Hundred Days Part II

By MSW Add a Comment 17 Min Read


Napoleon returned from Elba, by Karl Stenben, 19th century.

Marcellin Marbot to scout the woods to the right of the French army, towards Wavre. His men had captured and sent to the Emperor a Prussian officer; who had bragged that Blücher had concentrated at Wavre and was pledged to march to Wellington’s aid that afternoon. In response, Napoleon had deployed the 10,000 men and 28 guns of Lobau’s VI Corps earlier in the day to his right, facing at right angle to the main French line; prepared to fend off Prussian attacks from the east.

The strategic situation on the outbreak of hostilities on the night of 14-15 June was that Napoleon’s army, 120,000 men, was concentrated in the area of Beaumont. The Prussian army under Blücher’s command, 120,000 men, was deployed over the southeastern Netherlands. The Prussian I Army Corps under General Wieprecht Graf von Zieten, 30,000 men, was facing Napoleon’s troops in the area of Charleroi. Wellington, with his headquarters in Brussels, commanded a mixed force of 90,000 Germans, Dutch-Belgians, and British troops deployed in southwestern Netherlands. The quality of Napoleon’s troops was generally higher than Blücher’s, two-thirds of his Prussians being raw levies, so Napoleon was considered more than a match for either of the Allied armies in this theater. Should they, however, combine their forces, Napoleon would be overwhelmed by their superiority in numbers. Not surprisingly, he chose to strike at the juncture of their forces, hitting first the Prussians, whom he expected to defeat easily, before moving against Wellington.

After some initial confusion, the Army of the North clashed with the Prussian outposts from 3:30 A. M. on 15 June. The warning cannon woke Zieten, who waited for an hour until the sound of musketry, indicating a serious confrontation, could be heard. He then sent reports to Blücher in Namur and Wellington in Brussels, informing them of this. The Allied outposts along the frontier and adjacent to the Prussians were also informed. While the timing of the arrival of this news in Namur and its movement up the lines of communication of the Allied forces is a matter of record, Wellington made a number of conflicting statements on the subject. However, it is most likely he received this news at 9:00 A. M. Having assured the Prussians that he would come to their assistance rapidly, Wellington did nothing and waited until 6:00 P. M., after receiving several confirmations of this news, before starting to issue orders. Even then, he only ordered his troops to concentrate at their assembly points and waited until that night before finally issuing any orders to move. Wellington had lost a whole day in circumstances that required immediate action. The Prussians were now in danger of being crushed by Napoleon before assistance could arrive.

Blücher’s reaction on receipt of this news was to order his army to concentrate in the Sombreffe position, a defensible point on the Namur-to-Brussels road, where he intended to confront Napoleon the next day. He informed Wellington of this. Thanks to a misunderstanding, IV Army Corps under General Friedrich Wilhelm Graf Bülow von Dennewitz, one-quarter of Blücher’s forces, did not move off on time. The Prussians were to face Napoleon the next day with fewer men than anticipated. Now more than ever was Wellington’s assistance necessary.

Napoleon pushed on in the face of a spirited rearguard action from Zieten, reaching most of his objectives by the evening of 15 June. He had driven a wedge between Wellington and Blücher, with his forces now standing between the two Allied armies. Moreover, his patrols had reached as far as Quatre Bras on the highway to Brussels, putting him in a position to cut the direct line of communication between Brussels and Namur. Blücher had reacted correctly, but did not yet know that Bülow would be delayed. Wellington had now issued orders to his army to move, but had yet to select a single point of concentration. Instead, he left his options open, awaiting developments. That is not, however, what he told the Prussians.

On the morning of the sixteenth, Wellington rode from Brussels to the front. He passed his troops resting near the village of Waterloo before stopping for a moment at the road junction just south of this village to enquire where the two forks of the road led. He then rode through Genappe and on to Quatre Bras. Fortunately, this vital crossroads was still in Allied hands, as the local commander had used his initiative and held his position, despite having been ordered by Wellington the previous evening to move to Nivelles. Once here, Wellington observed the situation and saw little French activity. He then wrote a report for Blücher, the Frasnes Letter, giving misleading information on his positions, before riding to Prussian headquarters at the windmill of Bussy, near Ligny.

