Battle of Quatre Bras

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The Battle of Quatre Bras was fought on 16 June 1815, two days before the Battle of Waterloo. The battle was contested between Wellington's Anglo-allied army and the left wing of the Armée du Nord under Marshal Michel Ney. It took place near the strategic crossroads of Quatre Bras.[a]

Prelude[edit]

Napoleon's strategy had been to cross the border into what is now Belgium, but was then part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, without alerting the Coalition and drive a wedge between their forces. He would then destroy the Prussian army before forcing Wellington back to the coast.

However if Wellington's Anglo-allied army could combine with the Prussians, the combined force would be larger than Napoleon's. If Napoleon controlled the crossroads of Quatre-Bras he could prevent Wellington moving south-eastward along the Nivelles-Namur road towards the French and Prussian armies at the Battle of Ligny.

Although the coalition commanders did have an overview of French pre-war movements, Napoleon's strategy was initially very successful.

Napoleon has humbugged me, by God; he has gained twenty-four hours' march on me.

— The Duke of Wellington

Wellington's instructions at the start of the campaign were to defend Brussels from the French, but he did not know what route Napoleon might take and had received (false) reports of a flanking manoeuvre through Mons, to the southwest. He first heard of the outbreak of hostilities at around 15:00 on the 15 June from the Prince of Orange, and further confirmation of the French engaging the Prussian I Corps outposts under Lieutenant-General Graf von Zieten at 04:30 at Thuin (near Charleroi) arrived within the next three hours. It was 18:00 that Wellington drafted initial orders to concentrate his army.[5] However, he was still uncertain precisely where to concentrate his army, and it was not until he heard that the front near Mons was clear - around midnight - that he ordered his army to move towards the Prussians.

Map of the Waterloo campaign

This nine-hour delay meant it was too late for him to move his army in sufficient strength to eventually provide Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher with the support he needed on 16 June at the battle of Ligny.[6] Wellington did not order his entire army to Quatre Bras on 16 June either, still suspecting a flanking manoeuvre through Mons. (He was later to claim to be doing so to cover his misjudgement, although the orders issued and received do not correspond with that claim.) The headquarters of the I Corps (Prince of Orange's), however decided to ignore Wellington's order to assemble in and around Nivelles and instead took the initiative to converge on Quatre Bras.

Napoleon's original plan for 16 June was based on the assumption that the Coalition forces, who had been caught napping, would not attempt a risky forward concentration; he intended therefore to push an advanced guard as far as Gembloux, for the purpose of feeling for and warding off Blücher. To assist this operation the reserve would move at first to Fleurus to reinforce Grouchy, should he need assistance in driving back Blücher's troops; but, once in possession of Sombreffe, Napoleon would swing the reserve westwards and join Ney, who, it was supposed, would have in the meantime mastered Quatre Bras.[7]

In pursuance of this object Ney, to whom III Cavalry Corps (Kellermann) was now attached, was to mass at Quatre Bras and push an advanced guard 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) northward of that place, with a connecting division at Marbais to link him with Grouchy. The centre and left wing together would then make a night-march toward Brussels. The Coalition forces would thus be irremediably sundered, and all that remained would be to destroy them in detail. Napoleon now awaited further information from his wing commanders at Charleroi, where he massed the VI Corps (Lobau's), to save it, if possible, from a harassing countermarch, as it appeared likely that it would only be wanted for the march to Brussels.[7]

