On June 15th, at 5:30 in the morning, Bourmont and his staff, Clouet, Villoutreys, Dandigné, de Trelan, and Sourdat, crossed the frontier and joined the Prussians. By the time Bourmont would reach the Prussian high command, the Prussian army would have been concentrating for over 12 hours.
Napoleon would claim Bourmont crossed on June 14th, and Charras would tell us that no, the records of IV Corps still exist, and it is clear that it was the morning of June 15th, and accordingly the event was of no consequence. Napoleon was just a liar.
Bourmont would be well received in Ghent, praised by the Duc de Berry, and on June 21st, named Commander of the 16th Military Division by the King with orders to undo all that Napoleon had done. Over time, his honors under the Bourbons would increase.
Because on June 15th, 1815, Bourmont deserted Napoleon’s army and, as Gérard reported, left his division under better leadership which was manifested in the IV Corps’ great performance at Ligny. Further, Bourmont left in the most neutral way possible such that the allies were not informed of any actionable information. And that so pleased the King… are you serious!?
But a question lingers – why would the Bourbons reward Bourmont so much over time when his actions in June of 1815 were, according to the official story, to Napoleon’s advantage? I doubt that it would have thrilled the King to know that Bourmont could have defected earlier and warned the Allies of Napoleon’s impending attack! Or if one wishes to believe that Bourmont knew nothing, just report the arrival of IV Corps! Gneisenau had heard from travelers but had his doubts that IV Corps had arrived from Metz… But many want us to believe that Bourmont did nothing…
As usual, there is more to the story.
Hulot’s version is that he dined with Bourmont, and left Bourmont’s group at 11 pm. He received an order from Bourmont around midnight, and at 5:30am, one of his aides told him that Bourmont and staff were already on horseback. He gave that no mind, but at 6:30 the Chasseurs returned and told Hulot that Bourmont was going to join the King, and gave Hulot the two letters Bourmont had given them, addressed to Gérard. Hulot wrote his report to Gérard in 1818 on Gérard’s request as Gérard was beginning to be irritated by Grouchy’s ramblings. Gérard eventually quoted from the report in his 1829 book. The “full” report can be found in Le Spectateur Militaire of 1884, but the editors kindly tell us they removed some portions dealing with Bourmont – not wanting to upset anyone.
Though Clouet and others claimed Bourmont shared his plan to defect, Hulot wrote firmly in 1841 to Bourmont’s son that he was not aware of the plan, but he still loved the guy.
This is essentially the conventional history.
However, the order that Hulot received from Bourmont was telling:
My Dear General,
You know the order that I gave in respect to the roads involved in the attached letter from the General in Chief, and, as I could well be gone tomorrow morning, I ask you to send an officer of your brigade, at an early hour, to Huzinette and Hauzienne, passing by Mariasme, in order to make sure that we work on the repair of the Charleroi road.
If some incident happened on this matter, I wish that you wanted to give orders in the name of the General in Chief, as I could give them myself, in order to prevent the problems that could be encountered, and to give a report about them directly.
Be assured of my sincere and lasting dedication.
First, Hulot is informed Bourmont may be absent… and Hulot did nothing. If Hulot knew of Bourmont’s defection and did not act, then he would be complicit, and thus Hulot would need to stick to his official story lest admit being complicit. Second, the roads to Charleroi need to be in good order – Charleroi was known to be the target of the next day’s movement.
It would help unravel this if there were witnesses available. And they exist.
Colonel Rumigny of IV Corps’ staff was delivering the movement orders for June 15th and left Philippeville at 2 in the morning. A few minutes from Florennes he came across two chasseurs returning from the outposts who informed him that Bourmont had defected. This is what Rumigny wrote:
Here is what I learned about Bourmont and his companions. About midnight, he tore up all of the military papers that he did not want to carry. The scraps were scattered near the staff. At one o’clock, he got on horseback with all of his officers and the two orderly chaussers with him. He headed straight north, to the Prussian outposts, a distance of no more than two miles. Arriving there, he engaged the two orderlies to follow him. They refused, and in spite of promises of money, they returned. It was them that I encountered.
The news of the desertion had spread, I’m not sure how; but, when arriving in Florennes, I heard the rumor.
So already the story has changed.
If only one of the participants left the details. But one did. This is what Clouet wrote about the defection:
On June 14, at three o’clock in the morning, we separated from M. General Hulot; we were escorted by fifteen chasseurs: we soon arrived near the Prussian outposts. There, M. de Bourmont would not allow any of the chasseurs to follow; he had the escort return, and was accompanied only by four or five officers who, like him, had refused to sign the Acte Additionnel. We reached the first Prussian post, while promising the general absolute silence about everything concerning the French Army. I must believe that each one of us kept his word, because no one left M. de Bourmont. We were held more than twelve hours, taken from post to post as far as the headquarters of Marshal Blücher. The Prussians were surprised and thought we changed sides in order to fight in their ranks. This speculation and the horror, which I experienced in finding myself in the middle of an army that at one time treated me as an enemy, left me a memory that will never be erased. It was without a doubt the greatest sacrifice that I could make in accomplishing what I regarded then, and that I regard still today, as my duty.
Finally, we were allowed to go free, and we went to sleep in Namur. The following day the fighting began near Charleroi, and two days later on the 16th, the French were victorious in Fleurus, and the sound of this victory brought terror all the way to Brussels, where we had arrived. We know what followed the first success: the victorious French at Fleurus succumbed at Waterloo as a result of circumstances that nobody in the army had been able to foresee.
Wow, well that doesn’t help at all. They left on the 14th, and slept in Namur that night. On the 15th there was fighting near Charleroi, and on the 16th was the battle of Ligny. The timeline works… but no one agrees that the left on June 14th!
