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Battle of Wavre

In the Battle of Wavre was the final major military action of the of the Hundred Days campaign and the Napoleonic Wars. It was fought on 18-19 June 1815 between the Prussian rearguard under the command of General Johann von Thielmann and three corps of the French army under the command of Marshal Grouchy. In the battle, a Prussian rearguard was pushed back by a much larger French force, but resisted for long enough for Field Marshal Blücher's main force to move to help Wellington defeat Napoleon at Waterloo.

Background

Following defeat at the Battle of Ligny two days earlier, the Prussian army retreated north in some disorder, exposing the eastern flank of Wellington's allied force at Quatre Bras, who also retreated northward, to a defensive position at Waterloo. Napoleon moved the bulk of his army off in pursuit of Wellington, and sent Grouchy in pursuit of the retreating Prussians with the right wing (aile droite) of the Army of the North (L'Armée du Nord), a force consisting of 33,000 men and 80 guns

The French units in the order of battle were: III Corps (General Dominique Vandamme)

17,099 - 38 guns IV Corps (General Étienne Maurice Gérard)
15,013 - 38 gunsII Cavalry Corps (General Remy Exelmans)
3,392 - 12 guns IV (Hussars) Cavalry Division (General Pierre Soult)
1,485 - 8 guns detached from the I Cavalry Corps.5,000 cavalry from the Reserve Army

Grouchy was slow in taking up the pursuit after Ligny, which allowed Blücher to fall back largely unmolested to Wavre, regroup his army, and then execute a flank march with three of his four corps to join up with Wellington's Anglo-Allied army at Waterloo. The remaining corps, Thielmann's III Prussian Corps of 17,000 men and 48 guns, was left at Wavre as a rearguard. Thielmann's main force occupied Wavre and Bierges while a small flank guard occupied Limal.

Grouchy’s positions June 17th, 1815

Marshal Grouchy was in Gembloux with III Corps commanded by General Vandamme and IV Corps commanded by General Gerard. The 4th Cavalry Division, commanded by Pajol, and the 21st infantry division, under Teste (from Lobau’s corps), formed the remainder of his force. Reconnaissance by Pajol's horsemen during the 17th found that the Prussians had left Namur.

Final movements June 18th 1815

At or about 6 am June 18th, 1815 Grouchy reported to Napoleon that the Prussians had left Tourinnes by marching all night. He further reported that he was moving on Wavre with all haste. At 10 am Grouchy reported to Napoleon that the Prussian I, II, and III Corps were marching in the direction of Brussels, and that Prussian officers were talking of joining Wellington to offer battle to the French army. His despatch included a Prussian requisition form by way of proof. He noted that by attacking and standing at Wavre, he could block the Prussians from intervening against the rest of the French army. At 11:30, Grouchy and his corps commanders heard in the distance the noise from the Grand Battery as the Battle of Waterloo started. Grouchy’s corps commanders, especially Gérard, suggested that they should “march to the sound of the guns” Grouchy, however, had written and verbal orders from Napoleon to march on Wavre and to engage the Prussians there, and knew that Marshal Ney had been taken to task by Napoleon two days earlier for not following orders at the Battle of Quatre Bras. Grouchy therefore declined to follow his subordinates' suggestions, correctly pointing out that Napoleon had more than enough force to deal with Wellington. Minutes after this conversation, Exelmans reported strong Prussian positions 5 km from Wavre. At 1 pm, elements of Exelmans' cavalry were in contact with the Prussian 14th Brigade’s rear guard. Further argument was ended by the arrival at 4pm of another order from Napoleon, repeating the instruction to Grouchy to attack the Prussians before him.

The race to the Dyle

The battle to come now hinged on control of the crossings over the river Dyle. Every passing moment would see more Prussian brigades passing through Wavre on the way to Waterloo; by 1:30 pm 7th and 8th Brigades passed through Wavre and would next be seen at 7:30 pm pushing an Imperial Guard unit out of the woods south of Plancenoit on the Waterloo battlefield.

