When one reads the memoirs/diaries of those around Napoleon at Saint Helena, Napoleon's frustration from the Waterloo campaign drips off the page. He simply does not understand what happened, and at least one reason for this, as previously demonstrated, is that he was intentionally deceived as to the position of his forces.
This is a campaign where opportunities are consistently missed by a few hours, and that was the power of the very subtle acts of Soult. Whereas before the campaign he made dramatic adjustments, her certainly would not be able to get away with that routinely. But Soult was a 20 year veteran who understood perfectly that Napoleon's strength as a commander was a mind capable of having a vice like grip on the realities of his own disposition, and once gaining information, a lighting quick response which led to an advantage at a key place and time.
Of course, the very nature of war is that of controlled chaos, and even the best plans could be thwarted by numerous circumstances. Bautzen was a missed opportunity when Ney became focused on taking a position, rather than the envelopment Napoleon desired.
There is evidence that Napoleon was not totally comfortable with the information coming from Soult's staff. Early in the morning of June 16th, he sent Colonel Bussy to check on the left. This round trip would take several hours, and in the interim Napoleon sent the order to Ney previously disclosed which is clearly written as though Quatre Bras is occupied. The timeline Napoleon suggested to Ney was that as early as 3pm, Napoleon might be ready to march on Brussels.
Flahaut, the carrier of the order to Ney, explained, 40 years after the event, that he carried to Ney verbal orders for the occupation of Quatre Bras. However, he also claimed he verbally carried orders to, once Quatre Bras was occupied, have Ney gather every man not necessary to hold Quatre Bras and support Napoleon's offensive against the Prussian "army." When Flahaut carried the order to Ney, there was no Prussian army identified, and while Napoleon had diligently suggested a disposition for Ney that allowed for units to be drawn his direction if needed, it is clear Flahaut is remembering things more as they happened rather than as Napoleon intended in the morning hours of June 16th. It does bear repeating, however, that Napoleon in 1815 was thorough and diligent in all his plans and prepared for all circumstances - not just those he believed no matter his conviction. While Napoleon had bad moments, such as the apparent fatigue in the early morning of June 17th, and was not perfect in 1815, I believe many sources overstate his decline - and this does no favors to the victors of the campaign. (of course, some of the loudest trumpets of decline were French authors in the 19th century looking to excuse away their hero's defeat)
As previously discussed, about the time Napoleon moved to Fleurus, he learned from both a report from Colonel Bussy and a Lancer officer that the enemy was at Quatre Bras. While this was a dramatic change to his mental picture, the presence of the enemy did not impact what he felt was the position of his own troops, and his orders during the day reveal that he still felt Ney had operational control of both I Corps and II Corps, and by noon Napoleon would have expected them to be well north of Gosselies.
Vacating the area between Marchienne au Pont to the Roman road opened up the left flank to the enemy, and hence this was why VI Corps was left as the Army's reserve north of Charleroi in a position to support either wing. Napoleon was getting reports from his right that there were more than 40,000 of the enemy, and that columns could be seen coming from Namur, but he did not initially believe this. As the Prussian concentration orders were sent around 11:30 pm on June 14th, it would have been difficult for Napoleon to have learned from any sources he had in the region of their execution any sooner.
As previously mentioned, Napoleon sent Janin to the left wing to gather intelligence and announce the availability of VI Corps.
Ney reported to Soult, written at 11 am, that everything was going great on the left wing and the desired dispositions would be fulfilled without difficulty. He reported about 3,000 enemy infantry at Quatre Bras, but was absolutely not concerned about them. "I think that the arrangements of the Emperor for the subsequent march on Brussels will be carried out without great obstacles." Ney is heavily criticized, including by Napoleon, but in my opinion, he is operating based on the tone set by Napoleon himself with a focus on an arduous march to come, rather than preparing for what would turn out to be the decisive battles of the campaign. And in turn, Napoleon's calm/confident tone was a product of believing his left wing was North of the Sambre at dawn, and extended to Quatre Bras.
If Napoleon had been aware that I Corps still had a division as far south as Thuin, and that Quatre Bras was not occupied, and hence his army was blind to the roads leading to Nivelles and Brussels, I believe he would have given the left more attention. However, the correspondence does demonstrate that before dawn, I Corps had begun to consolidate at Jumet... and as with June 15th, would actually be stuck behind II Corps. Further, Soult would write to Ney asking for the status of the left at 5 am. Ney would respond to Soult at 7am. Houssaye would quote from this report - but it has since gone missing. From the parts Houssaye quoted, it is clear that this report gave to Soult a clear view of the dispositions of the left that were different from Napoleon's.
