Prussians attack Plancenoit

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The Young Guard took part in the tenacious defense of Plancenoit against the Prussian at the battle of Waterloo. Despite being outnumbered by 2-1 the Young Guards held out all day until the attack of the Middle Guard was beaten back and were thus forced to retreat. During the epic fight for Plancenoit the Tirailleurs lost over 90% of its rank and file, but 6 000 Prussians had died fighting these youngsters.

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Arrival of the Prussian IV Corps.

Plancenoit was the largest population center in the region; traversing it from one end to the other, on foot and at a good pace, would have taken five or six minutes. It was, therefore, a full village, with a cobblestone street, a parish church built of stone, and a walled cemetery, whereas Smohain and Mont-Saint-Jean were nothing but small groups of houses. The inhabitants of Plancenoit had abandoned it the previous day, and French soldiers had spent the night in the houses, burning doors and shutters to keep warm. When the Prussians arrived, however, the village was empty. It was also frighteningly close to the rear of Napoleon’s lines: After the last houses of Plancenoit, the road climbed a gentle slope for less than a kilometer—perhaps a thousand yards—before intersecting the main road behind La Belle Alliance itself. Other tracks, winding among the hills, met the Brussels road farther to the rear, at Rossomme or even at Le Caillou. Mouton would surely occupy and defend Plancenoit, recognizing that the village offered him the only favorable position for opposing the enemy advance; but from what Napoleon could see with the aid of his telescope, the general clearly did not have enough troops to hold out for very long. And should the village be lost, he knew the enemy troops would quickly continue up the slope until they found themselves within a musket shot of the main road, menacing the French reserves’ flank and rear.

Reluctantly, the emperor decided that part of the Imperial Guard would have to be diverted in that direction to prevent the Prussians from seizing the village. The twenty-two battalions of the Imperial Guard were all the fresh infantry that Napoleon had left to deliver the decisive attack against Wellington’s line, and every battalion subtracted from that effort would reduce the probability of victory; but the emperor had no choice. He ordered Duhesme, the commander of the Young Guard Division, to take his eight battalions and occupy Plancenoit. The guardsmen on both sides of the Brussels road had spent the day sitting on the ground or on their knapsacks, smoking, chatting, and waiting for their turn to come. As always, the Young Guard occupied the positions farthest front, because it got sent into action first; and in this case, too, the guardsmen had to form ranks at the commands of their officers, and start marching, not toward the enemy in their front but toward the enemy who was about to appear on their right. Duhesme’s division, together with three artillery batteries totaling twenty-four guns, moved in the direction of Plancenoit, where his four thousand muskets would join Mouton’s six thousand.

In the fight for Plancenoit, Blucher’s army would display all its positive qualities and all its limitations. From the viewpoint of morale, boh officers and men were animated by a fanatical hatred of the French; it had sustained them through the rigors of a long march through mud since dawn, and in the late afternoon it inspired the Prussian troops to fight with particular ferocity. The struggle in and around the houses of the village, captured, lost, and recaptured one by one, was bloody, with quarter neither asked nor given, just as the Battle of Ligny had been two days before. At the same time, too many of the Prussian troops were Landwehr recruits, insufficiently trained and lacking in cohesion. Bulow’s was the only corps in the army in which Landwehr soldiers made up as much as two-thirds of the infantry; and the sudden collapses and moments of unjustified panic that the Prussian side experienced again and again during the course of the fight for Plancenoit probably had their origin in the excessive number of inexperienced regiments. Muffling explained to Wellington, “Our infantry doesn’t possess the same physical force and capacity to resist as yours. Most of our troops are too young and inexperienced.”

On the tactical level, the Prussian army had made some significant innovations: The lines of skirmishers they engaged were more numerous and better conducted than in any other army, and this fact surely explains why it was so difficult for Mouton’s men, right from the beginning, to stem the Prussian advance. But the Landwehr regiments were incapable of sustaining this kind of combat at the same level as troops of the line, and none of them included the fusilier battalion that was otherwise an integral part of every Prussian infantry regiment. In short, Bulow’s corps had proportionately fewer trained skirmishers than the other corps, and they had to cover a rather wide line of advance. When they arrived before Plancenoit, the Prussian skirmishers had already exhausted much of their ammunition and a great deal of their offensive capacity, so that the assault on the village was carried out less tactically than it should have been.

The Prussian reformers had also developed an attack formation for their brigades that was conscientiously taught to every officer. Their methods constituted a genuine innovation: Coordination between the lines of skirmishers and the battalions marching in column behind them was blended into a system simple enough to be learned and put into practice in any circumstances. At the same time, it provided brigade commanders with a certain model to follow when the time came for making decisions. But IV Corps’s advance had begun along too broad a front, and the Prussian generals quickly began to detach two or three battalions to cover their flanks, some in the direction of Smohain and some toward the Lasne. Carrying out these maneuvers made the formation ordained in their manuals no longer feasible, and this departure from usual practice also contributed to a certain disorder, a certain improvisatory character in their attacks.

