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Commentary for Volume 2, Chapter 3: Quatre Bras, 15–17 June 1815
At the time of writing this chapter Erwin Muilwijk’s research on the role of the Dutch-Belgian Army in the Campaign of 1815 was available on his website; and it has subsequently been published in a substantially revised form in three volumes. This is an extremely useful source of information that was not otherwise available in English at the time, especially for the events of 15th and the early part of the 16th June, when the Prince of Orange and his subordinates were central to the reception of the news of the French attack and the initial reaction. Muilwijk has made an important contribution to our understanding of the campaign, although his account is not always easy to read as his writing in English is not always clear or fluent.
Mike Robinson’s The Battle of Quatre Bras:
This chapter was written in late 2007 two years before Mike Robinson’s The Battle of Quatre Bras was published. This is a very substantial work which has uncovered and brought together a most impressive array of sources, providing an extremely rich narrative of the events of the 15th and 16 June from the point of view of the officers and men of the allied army. Robinson makes no attempt to cover the French perspective, and his work is almost entirely descriptive with little or no analysis of events. The result is highly readable, although at times the myriad of voices can threaten to overwhelm the reader. The work contains a vast amount of new material, and is especially good in correcting the balance which previously saw British voices dominate disproportionately. While there is still room for a more conventional study of the battle Robinson’s book is a major contribution to the subject.
The Allies did not expect the French to attack:
Blücher wrote to his wife ‘Napoleon does not attack us. For that we could wait another year’. Gneisenau agreed: ‘The enemy will not attack us but will retire as far as the Aisne, Somme and Marne in order to concentrate his forces’, and again, on 12 June: ‘The danger of an attack has almost vanished’(Parkinson Hussar General p 215). On the following day Wellington told Sir Thomas Graham (now Lord Lynedoch), ‘We have reports of Buonaparte’s joining the army and attacking us; but I have accounts from Paris of the 10th, on which day he was still there; and I judge from his speech to the Legislature that his departure was not likely to be immediate. I think we are now too strong for him here.’ (Wellington to Lyndeoch 13 June 1815 WD VIII p 135; See also Hussey ‘At What Time’ p 91).
It was only on the evening of 14 June that the Prussians realized that the French were likely to attack soon. Hardinge, the liaison officer at their headquarters wrote to Wellington at 10 o’clock that night that ‘The prevalent opinion here seems to be that Buonaparte intends to commence offensive operations’. Gneisenau issued orders between 11.30pm and midnight that night ordering the army to assemble at Sombreffe. Only a few hours later the fighting began. (Gregory W. Pedlow ‘Wellington versus Clausewitz’ in Clausewitz On Waterloo p 264).
Blücher’s decision to Fight at Ligny:
Blücher’s decision to concentrate his army and offer battle as far forward as Ligny shaped the whole campaign. In retrospect it appears rash to risk the success of the allied cause on an action fought so early; but we don’t know enough of the background to judge it fairly. Was it part of a plan concerted with Wellington, or a unilateral decision taken at the moment? Zieten’s reference to asking Wellington to concentrate at Nivelles suggests some agreed arrangement but we don’t know more. After all, it was Wellington who had been unwilling to concede ground so and put Brussels at risk, and had rejected Gneisenau’s plan for concentrating at Tirlemont for this reason. Besides the Prussian army was cantoned so far forward that any alternative would have meant beginning the campaign with an awkward march to the rear which would both have been demoralizing and invited accidents. On the whole it seems likely that the decision to fight early had already been made, implicitly if not explicitly, was built into the initial cantonment of the troops. It is possible that the allies had not anticipated the speed with which the French advanced, or supposed that Zieten could hold Charleroi and the line of the Sambre for longer, but nothing along these lines appears in the sources.
The Prince of Orange on 15 June:
The Prince of Orange commanded I Corps with his HQ at Braine le Comte half way between Brussels and the French frontier at Mons, on the main highway to Paris. On the 15th he rose early and at 5am rode forward to St Symphorien a few miles east of Mons where General van Merlen commanded a brigade of light cavalry watching for French movements. Van Merlen reported no movement in his front but some sounds of firing to the east where the Prussians held the line. The Prince ordered van Merlen to concentrate his brigade, and alerted General Chassé commanding the 3rd Netherlands division telling him to form his troops on the heights of Haine St Pierre where they would block the road to Brussels through Nivelles. Nonetheless the Prince does not seem to have been much alarmed by the distant sounds of gunfire: he did not alert the rest of his corps or remain at the front while making contact with the Prussians, and steps he took were merely precautionary. Hindsight of course suggests that this was remarkably obtuse and neglectful – but hindsight is not interested in all the false alarms and distractions of previous weeks, which were soon forgotten because they proved of no consequence. (According to Robinson there had been clashes between the outposts of Wellington’s army and the French on 10th, 12th and 14 June, while the sound of the Prussians firing practice rounds, including artillery, was common, The Battle of Quatre Bras p 27, 31, 39 and 41). A general who is in a constant fidget, and alerting his troops with every passing cloud or change of the wind soon sacrifices their confidence. (Erwin Muilwijk ‘Waterloo Campaign 1815. The Contribution of the Netherlands Mobile Army’ http://home.tiscali.nl/erwinMuilwijk (accessed late 2007) (henceforth cited as Muilwijk ‘Waterloo’) (See also Muilwijk 1815 From Moblisation to War).
The Prince may then have returned to Braine-le-Comte about mid-morning or he may have ridden straight on to Brussels. A letter, written at 2 o’clock that afternoon by Lieutenant-Colonel George Berkeley a senior officer attached to the Prince’s headquarters at Braine-le-Comte says ‘H. R. H. the Prince of Orange having set out at 5 o’clock this morning for the advanced posts, and not being returned…’ while a slightly later and less reliable account by the General Constant Rebecque, the Prince’s Chief of Staff, claims that the Prince did return. On the whole it seems more likely that Berkeley missed the Prince’s return, especially as Braine-le-Comte lay on the most likely route the Prince would take. (Sir G. H. Berkeley to Lord Fitzroy Somerset Braine-le-Comte 2 o’clock 15 June 1815 WSD vol 10 p 480; Constant’s diary is quoted in Muilwijk ‘Waterloo’ and Muilwijk 1815 From Moblisation to War p 197. See also W. H. James Campaign of 1815 p 82n-83n who concludes that the Prince did not return to Braine).
Whether the Prince stopped at Braine-le-Comte or not, he rode on to Brussels where he dined with Wellington at 3 o’clock.
The Prince learns of some fighting and orders Chassé to concentrate:
This rests on a written order from the Prince to Chassé whose legitimacy was rejected by De Bas and Wommersom, but which, Muilwijk argues, has been proved by later research (see Muilwijk ‘Waterloo’ and Muilwijk 1815 From Moblisation to War p 188).
Reports reaching Wellington on 15 June:
Wellington was not alarmed by the Prince’s news and did not regard it as indicating a serious French attack. He did not believe that it would require any additional precautions (Muilwijk ‘Waterloo’) and as a result the Prince sent orders to Constant-Rebecque from Brussels to stand down his men if he had received no further news of a French advance. However over the next few hours much more definite reports came in which left should have suggested that the firing was due to more than mere bickering between outposts. Much ink has been spilt trying to establish the exact sequence in which these reports arrived, and which prompted what reaction, but without more evidence even the most plausible scheme remains highly speculative. We know that General Behr the commandant of the fortress of Mons sent a report to the Prince’s headquarters at Braine-le-Comte that the Prussians at Fontaine l’Evêque had been attacked and that there was fighting around Charleroi but that his own front was quiet. This was forwarded to Brussels and may have arrived soon after the Prince. (Although John Hussey ‘Towards a Better Chronology…’ p 473-8 argues quite plausibly that Behr’s message was delayed at Braine-le-Comte and probably did not reach Brussels until around 5pm). Some time later further reports reached Braine-le-Comte from van Merlen and Chassé – the Dutch-Belgian commanders closer to the Prussians – who warned that the Prussians were being driven back and were retiring on Gosselies on the main road from Charleroi to Brussels. These reports were sent on to Fitzroy Somerset in Brussels by Lieutenant-Colonel Berkeley at 2 o’clock, along with a letter from Dörnberg at Mons which added little, except that there was still no sign of French activity in his front. These dispatches probably reached Brussels between 5 and 6 o’clock that afternoon, although this has been contested.
At some point before 6pm Wellington received a letter from Zieten: either written before 8:15am and delayed en route, or, as has been hypothesized by Hofschröer, sent about 11am announcing the fall of Charleroi. (Hofschröer 1815 vol 1 p 354 cf Hussey ‘Towards a Better Chronology…’ p 478-9). Almost everything about this letter is contentious, but we do know that when Zieten wrote to Blücher at 8:15am he stated that the French were attacking in great force, that Napoleon was present in person, that he was being driven back and would attempt a stand on the line Gosselies – Gilly, and that he had sent this information to Wellington and asked his to concentrate his army at Nivelles in accordance to arrangements already made with Müffling. We also know that when this message reached Prussian headquarters at Namur later that morning Gneisenau wrote to Müffling with the news and added that Blücher intended to concentrate his army around Sombreffe and intended to give battle, and that looked forwarded to learning of Wellington’s plans. It would be too much to hope that there was any agreement over when Gneisenau’s letter reached Brussels, but it was most probably later in the evening. (Zieten’s 8:15 message to Prussian headquarters is printed in Hussey ‘At What Time’ p 98 and partly printed in Hofschröer 1815 vol 1 part on p 172 the rest on p 193).
