Just after midnight, June 16, 1815, the citizens of Brussels were rudely awakened by the deep rumble of drums, the blare of trumpets and the shrill skirl of bagpipes. Half groggy, half apprehensive, citizens went to their windows in time to see soldiers spilling out into the darkened streets. Galvanized by the martial airs, men of the Anglo-Netherlands army prepared to leave the Belgian capital.
Within minutes, multihued skeins of soldiers started to march out of the city, the cobblestoned streets reverberating to their ceaseless tramp. Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of the French, had invaded Belgium with a veteran army; already he had taken Charleroi, only 28 miles to the south. Even the greenest recruit realized what a formidable task lay ahead. All over Brussels, soldiers said goodbye to wives, children and sweethearts.
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington and commander in chief of the Anglo-Netherlands army, had greeted the news of Napoleon’s approach with his customary sang-froid. When he had received definite news that French troops were in force along the CharleroiÐBrussels road, he had issued the orders that turned a somnolent Belgian capital into a feverish hive of activity.
The coming battle had been made possible by Napoleon’s escape from exile on the island of Elba the previous March. Armed with little more than 1,000 men and potent memories, he easily overthrew the fat and gouty Bourbon King Louis XVIII. Napoleon was still a hero to thousands of Frenchmen, including MarŽchal Michel Ney, who had set out to arrest the returning emperor, only to be instantly won back over to Napoleon’s side. But to the Allied powers–Britain, Prussia, Austria and Russia–Napoleon was a warmongering tyrant, dangerously imbued with French Revolutionary ideals.
He was declared an outlaw, a threat to the peace of Europe, and the combined strength of a half-million men was pledged to bring him down. The task seemed easy; France was war-weary after 22 years of turmoil, and Napoleon himself had changed. He was ill and often lethargic. Although the wind of challenge could still cause the guttering flame of his genius to flare anew, the Napoleon of 1815 was not the man of a decade before.
For the most part, the Allies expected the coming invasion of France to be a replay of the 1814 campaign, in which a defensive emperor had been ground down by superior numbers. But dŽjˆ vu was not in Napoleon’s vocabulary. He figured that it would take time for the Allies to assemble a formidable force along the French frontier; the Russians in particular had a long distance to march. The Allies would not invade earlier than July 1815. Therefore, Napoleon decided on a bold course of action: He would launch a pre-emptive strike on the nearest Allied armies, namely the Anglo-Dutch and Prussians in Belgium.
Wellington’s army was a polyglot force of British, Dutch, Belgians and some Germans. It was a disparate force, full of raw recruits, and in some cases badly equipped and trained. Political dissension weakened its effectiveness; many Belgians were secret Bonapartists. The British troops were the army’s solid core, but there were less than 28,000 of them in an army of 92,309. Some of the British troops were veterans, but there were many green recruits in the ranks. Wellington had requested seasoned regiments from his own Peninsular campaign in Spain, but the British government only partly complied.
The Prussian Army of the Lower Rhine was the other part of the equation, some 130,246 soldiers under the command of Feldmarschall Gebhard Leberecht von BlŸcher, a hard-drinking eccentric whose twin virtues were courage and bulldog tenacity. BlŸcher also was an inveterate Napoleon hater, whose dearest wish was to hang the French emperor. If BlŸcher was more renowned for valor than judgment, that niche was amply filled by his chief of staff, General August Wilhelm von Gneisenau.
On paper, the combined Allied forces in Belgium could field about 222,000 men, while Napoleon could only muster about 122,000 for the projected campaign. But Napoleon’s plan was a brilliantly conceived concentrated thrust into the heart of Belgium. After crossing the Sambre River, he planned to drive a wedge between Wellington and BlŸcher, whose armies were scattered in a wide arc of cantonments. Once the Allies were divided, he could defeat them in detail.
Planning a campaign is one thing, executing it quite another. The French ArmŽe du Nord was a veteran force, imbued with a fanatical love of the emperor. But the sudden shift of political allegiance from Louis XVIII to Napoleon left many general officers uneasy. If Napoleon was defeated, some rightly feared they would be branded as traitors.