Battle

Late in the afternoon of 18th June, as Napoleon was heavily engaged against Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, Grouchy, commanding the corps of General Gérard and General Vandamme, prepared to attack the Prussian forces confronting him over the River Dyle between the towns of Wavre and Limale.

General Vandamme opened the Battle of Wavre at 4 pm unlimbering 3 batteries, then moved Habert's division in an attempt to take the bridges by quick assault. Marshal Grouchy, having just received Marshal Soult's order to move against Wavre, moved Exelmans' cavalry with an infantry battalion against the bridge at Bas-Wavre while Lefol's division moved against the bridge at Bierges. The fusilier battalion of the 1st Kurmark Landwehr Regiment defended the Bierge bridge by removing timbers from it under French fire and countercharging any attempt to repair it. The Kurmarkers held the right bank of the stone bridge at Wavre for some time, forcing Vandamme's troops to waste precious time taking it. Once this was done the French rushed across the bridge and straight into a vicious street fight. A battalion of the 11th Kurmark moved to support the 1st and threw the French back across the bridge. A French renewed assault penetrated further down the same street, only to be ambushed from side streets by the fusiliers of the 1st and 30th regiments using point blank musketry, and a bayonet charge sent the French scrambling across the bridge again. This seesaw battle would continue throughout the night. Later attacks by the French upon Bas-Wavre met with no more success. The Prussians assigned another battalion and three guns to the bridge. Prussian hussars were assigned to cover a wooden bridge south of Bas-Wavre. The attacks by Lefol upon the bridge of Bierges had no more success, being hampered by muddy ground and the tough defense of Prussian 31st Regiment supported by II Musketeer/6th Kurmark Landwehr and a horse battery.

Marshal Soult's 1 pm letter ordering Grouchy to move quickly to join Napoleon and to attack Bulow arrived after 6 pm. Grouchy at once began gathering additional divisions and headed to Limale, arriving at 11:00 pm, where he found that Pajol's cavalry had forced the bridge there. Prussian scouting cavalry noticed the strong French columns moving to Limale and the Prussian 12th Brigade moved covering forces to the area. The Prussians made a bayonet charge in an attempt to retake Limale but without success. Night closed the major actions of the battle of Wavre, although outposts fired on each other all night.

Grouchy was across the Dyle, but meanwhile the Battle of Waterloo by this time had been irrevocably lost, and the remnants of the Armėe du Nord were streaming south towards the safety of French territory.

Fighting renewed in the early hours. The forest south of Limale was forced by 9 am. Thielmann elected to retreat, as the campaign had been decided by the fighting elsewhere. The definitive report of the victory at Waterloo reached Thielmann at 10 am as the retreat started. Grouchy, watching the retreat, was beginning his planned move upon Brussels when the news reached him at 10:30 am that Napoleon had been defeated. Though in shock, Grouchy realised he was in danger of being trapped and his entire command destroyed. He at once had Exelmans move his cavalry to secure the bridges and began a retreat by forced marches that would take him to the fortress at Namur.

Conclusion

While the battle ended in a French victory, with the Prussians in retreat and Grouchy firmly athwart Prussian lines of communication to the east, it proved hollow. The Prussians held their ground long enough to allow Blücher’s transfer of 72,000 troops to Wellington’s aid at Waterloo. Thus to the Prussians, the battle was a strategic success, as it contributed to a decisive victory at Waterloo. In addition, the Prussian rearguard of 17,000 troops tied down 33,000 French troops that could have otherwise taken part at Waterloo.

See also

References

  • Hofschröer, Peter 1815 The Waterloo Campaign, The German Victory, ISBN 1-85367-368-4.
  • Chandler, D. Dictionary of the Napoleonic wars. Wordsworth editions, 1999.
  • Roberts, A. Waterloo, June 18, 1815: The Battle for Modern Europe. Happer-Collins Pub., 2005.

Further reading

Footnotes

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