The Left Wing: Marshal Michel Ney, prince de La Moskowa

The Corps Commander: General de Division Drouet, comte d’Erlon

The Initial Advance: I Corps marches towards Quatre Bras

‘You will save France’: I Corps is diverted to Ligny

‘They are enemies!’: Vandamme’s III Corps wavers at Ligny

‘A most perilous situation’: I Corps marches back to Quatre-Bras

Assessing d’Erlon’s responsibility

The Key to Victory: General d’Erlon’s I Corps, 16 June 1815

By Stephen Millar

“D’Erlon, as we have seen, actually arrived close on the field of Ligny, halted for a short time, and then, leaving Durutte’s division of infantry and Jacquinot’s brigade of horse on the right flank of the Prussians, led the bulk of his corps back to Frasnes in obedience to Ney’s order. Hence, he was totally useless, either to Ney or Napoleon, as if he had remained at Jumet. ‘Twenty thousand men and forty-six guns,’ says an able French author, ‘had been led about, from mid-day until nine in the evening, between two battle-fields, distant six miles from each other, without taking part in either.’ Their timely presence at Quatre Bras would have placed Wellington in an extremity of peril, while their actions on the right flank of the Prussians would have destroyed Blucher. So reason the military critics; but while we may know what has been, speculations on what would or might have been, had something happened which did not happen, are seldom among the fruitful pages of history. Nevertheless the cause of d’Erlon’s movement is a fair subject of inquiry; for, undoubtedly, his promenade from Jumet to Villers Perwin, and from Villers Perwin to Quatre Bras, was a misfortune for the French and a piece of good luck for the Allies.”

-- George Hooper, Waterloo, the Downfall of the First Napoleon: A History of the Campaign of 1815, 1862.

“If comte d’Erlon had executed the movement upon St. Amand which the Emperor had ordered, the Prussian army would have been totally destroyed and we would have taken, perhaps, 30,000 prisoners.”

-- Marshal Nicholas Soult, Napoleon’s chief-of-staff, in a dispatch dated 17 June 1815[1]

Although it was uncommon, the success, or failure, of an entire Napoleonic campaign sometimes depended on the actions or decisions of a single general officer.

An example of this occurred at the Battle of Marengo on the afternoon of 14 June 1800, when the combined attack of General de Division Desaix and General de Division Boudet against the advancing Austrians had ground to a halt. As the outcome of the battle and the campaign hung in the balance, General de Brigade Francois-Etienne Kellerman’s heavy cavalry charged the Austrian left flank, forcing 2,000 Austrian soldiers to surrender.[2] With French morale restored, Napoleon launched his final, successful attack, driving the Austrians back to their starting positions. Faced with this defeat, the Austrians agreed to the Armistice of Alessandria the next day, ending Napoleon’s Second Italian Campaign.[3]

It also happened on 14 October 1806, when General der Kavallerie Friedrich von Kalckreuth refused to use his two Prussian reserve divisions to defeat Marshal Louis-Nicholas Davout’s III Corps at the Battle of Auerstadt. The opportunity to ‘cancel out’ Napoleon’s same-day victory over General der Infanterie Friedrich zu Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen at Jena was allowed to pass; Prussia, largely succumbing to defeatism, was subsequently occupied by Napoleon.

Military historians have often speculated if this could have occurred in the 1815 Waterloo Campaign. Was there a single French general officer who could have completely changed the outcome of Napoleon’s final campaign?

The Left Wing: Marshal Michel Ney, prince de La Moskowa

The obvious candidate is Marshal Michel Ney, duc d’Elchingen and prince de La Moskowa – the commander of the left wing of the Armee du Nord.[4] It was Ney who failed to use his superior strength on the morning of 16 June to secure the vital crossroads of Quatre Bras.

The ‘Bulletin of the Army’ for 20 June 1815 – the first official French account of the campaign – inaccurately describes the Battle of Quatre-Bras four days before as a successful ‘holding action’:

“On the left, Marshal Ney marched on Quatre Bras with a division which had fallen on an English division which was placed there, But, attacked by the Prince of Orange with 25,000 men, part English, part Hanovrians in the pay of England, he pulled back on his position at Frasnes. There he engaged in multiple combats; the enemy endeavored to force it, but in vain, the Duke of Elchingen awaited 1st Corps, which arrived in the night; he restricted himself to hold his position.”[5]

In truth, Ney’s inaction at Frasnes that morning – and his defeat by Field-Marshal Sir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, later that same day at Quatre Bras – was an almost fatal setback for Napoleon’s plans for the campaign.