On 15 June as the Prussian I Corps withdrew towards Ligny, there was a danger for the Coalition forces that Ney would be able to advance through Quatre Bras and take his objectives with little or no Coalition opposition. At the headquarters of the I Corps at Genappe (about five kilometres (3 miles) from Quatre Bras), Major-General Jean Victor de Constant Rebecque, chief of staff to the Prince of Orange, realising the danger ordered Lieutenant-General Hendrik George de Perponcher Sedlnitsky, the commander of the 2nd Dutch Division, to dispatch his 2nd Brigade (Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach) to occupy Quatre Bras. The brigade, consisting of two regiments from Nassau, arrived at about 14:00 on 15 June. Prince Bernhard deployed before the first French scouts, lancers of the Guard Light Cavalry Division (Lefebvre-Desnouettes) approached Quatre Bras. The lancers were interdicted at Frasnes after which the Nassauers retreated to the Bois de Bossu, a thick patch of forest near Quatre Bras.[8] General Lefebvre-Desnouëtte requested infantry support, but as night was approaching, and his infantry was strung out along Brussels-Charleroi road Ney declined the request deciding to camp for the night and approach Quatre Bras in force the following day.[9] Early on the evening of 15 June instead of obeying Wellington's order to concentrate the I Corps at Nivelles (which would have meant that the force occupying Quatre Bras would be abandoning the position), Rebecque ordered 1st Brigade (Count of Bylandt) of the 2nd Dutch Division to reinforce Prince Bernhard's 2nd Brigade.[9] By disobeying a direct order from Wellington, the Dutch generals thus made sure the battle on the following day was even fought.

Ney spent the morning of 16 June in massing his I and II corps, and in reconnoitering the enemy at Quatre Bras, who, as he was informed, had been reinforced. But up till noon he took no serious step to capture the cross-roads, which then lay at his mercy. Grouchy meantime reported from Fleurus that Prussians were coming up from Namur, but Napoleon does not appear to have attached much importance to this report. He was still at Charleroi when, between 09:00 and 10:00, further news reached him from the left that considerable hostile forces were visible at Quatre Bras. He at once wrote to Ney saying that these could only be some of Wellington's troops, and that Ney was to concentrate his force and crush what was in front of him, adding that he was to send all reports to Fleurus. Then, keeping Lobau provisionally at Charleroi, Napoleon hastened to Fleurus, arriving about 11:00.[7]

Meeting at the Windmill of Bussy[edit]

Shortly after 11:00 the Wellington observed that the French were not in any great force at Frasnes (south of Quatre Bras), while at the same time, accounts reached him that Blücher, in his position at Ligny, was menaced by the advance of considerable force; Wellington, accompanied by his staff and a small escort of cavalry, rode off to hold a conference with the Prussian commander, whom he found at the Windmill of Bussy (often referred to as the Windmill of Brye) between Ligny and Brye. It was the highest point of the whole Prussian position and so they were able to observe the French preparatory dispositions for attack.[10]

These having led Wellington to conclude that Napoleon was bringing the main force of his army to bear against Blücher, he at once proposed to assist him by first advancing straight upon Frasnes and Gosselies, as soon as he should have concentrated sufficient force, and then operating upon the Napoleon's left and rear, which would afford a powerful diversion in favour of the Prussians, from the circumstance that their right wing was the weakest and most exposed, and considering the object of Napoleon's movement, the one most likely to be attacked.[11]

Upon a calculation being made, however, of the time which would elapse before Wellington would be able to collect the requisite force for undertaking this operation, and of the possibility of Blücher being defeated before it could be carried into effect, it was considered preferable that Wellington should, if practicable, move to the support of the Prussian right by the Nivelles-Namur road. But a direct support of this kind was necessarily contingent on circumstances, and subject to Wellington's discretion.[11] Wellington having expressed his confident expectation of being enabled to afford the desired support, and also of his succeeding in concentrating, very shortly, a sufficient force to assume the offensive, rode back to Quatre Bras.[11]

The primary sources do not agree on what was said at the meeting. They all agree that Wellington promised aid to Blücher, but they disagree on whether Wellington made an unequivocal promise of aid, or whether Wellington made it clear that his ability to give timely assistance to Blücher was only possible if his forces were not engaged before he could send aid.[b]

Combatants[edit]

Brunswickers during the Battle of Quatre-Bras.