Except that isn’t true.
Frédéric-Jacques Louis Rilliet de Constant was a royalist who wrote an account of serving the King in 1815. And this is what he had to say:
On June 14 I was strolling, as usual, by the Hotel Flanders windows where I was lodging, having for recreation, from time to time, the view of some Prussian officers or soldiers; suddenly I saw a French staff entering the court: a lieutenant-general, a staff colonel, a lieutenant-colonel, two aides-de-camp with horses and baggage following. All of these figures were unfamiliar to me, except one which I believe I recognize, I am not slow to make sure that it was my former military schoolmate, the same one that I had seen in Lons-le-Saulnier; I understood that the general was the one that said T*** was aide-de-camp, i.e. the Count de Bourmont. I hastened to go to find out the reasons for this strange arrival.
And Rilliet is clear as he calls the event Bourmont’s act of June 14th.
And Rilliet quoted Trelan as saying, “…what a funny adventure, when the orders of the general in chief arrive at the division staff, there will not be one officer found to open the dispatches!” Ha ha ha, this could only be true had they left long before the orders were to be received, time to ride the 30 kilometers from Florennes to Namur before the order of movement arrived in the pre-dawn hours per Rumigny. Rilliet also discussed Bourmont’s royal orders, which is not a surprise since Bourmont was in communications with Ghent.
What a mess – who to believe. And for this, we start with Captain Coignet.
Captain Coignet was a destitute orphan who rose to become a member of Napoleon’s Old Guard and jack of all trades that performed many missions for the Emperor. And after Waterloo, suffering on half-pay, he was forced to let his servant go. Even Captain Coignet had a servant.
We can be quite confident that General Bourmont and his aristocratic staff each probably had a servant. And Rilliet is the only one to point out that likewise, this group of officers probably had some significant baggage. So where did the servants and baggage go? No account includes them riding to the frontier in the early morning hours with extra horses carrying servants and baggage. That would have certainly been noticed!
And so now some hypotheses can be explored.
First, Bourmont pushed his division fairly hard the last two days of its March to Florennes, and in fact, was the only division to finish north of Philippeville, despite the fact that the 12th division was right behind. Clearly, this was not out of a sense of duty to Napoleon or the army. Bourmont pushed himself just a couple miles from the frontier – exactly where a traitor who is has actionable intelligence wants to be if they are going to inform the enemy.
Presumably the division left their bivouac near Chimay in the early morning hours of June 14th. But nothing would have prevent Bourmont and staff from leaving earlier and going all the way to Namur. Then, recognizing how dramatic his absence would be, after having left their baggage and servants, they returned to Florennes in time to welcome Hulot’s brigage, as Toussaint’s was in Walcourt. This certainly would reconcile Rilliet’s and Clouet’s accounts. But that is a lot of hard riding through Prussian territory.
Another option is that one of the party rode ahead with the servants and baggage, something that officers on horseback could have arranged by riding ahead of the infantry march and arriving in Florennes earlier.
And why is it important that Bourmont/staff did something earlier than June 15th at 5:30am?
Returning to Lettow-Vorbeck, writing about the evening of June 14th:
If a few hours later, Gneisenau found it necessary to order the gathering of the entire troops, very reliable news must have prompted him to do so. Ollech follows Nostitz’s diary, which states that two defectors, brought to Namur during the night of the 15th, had stated with great firmness that Napoleon was about to attack the Prussian army the following morning. These cannot have been any ordinary defectors whose statements, according to their restricted horizon, would only have had some value regarding their specific part of the troops, and would otherwise have been restricted to mere rumors, later to be recognized as exaggerated or wrong. In the present case, these were persons knowledgeable of the orders that had been given concerning the advance of the French army on the morning of the 15th. From this point of view, Major retd. Ritz’s memoires, which, however, were only put down on paper in 1861, become more important. In the respective night, he had stayed on guard at the Meuse bridge in Namur, as a cadet in the second Infantry Regiment. He states that a squad of 5 or 6 horsemen had arrived at his post at about 11 PM. Whilst being examined, one of them had replied that he was a Prussian field-grade officer and asked to be taken to the prince’s lodgings, because he was accompanied by a French general who needed to speak to the latter in a very urgent matter. Ritz himself believes that the term “general” might have been used to make him leave his post which he had refused to do initially. Furthermore, it seems highly probable that these were indeed French officers, according to his statement.
Lettow-Vorbeck goes on to say why he believed they were related to Bourmont.
My own belief is that Clouet, who boldly forged Ney’s signature when departing Ney’s command for Paris during Napoleon’s return, and who was so anti-Napoleon that the King had to remove him from service in 1816 for trying to entrap his own officers, is an excellent candidate for a member of Bourmont’s staff who may had ridden ahead with servants and baggage, left a letter with Bourmont to send to Gérard (a letter that says essentially nothing), found a Prussian staff officer to escort him, played the role of Bourmont, and relayed the information of an advance via Charleroi. A General (or Chief of Staff of said general) and documented orders would have led Gneisenau to order the concentration of the Prussian army, and therefore defeat Napoleon’s plans for coming between the allied armies and disrupting their cooperation south of Brussels.
There are several possibilities based on all the testimony… but one thing I really doubt is that it was the glow of the campfires in the sky that caused Gneisenau to act – that ruse went back to Hannibal’s victory over the Roman’s at the Battle of Lake Trasimene – and probably earlier. The Prussian high command was better than that…
Two things are for sure, the simple story of Bourmont’s desertion is not simple at all.
And Soult’s inexplicable changing of Napoleon’s orders put Bourmont in the vanguard of the right column enabling the treason which most undermined Napoleon’s plans for the campaign in Belgium.
Soult's changes to Napoleon's orders are not so inexplicable at all...