The nett effect of all these messages was that by early evening on 15 June Wellington knew that the Prussian outposts had come under heavy attack that morning, and that Zieten believed that he might be driven from Charleroi and forced onto a defensive line facing south-west from Gosselies to Gilly. But he did not know whether this was the principal French attack or a diversion, and he seems to have suspected that Napoleon intended to create a false alarm in this direction and then launch his main attack around Mons. It is not clear whether this idea had its origin in false intelligence from Paris or the frontier region, or memories of Marmont’s bluff on the Duero in July 1812, or was pure supposition, but it was not entirely unreasonable. Napoleon did have his eye on Brussels and hoped to split the allies apart and take the city with a rapid march on the night of 16 June; but while Wellington was worrying about the road from Mons, Napoleon was actually intending to march north up the Charleroi road. (Becke Napoleon and Waterloo vol 2 p 280-282 – Napoleon to Ney 16 June 1815).
The Controversy over Zieten’s message:
In his official dispatch written only a few days later Wellington stated unequivocally that ‘I did not hear of these events [the French attack on Zieten’s corps] till the evening of the 15th’ (Wellington to Bathurst, 19 June 1815, WD VIII p 146-51, quote on p 146). But an intense controversy has raged over the question intermittently almost ever since. As early as 1819 Prussian generals claimed that Zieten had sent warning to Wellington as soon as the French attack began, and that the courier had reached Brussels by about 9 o’clock that morning, only for Wellington to ignore the report. However the evidence supporting the claim is thin and implausible: no copy of the message existed even in 1819; Zieten claimed to have sent it at 4.45am, when the French attacks had only just begun; and, most strangely, Müffling, the Prussian liaison officer at Wellington’s headquarters knew nothing about it, even though the courier would surely have seen him either before or after delivering his message. And then why would Wellington disregard such an urgent message and spend the day dealing with minor administrative questions? Some critics have suggested that he was hostile to the Prussians and wished to see them bear the brunt of the fighting, but even if this were true – and it almost certainly is not – his primary aim would still have been the defeat of Napoleon. Sheer self-preservation would require that he concentrate his own army when he knew that the campaign had begun, and the fact that he did not do so shows that either he did not receive a message from Zieten on the morning of the 15th or that he did not believe that it indicated that the war had begun in earnest. (This is just possible, for if Zieten really sent the message at 4:45am when he was first alarmed by the sound of gunfire, he had no way of knowing that the attack was serious. Against this the content of the supposed message – asking Wellington to concentrate at and around Nivelles indicates a later time, around 8:15).
For the most recent controversy on the subject see Peter Hofschröer 1815 vol 1 p 192-200, 331-5; Peter Hofschröer ‘Did the Duke of Wellington Deceive his Prussian Allies in the Campaign of 1815’ War in History vol 5 no 2 1998 p 176-203; John Hussey ‘At What Time’ and Hofschröer’s reply loc cit vol 6 no 4 1999 p 468-78; John Hussey ‘Towards a better Chronology of the Waterloo Campaign’ War in History vol 7 no 3 2000 p 463-80; Gregory W. Pedlow ‘Back to the Sources: General Zieten’s Message to the Duke of Wellington on 15 June 1815’ First Empire no 82 2005 p 30-5; John Hussey ‘Müffling, Gleig, Ziethen, and the ‘Missing’ Wellington Records: the ‘compromising’ documents traced’ J.S.A.H.R. vol 77 1999 p 250-68; Peter Hofschröer ‘Yet another reply to John Hussey: What really are my charges against the Duke of Wellington’ J.S.A.H.R. vol 78 2000 p 221-5 and p 305; and Gregory W. Pedlow ‘Wellington versus Clausewitz’ in On Waterloo. Clausewitz, Wellington and the Campaign of 1815 by Carl von Clausewitz, translated and edited by Christopher Bassford, Daniel Moran and Gregory W. Pedlow (Createspace.com, 2010).
Arguments against a message from Zieten reaching Wellington on the morning of 15 June 1815:
This is the most controversial piece in the whole jigsaw. Peter Hofschröer, following some Prussian sources, claims the Zieten wrote to Wellington at approximately 4:45am, the same time as his first letter to Blücher; that this message reached Brussels by 9 o’clock that morning; but that Wellington chose to ignore it until he was forced to act by the arrival of fresh news in the late afternoon, and that in this he was at least partly motivated by the desire that the Prussian army be weakened by bearing the brunt of the campaign.
There is no doubt that a message was sent, no later than 8:15 – for it is referred to in Zieten’s 8:15 letter to Blücher, but no copy of the message seems to have survived, and some of the evidence concerning it has been shown to be full of difficulties. (See Gregory Pedlow ‘Back to the Sources: General Zieten’s Message to the Duke of Wellington on 15 June 1815’).
The first point is that Zieten’s 4:45am message to Blücher merely reported the sound of distant artillery fire and then musketry. No details had yet come in, and it was essentially a preliminary alert. It is possible that Zieten would have thought it worth sending this news to Wellington as well, but more likely that he would wait until he had something more definite to report.
Next it is at least odd that – according to Hofschröer’s version of events – Zieten’s messengers should take 3¾ hours (4:45-8:30am) to travel 20 miles to Namur but only 4¼ hours to travel 34 miles to Brussels. The road to Namur was entirely through Prussian occupied territory, on a familiar route and presumably with several posting stations (see Hofschröer 1815 vol 1 p 139-40). The road to Brussels was much less familiar as well as much longer.
Having reached Brussels Zieten’s courier is supposed to have delivered his message, but never come to the attention of Müffling, the Prussian liaison officer, to whom he would normally have reported himself in the first instance.
Wellington, it is argued, received the news at 9 o’clock but completely disregarded it and spent the day on routine business. Actually, this is almost plausible, for if the message really was dispatched c 4:45am it would have contained nothing but an unconfirmed report of some firing at the outposts, and would not have signified the opening of the campaign.
What is quite unbelievable is that Wellington should have received word that the campaign had begun, but deliberately delayed concentrating his army for some ten hours in order to hurt the Prussians. That (like much of Hofschröer’s argument) reeks of working backwards from what actually happened, assuming that the actors could perfectly anticipate the course of events. It also implies a bizarre idea of Wellington’s priorities where the defeat of Napoleon is taken for granted and the real question is who gains the most kudos at the least cost. There is no evidence for this point of view, and much against it.
The alternative is that Zieten did not write to Wellington until just before his 8:15 letter to Blücher, at which point he knew that he was under serious attack, that Napoleon was with the enemy, and that he would be forced back to the line Gosselies to Gilly. In this context his request for Wellington to concentrate his army at Nivelles makes sense, which it hardly does in response to the first alarm at 4:45. That a letter sent at 8:15am did not reach Brussels until 5 or 6 that evening is a little strange, but couriers are always subject to accidents and delays, and their average pace falls as the journey lengthens. Certainly it is no odder than the alternative that the journey to Brussels took only a little longer than that to Namur.
It the end we will never know for certain, but the evidence in favour of a 4:45 message is too weak and fragmentary to counter its sheer implausibility.
Speed of Zieten’s courier:
If Zieten’s messenger to Wellington was dispatched at 8:15am and arrived at 5:15pm having travelled 34 miles in nine hours he would have averaged 3.8mph. This was rather slow, but within a normal rate for a courier, especially for a longish journey. He was at best a staff officer attached to a subordinate commander, and while someone like Alexander Gordon might make prodigious rides on crack horses, most men regarded a 34 mile ride as a fair day’s work. It does not seem likely that he would have been able to change his horse en route, although this, like so many other points, is difficult or impossible to establish with any certainty. (See Hussey Towards a Better Chronology p 470-1, 474 for evidence about the speed of couriers on other occasions).
General von Hügel’s evidence:
There is one further piece of contemporary evidence: General von Hügel wrote to the King of Württemberg, dating his letter at 6pm and saying that the Prussian courier had just arrived, although he then goes on to give the results of the news for Wellington’s plans (quoted in Hussey ‘At What Time’ p 112). Two interpretations of this are possible: either Hügel was misleading in suggesting that the courier had only just arrived i.e. he may have come at 4 or 4:30 giving time for Müffling to take the news to Wellington and to return; or he began his letter at 6pm when the courier arrived and added to it as he learnt more. Müffling’s own letter to Blücher (dated 7pm and in Hussey ‘At What Time’ p 114) refers to the news as having ‘just arrived’ which favours the latter interpretation, although Müffling included Wellington’s decisions consequent on the news.
A possible compromise over Zieten’s message:
Hofschröer (1815 vol 1 p 354; Reply to John Hussey, War in History vol 6 1999 p 474) opens the way to a compromise by suggesting that Zieten sent two messages to Brussels on 15 June: one, circa 4:45am arriving at 9am; the other at 11 o’clock, announcing the fall of Charleroi, arriving, he says, at 3pm (though we can make that 5 or 6 pm i.e. the message Hügel mentions).
Attractive as this is as a way of squaring the circle, there is the serious problem that it does not agree with the evidence of any of the three principals: Zieten did not claim to have sent two messages, and Wellington and Müffling both mention the arrival of only one.
Comparison with problems with orders for Bülow:
On a separate but related question, Hofschröer’s account of Bülow’s movements on 15 and 16 June resulting in his failure to join Blücher at Ligny (1815 vol 1 p 220-222) contains much evidence of couriers travelling remarkably slowly, warnings and even orders being ignored, and a lack of ready co-operation mixed with much incompetent staff work. In other words all the elements on which Hofschröer builds his case against Wellington were present in equal measure with Bülow – which supports the conclusion that they were due to the friction of war, and nothing more.
Wellington’s operational orders and his papers
Wellington’s papers do not normally contain copies of the operational orders issued to his subordinates either on campaign or in battle. Where we have such orders it is generally because they were preserved by Sir George Murray, the Quartermaster General, who was not in Belgium for the campaign, while De Lancey who acted in his place, was mortally wounded and his papers were lost. While a few original orders were preserved by their recipients, most of those printed in the Dispatches and Supplementary Despatches were either reconstructed after the event or taken from third copies hastily made at the time by De Lacy Evans and are at best incomplete and almost certainly contain some slips, error and misunderstandings.
