The Battles of Ligny, Quatre Bras and Waterloo
On 15 June Napoleon and his forces crossed the border into the Low Countries.
Napoleon knew that he did not have a large enough army to defeat the combined Anglo-Allied and Prussian armies, so he attacked the Prussian force at the lightly garrisoned post of Charleroi. This post had been identified by Napoleon as a weak point between the allied armies and by attacking it he hoped to potentially divide the two sides. Lieutenant General Zieten, who commanded at Charleroi, had been ordered not to attempt a serious defence of his position, and evacuated. Following the attack, Prussian forces began to move between Charleloi and Ligny and were in place by the afternoon of 16 June. The Anglo-Allied army was ordered by Wellington to concentrate its forces at Quatre Bras.
The Battle of Ligny, which began at 3 o’clock on the 16th June was an intense battle between the Prussians and the French under the command of Napoleon. Although Marshal Ney was not able to provide assistance, as he was engaged in battle elsewhere at Quatre Bras, the French forces prevailed. At the end of the day with their reserves exhausted, the Prussians retreated, moving towards Wavre.
At the same time as the Battle of Ligny, another battle was being fought at Quatre Bras. Here the Anglo-Allied army faced that of Marshal Ney. The momentum of this battle swung back and forth as the arrival of fresh troops gave one side or the other the advantage. Eventually the advantage swung in Wellington’s favour and he gained a modest victory as Ney’s forces were repulsed.
As Wellington noted in a letter to Lady Frances Webster on 18 June: “We fought a desperate battle on Friday [16 June] in which I was successful though I had but very few troops.” [MS 61 Wellington Papers 1/470/2/52]
Learning of the Prussians’ defeat, and of their retreat towards Wavre, Wellington pulled his forces back to around Mont St Jean, which was about ten miles west of Wavre. Having received assurances from the Prussians that they would come to his aid, Wellington determined to give battle on the 18th June from this position.
The Battle of Waterloo commenced at 11a.m. on 18th June with an attack by Napoleon against the château of Hougoumont. The opposing forces commanded by Wellington and Napoleon were fairly equal in number — nearly 75,000 each — however, Wellington was hampered by the variable quality of the coalition forces under his command and was considerably outgunned. Another 30,000 French troops, under the command of Marshal Grouchy, were based to the east and this force engaged part of the Prussian army at Wavre as the Prussian forces made their way to Waterloo. Some of the Prussian army were not to see action at Waterloo as they were still on their way when the battle ended, but Field Marshal Blücher with forces of around 12,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry, reached the Battle of Waterloo at a crucial point in the afternoon.
In a letter to Lady Frances Webster on 19 June, Wellington said of the battle:
“I yesterday after a most severe and bloody contest gained a complete victory, and pursued the French till after dark. They are in complete confusion and I have, I believe, 150 pieces of cannon; and Blucher who continued to the pursuit all night, my soldiers being tired to death, sent me word this morning that he had got 60 more.
My loss is immense. Lord Uxbridge, Lord FitzRoy Somerset, General Cooke, General Barnes, and Colonel Berkeley are wounded: Colonel De Lancey, Canning, Gordon, General Picton killed. The finger of Providence was upon me and I escaped unhurt.”
[MS 61 Wellington Papers 1/471/6]