According to Colonel Pierre-Agathe Heymes, Ney’s aide-de-camp, the marshal had Bachelu’s 5th Infantry Division and Pire’s 2nd  Cavalry Division from Reille’s II Corps available at 0800, along with Lefebvre-DesnoettesImperial Guard Light Cavalry Division.[6] These forces made no attempt to force the crossroads; however, Bachelu’s chief-of-staff, Colonel Trefcon, later said his division moved off in the early morning, but was unable to get into position until several hours later:

“At eight o’clock we received orders to march upon Quatre-Bras. We directed ourselves at that point, but through some wrong maneuvers, we were not at our final positions towards noon.”[7]

The fact remains, however, that until 1500 on 16 June, the only Allied troops opposing the French left wing at Quatre-Bras were the 7,900 men and 16 guns of Perponcher’s 2nd Netherlands Division.[8] It was not until Napoleon’s orders – and a third message from Napoleon’s chief-of-staff, Marshal Soult – reached Frasnes at 1100 that Ney issued orders for I and II Corps to move to Quatre-Bras.[9] Ney replied to Soult’s message, saying:

“All the intelligence tells that there are about 3,000 enemy infantry at Quatre Bras and that there is not much cavalry. I think that the dispositions of the Emperor for the later march on Brussels will be executed without great obstacles.”[10]

After Foy’s 9th Infantry Division arrived at Frasnes about 0945, Ney possessed 8,891 infantry, 1,850 cavalry and 22 guns.[11] Prince Jerome’s 6th Infantry Division, which had still been clearing Gosselies at 1300, arrived after the fighting began.[12] The marshal has been greatly criticized for keeping these troops inactive:

“He then [in the morning] had two infantry divisions, and a cavalry corps within striking distance of Quatre Bras, which at the moment was held by one Dutch-Belgian division, one brigade of which had already been roughly handled! The French had probably never been nearer victory and yet so far from it, as when Ney hesitated south of Frasnes. Every moment’s delay gave the Allies time to concentrate whereas an immediate attack would have found them completely unprepared. Ney, however, waited.”[13]

When the French began their attack in the early afternoon, it started late and was badly coordinated; Perponcher’s infantry grimly held onto Quatre-Bras. Then at 1500, Picton’s 5th Division – the first in a steady stream of reinforcements to bolster the Allied line.[14]

During the course of the fighting, Ney received a series of dispatches from Napoleon’s General Headquarters at Fleurus. Contemporary accounts conflict over the details of which aide-de-camp carried which original (or copied) dispatch, but it appears that two distinct orders arrived. The first message, delivered between 1600 and 1615, was Soult’s 1400 written order, saying “…it is the intention of His Majesty that you will also attack what is in front of you, and that you, after having repulsed it vigorously, fall back on us in order to surround the [Prussian] corps I just mentioned to you…”[15] The second message was Soult’s written order of 1515, saying“…His Majesty gives me the responsibility to say to you that you must maneuver at once so as to envelop the right of the enemy and fall quickly on his rear; this army is lost if you act vigorously; fate of France is in your hands…”[16]

The aides-de-camp who delivered these orders from General Headquarters included Colonel de Forbin-Janson, Major Marie-Elie-Georges-Eleazard Baudus (later wounded at Waterloo) and General de Brigade Charles de La Bedoyere [see below].

Sufficiently reinforced by early evening, the Duke of Wellington – who took over command after the battle had commenced – went over to the offensive at 1830. By the time the fighting had ended at 2100, Ney’s outnumbered troops had been driven back to their initial positions in front of Frasnes.

Had Ney seized the initiative and secured the crossroads earlier that morning, it would have had greatly altered the course of the next two days. But a French victory against Wellington at Quatre Bras would have required the presence of both Reille’s II Corps and d’Erlon’s I Corps. Any chance of a victory at Quatre Bras – or, as events subsequently showed, a decisive victory over Generalfeldmarschall Gebhard-Leiberecht von Blucher’s Prussian army at Ligny – depended entirely on the timely arrival of I Corps. Therefore, it was actually the actions of d’Erlon on 16 June, which would determine the outcome of the Waterloo Campaign.

The unusual course of events surrounding I Corps’ movements on this day are well known:

“The 1st Corps (d’Erlon) had been delayed, and when its leading division under Durutte reached Frasnes shortly after 4 pm, it was directed by one of the Emperor’s staff officers, who was carrying a message to Ney, to march on Brye. Durutte consequently turned to his right, and was followed by the remainder of the Corps. When Ney heard what had happened, he ordered d’Erlon to return, with the result that the 1st Corps marched back, reaching Frasnes about 9 pm. It is consequently apparent that the services of 20,000 men had been wasted during the day. The loss entailed by this marching and counter-marching may be judged from the fact that the head of the column had reached Frasnes about 4 pm. Frasnes was only 2.5 miles from Quatre Bras.”[17]

D’Erlon’s two critical actions that day – his failure to bring I Corps into action either at Quatre-Bras or at Ligny – occurred within three hours of each other. Had he accomplished either one, Napoleon would have probably avoided a defeat in the Waterloo Campaign – despite Ney’s earlier inactivity at Frasnes.

The Corps Commander: General de Division Drouet, comte d’Erlon

Jean-Baptiste Drouet (born Rheims 29 July 1765 – died Paris 25 January 1844) began his military career on 21 October 1782, with the Regiment Beaujolais. He left the regiment in 1787, but re-enlisted with a Rheims battalion on 7 August 1792, reaching the rank of general de brigade on 25 July 1799 as a divisional chief-of-staff with the l’Armee du Danube et d’Helvetie.

