For June 15th and 16th, I am combining my post simply because for a study of correspondence and operations, one needs both days to get the true picture.
Additionally, if one thing has been done well as of late, it is the telling of the military operations of this campaign with some books getting down to company detail... so I am sure most have read of the actions on June 15th.
The Right Column on the 15th really faced minimal issues with Bourmont's defection. As previous mentioned, the issue with Bourmont/staff was not as much time lost by the French, but time gained by the Prussians.
The Center Column was greatly impacted by Vandamme not getting orders. The lack of line infantry would domino throughout the day
In numerous books, the explanation given is an orderly broke his leg, and that this is a sign of Soult's incompetence of not using more orderlies as Berthier would have done. Except, this was not always done... there are examples of Berthier using one officer to send messages to several corps. It was all about situation and context, and in this case, Soult and Vandamme were both in France only miles apart and literally flanked on all sides by French forces. They were arguably in the safest part of France! Further, horses were a finite resource, and we find the following written during the campaign:
Charleroi, June 16, 1815.
The service that General Staff Officers have to actively fulfill each day requires a great number of horses, that most cannot afford, for lack of pecuniary means.
I have, therefore, the honor to propose to Your Majesty to grant as extraordinary gratification to the Adjudants, Commandants, and General Staff Officers listed in the attached statement, the sum of eight hundred francs for the Adjudant-Commandants and that of six hundred francs for the Staff Officers.
I request Your Majesty to inform me of your decision on this subject,,
Duke of Dalmatia
Other reasons have been given for Vandamme's delays. In Gourgaud’s account of 1815, Vandamme took the wrong roads. In Karl Bleibtreu’s Englands grosse Waterloo-Lüge, the theory is that Vandamme was upset that Napoleon took his headquarters in Beaumont, and thus he deliberately dragged his feet, providing the broken leg as an excuse. In Grouchy’s Relation succincte de la campagne de 1815, the Appendix titled Events de 1815 has a footnote stating the orders had arrived very late because they were taken to where Vandamme had spent the previous night... which doesn't seem like a big deal considering it was Beaumont, but de Wit theorizes that it could have also been to Philippeville - especially if Soult's Headquarters was an organizational disaster.
Vandamme was a cantankerous fellow, and reportedly had a great dislike of Soult. In fact, as reported by Houssaye, he compared him to the traitor of 1814:
Soult, before his appointment has been officially announced, sent an order to Vandamme; that irascible general retorted by writing to Davout the following letter, remarkable for its delicate sarcasm: “I have received a letter from the Duke of Dalmatia in which he announces himself as chief of the headquarters staff. I think it my duty to send it to your Excellency before replying to it. As the Duke of Ragusa might send me the same announcement, I must consider this as not having taken place, until informed of the appointment by your Excellency or by an Imperial decree.”
It is pure supposition, but one can imagine that Vandamme, who frequently during the campaign was obstinate to Grouchy, could have demonstrated the same attitude to Soult and did nothing when the orders did not arrive in the morning of June 15th, despite the clear indication given in the previous days orders. It is simply another remarkable coincidence that the General who most verbalized contempt for Soult was the same that did not receive any orders.
But the big event on June 15th occured on the left - which may surprise because to many, it was the column that performed the best. The lead battalion of Reille's second corps made over 30 kilometers while engaging in several combats. However, Reille could have even gone farther had the delays of the Center column not led to Girard following some Prussians towards Fleurus, the presence of which in II Corps' rear slowed the left's advance.
D'Erlon is often criticized for starting an hour late... but I believe d'Erlon did this because he knew from experience that he would soon find his corps run into the trailing elements of II Corps - and this is exactly what happened.
During the day, d'Erlon had several exchanges with Soult.
In front of Charleroi, June 15 (three in the afternoon).
Count d’Erlon, the Emperor orders Count Reille to march on Gosselies and to attack there an enemy corps that appeared to stop there. The intention of the Emperor is for you to march on Gosselies to support Count Reille and assist in his operations. However you must continue to guard Marchienne and you will send a brigade on the Mons road, recommending its commander to guard itself very militarily.
Marshal of the Empire, General Staff,
Duke of Dalmatia.
