Battle of Quatre Bras

Dafato Team | May 22, 2022

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The Battle of Quatre Bras was a battle fought on 16 June 1815 between the Anglo-Dutch army, led by Wellington, and the left wing of the Army of the North, led by Marshal Michel Ney. The aim of the battle was to control the crucial junction of four roads near the Belgian town of Quatre Bras. Although the French Field Marshal enjoyed significant numerical superiority at the start of the battle, he showed uncharacteristic caution by delaying the attack until the afternoon, when the Duke of Wellington had just received reinforcements. Ney still managed to seize the crucial junction, but the Anglo-Allied counterattack pushed him back to his original positions. When the Marshal organised a new attack, he found the position in dire straits, as Wellington had begun his retreat after learning of the Prussian defeat at Ligny, a defeat that put the entire Anglo-Allied army in a precarious position, risking a flank attack by the main French army.

The intersection at Quatre Bras was of strategic importance because whoever controlled it could march south-east along the Nivelles-Namur road towards the French and Prussian armies, which were engaged in the Battle of Ligny. If Wellington's Anglo-Allied army had been able to join the Prussians, the combined strength of the two armies would have been greater than Napoleon's. Napoleon's strategy had been to cross the border into Belgium (then part of the Netherlands) without alerting the Coalition and to interpose himself between its forces so as to defeat the Prussians and then deal with the Anglo-Allies. Although the Coalition commanders had some information about the French pre-attack manoeuvres, Napoleon's strategy was initially very successful.

Wellington's instructions at the start of the campaign were based on the fact that the city of Brussels had to be protected against a French attack, but Wellesley did not know what route Napoleon would take, having received (false) reports that an envelopment manoeuvre had taken place via Mons. He first heard of the start of hostilities at around 15:00 on 15 June from the Prince of Orania, later confirming that outposts of the Prussian I Corps, under Lieutenant-General Graf von Ziethen, were being attacked by the French at 04:30 at Thuin (near Charleroi), arriving within three hours. It was 18:00 when Wellington laid down the first orders to concentrate his army. However, he was still unsure where best to assemble his forces, ordering his army to advance towards the Prussians only after he knew the front near Mons was clear - close to midnight.

This nine-hour delay prevented the Duke from moving his army into a position from which he could give Gebhard von Blücher the support he needed (and historian Peter Hofschröer says he promised him) on 16 June at the Battle of Ligny.

Wellington also did not order his army to advance to Quatre Bras on June 16, still suspecting an envelopment maneuver through Mons. (He later said he did this to cover his mistakes, although the orders issued and received do not correspond to this claim. ) However, the Prince of Orange's headquarters decided to ignore Wellington's orders to regroup Dutch forces in and around Nivelles, instead taking the initiative to defend Quatre Bras, where they received substantial help from troops from Braunschweig and Nassau.

Napoleon's original plan for 16 June was based on the assumption that the Coalition forces, who had been taken by surprise, would not attempt a forward concentration of forces, which would have entailed a major risk on their part; he therefore intended to push the vanguard as far as Gembloux in order to find and repel Blücher. To support this operation, the reserves would first go to Fleurus to reinforce Grouchy, in case he needed help to drive out Blücher's troops; but once he had occupied Sombreffe, Napoleon would redirect the reserves west to join Ney, who would by then have captured Quatre Bras. To accomplish this objective, Ney, to whom the 3rd Cavalry Corps (Kellermann) was now attached, was to mass at Quatre Bras and send his vanguard 10 kilometres (6 miles) north of that place, a division at Marbais providing the link between him and Grouchy. Then the centre with the left wing would execute a night march to Brussels. The Coalition forces will thus be irretrievably separated and all that will be left to do will be to destroy each one separately. Napoleon now awaited further information from his commanders at Charleroi, where he had concentrated the VI Corps (Lobau), to spare it, if possible, a tiresome countermarch, as it seemed that it would only be needed for the march to Brussels.

