The Battle of Ligny (16 June 1815) was the last victory of the military career of Napoleon Bonaparte. In this battle, French troops of the Armée du Nord under Napoleon's command, defeated a Prussian army under Field Marshal Blücher, near Ligny in present-day Belgium. The bulk of the Prussian army survived, however, and went on to play a pivotal role two days later at the Battle of Waterloo.
On 13 March 1815, six days before Napoleon reached Paris, the powers at the Congress of Vienna declared him an outlaw; four days later, the United Kingdom, Russia, Austria, and Prussia bound themselves to put 150,000 men each into the field to end his rule. Napoleon knew that, once his attempts at dissuading one or more of the Seventh Coalition Allies from invading France had failed, his only chance of remaining in power was to attack before the Coalition could put together an overwhelming force. If he could destroy the existing Coalition forces south of Brussels before they were reinforced, he might be able to drive the British back to the sea and knock the Prussians out of the war.
The Duke of Wellington expected Napoleon to try to envelop the Coalition armies, a manoeuvre that he had successfully used many times before, by moving through Mons to the south-west of Brussels. The roads to Mons were paved, which would have enabled a rapid flank march. This would have cut Wellington's communications with his base at Ostend, but would also have pushed his army closer to Blücher's. In fact, Napoleon planned instead to divide the two Coalition armies and defeat them separately, and he encouraged Wellington's misapprehension with false intelligence. Moving up to the frontier without alerting the Coalition, Napoleon divided his army into a left wing, commanded by Marshal Ney, a right wing commanded by Marshal Grouchy, and a reserve, which he commanded personally (although all three elements remained close enough to support one another). Crossing the frontier at Thuin near Charleroi before dawn on 15 June, the French rapidly over-ran Coalition outposts and secured Napoleon's favoured "central position" - at the junction between the area where Wellington's allied army was dispersed to his north-west, and Blücher's Prussian army to the north-east.
Only very late on the night of 15 June was Wellington certain that the Charleroi attack was the main French thrust, and he duly ordered his army to deploy near Nivelles and Quatre Bras. Early on the morning of 16 June, at the Duchess of Richmond's ball, on receiving a dispatch from the Prince of Orange, he was shocked by the speed of Napoleon's advance, and hastily sent his army in the direction of Quatre Bras, where the Prince of Orange, with the brigade of Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar, was holding a tenuous position against the French left, commanded by Marshal Ney. Ney's orders were to secure the crossroads of Quatre Bras, so that if necessary, he could later swing east and reinforce Napoleon.
As Napoleon considered the concentrated Prussian army the greater threat, he moved against them first. Lieutenant-General Zieten's I Corps rearguard action on 15 June held up the French advance, giving Blücher the opportunity to concentrate his forces in the Sombreffe position, which had been selected earlier for its good defensive attributes.
Napoleon's original plan for 16 June was based on the assumption that the Coalition forces, who had been caught napping, would not attempt a risky forward concentration; and he intended therefore to push an advanced guard as far as Gembloux, for the purpose of feeling for and warding off Blücher. To assist this operation the reserve would move at first to Fleurus to reinforce Grouchy, should he need assistance in driving back Blücher's troops; but, once in possession of Sombreffe, Napoleon would swing the reserve westwards and join Ney, who, it was supposed, would have in the meantime mastered Quatre Bras.
In pursuance of this object Ney, to whom III Cavalry Corps (Kellermann) was now attached, was to mass at Quatre Bras and push an advanced guard 10 kilometres (6 miles) northward of that place, with a connecting division at Marbais to link him with Grouchy. The centre and left wing together would then make a night-march to Brussels. The Coalition forces would thus be irremediably sundered, and all that remained would be to destroy them in detail. Napoleon now awaited further information from his wing commanders at Charleroi, where he massed the VI Corps (Lobau), to save it, if possible, from a harassing countermarch, as it appeared likely that it would only be wanted for the march to Brussels. Ney spent the morning in massing his I and II corps, and in reconnoitring the enemy at Quatre Bras, who, as he was informed, had been reinforced. But up till noon he took no serious step to capture the cross-roads, which then lay at his mercy. Grouchy meantime reported from Fleurus that Prussians were coming up from Namur, but Napoleon does not appear to have attached much importance to this report. He was still at Charleroi when, between 09:00 and 10:00, further news reached him from the left that considerable hostile forces were visible at Quatre Bras. He at once wrote to Ney saying that these could only be some of Wellington's troops, and that Ney was to concentrate his force and crush what was in front of him, adding that he was to send all reports to Fleurus. Then, keeping Lobau provisionally at Charleroi, Napoleon hastened to Fleurus, arriving about 11:00.