Wellington’s reactions on 15 June:
The controversy over Zieten’s message rather obscures the fact that Wellington was palpably slow to react to the various reports which arrived from his own outposts during the course of the afternoon of 15 June. It is not necessary to enter into the sterile debate over whether he was ‘surprised’ or not: he knew that an attack was possible, but regarded it as unlikely, and he was uncharacteristically slow to abandon his preconceptions in the face of fresh evidence. A comparison might be made with the short El Bodon campaign in late September 1811 where again his initial reaction was rather flat-footed, although the later example was more serious and less excusable. Brussels was the obvious location for his headquarters, for his army was dispersed over a wide front and it was the natural hub for communications, but it is possible that he was somewhat distracted by its social life, and took a few hours more than he should have to recognize that the campaign was underway. The mistake was potentially serious, but in the event had few damaging consequences. The concentration of Wellington’s army was only delayed a little: most troops still marched at first light on the 16th, and there was a sufficient force at Quatre Bras to block Ney’s advance and so provide crucial support for the Prussians.
There is evidence that even late on 15 June Wellington believed that the French attack was a feint and that the real attack would be made further west. One reason for this belief that has not received much attention was the Duke’s understanding that the country to the south of the French frontier around Charleroi was too broken and heavily wooded and lacking in good roads to facilitate the movements of a large army, while there were only two bridges over the Sambre (at Charleroi and Châtelet). (Muilwijk 1815 From Mobilisation to War p 237). It is also clear that Wellington was intent on not making a false move, and that this inclined him towards inaction rather than action in the face of Napoleon. (Gregory W. Pedlow ‘Wellington versus Clausewitz’ in Clausewitz On Waterloo p 264).
Wellington’s orders to evacuate Quatre Bras:
Hindsight has rather over-stressed the strategic significance of Quatre Bras and the Charleroi road which, on 15 and even 16 June, was only one of several roads north that Napoleon might take. It is also worth pointing out that it lay in the Prussian zone: Zieten’s line extended several miles to the west of Charleroi which was in the centre of his corps. It was only Zieten’s withdrawal to the east (rather than north) that opened the road to the French. Quatre Bras was only ever on the extreme eastern fringe of the allied army’s cantonments, and it was not unreasonable for Wellington, at 6pm 15 June 1815 to think that the Prussians, withdrawing to the line Gosselies (which is on the road) – Gilly could continue to hold it.
The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball:
There was a sound of revelry by night,
And Belgium’s Capital had gathered then
Her Beauty and her Chivalry – and bright
The lamps shone o’er fair women and brave men;
A thousand hearts beat happily; and when
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry as a marriage bell;
But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!
Did ye not hear it? – No – ‘twas but the Wind,
Or the car rattling o’er the stony street;
On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing Hours with flying feet –
But hark! – that heavy sound breaks in once more,
As if the clouds its echo would repeat;
And nearer – clearer – deadlier than before!
Arm! Arm! it is – it is – the cannon’s opening roar!
(Byron Childe Harold canto 3, xxi-xxii)
Not that Bryon was in Brussels at the time, and his purpose was not documentary accuracy but to highlight the contrast between youthful hopes and joy of the ball, and the death in battle that would come for some as early as the following day at Quatre Bras. The effect gained piquancy from Bryon’s well known sympathy for Napoleon. This was not a British poet glorying in a British triumph, nor a Frenchman bewailing a national catastrophe, but a liberal with broad European views, who still saw Napoleon as a liberator and a hero even while he sympathized with his countrymen going into battle.
Many years later Lady Jane Lennox recalled her excitement as the 17-year-old daughter of the house,
I know I was in a state of wild delight; the scene itself was so stirring, and the company so brilliant, I recollect, on reaching the ballroom after supper, I was scanning over my tablets, which were filled from top to bottom with the names of the partners to whom I was engaged; when, on raising my eyes, I became aware of a great preponderance of ladies in the room. White muslins and tartans abounded; but the gallant uniforms had sensibly diminished. (Lady Jane Lennox quoted in David Miller The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball, 15 June 1815 p 140).
Spencer Madan, the Richmond’s tutor, wrote to his father from Brussels on 19 June 1815: ‘In the course of the evening a courier arrived with the intelligence that the French were advancing in force in the side of Charleroi and Namur, and the Duke who read the dispatch in the ballroom immediately ordered the officers to repair to their quarters by daylight. A sad gloom overspread the entertainment, and a trying scene of leave taking followed’. (Madan Spencer and Waterloo p 104).
Wellington’s orders of 7am 16 June 1815:
Further orders were issued to the more distant troops at 7am, but neither then nor later did Wellington order the whole army to march on Quatre Bras, although its movements were all in that direction. Indeed with the French either in possession of the crossroads or knocking at its door it would have been dangerous to do so. Instead Wellington kept open the option of concentrating at Nivelles, at Mont St Jean or even at Braine-le-Comte as proved necessary while ensuring that no further time was lost. (The 7am orders are partly printed in WD VIII p 143. Some confusion has arisen because in the Waterloo dispatch Wellington wrote ‘In the mean time, I had directed the whole army to march upon Les Quatre Bras’ (WD VIII p 147): this was not precisely accurate, although given the circumstances under which he wrote he difference between ‘marching upon’ and ‘marching towards’ would not have seemed very material. The point is discussed at great length in Ropes The Campaign of Waterloo p 80-9).
Wellington passes Reserve at Waterloo:
Fitzroy Somerset (Owen (ed) Waterloo Papers p 8) says that when he saw him at Waterloo Wellington ordered Picton to march on Quatre Bras, but this is contradicted by Robert Torrens, the staff officer who was sent back from Quatre Bras with the order to Picton a few hours later ([Robert Torrens] ‘A Waterloo Letter’ National Review vol 63 1914 p 840). Torrens’s account is confirmed by the times given in Gomm’s journal (Gomm Letters and Journals p 352); by Kincaid Adventures in the Rifle Brigade p 155, and by any consideration of time and distances. It is only about ten miles from Waterloo to Quatre Bras and if the Reserve had followed Wellington immediately, it would have reached Quatre Bras before noon, several hours before it actually did. It seems likely that while the leading units of the Reserve were breakfasting at Waterloo when Wellington passed others were still on the road and that the extended halt allowed those in the rear to catch up and have a rest themselves: Kincaid (Adventures in the Rifle Brigade p 155) says that the Duke of Brunswick and his corps arrived just after Wellington had passed.
The Prince of Orange at Quatre Bras on the morning of 16 June:
The Prince of Orange reached Braine-le-Comte about 3:30am on the morning of 16 June. He found that there was no fresh news of consequence, and sent Constant on to Nivelles and Quatre Bras following him within the hour. It was about 6am when the Prince reached Quatre Bras where there had been some skirmishing at first light but all was now quiet. It is worth pausing to note that over the previous 25 hours the Prince had ridden more than eighty kilometres, dined with the Duke of Wellington, attended a grand ball, but had little chance to rest unless he had been able to snatch a few hours sleep between dinner and the ball. He was now responsible for defending a vital crossroads faced with an unknown enemy force, and with only a single division of his own troops in hand, and no prospect of significant reinforcements for several hours at least. Yet he was cheerful and optimistic, telling a Prussian officer, Major von Brünneck, who had been sent to maintain contact between the armies, that ‘within the next three hours the entire Belgian army and the bulk of the English army can be concentrated at Nivelles. Seventeen English battalions have marched off from Brussels to support Quatre Bras’. (Brünneck to Blücher, Quatre Bras, 6:30am 16 June 1815 quoted in Hofschröer 1815 vol 1 p 224-5; see also Muilwijk ‘Waterloo’ and Muilwijk Quatre Bras, Perponcher’s Gamble p 30). This is a little odd, for there was no possibility that Hill’s corps, including the Dutch-Belgians under Prince Frederick’s command could reach Nivelles until late in the day at the earliest, but the Prince was probably referring to the troops in his own corps and may have been misunderstood by Brünneck.
The Frasnes Letter:
Wellington wrote to Blücher from Frasnes (quoting the translation in Ropes The Campaign of Waterloo p 106):
On the Heights behind Frasnes:
June 16, 1815. 10:30 A.M.
My dear Prince,
My army is situated as follows:
The Corps d’Armée of the Prince of Orange has a division here and at Quatre Bras, and the rest at Nivelles.
The Reserve is in march from Waterloo to Genappe, where it will arrive at noon.
The Corps of Lord Hill is at Braine-le-Comte.
I do not see any large force of the enemy in front of us, and I await news from your Highness and the arrival of troops in order to determine my operations for the day.
Nothing has been seen on the side of Binche, nor on our right.
Your very obedient servant,
The problem is that almost every statement in the letter about the location of Wellington’s army is simply incorrect. It may have been close enough to say that the Prince of Orange’s corps was at Quatre Bras and Nivelles, although the two British divisions of Alten and Cooke were yet to reach Nivelles – indeed Cooke did not get there until mid-afternoon (Hamilton Origin and History of the First or Grenadier Guards vol 3 p 15). And it was perhaps permissible to say that the Reserve was already marching from Waterloo to Genappe when it seems that the order had yet to be given, let alone delivered and implemented. (See above: Torrens says he was sent about 11 o’clock [Robert Torrens] ‘A Waterloo Letter’ National Review vol 63 1914 p 840. This would not normally outweigh evidence written on the day itself, but the rest of Wellington’s letter is so inaccurate that one cannot place much reliance on this phrase). But to say that the cavalry would reach Nivelles by noon, or that Hill’s corps was already at Braine-le-Comte, was extraordinary. Even the leading cavalry would only reach Nivelles in the evening, and Hill’s men had hours of hard marching ahead of them before they saw Braine-le-Comte.