Promoted to the rank of General de Division on 27 August 1803, Drouet later fought at the battles of Austerlitz, Jena and Friedland (where he was wounded). Created comte d’Erlon on 28 January 1809, he later gained extensive experience in Spain as a corps commander. D’Erlon’s final battles of the First Empire were against Wellington at Orthiez (27 February 1814) and Toulouse (10 April).

D’Erlon rallied to the Bourbons during the First Restoration and was made commandant of the 16th Military Division at Lille. King Louis XVIII awarded d’Erlon the Order of St. Louis on 2 June 1814.

Nevertheless, d’Erlon joined Napoleon during the Hundred Days and was given command of I Corps in the Armee du Nord on 6 April 1815. General de Brigade Victor-Joseph Delcambre, baron de Champvert (born Douai 10 March 1770 – died Paris 23 October 1858), was appointed to be d’Erlon’s chief-of-staff .[18]

I Corps consisted of 20,000 men in five divisions: the 1st Infantry Division, commanded by General de Brigade Joachim-Jerome Quiot, baron du Passage; the 2nd Infantry Division, commanded by General de Division Francois-Xavier, baron Donzelot; the 3rd Infantry Division, commanded by General de Division Pierre-Louis Binet, baron de Marcognet; the 4th Infantry Division, commanded by General de Division Joseph-Francois, comte Durutte; the 1st Cavalry Division, commanded by General de Division Charles-Claude, baron Jacquinot. In addition, 1st Corps had five foot artillery batteries and one horse artillery battery (a total of 46 guns) under the command of General de Brigade Jean-Charles Desales and five companies of the 1st Engineer Regiment commanded by General de Brigade Marie-Theodore-Urbain, baron Garbe.

On 2 June, just prior to the beginning of the Waterloo Campaign, Napoleon raised d’Erlon to the Imperial peerage.[19]

When Ney joined the Armee du Nord on 15 June, Napoleon gave him command of its left wing – composed of I Corps, General de Division Honore-Charles-Michel-Joseph, comte Reille’s II Corps, and General de Division Kellermann’s III Cavalry Corps. Although the Emperor’s initial plan for a march on Brussels the next day was subsequently altered (after a Prussian infantry corps was discovered at Ligny), Ney’s initial primary objective remained: advance and secure the cross-roads at Quatre Bras.

The Initial Advance: I Corps marches towards Quatre Bras

The disposition of I Corps during the night of 15/16 June was as follows: Durutte’s division between Gosselies and Jumet; Donzelot’s division in front of Jumet; Marcognet’s division at Marchienne-au-Pont; Quiot’s division at Thuin. Jacquinot had one cavalry brigade at Solre-sur-Sambre; d’Erlon was in Jumet with Jacquinot’s second cavalry brigade.

Napoleon’s 0830 orders for the left wing were delivered to Ney at Frasnes by General de Division Charles-Auguste-Joseph, comte Flahaut de la Billarderie about 1100.[20] These orders, in which the Emperor anticipated a French advance on Brussels, read in part:

“…You should dispose of your troops in the following manner: the first division, two miles in front of Quatre-Chemins, if it is not disadvantageous; six divisions of infantry around Quatre-Chemins, and a division at Marbais, so that I can bring it to me at Sombreffe if I need it; it would not delay your march besides; corps of count of Valmy, which has 3,000 elite cuirassiers, at the intersection of the Roman Way and of that of Brussels, so that I can bring it with me if I need some, as soon as my decision is made, you will send the order to him to come join you. I wish to have with me the division of the Guard commanded by General Lefebvre-Desnoettes, and I send to you two divisions of the corps of the count de Valmy [Kellermann] to replace it…I [have] adopted this general principle during this campaign: to divide my army into two wings and a reserve. Your wing will be made up of four divisions of the 1st corps, of four divisions of the 2nd corps, two divisions of light cavalry and two divisions of the corps of the count de Valmy. That should not be far from 45 to 50,000 men...”[21]

About an hour later, d’Erlon received his instructions from Ney. Conforming with the Emperor’s instructions, Durutte, Marcognet and Donzelot were to advance to Frasnes; Quiot was to place his division at Marbais; the infantry’s advance was to be covered by Jacquinot’s light cavalry.[22]

Several factors now contributed to delay I Corps’ advance towards Quatre Bras, not least of which was the immense congestion created by almost 50,000 men on the single main road. Units from Reille’s II Corps were still moving through Gosselies at 1300, forcing I Corps’ leading division (Durutte) to halt:

“Ney’s orders to move on Frasnes [2.5 miles south of Quatre Bras] arrived at midday, but owing to Reille’s corps moving to their appointed position, d’Erlon was obliged to wait until these troops had cleared the road. At the commencement of the Battle of Quatre Bras, d’Erlon had only reached Gosselies.”[23]

At Gosselies, d’Erlon halted I Corps and sent out a reconnaissance patrol to check out a false report of enemy troops; this delayed his advance from the town until 1430 or 1500.