The French Armee du Nord (Army of the North) was commanded by veteran officers and headed by Napoleon himself, who had won dozens of battles. Directly under him were three Field Marshals, Grouchy, Ney, and Soult, all generals of renown and bravery. The corps and division generals were well known for ability and with several campaigns behind them. The troops of the Army of the North were for the most part experienced veterans who had seen at least one battle. This was probably the best army Napoleon had led since 1806. In equipment and supply the French were well set with both, although the Guard units had to suffer standard weapons, and the Army of the North had more cavalry than their opponents throughout the four days of battle that would follow and end at Waterloo.
By contrast, the Prussian Army was at this point in a sorry state. According to historian Peter Hofschröer "The armed forces fielded by the Kingdom of Prussia in 1815 were in terms of quality of manpower, equipment, and coherence of organization probably the worst fielded by Prussian in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The Prussian cavalry was reorganizing and converting the Freecorps and Legions into regular cavalry formations. The artillery was lacking guns and needed equipment and, in fact, guns and equipment continued to arrive from Prussia even as the battles were raging. No less than one third of the Prussian Infantry consisted of Landwehr (militia) and unlike the Landwehr of 1813/1814, these were untrained. Hofschröer says that "they could be counted to go forward in disorder and retreat in chaos". To further compound Prussian problems the Saxon and Rhinelander contingents were recent additions to the Prussian Army and were reluctant at best; in fact, the Saxons rebelled and were sent home before the French advanced, and many of the Rhinelanders would desert and head home during the battle.
Reports sent back to General Steinmetz indicated that an attack was seen as imminent as soon as 12 June. During the period of 12 June through to 14 June reports were sent by the I Corps brigade commanders and General Zieten himself to General Blücher and General Wellington. In addition communications were made with the Dutch cavalry adjoining I Corps position to the west. It is notable that General Steinmetz ordered his brigade to assemble for defense on the night of 13 June and General Pirch II on the morning of the 14th, so thick was French deployments to their front. The first French attacks were to take place on 15 June.
On 15 June Napoleon had crossed the Sambre at Charleroi and had pushed a wedge between Wellington and Blücher. His army was divided into three parts: on the left wing one corps and two cavalry divisions stood under the command of Marshal Ney, on the right wing two cavalry corps under Marshal Grouchy and in the centre three corps (including the Imperial Guard) and Milhaud's IV Cavalry Corps (cuirassiers) as a heavy cavalry reserve under the command of Napoleon. Napoleon's most important goal consisted of keeping the two opposing armies separated and striking each individually. For this purpose Ney would move against the Anglo-Allies on Quatre Bras and hold Wellington's forces there. At the same time the French III Corps under Vandamme and IV Corps under Gérard would attack the Prussians frontally on their line of defense between Wagnelée, Saint-Amand and Ligny, while Grouchy marched on Sombreffe. Vandamme's corps was reinforced by Girard's 7th Infantry Division, detached from Reille's II Corps, the bulk of which was at Quatre Bras. Napoleon wanted to advance in the centre of the Prussian position at Fleurus and decide the battle with a final advance by the Old Guard. The plan of separation of opposing armies and defeat in detail was an old and favoured stratagem of Napoleon's, dating back to his operations in Italy, and had been the deciding factor in his campaigns in Austria, and in his battles with the Fifth Coalition.
Blücher's troops consisted of the I Prussian Corps under Ziethen, the II Corps under Pirch I and the III Corps under Thielmann. The I Corps was located in the foremost row and had support from the II Corps standing behind it - the task, the defence of the villages of Ligny, Brye, and Saint-Amand, while the III Corps formed the left wing and the routes of withdrawal while defending Gembloux and Namur. Blücher and Wellington had to avoid above all being separated. Still in the morning of the battle Wellington rode to a meeting with Blücher at the windmill of Brye (or Bussy) and promised Blücher the support of at least one Anglo-Allied corps.