This letter is the prize exhibit, indeed almost the only piece of solid evidence, for those who argue that Wellington deliberately deceived the Prussians into fighting at Ligny with false promises of support, and that he did so either to gain time for his own army to concentrate, or with a desire to see the Prussians defeated and so lessen their influence in the settlement of Europe after the inevitable defeat of Napoleon (Hofschröer ‘Did the Duke of Wellington Deceive his Prussian Allies in the Campaign of 1815?’ passim; Hofschröer 1815 vol 1 p 336-41, 346-7). These are large arguments to build on the foundation of a single letter, and some obvious objections spring to mind, not least that Blücher had already decided to stand and give battle at Ligny by midday on the previous day, long before he received any promise of support from Wellington, and that by the time Wellington’s letter reached him it would have been difficult and demoralizing for him to withdraw from his position and avoid a battle (Hofschröer 1815 vol 1 p 189-90, 198 for Blücher’s decision, and p 346-7 for the argument that Blücher might have changed his mind and withdrawn as late as the meeting at Brye if Wellington had given him accurate information on the location of his troops). Even if Wellington had written to Blücher that he could give no assistance whatever on the 16th and urging him to avoid battle at all costs, it is unlikely that Blücher would have done so, or even that he would have been wise to do so, while the campaign would almost certainly have ended less well for the allies.
On the other hand the alternative explanation usually advanced by British historians is scarcely more satisfactory. They assert that Wellington was completely misled by his staff and point to a memorandum prepared by William De Lancey, the Quartermaster General, which appears to give inaccurate locations for most of the army. However this memorandum is itself a strange document, possibly reconstructed after the event, and probably a red herring. (The Memorandum is printed in WSD vol 10 p 496 and discussed in Major-General C. W. Robinson ‘Waterloo and the De Lancey Memorandum’ J.R.U.S.I. vol 54 1910 p 582-97). There is no evidence that Wellington consulted it before writing to Blücher (some of the mistakes in his letter differ from statements in the memorandum) and he was not the sort of general who needed his staff to tell him where to find his army.
As with most of the puzzles of the campaign, no explanation is entirely convincing. The most plausible interpretation is that Wellington was conscious that his army had been slow to begin its concentration and brought things forward a little in order to conceal or at least minimize the problem – presenting a rose-tinted picture to avoid reproach or criticism. It is striking that it is the most distant troops whose locations were given most inaccurately: either Wellington felt that they were less relevant and that a little exaggeration mattered less with them; or he had hopes that they would move more rapidly than they actually managed. (This is suggested both by the Prince of Orange’s expectation that the army would be concentrated at Nivelles in three hours (see above) and by Wellington’s complaint, years later, that the cavalry’s march had been remarkably slow: Oman Gascoyne Heiress p 213. There do seem to have been some unnecessary if not unusual delays in the cavalry’s march but the distance was so great that it was quite unreasonable to look for their arrival at Nivelles before late afternoon). Pride – and the desire to conceal a mistake form an ally and an equal – rather than treachery or incompetence is the motive which best fits his character, although any explanation necessarily speculative.
It should also be noted that the controversy surrounding the letter has exaggerated its significance. It was not the only occasion during the campaign than a general misled his ally over the location of his army: at noon on the previous day Gneisenau had sent Müffling an account of the movements of the Prussian army for Wellington’s information, in which he claimed that the whole army would be concentrated and ready to fight at Ligny on the 16th, and Wellington made his plans on this basis (Gneisenau’s letter is in Hofschröer 1815 vol 1 p 198). Presumably Gneisenau’s mistake was innocent: he had yet to learn that Bülow had failed to march as directed and was consequently lagging far behind, but the closeness of the parallel suggests that it was unwise for the Prussians, and their advocates, to leap so quickly to accusations of bad faith and deception. Very few campaigns of the era saw such close and effective co-operation between allies as that of 1815 and it is a great pity that this has been obscured by subsequent recriminations.
Wellington wrote in French and some minor differences are caused by different translations. There are several differences of some significance:
Hofschröer 1815 vol 1 p 232 has Wellington say ‘I do not see much of the enemy before you’ in which Muilwijk points out he follows Ollech reading ‘vous’ for ‘nous’ (Muilwijk ‘Waterloo’). The difference is not crucial, but it is plainly more likely that Wellington would comment on the enemy facing him, than on those miles away.
Hofschröer also has Wellington say ‘Nothing has appeared near Binche, nor on your right’, which is again nonsensical and ‘our’ right is clearly meant.
Ollech reproduces the holograph and the mistake is understandable: the words look at least as much like ‘vous’ as ‘nous’ ‘votre’ as ‘notre’ but common sense and the context leave little room for real doubt.
On the other hand W. H. James (The Campaign of 1815 p 12) makes a much more alarming alteration, silently omitting the entire sentence. ‘The Corps of Lord Hill is at Braine-le-Comte’. As this is the most embarrassing in the whole letter it requires considerable charity to assume that the mistake is entirely innocent.
Wellington’s talks with Blücher at Brye:
There are ten first-hand accounts of this meeting by officers who were present for at least part of it, but unfortunately none was written until well after the event so that we cannot really know what was said with any certainty, especially as there are considerable discrepancies between them, and some versions have probably been influenced by subsequent controversies. (Hofschröer 1815 vol 1 p 233-42 helpfully collects most of these accounts. See also Fitzroy Somerset in Owen (ed) The Waterloo Papers p 8-9).
The Battle of Quatre Bras:
The initial French attack:
It was probably a little before 2 o’clock that Ney began his attack on the Dutch-Belgian force south of Quatre Bras. Although the country was generally open with only gentle undulations, the high crops – well over six feet high in places – made it impossible for foot soldiers to see far in front of them, while even mounted officers often found it difficult to judge the strength of enemy forces which might be facing them. General Reille, commander of the French Second Corps and a veteran of the Peninsula is said by Foy to have warned Ney that it might prove another ‘Spanish battle’, in which concealed reserves of British infantry would suddenly appear just when the French thought that they had gained their objective. (Girod de l’Ain Vie Militaire du Général Foy p 270-1; Houssaye 1815: Waterloo p 112).
The leading brigade of Foy’s division advanced north on or near the main road, with Bachelu’s two brigades to its right and some of Piré’s cavalry in support and covering the flanks. Foy’s second brigade was held back in reserve. The French met little resistance at first, for the allied troops in the front line were concentrated to the west of the Charleroi road where they formed a defensive line along the side road to Grand Pierrepont, facing south-east and with their backs to the Bossu Wood. Only the guns of Stevenaar’s and Bijleveld’s batteries faced south, the first to the west of the road, the latter straddling it. To the east, protecting the flank of the guns and the open rolling country beyond, there was nothing but the 27th Dutch Jägers scattered over a broad front. This looks very much as if the Prince of Orange, or whoever was responsible for the deployment, expected an attack directed to seizing the Bois de Bossu and cutting the Nivelles road rather than a northerly thrust aimed directly at the cross roads, although it is possible that other, local factors were responsible.
Faced with the advance of an overwhelming force the Dutch Jägers had no choice but to fall back, some to the Gemioncourt farm near the main road, others towards the Materne pond further east. The 5th Militia, which was being sent forward along the main road, came to their support and for a time held the buildings and orchard of Gemioncourt. The 3rd Company was sent forward to skirmish with the French but lost heavily, as its commander Captain Van Tol records, because his men had never been trained to act as light infantry and, in the excitement of action, huddled together rather than spreading out and taking cover. Before long the French were pressing around the flank and rear of the farm and it had to be abandoned, and the militia and jägers fell back to the Materne brook where, much to their credit, they rallied and formed a new defensive line (Muilwijk ‘Waterloo’ p 67-71).
The two Netherlands batteries were forced to withdraw as well, possibly even retiring through the wood (which contained some open rides making this possible). The four battalions of infantry on the Pierrepont road also retired into the wood. They do not seem to have been seriously attacked at this stage, although some French cavalry had threatened them and there is said to have been a panic in at least one battalion when the Prince of Orange and his suite rode up in their rear and was mistaken for the enemy! (Muilwijk ‘Waterloo’ p 73). Writing to his father three days later, Prince Bernard of Saxe-Weimar describes his men fighting with great gallantry and determination, but does not conceal the fact that his own wound was self-inflicted (hacking at some undergrowth in the wood his sabre slipped and cut his leg) or that his troops were forced to give way. As his brigade reported only 150 casualties in total and fewer than twenty men killed, it does not seem to have been very heavily engaged at any point in the day, unlike the militia and jägers in Bijlandt’s brigade. (Prince Bernard of Saxe-Weimar to his father 19 June 1815 Becke Napoleon and Waterloo vol 2 p 316-18 Casualty figures from Muilwijk ‘Waterloo’ ).
Wellington’s return to Quatre Bras:
Fitzroy Somerset says ‘the Duke galloped back [to] Quatre Bras which he reached about half-past two. He looked attentively with his spy-glass and observing the movements of the French towards Frasne[s] told the Price of Orange he would be attacked directly’. (Owen Waterloo Papers p 9).
Thirty years after the event Wellington told Croker that when he returned from Ligny he rode forward and saw Ney reviewing a large body of troops and warned the Prince of Orange that an attack was imminent. (Wellington to Croker 28 January 1845 Croker Papers vol 3 p 175-6). Sir Herbert Maxwell gives a more colourful version of the story in which loud cries of Vive l’Empereur alert Wellington who remarks “That must be Ney going down the line. I know what that means; we shall be attacked in five minutes”. (H. Maxwell Life of Wellington and the Restoration of the Martial Power of Great Britain vol 2 p 20-1).
Siborne accepts the chronology of this: that Wellington returned before the fighting began (The Waterloo Campaign p 144).
