While Napoleon was chasing off the Prussians (see last week’s blog post) he had left the bulk of his force heading directly for Brussels under the command of Marshal Ney. Ney was ordered to head for a hamlet called Quatre Bras. He should sweep up any Prussian rearguard on his route and prepare to be joined by Napoleon for a triumphant entry into Brussels.
Ney was a courageous general, fiercely loyal to Napoleon, but he was no great military strategist. He moved northward in “a leisurely fashion” (Marshall-Cornwall). On 16 June, as Napoleon engaged the Prussians at Ligny, Ney ordered his leading commander to dislodge the enemy holding the crossroads at Quatre Bras.
In England, a tiny hamlet like Quatre Bras would probably be called Four Ways. It was a few houses and some farms clustered around a crossroad on the main route north from Charleroi to Brussels.
Wellington had not expected Napoleon to move into Belgium through Charleroi and only a small force was positioned on that road. Unfortunately for Ney, Wellington had reacted quickly to news of the attack on Charleroi and the leisurely advance of the French meant that by the time they arrived at Quatre Bras some reinforcements were already in place there.
Quatre Bras was held by about 7,000 men and eight guns. They were Dutch-Belgian troops under the command of William, Prince of Orange. William was far too young and inexperienced to be in command of anything important, but Wellington had not realised until too late where Napoleon’s main thrust would be made. British troops were on the way from Brussels, but until they arrived William was to face the French – 20,000 men and 60 guns – on his own. More than 20,000 Frenchmen were marching north to join them. There was, it seemed, no realistic prospect of Prince William’s troops holding the position. Indeed, by 2:30 the French were close to taking the crossroads. Prince William’s forces had increased to sixteen guns and 8,000 men, but this was all that stood between Marshall Ney and Brussels.
Nobody knows why Ney hesitated. It seems likely that Napoleon’s orders had been unclear and that Ney was reluctant to commit himself without definite instructions. His reserve had already been ordered away from Quatre Bras to support Napoleon at Ligny (nobody thought to tell Ney) and he was finding the Dutch-Belgian resistance greater than he had expected. Napoleon’s orders weren’t helping – in the midst of the battle Ney received an order from Marshal Soult at Ligny:
“His Majesty intends that you should attack whatever is in front of you and, after driving it back vigorously, that you should move to our support and help to envelop the enemy.”
It was the first of a series of command blunders that suggest that Napoleon was no longer the brilliant general in complete command of his forces, as he had been before Elba. Some of his most solid and dependable marshals were no longer available to him and Ney was simply not a good enough general to cope on his own in the absence of clear instructions. He hesitated, and Wellington took advantage of Ney’s uncertainty, taking personal command of the Allied troops and moving more and more forces from Brussels to reinforce his position at Quatre Bras.
Brunswickers at Quatre Bras by Richard Knotel
Throughout the afternoon both sides moved more troops into the fight. On several occasions, it seemed that the Allied positions must be overrun, but, every time, reinforcements arrived at the critical moment. The fighting was intense. Much of it was in fields of rye which grew up to eight feet high. The infantry could not see each other. (It’s quite possible that if Prince William had been able to see how many French he faced at the beginning of the fight, he would have withdrawn.) There was extensive use of skirmishers and the cavalry often advanced in very loose order, unable to group for a classical charge because of the amount of woodland at key points around the battlefield. The result was a very fluid fight, much of it very close quarters. At one point, the Duke of Wellington himself was almost captured, riding a little too far ahead of his line. He famously escaped by fleeing at a gallop toward his own troops and ordering them to lie flat as his horse jumped across the British soldiers who then rose to their feet and drove off the French cavalry that had been pursuing their general.
Black Watch at Quatre Bras by William Barnes Wollen
At the end of the day, both armies were in a similar position to where they had been when the engagement had started. To the east, though, Napoleon’s troops had been successfully driving back the Prussians at Ligny. Wellington feared that, as the Prussians withdrew, Napoleon would be able to do exactly what he had planned: defeat the British the next day at Quatre Bras and then turn his army against the isolated Prussians. Wellington therefore took the decision to withdraw back toward Brussels, in the hope that he would be able to form a common front with the Prussian army further north. We now know that that was exactly what happened. The Prussians were able to join up with Wellington’s forces at Waterloo, and it was their arrival which finally produced an Allied victory. At the time, though, Wellington was taking an enormous gamble. With no proper communications with the Prussian army, he could not be sure that they would not just retreat for home.
For the French, Quatre Bras was a victory. The day after the battle, the British were withdrawing northward, and the French were in pursuit. The British, though, have always considered Quatre Bras as an Allied victory. An overwhelming French force was held at bay for a full day, with the British making an orderly withdrawal to a previously planned position in order to meet up with the Prussians at a strategically optimal point.
In fairness, Quatre Bras is best regarded as a score draw. The French were not defeated, but they were delayed. The British were able to withdraw in good order and prepare themselves at Waterloo for the battle that would take place there two days later. What is clear is that if Ney had smashed through Prince William’s lines at the point when he had overwhelming superiority, the French troops would have been on Brussels before the British could position themselves to mount an effective defence. It is quite probable that Napoleon would have ended by defeating the British. The Prussians, already beaten at Ligny would have withdrawn to Prussia, leaving Napoleon in control of Belgium. Many of the Belgian army would have rejoined the Eagles.
Could victory at Quatre Bras have saved Napoleon? In the long-term, probably not, but he would have seen off the British and Prussian Armies and been in a much stronger position to negotiate some sort of settlement with the great powers. It is possible that the young Prince William, inexperienced and totally out of his depth – and maybe only trying to hold the position because he lacked the strategic understanding that it should have been impossible to do so – changed the course of European history. It is also clearly true that the British victory at Waterloo was made possible because of the outstanding courage of the Dutch and Belgian troops who were later to be dismissed as “Waterloo cowards”.
General Sir James Marshall-Cornwall (1967) Napoleon as Military Commander
Picture at head of page is ‘The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras’ by Elizabeth Thompson
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The battle of Quatre Bras features in Burke at Waterloo. (“A good general account of the battles described.” – Amazon review.) Burke at Waterloo has just been republished and is available on Kindle at a ludicrously cheap £3.99.