Napoleon Series Archive 2015

The Waterloo Campaign - The Blame of June 17th

In the early morning of the 17th, Flahaut returned from Quatre Bras and reported his observations of Ney during the 16th. Napoleon was furious!

Ney went crazy: I entrust to him 40,000 men, and he does not unite them; there are eight hours without doing anything; he does not crush the English, nor give the final blow to the Prussians! And he added such a fault to disobey my orders: he stops the Count d’Erlon marching on Saint-Amand and prevents me from destroying the Prussian army! If I do not owe him so much for his past service, I would shoot him on the spot.” And with an indescribable accent which betrayed the pain, he repeated several times: “He has lost France.”

The above is reported by Baron Stoffel, and its substantiation is weak. Apparently Soult was the sole witness, who told Monthion, who told Stoffel's uncle who was on Soult's staff. However, the message is consistent with Napoleon's later complaints.

While Ney's performance is one of the dominating elements in works on the campaign, we will continue to note that at no time did Ney have operational control over 40,000 men. I Corps was, due to Soult, spread over 20 kilometers on June 16th. Ney's orders arrived amost 8 hours after dawn, and did not have an urgent tone. Girard had been borrowed for the Ligny battle, and I Corps was further delayed performing a reconnaissance mission which was communicated to Soult. In fact, I Corps was closer to Napoleon for most of the 16th than to Ney.

I think it basically comes down to - did Napoleon order Ney to take Quatre Bras on June 15th. Others can argue that...

But with Napoleon's statement, we continue to see the impression that he had: Ney with a consolidated force on the left wing. We also get a clue on Napoleon's thoughts about the Prussians - he knew they were not destroyed, and they would be on his mind far more than the conventional history allows.

Soult took no pity on Ney, and in the 8 am orders sent to Ney, inserted the following:

The Emperor has seen with regret that you did not succeed yesterday: the divisions acted separately; so you have experienced losses. If Counts d’Erlon and Reille’s Corps had been together, not a man of the English corps that attacked you would have survived; if Count d’Erlon had carried out the movement on Saint-Amand that the Emperor ordered, the Prussian Army would be completely destroyed and we would have taken perhaps 30 thousand prisoners. General Vendamme and Gérard’s Corps and the Imperial Guard were always together; we expose ourselves to reverses when detachments are made.

The above was, of course, in the Order Book, and the theme has become the lasting indictment of Ney's June 16th performance. I do not mean to suggest that Ney is above criticism - but only to suggest there is more to the events of June 15th and June 16th than typically discussed.

But if Ney was the first goat, he would soon be surpassed by another who would take far far more blame for the eventual defeat.

The 17th is famous for the seeming lethargy of the French army. Grouchy was given a force to pursue the Prussians, and Napoleon took the main army and marched on Quatre Bras where he led a pursuit of Wellington to Mont St. Jean. Despite the uncertainty of whether Wellington would stand, Napoleon sent out and order of battle for the following day.

He also claims he sent recall orders to Grouchy:

At ten o’clock in the evening, I sent an officer to Marshal Grouchy whom I supposed to be at Wavres, in order to let him know that there would be a big battle the next day; that the Anglo-Dutch army was in position in front of the forest of Soignes, with its left resting on the village of La Haye; that I ordered him to detach from his camp at Wavres a division of 7,000 men of all arms and sixteen guns, before daylight, to go to Saint-Lambert to join the right of the Grand Army and co-operate with it; that, as soon as he was satisfied that Marshal Blücher had evacuated Wavres, whether to continue his retreat on Brussels or to go in any other directions, he was to march with the bulk of his troops to support the detachment which he had sent to Saint-Lambert.

The above order is perfectly consistent with Napoleon's career. He had often recalled forces to famous effect to the big battle, with his attempts at Ligny just the day prior being the most recent example. Yet, historians often dismiss Napoleon's claim as a myth created at Saint Helena. The reason is because a) Grouchy never received them and b) they do not appear in the order book.

As far as not appearing in the order book, this is absolutely unknown. As discussed with previous correspondence, the order book is only a copy Grouchy made and published himself. Dispatches could have a) never been copied into the book, b) removed by Soult, c) Removed by Grouchy, d) not copied/published by Grouchy.