On 15 June, as the Prussian 1st Corps retreated towards Ligny, a danger to the Coalition forces emerged: that Ney would be able to advance through Quatre Bras to carry out his mission with almost no opposition. At the Dutch headquarters at Genappe (about five kilometres (3 miles) from Quatre Bras), Major-General Rebecque, the Prince of Orania's chief of staff, realising the danger, ordered Lieutenant-General Hendrik, Baron de Perponcher Sedlnitsky, commander of the Dutch 2nd Division, to send his 2nd Brigade (Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach) to occupy Quatre Bras. The brigade, made up of two regiments from Nassau, arrived at its destination at around 2pm on 15 June. Prince Bernhard deployed in front of the first French scouts, lancers of the Light Cavalry Division of the Imperial Guard (Lefebvre-Desnouettes), as they approached Quatre Bras. The lancers were stopped at Frasnes, after which the Nassauers retreated to the Bossu forest, a dense patch of woodland near Quatre Bras. General Lefebvre-Desnouettes asked for infantry support, but as darkness was falling and his infantry were scattered along the Brussels-Charleroi road, Ney rejected the request and decided to set up camp for the night and then approach Quatre Bras in force the next day. When night fell on 15 June, instead of following Wellington's orders to concentrate the 1st Corps at Nivelles, Rebecque ordered the 1st Brigade (Graaf van Bijlandt) of the Dutch 2nd Division to reinforce Prince Bernhard's 2nd Brigade.

Ney spent the morning of 16 June massing I and II Corps and reconnoitring the enemy at Quatre Bras, which he had been informed had been reinforced. But by noon he had taken no major action to capture the junction, which was within his reach. Meanwhile, Grouchy had reported from Fleurus that the Prussians were coming from Namur, but Napoleon seems to have paid little heed to this report. He was still at Charleroi when, between 09:00 and 10:00, he received further news from the left flank that considerable hostile forces were visible at Quatre Bras. The Emperor immediately wrote to Ney, telling him that these could be nothing more than part of Wellington's troops and that the Marshal should concentrate his troops to crush what was in front of them, adding that he should send all reports to Fleurus. Then, temporarily leaving Lobau at Charleroi, Napoleon hurried on to Fleurus, where he arrived around 11:00.

Quatre Bras was a very small village located near the important crossroads on the road to Brussels. At that time, it had only three or four houses. Marshal Ney arrived at Quatre Bras around 2pm. He immediately recognised the importance of the crossroads near this village and the Bossu forest. It was impossible to march on the road to Brussels as long as the enemy was in the forest. It was made up of tall trees and thick bushes, wide paths facilitating troop movement.

Nearby was Gemioncourt. It was a large farmstead with high towers, stone walled gardens and orchards that provided an excellent defensive position. Gemioncourt was a typical Belgian farm for its time: it was built mostly of stone, with the main house and outbuildings grouped around a central courtyard that could only be entered through a wooden gate, so that only the thick, windowless outer walls and high walls were visible from outside the farm. Add to this the openings in the walls and such a farmhouse became a formidable bastion. Visibility was limited for both sides because of the tall fields of rye, wheat and corn. The creek banks, cluttered with trees, offered an advantageous position for the gunners.

Until then, there were few soldiers on the battlefield. The vanguard (troops from Nassau and Holland), had fought a few French the night before. They had done this on their own initiative, choosing not to follow Wellington's orders to move entirely to Nivelles. Thanks to Constant Rebecque and Bernhard de Saxa-Weimar, the French attempt to separate the two Allied armies in Belgium was almost thwarted.

The troops of the Prince of Orania

His Highness, the Prince of Orania (1792-1849), commanded Dutch troops. Although only 23 years old, he was commander of I Corps, the largest corps in the Allied army. He was given command for purely diplomatic reasons. Until Wellington arrived in Brussels in April, the Prince of Orania was commander-in-chief of Allied forces stationed in the Netherlands. Only after intense pressure and effort did his father, the King of the Netherlands, agree to Wellington taking over supreme command. Nothing less than command of I Corps was acceptable to him and his son.