At the beginning of the battle the left wing of the Armée du Nord, with 18,000 men (including 2,000 cavalry and 32 guns) under Marshal Michel Ney, faced 8,000 infantry and 16 guns, under the command of William, Prince of Orange. The Dutch (with the Nassauers of 2nd Brigade) were thinly deployed south of the crossroads of Quatre Bras. Fresh allied troops started to arrive two hours later, along with Wellington, who took over command of the allied forces. As the day wore on, fresh Dutch, British and Brunswickers arrived faster than fresh French troops (who eventually numbered about 24,000).

Battle[edit]

Fighting started late in the afternoon on 15 June,[citation needed] when the Elba squadron, a small Polish lancer unit consisting of only 109 men and officers, tried to attack the allied forces from the direction of Frasnes. These forces consisted of the II/2nd Nassau regiment and Bijlevelds horse artillery. The Dutch and Nassau commanders had taken precaution however, and the Lancers were greeted by canister and volley fire, losing some men and horses before retiring to Frasnes. Patrols were sent out and the positions were kept until the next morning.

From 5 AM on June 16, there were continuous skirmishes between Allied and French forces, in which neither side managed to get an advantage. Some Prussian hussars, cut off from their main body, skirmished with the Red Lancers, but they disengaged after Bijleveld's artillery once again drove the lancers back. Two companies of Nassau infantry advanced towards Frasnes, but this time the French pushed them back. Some time after 6 AM, after the Prince of Orange arrived, the skirmishes stopped.

The real battle began with the French attack around 14:00 hours.[7] Ney massed a battery of 22 guns and started bombarding the Coalition positions. Swarms of skirmishers preceded the French columns as they attacked. The Dutch picket line of the 2nd Division (Sedlnitsky) greeted them with musket volleys, but it was outnumbered and those east of the Brussels highway were at once forced back by the mass of men moved against them.[7] The Nassauers of 2nd Brigade (Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar) retreated to Grand-Pierrepont farm and Dutch troops of the 1st Brigade (Bylandt) to Gemioncourt, but the allies managed, however, to hold the wood. Facing three infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade, the situation became desperate for the 2nd Division.

Map of the battle

At around 15:00 the 5th British Infantry Division (Picton) and the 3rd Dutch Light Cavalry Brigade (Baron van Merlen) arrived. The Duke of Wellington came back from his meeting with Blücher and took command. He deployed Picton's Division on the allied left flank where it stopped the French advance to the east of the road. The fresh French 6th Division (Prince Jérôme Bonaparte) arrived on the scene. A fierce fight now broke out all along the line. Picton, showing a dauntless front, maintained his position,[2] while the French 6th Division were sent against Grand-Pierrepont. The Nassauers were forced to abandon the farm and were driven into the Bossu wood. There they fought from tree to tree, slowing the French advance. At Gemioncourt the Dutch troops were a thorn in the side of the French.

The defending battalion of Gemincourt Farm, the 5th National Militia, lost 62% of its original strength that day. It was driven out by the 4th light and 100th Line regiments, but regrouped north of the farm when the Dutchmen saw the 28th British Foot come to their aid. But this regiment thought the farmhouse was lost and retreated, while the 5th Militia, thinking they were going to get reinforced, charged the Farmhouse again and drove the French regiments from the surroundings of the farm, but were unable to take the farm itself. The 5th managed to take up position south of the farm, where their Prince joined them. With artillery support, they repulsed the 6th Chasseurs-Au-Cheval and a lancer regiment. The Dutch lost and retook the farm another time, but eventually lost it.

By 15:00, the French formed a line between Pierrepoint through Gemioncourt to Piraumont. At 15:30 the Dutch 3rd Light Cavalry Brigade (van Merlen),[c] led by the Prince of Orange, charged the French line; although they were met by French cavalry and were thrown back, this gave the battered Dutch infantry time to regroup. When the Dutch cavalry brigade disengaged and retired to friendly lines they were shot at by Scottish infantry because their uniforms looked like the French uniforms of the chasseurs à cheval.[13] The Brunswick Corps, under the Duke of Brunswick, now reached the field, but their commander received a mortal wound while leading a charge and the attack failed. At 16:15 Ney received Napoleon's order (despatched at 14:00), to attack vigorously. He sent an order to his II Corps (Honoré Reille) to attack with more force.