While II Corps advanced, it was I Corps' role to garrison the river crossings and guard the flanks. As previously discussed, there was a huge swath of territory to the west with ample roads - the very reason Wellington was concerned Napoleon would advance via Mons is exactly why Napoleon was concerned Wellington could do the same.
D'Erlon responded to Soult's order, and asked about what he should do the units he had dropped off garrisoning locations during the march:
Marchienne-au-Pont, June 15, 1815 at 4:30 in the evening
I received the two letters that your Excellency has done me the honor of writing to me today. The first was given to me in Montigny-le-Tigneux and I just received another at Marchienne.
Under yesterday’s general order I left a brigade of cavalry in Solre and Bienne-sous-Thuin, and my infantry division at Thuin, Lobbes, and Aulnes abbey.
My other troops begin to arrive at Marchienne, as soon as the last units of the 2nd Corps has filed past, I will have them cross the Sambre, I will place a brigade on the Mons road, another brigade will remain ahead of Marchienne and with the two other infantry divisions I will march on Gosselies.
I saw the position of Thuin; it is very strong as it is, but given what the localities are, we cannot establish a bridge head there. I ask Your Excellence to let me know if I should still leave troops
at Thuin, Solre, and surroundings.
Deign, Your Highness, to accept my deep respect,
Lieutenant General Commander in Chief of the 1st Corps
Soult did not answer d'Erlon's question.
Later, d'Erlon would ask again:
Jumay, June 15, 1815
In accordance with the Order of Y.E. as of today, 3 pm, I was directed to Gosselies. I found the 2nd corps established there; consequently I placed my fourth division behind this village, and my second in front of Jumay, the cavalry brigade is in the latter place. The 3rd Division remained in Marchienne and the 1st in Thuin, my other cavalry brigade is in Solre and Biel-sous-Thuin, which disperses my troops very much; I pray Y.E. to kindly let me know if I must recall those I left behind. The reconnaissance party that I sent to Fontaine-l’Eveque learned that 1500 Prussians, who were there this morning with three pieces of artillery, left at noon heading on Marchele-le-Chateau; they took with them a lot of cattle. I await the order for tomorrow which will be carried by the officer who will have the honor to give this letter to Y.E. I ask acceptance of my deep respect.
(Signed) Count d’Erlon
No answer would come - and as the 15th ended, d’Erlon’s Corps was positioned exactly as his report stated, with the 1st Division in the vicinity of Thuin, and the 3rd division at Marchienne-au-Pont.
Ney took command of the left Column (it will only be the left wing the following morning) and wrote Soult his report late that evening:
Gosselies, June 15, 11 pm
I have the honor to report to Your Excellence that, in accordance with the Emperor’s orders, I went this afternoon to Gosselies to dislodge the enemy with General Piré’s Cavalry and General Bachelu’s Infantry. The enemy made only a slight resistance; we exchanged 25 to 30 cannon shots; he withdrew through Heppignies on Fleurus.
We took 5 to 600 Prussian prisoners from General Zieten’s Corps.
Here is the position of the troops:
General Lefebvre Desnouettes with the Lancers and the Chassuers of the Guard at Frasnes.
General Bachelu with the 5th Division at Mellet.
General Foy with the 9th Division at Gosselies.
General Piré’s Light Cavalry at Heppignies.
I do not know where to find General in Chief Reille.
General Count d’Erlon informs me that he is in Jumet with the greater part of his Army Corps. I have just transmitted the arrangements to him, prescribed by the letter from Your Excellency,
dated today. I am enclosing in my letter a report from General Lefebvre-Desnouettes.
Accept, Marshal, the assurances of my highest regards,
Marshal Prince de la Moskowa, Ney
On the 16th, his letter of 11 am will reveal that he thought I Corps had 3 divisions, not 4. This could explain why he felt d'Erlon had the majority of his Corps at Jumet - when in fact, he did not.
Finally, near midnight, Soult sent the following to d'Erlon - far too late to act upon it until the next day:
To Count Erlon, Commander of the 1st Corps
Charleroi, June 15, 1815
Count, the intention of the Emperor is that you rally your corps on the left bank of the Sambre, to join the second corps at Gosselies, according to the orders Marshal Prince de la Moskawa will you give on this subject.
Thus, you will recall the troops you have left to Thuin, Sobre, and surroundings; you must however always have many parties on your left to scout the Mons road.