At 1pm, Napoleon and staff were at Fleurus observing the massing Prussians while the French gathered as well. Ney's report of 11 am was received, which despite the presence of a few thousand infantry, only reinforced Napoleon's view that Ney had operational control of the left wing. But Ney's 11 am report was not a precise report of current disposition.
By 2pm Napoleon determined he faced a sizable Prussian army, and he quickly came to his plan. Ney had 7 divisions of infantry, heavy cavalry divisions, and light cavalry divisions - more than enough to smash a few thousand infantry at Quatre Bras and envelop the enemy. The reality was far different, as at 2pm I Corps was still south of Gossellies! More than half of Ney's strengh was closer to Napoleon than Ney! Is there any doubt that had Napoleon known this he would acted differently!? And again, we must review the chain of events, where Ney had not acted with urgency during the morning of the 16th responding to the tone set by Napoleon who had been misinformed of the disposition of the left wing.
So at 2pm, Napoleon wrote to Ney. The battle would begin at 3pm, and at 3pm and 3:15 Napoleon would send orders to Ney to work to envelop the Prussians.
Janin's report, written by Lobau from Charleroi, would reach Napoleon around 3pm:
In accordance with Your Majesty’s orders, I sent Adjudant-Commandant Jeanin to the corps commanded by Marshal Ney. This officer found these troops positioned from the surroundings of Gosselies to beyond the village of Frasnes. He has a lot of experience in war and thinks that the enemy is not in very great force; but it is difficult, because of the forests, to judge precisely.
The previously mentioned Colonel talked with several superior officers, and he finally interrogated deserters, and none of the individuals questioned brought the number of the enemy beyond 20,000 men; when this officer left the site, there were only skirmishers engaged, these in a rather small number.
I am still positioned in front of Charleroi where I will remain until given new orders. It would be good if Your Majesty wanted
to replace the battalion that I have in town for police and the large numbers of baggage; to protect the wounded etc; this position cannot, it seems to me, remain completely devoid of troops.
Charleroi, June 16, 1815
Lieutenant General, Aide-de-Camp of the Emperor, Commander in Chief of the 6th Corps
P.S. Colonel Jeanin reports that Colonel Tancarville, Chief of Staff of Cte of Valmy, said to him that the emissaries who came to Cte D’Erlon reportedly said to him that the enemy was marching today from Mons to Charleroi. Your Majesty will surely be able to fully appreciate the value of this information.
Further, in Janin's Campagne de Waterloo he would bitterly complain that no one had informed him that he would find the troops on the left starting in Gosselies. Janin blames it on Napoleon for not having had one of his ADCs keep track of the movements of the left column, but as we have seen, the information was there, it was reported, it was known by Soult - but Napoleon did know.
Regardless, after Janin's report, Napoleon ordered VI Corps to Fleurus, despite the warning about a movement from Mons. One can assume that Napoleon was becoming aware that Ney was facing a bit more than trouble at Quatre Bras, and thus the likelihood of an enemy maneuver to the left rear low - or he decided he needed more of a reserve at Ligny. Further, Janin reported encountering forces of the left at Gosselies, but as his report was at least 4 hours old, those forces should have easily been at Frasnes or beyond... in fact, they were still at Gosselies.
While waiting at Gosselies, d’Erlon launched a reconnaissance mission, triggered by a report of the enemy to his left. This was a continuation of his mission to monitor the left flank. The reconnaissance found nothing, but it delayed I Corps’ advance. Thus, d’Erlon wrote Soult a report from Gosselies. I Corps’ march commenced around 3 pm. Thus, Soult knew by 5 pm, if not earlier, that I Corps was still at Gosselies at 3pm, and marching north in a column at least 5 kilometers long.
At 5:30 pm, with the fighting at Ligny in full swing, an unknown column was seen in the distanace heading for the rear of the French army. The was panic in some elements of the French army, and Napoleon had to delay his movements to determine just what this unknown force was. From its location, many in the French army felt that this was the dreaded movement from the direction of Mons into the large gap between Charleroi and Quatre Bras.
Soult said nothing. Soult knew that due to I Corps' position on June 16th, and the subsequent information he had received, that no force from the direction of Mons could have threatened the French at Ligny at that time of day without having encountered I Corps.
