- James Houser
June 16, 1815 - Napoleon's Final Hail Mary, the Battles of Quatre Bras & Ligny
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
June 16, 1815. In the farms and fields of Belgium, the Emperor Napoleon is making his last throw of the dice to reclaim his throne, and it looks like he just might do it. Two French armies try to drive a wedge between the Allies – the British and Prussians – who aim to stop them. Napoleon will win two battles today, but fails to win decisively, and this proves to be his undoing. Waterloo is two days away.
When Napoleon was forced to abdicate the French throne by the Allied forces in 1814, they probably figured they’d seen the last of him. Exiled to the tiny Italian island of Elba and allowed only a small honor guard, he was virtually powerless and helpless. As the diplomats of Europe’s great powers gathered in Vienna to redraw the map and create a lasting peace, they breathed a collective sigh of relief. Europe could finally rest in an easy peace for the first time since the French Revolution broke out: the Bourbon King Louis XVIII was back on the throne of France, and no one was trying to raise a ruckus.
They were quite unhappy, then, to learn that Napoleon had escaped Elba. They were even more unhappy to learn that he had landed in France. The people, depressed and angry at the repressive policies and conservative outlook of the Bourbons, quickly rallied to their Emperor. First detachments, then entire armies went over to Napoleon as he made his way to Paris; even those sent to arrest him ended up joining his force. Within a few days of returning from exile with barely the clothes on his back, on March 20, 1815 Napoleon was once again in command of France, the Bourbons had fled the country, and everyone else in Europe gained a bad case of high blood pressure.
Napoleon proclaimed that he wasn’t about to go to war and wanted to play nice, but the other nations of Europe had heard that song and dance before. They immediately began to assemble armies to invade France and kick out the upstart Bonaparte. They had listened to his lies before, and seen their countries invaded, armies destroyed and capital cities seized. They weren’t falling for it again. Soon Britain was putting together an army under Wellington in Belgium, soon to be joined by the Prussian army of Marshal Gebhard von Blucher. The Austrians were packing together a large force in Germany, and the Russian steamroller was slowly rolling forward from the vast wastes of Ukraine. Once they had all assembled, the old alliance would put a final end to the Emperor.
So that was the bind Napoleon was in. Whether he wanted to play nice or not, France was about to be invaded from every angle, and by sitting and waiting for the Allies to gain overwhelming force he could be sure of defeat. Time was not on his side. Regaining his throne had been easy, but keeping it was going to be harder. He had to strike first. By winning a few quick victories, Napoleon hoped that he could throw his enemies off balance and maybe force them to the peace table.
With that in mind, Napoleon identified the most immediate threat – the armies of Wellington and Blucher forming in Belgium – and began assembling an army in northern France. With any luck, he could drive them apart and destroy them before the Austrians and Russians started to cross into France, buying him time to turn his army around to face them.
The clock was ticking, and Napoleon began to put his old army back together in a hurry. No matter how many veterans and enthusiastic young men came flooding in, whatever he came up with would not be the same as his old battle-hardened Grande Armee. Too many men lay dead in Germany, Spain, or the wastes of Russia, and organizing what was left took some time. Even by June 1815, he had only assembled an army of 124,000 men to face
Wellington’s 107,000 and Blucher’s 123,000. This was a problem: Napoleon believed he could beat either one of them alone, but together they might overwhelm him. He would use his favorite strategy: move fast, get between the enemy armies, and deal with them apart rather than letting them unite. Divide and conquer.
On top of manpower being a problem – many of his men were raw recruits – Napoleon also faced a leadership problem. His Chief of Staff, Louis-Alexandre Berthier, had been his right-hand man and an integral part of every campaign since 1796 in Italy. Berthier, though, was dead, having fallen from a balcony in Germany only a few days after Napoleon had come to power. To replace him Napoleon chose Jean-de-Diu Soult, a talented battlefield commander and good organizer but not an ideal chief of staff. As his Minister of War Napoleon selected Louis Nicholas Davout, easily his best general (and maybe one of history’s best generals), but hardly a good choice for a desk jockey. As his chief field commanders, Napoleon chose the rash and unbalanced but brave and loyal Michel Ney and the exuberant but inexperienced Emmanuel Grouchy.
