Part II: Some follow-up observations on Quatre Bras and Waterloo…

by Douglas Allan
Revised June 2015

“Ah! Wellington ought to light a fine candle to old Blucher.
Without him, I don’t know where His Grace, as they call him,
would be; but as for me, I certainly wouldn’t be here.”

– Napoleon on St. Helena  

Shortly after originally publishing a version of the above article several years ago, a member offered a formidable rebuttal, summarizing commonly accepted “facts” which profoundly disagreed with my contentions.  He ended with the comment (I paraphrase) that my revisionism notwithstanding, historical consensus was just that, and for good reason.

Alas, I can no longer find the rebuttal, but I found my response to the overall criticisms by that worthy member and many others for the last two centuries.  Let’s look some more at those events, shall we?

The first demurrer concerned my conclusion that the French won at Quatre Bras; that my conclusion was, “absolutely false”.  This opinion was based on the common assumption that “Ney was trying to capture the crossroads of Quatre Bras”, and that having “failed” in this “goal” (i.e. the British spent the night after the battle at Quatre Bras and Ney did pull  back), that Ney had lost the battle.

Some background: Napoleon had initially determined to attack the English first; however, when faced with the entire Prussian army, he and Soult quickly adjusted to the circumstances.  Napoleon originally required Ney to, in Dr. Chandler’s telling for example, “hold himself in readiness for an immediate advance toward Brussels – once the reserve reached him, and once the Emperor’s mind was finally made up.” (1)

It took until 8:00-8:30 for these orders to be sent, and a few more hours until Ney received them. Chandler claims that, “almost unbelievably, it was not until 11:00 a.m. that Ney issued any orders at all.”  He then answers his own accusation by noting that Ney wouldn’t have received his initial written orders until about that time!

Napoleon hadn’t been ready to commit either of his wings until he knew the Prussian decision – a prudent judgment.  Ney was not to commit until given actual written orders from the Emperor.  (He’s even been bitterly criticized by historians for letting his men rest in the meantime!)  But the strategic situation had dramatically changed.  The Prussians had (somewhat surprisingly) decided to fight, and the Emperor therefore completely reversed his strategy, with Soult charged with implementing an entirely new plan of battle. 

Remember that Ney’s initial orders from the Emperor had instructed him to move a division in front of Quatre Bras, as well as three others at Quatre Bras itself, but that had assumed no opposition.  Ney kept his HQ at Frasnes (south of Quatre Bras) and advanced the divisions he’d been ordered to – not expecting a battle.  The enemy however, had a say in the matter, and Ney’s force found warm work ahead.   So did Napoleon’s advance:

2 p.m. from Soult to Ney:  “His Majesty’s intention is that you should attack whatever force is before you and after vigorously driving it back, you are to turn in our direction so as to bring about the envelopment of those enemy troops which I have already mentioned to you (Ed.: i.e. the Prussian right).  If the latter is overthrown first, His Majesty will maneuver in your direction so as to assist your operations in the same way. 

4:30 from Soult to Ney from Ligny: “The Prussian army is lost if you will act vigorously. … do not delay for an instant to execute the movement which has been proposed to you, and turn toward St. Amand and Brye (i.e. towards Napoleon) to join in a victory that may decide all.” 

Soult again to Ney “…you should attack whatever is before you, and then after having vigorously pressed them back, you should turn toward us and join us in surrounding the enemy.”   Unbeknownst to Napoleon, Ney had run into what shortly became a superior allied force, rather than the token force the Emperor and Ney had assumed.  Had Ney turned his single corps in the face of the enemy, it would probably have been annihilated, but that wasn’t what Napoleon’s plan envisioned!

Note that Ney’s orders from Soult (i.e. from the Emperor) were not focused on taking Quatre Bras.  The oft criticized, derelict Soult sent 13 messages to Ney alone that day.  The mistake that cost Napoleon a quick victory in this campaign was not because Soult sent too few couriers, but because he sent one too many.

Here’s what happened:  Soult had selected the first-rate Major Baudus to carry Napoleon’s 3:15 p.m. command to Ney.

“… you are to maneuver immediately in such a manner as to envelop the enemy’s (Prussian’s) right and fall upon his rear…  direct your advance…to cooperate in a victory that may well turn out to be decisive.”  Baudus was to add verbally that d’Erlon’s corps was to be used for this maneuver. The verbal part of the order of course, was a security measure in the event the officer was captured.

Napoleon always insisted upon duplicate orders, and another copy of the order was hurriedly given to a Colonel Forbin-Janson, a desk reservist who’d never before been in a battle. Unfortunately, Forbin-Janson reached Ney first (at about 4:30), and, after passing on the order to attack the Prussians in the flank, neglected to add that d’Erlon’s corps was to do it.

Meanwhile, Gen. de la Badoyere was also enroute to Ney with further orders about using d’Erlon’s corps for the flanking attack against the Prussians (yet another Soult courier to Ney).  De la Badoyere encountered d’Erlon, heading to join Ney, and ordered d’Erlon in the name of the Emperor to march toward Ligny. Ney wasn’t informed of this for some hours.

