The Battle of Quatre-Bras
By Alfons Libert, FINS
Despite the delays of the previous day, Napoleon found himself in an excellent position on the morning of 16 June 1815. He faced Blucher at Ligny with a more than large enough force and Marshal Ney faced a small Allied force at Quatre-Bras with far superior numbers. Napoleon could have won the campaign that day; however, several things went wrong, as you will find out for yourself here.
The battle was fought around the crossroads of Quatre-Bras, a small hamlet with only four houses. This crossroads marked the junction between the Charleroi-Brussels Road and the Nivelles-Namur Road.
To the south-west of the junction was the Bossu wood. South of the wood were the farms Petit-and Grand-Pierrepoint. South of the crossroads the ground fell away to the Gemioncourt farm, which lay next to a small stream in the valley. The ground then rose again to the south.
South-east of Quatre-Bras, on the Namur Road, was the hamlet of Paradis (also called Thyle of which it was a part). South-west of that was the hamlet of Piraumont and further south, the Hutte wood. North of Quatre-Bras the ground dropped into a reverse slope.
Quatre-Bras, 16 June 1815
On the morning of the 16th, Marshal Ney deployed several units of Reille's II Corps and the Guard Light Cavalry Division, commanded by Lefebvre-Desnoëttes. D'Erlon's I Corps would join him later. Ney was informed that Kellerman's III Reserve Cavalry Corps would be sent to replace the Guard Light Cavalry, which had received orders to join the Imperial Guard in the vicinity of Fleurus.
The only Allied force at Quatre-Bras on the morning of the 16th was Perponcher's 2nd Dutch-Belgian Infantry Division, which belonged to the Prince of Orange's I Army Corps. Perponcher, a former commander under Napoleon and close to the scene of action, immediately realized the strategic importance of the crossroads at Quatre Bras and ordered his division there instead of to Nivelles, as ordered by Wellington. (See chapter two) Perponcher's presence at Quatre-Bras undoubtedly saved the day for the Allies. His decisiveness coupled with Ney's indecisiveness caused Napoleon's plan to go awry.
Perponcher deployed as follows: four units to the right of Quatre-Bras, two on the Charleroi-Brussels Road at Gemioncourt to block that road, and three in reserve near the crossroads. Light troops occupied Piramont and the Pierrepoint farm. Orange hoped that the woods and the fields full of tall rye and corn would conceal the weakness of his force.
At about midnight 15/16 June, Napoleon and Ney met at the Imperial headquarters at Charleroi. Following a long discussion with the Emperor, Ney rode back to his headquarters.
Early in the morning of the 16th, at about 0600, Napoleon had Soult dispatch orders to Ney and Grouchy, his wing commanders. Grouchy was ordered to advance in the direction of Sombreffe and Gembloux and engage the Prussians he might find there. Later he was to send part of his force to the assistance of Ney should this be necessary. Ney was ordered to occupy the Quatre-Bras area and had to hold himself ready for an immediate advance up the Brussels road once the reserve reached him.
This order arrived well before 1100 but it was not until 1400 that Ney took any action to occupy the area. It is unbelievable but it seems that he even neglected to warn II Corps (Reille) to prepare for an early morning advance. In addition, he neglected to order I Corps (d'Erlon) to move closer to II Corps after returning from his late meeting with Napoleon.
Some authorities say that Reille, a veteran of the Peninsular War, advised Ney to be cautious. Reille, who knew British tactics, feared that the Allied strength would lie concealed in the woods, the cornfields and the reverse slope to the north. Other authorities say that Ney was no longer capable of such an important command and that he no longer knew what he was doing.
Whatever the case, he waited for new troops to arrive until, finally, at 1400, he felt he had sufficient strength to force the crossroads. He had wasted 6 precious hours. During the entire morning, Ney had a 6 to 1 numerical advantage over Perponcher and Orange. A decisive French attack then would have made the day but it never materialized.