On the other hand Müffling says ‘On our return to Quatre Bras we found Marshal Ney fully engaged in the attack’ (Müffling Memoirs of Baron von Müffling p 237 – also, very similar wording in Müffling’s account of Quatre Bras in WSD vol 10 p 511). And most accounts strongly imply that the Prince of Orange – not Wellington – exercised effective command over the Dutch-Belgian troops who were attacked in the first stage of the battle.
The reinforcements allow Wellington to order a counter-attack:
Reinforcements were beginning to arrive: the Reserve form Brussels, with Picton’s Fifth Division in the lead, followed by the Brunswick Corps and the Nassau contingent came marching south from Waterloo, while van Merlen’s brigade of Dutch-Belgian light cavalry trotted along the road from Nivelles. Wellington ordered Picton’s men to turn left at Quatre Bras and form line along the Namur road. The 1/95th in the lead was sent a little further east and south in the hope that it could occupy the farm at Pireaumont south of the Materne pond. At the other end of the line the 92nd Gordon Highlanders secured their flank on the buildings of Quatre Bras. Best’s Hanoverian brigade formed in reserve north of the road. The Brunswick Corps arrived a little later and formed to the west of the Charleroi road, between it and the Bois de Bossu. Two companies of Brunswick riflemen were sent into the wood to assist the Dutch-Belgian defence, and a light battalion was sent to the other flank of the army to support the 95th. (Beamish History of the King’s German Legion vol 2 p 327-8).
The arrival of these troops encouraged Wellington to attempt to regain the Gemioncourt farm, and the Prince of Orange led forward the 7th Belgian Line to reinforce the Jägers and 5th Militia who were maintaining their position on the Materne brook. Wellington ordered one of Picton’s regiments to support this advance, however there was some mix-up or delay before the 28th moved forward (Gomm in Waterloo Letters p 24; Gomm Letters and Journals p 353). Apparently the Dutch-Belgian re-occupied the farm with little opposition and held it for about half an hour, skirmishing with the French. But Foy’s infantry moved to turn their flank and cut off their retreat and so they were forced to withdraw. In their retreat they were attacked by Piré’s light cavalry (6th Chasseurs à Cheval) and their much tried nerve gave way. The 7th Line fled into the Bossu Wood and rallied under the cover of the trees but the 5th Militia and 27th Jäger and 294 in the 5th Militia. The figures include a high number of missing (over 250 out of 740) as is not surprising for infantry over-run by cavalry in an advanced position, especially with the crops concealing many casualties from view. There is no doubt that these three battalions had done more than anyone had a right to expect. The French cavalry also over-ran Stevenaar’s battery capturing four guns (although some of these were later recovered) and inflicting over 100 casualties. The Prince of Orange and his staff were caught up in the confusion and only escaped thanks to the quality of the horses. However the charge seems to have by-passed the British 28th which saw that the French had regained Gemioncourt and fell back without significant contact with the enemy. (Muilwijk ‘Waterloo’ cf Muilwijk Quatre Bras, Perponcher’s gamble p 110-116).
Fortescue (History of the British Army vol 10 p 301) draws attention to this counter-attack, but does not link it to any movement of the Dutch-Belgians, however the reference in Gomm (Letters and Journals p 353-4) to sending the 28th forward makes much more sense if this was done in conjunction with the Prince of Orange’s counter-attack. But the point is conjectural and unsure – Siborne Waterloo Campaign p 147-8 is ambiguous.
Another interpretation of the evidence is that the 28th and other units of Picton’s division were sent forward after the Prince of Orange’s counter-attack was defeated. Indeed this is the more common version of events and the sources are far from clear. However it seems more likely that there was one allied counter-attack not two at around this time.
The failure of van Merlen’s charge and Wellington’s ‘leap’ to escape:
The 6th Hussars of van Merlen’s brigade were sent forward to cover the withdrawal of their compatriots. However this was done rather too hastily; the men never had a chance to settle into their places, and the regiment was not properly formed when it was ordered to advance. The Hussars charged but the French cavalry were well supported and full of confidence and soon sent them flying. Van Merlen’s second regiment, the 5th Light Dragoons, had more success for the French were now disordered. The exact details of what happened are not clear, but it seems that the Light Dragoons, were quite heavily engaged and that with their help many of the infantry who had been forced to surrender were able to escape back to the allied lines. In the course of the day the Light Dragoons suffered 121 casualties including 38 dead, compared to 50 casualties (14 killed) in the 6th Hussars. (Muilwijk ‘Waterloo’ p 84-9, 101; private information form Erwin Muilwijk in an e-mail at 31 October 2007 cf Muilwijk Quatre Bras, Perponcher’s Gamble p 113-14). Wellington and his staff were caught up in the flight of the hussars and Fitzroy Somerset recalled that ‘The Duke leaped a bank and ditch, and on a worse horse he might not have escaped’ (Somerset in Waterloo Papers p 9).
This seems to be the origin of the story that Wellington leapt over the ranks of the 92nd to escape the French cavalry. Two separate incidents have been conflated:
- That he leapt over a bank and ditch to escape the French when they were pursuing van Merlen’s cavalry, as attested by Somerset. And
- That he withdrew behind the 92nd and ordered them to open fire, when they were attacked later in the battle.
However the account of 2) in Siborne Waterloo Letters p 386 is explicit that Wellington was on foot, while 1) probably happened in a much more advanced part of the field – and much earlier.
There was nothing especially surprising about the incident – there were a number of similar brushes in the Peninsula – but it is worth noting the coincidence of Blücher being ridden over on the same day. Imagine if both had been captured…
George Scovell explicitly denies the story of Wellington’s leap ‘it is not true that that the Duke on retiring “leaped the bayonets” of the regiment that lined the hollow roadway’. I was with the Duke, and we were retiring before a charge of the enemy’s cavalry, when the Duke cried out “Make way men, make way!” and a passage opened for us’. (Printed Memorandum of Service at Waterloo by Scovell WO 37/12 f70-1). The context suggests that Scovell was rebutting a story in Brialmont & Gleig Life of Wellington vol 2 p 425. However it must be said that this memorandum was written many years after the event, and some of its other statements are clearly inaccurate. On the other hand, the story does not appear, as one would certainly expect that it would, in first-hand accounts written soon after the battle by officers of the 92nd.
It is possible that the French cavalry had rather more success at this point, if the claim that van Merlen’s other regiment, the 5th Light Dragoons checked the French advance is not reliable. Houssaye (1815 Waterloo p 114) says that van Merlen’s cavalry were broken a battalion of Dutch militia dispersed and 8 guns taken. Many British accounts (e.g. James The Campaign of 1815 p 140) accept this, and even Muilwijk echoes much of it, identifying the battalions of infantry as 5th Militia (Muilwijk ‘Waterloo’). But it is hard to reconcile this with the supposed success of the 5th Light Dragoons. Perhaps the most plausible explanation is that the infantry were broken first, then the Hussars, with the Light Dragoons acting as the back-stop.
However the evidence is extremely fragmented and capable of multiple interpretations.
Muilwijk ‘Waterloo’ gives the interesting detail that part of the 5th Light Dragoons hung back and was reluctant the charge.
The 95th Rifles are hotly engaged at the eastern end of the line:
The two armies were closest to each other on the flanks: in the Bois de Bossu where fighting seems to have been almost continuous if not always very intense, and on the eastern flank where the Namur road ran only a few hundred yards north of Pireaumont. Here the 95th Rifles had not pressed their advance on Pireaumont, but instead had occupied the straggling hamlet of Thyle on the road with their two leading companies while the rest of the battalion lined the road and occupied the Cherry Wood just north of the road opposite the Materne pond. Edward Costello was in the companies at Thyle:
We remained very quietly where we were until the French, bringing up some artillery, began riddling the house with round-shot. Feeling rather thirsty, I had asked a young woman in the place for a little water, which she was handing to me, when a ball passed through the building, knocking the dust about our ears; strange to say, the girl appeared less alarmed than myself.’
Fearing that we might be surrounded, we were at length obliged to leave the building, in doing which we were fiercely attacked by a number of French voltigeurs, who forced us to extend along a lane, from whence we as smartly retaliated, and a galling fire was kept up for some time on both sides.
It is remarkable that recruits in action are generally more unfortunate than the old soldiers. We had many fine fellows, who joined us on the eve of our leaving England, who were killed here. The reason of this is that an old rifleman will seek shelter, if there be any near his post, while the inexperienced recruit appears as if petrified to the spot by the whizzing balls, and unnecessarily exposes himself to the enemy’s fire. (Costello Peninsular and Waterloo Campaigns p 151-2).
The Rifles were reinforced by a battalion of Brunswick light infantry and drove the French skirmishers back through fields where stout hedges posed a serious obstacle to movement on either side. They did not regain Thyle but held their new position under considerable pressure, so that George Simmons, veteran of a score of Peninsular battles wrote home that ‘a more bloody or obstinately contested thing had seldom or never been seen. This convinced me that the French would fight for Buonaparte’ (Simmons A British Rifleman p 366).
The Attack on Kempt’s brigade:
The other three battalions of Kempt’s brigade (1/28th, 1/32nd, 1/79th) had been pushed forward south of the road with Pack’s brigade to their right rear and Best’s Hanoverians behind in support. The weight of Bachelu’s attack fell on Kempt’s men although Pack’s leading regiment, the 3/1st Royal Scots, was also heavily engaged. An officer of the 32nd described what happened in a letter written on 25 June:
A little before four the action commenced, on the side of the French. We lay down in the cornfield till they till they came within forty yards if us, when a shout from our right caused us to rise. We fired a volley and charged them down to the ditch, in getting over which they lost numbers. When we got down the bugle sounded for us to return and form in line upon the colours, which we did, and were pursued by them again; we charged them a second time, and actually the ground was covered with dead and wounded bodies. (Extract from a letter from an unnamed officer of the 32nd dated Antwerp, 25 June 1815 printed in Colonel G. C. Swiney Historical Records of the 32nd (Cornwall) Light Infantry… p 116).