The campaign began in earnest on June 15, when Napoleon’s army crossed the Sambre River and drove in the outposts of Generalleutnant Hans von Ziethen’s Prussian I Corps. The Prussians gave ground stubbornly, causing delays in the emperor’s timetable, and there were some problems with sloppy staff work. Napoleon had inexplicably appointed MarŽchal Nicolas Soult as chief of staff, though he was far better suited to field command. Far more serious at the time, however, was the defection of GŽnŽral Louis Auguste Bourmont, one of Napoleon’s divisional commanders. Proclaiming himself loyal to Louis XVIII, he defected to the Allies, and was more than happy to divulge the emperor’s plan of campaign. Luckily for the French, BlŸcher’s distaste for a traitor caused him to disregard Bourmont’s revelations.
In spite of these difficulties, Napoleon was pleased with the opening moves of the campaign. If Wellington and BlŸcher were separated and defeated in detail, the coalition against France might be dealt a fatal blow. French morale would soar, and political dissent would be drowned out by the loud cries of victory.
MarŽchal Michel Ney arrived at Charleroi at 3:30 on June 15, much to the joy of the troops. “Voilˆ Rougeot!” they cried. “Here’s Redhead!” To them, his flaming locks were a kind of talisman of victory, a good omen of things to come. “Hello, Ney,” Napoleon laconically greeted his subordinate. “I’m happy to see you.” Never one for small talk, the emperor gave the marshal his orders without further ado.
The ArmŽe du Nord would have two wings and a reserve, the latter to be placed under Napoleon’s personal command. The arrangement had flexibility, because it enabled the French to pounce on whichever enemy presented himself first. One wing and the reserve could crush one opponent–Wellington or BlŸcher–while the other wing held off the other foe, if necessary. With luck, the enemy would be so scattered that even a holding action would be unnecessary.
Ney was given command of the ArmŽe du Nord’s left wing, a force totaling around 50,000 men. But the marshal’s precise orders that afternoon have been mired in controversy ever since. Most versions maintain that Ney was personally ordered to advance along the CharleroiÐBrussels road, pushing any enemy units he might encounter before him. Then he was to seize and hold the vital Quatre Bras crossroads. Ney’s apologists claim he did not have such precise instructions.
Back in Brussels, Wellington was adopting a cautious approach. One of Europe’s greatest generals, the duke had never been defeated in five years of bloody fighting in Spain. Nearly always outnumbered by the French, he was the master of defensive tactics, using topographical features such as the reverse slopes of hills to shelter and protect his men from the murderous French artillery.
In the days before the invasion, intelligence reports had clearly indicated a massive concentration of French troops along the border. But Wellington was unsure of which route Napoleon would take. On June 6, he received a report that Napoleon intended to attack through Mons. That fitted well with Wellington’s own preoccupations, so he accepted the information with alacrity.
A Mons attack implied a great flanking sweep to the northwest, cutting Wellington’s vital link to the sea, and hence his communications and supply link to Britain. Indeed, a flanking envelopment was the classic Napoleonic maneuver, employed by the emperor on many occasions. But this tactic, the so-called manoeuvre sur derrires, was used only when Napoleon enjoyed numerical superiority. Such was not the case, though Wellington was not in a position to know that.
Wellington received several dispatches on the 15th, but the messages lacked sufficient detail. He was convinced the Charleroi attack was only a feint, and that the main thrust would be toward Mons. The Prussians wanted him to concentrate his army eastward, but Wellington was not about to do anything so rash in the absence of concrete information. If proof came that the Sambre RiverÐCharleroi attack was the main French effort, the Anglo-Netherlands forces would gravitate eastward. “Should, however,” Wellington revealed, “a portion of the enemy’s force come through Mons, I must concentrate towards my center. For this reason, I must positively wait for news before I fix my rendezvous.” He then issued a flurry of orders. A cavalry screen was to be thrown out between Oudenaarde and Ghent, though there was no sign of enemy activity there. Lieutenant General Lord Rowland Hill’s II Corps was to stay near the Dender River, while Prince William of Orange’s I Corps was ordered to Nivelles, Enghien and Soignies.