After the break for discussion with Blücher, Wellington left for Quatre Bras. In reaction to the troop movements of the French, II and III Corps began sending reinforcements to I Corps under General Ziethen. The Prussian front lines were too long for the troops available and were depending on the arrival of the IV Corps under Bülow advancing from Liège south west of the battlefield.
The Prussians now faced the French with 82,700 troops, with the French Army numbering around 60,800 available troops.
The battlefield of Ligny was on the watershed between the rivers Scheldt and Meuse. The Ligny stream rises to the west of Fleurus and meanders in a north east direction through the small village of Ligny to the confluence at Sombreffe. The stream was only few meters wide, at its edges however swampy in parts, so that the bridges at Saint Amand and Ligny were strategically important. This dictated that villages of Ligny, and St Amand and Wagnelée – connected by the hamlets of Saint Amand-le-Hameau and Saint Amand-la-Haye – were the best defensive position because they were sturdily built and surrounded by trees. The remaining parts of the battlefield consisted of fields of grain as high as a man. The windmill of Brye on a hill north west from Ligny, was a suitable vantage point and Blücher made it his headquarters during the battle. Napoleon placed his headquarters in Fleurus, where he also had a good view of the battlefield from the windmill of Naveau.
Napoleon delayed his attack until about 14:30 when he heard cannon fire coming from the direction of Quatre Bras, and thus knew that his left flank was secure. This delay also gave Gérard's IV Corps more time to deploy as it had only recently arrived in Fleurus from south west, and had an important role to play in the Napoleon's plan of attack on Ligny. Both delays meant that there was less time to win a decisive victory before night fell.
Napoleon began the attack with a cannonade by the Guards artillery positioned around Fleurus. Shortly afterwads Vandamme's III French Corps (Girard's 7th Infantry Division attached on its left) attacked the hamlet of Saint-Amand-la-Haye. Jagow's 3rd Prussian Brigade, defending Saint-Amand-la-Haye, could not withstand the pressure of Lefol's 8th Division and was forced to retreat. Shortly afterwards a counter attack by General Steinmetz with six battalions of the 1st Brigade recaptured the hamlet. A renewed attack by Vandamme's troops led to a bitter fight in which the Prussians lost approximately 2,500 men and possession of Saint-Amand-la-Haye.
With the loss of Saint-Amand-la-Haye, Blücher's right flank threatened to give way, so he ordered Pirch II's 2nd Prussian Brigade to retake Saint-Amand-la-Haye. Although Girard was mortally wounded (he died in Paris on 25 June of his wounds) the French held the hamlet, so Blücher ordered Tippelskirch to envelop the French with an attack by units of the II Corps on the left flank of the hamlet. French reinforcements, (Vandamme's III Corps,) deployed in front of Wagnelée prevented this happening, attacking Tippelskirch's brigades as they marched out of the grain fields to get into position for their attack. They were driven into the hamlet.
Blücher left his observation post in the windmill of Brye and intervened personally in the fight. Under his guidance the Prussian counter-attack on the French, very weak from the preceding actions, succeeded, and Saint-Amand-la-Haye was again in Prussian hands. Thus at 19:00 Saint-Amand, Saint-Amand-la-Haye and Wagnelée were still held by the Prussians.
The Prussian second lieutenant, Gerhard Andreas von Garrelts, later gave an eye-witness account of the agonies of the Belgian civilian population, caught unexpectedly in the centre of battle:
Ligny stood half on fire, locked in bright flames [...] on this occasion we found we were in a house, where all windows were destroyed, two old people, a man and a woman, showing no emotion and dazed sat at the hearth, without moving, his elbows on his knees and his head supported by his hands; the vision made us cry! Probably they had seen armed combat and were not surprised, how else could they distance themselves with death so near; we too were familiar with death, we felt compassion for these old people, but they could not be convinced to move from their home.|||Gerhard Andreas von Garrelts
At about 17:00 Field-Marshal Blücher employed the still-fresh II Corps under the command of General Pirch I and ordered him to deploy his corps into the area south of Brye. At about the same time Vandamme on the left French flank sighted a force of twenty to thirty thousand men advancing on Fleurus, which he incorrectly took to be enemy troops. Napoleon, who was preparing to launch a crucial attack at the centre of Blücher's line, was very surprised by this news, because at 15:30 he had sent Comte de la Bédoyère with a pencilled note to Marshal Ney at Quatre Bras ordering him to send d'Erlon's I Corps to attack the rear of the right Prussian flank. Instead it seemed that the troops seen by Vandamme threatened the French left flank.