At 1400, Napoleon instructed Soult to send a message to Ney, informing him that he (Napoleon) would attack Blucher at 1430. Ney was to vigorously attack any enemy in front of him, drive him back and then turn and attack Blucher's right flank. However, if Napoleon should defeat the Prussians first, he would turn to attack the left flank of the enemy facing Ney.
At 1515, Soult sent another message to Ney telling him that "the fate of France is in your hands" and that he was to attack the Prussians on the Brye heights and in St-Amands without any delay.
At about 1400, Bachelu's division advanced to attack the Piraumont farm and Foy advanced in the center, supported by Piré's lancers.
The attack began very slowly and very cautiously because of Reille's fear of running into strong, concealed Allied forces. Before 1500, Gemioncourt and Piraumont were in French hands. In the Bossu wood and at Pierrepoint farm the Dutch-Belgians offered a stiff resistance but had to fall back under the French pressure. They managed, however, to hold the wood.
Perponcher's line was about to crack under the combined attacks of three French divisions when, at about 1500, the first of much needed reinforcements, Picton's division and Merlen's Dutch-Belgian cavalry, arrived. Wellington arrived at about the same time, immediately took command and deployed Picton and Merlen on the left flank.
Shortly after 1500, the French formed a line between Pierrepoint through Gemioncourt to Piraumont.
A cavalry counterattack at 1530, led by the Prince of Orange, was driven back with heavy casualties. At about this time the Duke of Brunswick and his Brunswick contingent arrived to reinforce the Allies.
At 1600, Ney received Napoleon's order, which had been dispatched at 1400, to vigorously attack the enemy in front and come to his assistance at Ligny. Up until this moment, Ney had not appreciated the importance of capturing the crossroads. He sent an aide to I Corps (d'Erlon) to hasten its advance and launched II Corps (Reille) again in a renewed attack. The newly arrived division of Jérôme Bonaparte was to clear the Bossu wood and the eastern outskirts. Foy would attack Quatre-Bras and Bachelu would assault up the Namur road.
D'Erlon's I Corps, however, was by this time marching away from, not toward, Quatre-Bras. D'Erlon, who was proceeding northward on the Brussels Road from Gossilies, was overtaken near Frasnes by a staff officer who, according to d'Erlon, had written orders for d'Erlon to take his corps to Napoleon's assistance at Ligny. There are several versions of this meeting between I Corps and the unknown staff officer (see further down in this text): although d'Erlon insisted there was a written order from the Emperor to change his direction of march, such a document, if it existed, has never been found. Napoleon said that he knew nothing about such an order. Some authorities assume that a well-meaning staff officer who knew Napoleon's plan saw d'Erlon's unemployed corps and took it upon himself to redirect it to Ligny. Some authorities also propose that this same officer may have scribbled the "Imperial order" himself, which would explain why d'Erlon had seen a written order that the Emperor claimed had never been written.
When Ney learned that his much-needed I Corps was marching away, he lost his temper. A few minutes later, Colonel Forbin-Janson, an Imperial aid, arrived with Napoleon's 1515 message. The colonel told him to attack Quatre-Bras at once. The furious Marshall took out his anger on the poor colonel, who was so shocked by this undeserved treatment that he forgot to hand over the written message. Therefore, it wasn't until later that evening, when it was too late, that Ney would receive the message that would have made things clear to him earlier in the day.
Meanwhile, at about 1615 at Quatre-Bras, the French, supported by Piré's light cavalry, advanced almost to the crossroads.
The British 42nd, 44th and 92nd regiments held their ground despite heavy casualties and repelled the French advance. Then Piré's lancers charged the British infantry and severely mauled the 42nd and 44th regiments before they were driven off.
Jérôme Bonaparte was more successful. Many of Perponcher's men were driven out of the Bossu wood and the Brunswick contingent, sent to assist Perponcher, was routed during their advance south from Quatre-Bras.
At about this moment a British brigade under Halket, a Hanoverian brigade under Kielmansegge and the Nassau contingent arrived and were immediately deployed to support the hard-pressed Allied line. With these new troops Wellington now had a numerical advantage.
