The French Advance into Belgium
By Alfons Libert, FINS
When Napoleon decided to attack the Allied forces in Belgium, he set his General Staff to work. Napoleon selected the Beaumont-Philippeville region on the French-Belgian border as the assembly area for his Armée du Nord (Army of the North). In early June 1815, the only large unit of this Army already stationed in this area was the I Corps of General Drouet d'Erlon. The Imperial Guard was still in Paris and the rest of the French Army was scattered over France and in the midst of a reorganization. Under the utmost secrecy troop movements to the French-Belgian border had begun. Napoleon had embarked on his last campaign.
The Concentration of the Army
On 7 June, very strict security measures took effect: all borders were closed, the mail was no longer delivered and no ships were allowed to leave French ports. The French started a huge misinformation campaign with its primary weapon being a flow of false rumours. One of these rumours was that the impending French attack would take place in the Lille region. Large units of the National Guard performed a series of manoeuvres in this region to give credibility to this rumour.
The secret troop movements that started on 6 June were not an easy enterprise. Five Army corps, the Imperial Guard and the Cavalry Reserve moved from as far away as Paris, Metz, Lille, Valenciennes, Laon and Mezières. They assembled in an area with a frontage of 30 km and all of this without the enemy noticing it. Whenever an active unit left garrison to proceed to the assembly area, a National Guard unit (Gardes Nationaux) very discreetly took its place.
The concentration of the Armee du Nord was as good as finished when Napoleon arrived at his forward HQ at Beaumont on 14 June. This concentration was a very fine military achievement and the French General Staff had every right to be proud of itself.
Although this unnoticed concentration of troops gave the French Army a big advantage, there was still cause to worry because a number of its senior officers were not up to the task that lay ahead.
The French Commanding Officers
The Chief of Staff, Marshal Soult, was a very fine general officer but had no experience in this very demanding function. Although he did his best he was responsible for some of Napoleon's problems in the days to come. The Emperor's choice of his highest troop commanders was also very peculiar to say the least.
When Marshal Ney joined Napoleon on 15 June, he was given command of the left wing of the Army. Ney never had been very intelligent and always depended very much on his Staff. His courage on the battlefield, however was legendary. In 1815 he was no longer capable of acting as an independent commander. The Prince of the Moskova never fully recovered of the battle fatigue he had suffered during the Russian campaign. The Emperor knew this but entrusted Ney with this important command. Following Napoleon's first abdication in 1814, Ney had been given a high ranking position in the Royal Army of Louis XVIII; thus his appointment as commander of the Army's left wing would most certainly win the support of some Royalists.
Grouchy, just promoted to Marshal, was given command of the right wing of the Army. Grouchy was one of the finest cavalry generals in Europe at the moment but had little experience in commanding an infantry corps.
Of course Napoleon had little choice. Of the 26 Marshals of the Empire he had only 5 left in 1815. Amongst them were Davout and Suchet, two very fine officers. In stead of using them in the coming offensive he gave them other assignments. He sent Suchet to Lyon to protect to Piedmont border. Certainly an important task in 1815 but insubordinate to the invasion of Belgium. Suchet would have been a far better chief of staff than Soult. He left Davout, the Minister of War and Governor of Paris, in Paris because he wanted to have a strong man in the capital during his absence. Napoleon therefore had robbed himself of the services of two of the finest Marshals of 1815.
With Suchet as chief of staff, Soult and Davout could have been given command of the Army 's wings, assignments for which they were eminently suited, and Grouchy could have been given command of the cavalry, the thing he did best.
Napoleon probably had good reasons for his choice of commanding officers. The responsibility however for the things that went wrong during the following days lies with him and not with them as some parties implied after the defeat. These officers all performed to the best of their abilities during the campaign.
Ney - Grouchy - Soult
The French Plan
Napoleon knew that it was impossible to achieve a total surprise, but he hoped that his forces would be able to attack and hold vital crossroads while the enemy was still concentrating his own forces. That is why speed was of the utmost importance.
On 15 June, at 0300, the Armée du Nord would advance in three columns. On the left flank General Reille's II Corps would start to advance in the direction of Thuin and Marchienne-au-pont. D'Erlon's I Corps would be right behind it. D'Erlon had orders to leave a cavalry brigade behind to observe the city of Mons and a division to guard the bridges at Thuin when they got there.
In the center, the cavalry corps of Pajol - reinforced with Domon's cavalry - would advance from Beaumont to Charleroi at 0230. General Vandamme's III Corps would follow - under cover of Pajol's cavalry screen - with Lobau's VI Corps and the Guard right behind it. At 0530, Grouchy's cavalry would advance through fields and along small roads on Vandamme's right flank.