‘You will save France’: I Corps is diverted to Ligny

About 1600, D’Erlon and Delcambre had ridden ahead of Durutte’s division, with the  intention to meet Ney at Frasnes and inform him of I Corps imminent arrival. D’Erlon’s news would be crucial for Ney, because the marshal has just received orders from Soult, written at Fleurus at 1400 [see above]. Ney’s mission was to force the enemy back at Quatre-Bras, then advance along the Namur road and assault the Prussian right flank in the area around Brye. However, these orders would be impossible to complete without the arrival of the 20,000 men of I Corps.

Half an hour later, when Durutte’s 4th Infantry Division had advanced about seven kilometres north of Gossilies, it was intercepted on the Brussels road by one of Napoleon’s aides-de-camp. This officer was carrying

“…the famous penciled note ordering the whole corps to change direction and march on Lignin…The ADC who delivered these instructions convinced d’Erlon’s divisional commanders that the orders came directly from the Emperor himself, and forthwith the whole corps changed direction towards Viler Erwin. The bearer of the message now galloped after d’Erlon himself who was nearing Fronses, and upon catching up with him showed him the note and informed him that his corps was moving towards Ligny.”[24]

The identity of this General Headquarters officer has never been definitively established, but “d’Erlon himself says that it was [General de Brigade] La Bedoyere, one of Napoleon’s favorite ADCs, who delivered the message, and if anyone could recognize a member of the Emperor’s staff it was d’Erlon.”[25] Other sources say it was a colonel named Laurent or Colonel de Forbin-Janson, both of whom were aides-de-camp at Napoleon’s General Headquarters. It is also known that these officers carried orders from Soult to Ney between 1515 and 1530 on 16 June.[26]

General de Brigade Charles-Angelique-Francois Huchet, comte de La Bedoyere (born Paris 17 April 1786 – executed Paris 19 August 1815) was an officer who had held several staff and command positions during the First Empire. He had been an aide-de-camp to Marshal Jean Lannes and Prince Eugene de Beauharnais as well as later commanding the 112th Line Regiment. He had rallied to Napoleon in 1815 as colonel of the 7th Line Regiment; Napoleon rewarded him with the rank of General de Brigade (26 March) as well as raising La Bedoyere to the Imperial peerage (4 June).[27]

If La Bedoyere was indeed the mystery aide-de-camp, he would have probably been carrying a copy of Soult’s 1515 order (sent from Fleurus at 1530). As for the ‘penciled note,’ La Bedoyere must have forged the document himself, probably in a misguided attempt to expedite Soult’s order.

British historian William Siborne disagrees about the officer’s identity, saying it was Colonel Laurent who was actually responsible for sending I Corps to Ligny:

“The movements of d’Erlon’s corps admits of being satisfactorily explained. Napoleon, having received information that d’Erlon had been left in reserve in front of Gossilies, and inferring, perhaps, from this circumstance that Ney was sufficiently strong to be able to hold his ground at Quatre Bras, without further aid than what he had at hand, resolved upon employing this corps upon the Prussian right flank; but in the meantime, d’Erlon had, in pursuance of instructions from Ney, continued his march towards Quatre Bras; and having himself preceded in advance, had reached Frasnes, at which place Colonel Laurent found him, and communicated to him the Emperor’s order for the march of his corps upon St. Amand; adding that on coming up with the head of his column, he had taken upon himself to change its direction of march into that of St. Amand.”[28]

According to I Corps artillery commander General de Brigade Desales – who recalled the contents from memory – the 1545 note, addressed to d’Erlon and signed by Napoleon at Fleurus, read:

“The enemy lowers his head into the trap that I intended for him. Bring at once your four divisions of infantry, your division of cavalry, all your artillery, and two divisions of heavy cavalry which I place at your disposal; carry you, I say, with all these forces the height of Saint-Amand and…Ligny. Comte d’Erlon, you will save France and will cover yourself with glory.”[29]

In contrast to d’Erlon’s statement, Desales said the aide-de-camp who delivered this message was a member of the Imperial Guard (La Bedoyere was a line officer).

The divisional commanders in the vanguard of I Corps, Durutte and Jacquinot, were highly experienced officers; Durutte had fought through both the Russian and Leipzig campaigns, Jacquinot (another veteran of Russia) was almost killed at the Battle of Dennewitz in 1813.[30] While neither general would have completely disregarded La Bedoyere’s orders, it is important to note that they did not call an immediate halt and wait for further instructions from their corps commander, located about half an hour away. Not a single general officer thought La Bedoyere’s order was anything less than genuine; the note, however, was not recorded at Napoleon’s General Headquarters nor did it survive the Waterloo Campaign:

