Analysis of the Battle of Quatre Bras – Strategic Issues

d’Erlon – out of two battles!

Napoleon’s main criticism was that Ney had failed to concentrate his entire force and that if he had achieved this, Quatre Bras would have been taken and d’Erlon could have safely been sent to the emperor’s support. In his memoirs, Napoleon identifies Ney’s fundamental error:

In other times, this general would have occupied the position before Quatre Bras at 6am, would have defeated and taken the whole Belgian division; and would have turned the Prussian army by sending a detachment by the Namur road which would have fallen upon the rear of the line of battle, or, by moving quickly on the Genappes road, he would have surprised the Brunswick Division and the 5th English Division on the march . . . Always the first under fire, Ney forgot the troops who were not under his eye. The bravery which a general-in-chief ought to display is different from that which a divisional general must have, just as that of the latter ought not to be the same as that of a captain of grenadiers.

Here we see Napoleon explaining that Ney had ignored or not grasped the bigger picture; the changing strategic situation and his part in it. In his growing frustration he entirely failed to understand and keep in mind what in modern military parlance is called his superior commander’s intent; Napoleon’s need to destroy the Prussian army. He thus failed to realise that, once Wellington’s force was fixed in place around Quatre Bras, his part in achieving this was the despatch of d’Erlon’s corps onto the Prussian rear and that he should have adapted his own operations to this end. We can only speculate on the reasons for this, but eyewitness accounts suggest it was his complete distraction with, and absorption in, what was happening in front of him, that resulted in his rash decision to recall d’Erlon without considering the wider consequences.

Ney was transfixed by the need to seize Quatre Bras, rather than the essential need to send d’Erlon to support Napoleon. Having failed to achieve the former, he should have considered how to achieve the latter, which had become the priority. It is therefore rather surprising how little emphasis was put on the eastern flank by either side and where there was little serious fighting. Yet for Ney, the Namur road was the key route for his despatch of a force to support Napoleon against the Prussians, as laid down in Napoleon’s orders of the morning, just as it was the route down which the Prussians were expecting support from Wellington. Ney appears to have allocated fewer than four battalions to secure his eastern flank; far too small a force to clear the allied troops off it and keep it open for his own use. The fighting here was essentially an action between light infantry forces that was unlikely to be decisive for either side. Having failed to secure the route for d’Erlon, the next best thing would have been to send him down the road that he actually took on to the Prussian flank, but from which Ney recalled him.

Ney never appeared to claim any credit for stopping any of Wellington’s army reinforcing the Prussians at Ligny; nor does he appear to have been given any credit for it by Napoleon. All he got from the latter, as we shall see later, was criticism. For Ney, an aggressive commander who liked to be in the front line, it seemed like a defeat and many of his officers and men felt the same (although much of the following comment by them was written with the benefit of hindsight). Chef d’escadron Lemonnier-Delafosse, Foy’s chief-of-staff wrote:

What precious time lost!

At Quatre Bras on the 16th June, a battle was necessary, where, the day before, it would only have been an affair of the advance guard. On this day, in the morning, one could still have succeeded although it would have undoubtedly been more difficult: our troops were full of enthusiasm and could not have been stopped; containing their élan was an irreparable fault. Besides, the pressing orders of the emperor did not allow the marshal to remain in thought before the enemy; he wanted to make up for lost time and without making a proper reconnaissance of either the position or the strength of the English, he threw himself, head lowered, upon them . . . Thus, by an inconceivable feebleness, one had fought to no advantage from 2pm until 9pm.

Even more junior officers who fought there had similar views; Lieutenant Puvis of the 93rd Line penned similar criticism:

It had seemed to us that with the spirit which animated our army, it would have been possible, without too much resistance to fear, to have seized the enemy position. Why was this not done? . . . The old soldiers blamed the hesitation that Marshal Ney displayed before the position of Quatre Bras. Indeed, if he had taken the place the same day we would have gained a march on the enemy.

