Battle at Plancenoit

Prussian assault on Plancenoit. At 4 pm, even as Ney was preparing his grand cavalry assault on Wellington’s position, the Prussian vanguard was massing under the cover of the Bois de Paris forest along Napoleon’s right (eastern) flank. Here the lead elements of Von Bülow‘s IV Korps: two infantry brigades, two batteries of guns, and a regiment of Silesian Hussars were poised to strike toward the village of Plancenoit. Behind them and still marching forward was the rest of the Corps, in total some 32,000 men.

Map of battle at Plancenoit

The Young Guard at Plancenoit.

General Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr von Bülow’s troops drove the French out of Plancenoit. It was gutter fighting, close-quarters carnage with bayonets and musket butts in alleys and cottage gardens. Cannon blasted roundshot and canister down narrow streets fogged by powder smoke and puddled with blood. A few French troops hung on to some houses on the village’s western edge, but they were in danger of being surrounded by Prussian troops advancing in the fields either side of the village.

Napoleon could not afford to lose Plancenoit. It lay behind his line and would make a base from which Blücher’s troops could advance on the Brussels highway. If that highway was cut, then the French would have no road on which to retreat. They would be effectively surrounded, and so the Emperor sent his Young Guard to retake the village.

The Young Guard was part of the Imperial Guard, those elite troops so beloved of the Emperor. To join the Guard a soldier had to have taken part in three campaigns and be of proven character, a requirement less moral than disciplinary, and the successful applicants were rewarded with better equipment, higher pay and a distinctive uniform. Traditionally the Guard, which had its own infantry, cavalry and artillery and so formed an army within the army, was held back from battle so that it was available to make the killing stroke when it was needed. There was, naturally enough, some resentment within the wider French army of the privileges accorded to the Guard, but nevertheless most soldiers held the ambition of being chosen to join its ranks. Their nickname, ‘the Immortals’, was partly sarcastic, referring to the many battles when the Guard had not been called into action (the Guard called themselves grognards, grumblers, because they found it frustrating to be held in reserve when other men were fighting). But if there was resentment there was also admiration. The Guard was intensely loyal to Napoleon, they were proven to be brave men, they fought like tigers, and their boast was that they had never been defeated. No enemy would ever underestimate their fighting ability or their effectiveness.

The Young Guard were skirmishers, though they could fight in line or square like any other battalion, and there were just over 4,700 of them at Waterloo. When it became apparent that Lobau’s outnumbered men were being driven from Plancenoit the Emperor despatched all eight battalions of the Young Guard to retake the village. They were led by General Guillaume Philibert Duhesme, a thoroughly nasty character who was a child of the French Revolution. A labourer’s son, he had risen to high rank because he was competent, but he was also corrupt, venal, cruel and sadistic. He had trained as a lawyer, then become a soldier, and regarded Napoleon with some suspicion, believing, rightly, that the Emperor had betrayed many of the principles of the French Revolution, but Duhesme was too good a soldier to be ignored and Napoleon trusted him with the Young Guard. Duhesme was an expert on light infantry tactics, indeed his slim textbook Essai Historique de l’Infanterie Légère became the standard work on the subject for much of the nineteenth century.

Light infantry, trained to think and act independently, were perfectly suited to the counter-attack on Plancenoit. The Young Guard advanced and took musket fire from houses on the village edge, but Duhesme refused to let them answer that fire, instead leading them straight into the streets and alleys that would be cleared by their bayonets. It worked, and the Prussians were tumbled back out of the village and even pursued for some distance beyond. General Duhesme was badly wounded in the head during the vicious fighting and was to die two days later.

The Young Guard had done everything asked of it and upheld the traditions of the Imperial Guard, but von Bülow’s men were being reinforced minute by minute as more troops crossed the Lasne valley and made their way through the woods to the battlefield. The Prussians counter-attacked, driving the French out of the houses on the western side of the village and besieging the stone-walled churchyard. Colonel Johann von Hiller led one of two Prussian columns that:

succeeded in capturing a howitzer, two cannon, several ammunition wagons and two staff officers along with several hundred men. The open square around the churchyard was surrounded by houses from which the enemy could not be dislodged … a firefight developed at fifteen to thirty paces range which ultimately decimated the Prussian battalions.

