir James Kempt, but musketry drove them off. The Allied center held firm.
About 6:30 P. M. more Allied troops arrived in the form of Major General Sir Peregrine Maitland’s 1st Brigade of Guards (2,000 men) and two batteries. The infantry moved into the Bossu Wood, clearing most of it of the French, while the artillery deployed east of Quatre Bras. The Dutch-Belgians, Nassauers, and Brunswickers took the opportunity of recovering much of their lost ground.
At 7:00 P. M. the remainder of the Brunswickers arrived and was placed in reserve. An hour or so later, more Nassauers arrived. Wellington, now having some 30,000 men available, staged a general attack, throwing back the French. The battle ended with both sides holding their original positions. The Anglo-Allies lost around 4,800 men, the French just over 4,000. With more troops on their way, particularly his cavalry, Wellington would have been able to go over to the offensive the next day, had Blücher held his positions at Ligny, where the Prussians were fighting ferociously at the same time as the Anglo-Allies were engaged at Quatre Bras. As, however, Napoleon broke Blücher’s center, forcing him back, Wellington was obliged to withdraw the next morning to Waterloo. Here, the Prussians joined him and avenged their defeat at Ligny.
References and further reading Boulger, Demetrius Charles. 1915. The Belgians at Waterloo. New York: Scribner. Clay, Matthew, and Gareth Glover, eds. 2006. A Narrative of the Battles of Quatre-Bras and Waterloo, with the Defence of Hougoumont. Huntingdon, UK: Ken Trotman. De Bas, F., and T’Serclaes de Wommersom. 1908. La campagne de 1815 aux Pay-Bas. Vol. 1, Quatre-Bras. Brussels: Albert Dewit. Delhaize, Jules, and Winand Aerts. 1915. Études realtives a la campagne de 1815 en Belgique. Vol. 1. Brussels: A. de Boeck. Hofschröer, Peter. 1998. 1815 The Waterloo Campaign: Wellington, His German Allies and the Battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras. London: Greenhill.—.2005. Waterloo 1815: Quatre Bras and Ligny. London: Leo Cooper. Houssaye, Henry. 1900. 1815 Waterloo. London: Adam and Charles Black. Lettow-Vorbeck, Oscar von. 1904. Napoleons Untergang 1815. Vol. 1. Elba-Belle-Alliance. Berlin: E. S. Mittler. Pflugk-Harttung, Julius von. Belle Alliance. Berlin: R. Eisenschmidt. Robinson, Mike. 2005. The Battle of Quatre Bras, 1815. Stroud, UK: Spellmount. Siborne, William. 1848. History of the War in Belgium and France in 1815. London: T. and W. Boone. Weller, Jac. 1992. Wellington at Waterloo. London: Greenhill.