“The mystery of the penciled note that Napoleon was supposed to have sent to Marshal Ney, after sending the…3:15 pm. dispatch, in which the Emperor ordered Ney to send d’Erlon’s I Corps across to Ligny has puzzled historians, and caused endless speculation. Napoleon himself never mentioned any such written communication, either penciled by himself which, given the state of his handwriting, would have been almost illegible, or that he dictated the same to one of his ADCs. If Napoleon had just received information that Ney was heavily engaged at Quatre-Bras, then he would not have deprived him of a whole army corps. How and who actually ordered d’Erlon’s divisions to march on Ligny remains one of the enigmas of this campaign.”[32]

La Bedoyere then informed d’Erlon he would ride ahead to Ney and inform the marshal about Napoleon’s order, but he never arrived. It is at this moment that d’Erlon is given the first of two opportunities to change the outcome of the Waterloo Campaign:

“D'Erlon’s 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.”[33]

Although the 4th Infantry Division had already turned off towards Ligny, d’Erlon’s remaining three infantry divisions were still moving up the Brussels road (it should be noted that one of the 1st Division’s staff officers later wrote that the division’s baggage-column never lost visual contact with its parent unit nor did it leave the Brussels road).[34] It appears there was sufficient time for d’Erlon to ride south, intercept at least two of his divisions and personally countermand La Bedoyere’s order; those divisions which had already off the Brussels road could be ordered to turn back towards Quatre Bras, bringing up the rear of I Corps.

Although such an action by d’Erlon might well have created additional confusion for his divisional commanders, in hindsight, it would have been worth the risk. Under those circumstances, I Corps’ 20,000 men and 46 guns would have reached Quatre Bras in time to engage Wellington’s Allied army:

“… had Durutte’s division and the divisions following it been pushed forward [to Quatre Bras] they would have reached the scene of action before Wellington’s reinforcements had turned the scale in favor of the Allies.”[35]

But d’Erlon, believing he was acting on Napoleon’s direct command – and having no information about the desperate struggle raging at Quatre Bras – decided to accept his new orders. He sent Delcambre ahead to inform Ney of the change of advance and then rode off in the direction of Villers-Perwin to find Durutte’s 4th Infantry Division.

Historically, the damage done to the Napoleon’s campaign by La Bedoyere’s actions was immense:

“I Corps would have made a difference at either battlefield…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.”[36]

Not only did the absence of I Corps rob Ney of any chance of defeating Wellington at Quatre Bras, I Corps’ unexpected appearance during the final stage of the Battle of Ligny nearly caused the morale of General de Division Vandamme’s III Corps to break.[37] D’Erlon, however, would soon be given a second chance to change the outcome of the Waterloo Campaign – this time by helping Napoleon to inflict a decisive victory over the Prussian regiments of Blucher’s Army of the Lower Rhine.

 ‘They are enemies!’: Vandamme’s III Corps wavers at Ligny

After turning off the Brussels road at 1630, Jacquinot’s and Durutte’s divisions advanced to a point northwest of Villers-Perwin. These unknown units were then observed by troops of Vandamme’s III Corps about an hour later – advancing directly towards the rear of the corps’ left flank. The result was predictable:

“At just after 5 pm, seeing the depletion of the Prussian reserves, and having kept an adequate mass of decision in hand for just such an eventuality, Napoleon now ordered the Imperial Guard, together with the cuirassier division [actually the IV Cavalry Corps] of General [de Division Edouard-Jean-Baptiste, comte] Milhaud to break the Prussian centre. While these formations were making their way forward, General Vandamme galloped across from the left wing bringing news that a massive enemy column was marching on Fleurus, and only some three miles away with the intent, it seemed, of turning the French left…Vandamme was convinced that part of Wellington’s army had come across to succor the Prussians, and when an officer from his staff who had been sent to identify this new development came riding back shouting, ‘they are enemies, they are enemies!’ the panic caused soon spread along the ranks like wild-fire. General [de Division Etienne-Nicolas, baron] Lefol’s division broke back in panic and [General de Division Jean-Baptiste, baron] Girard’s division (now commanded by Colonel Matis, the two other generals of brigade being wounded) was forced to abandon St.-Amand la Haye to meet the threat of a flank attack. Lefol turned his cannon on his own men to stop them fleeing the field.”[38]

Napoleon, expecting any reinforcements from Ney to be advancing down the Namur road towards Brye (and not towards the rear-area of III Corps), had little choice but to suspend the Imperial Guard’s preparations for the final attack on Blucher’s battered center. He also moved the eight battalions of General de Division Philbert-Guillaume, comte Duhesme’s Young Guard Division and General de Division Jacques-Gervais, baron Subervie’s 5th Cavalry Division to the left wing to bolster the wavering III Corps. An aide-de-camp was then sent out to determine the identity of the advancing column.

He returned at 1830 to report the column was composed of French troops. As the column was later observed to be retiring towards the west, away from Vandamme’s sector, the Imperial Guard’s preparations were resumed. The French assault against the Prussian centre was launched about 1945.

