The Battle of Wavre
By Alfons Libert, FINS
In the afternoon of 18 June 1815, while Napoleon Bonaparte was fighting his last battle on the fields of Waterloo, Marshal Grouchy fought Thielmann's Prussian army corps near the village of Wavre. The day after victory was his, but it meant nothing anymore since his master, the Emperor of the French, was defeated at Waterloo.
The village of Wavre was situated on the north-west bank of the river Dyle with only a small suburb on the east bank. Due to the heavy rains of the last days, crossing the swollen river was only possible over the two stone bridges in Wavre, the "pont du Christ" and the smaller "pont du moulin" further south.
To the south-west of Wavre was the Bierge mill with a wooden bridge and about 2 miles (3,2 km) further was the hamlet of Limale with another wooden bridge and the hamlet of Limelette.
Wavre, 18 June 1815
Grouchy had about 30,000 to 33,000 troops at his disposal, being III and IV Corps, I and II Reserve Cavalry Corps
The Prussian commander, General Thielmann, had his own III Corps of about 15,000 to 18,000 men. His main force occupied Wavre and Bierge while a small flank guard occupied Limale.
On 17 June 1815, on the Ligny battlefield, Napoleon ordered Grouchy to pursue the retreating Prussians. Grouchy's orders were to detect and prohibit any Prussian attempt to join Wellington and cover Napoleon's right flank. Grouchy marched a little before noon on 17 June in the direction of Gembloux. Battered by heavy rains and not knowing exactly were the Prussians where, he did not put great speed in his march.
Grouchy reached Gembloux at about 1900 and halted for the night. At 2000 he reported to Napoleon that the Prussians had split into two columns, one moving to Wavre, the other one probably to Liège. He would follow the major Prussian force to Wavre and cut it off if it attempted to join Wellington.
He started to pursue the Prussians again late in the morning of 18 June but it was too late. Blücher and his chief of staff Gneisenau had already sent their undefeated IV Corps under their best corps commander, General Bülow, to Wellington's aid. Bülow marched at 0400. His orders were to hold his corps under cover at St-Lambert if Wellington was not engaged at the time. If he was engaged Bülow was to attack Napoleon's right flank. Pirch's corps would follow him and Zieten and Thielmann were told to get their corps ready. In the afternoon only Thielmann's corps was still in Wavre, he had however received orders to leave two battalions to act as a rear guard and follow the rest of the Prussian army to Waterloo.
Grouchy, hearing the sound of the guns at Waterloo at about 1130, refused to march to the sound of them when General Gérard urged him too. Grouchy quoted his orders to pursue the Prussians. Gérard then requested permission to march with only his corps to the Emperor's aid but Grouchy refused that too. He told Gérard that it would be a bad decision to split up his forces.
Even if he would have marched to the sound of the guns it would probably have been too late to make a difference on the Waterloo battlefield.
At 1530 he received Soult's message (written that morning) that ordered him to march to Wavre. The Marshal must have been pleased that had not followed Gérard's advice because he now had orders confirming his previous orders to pursue the Prussians and as far as he knew, the Prussians were at Wavre.
The French engaged the Prussians at about 1600. General Vandamme's III Corps quickly pushed aside the Prussian outposts in the eastern suburbs and attacked Wavre from march column, without artillery preparation and proper reconnaissance. The Prussians occupying the two stone bridges were almost immovable but the French momentarily managed to occupy the "pont du Christ" bridge. Being fired upon by the Prussian guns on the higher north-west bank, they were pinned down, unable to advance or withdraw.
Gérard, who had just arrived with his leading division, was ordered to send this division over the Dyle river near the Bierge mill, but due to the wet ground he made little progress. At about 1700 he attacked the bridge at Bierge but with little or no success. Gérard himself was seriously wounded in this fight. A new attack led by Grouchy himself failed too.
Grouchy then changed his plan, he send Pajol's cavalry and Teste's division upriver to Limale. This hamlet was only guarded by a small flank guard which was quickly pushed aside at about 1900 by the French cavalry. Shortly thereafter Limelette was captured too. Two newly arrived divisions of Gérards corps were immediately send to Limale by Grouchy.
Thielman sent a brigade to counter this threat to his flank but Grouchy drove them back at about 2300.
Earlier (around 1900) Grouchy had received Napoleon's order to come closer to cover his right flank against Bülow. But Grouchy couldn't excecute this order immediatly of course since he was in the middle of a fight himself. When the guns at Waterloo silenced later that evening, Grouchy must have presumed that the Emperor had beaten the enemy before him.
By nightfall the French held the hamlets of Limale and Limelette and were in bivouac no more than 500 meters from Bierges but at Wavre the situation was a stalemate.
Unlike Thielmann, who already received word during the night, Grouchy, who was on the morning of 19 June still unaware of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo renewed his attack and forced the Prussians to retreat. By 1000 Grouchy has a victory but a half hour later, at 1030, when a messenger brought the news of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, he realized that his victory was meaningless.
The young Grouchy
French casualties were about 2,600 killed en wounded.
The Prussians lost about 2,500 killed and wounded.
Grouchy was under orders to pursue the Prussians. This is exactly what he did, be it with little success. He was not ordered to come to Waterloo before 1900 on 18 June when he couldn't come anymore. Therefore, in my opinion, he cannot be called a traitor as many (mostly French) people called him after the campaign of the hundred days.
It is however true that he acted with little initiative or speed, unbecoming of a Marshal of France, and that he failed in executing his orders: preventing the Prussians from joining Wellington. As we all now it was the arrival of the Prussians on the Waterloo battlefield that sealed Napoleon's fate.
In my personal opinion, Grouchy simply wasn't the right man for the job, Davout or Soult for instance would have been the right men, but they had been given other duties.
However, Marshal Grouchy proved to be worthy of his Marshal's baton during the next days in the way he led the retreat of his army corps. Read about it in the next chapter.
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