Napoleon had clearly lost something since his prime; none of these men were the best choices. This only ensured that during the critical campaign of his career, Napoleon’s best subordinate, Davout, would be left in Paris to deal with paperwork; the excellent infantry leader Soult would be far from the battlefield and managing Napoleon’s headquarters; and his two main subordinates would be either unstable or inexperienced. Just bad personnel management all around.
Napoleon, though, was still Napoleon, and any opposing general made a mistake by forgetting how dangerous he was. On June 15, 1815, Napoleon launched his army across the Belgian border, pelting for the region between Wellington’s army around Brussels to the northwest, and Blucher’s army around Liege to the northeast. Wellington had expected Napoleon to launch his attack towards the Channel coast to cut him off from his lines of supply, and Napoleon had encouraged this with misinformation. Wellington was left in the dark for the whole of June 15, as Napoleon drove forward with maximum speed to get between him and the Prussians under Blucher.
The army of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, was not the veteran army of battle-hardened regiments with which he had smacked around French armies in Spain. Most of those excellent units had been sent overseas to fight the United States in the War of 1812. Instead, he had whatever could be scraped together from Britain, along with a large number of Dutch and German regiments. Some of these were very good – he had the British Guards units, tough as any soldiers in the world, the Scottish 42nd Highlanders, and some elite Dutch units – but many of his regiments were barely militia. Blucher’s Prussian army was of a consistent quality, even if not a high one. Point is – no one was approaching this campaign with anything like the best their country had to offer; everyone had thrown their armies together at the last minute. This would be a campaign of improvisations.
Wellington only realized what was going on when a final piece of information reached him in Brussels on the night of June 15. He and his senior staff had been at a ball hosted by the Duchess of Richmond, and as information reached him about Napoleon’s movements, he called his officers into an anteroom, spread out a map, and began drawing on it even as the music played and the ladies danced meters away. “My God,” Wellington finally realized aloud, “Napoleon has humbugged me!” He threw on his cloak and began barking out orders. Unless the British and Prussian armies wanted to be destroyed piecemeal, they had to move fast.
Wellington and Blucher were great opposites. Wellington at 46 was cool, polite, and utterly stoic; his famous calm and icy genius in the heat of battle was his great quality. Blucher was a boisterous, rash cavalry general, ancient at 71 but full of fire and vigor. Despite their differences, the two men got along very well and quickly developed a shared trust. It was this trust, more than any other turn of fortune, that would lead to Napoleon’s final defeat.
As June 16 dawned, Wellington’s army was hurrying to occupy the critical crossroads of Quatre Bras, where the roads connecting his and Blucher’s armies intersected. Blucher had moved his army to confront Napoleon at the town of Ligny, selected for its good defensive attributes. Napoleon considered the Prussian army and his old foe Blucher the greater threat, and discounted the fighting ability of Wellington and the British. He aimed to smash Blucher completely, and then turn to finish off Wellington. To that end, Napoleon took the bulk of the French army off to Ligny, leaving brave but reckless Ney to keep the British out of Quatre Bras.
Even as Blucher set his forces up at Ligny, Wellington came galloping up well ahead of his army to have a chat with the Prussian. At this conversation, Wellington warned Blucher about his dispositions on the front slope of the hill, but Blucher said he had the situation under control. Wellington told Blucher that he was coming as fast as he could, and to hold off the French until he arrived.
Little did he know it, but the first of the day’s two battles had already begun. Marshal Ney’s French force had run full tilt at Quatre Bras, only to find the critical crossroads occupied by a brigade of Dutch infantry. Despite outnumbering the Allies heavily, Ney faltered and hesitated, showing none of his usual aggressiveness. This allowed Wellington time to bring up reinforcements and harangue his troops to hurry. Ney had finally attacked the Dutch at around 2pm, and they had begun to crack from the pressure before the first British infantry and Dutch cavalry came rolling up. At this point Wellington himself arrived and took command.