Since the Prussians were moving toward the Sombreffe-Ligny region, a gap was widening between the two Allied armies. In fact, the CharleroiÐBrussels road was virtually undefended. Once the French took the vital crossroads, and with it the crucial NivellesÐSombreffe thoroughfare that led to BlŸcher’s army, an irrevocable wedge would be driven between the Allies.
At Genappe, about three miles from Quatre Bras, I Corps chief of staff Maj. Gen. Jean V. de Constant Rebecque realized what was happening and responded quickly. He ordered Lt. Gen. Baron H.G. de Perponcher-Sedlnitzky to send the 2nd Brigade of his 2nd Netherlands Division to occupy Quatre Bras. Commanded by Maj. Gen. Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar, it arrived at Quatre Bras about 2 o’clock on the afternoon of June 15.
Ney had taken command of the French left wing in a somewhat whirlwind fashion. He was not completely familiar with some of his subordinates, but the exigencies of the campaign allowed no time to get acquainted. At 4 p.m., his tenure barely an hour old, Ney repulsed a Prussian attack at Gosselies. The Prussians soon withdrew toward Fleurus, where they would be engaged with Napoleon the next day.
The left wing consisted of GŽnŽral de Division HonorŽ Charles Michel, comte Reille’s II Corps, GŽnŽral de Division Jean Baptiste Drouet, comte d’Erlon’s I Corps, and some Imperial Guard light cavalry commanded by GŽnŽral de Division Charles Lefebvre-Desnoettes. Ney had some 45,000 men, though at the moment the marching columns were stretched out for miles.
Once the Prussians were gone, Lefebvre-Desnoettes’ lancers trotted toward the crossroads. When they reached Frasnes about 6:30 p.m.–some accounts say 5:30–they were met with a hail of musket fire from the Nassau troops that Rebecque had so wisely sent a few hours before. Dressed in green, with nodding yellow-over-green plumes on their shakos, the Nassauers gave a good account of themselves before retiring two miles up the road to the Bois de Bossu, a thick patch of forest near Quatre Bras. Since his lancers could not maneuver in the forest, Lefebvre-Desnoettes requested infantry support. Ney refused because night was falling, the ground was unfamiliar, and his two corps were stretched along the BrusselsÐCharleroi road nine miles and more.
That evening, Rebecque received Wellington’s orders to concentrate I Corps around Nivelles. The chief of staff was incredulous; if he followed instructions, the chasm between the Anglo-Netherlands army and the Prussians would grow even larger. Rebecque, a man whose moral courage was equal to his strategic sense, refused to obey. Instead, he ordered Maj. Gen. Graf van Bijlandt’s 1st Brigade of the 2nd Netherlands Division to reinforce Saxe-Weimar.
The Quatre Bras–the name means “four arms”–was the intersection of the BrusselsÐCharleroi road with the NivellesÐSombreffe road. Quatre Bras itself consisted of a very large farm, a few nondescript houses and the La Baraque Tavern. The Bois de Bossu–a forest whose thick clusters of fir trees made a literal “wooden wall” of defense–anchored the Allied right.
Several hamlet farms made ideal defensive outworks as well, including Gemioncourt and Piraumont. But the Allied line was weakest on the left, where the NivellesÐSombreffe road led to BlŸcher’s army some eight miles away. Perponcher-Sedlnitzky’s line was stretched to the limit, a taut skein of troops holding a line some two miles long. This fragile facade, once pierced, was apt to shatter like a piece of crockery.
Luckily, topography and Wellington’s reputation aided the Allies. Patches of forest were interspersed with vast fields of wheat, rye and barley. Because they wanted straw, local farmers had allowed their crops to grow 5 and 6 feet high. Grain-covered hills made a sea of waving stalks that were perfect for concealment. The French were thus unaware that a mere 8,000 men were guarding the crossroads.