Marshal of the Empire, Major General,
Duke of Dalmatia
Soult is perfectly aware of the dispositions of the left column, and he finally gives d'Erlon the confirmation that had been requested.
But this letter is NOT found in the Registre du Major Général. The Register, or as Grouchy accurately called it, the "extracts from the Register" was found in Grouchy's Relation succincte de la campagne de 1815 en Belgique and published in 1843. His son would eventually turn over the original to the French archives - but even that is nothing but a copy. The original order book is lost.
So the question to ask - did Soult not put it in the order book? Did Soult remove it from the order book prior to giving to Grouchy? Did Grouchy simply not copy it? Did Grouchy not include it on purpose, as Grouchy also only revealed those orders from late on June 13th forward. None of Soult's maleficence is in the order book...
Why does this matter?
Many books have taken up the question of what was Napoleon's response to the progress of June 15th, 1815. Some have been puzzled - did Napoleon not know it was a failure!? Had only Ney occupied Quatre Bras, the next day Napoleon would win the big battle coming up...
So what did Napoleon believe was the status of his army on June 15th at the end of maneuvers.
First, we have the Bulletin of June 15th, which of course is famous for its exaggerations, and this one is no different. It claims the French were masters of the entire Fleurus position, which was false but understandable as Fleurus had been the location of a famous Republican victory in 1794. Further, it claims Ney had established himself at Quatre Bras. Was this another fib for the masses?
Most certainly not. Throughout the French correspondence, what we know familiarly as "Quatre-Bras" was called all sorts of things, including "4 Bras", "Quatre Chemins", "Trois Bras" etc. This crossroads near a farm was not a famous location, and as others have pointed out, it is highly doubtful there was anything to be gained by making this claim. (I have seen some question as to who wrote the Bulletin, but it seems certain to have been Napoleon and his staff, not Soult's. Napoleon refers to Quatre Bras as "Quatre Chemins" in his morning orders of June 16th, as does the Bulletin, while Soult would refer to it as the "Trois-Bras" in his morning correspondence with Ney.)
Thus, what if Napoleon thought Quatre Bras was occupied the night of June 15th? Additionally, what did Napoleon believe was the dispositions and status not just of the French Army, but of the allies as well?
Let's try to reconstruct what Napoleon thought on the evening of June 15th.
In Gourgaud’s account (1818), the following positions are given for the French army on the evening of the 15th:
The left wing of the French army, commanded by Marshal Ney, had its head quarters at Gosselies, and its vanguard at Frasnes; General Reille’s corps was stationed between Gosselies and Frasnes, having one division (Girard’s) at Vagnies, in the direction of Fleurus; General d’Erlong’s corps was between Marchiennes and Julmet.
The centre, consisting of Vandamme’s corps and Grouchy’s reserves of cavalry, lined the woods opposite of Fleurus.
General Gérard’s corps, forming the right wing, had passed the Sambre, and was in front of Châtelet.
The imperial guard was escheloned, between Fleurus and Charleroi. The sixth corps in front of the latter town. Kellerman’s corps of cuirassiers, with the great part of artillery, on the left bank
of the Sambre, behind Charleroi.
Some claim Gourgaud's account his Napoleon's, but Napoleon criticized elements of it in exile. Still, it is certain that whatever Gourgaud wrote was a product of many discussions with Napoleon.
In a footnote, Gourgaud would explain Ney's position:
It will naturally be asked, why Ney did not establish himself at Quatre Bras. It would appear, that the recollection of his conduct in 1814, and lastly in March 1815, had occasioned a kind of mental derangement, which manifested itself in all his actions. Though the bravest of the men in battle, Marshal Ney frequently committed mistakes in his field dispositions. Being informed by his light cavalry, that the enemy had but a small force at Quatre Bras, he thought it most prudent to stop on a line with the cannonade, which he heard on his right, and dispatched Girard’s division, as an advanced guard, to Fleurus. Wishing it however to appear, that he had executed his orders, he reported to his Majesty, that he was occupying Quatre Bras by an advanced guard, and that his main body was close behind.
So Gourgaud claims Napoleon believed Ney was at Quatre Bras. But also note that Gourgaud reports that I Corps was between Marchiennes and Jumet. This is incorrect. as we know there was also a division at Thuin and a brigade of cavalry south of the Sambre.