D'Erlon had gone on ahead of his corps (marching west towards Quatre Bras) to reconnoitre. Bédoyère, realising that time was of the essence, had on his own initiative ordered the I Corps to turn east towards Ligny. Its leading elements came into view at 17:00, that is to say, earlier than Napoleon expected. Marshal Ney, unaware of Napoleon's instructions, sent an order to d'Erlon to immediately turn around and march back towards Quatre Bras. D'Erlon, who had caught up with his troops, turned them around only a few kilometres away from Ligny. Crucially, in the end the I Corps did not fight in either battle that day.
Blücher took advantage of the hesitation of the French by ordering an attack on the French left flank. From his observation post in the mill of Brye, Blücher could observe how his troops fared to the west of Saint Amand. Vandamme's III Corps received unexpected support from Duhesme's Young Guard and the Prussians were thrown back to their original positions.
At 19:00 the situation on the battlefield was as follows: Grouchy's cavalry had captured Tongrenelle and advanced on Mont-Potiaux; in the centre, heavy fighting was taking place around Ligny; on the Prussian right flank there was a lull in the fighting between the Young Guard and the Prussians.
It was now that Blücher received a message that Wellington was heavily engaged fighting Ney's left wing of the French army and, therefore, could on no account send support to Ligny. So Blücher decided to counter-attack on the French left flank, in order to force a decision. First, he strengthened his tired forces in Ligny, and then he collected his last reserves and personally led an attack on Saint-Amand. The attack was initially successful and the Prussians managed to recapture Saint-Amand-le-Hameau, but the attack faltered and they were counter-attacked by chasseurs of the Imperial Guard west of Saint-Amand and started a disorderly retreat from Saint-Amand-le-Haye.
Taking advantage of the Prussians' retreat, Napoleon decided it was time to launch a decisive counterstrike. He could at least beat Blücher and render the Prussians unfit for any serious operation except retreat on 17 June, although he could no longer expect to destroy the Prussian army. Lobau's VI Corps, too, was now arriving and forming up on the heights east of Fleurus. The artillery of the Guard, therefore, came into action above Ligny to prepare Blücher's centre for assault. Some delay was occasioned by a thunderstorm; but, as this passed over, the guns opened and the Old Guard, supported by the reserve cavalry - the Mounted Grenadiers - led by Guyot, as well as Milhaud's IV Cavalry Corps proceeded to form up opposite Ligny. About 19:45 a crashing salvo of 60 guns gave the signal for a combined assault to be delivered by Gerard and the Guard, with Milhaud moving on their right flank. Blücher's worn-out soldiers could not withstand the tremendous impact of Napoleon's choicest troops, and the Prussian centre was pierced and broken.As a reaction to the Old Guard's attack, Blücher instructed Lieutenant-General Röder to counter-attack with the 2 brigades of the reserve cavalry of the I Prussian Corps.
At 20:00 Major-General Kraft announced he would not be able to hold the village of Ligny much longer and half an hour later the Old Guard broke through, signalling that the Prussians had lost the battle. Gneisenau decided to retreat northward on Tilly, which left open lines of communication to the Rhine as well as the possibility of supporting Wellington if Napoleon was to turn on his army.
On the Prussian right, Lieutenant-General Zieten's I Corps retreated slowly with most of its artillery, leaving a rearguard close to Brye to slow the French pursuit. On the left, Lieutenant-General Thielemann's III Corps retreated unharmed, leaving a strong rearguard at Sombreffe. The bulk of the rearguard held their positions until about midnight, before following the rest of the retreating army. In fact, Zieten's I Corps rearguard units only left the battlefield in the early morning of 17 June, as the exhausted French failed to press on. Pirch I's II Corps followed the I Corps off the battlefield and Thielemans III Corps moved last with the armies various parks in tow. It should be noted that the last of III Corps was moved in the morning completely ignored. Von Bulow's IV Corps moved south of Wavre and set up strong rear guard positions for the army to quickly reassemble. Blücher was already in communications with Wellington.