Then, too, Wellington was famous for using every inch of natural cover to conceal and protect troops. General Reille discussed this possibility with Ney, and urged the already desultory marshal to exercise further caution. “This could be like one of those battles in Spain,” Reille opined, “where the English show themselves only at the critical moment.”
If Ney had bestirred himself and given early morning orders for his troops to march, he would have seized the crossroads with impunity. Precious hours were slipping away, yet he still waited to receive Napoleon’s confirming orders to take Quatre Bras.
Confirming orders arrived shortly after 8 a.m. on June 16, though some sources say 6:30. The emperor’s missive was verbose and conveyed no clear sense of urgency to the somewhat obtuse marshal. There seemed to be time to let the troops start cooking fires and eat.
It was just after noon when the leading elements of Reille’s II Corps reached the Quatre Bras area. Although many of his troops were still stretched along the road, Ney still had 19,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry, and 60 guns. Yet another two precious hours were allowed to slip by while Ney waited for additional units.
The Battle of Quatre Bras began at 2 in the afternoon. Ney’s battle plan was simple: seize the crossroads and push on to Brussels. To achieve his objectives, the marshal formed three separate columns. GŽnŽral de Brigade Gilbert DŽsirŽ Joseph, Baron Bachelu’s 5th Infantry Division of 4,294 was to advance to the right, seize the Piraumont farm, and move on to Quatre Bras. GŽnŽral de Division Maximilien Sebastien, comte Foy’s 9th Infantry Division of 5,493 men formed the center column, straddling the Brussels road.
Prince Jer™me Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger brother, had the most daunting task of all. His 6th Infantry Division, 8,019 men, was to secure the Pierrepont farm and the Bois de Bossu, rolling up the Allied flank and taking the crossroads from the left.
Reille’s divisions moved forward, their shouts of “Vive l’empereur!” punctuated by the roar of artillery. The French made good progress, but the Bois de Bossu proved a hard nut to crack. Hard-pressed Nassauers gave ground stubbornly, using every tree and bit of underbrush for cover. But it was only a matter of time before the French reached their objectives.
At this critical juncture, Wellington arrived on the scene, fresh from a conference with Marshal BlŸcher. The duke did what he could, but defeat was staring him in the face. Then, to the north, streaks of red could be seen against the patches of grain–the British infantry of General Thomas Picton’s 5th Division. Scottish Highlanders were in the vanguard, kilts swaying, bagpipes skirling martial airs.
The Allied cause, sick to the point of death, was revived by this transfusion of fresh troops. A black rain of French cannonballs smashed through the ranks, yet one speeding missile provided a moment of grim humor when it shot off a young Highlander’s bonnet. “Did you see that, sir?” the soldier queried his officer, scarcely able to comprehend he was still intact.
Friedrich Wilhelm, Duke of Brunswick, led his men into the fight, but his infantry was pressed back. To rescue his men from annihilation, the duke personally led his hussars in a desperate charge. Dressed in black, with skull badges on their shakos, these sable apparitions were ruthless and efficient swordsmen. But the French infantry peppered the dark ranks with lead, and the Duke of Brunswick himself was mortally wounded in the stomach. The situation was still fluid, but the French seemed to have the upper hand. Some young Dutch recruits began to falter, then broke under steady French pressure. Just when things were at their worst, Wellington himself was almost captured.
When the Dutch troops broke, Wellington was nearly cut off by rampaging French chasseurs. Almost alone, with only his aide Lt. Col. Fitzroy Somerset at his side, Wellington’s only hope was a nearby body of Gordon Highlanders. “Ninety-Second, lie down!” Wellington shouted to the kilted redcoats, then spurred his mount Copenhagen into a jump. Graceful limbs outstretched, the horse cleared the barrier of bayonets and Highland bonnets with ease.
Nature is impartial, and the tall stalks of wheat and rye helped conceal the French as well as the Allies. The 3rd Battalion, 42nd Highlanders (Black Watch), found themselves over their heads, literally, in a jungle of ripe rye. They pushed the stalks aside and trampled them underfoot, eager to fight in a battle that was just beyond the curtain of grain.
