Analysis of the Battle of Quatre Bras – Tactical Conduct

Kellermann’s attack

General Albert Pollio, an Italian historian who wrote an excellent and objective account of the campaign, whilst often critical of Ney’s performance, wrote:

I hasten to add that in my opinion, the battle of Quatre Bras represents for the French one of the best tactical actions that military history relates, as much to the direction as to the execution.

During seven hours of combat, Lord Wellington employed almost double the forces as those of the French and these forces were of excellent quality; and yet after seven hours, things were at the point where they had started.

It is difficult to find in history a tactical direction more skilful, more masterly, more determined, more energetic, than that exercised by Marshal Ney on 16th June 1815.

I firmly believe that no other general in the world could have achieved as much as this giant of battles that was Ney, and with such weak forces! The moral picture of this French general is dazzling!

It is also difficult to imagine a more perfect unity in the action of the three arms, which invigorated this small French force that was immortalised during this day . . .

The courage and resistance displayed by the French troops was truly extraordinary.

The performance of the French cavalry was also extraordinary, the cuirassiers as much as Piré’s division, but the latter even more so than the former . . . I am not aware of a more beautiful employment of cavalry, more tenacious, more intelligent than that of Marshal Ney and General Piré of these squadrons whose effect on this day, literally multiplied their number.

This analysis seems to fly in the face of most assessments of the way the French fought this battle, so perhaps it is worth basing our own analysis on this passage.

Whilst Pollio’s suggestion that Ney fought outnumbered for seven hours is misleading, it is certainly useful to examine the balance of forces as the battle progressed. The figures below show how both sides received reinforcements;

We can see that although Wellington was always outnumbered in cavalry, and also in guns until late in the afternoon, from 4pm he enjoyed an increasing superiority in infantry, and although it can be argued that some of his original force had become combat non-effective, the French had had to fight without any reinforcements from 3pm. It is somewhat surprising that from 5pm, when Wellington had an appreciable superiority in infantry, he did not become more aggressive in order to open the Namur road and endeavour to support the Prussians by putting the French under more pressure. Ney’s aggressive tactics no doubt had something to do with this and kept Wellington on the defensive until shortly before the end of the battle.

Whilst Ney stands accused of not attacking much earlier than he did, when he had an appreciable advantage in numbers, there is no doubt that, during the battle, Wellington received timely reinforcements at the two most critical moments. Without the arrival of Picton and the Brunswickers at about 3.30pm, Ney would undoubtedly have taken Quatre Bras, and two hours later Wellington was again saved by the arrival of Alten. Twice Ney had come within a whisker of winning the battle.

Pollio also praises the combined arms approach used by Ney. Whilst it is fair to say that each of the three arms fought well, and in the case of the cavalry and artillery outstandingly well, it is hard to agree that all three combined to best effect. The aim of combined arms tactics is that each compliments the other, making best use of their strengths whilst compensating for each others’ shortcomings, so that their combined effectiveness is greater than the sum of their individual parts. Thus the artillery prepares the attack by concentrating its fire on the point selected for the assault and causing heavy casualties; the cavalry advances to force the enemy infantry into square, in which formation they become more vulnerable to artillery fire and are at the mercy of an infantry assault; the enemy breaks and the cavalry pursue.

Allied accounts all describe the accuracy and overwhelming firepower of the French artillery and it has already been shown that for much of the battle the French had a much higher number of guns available than the allies. It is especially noticeable how effective their guns were in counter-battery fire. The use of the Bossu wood by the allies to hide their troops, the undulating ground and the tall crops, all made engaging infantry targets difficult. The French artillery therefore seemed to concentrate their fire on the most easily identifiable targets, their allied counterparts. Dutch and British accounts describe a number of guns dismounted, limbers and caissons destroyed and high casualties in both gun crew and horses, all of which seems to fly in face of the commonly accepted view that counter-battery fire was not especially effective.

The French artillery also showed an impressive desire to manoeuvre and they were quick to move guns forward as ground was secured by the infantry advance in order to engage the allied line at shorter range. They were helped by the rolling terrain, the low ridges which offered good fire positions and allowed them to shoot over the heads of their infantry. The power of the French artillery contributed to the repulse of Picton’s attack and ensured the allied counter-attack at the end of the battle remained slow and cautious. The fact that Quatre Bras was not a typical Wellingtonian position, with most of his force hidden in dead ground behind a ridge, exposed more of his force and allowed the French guns to manoeuvre closer to his main line.

Pollio rightly commends the handling and courage of the French cavalry and particularly Piré’s lancers and chasseurs. These showed an aggression and courage which quickly earned the respect and admiration of the allied infantry. Perhaps only at Albuera did the French cavalry so roughly handle British infantry. Piré commanded his division with great daring, exploiting every opportunity to charge and making repeated efforts to break the allied squares, coming close to succeeding on a number of occasions. Several batteries were overrun and battalions ridden down, although French casualties were high. It is true that there were only inferior numbers of allied cavalry to oppose them and these were inevitably overwhelmed, leaving the allied infantry with little dependable cavalry support and giving Piré’s troopers freedom to manoeuvre, but this should not detract from an admirable performance.

