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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Friday, June 16, 1815

Napoleon's Army of the North had crossed the Belgian frontier and was advancing toward Brussels. Napoleon had surprised the allied armies with his rapid advance and now they choose the risky strategy of a forward concentration in the face of an enemy attack. The Prussians had an easier task since they choose to concentrate their army at Ligny covering their supply lines to the East. The forward outposts fall back to Ligny under pressure from the French right under Grouchy. [see Battle of Waterloo]

On Thursday evening Wellington attended a ball given by the Duchess of Richmond in Brussels and it wasn't until the early hours of Friday the 16th that he gave orders to concentrate the Anglo-Dutch army at Quatre-Bras. Prince Orange was ordered to hold Quatre-Bras until the rest of the army arrived.

Wellington's strategy was to stay in contact with the Prussians at Ligny where the combined armies could defeat Napoleon. Napoleon's goal was to prevent the allied armies from supporting each other and crush one of them with overwhelming superiority of numbers. As it turned out, neither strategy succeeded on Friday, June 16th.

Ney held the Anglo-Dutch troops at bay around Quatre-Bras in a tough battle with heavy losses. He eventually took the crossroads at Quatre-Bras only to be driven back when Wellington arrived with fresh troops. Meanwhile, Napoloeon attacked the Prussians at Ligny with Grouchy's corps and the reserve that had been under his personal command. The Prussians were defeated but not destroyed [Battle of Ligny].

The map (left) shows the positions on Friday evening as the Prussian center collapses. It also shows the wandering of D'Erlon's corps that never got into either battle. It it had attacked the flank of the Prussian army Napoleon might have gained a decisive victory and if it had supported Ney it could have prevented Wellington's army from using the crossroads at Quatre-Bras. [see Waterloo: Myth and Reality]

Now comes one of the decisive moments of the Waterloo campaign. Blücher's Prussians retreated in orderly fashion on Wavre where he could remain in touch with Wellington who was forced to fall back to Wavre after the position at Quatre-Bras became untenable. Grouchy was ordered to pursue Blücher and prevent the Prussians from supporting the Anglo-Dutch army. Grouchy failed to do this because his corps did not move quickly and was confused about the direction of the Prussian retreat. As we shall see, Grouchy's failure is blamed for the defeat at Waterloo two days later.

Meanwhile, Wellington was able to fall back to a defensive position at Waterloo where he waited for the French army.

"Ligny by Ernest Crofts (1875). This representation of the battle shows Napoleon surrounded by his staff surveying the battlefield while columns of infantry advance to the front. The windmill at Brye on a hill, north west from Ligny, was a good vantage point and Blücher made it his headquarters during the battle, hence in this context it is an iconic symbol of Napoleon's victory." [Battle of Ligny]

Summoned to Waterloo: Brussels, dawn of June 16, 1815 by Robert Alexander Hillingford. Officers leaving the Duchess of Richmond's ball.
Quatre Bras (Black Watch at Bay) by William Barnes Wollen


John Harshman said...

Of course you have read Georgette Heyer's fine novel about the Waterloo campaign, An Infamous Army, so I need not mention it here.

Have you ever read Napoleon's defense of his actions and attack on Wellington's follies, written on St. Helena, where I guess he had plenty of time to reflect?

colnago80 said...

I have not read Napoleon's Monday morning quarterbacking explanations but it is clear that the main cause of his loss at Waterloo was the failure of Grouchy to prevent the confluence of Wellington's army and Blucher's forces. Had he done his job, it is likely that Napoleon would probably have won the battle. This in addition to Napoleon's inability to reconnoiter the ground on his right which delayed the advance of the Imperial Guard against Wellington's line by 2 hours.