The 3rd Battalion emerged into the open, free of the entangling stalks, only to see the French infantry chasing Dutch-Belgian units. They also saw lancers, which they initially assumed to be Allied Brunswickers. Advancing in line, skirmishers to the front, the Highlanders suddenly realized the approaching cavalry was French, not Allied. They were GŽnŽral de Division Hippolyte Marie Guillaume, comte de PirŽ’s lancers.
Companies wheeled about to form a defensive square, and though the maneuver was ultimately successful, the Highlanders were terribly mauled. Lance points plunged into chests, shoulders and faces, probing and darting amid the kilted ranks. Scots muskets coughed lead, tumbling many lancers from their saddles, but the Highland losses were heavy. The Black Watch commander, Sir Robert Macara, was killed by a lance through the chin “with the point screwing upward into the brain.”
But more and more fresh Allied units were arriving on the scene, tipping the scales in Wellington’s favor. Yet a growing Allied presence was not the least of Ney’s troubles. Eight miles away, Napoleon was locked in a sanguinary struggle with BlŸcher at Ligny. BlŸcher had been selected as the main target for destruction; the action Ney was involved in was secondary. Ney, supreme in action but poor in strategy, failed to comprehend this essential point.
Yet in fairness to Ney, the situation was exacerbated by sloppy staff work and Napoleon’s own imprecise and at times confusing orders. The emperor dispatched a message to Ney at 2 p.m., basically telling the marshal to mop up operations at Quatre Bras, then swing right and envelop the Prussians. If he did so, the already hard-pressed BlŸcher might be utterly crushed.
But the full import of Napoleon’s intentions were lost on Ney, due to the poorly worded message. For example, the emperor spoke of the Prussians at Ligny as “un corps de troupes,” not mentioning that this “body of troops” was the whole Prussian army!
Napoleon’s message only angered Ney, because it was clear the emperor had no idea the Quatre Bras fight was evolving into a major, if piecemeal, battle. Ney counted on GŽnŽral de Division Jean Baptiste Drouet, comte d’Erlon’s I Corps to redress an increasingly serious situation. But where was d’Erlon?
D’Erlon had been intercepted by Colonel Forbin-Janson from imperial headquarters with a message to divert his corps and march to Wangnele (Ligny). Napoleon needed additional troops to clinch a victory; d’Erlon’s would serve. D’Erlon obediently moved his columns toward Ligny, but sent his chief of staff GŽnŽral de Brigade Baron Delacambre to explain the change of orders.
Ney was livid, and flew into paroxysms of rage. Not only had Delacambre brought bad news, but the marshal had just received Napoleon’s 2 o’ clock message telling him to finish up and come to Ligny. Ney angrily ordered the young aide-de-camp messenger to “Tell the emperor what you have seen here.”
Then, in one of the costliest blunders of the campaign, Ney sent Delacambre back to d’Erlon with express orders to disregard Napoleon’s command and come to Quatre Bras immediately. Ney’s peremptory directive reached d’Erlon just as his corps was on the outskirts of the Ligny battlefield. The general was confused, torn between two conflicting sets of orders. He decided to turn back to Quatre Bras, because, he explained later, “I felt for the marshal to recall me in spite of Napoleon’s wishes, he must have been in a most perilous situation.”
The sights, sounds and smells of battle seemed to have inspired Ney to take care of the business at hand. Dirty, disheveled, sweat-streaked, he was leading his men to new efforts when another message arrived from his imperial master. Napoleon repeated his 2 p.m. instructions, insisting “this [Prussian] army is lost if you act vigorously.” The emperor concluded his message with the words, “The fate of France is in your hands.” The note only served to heighten Ney’s already considerable anger. Eyes flashing, Ney summoned GŽnŽral de Division Franois-ƒtienne Kellermann, comte de Valmy, one of the most distinguished cavalry leaders of the age. Ney ordered Kellermann to attack Wellington’s center and take the crossroads. On paper, Kellermann’s III Reserve Cavalry Corps had four brigades–about 4,000 sabers–available for action.