Even after the initial attack was repulsed the British line remained under heavy fire from French skirmishers who took cover behind the hedges, and overwhelmed the British light companies. The 79th were sent forward to drive them off and succeeded in pushing them back over fields and hedges for several hundred yards before the proximity of the French supports checked the advance. The skirmishers turned and resumed firing while the Highlanders formed up behind a hedge of their own and began firing regular volleys at their elusive opponents. This stalemate lasted until the 79th had almost exhausted its ammunition and was forced to retrace its steps to the main line, no doubt followed by a fresh cloud of skirmishers. Losses in all four British battalions were heavy but the 79th suffered most, with over 300 casualties. (Mackenzie Historical Records of the 79th Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders p 55-56).
Harry Ross-Lewin of the 32nd gives a rather different, and much later, account of the fighting.
A heavy column advanced against the fifth division, the officers marching in front, flourishing their swords and encouraging their men; but they were quickly driven back, and forced through the hedge at the bottom of the slope on which we had been drawn up. They had to cross a long narrow field and a second hedge before they could get under cover from our fire, and an admirable opportunity of taking a number of prisoners was lost here, while they were making their way through a small opening. Indeed, numbers of them had ordered their arms in the expectation of being pursued and taken; but they escaped with inconsiderable loss, as our troops were halted at the first hedge. The French, when they had all passed to the other side of the fence, lined it, instead of retiring, and commenced from behind it a most destructive fire on our division, which was so much exposed on the side of the hill; in consequence, the regiments were ordered to fall back, and lie down on the reverse slope. My regiment, while retiring thither, suffered severely from the fire of the troops that lined the fence. Such attacks were continued with little intermission, but we maintained our ground, invariably repulsing all the enemy’s efforts to gain it. (Ross Lewin, With The Thirty Second p 256-7).
This fits quite neatly with the account of the advance of the 79th.
Wellington’s attitude to troops breaking:
And on 4 November 1835 Lady Salisbury recorded a conversation with Wellington as they walked over the Downs near Walmer:
I asked him about the life of Picton, just out. He told me he never had any quarrel with Picton, and did not know from what the report could arise. The only thing like a disagreement that he recollected was that one day the 28th Regiment were running away, “and Picton,” said the Duke, “who was a very violent vulgar fellow, was blackguarding and abusing them furiously, and I said, “Come, there’s no use in that – no use in abusing them. They all run away sometimes. They’ll stand still by and by and you’ll have them all back again. What we have to do is to support them.” And in short I took him up for it – but that was all that passed …. He was a very brave man and a good soldier. General Miranda first mentioned him to me, and told me he had great abilities, but that it might be dangerous to employ him in the West Indies, as he was beyond measure ambitious and might try to get himself made a King. I was not much afraid of his making himself a King, so that did not signify. (Lady Salisbury’s diary, 4 November 1835 Gascoyne Heiress p 181-2).
If Lady Salisbury recorded this correctly the incident must have occurred in the 1815 campaign, as the 28th were not in Picton’s division in the Peninsula, and Quatre Bras is more likely than Waterloo, as Picton was killed early in the fighting on the 18th, and Wellington is not thought to have been this far east at this point of the battle (although the evidence of his movements is fragmentary and unreliable). The more interesting point is his calm response to troops breaking, although this is not really surprising if we think of the way he rallied and brought forward his men again at Argaum after an early panic.
Piré charges Pack’s flank and rear, the 42nd and 44th Regiments:
Pack’s battalions, other than the Royal Scots, do not seem to have been seriously engaged when Bachelu’s division attacked. The 92nd was left close to Quatre Bras itself, but the 42nd and 44th advanced in the open ground east of the Charleroi road to protect Kempt’s flank. They were annoyed by the fire of the French artillery and drove off some skirmishers but were otherwise unmolested. (Anton suggests that they drove back some skirmishers (Anton Retrospect of a Military Life p 190-2; Siborne Waterloo Letters p 379, 380 also suggests heavy skirmisher fire)
Piré’s second line seems to have been formed by the 5e and 6e Chevaux Légers, his two regiments of lancers. They look advantage of the flight of the Brunswick Corps to fall upon the flank of Pack’s brigade, and particularly the 42nd and 44th Regiments which were formed in line well to the south of Quatre Bras and the Namur Road. Evidently some of the Brunswickers and pursuing Chasseurs passed close to the infantry before the lancers attacked for several British accounts speak of old soldiers in the ranks opening an oblique fire upon a mass of cavalry and of Pack and his officers endeavouring to stop it in the belief that they were all allied troops. The lancers seem to have circled behind the infantry before they attacked, and certainly caught them by surprise. The 42nd scrambled to form square and although the cavalry were upon them before the square was completed the Highlanders held their nerve, beat off the horsemen and kept information. This was extraordinary for while a well formed square could usually be relied upon to beat off any attack by unsupported cavalry, infantry which was caught out of formation usually panicked leading to disaster. The 44th also survived due to boldness and cool courage. Its commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Hamerton, judged that he did not have enough time to form square and instead ordered the rear rank of his line to face about and fire into the oncoming cavalry. Most of the lancers were daunted and sheered away although one brave man rode into the very centre of the line of the 44th and severely wounded Ensign Christie and tore part of the Colours form their staff before being killed. After the discomfited lancers retreated both British battalions fell back towards the Namur Road leaving a couple of companies behind to keep the French skirmishers at a respectable distance. (Siborne Waterloo Letters p 377-82; Anton Retrospect of a Military Life p 192-3).
This is the accepted interpretation of what happened: that Piré’s supporting regiments swung round and charged the 42nd and 44th in the rear. However there is another plausible interpretation which may even be more probable, although there are difficulties with both. This is that Piré’s men all charged forward and that their attack on the 42nd and 44th occurred after they had been repulsed by the 92nd and were already falling back, when they were already disordered and their horses blown. This makes the failure of the charge easier to understand, and explains why it came from the rear of the infantry, although it does not explain why the infantry were not properly formed in square.
Sergeant Anton gives a more colourful account of the 42nd’s experiences:
We saw their approach at a distance, as they issued form a wood, and took them for Brunswickers coming to cut up the flying infantry; and as cavalry on all occasions have the advantage of retreating foot, on a fair field, we were halted in order to let them take their way: they were approaching our right flank, form which our skirmishers were extended, and we were far from being in a formation fit to repel an attack, if intended, or to afford regular support to our friends if requiring our aid. I think we stood with too much confidence, gazing towards them as if they had been our friends, anticipating the gallant charge they would make on the flying foe, and we were making no preparative movement to receive them as enemies, further than the reloading of the muskets, until a German orderly dragoon galloped up, exclaiming, “Franchee! Franchee!” and, wheeling about, galloped off. We instantly formed a rallying square; no time for particularity; every man’s piece was loaded, and our enemies approached at full charge; the feet of their horses seemed to tear up the ground. Our skirmishers having been impressed with the same opinion, that these were Brunswick cavalry, fell beneath their lances, and few escaped death or wounds: our brave colonel fell at this time, pierced through the chin until the point of the lance reached the brain. Captain (now major) Menzies fell, covered with wounds, and a momentary conflict took place over him; he was a powerful man, and, hand to hand, more than a match for six ordinary men. The grenadiers, whom he commanded, pressed round to save or avenge him, but fell beneath the enemies’ lances.
Of all descriptions of cavalry, certainly the lancers seem the most formidable to infantry, as the lance can be projected with considerable precision, and with deadly effect, without bringing the horse to the point of the bayonet; and it was only by the rapid and well-directed fire of musketry that these formidable assailants were repulsed. (Anton Retrospect p 192-3).
The 92nd repulses Piré’s cavalry
Sergeant Robertson of the 92nd gives an account of the regiment’s role in driving off the French cavalry:
We had not been long in this way, when a column of Brunswick hussars, with the Duke of Brunswick at their head, made a charge down the road on the right. In this, however, they were unsuccessful, and were driven back with considerable loss, the Duke being among the slain. The column of French cavalry that drove back the Brunswickers retired a little, then re-formed, and prepared to charge our regiment; but we took it more coolly than the Brunswickers did. When the Duke of Wellington saw them approach, he ordered our left wing to fire to the right, and the right wing to fire to the left, by which we crossed the fire; and a man and horse affording such a large object for an aim, very few of them escaped. The horses were brought down and the riders, if not killed, were made prisoners. (Quoted in E. B. Low (ed) With Napoleon at Waterloo p 155).
The French officer brought down behind the 92nd:
An officer of the 92nd described how:
The [fleeing] Brunswickers passed round the right flank, intermingled with French; as soon as they were cleared, the regiment fired. The grenadiers being wheeled back on the road which lined the ditch, we lined, to enable them to fire as the French passed – the others to fire obliquely on the road – on those following the Brunswickers, the volley separated the front charge from the rear by the gap which we made, nothing was seen but horses and men tumbling over each other – the rear of the Enemy retreated, and the front dashed through the village, cutting down all stragglers. (The Battle of Waterloo … by a Near Observer p lv second edition 1815).
The French officer was named as ‘Monsieur Burgoine’ by Major Robert Winchester of the 92nd (Siborne Waterloo Letters p 386-7) This is probably the ‘S. Lieut. De Bourgoing’ listed in Martinien as having been wounded on 16 June 1815. He was not an officer of Piré’s brigade, nor of Kellermann’s cuirassiers, but of the 1st Chevau-Légers in Colbert’s brigade. We know that Colbert took part in the advance on Quatre Bras on the 15th as some French sources claim that he occupied it (see Muilwijk’s discussion of the point). And the other regiment in his brigade, the 2nd Chevau-Légers, took a leading part in the combat at Genappe on 17 June. But before we assume that the brigade as a whole took part in Piré’s charge, it must be noted that De Bourgoing was the only officer casualty recorded on the 16th, and he may well have been detached from the regiment at the time. In other words his identity does not help establish whether the 92nd repulsed Piré’s light cavalry or Kellermann’s cuirassiers.
