The Victory of Ligny: A Vanished Triumph

Battle of Ligny by Theodore Yung

Once again, Napoleon succeeded in surprising and destabilizing his enemy. He moved his forces to the frontier without the knowledge of the enemy, and at dawn on June 15 he seized Charleroi.

Having no inkling of this, Wellington and Blücher were shocked. The former even panicked slightly. Instead of moving toward Blücher as agreed, he took steps to move closer to the embarkation ports, a truly British reflex. The deception had produced its fruits.

The Prussian commander was less affected by the appearance of the French due to a base treason. General Count Louis de Bourmont, commander of a French division and an ex-émigré who had been generously pardoned, deserted to the enemy and revealed the entire campaign plan to Blücher, who could not conceal his contempt for the deserter. Aided by this information, Blücher assembled all his forces around Ligny, where he decided to give battle.

Napoleon’s scheme of maneuver was as simple as usual: attack and fix Blücher at Ligny with Grouchy’s force; take him in reverse, moving Ney’s group from Quatre Bras; and exploit the results with the main reserve under the direct orders of the emperor. But things did not go according to plan on June 16.

At 8 a.m. on Friday, 16 June Napoleon was informed that the whole of the Prussian army seemed to have assembled at Sombreffe, so he left for the extreme right flank of his forces to check for himself, arriving at Fleurus at 11 a.m. Sure enough, the Prussians were there, so he ordered Marshal Ney, who he assumed would take the Quatre Bras crossroads with relative ease, to despatch a large body of his force to him to help rout the Prussians.

By the time Ney received Napoleon’s rather florid instructions — ‘The fate of France is in your hands. Thus do not hesitate even for a moment to carry out the manoeuvre’— he was no longer capable of carrying them out. For if Wellington had been relatively slow in concentrating his forces upon Quatre Bras, fearing that it might be a feint of Napoleon’s, Ney had been still more dilatory, and by the time he started to try to take the crossroads the British reserve had already begun arriving there after a thirty-mile march. Although the credit for saving Quatre Bras must go to the initiative of General Constant Rebecque, the Dutch chief of staff, who was early on the scene and recognised its strategic importance, the actual outcome of the battle of Quatre Bras itself was due to Wellington himself.

Wellington had set out from Brussels at 3 a.m., and by 11 a.m. he was conferring with Blücher at the Brye windmill overlooking the battlefield of Ligny. It is said that he trained his telescope on Napoleon, the first time he had ever set eyes on the man with whose name his fame was to be forever inextricably linked. They had both been born on islands, they had both attended French military academies and spoke French as their second language; they were the same age, born within three months of one another in 1769; they both excelled at topography and chose Hannibal as their ultimate hero, yet they had never hitherto faced one another across a field of battle. Nor were they destined to on 16 June, since Wellington only had time to give Blücher his considered opinion as to the Prussian displacements before being called off to command the defence of Quatre Bras.

The Duke politely criticised Blücher’s decision to present the whole Prussian army to Napoleon’s view — and artillery — in the old Continental manner, explaining his own preference of trying to conceal soldiers behind the reverse slopes of hills. ‘My men prefer to see the enemy,’ replied the proud, brave, but in this case also foolhardy Prussian. Wellington’s private estimation as he rode off was: ‘If they fight here, they will be damnably mauled.’ Sure enough, when Napoleon attacked, they were.

Marshal Ney, the veteran of seventy battles, might have won the splendid soubriquet ‘the bravest of the brave’in numerous engagements, but he was not an impressive commander when left in overall charge, and there were also fears that he had been suffering from a form of ‘combat fatigue’or ‘battle stress’ ever since the gruelling Russian campaign of 1812, when he had been left to command the French rearguard after Napoleon had fled back to Paris. He had certainly become highly unpredictable by 1815, and was quite possibly simply burnt out as a soldier. Napoleon once complained that Ney understood less than the youngest drummer boy in the French army, and certainly piled complaint on complaint upon his actions — and inactions — during the Waterloo campaign when he was exiled on St Helena.

Ney, who had fallen for Wellington’s tactic of concealing his troops in the Peninsular War, only attacked at Quatre Bras late and half-heartedly, even though Wellington was not on the battlefield in the early stages and had not hidden any troops. Nor had Ney yet received Napoleon’s urgent request that he send the bulk of his force to Ligny. Instead two battles — at Ligny and Quatre Bras — developed simultaneously only about seven miles from each other. Ney had too often in the Peninsula seen the ill-effect of attacking British infantry head on, and quite possibly feared that the crossroads of Quatre Bras hid another Wellingtonian deception, in the way that in 1810 the use of topography had won him the battle of Busaco against Marshal Masséna.