Some sources maintain that the full corps was available for action, but most say only one brigade was on call, the others being strung out along the Brussels road. Whatever the numbers, Ney’s order was suicidal. It was rash to the point of madness to assume a few hundred horsemen–or a few thousand–could dislodge Wellington’s army, now grown to some 30,000. Kellermann, whose bravery had been proven on a score of fields, was aghast, incredulous.
Kellermann saluted, then joined his troopers, The spearhead of the attack would be GŽnŽral de Brigade Guiton’s 2nd Brigade, consisting of the 8th and 11th cuirassiers. “Pour charger au gallop!” Kellermann cried. “Charge at the gallop!”
Breastplates gleaming and the horsehair plumes of their helmets whipping in the wind, the cuirassiers obeyed with a clamorous “Vive l’empereur!” With the horses’ powerful muscles rippling under glistening coats and hooves gouging the earth, the French cavalry seemed an irresistible tide of horseflesh and steel.
Lieutenant General Colin Halkett’s brigade had been in action for some time by now. It consisted of the British 30th, 33rd, 69th and 73rd Regiments of Foot. Splattered by cannonball-plowed mud, sprinkled with the blood of dead and wounded comrades, young recruits were receiving a difficult baptism of fire. As the cuirassiers approached Halkett’s brigade, they were met by withering musket volleys, and the air filled with the dull, metallic ring of musket balls penetrating heavy breastplates.
But the cuirassiers were about to take their revenge. The regiments had formed square as the French cavalry approached, but the 2nd Battalion of the 69th Regiment of Foot had its orders to form square countermanded. Some sources say it was the inexperienced Prince of Orange who had ordered the 69th back into line; other sources absolve the prince of blame. Whoever gave the order, it was a death sentence for the 69th. Caught in a vulnerable line formation, the regiment was annihilated. Long swords plunged into faces, necks and bodies, hacking and tearing and rending with horrifying ease. A fierce contest developed for the 69th’s two regimental flags.
The colors were the heart of any regiment; their capture was the ultimate prize, their loss the ultimate disgrace. The regimental colors were carried by volunteer Christopher Clark, who defended the few precious yards of silk with skill and desperate bravery. Slashed and bleeding, struck again and again by the ruthless blades, he somehow managed to save the colors, though at the cost of 23 wounds.
Ensign Duncan Keith was not so lucky. Cuirassier Lami (some sources say Henri) cut the young officer down and seized the regimental King’s Colours. Dazed and bloodied survivors from the 69th ran into the 30th Foot, which had managed to form square, but the fugitives so disordered the 30th that the regiment had to withdraw.
For one breathless moment, Kellermann and his armored cavaliers actually occupied the long-contested crossroads, but it was a fleeting moment of glory. Hit by withering blasts of Allied fire, the horsemen took so many casualties that they had to retreat. Kellermann, unhorsed, managed to save himself from death or capture by seizing the stirrups of two of his troopers.
Night was approaching, and Wellington now had some 36,000 effectives against Ney’s decimated 19,000. At 6:30, the duke went over to the offensive. The elite British Foot Guards cleared the Bois de Bossu, and the French were forced back to their original starting point. The Battle of Quatre Bras was over by 9 p.m., technically a draw, but a tactical victory for Wellington because it literally enabled him to survive and fight another day.
Casualties had been heavy; the Allies lost 5,200, the French 4,100. On balance, the French still had the strategic upper hand. Napoleon had won a victory, albeit an incomplete one, and Wellington had been prevented from helping his Prussian ally. Wellington was a brilliant general, but his obsession with a French flanking sweep to his right was almost his undoing.
Napoleon and Ney’s lethargy on the 17th frittered away their advantage. Wellington escaped, and BlŸcher joined him a day later at Waterloo. The result was a crushing defeat that signaled an end to Napoleon’s fantastic career. Yet the seeds of his downfall were sown at a country crossroads called Quatre Bras.
Mp>This article was written by Eric Niderost and originally appeared in the June 1996 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!