A study of what detail we know of the fighting also reveals a tactical innovation used by Piré that does not appear to have been seen on a previous battlefield. This was the way in which the chasseurs and lancers were used to complement each other. Although brigaded separately, almost all accounts reveal one regiment of chasseurs appearing to operate with one of lancers. Thus it seems that the chasseurs were used in front, to break the momentum of the opposing charge or disorder an infantry unit, and the lancers followed up to exploit the discomfited unit; a task well suited to lancers who were always most effective when the opposition had lost their close formation, as the Union Brigade were to find out at Waterloo. Tactical innovation will be seen again in the way the French fought during this battle.

Kellerman’s cuirassiers made a much briefer, but no less impressive, contribution to the battle than Piré’s light cavalry. Leaving them no time to reflect on what they were being asked to do, Kellerman led them in an all-out charge that smashed into the very centre of the allied line. The French cavalry rarely charged at more than a trot, but the circumstances were exceptional; just two regiments, counting less than 800 sabres, launched a virtually unsupported charge against nearly 30,000 men. The charge managed to destroy the 2/69th Regiment and capture one of their colours. Several other British infantry regiments were thrown into disorder, a battery was overrun and the cuirassiers came close to breaking right through the allied line, reaching Quatre Bras itself. Whilst the courage and determination of this fine cavalry must be applauded, and whilst Piré’s exhausted troopers charged again in its support, crucially it was not well seconded by the infantry and its final repulse and panicked flight should not overshadow its achievements. Indeed, given the lack of support, Kellerman described its flight in the following words, ‘The brigade, having suffered enormous casualties, and seeing itself without support, retired in the disorder inevitable in such circumstances.’

In his own study of cavalry in the Waterloo campaign, General Sir Evelyn Wood VC also lavishly praises the French cavalry for their battlefield performance at Quatre Bras. However, he is less complimentary about their failure to carry out their primary role as light cavalry: reconnaissance.3 Piré’s cavalry were one of Ney’s foremost elements on the morning of Quatre Bras and well placed to send out patrols in order to give Ney a full description of the strength and deployment of the small allied force there. Given the relatively narrow frontage that the Prince of Orange was covering and his lack of cavalry, Piré’s troops had plenty of time and opportunity to outflank the Netherlands force and gather sufficient information to allow Ney to have made some much better-informed decisions on when and how to act. Indeed, this single, apparently small point, could well have changed the result of the day.

A study of French infantry tactics at Quatre Bras seems to reveal a unique way of operating, which suggests there had been some tactical discussion prior to the battle on how to counter the British tactics that had so often bettered them in Spain. Ney, Reille and Foy (as well as d’Erlon) had all fought the British there and it would be surprising if such a discussion had not taken place. During the Peninsular War, Wellington had developed a tactical system designed to counter the French tactics that had been so successful against the other military powers of Europe: a thick line of skirmishers countered the French skirmish line and prevented the French from knowing the exact deployment of the main British line, which was hidden on the reverse slope of a ridge or some high ground. This would only reveal itself at the last moment, pour in one or more devastating volleys and then charge downhill with bayonets lowered against a surprised and staggered enemy.

As always the French infantry displayed much courage and élan, fighting hard right up to the end of the battle when they were considerably outnumbered. However, whilst the French artillery and cavalry quickly earned the respect of the allied soldiers, the ubiquitous French infantry columns always seem to be described as hovering in the background rather than pressing forward their attack.

The most successful and commented on tactic of the French infantry was the effectiveness of their skirmishers. All allied accounts describe the heavy casualties taken by officers and gun crews; as an example, in the British 44th Regiment, Colonel O’Malley, the commanding officer, was the only unwounded field officer in the battalion, and of twenty-five officers present, only the colonel and six others were untouched: by the end of the battle, four companies were commanded by sergeants. The tirailleurs fought in numbers that overwhelmed their allied counterparts, and as they never seemed to be able to achieve this in five years in Spain, it is hard not to conclude that a greater number were deployed as a deliberate effort to achieve this. This then left them free to cause attrition on the main allied line, aiming specifically at officers to weaken the cohesion and resolve of the enemy units. When these felt sufficiently weakened or threatened, they withdrew; the French tirailleurs would follow them up, giving them no respite, whilst the following columns would occupy the ground recently surrendered. The columns themselves appear to have done little fighting, but were merely used to occupy ground and reinforce the skirmisher screen as required. But most importantly, the columns were uncommitted and available to counter any sudden appearance of the main British force which had unfailingly caught them out in the Peninsula.

The key problem with these tactics is that a screen of skirmishers, no matter how strong, is never likely to be decisive. At Quatre Bras they were successful against the inexperienced troops of the Netherlands and Brunswick units, but not so against the British. In order to break an enemy’s will to resist it either needs to have suffered an unbearable level of casualties due to heavy volley fire, or its cohesion must be shattered by a failure to meet an opponent’s mass that threatens to overwhelm it. Skirmisher fire was annoying and might cause significant casualties amongst officers, but this was unlikely to break a unit’s cohesion, just as it lacked sufficient mass and momentum to enter or threaten a decisive hand-to-hand fight. Thus this type of advance might push the enemy back, but was unlikely to break him, and, particularly significant for the French on this day, the advance was likely to be a slow one. Ney needed a quick, decisive attack if he was going to seize Quatre Bras before Wellington had concentrated sufficient troops to deny it to him; this secure, but rather laboured approach was unlikely to achieve his aim.