On the Army's right flank, General Gerard's division - protected by one of Milhaud's Cuirassier divisions - would start to march on Charleroi at 0300. Gerard's orders also stated that he had to send reconnaissance detachments to Namur.
Napoleon himself would join Vandamme's vanguard when the attack started. He would have the Marines and the Engineers of the Guard with him. The field trains of the Army had to follow Vandamme's Corps. The three leading corps had orders to send their own engineer units in front of their advancing corps to immediately clear all obstacles. Speed was of the essence!
Napoleon ordered that the connection between the corps had to be maintained at all time and that they had to continuously send intelligence reports. If everything went according to the plan, the Army would be concentrated around Charleroi no later than the afternoon of the 15th.
Blücher and Wellington had only made vague mutual support agreements because they were persuaded that Napoleon wouldn't dare to launch an offensive against them.
Wellington's Army was dispersed over a wide area. He counted on his cavalry screen and espionage network to warn him in time of possible French movements. It would not be before the afternoon of the 15th that he would fully understand what was going on and by then it was almost too late.
The Prussians under Blücher were more concentrated. Every corps was able to concentrate itself in less than 12 hours around his headquarters. General Zieten's corps was stationed along the border as a protective force but Zieten neglected to prepare the defense of the bridges over the Sambre river. His orders were to withdraw to Fleurus in case of a heavy French attack. If that would happen the other three corps would advance to Fleurus.
The Allied Reaction
Blucher received the first intelligence reports on French activities only on 14 June. Zieten's force had apprehended a French deserter in the night of 12 June. This deserter informed them about the coming offensive but Zieten only forwarded this information to Blücher on the morning of the 14th. The number of rumors augmented and Bülow and Thielman were told to prepare their corps.
At 1500, General Dörnberg - the commander of a cavalry brigade - reported that the French were concentrating between Mabeuge and Philippeville and that Napoleon was probably present.
Two more French deserters were captured in the night of 14 June. These two claimed that the offensive would start the next morning. Blücher was asleep when this message arrived. Gneisenau, his chief of staff didn't want to wake him up and issued a number of orders on his own responsibility. He ordered Thielman to concentrate his corps around Namur, Pirch between Namur and Sombreffe and Zieten to cover these movements by delaying the French as much as possible. Bülow who was told to move to Hannut, thought that it was only a routine movement and decided not to move before 16 June.
The deployment of the armies on June 14,
At 0230 on 15 June, the first French troops left their bivouacs. There was a very precise timetable to avoid problems but even from this point on things were already going wrong.
Vandamme had not received his orders because the officer who was carrying them had had a riding accident and never delivered the orders. It was 0700 before Vandamme received orders to advance. In the meantime, Lobau's VI Corps which was behind Vandamme's III Corps, advanced on schedule which cause the two corps to become ensnarled.
Napoleon ordered Gerard to cross the Sambre in Châtelet to avoid this "traffic jam" but it didn't help much. The commanding officer of Gerard's leading division, General Bourmont deserted early in the morning of the 15th. His division, very demoralized by this betrayal of their general, delayed Gerard's advance considerably.
Reille's II Corps - the only one on schedule - destroyed a Prussian battalion at Thuin. However bad roads and the fierce resistance of a Prussian brigade at Marchienne-au-Pont delayed its further advance.
Pajol reached Charleroi with his cavalry corps at about 0800 but couldn't take the bridges there without infantry support. His supporting infantry, the III Corps was still stuck in the "traffic jam" with VI Corps. Napoleon himself arrived there at 1100 with his Guard detachment. The Guard swiftly drove the Prussians out of Charleroi so Pajol could resume his advance to Gilly.
Napoleon set up headquarters north of Charleroi and issued some orders. General Duhesme and some units of the Young Guard were to support Pajol and General Lefebvre-Desnoëttes had to lead the light cavalry of the Guard up the Brussels road. Reille, who had just captured Machienne-au-Pont was ordered to advance on Gosselies and to occupy this city.
Although he had received more than enough warning, Zieten was surprised by the French attack. He ordered a retreat to Fleures at 0430 and dispatched messengers to Blücher and Wellington.
Blücher ordered Zieten to continue to observe the French and to retreat fighting to delay them. Zieten received this order a few minutes after 1100, at the exact moment that the Guard drove him out of Charleroi. He reported that he was under attack by 120,000 French but that he would try to hold Gosselies, Gilly and Fleurus. Blücher answered that Fleurus had to be held because the whole Prussian Army would be concentrating around Sombreffe.