Though Napoleon's original plan was never possible (without the left wing operating with the urgency requisite to fight a battle and maneuver a corps that started the day dispersed over 20 kilometers) the French were still on their way to winning an impressive victory at Ligny. However, with the battle starting at 3pm, with sunset around 8:30, with darkness around 9:30 or earlier, Napoleon had six precious hours. The hour lost due to d'Erlon's appearance at the battlefield eliminated the opportunity to increase the results of the victory, possibly make it decisive, or at least dictate the Prussian movements before darkness.
Napoleon undoubtedly wished for an explanation, and he got one. He would not be told the truth, as in his account of the campaign he reported that d'Erlon was "in column from Marchiennes to Gollselies" at the close of June 15th. He believed I Corps was concentrated at Jumet during the campaign. But in Gourgaud's diaries, published in 1899, they were never meant to be seen. They were not part of any legacy building. And in them, we find the following:
The movement of d’Erlon did me much harm. Those around me thought it was an advance of the enemy. D’Erlon was a good staff officer. He could maintain order; but that was all. He ought on the 15th to have sent me word that he was at Marchiennes.
Napoleon must have been told that rather being at Jumet, d'Erlon was at Marchienne au Pont. Then, mix in a big helping of Ney incompetence, and Napoleon has the answer as to why his plan failed.
But what d'Erlon reported to Soult on the 15th accurate - why didn't Napoleon know?
Further, during the 16th, information came into the general headquarters that may have illuminated I Corps’ disposition during the day.
–– Ney’s report of 7 am, found in Gourgaud’s papers, and confirmed by Reille in his account in Documents inédits, (also quoted by Houssaye).
–– D’Erlon’s report from Gosselies, which would have been sent from 1pm – 3pm, found in Gourgaud’s papers (Houssaye wrote of this as well).
–– The Report that Ney would request from Reille and D’Erlon, which, Ney promised to forward to headquarters, in Ney’s report on the 16th.
Reading the above reports on the events of the 16th of June would be very illuminating. Unfortunately, this is not possible. They are each missing. Both reports found in Gourgaud’s papers and discussed by Houssaye were present in the 1890’s, but today they cannot be found. Reille’s report can be found in the archives, however, d’Erlon’s report has never been seen.
As Gourgaud had the materials found in his papers at some point (most likely gained after his return to Europe as Napoleon clearly didn't see them in exile) it probably only fueled his hatred of Soult. But, as with many imperial veterans, when the July monarchy came to power, it would have been self-defeating to confront Soult. He served Louis-Philippe, he was restored to the military, he was able to participate in the mission to return Napoleon's remains, and he was raised to the Peerage.
D'Erlon likewise had to figure out that the information Napoleon was operating with at Ligny was not what he was reporting. But again, it was Soult that restored d'Erlon to the rolls of the army where d'Erlon would eventually become a Marshal of France! Confronting Soult was a little to gain everything to lose proposition. However, in his memoirs, he does leave us an interesting passage:
I ask the reader to carefully study the paragraph that follows, because it matters that the truth is finally known.
The Emperor, heavily engaged at Ligny, sent an aide-de-camp to Marshal Ney, for him to say to lead the first corps on Ligny, in order to turn the right wing of the Prussian army. This officer met the head of the column of the first corps, which arrived in Frasnes, and, before having transmitted the orders of the Emperor to Marshal Ney, took this column in the direction of Ligny.
He asks us to carefully study an terse seemingly innocuous account that was well known so "that the truth is finally known." It would seem to be somewhat of a hyperbole, except, a vital clue is present. D'Erlon wants us to know that his corps had only just arrived at Frasnes when it was diverted to the Ligny battlefield, though Napoleon had been sending orders to Ney. He is telling us that it is clear Napoleon did not know where I Corps was, since had Napoleon known that during most of June 16th, d'Erlon was closer to Napoleon than Ney, he would have not gone through Ney to give orders to d'Erlon. The examination of the correspondence also reveals this fact, but at that time, much of the 1815 materials were still dispersed. D'Erlon goes on to criticize Napoleon and Ney, and thus keep his account of this event politically correct for the time. D'Erlon died in 1844, never once offering an explanation for why Napoleon incorrectly stated the dispositions of I Corps on June 15th in Napoleon's memoirs.
Napoleon envisioned a simple plan for the 1815 campaign.
So far, on almost a daily basis since the beginning of maneuvers on June 5th, inexplicable things were going wrong. Soult is accused of writing unclear orders, and certainly there is an example of that. But what has never been explained is why the correspondence presents a clear record of the situation during June 15th and June 16th, yet Napoleon operated unaware.
That isn't incompetence, its treason.