Meanwhile, Napoleon was moving the larger part of his army toward the Prussians, whom he intended to crush that day. He placed his left wing under the command of Marshal Michel Ney, expecting him to brush the handful of Allied troops at Quatre Bras out of the way.

When Wellington met Blücher, he saw that the bulk of Napoleon’s forces were drawing up to attack the Prussians. Wellington repeated his earlier promises of coming to their support, but in reality knew he was not in a position to do so with the numbers promised. On his return to Quatre Bras, he was surprised to find the French attacking his forces there. Fortunately, his commander on the spot, the Prince of Orange, had ordered up reinforcements, and Wellington was able to hold his position that day.

The Battle of Ligny commenced about 2:30 P. M. and continued until darkness. For much of the day, the Prussians held their own in vicious street fighting, but the final French assault that evening broke through their center, leaving the scattered remnants falling back. Blücher went missing, having led a desperate cavalry charge in an attempt to hold on. General August Graf Neidhardt von Gneisenau, the Prussian chief of staff, attempted to have his men rally at Tilly, near to Wellington’s position, but control broke down. Most of the defeated Prussians fell back toward Wavre, 12 miles east of Waterloo, and part toward Namur.

Despite this success, Napoleon had let his one real chance of a decisive victory in the campaign slip. Although he had allocated the corps of General Jean-Baptiste Drouet, comte d’Erlon to Ney’s wing, Napoleon recalled it without reference to Ney. The Prussians were holding on at Ligny with greater tenacity than Napoleon had expected, so he ordered d’Erlon to move to confront their right flank. That could well have resulted in a crushing defeat. Ney, too, could have defeated Wellington had d’Erlon arrived at Quatre Bras. When Ney found that d’Erlon had inexplicably turned around, he sent him urgent orders to retrace his steps. Thus, a substantial part of the Army of the North spent the day wandering around aimlessly.

Since the French shot the Prussian messenger to Wellington, the duke did not hear of Blücher’s defeat until the following morning. Instead of continuing the battle as expected, Wellington fell back to the ridge of Mont St. Jean, south of the village of Waterloo, where he set up his headquarters.

During the early hours of the morning, some sort of control was reestablished over the Prussian army and Wavre selected as the point for it to rally. Napoleon waited for most of the morning before sending off Marshal Emmanuel, marquis de Grouchy with 33,000 men to pursue the Prussians. By then, the trail had gone cold, and it was some time before he caught up with them. Napoleon believed the Prussians had ceased to be an effective force.

The Emperor now took charge of Ney’s wing, adding to it most of the troops that had fought at Ligny. He followed up, although the pursuit of Wellington was not particularly vigorous. Napoleon was losing the initiative.

Heavy rain showers during the night of 17-18 June did not make the going easy. The French supply system broke down, and many of Napoleon’s men left their units to look for food. Order was restored the next morning.

The Prussian forces rallied at Wavre, and when the missing ammunition trains were located, Gneisenau confirmed his intention of moving a substantial part of his army the next day to support Wellington. The Prussian march was delayed for several reasons. One was the fact that the freshest corps-Bülow’s-was designated to lead the march, even though it was the farthest from Wellington. Then a fire broke out in Wavre, blocking the narrow streets. Finally, the rain had turned the country paths on the route to Plancenoit into mudslides that particularly delayed wheeled vehicles. The much-needed artillery would be the last to arrive. Nevertheless, Wellington observed the leading Prussian posts shortly before the start of the battle.

The battle itself commenced around 11:30 A. M., when men of General Honoré Charles, comte Reille’s corps first attacked the chateau of Hougoumont on Wellington’s right. The fighting here continued for most of the day. D’Erlon’s corps then assaulted the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte in Wellington’s center, before staging a general attack at that point. A charge from the Earl of Uxbridge’s cavalry drove this off, and the remainder of the day’s action in this area consisted of a heavy artillery bombardment, several attempts to storm La Haye Sainte before its defenders ran out of ammunition and finally withdrew, and cavalry charges against infantry squares. Losses on both sides were severe, and the situation for Wellington was precarious.