More allied troops arrive and are deployed:
Charles Alten’s Third British Division arrived at Quatre Bras probably a little before 5pm; Cooke with the First British Division was not very far behind and Wellington still hoped that the allied cavalry would appear before the long summer evening was over. Alten brought only two brigades having left Ompteda’s KGL brigade to cover Nivelles. Kielmansegge’s unusually strong Hanoverian brigade (six battalions, over 3,300 men) was sent to reinforce Kempt and the 95th on the left. Alten had commanded the Light Division in Spain and George Simmons records his delight at the arrival of ‘this great & kind man’ and his welcome successor (quoted in Uffindell National Army Museum Book of Wellington’s Armies p 278). Backed by the Hanoverians, the 95th and other British battalions pressed forward and drove the French back, although not as far as Thyle or Pireaumont. One or two of the Hanoverian battalions took an active part n the skirmishing and by the end of the day the brigade had suffered 175 casualties – a comparatively modest total which tends to suggest that the fighting had lost some of its early intensity in this part of the field.
Alten’s British brigade consisted of four rather inexperienced battalions (2/30th, 33rd, 2/69th, 2/73rd) under Sir Colin Halkett who had commanded the light battalions of the King’s German Legion with much distinction in the Peninsula. Halkett’s men were sent to replace the Brunswickers, between the Bossu Wood and the Charleroi road south of Quatre Bras. Piré’s cavalry had disappeared before he arrived and he endeavoured to provide cover for the Brunswick troops to rally and to relieve the pressure on the 42nd and 44th who were running short of ammunition and feeling the effects of the fire of the French artillery and skirmishers. According to Lieutenant William Thain of the 33rd ‘The British Brigade advanced into line in column of companies at quarter distance. We were placed in this order in rear of the line and permitted to lay [sic] down in the corn but were soon ordered to stand up for the enemy were making an attempt to turn our right by a wood [Bois de Bossu] upon which it was approached. We gave them a most beautiful volley and charged but they ran faster than our troops (already fatigued) could do, and we consequently did not touch them with the bayonet’ (quoted in Brereton & Savory History of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment p 144). It is not clear whether this was a serious French attack, or no more than an attempt to drive off enemy skirmishers, although the fact that other officers of the 33rd describing the battle do not mention the incident suggest the latter.
The rye was so high, at least in the eastern part of the field, that the cavalry could not even see the squares at a distance and were forced to send a bold officer or man forward to plant a flag or other marker to indicate the line of attack. (Siborne Waterloo Letters p 348). In theory the squares were formed of neat ranks of stern, disciplined men who stoically endured and waited impassively until the order came to fire upon already retreating cavalry. But the soldiers were human, and the reality was often a little less tidy than drill regulations imply. A petition presented to Wellington in 1846 by Sergeant Thomas Patton of the 28th gives us a glimpse of what was probably a fairly common incident:
Petitioner further begs to refer your Grace to the 16th June 1815, at Quatre Bras, when the regiment, being in square, the French cavalry had charged and broke through the square of the regiment on our right, they charged the 28th with the force of all their cavalry, in your Grace’s presence, for upwards of three quarters of an hour, and could not enter our square. Petitioner was the second file of the front face of the Grenadiers. The French General commanding the cavalry came over our bayonets with his horse’s head and encouraged his men to break into our square. Petitioner instantly lifted his piece and shot him. Lieutenant Irwin struck petitioner across the left cheek with [the flat of] his sword. Petitioner brought down his piece to his knee and again loaded, and remained steady, when the word ‘Kneeling ranks present fire’ was given; petitioner stood up and loaded, and asked Lieutenant Irwin what was the reason he struck him with his sword? Lieutenant Irwin replied, ‘For firing without orders’. Petitioner told him it was enough for the enemy to cut him down and not him; when the gallant General Sir James Kempt called out, ‘Silence, gentlemen, let the men alone; they know their duty better than you, the men please me, and not a word gentleman.’ (Petition from Thomas Patton, late Sergeant of Her Majesty’s 28th Regiment of Foot, presented to Wellington in 1846 printed in Gareth Glover (ed) The Waterloo Archive vol 1 p 176-77).
The 69th Regiment is broken and loses a Colour:
Kellermann’s attack fell with great force on Halkett’s brigade, and the 69th, which had been detached a little to the left to take the pressure off Pack’s brigade, was broken while trying to form square. Captain Pigot described what happened
I was wounded at the same time with Major Lindsay; he commanded No 1, I commanded No 2. Poor man, the loss sustained by the Grenadier, Nos 1 and 2, Companies was greatly attributable to him, halting those Companies, making them face to right about, in open Column, and commence firing upon the Cuirassiers. But for that we should be got into square, as it was those Companies [that] were really cut down. Poor man, to the day of his death he regretted having done so, but at the time he did it for the best. (quoted in Siborne Waterloo Letters p 337-8).
The battalion was broken and the men fled many finding protection under the bayonets of the nearby squares of the 42nd and 44th. The King’s Colour of the 2/69th was captured, although the story which appears in one memoir, that the regiment endeavoured to conceal the loss by getting its tailors to make a new one, appears to be nothing more than a camp rumour. (Whitehorne History of the Welch Regiment p 125-6; Thomas Morris The Napoleonic Wars p 90).
British accounts frequently blame the Prince of Orange for the destruction of the 69th, but the evidence for this is questionable. In a letter written from Paris on 7 July 1815 Captain George Ulrick Barlow of the 69th told his father that ‘A certain personage, who shall be nameless, sent down an order that the 69th should deploy into line’, and that this led to the regiment being broken (Glover Waterloo Archive vol IV British Sources p 159). And the story was repeated, with more detail, in Halkett’s letter to Siborne, in which he says that when he saw that the French cavalry were preparing to advance he sent his ADC to warn the 69th. ‘I received an answer from the Commanding Officer of the 69th Regiment (Colonel Morice) that my order had been received and that he had attended to my instructions. Unfortunately, in the act of forming square an Officer high in rank came up to the 69th Regiment, and asked what they were about. The reply was the directions they received from me, on which he said [there was] no chance of the Cavalry appearing, and ordered them to form column and deploy into line, which of course was complied with, and during this very movement the Cavalry did attack, [and] rode through the 69th Regiment’. (Siborne Waterloo Letters p 322).
Neither of these officers name the senior officer, and it was Siborne, possibly acting on unpublished information, who identified the senior officer as the Prince of Orange.
This story may well be true – it certainly cannot be disproved – but there are reasons to doubt it:
- It is rather too convenient. The regiment had been somewhat disgraced by losing its colour, and this provided a comfortable excuse which shifted the blame from the regiment to an unnamed party.
- It is unnervingly similar to the story of the destruction of the 8th Line Battalion of KGL, Ompteda’s brigade (in Alten’s division, just like Halkett) at Waterloo two days later (see Siborne Waterloo Campaign p 460 Beamish History of the King’s German Legion vol 2 p 370-1). It is difficult to believe that the Prince made exactly the same error twice in just three days.
- British accounts have a tendency to blame the Prince of Orange for anything and everything that went wrong, and so need to be treated with some scepticism (for example see Fortescue History of the British Army vol 10 p 313, 315-6).
Kellermann’s cuirassiers and the rest of Halkett’s brigade:
The 30th and the 73rd formed square in time and the French cavalry either avoided them altogether or made no impression upon them, although if the memoirs of Thomas Morris, a sergeant in the 73rd can be believed, two companies of his regiment, which had been detached to skirmish with the French light infantry, would have been sacrificed owing to the incompetence of their captain if it had not for the prompt intervention of the regiments young adjutant who got them back to the main body in the nick of time (Morris The Napoleonic Wars p 68-9). The 33rd was less fortunate for the ground on which formed square was particularly exposed to the French artillery. Private George Hemingway described what happened in a letter written two months after the battle:
The enemy got a fair view of our Regiment at that time and they [send] cannon shot as thick as hail stones immidiatly whe got up on our ground and seen a large column of the French cavalry named the French Curiseres advancing close upon us whe immidatly tried to form square to recieve the cavalry but all in vain the cannon shot from the enemy brook down our square faster then whe could form it killed 9 and 10 men every shot the balls falling down amongst us just at the present and shells bursting in a hundred pieces whe count not be accountable for the number of men that whe lost their and had it not been for a wood on our right about 300 yards whe should have every every man been cut in pieces with the cavalry and trampled upon by their horses but whe got in the wood as quick as possible. (‘A new Account of Waterloo: A Letter Home from Private George Hemingway of the Thirty-Third Regiment of Foot’, edited by Daniel Waley British Library Journal vol 6 1980 p 63).
Lieutenant Pattison of the 33rd later admitted that the regiment fled into the Bois de Bossu and dispersed, while Colin Halkett, when pressed, told Siborne
The only part that really did retreat was one Regiment (the 33rd), and which I was not all satisfied with. …
The 33rd I rode to the moment I could absent myself from the front, and I recollect I had some difficulty in getting them to the order they ought to have remained in, and I took one of their Colours and advanced to the front with it, which I think had the desired effect, and soon got them into the order they ought never to have lost’ (Siborne Waterloo Letters p 324).