On Ney's left, Prince Jérôme drove the allies out of the Bossu Wood.[2] French mixed forces advanced almost all the way to the crossroads. Regiments of the British 9th Brigade (Pack) — 42nd ("Black Watch", Macara), 44th ("East Essex", Hamerton) and 92nd ("Gordon Highlanders", John Cameron) — held up against the infantry. French of the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Cavalry Division (Piré) counter-attacked and severely mauled the 42nd and 44th before they were driven off.[citation needed]

The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras - (at approximately 17:00) - Elizabeth Thompson - (1875)

At 17:00 the timely arrival of the British 3rd Division (Alten), coming in from Nivelles, tipped the numerical balance back in favour of the allies. At quarter past the hour Ney heard that the French I Corps (d'Erlon), without his direct order or knowledge, had moved eastwards to assist in the battle of Ligny. Fifteen minutes later at 17:30 he received an unclear order from Napoleon to seize Quatre Bras and then turn eastwards to crush Blücher, who was caught at Ligny. Due to the arrival of allied reinforcements, Ney realized that he could capture and hold Quatre Bras only with the support of the I Corps and he sent imperative orders to d'Erlon to return at once. To keep the pressure on Wellington, immediately after sending for d'Erlon, Ney ordered Kellermann to lead his one available cuirassier brigade and break through Wellington's line.[2]

Kellermann's cuirassiers caught the British 5th Brigade (Halkett) — 33rd ("West Riding", Knight) 69th ("South Lincolnshire", Morice) and the 73rd (Harris) — in line formation. The 69th were badly mauled, losing their King's colour (the only battalion under Wellington's direct command to do so); the 33rd and the 73rd were saved from a similar fate by running for the safety of Bossu Wood where they rallied quickly. The cuirassiers reached the crossroads but were driven back by close range artillery and musket fire.[14][15]

The arrival of the British 1st Infantry Division (Guards Division, Cooke) gave Wellington sufficient strength to counter-attack and Jérôme, whose skirmishers were now west of Quatre Bras, was forced to retreat and give up possession of Bossu wood to the British Guards. When the Guards and other allied units emerged from the wood, they were met with heavy fire from French infantry and an attack by 6th Lancer Regiment (and possibly the 1st Chasseurs) of the 2nd Cavalry Division (Piré); the Guards were caught in line and forced to flee back into the wood. This cavalry attack and taking the Bossu wood caused high casualties among the British Guards.[16][17] There was some further skirmishing between allied light companies and the French voltigeurs and cavalry screen, but the battle was over. By 21:00, when the fighting stopped, the French had been forced to give up all of their territorial gains.

Aftermath[edit]

Monument erected in remembrance of the battle

The battle cost Ney 4,000 men to Wellington's 4,800. Although the allies had won the field, the French prevented them from coming to the aid of the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny. Wellington's Anglo-allied army, upon learning of the Prussian defeat, was forced to retreat north along the Brussels road further away from the Prussians, who retreated north-east towards Wavre. There has been much debate about what would have happened if d'Erlon's I Corps had engaged at either Ligny or Quatre Bras. As he did not, Napoleon chose to follow Wellington with the bulk of his forces and two days later met him at Waterloo.

