The Battle of Ligny
By Alfons Libert, FINS
During the French advance on 14-15 June, Blücher had ordered his army to close on Sombreffe as you can read in chapter 2. He arrived himself at Sombreffe on the afternoon of 15 June and decided to make a stand there. Napoleon realized this on the morning of 16 June and while Marshal Ney engaged Wellington's force at Quatre-Bras, Napoleon engaged Blücher at Ligny in order to drive him away from Wellington. By nightfall the French held the field at Ligny, but a big portion of the Prussian army had escaped destruction. These were the troops that with their arrival on the Waterloo battlefield on 18 June would seal the fate of the Emperor.
The battle was fought along the line of the Ligne and grand Ry brooks on which the Prussian position was based. It was a long position stretching from Wagnelée in the west over Saint-Amand, Ligny and Sombreffe to the hamlet of Balâtre in the east.
The ground in this valley was marshy and the Ligne brook, although not very wide, was steep-banked. At Balâtre the brook was about 4 m wide. The highest point in the terrain, the Bussy mill where Blücher's observation post was located was 162 m high. There were ten more hamlets along the brooks and four bridges.
Ligny, 16 June 1815
Blücher had three of his army corps with a total of about 84,000 men and 224 cannon. All his forces were deployed along the Ligne brook on a forward slope, allowing the French to fire upon them which, of course, is what they did, with heavy casualties as a result.
The Prussian position was a strong one. They occupied all the hamlets and the four bridges. The walled gardens, stone houses and farm houses made a series of strongholds connected to each other by hedges, orchards and stone walls. However, the Prussian right flank was dangerously exposed and the left flank overextended.
Ziethen's I Corps was deployed on the right of the Prussian line, Pirch's II Corps in the center and Thieleman's III Corps on the left flank.
Napoleon had about 68,000 men and 210 cannon of III Corps, IV Corps, I, II and IV Reserve Cavalry Corps and the Imperial Guard with him. III Corps was deployed on the left of the French line, facing Saint-Amand, and IV Corps before Ligny, while the cavalry corps observed the enemy's left flank. The Guard and IV Cavalry Corps stayed in reserve at Fleurus.
During a reconnaissance at about 1100, Napoleon realized that the Prussians would make a stand at Ligny so he immediately ordered to make the necessary preparations to fight them. His plan was to envelop Blücher's right flank with Ney's troops while he would penetrate the Prussian center to trap and destroy at least one-half to two-thirds of the Prussian army.
The Emperor wrote Ney at 1400 to inform him that he would attack the Prussians at 1430 and that Ney was to attack vigorously any force before him and then turn and attack Blücher's flank.
The initial French attack began between 1430 and 1500 on 16 June.
Vandamme's III Corps, supported by a division of II Corps under General Girard, attacked Saint-Amand. General Gérard attacked Ligny with two divisions of his Corps. As this attack began, Napoleon still expected Ney to arrive in the Prussian right flank. He wrote him at 1515 telling him to advance on Blücher immediately. As we already read in chapter 3, Ney had his own battle to fight and would not come.
Gérard's first frontal attack against Ligny failed. Other, better supported attacks were more successful and the French captured the eastern part of the village several times but were pushed back by the Prussians every time.
The open terrain before Saint-Amand was a disadvantage for Vandamme and his divisions took heavy casualties. Here too, the village changed hands several times but eventually, by 1700, Vandamme managed to capture and hold Saint-Amand.
Despite these heavy losses, the Emperor's plan was working. Blücher had to sent in almost all his reserves and battalion after battalion was slaughtered by the French guns as they counterattacked Vandamme's divisions.
The Prussians were becoming more and more shaken and disorganized and Napoleon saw how they were massing on their right flank. A breakthrough at Ligny would trap at least half the Prussian army so he ordered the Guard to prepare to attack.
While the preparations for this attack were made an unidentified but apparently hostile force was reported marching on the French left flank. It was 1800. The Emperor expected Ney but this couldn't be him because this force was marching on his flank, not the Prussian right flank as Ney was supposed to do.
He hastily sent the Young Guard and Subervie's cavalry division to support Vandamme's corps, and aides to identify the mysterious arriving force.
This gave Blücher some time to reform his line. His men were tired and his line was overstretched but with a determined counterattack he managed to push back Vandamme's wavering troops. Zieten broke into Saint-Amand and Thielman launched a cavalry charge down the Sombreffe-Fleurus road. The Young Guard and elements of the Old Guard quickly intervened and restored the situation at Saint-Amand and Grouchy's cavalry smashed the Prussian cavalry attack.
At about 1830 the strange column was identified as d'Erlon's I Corps. To the Emperor's surprise and anger it began to countermarch back to the west. The reason for this is explained in chapter 3.
Realizing that he would get no more help from Ney, Napoleon decided to inflict maximum damage to the Prussians with the Guard. While a sudden thunderstorm concealed the Guard's preparations, the French artillery opened up on Ligny.
At about 1900 Napoleon led his Guard in to the attack. They attacked Ligny in two columns of double companies, backed up by Milhaud's cavalry squadrons and about 60 guns while Gérard's infantry attacked between the Guard columns. The Prussian line was shattered under the impact of the assault by the Grenadiers and Chasseurs of the Guard. The line wavered, recoiled and finally broke.
French Grenadier of the Guard
A cavalry counterattack with 32 squadrons of Röder's cavalry, led by "Alte Vorwarts - Old Forwards" Blücher himself, broke on the Guard's squares and did nothing more than buy a little time for the infantry to escape.
Blücher's horse was shot from under him during this attack and the old marshal (he was 72) lay trapped under his horse. The French cuirassiers, who were everywhere, rode over him at least twice without recognizing him. An adjutant from his staff finally helped him from the field at nightfall.
By nightfall, at about 2100, the French held the field and the Prussians were withdrawing in various states of disorder. The Prussian rear guard fought minor skirmishes around Brye and Sombreffe until 2400, as they tried to win as much time as possible for the rest of the army.
Because of the state of the terrain it was impossible for the French to effectively pursue the Prussians with cavalry so Napoleon contented himself with attempting to maintain contact.
Prussians casualties were 16,000 killed and wounded, 600 captured, and 21 cannon. In addition, some 9,000 to 12,000 soldiers deserted in the next days. French casualties were 11,500 killed and wounded.
Although the French were victorious, 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 Blücher's army. With his forces so much reduced, Blücher would not have been able to march on Waterloo on 18 June and Napoleon would have won that battle and thus the campaign too.
Although Napoleon had missed the chance to win the campaign that day, his situation was satisfactory. The French had managed to keep the Allies from joining forces and Blücher was beaten, at least for now. Napoleon still had two fresh Corps (I and VI Corps) that he could use against Wellington so the chances for success were still very real that 16th day of June, 1815.
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