As the action at Quatre Bras seesawed back and forth, Napoleon heard the gunfire of the attack several miles to the east. Reassured that Ney was keeping the British distracted, he could turn his attention to pulverizing Blucher’s army in front of him at Ligny. Massive divisions of bright blue-coated French infantry rolled forward to confront the Prussians, formed up in splendid ranks of navy blue. Soon the Battle of Ligny reached a fever pitch, with towns being stormed, huge batteries of artillery belching smoke, and vast infantry formations driving off the attacks of cavalry. Ligny itself stood on fire, locked in bright flames.
Soon Napoleon realized he had the Prussian army on the ropes, and ordered the Comte d’Erlon’s First Corps to march overland and drive into Blucher’s rear. He believed he had the Prussians in the bag. D’Erlon’s troops were well on the way when he received an order from Ney instructing him to march and help him at Quatre Bras. The result was that d’Erlon’s troops marched back and forth based on conflicting orders, and ultimately played no part in either battle. Napoleon’s poor command choices had come back to haunt him. Ney’s rashness, and Soult’s bad staff work, had resulted in confusion that would ultimately prove fatal.
Finally, Napoleon committed his elite unit: the Imperial Guard. A crashing salvo of 60 guns greeted the arrival of Napoleon’s personal unit, which finally drove in the Prussian center. Old General Blucher was leading his troops from the front when his horse was shot and, in its panic, threw him from the saddle. Blucher, his foot caught in the stirrup, was dragged around before his horse finally collapsed. He was only semi-conscious when a couple of his staff officers rescued him and bore him away from the battle, even as the Prussian army folded and started to retreat.
Meanwhile at Quatre Bras, the slow arrival of British reinforcements finally tipped the battle in Wellington’s favor as he drove back Ney’s troops. This is what prompted Ney’s orders for d’Erlon to come support him, unaware that Napoleon needed d’Erlon at Ligny. A final cavalry charge failed to break the British, and by nightfall the British, Dutch, and German troops under Wellington’s command still held Quatre Bras. But Ney had fulfilled his task: Wellington had been unable to stop Blucher from being defeated at Ligny, and had to retreat to the west. Napoleon’s plan had succeeded after all: the Allied armies were now divided.
Even as the Prussians retreated, Napoleon decided that they were out of the fight. He had gotten word that Blucher was incapacitated. With this in mind, he only detached a small force under the inexperienced Grouchy to follow up on the Prussians, but he wasn’t worried about what they might do next. In his mind, the Emperor had written off the Prussian army. His focus now was on Wellington’s retreating force. If he could intercept the British general and destroy his army, he might still have a chance of holding onto his throne. Everything rested on the next couple of days – could he corner and beat Wellington before the other Allies arrived?
Napoleon was wrong to write Blucher off. The doughty old hussar was still alive, and his army – though battered – was not beaten. Blucher’s excellent staff officers, such as his Chief of Staff August von Gneisenau and staff officer Karl von Clausewitz, had kept the army from falling apart in the retreat and were reforming. As Blucher recovered from his injuries, a courier arrived from Wellington asking Blucher to hurry and take a different road to link up with him. Gneisenau didn’t like this idea – he was suspicious of the British – but Blucher dismissed his caution. Wellington was his friend, Wellington had tried to help him, Wellington trusted him, and Blucher would not betray that trust. The bruised and tired old man set his army in motion. He would ensure that the Anglo-Irish general’s trust was not in vain.
Wellington, for his part, soon learned of Blucher’s defeat at Ligny. He realized he had no choice but to fall back to Brussels and pray that Blucher could arrive in time, since he would be outnumbered and outmatched by Napoleon. Wellington had a healthy respect for his adversary, once stating that “his presence on the battlefield was equal to 40,000 men.” He was not afraid, though. He would stand and fight, and trust his friend and comrade Blucher would come to his rescue. Trust would save the day…or doom his army.
The Duke of Wellington had even picked the place where he was going to make his final stand - near a little Belgian village called Waterloo.