The view of those supportive of Napoleon, and consequently critical of Ney, is best summed up by Colonel Combes-Brassard, the sous chef-d’etat of the 6th Corps, who, writing much later and having no doubt read all the accounts, wrote in his own history of the campaign:

Marshal Ney was indecisive, irresolute in his attacks during the day of the battle of Ligny. This circumstance is strange in a man whose audacious determination in war was well known. His groping around before an enemy much weaker than himself was inexplicable in a general who was accustomed to saying that the only enemy he feared was the one he could not see.

General Foy, however, seems to give a more balanced, if still rather downbeat, summary of the day:

It was, at least with us, a poor start to the campaign. I do not know what passed elsewhere. Marshal Ney’s attack had been hasty and lacking sense; one does not proceed thus against the English. We were able to colour this affair as we liked, for we had taken two cannon and the enemy had taken none of ours; he had suffered a greater loss than us thanks to the superiority of our artillery; we had maintained, to the end of the day, more ground than we had held before we started our attack. But these arguments are grabbing at straws. We had lost the battle, since we had been stopped from achieving our mission of seizing Quatre Bras.

With the benefit of hindsight, his recall of d’Erlon was Ney’s greatest failure on this day and probably cost Napoleon the campaign. However, we have already stated that Ney failed to achieve either of his two missions. This is not strictly true. In Napoleon’s orders of the morning of the 16th, Ney’s task was merely to advance to the Quatre Bras crossroads and to deploy his troops around it. However, at about the same time as he received these original orders, which did not suggest he would have to fight for the crossroads, he received another order from Napoleon which gave him much clearer direction;

Concentrate the corps of Counts Reille and d’Erlon and that of Count Valmy, who is just marching to join you. With these forces you must engage and destroy all enemy forces that present themselves. Blücher was at Namur yesterday and it is unlikely that he has sent any troops towards Quatre Bras. Thus you will only have to deal with the forces coming from Brussels.

Whilst this direction is unequivocal, crucially it does not explain why the marshal should do this, beyond the original orders stating he should be ready for the emperor to join him and then march on Brussels. The unstated ‘why’ was that the occupation of Quatre Bras would prevent Wellington’s army from marching to Blücher’s aid and would allow Ney to send troops to Napoleon’s support. In the former point Ney was entirely successful, causing Wellington considerable casualties into the bargain, but he failed in the latter. These were certainly Napoleon’s aims, but he did not specify the former, only the latter in more general terms. Napoleon just expected Ney to obey his orders. We must not pretend that if Ney was clear he was to stop Wellington marching to the aid of the Prussians that he would have acted any differently, and as already stated, in this he was successful anyway. Whilst in modern battle procedure a subordinate would expect his mission statement to lay down what he had to achieve and why, we must make our judgement based on the processes and procedures of the day, and there can be little argument that Napoleon’s orders were not clear.

Looking at the battle from Wellington’s perspective, it was fought solely to give support to the Prussians, and in this he clearly failed. The result of the fighting was a repulse for the French, but for the allies it was a strategic failure. Wellington did not fight at Quatre Bras to deny Napoleon the support of part of Ney’s force; that Ney recalled d’Erlon from his march was that marshal’s disobedience of orders and his failure to fully understand the emperor’s scheme. Most British writers conclude that the battle was a victory for Wellington and make no mention of his failure to support the Prussians, although Chesney at least admits, ‘Truly, in holding his own, the great Englishman owed something that day to Fortune.’

Ney’s failure to concentrate his whole force, his poor decision-making and Wellington’s constant trickle of reinforcements had prevented the French defeating the allied army at Quatre Bras. But Ney’s job was to hold back the British and send support to Napoleon at Ligny. He succeeded in the former, but failed in the latter due to his rash and ill-considered decision to recall d’Erlon. But if it was not a French victory, neither was it an allied victory. Whilst Ney had failed to capture Quatre Bras and send a force to support Napoleon, so Wellington had singularly failed to carry out any manoeuvre that supported the Prussians as he intended and Blücher had requested. The French troops had fought well against increasing odds and had scored some notable successes, and the fact that history has marked the battle as a defeat has far more to do with Ney’s command than the courage or fighting ability of his soldiers. It seems that real efforts were made by the French chain-of-command to adapt their tactics to counter those used by the British in Spain, and although they achieved some tactical success, significantly, they were unable to challenge the significant psychological advantage that the British continued to hold over them.

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