The Young Guard was fighting desperately, but Blücher could feed still more men into the turmoil and slowly, inevitably, the Young Guard was forced back. The Prussians recaptured the church and its graveyard, then went house by house, garden by garden, fighting through alleys edged by burning houses, and the Young Guard, now hopelessly outnumbered, retreated grudgingly.

Napoleon had thirteen battalions of the Imperial Guard left in his reserve. He had arrayed them north and south to form a defensive line in case the Prussians broke through at Plancenoit, but to prevent that he now sent two battalions of the Old Guard to reinforce the hard-pressed French troops in the village. The two battalions went into the smoke and chaos with fixed bayonets, their arrival heartened the French survivors and the fight for Plancenoit swung again, this time in favour of the French. The newly arrived veterans of the Old Guard fought their way back to the high churchyard, captured it and garrisoned themselves inside its stone wall. Even they were hard-pressed and at one moment their General, Baron Pelet, seized the precious Eagle and shouted, ‘A moi, Chasseurs! Sauvons l’Aigle ou mourons autour d’elle!’ To me, Chasseurs! Save the Eagle or die around her! The Guard rallied. Pelet, later in the fight, discovered Guardsmen cutting the throats of Prussian prisoners and, disgusted, stopped the murders. For the moment, at least, Pelet had stiffened the French defence and Plancenoit belonged to the Emperor, and so the threat to Napoleon’s rear had been averted.

Yet von Bülow’s men were not the only Prussians arriving at the battlefield. Lieutenant-General Hans von Zieten’s 1st Corps had left Wavre early in the afternoon and taken a more northerly route than von Bülow’s men. They had been delayed because General Pirch’s 2nd Corps was following von Bülow’s southern route and von Zieten’s and Pirch’s Corps, each of several thousand men with guns and ammunition wagons, met at a crossroads and there was inevitable confusion as the two columns tried to cross each other’s line of march. Von Bülow and Pirch had been sent to attack Napoleon’s right wing at Plancenoit, while von Zieten’s men took the more northerly roads so that they could link up with Wellington’s men on the ridge.

A History Changing Decision

General von Zieten’s men had been heavily engaged in the fighting at Ligny, where they had lost almost half their strength. Now, in the slanting sun of the evening, von Zieten led around five thousand men towards Wellington’s position. They would have heard the battle long before they saw it, though the pall of powder smoke, lit by the sheet-lightning of gun-flashes, would have been visible above the trees. The first contact came when the leading troops reached the château of Frichermont, a substantial building on the extreme left of Wellington’s position. It had been garrisoned by Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar’s Nassauer troops, the same men who had saved Quatre-Bras with their gallant defence two days before. Saxe-Weimar had been fighting all afternoon, staving off French attacks on Papelotte and La Haie; now suddenly he was attacked from the rear. One of his officers, Captain von Rettburg, recalled how his infantry was driven back ‘by numerous skirmishers followed by infantry columns’:

Skirmishers even attacked me from the hedges in my rear. When I drove them off I became aware that we were faced by Prussians! They in turn recognised their error which had lasted less than ten minutes but had caused several dead and wounded on both sides.

What von Rettburg does not say is that it was his bravery that ended the unfortunate clash of allies. He made his way through the musket fire to tell the Prussians their mistake. The Nassauers wore a dark green uniform, which could be mistaken for the dark blue of French coats, and their headgear was French in shape.

More chaos was to follow. General von Zieten’s men were needed desperately on the ridge. Wellington knew another French assault was likely, and if the Prussians reinforced his left wing he could bring troops from there to strengthen his centre. General von Zieten sent scouts ahead and one of them, a young officer, returned to say that all was lost. He had seen Wellington’s army in full retreat. Just like Marshal Ney he had mistaken the chaos behind Wellington’s line for defeat, thinking it was a panicked attempt to escape when in fact it was just wounded men being taken to the rear, ammunition wagons, servants and stray horses. Shells exploded among them and roundshot, skimming the ridge, threw up gouts of earth where they landed. It looked as if the French were cannonading the panicked mass, adding to the impression of a rout. The Prussian officer could probably see little that happened on the ridge itself, it was so fogged by powder smoke, but through that smoke he would have seen the red flash of French cannons firing and the smaller flicker of muskets, their sudden flames lighting the smoke and fading instantly. Every now and then there was a larger explosion as a shell found an artillery caisson, and the ‘cloud’ of French skirmishers was close to the ridge’s crest, and so were some of the cannon, and behind the skirmishers were prowling cavalry, dimly visible through the smoke. No wonder the young officer believed that the French had captured Wellington’s ridge and that the Duke’s forces were in full retreat. He galloped back to von Zieten and told him it was hopeless, that there was no point in joining Wellington because the Duke was defeated.