In stark contrast to both the cavalry and artillery, and even their own skirmisher screen, the infantry columns seem to have been handled with caution. Whilst the French skirmishers outperformed their allied counterparts, the battle re-emphasised the superiority of the British infantry over their French equivalents. This was not just a tactical issue, the superiority of the line over the column, but also a moral one. The British had clearly not lost the moral ascendency that they had acquired in the Peninsula, and always seemed to have the confidence that they would win whatever the French threw at them. It may be that there were times when things were not looking good for the British troops, but whenever they were called upon to hold firm or move forward, whatever the odds, they always seemed to answer the call. The French infantry were noted for their élan and enthusiasm, and this is noted by many allied eyewitnesses, and yet when they launched what appeared to be their main attack, virtually the whole of Bachelu’s division was thrown back by three British battalions. Without wishing to denigrate the young and relatively inexperienced Dutch and Brunswick battalions, they were overwhelmed by the French, but despite their apparent élan, the French columns appear to have lacked the determination and resilience to really come to grips with the British infantry, and this lost them the battle.

Both allied and French eyewitnesses describe the French infantry using line in both the advance and in defence; this was virtually unheard of in Spain and perhaps reflects another effort to counter British fire superiority by those French commanders who fought them there. Without it being mentioned specifically, this may suggest the French use of ordre mixte, a formation favoured by Napoleon which was an attempt to exploit the firepower of the line and the momentum and mass of the column. An allied account of the battle describes some of Foy’s troops advancing ‘a battalion in line, supported by two columns’, suggesting this was the formation used.

But perhaps the most notable failure of the French infantry was their reluctance to advance in support of the cavalry. Both Piré’s and Kellerman’s troopers achieved considerable success in disordering a number of battalions and pinning others in square where they would have been vulnerable to an infantry assault. This was a failure of co-ordination. Piré’s main charge was an opportunistic one and Kellerman’s was hastily launched, but both Ney and the infantry divisional commanders failed to spot the opportunity and launch a determined infantry assault when the allies were most vulnerable. The failure of the infantry to support the attacks of the cavalry undermines Pollio’s praise for the combined arms aspects of the battle and is reminiscent of the great cavalry charges that were to come at Waterloo.

Ney’s direction of the battle is also interesting. Once again we see his legendary heroism and courage; prepared to expose himself to the hottest fire and always wanting to be in a position that gave him the best view of what was going on, urging his troops forward. But a truly effective commander needs more than courage. At the beginning of the day, Ney’s mission was to seize Quatre Bras, concentrate his entire wing around the crossroads and to defeat any allied troops that he encountered. By the afternoon, that mission had evolved; not least because Napoleon presumed that his first mission had been achieved. His new mission was that having seized Quatre Bras he was to send d’Erlon’s 1st Corps onto the Prussian right rear at Ligny. It appears that Ney failed to achieve either of his stated missions.

After delivering the emperor’s orders to Ney on the morning of the 16th, General Flahaut, the emperor’s ADC, remained at the battle for the rest of the day and was thus a witness to proceedings. In his account of the campaign, Thiers writes:

. . . Count Flahaut, who had left Ney during the night after having witnessed the events at Quatre Bras, arrived at General Headquarters at 6am [on the morning of the 17th]. Without wishing to insult Ney, whose heroism touched even those who did not approve of his manner of operations, he did not conceal from the emperor how the dispositions of the marshal had been mediocre at the combat at Quatre Bras; how above all he seemed struck by agitation in his thoughts, adding that he was clearly energetic in his devotion, but that this affected the clarity of his military judgement . . .

Although Thiers should not normally be considered as authoritative, this account was specifically endorsed by Flahaut in a letter to Thiers dated London, 27 August 1862. From this passage we must assume that Flahaut was trying to respectfully say that Ney was not thinking or planning clearly and his direction of the battle was poor. Flahaut himself wrote:

There was no cohesion to the affair. It was like attempting, as the saying goes, to ‘take the bull by the horns’. Our forces were thrown into battle piecemeal as they arrived upon the scene, and in spite of the bravery they displayed no result was obtained.

No doubt based on Flahaut’s report, Napoleon had the following letter written to Ney the following morning:

The emperor is disappointed that you did not concentrate your divisions yesterday; they acted individually and so you suffered casualties.

If the corps of Counts d’Erlon and Reille had been together, not an Englishman of the corps that attacked you would have escaped. If the Count d’Erlon had executed the movement on Saint-Amand that the emperor had ordered, the Prussian army would have been totally destroyed and we would have made perhaps 30,000 prisoners.

The corps of Generals Gérard, Vandamme and the Imperial Guard were always concentrated; one exposes oneself to a reverse when detachments are made.

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