Tag Archives: Marshal Ney

The road to Waterloo: Week 17 (15 – 21 June 2015)

The Battles of Ligny, Quatre Bras and Waterloo
On 15 June Napoleon and his forces crossed the border into the Low Countries.

The Battle of Waterloo

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]

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The road to Waterloo: Week 4 (16 – 22 Mar 2015)

Napoleon arrives in Paris
When news first reached the allies of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and his landing in France, the British government confirmed its support for Louis XVIII. The allies hoped that Louis and the French government would be able to deal with the situation on their own, but it became apparent that this might not be the case.

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Napoleon’s progress through France was rapid and seemingly effortless. His charisma and the connection which many of his former soldiers felt for him was sufficient to persuade them to support him. Even Marshal Ney, who had sworn an oath of allegiance to Louis XVIII, proved that he was not immune to his former commander’s charms and, instead of arresting Napoleon, switched sides. Napoleon’s progress north became a series of triumphal entries into towns and cities, acquiring ever increasing forces. By 9 March, when he reached Lyons to find it had risen against the Bourbons, his supporters had grown to some 12,000.

A little after midnight on 20 March, having realised that he could not resist Napoleon’s forces, Louis XVIII fled Paris. On the evening of that same day Napoleon entered the capital in triumph. In an act of great political drama he eschewed pomp and ceremony and gave a speech directly to the people.

Le Moniteur noted that “The King and princes left in the night. H.M. the Emperor arrived this evening at 8 o’clock in his palace of the Tuileries at the head of the same troops which had been sent to block his route this morning.”

Louis XVIII now had to look to the allies to provide assistance to regain power in France, as Sir Charles Stuart set out in a letter to the Duke of Wellington of 25 March:

“The intelligence they have received [from Paris] has … induced the King to send full powers to his plenipotentiaries authorising their immediate and unqualified accession to every measure which the other members of the Alliance … and as Buonaparte’s arrival at Paris has now … decided the question, they are at the same time directed to learn … the extent of means which the allies are determined to bring forward to the re-establishment of a government in France which may be compatible with the tranquillity of Europe …”

MS 61 Wellington Papers 1/452/31

The road to Waterloo: Week 2 (2 – 8 Mar 2015)

News of Napoleon’s landing reaches Paris
Having slipped away from the island of Elba on 26 February 1815, Napoleon, together with some 1,000 men, landed in the south of France, between Cannes and Fréjus, on the 1 March.

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News of his landing reached King Louis XIII in Paris on 5 March. Marshal Soult, the French Minister of War, advised the King that the 60,000 troops already stationed in the south would be sufficient to deal with Napoleon, with 120,000 reservists available to be called up and stationed south of Paris if required. Meanwhile, Marshal Ney left Paris with 6,000 men, promising to bring Napoleon back in an “iron cage”.

As Napoleon marched inland the number of his followers grew, with soldiers sent to arrest him instead joining his cause. At Laffrey, on 7 March, he was confronted by a battalion of the nominally royalist 5th Regiment. After a brief moment of tension (in which Napoleon is alleged to have called out “Soldiers of the 5th, will you fire on your Emperor?”) the soldiers began to cheer him as a hero. Arriving at Grenoble that evening, the inhabitants demanded the gates be opened to the Bonapartists, with the garrison of the city adding yet more numbers to his growing force.

In an accompanying dispatch sent to Lord Castlereagh, the British Foreign Secretary, on 12 March 1815, Wellington affirms his view that Napoleon’s forces will be unable to hold out against the united efforts of the allied sovereigns of Europe:

“It is my opinion that Bonaparte has acted upon false or no information, and that the King will destroy him without difficulty, and in a short time. If he does not, the affair will be a serious one, and a great and immediate effort must be made, which will doubtless be successful.”

MS 61 Wellington Papers 1/453/8