Due to the high number of staff officers who were traitors during the campaign, it would be natural for Napoleon to suspect that possibility, and he did, as reported by O'Meara:

I asked Napoleon if he thought that Grouchy would have intended to betray him. ‘No, no,’ he replied, ‘but there was a lack of energy on his part. There was also treason in the General staff. I believe that some of the staff officers that I had sent to Grouchy, betrayed, and passed to the enemy; however I am not sure having not seen Grouchy since.’

In Grouchy's 1843 publication, the testimony of a certain Letourner is published:

Mr Marshal.

Reading in the newspapers a claim that you have issued against an assertion by Mr. General Berthezène, I thought I should, in the interests and honor of our Normandy, in yours also, Mr. Marshal, let you know a circumstance which will perhaps not have any scope in the discussion raised by general Berthezène.
This is the great historical fact of Waterloo, which has long divided opinion since 1815, and to which your name relates with a celebrity that parties have not always sufficiently respected.
So here is what happened to my knowledge, by pure chance.
In 1815, during the stay of the Prussian troops at Caen under the orders of Marshal Blücher, the municipal administration sent home with a billet, a nephew of the old general, called Lanken; He was cavalry NCO in the Hussars, I believe, and could be 20 to 22 years old.
A son of the Marshal, attached to the staff of his father, came very often to visit his parent, in the company of another officer named Vousseaux, young man also well raised, appearing as the other two, having received a distinguished education... These gentlemen spoke French perfectly, the last two, especially, infinitely better than the young Lanken.
One day, I had invited them to take the punch, and we talked of events that had led the Prussian army in France, and of the disasters of the day of Waterloo particularly: the son of the old Marshal tells me these words that I transcribed the same evening on an album:

“The loss of the battle of Waterloo is generally attributed to the fact that Mr. Marshal Grouchy would not execute the orders of the emperor... It is a great mistake! and this is what has happened under my eyes, at the headquarters of Marshal Blücher: A staff officer of the imperial general headquarters was brought to Marshal Blücher...Was he made prisoner, had he betrayed? This is what I don’t know, but he is one who was carrying an order, written in pencil, to Marshal Grouchy, saying that the Marshal had to walk on the point where the Emperor stood and let six thousand men in the front of the Prussian army, to hide his movement and keep it in check while he would move. That Marshal Blücher, with this document, had done exactly the same maneuver... This is why the Emperor kept repeating, seeing off a corps from the side where it was waiting for Mr. Marshal Grouchy: it is Grouchy! It is Grouchy!”

It is permissible to think that one would encounter in Berlin some members of the family of the old Marshal Blücher, which would easily indicate where you would find today Mr Blücher, Vousseaux and Lanken.
If this letter, Mr. Marshal, can have the slightest interest to you, please make such use of it that may please you.
In sending it to you personally, I only have in mind to pay tribute to the truth, and my sole purpose is to prevent that a personal opinion, or an error long reproduced, continues, especially after the fight which will be engaged under the watchful eye of French public opinion.

Please accept, etc, etc.
Signed Ch. Letourneur.

According to the account in this letter, the story of the recall order, that had either been intercepted or delivered by a deserter, was told by one of Blücher’s sons. This son would be Gebhard Lebrecht Friedrich Blücher. In 1815, he was a captain of cavalry attached to his father’s staff. His companion was another officer, Vousseaux. However, this is clearly a French spelling. The German equivalent of this name is Wussow. On Blücher’s staff during the 1815 campaign was Seconde Lieutenant Johann George Philipp von Wussow. He played a significant role, especially in helping organize the retreat after Ligny. However, his most interesting mission was informing Wellington of the status of the battle of Ligny in the early evening of June 16th.

Throughout the course of the afternoon the combatants could clearly hear the roar of the artillery at Sombreffe. The Duke of Wellington subsequently expressed his desire to Generalmajor Karl, Freiherr von Müffling, the Prussian liaison officer attached to his headquarters, to receive a report on the state of the contest, and towards 7:00pm Seconde-Lieutenant Johann von Wussow, an officer serving on the Prussian General Staff, arrived at the crossroads. As Freiherr von Müffling knew that the young officer spoke fluent French, he ordered him to repeat the message that he had been given directly to the duke.

The existence of the fluent-French speaking Wussow is at the very least a corroborating detail of the Letourneur letter. (Many thanks to Oliver Schmidt for making this connection!)