In order to be objective about d’Erlon’s actions between 1830 and 1930, it must be noted that Napoleon himself contributed to d’Erlon’s dilemma by not taking full advantage of I Corps’ unexpected arrival. It would have made d’Erlon’s decision much easier had Napoleon’s aide-de-camp given him a verbal order to attack Blucher’s right-flank:

“Napoleon, even in the opinion of Jomini, his admirer, is held to have committed a ‘manifest fault’ in neglecting to send a positive order to d’Erlon – who, ‘by the happy error of an aide-de-camp,’ had arrived so opportunely – to march at once upon Brye.”[39]

It is possible that Napoleon had falsely concluded that as I Corps had arrived, d’Erlon was acting under Soult’s previous orders and already knew his corps was expected to assault the Prussian right flank. Nevertheless, Napoleon’s surprise at d’Erlon’s arrival from the wrong direction clearly shows he had not given La Bedoyere any penciled order written at 1545.

The complete details of La Bedoyere’s role in diverting I Corps to Ligny may never be known; he was executed for treason by King Louis XVIII’s new government in Paris soon after Waterloo (19 August 1815).

‘A most perilous situation’: I Corps marches back to Quatre-Bras

Ney was probably informed of I Corps’ new line of march by Delcambre sometime before 1730. The meeting with the marshal must have been an unpleasant experience for Delcambre; unable to secure the crossroads as ordered, Ney had been expecting the arrival of the 20,000 men of I Corps. Now, the marshal was being told – after the fact – that his hoped-for reinforcements were marching towards Ligny.

Although most historians agree on what subsequently occurred at this meeting, two separate versions might be possible: that Ney did, or did not, give Delcambre explicit instructions to recall I Corps. The commonly accepted version of events (which is also corroborated by d’Erlon) is that the corps commander returned to Quatre Bras as the result of a direct order from Ney:

“Then, in one of the costliest blunders of the campaign, Ney sent Delcambre back to d'Erlon with express orders to disregard Napoleon's command and come to Quatre Bras immediately. Ney's peremptory directive reached d'Erlon just as his corps was on the outskirts of the Ligny battlefield. The general was confused, torn between two conflicting sets of orders. He decided to turn back to Quatre Bras, because, he explained later, "I felt for the marshal to recall me in spite of Napoleon's wishes, he must have been in a most perilous situation.”[40]

Siborne also accepts d’Erlon’s account of these events:

“All at once this column was observed to halt, to indicate an indecision in its intentions, and finally withdraw from the field. D’Erlon had in fact just received from Ney a peremptory order to join him without delay, with which he was resolved to comply, probably concluding that he was bound to do so from the circumstances of his having been in the first instance placed under the marshal’s immediate command; having ascertained also from the Emperor’s aide-de-camp that he was not the bearer of any instructions whatsoever from Napoleon as to his future movements, and that the appearance of his corps on that part of the field of battle had been quite unexpected. This pressing order had been dispatched by Ney immediately previous to the arrival of Colonel Laurent on the Heights of Gemioncourt.”[41]

In the second version of events, Ney didn’t give Delcambre a direct order for d’Erlon to return; instead, he sent d’Erlon a situation report about the fighting at Quatre-Bras.[42] This could be possible for four reasons:

1. By recalling I Corps, Ney would be countermanding a direct order from the Emperor.

2. D’Erlon took an hour to decide on his next course of action after Delcambre returned.

3. Ney’s after-action report on 16 June puts the blame solely on d’Erlon for I Corps’ march and counter-march.

4. Ney’s campaign report to Joseph Fouche, duc d’Otrante, dated 26 June, makes no mention of recalling I Corps:

“On the 16th, I received orders to attack the English in their position at Quatre Bras. We advanced towards the enemy with an enthusiasm difficult to be described. Nothing resisted our impetuosity. The battle became general, and victory was no longer doubtful, when, at the moment that I intended to order up the 1st corps of infantry, which had been left by me in reserve at Frasnes, I learned that the Emperor had disposed of it without advising me of the circumstance, as well as of the division of Girard of the second corps, on purpose to direct them upon St. Amand, and to strengthen his left wing, which was vigorously engaged with the Prussians. The shock which this intelligence gave me confounded me. Having no longer under me more than three divisions, instead of the eight upon which I calculated, I was obliged to renounce the hopes of victory; and in spite of all my efforts, in spite of the intrepidity and devotion of my troops, my utmost efforts after that could only maintain me in my position till the close of the day. About 9 o'clock, the first corps was sent me by the Emperor, to whom it had been of no service. Thus 25 or 30,000 men were, I may say, paralyzed, and were idly paraded during the whole of the battle from the right to the left, and the left to the right, without firing a shot.”[43]

In any case, Delcambre left Ney between 1730 and 1800, rejoining d’Erlon about half an hour later.[44] D’Erlon then halted I Corps while he and his staff debated the situation. I Corps’ vanguard, Durutte’s and Jacquinot’s divisions, were near the Roman road, northwest of Wagnelee; the rest of the corps was stretched out behind them, all the way back to Quiot’s division, which was still on – or in the vicinity of – the Brussels road.