Believing that Ney could manage to take Quatre Bras with the troops already under his command, Napoleon sent a message to General Drouet d’Erlon, who was on his way to reinforce Ney from Gosselies with the 1st Corps, to march to the battlefield of Ligny instead, where fierce house-to-house combat had developed. By 5 p.m. Blücher’s force was hard-pressed, and he had to commit his reserves to the struggle, a dangerous moment for any commander when facing Napoleon. Had the French emperor been able to fling d’Erlon’s fresh troops into the battle, a rout would have been assured. But no such force was there, not least because d’Erlon had been counter-ordered by Ney to march to Quatre Bras instead. As it was, d’Erlon arrived on neither battlefield in time to affect the outcome of either engagement. The greatest living authority on the campaigns of Napoleon, Dr David Chandler, has stated that the importance of the non-appearance of d’Erlon’s corps at Ligny and Quatre Bras was crucial, since ‘in either … its intervention could have been decisive’.12

By the time nightfall had descended on the battlefield of Quatre Bras it was clear that there was a stalemate, with both sides in much the same position they had occupied before Ney had originally attacked. Over 9,000 lives had been lost — roughly equally on each side — to no significant strategic advantage to either.

Yet over at Ligny a few miles to the east it was a very different picture. Even despite d’Erlon’s non-appearance, Napoleon had conclusively given Blücher the damnable mauling that Wellington had predicted. The Emperor had delayed launching an attack by his Imperial Guard — the crack regiments nicknamed ‘Les Invincibles — until 7.30 p.m., but when he had — preceded by a huge artillery bombardment — it had proved decisive. Crying ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ the Guard had charged the Prussian centre with bayonets, supported by brigades of cavalry. Although Blücher personally counterattacked with only two brigades of cavalry, the French could not be turned back.

Darkness turned the defeat into a rout. Sixteen thousand Prussians were killed or wounded at Ligny, and around 8,000 Rhinelanders deserted the colours that night and simply returned home. Nonetheless the decision was taken by Blücher’s chief of staff General August von Gneisenau — in Blücher’s absence, because the marshal could not be found — that the army should act in a completely counter-intuitive way. Instead of retreating eastwards towards Liège and Prussia, the Prussians would instead go north to Wavre, where they could stay in touch with the Anglo-Allied army. Gneisenau was an Anglophobe, but he had nevertheless made the crucial decision of the campaign, one that Wellington himself hardly exaggerated when he described it as ‘the decisive moment of the century’.

If Gneisenau had returned to Prussia, Wellington would probably have had to retreat north towards Antwerp and the Channel ports and probably re-embark the British army back to the United Kingdom, as had happened on so many other equally humiliating occasions over the past quarter-century. The Royal Navy were used to shipping defeated British forces back from a Napoleon dominated Continent, and this time would have been no different. Yet with the Prussians still in the field, and liaising closely, there was still the prospect that they could pull off the coup that Napoleon missed at Ligny, that of bringing a fresh force onto the battlefield at the psychologically vital moment.

The Prussian retreat northward necessitated Wellington making a similar manoeuvre, giving up the crossroads that had been so hard fought over only the previous day. He could not risk having the combined forces of Napoleon and Ney fall upon him, so Saturday, 17 June was spent retreating to a highly defensible position some miles to the north, on the slopes of Mont St Jean, which — despite the best efforts of generations of French historians — will always be generally known as the battlefield of Waterloo. Old Blücher has had a damned good licking and gone back to Wavre, eighteen miles,’ Wellington said. ‘As he has gone back, we must go too. I suppose in England they’ll say we have been licked. Well, I can’t help it.’It had happened enough in the past; whenever Wellington had made tactical retreats in the Peninsula there had never been a shortage of those he termed ‘croakers’, especially among the radical Whigs in the parliamentary opposition, keen to suggest that he had been defeated.

The French, too, were happy to argue that Wellington had been ‘licked’. Napoleon sent back a report of the battle of Ligny to be printed in the official government newspaper Le Moniteur which suggested that the united Prussian and Anglo-Allied armies had been defeated. The propaganda sheet duly obliged and there were celebrations in the French capital.

As for Drout d’Erlon, he wobbled all day between Ney and Napoleon without taking part in the fighting at Ligny or at Quatre Bras. After the incomplete victory of Ligny, everything had to be done over.


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