This account is also corroborated by a Major Zach, of the Baden Staff, in a Waterloo study translated and published in the Journal des Sciences Militaires 1840, prior to Grouchy’s publication above:

It should also be attributed to the fatality that the orders to march on Saint-Lambert that had been sent to him by Napoleon were not received at 10 pm and at three in the morning. The officer carrying the first mail and on its way to Wavre, fell into the hands of the Prussians, and the charge of second dispatch was probably killed on the way.

Finally we have Stoffel's account. Baron Stoffel was working on a book on 1815, but died before its completion. Due to his uncle having been on Soult's staff, he had information that was drawn from veterans, rather than documented sources. An excerpt of his work on the operations of June 17th was eventually published, and there we find:

After this reconnaissance which had lasted an hour, he mounted on his horse and went to Le Caillou, where he arrived around 9:30 in the evening. He immediately sent to corps commanders an order which required them to get under way at daybreak and indicating the locations they would have to take if there was a battle.
It was important that Marshal Grouchy knew the situation. Napoleon, who had demanded no help from his right in case he could have challenged Wellington on the 17th, wanted on the contrary its cooperation for the battle he hoped to deliver on the 18th. Accordingly, he ordered Major General to send to Marshal Grouchy an order to send at daybreak a division of 7000 men of all arms and sixteen guns to Chapelle-Saint-Lambert to outflank the left of the English army, join the right of the main army and operate with it. Considering the case that Blücher would have withdrawn to Wavre, Napoleon ordered in addition to Marshal Grouchy, that as soon as the Prussians would have evacuated this city to withdraw either towards Brussels or Liège, he had to go with most of his troops to support the detachment he would have sent to Chapelle-Saint-Lambert.
Marshal Soult and his General Staff had to wonder where this dispatch was to be addressed because, at 10 pm, there was no news from the right wing. We only knew that Marshal Grouchy had been to Gembloux with all his strength, and that his instructions directed him to pursue the Prussians while remaining in constant communication with the main army, it was concluded that he had taken the direction to Wavre and that he was camped near the city, having before him or on his right the Prussian army in retreat. We were confirmed in this belief by two reports coming from two different sources: one was saying that flankers of the right of the army were in communication with those of the right wing, which had pursued the Prussians all day; another, sent by General Milhaud, reported at 9 pm, that a cavalry column had retreated hastily from Tilly to Wavre. Therefore, the dispatch for Marshal Grouchy, dated from Le Caillou, 10 o’clock came to him with the address: “on Wavre, in the north of Gembloux”. It was calculated that the officer to whom it was entrusted only needed three or four hours to reach his destination; Marshal Grouchy could thus receive it around 2 am, in time to carry out the orders given to him.
The dispatch in question was too important not to be sent in duplicate or triplicate, and that was all the more necessary in the present circumstances because it was addressed not “at Wavre” but “on Wavre”, that the officer who was carrying it had to take bad ways in a country he did not know. But it was dark, the rain, which did not stop falling in torrents from 2:00 of the afternoon was still going and all the roads were rutted. But Marshal Soult sent only one officer to Marshal Grouchy. This fatal negligence can be explained by the confusion which reigned at that time at the farm of Le Caillou where Napoleon’s personal Staff and General Staff, with a hundred officers of all ranks and several hundred horses, escorts, orderlies, luggage, were trying to establish. For lack of space, on duty officers of the General Staff had to settle in a not very spacious shed of the farm and at Maison-du-Roi. The dispatch for Marshal Grouchy, hastily written in pencil, was delivered by General Bailly de Monthion to the duty officer whose turn it was to be dispatched…

A few points on the above:
- There is more to substantiate that Napoleon sent these orders - more than those who simply declare that he didn't. As with the case of Bourmont's treason, too many historians have simply discounted Napoleon as a liar on all counts.
- If Napoleon wasn't simply a liar on all counts, then his words and impressions have more validity, and greatly aide in the interpretation of events. Hence we can trust very clearly that he was misinformed on the status of his left wing on June 15th and June 16th.
- In hostile country, especially after a large battle where pockets of the enemy could dot the countryside, there was never a more important time to use many orderlies. Apparently Soult did not. This could be the classic example of Soult's poor performance as Major General. However, if he was relying on known royalists on his staff, it could also be an intentional decision. There will be an additional clue on the 18th.

As June 17th came to a close, Napoleon was preparing for the possibility of a large battle, and once again would be expecting reinforcements to arrive on one of his wings.

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The Waterloo Campaign - The Blame of June 17th
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