And at that same moment a staff officer arrived from Blücher with new orders. The newcomer, Captain von Scharnhorst, could not find von Zieten, so he galloped to the head of the column and gave them their orders directly: they were to turn round and march south to help Blücher with his stalled attack on Plancenoit. Wellington, it seemed, would not be reinforced; instead the Prussians would fight their separate battle south of Napoleon’s ridge.

General von Müffling, the liaison officer with Wellington, had been waiting for von Zieten’s arrival. He had expected it much earlier, but now, at last, von Zieten’s Corps was in sight at the extreme left wing of Wellington’s position. Then, to von Müffling’s astonishment, those troops turned and marched away. ‘By this retrograde movement,’ he wrote, ‘the battle might have been lost.’ So von Müffling put spurs to his horse and galloped after the retreating Prussians.

Meanwhile a furious argument was raging between Lieutenant-Colonel von Reiche, one of von Zieten’s staff officers, and Captain von Scharnhorst. Von Reiche wanted to obey the original orders and go to Wellington’s assistance, despite the report of the Duke’s defeat, but von Scharnhorst insisted that Blücher’s new orders must be obeyed. ‘I pointed out to him’, von Reiche said:

that everything had been arranged with von Müffling, that Wellington counted on our arrival close to him, but von Scharnhorst did not want to listen to anything. He declared that I would be held responsible if I disobeyed Blücher’s orders. Never had I found myself in such a predicament. On one hand our troops were endangered at Plancenoit, on the other Wellington was relying on our help. I was in despair. General von Ziethen was nowhere to be found.

The troops had paused while this argument raged, but then General Steinmetz, who commanded the advance guard of von Zieten’s column, came galloping up, angry at the delay, and brusquely told von Reiche that Blücher’s new orders would be obeyed. The column dutifully continued marching eastwards, looking for a smaller lane that led south towards Plancenoit, but just then von Zieten himself appeared and the argument started all over again. Von Zieten listened and then took a brave decision. He would ignore Blücher’s new orders and, believing von Müffling’s assurance that the Duke was not in full retreat, he ordered his troops onto the British–Dutch ridge. The Prussian 1st Corps would join Wellington after all.

The 1st Corps had its own guns, 6-pounder cannons and 7-pounder howitzers, and they were the first of von Zieten’s weapons to be unleashed on the French. They were presumably firing along the face of the ridge, probably aiming at the gun-flashes lighting the smoke around La Haie Sainte, and fairly soon after opening fire the Prussian guns found themselves being answered with counter-battery fire. Captain Mercer, of the Royal Horse Artillery, tells the story best:

We had scarcely fired many rounds at the enfilading battery, when a tall man in the black Brunswick uniform came galloping up to me from the rear, exclaiming ‘Ah! Mine Gott! Mine Gott! Vat is it you done, sare? Dat is your friends de Proosiens; ans you kills dem!’

The Prussian guns had been aiming at Mercer’s battery and caused casualties, and Mercer, despite the Duke’s orders that forbade counter-battery fire, had responded. That mistake too was eventually corrected. Such errors were probably unavoidable: there were too many unfamiliar uniforms in the allied armies and the smoke was casting a gloom over a battlefield lit by the glare of flames. It was past seven in the evening now and the fortunes of war had swung sharply against the Emperor, yet all was not lost.

Napoleon’s Imperial Guard was working its magic again. Ten battalions had been sufficient to stall the Prussian attack on Plancenoit, and eleven battalions remained in reserve. The French were pushing hard at Wellington’s line, they were close to the ridge top now, especially at the centre above La Haie Sainte. Ney had pleaded for more troops so he could launch a killer blow at Wellington’s centre and Napoleon had refused him, but now, with Prussian numbers increasing, it was time to throw the best troops of France, if not of all Europe, at the Duke’s wounded line.

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