However Pattison shows that it was not quite as smooth and simple as this suggests:
The report of Sir Colin Halkett having seized one of our Colours and re-formed the Regiment may be true, and upon reflecting, a vague impression of that kind fleets over my mind; but as the party with which I was connected, consisting of the above-mentioned Officers and about fifty or sixty men, found the Regiment upon returning formed on the outside of the wood, if such a circumstance took place, none of us saw it. (Siborne Waterloo Letters p 336; cf Personal Recollections of the Waterloo Campaign by Lieutnenat Frederick Hope Pattison p 6-11).
Given all this, the losses of Halkett’s brigade were surprisingly light: the 2/69th suffered the most with 152 casualties including 38 killed; the 33rd had 102 casualties; the 2/30th 40 casualties and the 2/73rd 52. By contrast the 42nd and 44th, which were in the field and subject to French fire for much longer, lost 288 and 138 casualties respectively.
Allied casualties in the battle:
The allies lost almost 5,000 casualties: as many as at all but the bloodiest of Wellington’s Peninsular victories. Of these casualties almost exactly half were British, one quarter Dutch-Belgians and the rest Brunswickers and Hanoverians. Four British brigades bore the heaviest losses: Halkett’s with 346; Maitland’s with 547; Kempt’s with 639 and Pack’s with 930, and it is quite clear that if Picton’s division had been less resolute the battle would have been lost before Alten and Cooke could have arrived. (British and Brunswick casualties figures from Siborne History of the War in France and Belgium third edition, 1848 p 555 (Appendices XXIII and XXIV); Hanoverian casualties: information from Michael Taenzer through links posted on the Napoleon Series Discussion Forum in October 2007; Dutch-Belgian casualties: Muilwijk ‘Waterloo’.
The Prussian defeat at Ligny:
The temptation to blame the Prussian defeat either on Wellington or on Bülow should be avoided. Neither Napoleon nor Blücher had their entire force present, and while there is some dispute over the figures it is generally accepted that the Prussians outnumbered the French. That Blücher was driven from a position of his own choosing by an inferior enemy on the second day of the campaign does not speak well of his judgment. Conversely Napoleon’s inability to cripple the Prussian army when given such a chance to do so, meant that he had lost the best chance he would have of winning the campaign. And it is a matter of taste whether one praises the fighting spirit of the Prussian army for not collapsing in defeat, or deplores their inability to hold their ground at least fight to a stalemate on 16 June.
Prussian losses at Ligny:
Estimates of Prussian losses at Ligny vary widely. Hofschröer 1815 vol 2 p 35 gives the figures used here of 10,000 casualties and 8,000 deserters. Michael Leggiere Blücher p 403 says 12,000 casualties and 8,000 deserters. Fortescue History of the British Army vol 10 p 326 following James Campaign of 1815 p 136 puts Prussian casualties at only 6,000, but this is unconvincing. At the other extreme, Becke Napoleon and Waterloo vol 2 p 266 puts the Prussian losses at 16,000 men, a figure also given by Parkinson in his life of Blücher (The Hussar General p 225). Houssaye 1815: Waterloo p 107 says 12,000 Prussians, while Uffindell, in his study of the battle says ‘20-25,000, including 8,000-10,000 deserters’ (The Eagle’s Last Triumph p 204). Siborne The Waterloo Campaign p 255 says 12,000 but this includes casualties suffered on 15 June taking the losses at Ligny down to a little over 10,000. The British believed that the Prussians had lost some 14,000 casualties (Frazer Letters p 544 written on the morning of the 18th).
The Prussian decision to retreat north to Wavre, not east to Namur:
This was probably the single most important decision of the campaign, the one which, more than any other, gave the allies the possibility of victory. According to Leggiere, Blücher had not discussed what line of retreat to take when he was incapacitated, but Gneisenau knew (from the details of the orders given to Bülow among other things) that he was determined to remain in close contact with Wellington’s army. Nonetheless the initial decision was taken by Gneisenau, and he deserves great credit for it. Nor were his arguments for a slightly more cautious approach on 18 June at all unreasonable: Blücher’s march on Plancenoit was an extraordinarily bold move that left almost no possibility other than complete victory or complete defeat. Gneisenau would have been negligent if he had not pointed out the implications of the plan; while he surely knew Blücher well enough to know that there was little risk that the old warrior would prefer the path of caution. (Leggiere Blücher p 404, 408; see also Stanhope Notes 26 October 1837 and 25 October 1838 p 110 and 118).
Wellington sleeps at Genappe:
Fitzroy Somerset in Waterloo Papers p 10 says Wellington went to bed at Genappe between 11pm and midnight and rose about 3am.
Wellington’s reaction to Gordon’s news:
A well known story by Lieutenant George Bowles of the Coldstream Guards gives a highly coloured and not entirely plausible version:
On the morning of the 17th, my company being nearly in front of the farmhouse at Quatre Bras, soon after daybreak the Duke of Wellington came to me, and being personally known to him he remained in conversation for an hour or more, during which time he repeatedly said he was surprised to have heard nothing from Blücher. A length a staff officer arrived, his horse covered in foam, and whispered to the Duke, who without the least change of countenance gave him some orders and dismissed him. He then turned round to me and said, “Old Blücher has had a d_____d good licking and gone back to Wavre, eighteen miles. As he has gone back we must go too. I suppose in England they will say we have been licked. I can’t help it, as they are gone back we must go too.
He made all the arrangements for retiring without moving from the spot on which he was standing, and it certainly did not occupy him five minutes. (Memorandum by Bowles in Malmesbury A Series of Letters vol 2 p 446-7).
There is a rather more credible account in Basil Jackson’s Notes and Reminiscences of a Staff Officer who states that ‘after riding about, and satisfying himself that all things were in order, [the Duke] dismounted and sat down on the ground very near the point of intersection of the chausses, called “les Quatre Bras”. …. I remained for some time at a short distance from the great man, who occasionally addressed a word to Lord Fitzroy Somerset, Barnes, Delancey, and others of his principal staff officers. He was then awaiting the return of Sir Alexander Gordon, an aide-de-camp who had been sent off between six and seven o’clock, escorted by a squadron of the 10th Hussars, to learn something of the Prussians…’ (p 25-26). And, some time later ‘I found him still seated on the ground, where he remained till Gordon and his escort returned with jaded horses, soon after ten o’clock. On hearing his report, the Duke said a few words to Delancey, who, observing me at hand, directed me to find Sir Thomas Picton, and tell him to make immediate preparation for withdrawing to Waterloo.’ (ibid p 31).
Fitzroy Somerset gives an important variation:
The Duke got on horseback about three o’clock in the morning and proceeded to Quatre Bras. He immediately despatched Sir A. Gordon with a troop of cavalry to patrol towards the Prussian army to ascertain what had really happened. About seven o’clock Sir A. Gordon returned to Quatre Bras having only seen a few of the enemy’s vedettes who retired as he advanced. But he brought information that Blücher had been obliged to retire upon Wavre. Everybody at Headquarters conceived that it was a place a little in the rear of the Prussian position, no one at this instant recollecting the precise situation of Wavre, in reality so far distant in the rear. It did not occur to any person that the Prussians could have fallen back so far. General Muffling was the person who opened the Duke’s eyes. Upon being told the Prussians had fallen back on Wavre [he] observed “Ma foi c’est bein loin”, and the Duke immediately resolved on making a corresponding movement to fall back on the road to Brussels.’ (Somerset’s account in Owen (ed) Waterloo Papers p 10).
Communications between the allied armies on morning of 17 June:
Lieutenant Lieutenant von Massow was the Prussian officer who arrived after Gordon’s return. He told Wellington that the Prussian army needed a pause to regroup and replenish its ammunition, but should be able to resume operations on the 18th. He asked to know Wellington’s intentions, and Wellington said that he would withdraw to a position south of Waterloo; if the Prussiams would come to his assistance he would stand and fight, otherwise he would abandon Brussels and fall back on Antwerp. (Hofschröer 1815 vol 2 p 24-5; Houssaye 1815 Waterloo p 145. There is an interesting variation in their accounts: Hofschröer says that Wellington required the promise of two Prussian corps before he would stand and fight, Houssaye says only one).
Hofschröer (1815 vol 2 p 25) also briefly recounts the story of Lieutenant Wucherer, one of Müffling’s ADCs who claims to have ridden to Prussian HQ and secured Blücher’s promise of assistance and ridden back – which is hard to reconcile with other accounts, unless it was Wucherer who brought Blücher’s message c 2am on the 18th.
The Choice of Position at Waterloo:
Fitzroy Somerset says that on the morning of the 17th Wellington sent De Lancey back ‘to mark out a position in front of the Forest of Soignes, which the Duke proposed to take up with his army’. And that when Wellington arrived near La Belle Alliance ‘he thought it was the position the QMG would have taken up, being the most commanding ground, but [the QMG] had found it too extended to be occupied by our troops so had proceeded further on and marked out a position. This was to the right near Braine l’Alleud thence to the left across the high road which joined on the rear near Mont St Jean’. (Owen Waterloo Papers p 10-11). There is nothing inherently unlikely about this, but Somerset’s account was written much later and is not entirely reliable in other respects, so it cannot be relied upon without some corroboration.
Sill it is much more credible than the suggestion by Vivian (Siborne Waterloo Letters p 152) that Wellington was initially inclined to give battle just south of Genappe – an idea which makes no sense at all. (Although it is possible that Wellington paused and commented that the terrain would suit such a battle).
Wellington told Malcolm that it was not true that he had always intended to fight at Waterloo: (Kaye Life of Malcolm vol 2 p 102).
Wellington’s anger at artillery fire late on 17th June:
According to Ellesmere’s Personal Reminscences of the Duke of Wellington: ‘I have heard others say that they never saw him so thoroughly angry as late in the evening of the 17th at Waterloo. As the troops were taking up their ground, the French pressing rather closely, an officer of our artillery took upon himself to open a fire upon them. The Duke was very angry, thinking it might lead to a useless and ineffectual waste of life and ammunition.’ (p 110).
© Rory Muir