Ney, who had just arrived and reported to Napoleon received command of the left wing on the spot. He received the verbal order to advance on the Charleroi-Brussels road with I and II Corps and the light cavalry of the Guard. It is not sure if Napoleon ordered him at this point to take Quatre-Bras. Grouchy received orders to advance to Sombreffe.
In the meantime, 8,000 Prussians had stopped Pajol's advance at Gilly. Napoleon ordered Vandamme to attack them with a frontal assault and Pajol and Exelmans to attack their flanks. The Emperor then left to ride north and check on Ney's advance.
Ney Stands Before Quatre-Bras
Gosselies felt into French hands at about 1600 when the Prussian garrison retreated to Fleurus.Ney and Lefebvre-Desnoëttes chased a small Allied unit out of Frasnes and followed it until about 2 km of Quatre-Bras. There they meet with elements of Perponcher's infantry division and some artillery. Ney, who had 2,000 cavalry with him at the time did not attack because he thought that he was facing a far superior force. He therefore waited for the rest of his troops to straggle up. At 2000, Ney decided to take the prudent approach and issued orders to go into bivouac for the night.
Meanwhile, Vandamme's attack on Gilly was going on in a very slow pace and without any progress at all. Napoleon rode over to Vandamme's location. As usual, his appearance on the scene helped the situation. The Prussians pulled back and started a delaying action in the direction of Fleurus.
Grouchy initiated a skillful cavalry pursuit that was stopped by Zieten's reserves. Vandamme refused to send his infantry to Grouchy's assistance because he didn't know at that time that Napoleon has issued a verbal order appointing Grouchy as commander of the French right wing. Because of Vandamme's refusal Zieten was able to hold Fleurus until 0500 on the 16th. By nightfall the French right wing also sets up bivouac for the night.
At 2100 on the 15th, Napoleon rode back to his headquarters at Charleroi. Although many things went wrong during that first day, most of his troops are in bivouac in three compact columns near the initial objectives of the day.
During all of 14 June, nothing but unconfirmed messages reached the Duke of Wellington. Partly because of the lack of information coming from Blücher and partly because he was still under the assumption that the French were concentrating near Lille, Wellington concluded that they would attempt to cut his line of communication to the coast. He therefore issued his first orders.
He directed his forces to concentrate west and southwest of Brussels under the cover of a cavalry screen. The corps commanded by the Prince of Orange received the order to concentrate in the Enghien, Soignis, Nivelles region. Lord Hill's corps is ordered to concentrate in the vicinity of the river Dender and Lord Uxbridge's cavalry is ordered to Ninove. The Army Reserve, stationed in Brussels is ordered to prepare to march.
Wellington had made an agreement with Blücher well before the 15th that he would concentrate to the southeast of Brussels in case of a French attack. With this concentration to the west-southwest, he actually increases the distance between his army and Blücher's; thus unwittingly assisting napoleon to defeat them in detail.
Luckily for Wellington, two Dutch-Belgian generals correctly assessed the situation. At about 1400 Constant-Rebecque, the Prince of Orange's chief of staff began concentrating Orange's corps around Quatre-Bras. General Perponcher, one of Orange's division commanders decided that it would be much wiser to defend the strategically important crossroads at Quatre-Bras instead of concentrating near Nivelles as ordered by Wellington. With this act of insubordination he saved Wellington's reputation and Blücher's army because it prevented Ney from taking Quatre-Bras and marching on Blücher the next day.
It was only at about 1500 on 15 June, when the French offensive was already going on for more than 9 hours that Wellington received word of the attacks on the Prussians outposts. At about 1800 his Prussian liaison officer, General Muffling informed him that the attack was not a diversion and that the Prussians were concentrating near Sombreffe. With this information in mind Wellington issued new orders. Leaving a small portion of his army to protect his line of communication to Ostend, he orders the rest to concentrate around Nivelles thus shifting his disposition a little to the south.
Rebecque's report that the French are threatening Quatre-Bras reaches Wellington at the Ball of the Duchess of Richmond in Brussels. At about 0100 on the 16th, the Duke ordered his officers to very discreetly join their troops and start concentrating them at Quatre-Bras.
In the early hours of 15 June it was already clear that some French commanders were not up to their task. Stupid mistakes were made and the lack of initiative of some of them was great. Lucky for the French none of the Allied commanders had even thought of blowing up or of heavily defending the bridges over the river Sambre. If they had, the situation would have been very different.
When the sun went under on 15 June, the French were where they wanted to be that day and the Allies were getting into position. The two battles that would be fought on the next day, 16 June would be of the utmost importance for the rest of the campaign. But on the eve of 15 June 1815, that was still in the future.
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