Ney finally found out that d’Erlon had been marched away, demanded his return, and thus occurred the disastrous counter-marching of d’Erlon’s corps.  It wasn’t the obstinacy of “slow-witted” Ney (as Chandler states), nor the incompetence of Soult (a talented and experienced general with an eye for detail) nor the lethargy of history’s greatest general. It was caused by a stupid mistake by one breathless and inexperienced staff officer, compounded by de la Badoyere’s failure to complete his mission to inform Ney after having diverted D’Erlon.   Major Baudus didn’t reach Ney until 6:30 with the verbal message (which had been omitted by Forbin-Janson), that d’Erlon’s corps was to execute the swing toward Napoleon.  It was then too late.   Anyway, let’s use facts to determine the victor of Quatre Bras and consider if my contention is “absolutely false”.  The numbers are most instructive. (2)

 Time French Allies
2:00p.m. 18,000    7,000 (but only 4,000 of the 18,000 French were in action!)
3:30p.m  18,000    20,000
4:30p.m. 19,000    20,000
5:00p.m. 21,000    26,000
6:30p.m. 21,000    32,000 (Chandler says 36,000)

French losses in the battle were 4,000; the Allies 5,000.  The observation that the Anglo-Dutch-German forces didn’t retreat from Quatre Bras is correct – until the following day, when indeed they did.  Neither did the Russians retreat during the night after Borodino, yet no one questions Napoleon’s victory.  Nor do I question the staunch defense of the Allies at Quatre Bras.  Bottom line: Ney was outnumbered, had lost half of his force through counter-orders of which he was uninformed, but nevertheless inflicted 25% greater losses on Wellington and his Allies, who then retreated.  If that ain’t a victory, pray tell me what is?

More observations on subsequent events on the 17th and decisive 18th…

There’s the common assertion that the Prussians were “allowed” to re-group after Ligny, (i.e. a French “failure” due to Napoleon’s “age”).  Surely critics should be aware that night pursuits are rarely good tactics.  Moreover, the army was totally exhausted from a long march followed by lengthy combat, and the night was cold, with heavy rainfall.  (The night after Waterloo was warm and clear, and the Prussian cavalry was relatively fresh, hence their aggressive pursuit of the French.)

Some critics are incredulous at the supposedly awful performances of Napoleon and (especially) Ney during the battle of Waterloo itself.  The facts: Ney’s forces attacked an entrenched enemy uphill, in the mud. The enemy was in carefully pre-chosen positions, holding the high ground and with two improvised forts.  No one disputes the fact that Ney had captured La Haie Sainte, the allied lines were beginning to crack, and the battle was all but won by the French – even after the onslaught by von Bulow’s corps – until Ziethen’s Prussians smashed into the French right during the final hour. (Not incidentally, Von Bulow’s corps finally succeeded in outflanking the defending Guard units and Lobau’s remaining forces, contributing or perhaps initiating the French panic. (3)

Ney is unfailingly criticized for leading the Waterloo cavalry attacks in person. Given his judgment, experience, and war record, the situation required leading from the front, as so often was the case.  He was not alone in that.  Patton (Tunisia), Caesar (Alesia), Wellington (who was himself “everywhere at once at Waterloo”), Alexander the Great and Richard the Lionheart (both more often than not) were equally “foolish” when necessary, and for the same reason.  Considering how strongly battlefield conditions favored the Allied defense, and the unexpected arrival of an entire second enemy army, both Ney’s and the French army’s performances were brilliant.  They and Napoleon lost by a nose.

Finally, let’s hear the sagacious observation of British historian R.W. Phipps on the much criticized French staff work, equally applicable to the entire campaign.  After pointing out some horrendous staff failures on the part of the “faultless” Berthier – as opposed to lesser errors of Soult – he adds:

“The truth is that the (French) army was an improvised army, in which the staff was pretty certain to be the greatest sufferer from its rapid formation, and that when an army is beaten, the faults and failures of every one are pointed out or invented, while when an army is successful, every one is interested in leaving the blots in shade, a point on which Wellington was very urgent after Waterloo. (4)

Considering Ney’s appointment as left army wing commander hours before action was to begin, Soult’s sudden transformation into Chief of Staff, and Napoleon’s reported illness, the French leadership performed miracles in the Waterloo campaign. Wellington, von Blucher, Picton et company performed with equal brilliance and bravery; and as so often with great battles, decisions and actions made well below the command level in large part decided matters. (5)

(1) Chandler, Op. cit., p. 135. (2) Gardner, Dorsey, Quatre Bras, Ligny and Waterloo, Houghton Mifflin, 1882, p. 65 and following.  This book is available for free online, and though not an easy read, offers many first hand accounts and debunks some of the “commonly accepted” myths.
(3) Hofschrorer, Peter, Waterloo – The German Victory, Greenhill Books, 1999. Hofschrorer gives a unique and incisive perspective, with numerous first person recollections by German language soldiers.
(4) De Bourienne, Louis Antoine de Fauvelet, Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, revised edition edited by R. W. Phipps, 3 volumes, London, Bentley, 1885.
(5) This is not to say that I believe the French senior commanders were flawless.  My contention is simply that these highly experienced and talented leaders mostly got it right, criticisms of each other post-facto notwithstanding!