Kellerman, who had arrived with only his forward brigade, received the order to charge Wellington's center to "overthrow the mass of the Allied infantry." Kellerman was astounded. A cavalry charge without infantry support against formed enemy infantry was suicide and would certainly lead to the destruction of his brigade. He asked Ney to confirm the order. Ney replied by saying "Go, but go then!"
Infuriated by this insane order, Kellerman charged with his cuirassiers and against all odds succeeded. They decimated the 69th Regiment, routed the 33rd Regiment and found themselves in possession of the crossroads. However, without infantry support and being fired upon by a concealed battery at almost point-blank range and two British regiments, Kellerman had to give up his hard-won prize and return to the French lines. During the retreat, Kellerman's horse was killed and he barely escaped capture by clinging onto the bits of two cuirassier's horses.
By this time, Jérôme had cleared the Bossu wood and already had skirmishers west of Quatre-Bras, but after the arrival of Cooke's British 1st Infantry Division of the Guard, which suffered heavy losses at Quatre-Bras, Wellington counterattacked. Jérôme's advance was stopped and the French were driven from the Bossu wood.
The Allies re-took Gemioncourt and, before the fighting ended at 2100, drove the French all the way back to their starting positions. The battle resulted in a stalemate.
D'Erlon's I Corps
D'Erlons Corps was probably the key to victory. This corps, which could have sealed the fate of the Allies at Quatre-Bras or the Prussians at Ligny, was wasted by marching and countermarching all day between the two battles and contributing to neither. This is what supposedly happened:
At 1515, Soult sent a message to Ney telling him that the fate of France was in his hands and that he was to attack the Prussians on the Brye heights and in St-Amands without delay.
At about the same time that the 1515 message left Imperial headquarters, Napoleon received word that Ney had engaged an Allied force of 20,000 at Quatre-Bras and; therefore, had his own battle to fight. Realizing that Ney could not join him, Napoleon, according to some sources, scribbled a note to Ney telling him to send only d'Erlon's I Corps.
Some historians assert that the aide-de-camp who delivered the note was never definitely identified but most name General Count de la Bédoyère. This Imperial aide-de-camp gave the order directly to d'Erlon's leading division as he was passing through the corps on his way to Marshal Ney.
Other historians claimed that Napoleon knew nothing of this note. Their version of the incident is as follows: while riding to deliver an order from the Emperor to Ney, de la Bédoyère discovered I Corps marching toward Quatre-Bras. Knowing the Emperor's battle plan and that d'Erlon's corps was needed at Ligny, he hastily wrote the note in the Emperor's name. Since the document did not survive the action this cannot be verified.
Ney was furious when he saw one of his corps marching away from the battle and sent an order for it to turn around immediately and join him. At approximately 1830, d'Erlon turned his corps around again to march back it to Quatre-Bras. However, he detached Jacquinot's cavalry and Durutte's infantry divisions to continue marching to Napoleon's assistance at Ligny. He warned them "to act with great prudence" which they did because they never arrived in time. He also failed to notify the Emperor of this detachment. D'Erlon, with the rest of his corps, finally arrived at Quatre-Bras at 2100, after the battle had ended. It had taken d'Erlon approximately two and one-half hours to cover the 3,2 km (2-mile) distance to Quatre-Bras!
French loses were approximately 4,300 killed and wounded. Allied loses were approximately 4,800 killed and wounded, including the Duke of Brunswick, who died at the head of his troops.
The campaign could have ended on 16 June. If only Ney had been more active on the morning of the 16th and d'Erlons corps had made a contribution to either battle, the events of the next two days would have been very different.
I Corps would have made a difference at either battlefield. At Ligny, an envelopment of the Prussians with d'Erlons Corps would probably have meant the destruction of the greatest part of the Prussian Army. Instead, as you will see in Section 4, "The Battle of Ligny," a good portion of the Prussian Army engaged at Ligny escaped destruction.
At Quatre-Bras, a victory and a skillful pursuit would have sent the Allies running to Brussels instead of giving them the chance to reform themselves at Mont-St-Jean.
Read in the next section, "The Battle of Ligny," how the Emperor himself fared at Ligny.
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