Although Delcambre had no doubt told d’Erlon of what he had seen at Quatre Bras, d’Erlon’s two other senior staff officers, Desales and Garbe, wanted I Corps to continue towards the battlefield at Ligny. The discussion lasted for about an hour:

“Poor d’Erlon was once more confronted with a dilemma. After coming within sight of the battlefield of Ligny, he had received yet another order, this time from Marshal Ney, who in a fit of fury at being deprived of almost half his original force had, upon being informed that d’Erlon was marching towards the Ligny battlefield, sent an urgent message instructing the general to retrace his steps and return to Quatre Bras. This order was not only to deprive Napoleon of a resounding victory over the Prussians, but is hard to justify because, with the distance involved, it would mean that d’Erlon’s troops could not possibly arrive back before nightfall. Also, the fact that both Ney and d’Erlon were aware that the order to move the I Corps across to Ligny came from Napoleon himself, then it seems strange that both men chose to disobey a direct command from their Emperor. That there was indeed a state of uncertainty in d’Erlon’s mind is shown by the fact that before turning to march back towards Quatre-Bras, he dropped off Durutte’s division and his cavalry facing Wagnelee in case they would be needed.”[45]

This is the second time in three hours that the commander of I Corps was given an opportunity to change the outcome of the Waterloo Campaign; all d’Erlon needed to do was to continue to follow La Bedoyere’s forged order and bring his men into action. Even had Delcambre carried an explicit order from Ney to return, d’Erlon must have known I Corps was better placed to assist Napoleon rather than Ney. Having already reached the edge of the Ligny battlefield, there was no guarantee that I Corps could make it back to Quatre Bras in sufficient time to be of any use.

At around 1930 a decision was reached: d’Erlon decided to return to Quatre Bras (minus Durutte’s and Jacquinot’s divisions) in order to reinforce Ney. This course of action, probably the single most critical decision of the Waterloo Campaign, would prove to have immense consequences:

“Although the French were victorious [at Ligny], their victory was not complete because a good portion of the Prussian army escaped destruction. Things would have been different if Ney, or even only d'Erlon's Corps, would have arrived on the Prussian right flank. This would probably have meant the destruction of the Prussian I and II Corps, thus about half of Blucher’s army. With his forces so much reduced, Blucher would not have been able to march on Waterloo on 18 June and Napoleon would have won that battle and thus the campaign too.”[46]

I Corps, after spending the entire day unengaged, finally arrived at Quatre Bras at 2100, after the fighting had ceased.

Historian George Hooper sums up d’Erlon’s actions on 16 June this way:

“…He [Napoleon] estimated that a march and skirmish would give Ney possession of Quatre Bras; and, finding the Prussians in his own front more numerous than he expected, Napoleon sent the formal orders through Soult for Ney to fall upon the Prussian right as soon as he had beaten Wellington. If it were to be admitted that Laurent or La Bedoyere, who carried the first dispatch, meeting or overtaking the 1st corps en route to Fronses, took upon himself, as the best interpreter of Napoleon’s order, to direct it at once upon St. Amend, all the statements are reconciled. For, on that supposition, d’Erlon would have marched in obedience to what he believed to be a direct order from Napoleon. Hearing that the 1st corps had arrived, although in a quarter where it was unlooked for, Napoleon would have inferred from its presence on the field, that Ney had been successful without it, and would hastily conclude that d’Erlon would act forthwith on the Prussian right. Ney, having Soul’s actual words, would be surprised at the conduct of the staff officer, and putting the true construction on the written order, would see the error committed by that officer, and endeavor to instantly repair it by recalling the 1st corps. D’Erlon, receiving no orders from the aide-de-camp sent by Napoleon to communicate with him on the field, would naturally obey the mandate of Ney, his immediate superior, retrace his steps, and hasten back to Frasnes.

“In this conjectural explanation Ney is exonerated from the blame Napoleon showers upon him, and d’Erlon appears in the light of a weak man, overcome by a sense of responsibility, and attracted hither and thither by the influence of his two superiors.”[47]

Assessing d’Erlon’s responsibility

Napoleon’s decisive defeat in the Waterloo Campaign could have been prevented. This reversal of historical events would have happened on 16 June – two days before the battle was fought – had d’Erlon brought I Corps into action. There are two versions of this hypothetical scenario; the first requires a French victory at the Battle of Quatre Bras, the second requires a decisive French victory at the Battle of Ligny:

1) On the Armee du Nord’s left wing, Wellington’s Allied army is defeated by Ney at Quatre Bras. The Allied army either falls back on its reserve at Hal (17,000 Netherlands and British troops) to secure its lines of communication with the English Channel or, pursued by the French, Wellington decides against defending the Mont-Saint-Jean ridge near Waterloo and retreats to Brussels.[48]

2) On the Armee du Nord’s right wing, the Prussian Army of the Lower Rhine is decisively beaten at Ligny and unable to co-operate any further with the Allied army. Wellington’s defense of the Mont-Saint-Jean ridge would likely have then ended in an Allied defeat. How Wellington would have subsequently deployed his Hal reserve in that event remains open to speculation.