It should be noted that the allied victory at Quatre Bras did prevent Ney from controlling these strategic crossroads. This in turn slowed down the French advance, thereby allowing Wellington to take a position on the Waterloo battlegrounds, which would otherwise not be possible and would have led, as some believe, to an allied defeat.[18]

After the Waterloo campaign, Wellington was given the title Prince of Waterloo by the Dutch King William I. Along with the title came lands, which encompassed a large area of the battlefield of Quatre Bras. As landowner, the Duke and his successors had a large part of the Bossu wood felled for timber.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ , which is in modern day Belgium; at the time part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands
  2. ^ The fiction writer Bernard Cornwell wrote:

    So did [Wellington] promise to come to Blücher aid at Ligny? The answer is a simple yes ... Prussian accounts of the meeting make no mention of the qualifying 'providing I am not attacked myself', while von Müfflung [Prussian liaison officer seconded to Wellington's staff] does record those words. General von Dornberg, Prussian-born but serving in the British army [as commander of the 3rd British Brigade], recalled something similar; he claimed Wellington said 'I will see what is opposing me and how much of my army has arrived and then act accordingly.' Yet three Prussian accounts claim that not only did the Duke promise to come, but that he even offered Blücher the exact time he expected to arrive, though as one account says the expected arrival time was 2 p.m., the second 3 p.m. and the third von Clausewitz, who was not even present, 4. p.m. ... So the accounts differ, but Wellington had already seen for himself the French presence at Quatre-Bras and he would hardly have given a promise that he knew was most unlikely to be kept. He expected a fight at Quatre-Bras and must have warned his Prussian allies of that strong possibility. Gneisenau always blamed Wellington for the outcome of Ligny, describing it as 'the defeat we had suffered because of him' ...

    — Bernard Cornwell.[12]
  3. ^ Some sources number this the 2nd Light Cavalry Brigade. (See footnotes "1st Heavy 2nd Light, 3rd Light/Heavy, 1st Light, 2nd Light" in the article Order of battle of the Waterloo Campaign for details)

References[edit]

  1. ^ Chesney 1874, pp. 145, 114, 116; and Siborne 1895, p. 195.
  2. ^ a b c d Becke 1911, p. 378.
  3. ^ Hofschröer 2005, p. 71.
  4. ^ Captain Bowles in a letter "Readers of the Letters of the First Earl of Malmesbury" (Forbes 1896, p. 237).
  5. ^ Hofschröer 1999, p. 331.
  6. ^ Hofschröer 1999, pp. 332, 334.
  7. ^ a b c d e Becke 1911, p. 377.
  8. ^ "6:30 p.m.--some accounts say 5:30" (Niderost 2006).
  9. ^ a b Niderost 2006.
  10. ^ Siborne 1895, p. 135–136, 201–202.
  11. ^ a b c Siborne 1895, p. 136.
  12. ^ Cornwell 2015, p. ~230.
  13. ^ Anonymous 2013 Section "French lancers created havoc." cites Hamilton-Williams as a source but does not give the book.
  14. ^ Battle of Quatre Bras Archived 25 November 2006 at the Wayback Machine., Waterloo Battlefield Tours
  15. ^ 2nd Battalion, 69th Foot ) Archived 23 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine., website of the Royal Regiment of Wales
  16. ^ Anonymous 2013 Section "French chasseurs inflicted heavy casualties on the British Foot Guards." cites as a "[Source: GdD Pire's letter to GdD Reille, June 25th 1815, in Arch. Serv. Hist.]"
  17. ^ Wit 2012, p. 3.
  18. ^ Historisch Nieuwsblad, June 2015: "Willem II en de Slag bij Waterloo - 1815"

Sources[edit]

Attribution:

Further reading[edit]

  • Anonymous. The Battle of Quatre Bras
  • Fletcher, Ian; ‘A Desperate Business’: Wellington, the British Army and the Waterloo Campaign; Spellmount Publishers
  • Libert, Alfons. The Battle of Quatre-Bras
  • Erwin Muilwijk, Quatre Bras, Perponcher's gamble, Sovereign House Books, 2013. ISBN 978-90-819318-2-3. Gives full account of the Netherlands troops that fought at Quatre-Bras, based on many unknown primary sources.
  • Robinson, Mike. The battle of Quatre Bras. The History Press 2009. New topographical mapping and personal accounts
  • Digitized dairy of Chief-of-Staff Nyevelt [1]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 50°34′16″N 4°27′11″E / 50.571°N 4.453°E / 50.571; 4.453