In the Memorial of Saint Helena (either accepted as dictated or written by Napoleon and later published in Napoleon’s Correspondence), Volume 31, Napoleon states that on the evening of the 15th of June, I Corps, “was between Marchiennes and Jumet.” Again this is incorrect. Note that Napoleon and Gourgaud had learned the realities of much, such as Ney not being at Quatre Bras, but it appears that Napoleon went to his death never having learned the actual disposition of I Corps on June 15th.
Finally, we look to Napoleon's order to Ney on the morning of the 16th, sent before 9 am, but long after dawn:
My cousin, I send my Aide-de-Camp General Flahaut to you, who brings you this letter. The Major General should have given you orders but you will receive mine first because my officers move faster than his. You will receive the day’s movement orders, but I want to write to you in detail, because it is of the highest importance.
I am sending Marshal Grouchy with the 3rd and 4th Infantry Corps to Sombreffe; I am taking my Guard to Fleurus, and I will be there in person before midday, I will attack the enemy if I find them there, and I will clear the roads as far as Gembloux. There, according to what will happen, I shall come to a decision, perhaps at three o’clock in the afternoon, perhaps this evening. My intention
is that, immediately after I have made up my mind, you will be ready to march on Brussels. I will support you with my Guard who will be at Fleurus or Sombreffe, and I wish to arrive at Brussels tomorrow morning. You will march this evening; if I make up my mind at an early hour then you will be informed of it during the day and then this evening will go three or four leagues and reach
Brussels tomorrow by seven o’clock in the morning.
You can arrange your troops in the following way:
The first division, two leagues in front of Quatre Bras, if there is no harm; six divisions of infantry around Quatre Bras, and a division at Marbais, so that I can draw it to me at Sombreffe, if I
need; it would not otherwise delay your march;
Count of Valmy’s Corps, who has 3,000 Elite Cuirassiers, will be placed at the intersection of Roman and Brussels roads, so that I can draw it to me if needed. As soon as I take my course of action, you will send him the order to come join you.
I will want to have the Guard Division with me, commanded by General Lefebvre-Desnoëttes, and I am sending you two divisions of Count of Valmy’s Corps to replace it. But, in my current endeavor, I prefer to place Count of Valmy so as to recall if I need him, and I do not wish to cause General Lefebvre-Desnoëttes to make unnecessary marches, since it is likely that I will decide this evening to march on Brussels with the Guard. However, cover Lefebvre’s division with d’Erlon and Reille’s Divisions of Cavalry, in order to save the Guard: if there was a skirmish with the English, it is preferable that it is on the Cavalry of the line rather than on the Guard.
I have adopted as a general principle, during this campaign, to divide my army into two wings and a reserve. Your wing will consist of four divisions of the 1st Corps, four divisions of the 2nd Corps, two divisions of Light Cavalry, and two divisions of the Count of Valmy’s Corps. That should be roughly 45 to 50,000 men. Marshal Grouchy will have about the same force and will command the right wing.
The Guard will form the reserve, and I will move to one or the other wing, according to circumstances. The Major General gives the most precise orders so that there is no difficulty in obeying such orders that you receive; the corps commanders will take my orders directly when I am present.
According to circumstances, I will diminish one wing or the other, to strengthen my reserve.
You understand the considerable importance in taking Brussels. This may also lead to incidents, because such a swift and abrupt movement will isolate the English army from Mons, Ostend, etc. I
want your arrangements to be well made, so that at the first order your eight divisions can go quickly and without obstacles to Brussels.
This order is clearly written as though Quatre Bras is already occupied.
And so we get a view that in the late evening of June 15th, Napoleon believed his entire left was across the Sambre, with I Corps headquartered at Jumet, and II Corps north of Gosselies with Ney at Quatre Bras. There is no sighting of British troops, and based on the Prussian dispositions before the campaign, believes there is only 1 Prussian Corps that is set up behind Fleurus. With every hour that advances past dawn on June 16th, he becomes more convinced of this view...
The orders on the morning of June 16th lack any urgency. Ney is simply to arrange the forces at Quatre Bras as they arrive, and Napoleon will advance east and push aside the small threat to his rear before turning north and marching on Brussels. The Left Wing is to take it easy, in fact, as it is highly likely they will be marching through the night.