At 4:30 P. M. the Prussians staged their first of three attacks on the village of Plancenoit to Napoleon’s right rear. This sucked in a substantial part of the Emperor’s last reserves of infantry, particularly elements of the Imperial Guard, depriving him of the opportunity of using these crack troops in the final assault on Wellington’s center. This final assault took place at 7:30 P. M., but the elite of the elite was thrown back in disorder. About the same time, Plancenoit fell to the Prussians, endangering Napoleon’s line of retreat. Resistance collapsed, and the French fled the field, leaving behind a substantial part of their artillery and ammunition wagons. Blücher and Wellington met at the inn of La Belle Alliance about 9:00 P. M., their symbolic handshake marking the end of the battle.

At Wavre, the Prussians resisted determined assaults from Grouchy’s men into the morning of the nineteenth, when news of Waterloo arrived. The French here fell back. Blücher headed rapidly for Paris, wanting to be the first there, so that he could exact revenge without restraint. Several combats were fought during the pursuit, and a number of the French-held fortresses along their northern frontier either capitulated or were stormed, this phase of the action being undertaken largely by the Prussians, with some support from forces of the German Confederation (the newly formed body of central European states created by the Great Powers at the Congress of Vienna). Paris fell to the Allies on 7 July. Although Napoleon had surrendered to the British, a number of fortresses with pro- Bonapartist garrisons continued to resist until well into the autumn.

The surrender of Napoleon marked the end of his final attempt at reestablishing his power in Europe, while his exile to the isolated Atlantic island of St. Helena ended an era. The balance of power established at the Congress of Vienna withstood several tests during the nineteenth century, so demonstrating that the Allied reconstruction of Europe made possible by Napoleon’s defeat in the Waterloo campaign stood on a firm foundation.

References and further reading Adkin, Mark. 2001. The Waterloo Companion: The Complete Guide to History’s Most Famous Land Battle. London: Aurum. Bowden, Scott. 1983. Armies at Waterloo. Arlington, TX: Empire Games. Brett-James, Antony. 1964. The Hundred Days. London: Macmillan. Chalfont, Lord, ed. 1979. Waterloo: Battle of Three Armies. London: Sedgwick and Jackson. Chandler, David G. 1980. Waterloo: The Hundred Days. London: Osprey. —.1995. The Campaigns of Napoleon. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Chesney, Charles C. 1997. Waterloo Lectures. London: Greenhill. Dallas, Gregor. 2001. 1815: The Road to Waterloo. London: Pimlico. De Bas, F., and T’Serclaes de Wommersom. 1908. La campagne de 1815 aux Pay-Bas. Vol. 1, Quatre-Bras. Brussels: Dewit. Delhaize, Jules, and Winand Aerts. 1915. Etudes relatives a la campagne de 1815 en Belgique. Vol. 1. Brussels: De Boeck. Fletcher, Ian. 2001. “A Desperate Business”: Wellington, the British Army and the Waterloo Campaign. Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount. Gillespie-Payne, Jonathan. 2004. Waterloo: In the Footsteps of the Commanders. London: Leo Cooper. Hamilton-Williams, David. 1993. Waterloo: New Perspectives, The Great Battle Reappraised. London: Arms and Armour. Haythornthwaite, Philip. 1996. Uniforms ofWaterloo. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Hibbert, Christopher. 2004. Waterloo: Napoleon’s Last Campaign. Blue Ridge Summit, PA: Cooper Square. Hofschröer, Peter. 1998. 1815, The Waterloo Campaign: Wellington, his German Allies and the Battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras. London: Greenhill. —.1999. 1815, The Waterloo Campaign: The German Victory. London: Greenhill. Houssaye, Henry. 2005. Napoleon and the Campaign of 1815: Waterloo. Uckfield, UK: Naval and Military. Lachouque, Henry. 1972. Waterloo. London: Arms and Armour. Lettow-Vorbeck, Oscar von. 1904. Napoleons Untergang 1815. Vol. 1, Elba-Belle-Alliance. Berlin: Mittler. Nofi, Albert. 1993. The Waterloo Campaign: June 1815. Harrisburg, PA: Combined. Pflugk-Harttung, Julius von. 1915. Belle Alliance. Berlin: Eisenschmidt. Ropes, John Codman. 1906. The Campaign of Waterloo. New York: Scribner’s. Siborne, William. 1990. History of the Waterloo Campaign. London: Greenhill. Uffindell, Andrew, and Michael Corum. 2002. On the Fields of Glory: The Battlefields of the 1815 Campaign. London: Greenhill. Wooten, Geoffrey. 1992. Waterloo 1815. Oxford: Osprey.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Exit mobile version