As commander-in-chief of the Armee du Nord, Napoleon himself has been given a share of the blame for d’Erlon’s actions:

“Strategic mismanagement on Napoleon’s side was compounded by the failure to make the most of the element of surprise. This was due, partly to the physical state of the leading French infantry formations which on the 15th had marched some 20 miles over bad roads in suffocating heat; partly to poor staff-work and contradictory orders on the 16th which lead to the useless marching and counter-marching of d’Erlon’s corps between the two battlefields without taking part in either.”[49]

But it was d’Erlon’s two decisions on 16 June which proved to be the most crucial; the presence of I Corps could have changed Ney’s defeat at Quatre Bras or Napoleon’s indecisive victory at Ligny. By accepting La Bedoyere’s forged orders at 1700, d’Erlon ensured a British victory at Quatre Bras; by rejecting them at 1930, he allowed the Prussian army to avoid a potential disaster – events which were both required for Wellington’s and Blucher’s decisive victory at Waterloo two days later.

I. Online sources:

II. Print sources (

a) Charras, Jean-Baptiste-Adolphe, Histoire de la Campagne de 1815: Waterloo, 1863.

b) Hooper, George, Waterloo, the Downfall of the First Napoleon: A History of the Campaign of 1815, 1862

c) Siborne, William,  History of the War in France and Belgium in 1815, 1848.


[1] Waterloo, the Downfall of the First Napoleon: A History of the Campaign of 1815, pp. 137-138.

[2] Francois-Etienne Kellermann (4 August 1770-2 June 1835) was promoted to General de Division on 15 July 1800. He was the son of Marshal Kellermann (who was later created duc de Valmy).

[3] French victory in the War of the Second Coalition was sealed with General Moreau’s defeat of Archduke John’s army at Hohenlinden, near Munich, on 3 December 1800.

[4] Michel Ney (born Saarlouis 10 January 1769) was executed in Paris for treason on 6 December 1815.


[6] General de Division Gilbert-Desiree-Joseph Bachelu (born Dole 9 February 1777 – died Paris 19 June 1849) had been created a baron on 29 August 1810; General de Division Hippolyte-Marie-Guillaume de Rosnyvinen, comte de Pire (born Rennes 31 March 1771 – died Paris 20 July 1850) had been promoted on 15 October 1813; General de Division Honore-Charles-Michel-Joseph, comte Reille (born Antibes 1 September 1775 – died Paris 04 March 1860) was promoted to the rank of Marshal of France on 17 September 1847 ; General de Division Charles, comte Lefebvre-Desnoettes (1773-1822)  had previously commanded the chasseurs-a cheval regiment in the Imperial Guard.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Lieutenant-General Hendrick-George, baron de Perponcher-Sedlnitzky (1771-1856) had been promoted on 21 April.

[9] Nicholas-Jean-de-Dieu Soult, duc de Dalmatie (born 29 March 1769 – died 26 November 1851) was given the post of chief-of-staff of the Armee du Nord on 9 May.  Marshal Berthier (Napoleon’s chief-of-staff during the First Empire) did not join the Emperor during the Hundered Days; he died in Bamberg, Bavaria on 1 June.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Histoire de la Campagne de 1815: Waterloo, p. 183. General de Division Maximilien, comte Foy (3 February 1775 – 28 November 1825) had previously been a divisional commander in Portugal and Spain.

[12] General de Division Prince Jerome Bonaparte (born Ajaccio 15 November 1784 – died Villegenis 24 June 1860) was Napoleon’s youngest brother and former King of Westphalia.


[14] Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton (born 1758) was later killed at the Battle of Waterloo.



[17] Ibid.

[18] Delcambre had previously commanded the 5th Voltigeur Regiment in the Imperial Guard.

[19] D’Erlon was promoted to the rank of Marshal of France by King Louis-Philippe on 9 April 1843.

[20] Charles-Auguste-Joseph, comte Flahaut de la Billarderie (21 April 1786 – 1 September 1870) is generally believed to be the illegitimate son of Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, prince de Benevent.





[25] Ibid.

[26] Colonel Laurent was an artillery officer; Colonel Charles-Theodore-Alexandre-Palamede, comte de Forbin-Janson (1783-1849) was the eldest son of General de Division Michel-Palamede, marquis de Forbin-Janson.


[28] History of the War in France and Belgium in 1815, p. 234.






[34] Ibid.



[37] General de Division Dominique-Joseph-Rene Vandamme, comte d’Unsebourg (5 November 1770-15 July 1830) was an experienced corps commander who had been raised to the Imperial peerage by Napoleon on 2 June.


[39] Waterloo, the Downfall of the First Napoleon: A History of the Campaign of 1815, pp. 138-139.


[41] History of the War in France and Belgium in 1815, p. 235.






[47] Waterloo, the Downfall of the First Napoleon: A History of the Campaign of 1815, pp. 138-139.

[48] Wellington’s reserve force at Hal, about 11 kilometres from Waterloo, was under the command of Lieutenant-General Prince Frederik of the Netherlands.



Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2007