Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Ligny - Napoleon's last victory

On the morning of the 16 June 1815 the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's Armee du nord was poised to win a great victory that would bring Belgium back under their control. The French had "Humbugged" Wellington and arrived at Quatre Bras a day earlier than planned and the Dutch force was not sufficient enough to hold Marshal Ney's 18,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. In the meantime the Prussian army under Marshall Blücher had fallen back to the village of Ligny.

Wellington was unsure where the French main thrust would come still believing a flanking move from the Mons would cut him off from Brussels. Napoleon on the other hand ordered Ney to take the cross roads and advance and join with Grouchey before taking Brussels.

Blücher had organised his forces to cover a large area with a network of fortified villages and an artillery signal system and laid in wait for the French invasion through May. They moved immediately to Ligny to prepare to hold the French.

Naploeon's forces were still at Charleroi when Grouchey reported Prussian movement up from Namur. Content that Ney could take Quatre Bras and that the British would not be able to intervene Napoleon moved his main force towards Blücher arriving around lunchtime.

Napoleon was forced to delay his attack until 14.30 when General Gérard's IV corps, who had arrived late, to deploy fully and news that his left flank was secure as Ney engaged at Quatre Bras. The ball opened with an artillery bombardment on the village o fFleurus and the III corps marched on the Prussian defensive position at St Amand la haye held by the 3rd Prussian brigade who quickly fell back. The French victory was short lived as the Prussians counter attacked under Steinmetz and stormed through the hamlet forcing a French withdrawal but they counterattacked in turn and pushed the weakened Prussians, who had lost 2000 men, out. 

Blücher was not prepared to allow his right flank to crumble so quickly and ordered his 2nd Brigade to take the hamlet but when they were repulsed he ordered elements of the II corps to cut the hamlet off from the main French force but this was also repulsed with French musketry cutting down their would be attackers as they got into position.

The attrition had taken its toll on the French though and when the energised and determined Blücher arrived to take personal command of the situation the Prussians swept them from the hamlet by 19:30. 

In the centre at Ligny the French had advanced under artillery fire on three sides but got a foothold in the village only to be caught in a viscous bombardment and counter bombardment followed up by the 3rd Prussian brigade's counter attack which became a bloody house to house fighting in the burning village that saw a heavily blooded French force fall back leaving Ligny in Prussian hands.

Orders were sent to Marshal Ney by the Emperor himself to detach his Reserves under General Drouet and bring them down on the Prussians left flank. Count de la Bédoyère who bore the message took it on his own initiative to lead Drouet's men personally as their commander was riding ahead to meet Ney. By 17:00 as the fighting in the two villages had reached crucial stages a large mass of dark uniformed men appeared on Napoleon's left flank whilst Blücher massed forces in the centre. This could be the end of the battle and campaign for the resurgent Emperor.

The perceived menace soon passed as Drouet's had returned to his corp with a threat of courtmartial from Ney ringing in his ears and led them back towards Quatre Bras. Tactically though it caused the French to hesitate unwilling to reinforce their attacks and prepare for this flank attack to come, a hesitation Blücher was happy to take advantage of. The Prussians fell on the French left flank but were repulsed by the Young guard to the west of St Amand and fell back to their starting positions.

Despite this recent set back the Prussians were still holding the French back but there was to be none of the promised support from Wellington. The battle of Quatre Bras was engulfing more and more of his forces and had almost seen him captured by a French cavalry charge! 

Blücher decided that he would personally throw back the French invaders and having strengthened his position in Ligny village led the last of his reserves in a charge on the French left flank that swept through St Amand but foundered at St Amand-le-Hameau and was forced to withdraw under attack from the Imperial Guard Chasseurs. The hard fought St Armand le Haye was also abandoned as the Prussians fell back.

Napoleon's killer instinct flared up; Blücher was beaten, his forces shattered and now was the time to release the Guard as he had done so many times before on battlefields across Europe. With the arrival of the Comte de Lobau's VI corp the French lines were secure for the attack. With the support of 60 guns and two cavalry corps the Guard advanced and shattered the Prussian centre. At 20:00 Major General Kraft reported he could not hold Ligny village for much longer and a mere half an hour later the Guard took control of the village.

With the infantry falling back in disarray Blücher counter attacked with all he had left and threw his cavalry against the elite French force only for it to be repulsed. The 72 year old Blücher personally took command of the cavalry's next attack but had his horse shot out from under him and he was carried from the field. 

With the charismatic and impetuous Feldmarschall incapacitated command devolved to Generalleutnant August von Gneisnau an altogether different general. The calculating Gneisnau did not trust Wellington to keep his promises and he foresaw the Coalition sitting idle whilst Napoleon destroyed his men or cut them off from home. Orders were issued that the army would withdraw leaving rearguards. Zieten's I corps rearguard fought on successfully until the following morning whilst Thieleman's withdrew at midnight. Although the army was shattered Gneisnau had them withdrawing in good order with most of their guns and stores falling back along their lines of communication East and not towards the Coalition forces until Blücher returned and ordered them North to parallel Wellington's withdrawal from Quatre Bras and towards Wavre where von Bülow's IV corps had begun setting up defensive positions.

At Quatre Bras the fighting had been just as intense with Ney's delayed offensive had allowed the British time to bring troops down to check his advance. The battle raged for the best part of the day but with Wellington unwilling to commit his whole army and Ney's inability to press home his attacks for want of men left it as an indecisive action. Wellington withdrew in good order to lead the French to a ground of his chosing a low ridge with three farmhouses and hamlets ranging from Hougemont to La Haye Sainte and Papelotte that were fortified not far from the village of Waterloo.

Ligny may have been a victory that cost Prussia 12,000 casualties 27 cannons and an estimated 8000 deserters but it also crippled Napoleon's force who had also lost 12,000 casualties. To gain victory over the considered weaker Coalition army Napoleon would have to move swiftly before either Wellington or Blücher could regroup and gain defensive positions but more importantly keep the two armies from joining forces against him.

There had been two critical delays with Ney failing to press Wellington as he withdrew but also Napoleon failing to press the Prussians and even allowing Thieleman's corps to retreat unharrassed. It wasn't until the 17th that Marshal Grouchy was given 30,000 men and ordered to advance behind the Prussian army and keep them in flight and away from Wellington at all cost. It was an order that would have serious ramifications for the whole campaign and the future of the Bonapartist Empire but that is another story...