The retreat of the Prussians was not interrupted, and was seemingly unnoticed, by the French. Crucially, they retreated not to the east, along their own lines of communication and away from Wellington, but northwards, parallel to Wellington's line of march and still within supporting distance, and remained throughout in communication with Wellington. On the Prussian right, Zieten's I Corps retreated slowly with most of its artillery, leaving a rearguard close to Brye to slow any French pursuit. On the left, Lieutenant-General Thielemann's III Corps retreated unmolested, leaving a strong rearguard at Sombreffe. The bulk of the rearguard units held their positions until about midnight, before following the rest of the retreating army. In fact, Zieten's I Corps rearguard only left the battlefield in the early morning of 17 June, as the exhausted French had failed to press on. Pirch I's II Corps followed I Corps off the battlefield and Thieleman's III Corps moved last with the army's various supply parks in tow. It should be noted that the last of III Corps moved out in the morning and was completely ignored by the French. Von Bülow's IV Corps, which had not been engaged at Ligny, moved south of Wavre and set up a strong position on which the other elements of the Prussian army could reassemble. Before leaving Ligny, Napoleon gave Grouchy 33,000 men and orders to follow up the retreating Prussians. A late start, uncertainty about the direction the Prussians had taken, and the vagueness of the orders given to Grouchy meant that he was too late to prevent the Prussian army reaching Wavre, from where it could march to support Wellington.
By the end of 17 June, Wellington's army had arrived at its position at Waterloo, with the main body of Napoleon's army following. Blücher's army was gathering in and around Wavre, around eight miles (13 km)' march to the east.
It was at Waterloo on 18 June 1815 that the decisive battle of the campaign took place. The start of the battle was delayed for several hours as Napoleon waited until the ground had dried from the previous night’s rain. By late afternoon the French army had not succeeded in driving Wellington’s allied forces from the escarpment on which they stood. Once the Prussians arrived, attacking the French right flank in ever increasing numbers, Napoleon’s key strategy of keeping the Seventh Coalition armies divided had failed and his army was driven from the field in confusion, by a combined coalition general advance.
On the morning of 18 June 1815 Napoleon sent orders to Grouchy, commander of the right wing of the Army of the North, to harass the Prussians to stop them reforming. These orders arrived at around 06:00 and his corps began to move out at 08:00. By 12:00 cannon fire could be heard from the Battle of Waterloo. Grouchy’s corps commanders especially Gérard, advised that they should "march to the sound of the guns". As this was contrary to Napoleon’s orders "you will be the sword against the Prussian’s back driving them through Wavre and join me here" Grouchy decided not to take the advice. It becomes apparent that neither Napoleon nor Marshal Grouchy understood that the Prussian army was neither routed nor disorganized but instead was organised and marching on Waterloo. Any thoughts to joining Napoleon were dashed when a second order repeating the same instructions arrived around 16:00.
Following Napoleon’s orders Grouchy attacked the Prussian III Corps under the command of General Johann von Thielmann near village of Wavre. Grouchy believed that he was engaging the rearguard of a still-retreating Prussian force. However only one Corps remained; the other three Prussian Corps (I, II and the still fresh IV) had regrouped after the Prussians defeat at Ligny and were marching toward Waterloo.
The next morning the Battle of Wavre ended in a hollow French victory. Grouchy’s wing of the Army of the North withdrew in good order and other elements of the French army were able to reassemble around it. However, the army was not strong enough to resist the combined coalition forces, so it retreated toward Paris.
After the French defeat at Waterloo, the simultaneous battle of Wavre, was concluded 12 hours later. The armies of Wellington and Blücher and other Coalition forces advanced upon Paris. In the final skirmish of the Napoleonic Wars, Marshal Davout, Napoleon's minister of war, was defeated by Blücher at Issy on 3 July 1815. With this defeat, all hope of holding Paris faded, and Napoleon announced his abdication 24 June 1815. Allegedly, Napoleon tried to escape to North America but the Royal Navy was blockading the French ports to forestall such a move. He finally surrendered to the captain of HMS Bellerophon on 15 July. There was a campaign against hold out French fortresses that ended with the capitulation of Longwy on 13 September 1815. The Treaty of Paris was signed on 20 November, 1815. Louis XVIII was restored to the throne of France, and Napoleon was exiled to Saint Helena, where he died in 1821.
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