Finally, the inexperience of a great many of the troops and of their officers manifested itself in excessive waste of ammunition. Even before starting the assault on Plancenoit, some regiments indicated that they had nearly exhausted their supplies of cartridges in the prolonged fight with Mouton’s line of tirailleurs. In like manner, the Prussian artillery was not used at all economically, and Clausewitz criticized it harshly in his history of the campaign: “We keep too much artillery in reserve, and we replace a battery whenever it has used up all its powder and shot; as a consequence, many batteries try to get rid of their ammunition quickly.” The result, in the Prussian general’s cold-eyed judgment, was that the French artillery, with fewer guns, regularly caused much more damage than its Prussian counterparts managed to inflict. Farther on in the same text, Clausewitz expatiated on this conclusion in terms that seem to be a direct comment on what happened at Plancenoit: “We use up our troops too fast in stationary combat. Our officers call for support too soon, and it’s given them too readily. The consequence is that we suffer more dead and wounded without gaining any ground, and we transform our fresh soldiers into burnt-out husks.”

When Blucher gave the order to attack Plancenoit, only half of IV Corps’s infantry was in a position to participate in the action: General von Losthin’s Fifteenth Brigade and Hiller’s Sixteenth. The corps’s other two brigades were still on the march to the front line, though by then they were fairly close. On paper, a Prussian brigade was a powerful force, equivalent to a division in any other army, with nine infantry battalions. The Fifteenth Brigade, however, had borne the brunt of the fighting to this point and was already considerably weakened, while one of its battalions had had to be taken out of the line because the troops had completely exhausted their supply of cartridges. As for the Sixteenth Brigade, it had detached almost all of its skirmishers to cover the left flank, where a wooded slope descended rapidly to the Lasne. Nevertheless, without waiting for reinforcements, the Prussian generals ordered the attack. “Our generals were too committed to the idea that making an advance is better than standing and firing. Everything should be done in its own time,” Clausewitz observed.

On the right wing, the Fifteenth Brigade found itself facing the weaker of Mouton’s two divisions, which was deployed on the slightly higher ground just outside Plancenoit. The Prussian muskets outnumbered the French two to one, but the French were fresher, they had more ammunition, and their artillery was more experienced. General von Losthin had only one line regiment, the Eighteenth, which until three months previously had been a reserve regiment, recruited among the Germans and Poles of Posnania, and whose troops were still wearing old gray uniforms cobbled together from oddments.28The brigade’s Landwehr troops were also composed of Germans and Poles, in this case from Silesia, all of them traditionally faithful to the king. Therefore, even though they had been on the march since four in the morning, had eaten nothing all day, and were nearing the end of their cartridge provision, they went forward with enthusiasm.

The Prussian attack, however, broke up almost at once. One after another, the skirmishing platoons of the Eighteenth ran out of ammunition and beat a retreat; here and there, their rearward movement was sufficiently disorderly to oblige units of the Prussian cavalry, which was deployed in the rear, to ride forward and escort the skirmishers back to the relative safety of their lines. Officers started asking for volunteers to exit the ranks and advance to reinforce the skirmishers’ line, but not even this measure was likely to produce much forward progress; on the contrary, there was a risk that the French might make an advance themselves. Lieutenant Culemann watched an enemy officer who kept urging his men to counterattack by shouting, “Vive l’Empereur! En avant, mes braves!” The lieutenant called for the battalion’s best marksman, Sergeant Walter, and demanded he unhorse that officer. While the sergeant was preparing to fire, a musket ball struck his left hand. Culemann, who was likewise on horseback, rode up to Walter and offered him his stirrup as a support; and the sergeant, although wounded and bleeding, got the French officer in his sights and shot him down. Mouton’s men, well aware of their numerical inferiority, gave up the idea of advancing farther, but the Prussians weren’t making any progress, either. General von Losthin was an experienced commander; nevertheless, considering the fact that he was sent into retirement three months after the battle, the way he led his brigade that day is open to question. In any case, one thing is certain: The Prussian attack in that sector stalled completely.

In Plancenoit, at least at first, things seemed to be going better. Colonel von Hiller, who commanded the Sixteenth Brigade, had his men advance in column, without the benefit of a strong line of skirmishers. (He had detached all of them to other parts of the field.) The Prussians moved past the first houses of the village, and there they clashed with the second of Mouton’s two divisions, which had barely taken up positions in time. Despite the heavy losses inflicted on them by enemy snipers stationed in the houses, the Prussians fought their way to the village’s central square, where the church and the cemetery were located. There they found themselves facing the Young Guard, which was hurrying in its turn to occupy Plancenoit. In the confused clash that followed, the Prussians were routed, and after trying without success to defend the last houses on the outskirts of the village, they were obliged to retreat all the way back to open country.

In a fury, Blucher rode among the men of the Sixteenth Brigade and tried to rally them. He personally explained to Colonel von Hiller that the Allied victory depended on the capture of Plancenoit and that his troops must therefore make another advance. While Hiller’s Westphalians and Silesians reordered themselves a good distance from the village and prepared to go back on the attack, a courier arrived with a message from Wavre and delivered it to the field marshal. General von Thielemann, who had been left at Wavre with his corps to cover the Prussians’ rear, reported that Grouchy was attacking him with a numerically superior force and asked for help. Blucher held an agitated consultation with his chief of staff. As the historian Peter Hofschroer later wrote, the Prussians’ situation was anything but happy: “Blucher’s main attack was faltering, his reinforcements were coming up too slowly, his ally’s defences were showing signs of crumbling under the French assault, and now his line of retreat was in danger of being cut.” The two Prussian generals knew they had no choice; at that moment, sending reinforcements to Thielemann was out of the question. “He won’t get so much as a horse’s tail,” Blucher exclaimed. Gneisenau expressed this thought in more formal terms, but his response to the III Corps commander was chilling all the same: “You must contest every step the enemy takes, because even the heaviest losses sustained by your corps will be more than compensated for by a victory against Napoleon here.”

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