The Dutch troops of 1815 were new, typical recruits with no campaign experience; like any other army of this period, they were present in large numbers. Obviously the Jäger (light) and Line battalions comprised professional soldiers, but even these had many new men. Those in the militia had been enlisted in one way or another, but this did not mean that they had any military training. It wasn't a bad army, but it didn't distinguish itself very much either, at least not at the beginning of the campaign; but it did its duty.

At the beginning of the Battle of Quatre Bras, the Prince of Orania had nine to ten infantry battalions and 16 cannons:

Marshal Ney's troops

Marshal Ney had at his disposal Reille's II Corps (5th, 6th, 9th Infantry Divisions and 2nd Cavalry Division), as well as the elite Light Cavalry of the Guard, made up of Lancers and Mounted Hunters. Count Reille had fought against Wellington's troops and Spanish guerrillas from 1810 until the end of the Peninsular War. His relationship with Marshal Soult was so strained that Reille abandoned his post in 1814.

The French Red Lancers approached Frasnes and were met with artillery fire from a Dutch equestrian battery and musket fire from the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Nassau Infantry Regiment. Lefebvre-Desnouettes knew it was futile for cavalry alone to try to drive enemy troops from a village, so he called in the infantry for support. It would take some time for a battalion of Bachelu's division to reach the outskirts of Frasnes. Meanwhile, the 1st Squadron

The preventive measures taken by the captain of the equestrian battery, Bijleveld, together with Major Normann, who commanded the 2nd Battalion of the Nassau Regiment, proved decisive in stopping the French. As soon as he was in position, he ordered his men to load their guns with machine guns. The infantry grouped in line on either side of the battery. All the guns fired on the French lancers with machine guns, which killed and wounded several men and horses. They withdrew to the village and sent out patrols. They posted sentries, which the Allies did, holding their position until the next day. Ney wrote to Napoleon: "The troops we detected at Frasnes did not fight at Gossieles.... Tomorrow, at dawn, I will send a reconnaissance detachment to Quatre Bras which, if possible, will occupy this position as I believe the troops at Nassau have withdrawn..."

Morning gunfights

In the morning, around 05:00, General Perponcher replaced the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Nassau Infantry Regiment with the 27th Jäger Battalion. Riflemen covered the trail along the south side of Bossu Forest. A battery was positioned on higher ground. Two companies of the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Nassau Regiment were sent to reconnoitre with 50 Prussian Silesian Hussars under Lieutenant Zehelin, who had been separated from the Prussian army in the fighting of the previous day. The Hussars engaged in exchanges of fire with cavalrymen sent by the Red Lancers of Lefebvre-Desnouettes' division.

Bijleveld's battery opened fire on the Red Lancers. The cavalry fight was short-lived and both sides retreated after suffering light casualties. At 07:00, a small group of French soldiers advanced towards the enemy positions, but were driven back after a brief exchange of fire. These few cavalry sorties were repulsed with losses on the French side. Up to this point, the latter had not made their appearance in large numbers; the troops that were present on the battlefield for the time being were, in addition to the line infantry, the Guard's Mounted Hunters, the Guard Lancers and the Guard's equestrian artillery.

An attempt by two Nassau-based companies to advance towards Frasnes was also thwarted. French artillery had reached positions and large detachments of gunners were demonstrating along the front. At noon, the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Nassau Regiment relieved the 2nd Regiment, which had gone to lunch.

At 06:00 the Prince of Orania arrived and inspected the front line troops. He was in charge until Wellington returned from his meeting with Blücher. The Prince saw French soldiers gathering supplies and firing their fires nearby and behind them, in the high lanes near Frasnes, were lancers. It was a very hot day.

Wellington's troops and the chaos on the road

Chaos had set in at various narrow points along the Allied line of march. Constant Rebecque found confusion on the road to Quatre Bras as von Alten's and Chassee's divisions arrived at the same time. The noise of battle could be heard by many troops on the road. The road to Nivelles was blocked by the British 3rd Division baggage train. No one seemed to be in charge of traffic control. The chaos was so great that most of Wellington's forces would not arrive until late in the evening when the battle was over.

The cavalry that Wellington had reliably told Blücher and Gneisenau would be at Nivelles at noon were in fact in a location unknown to anyone at Quatre Bras, somewhere between Enghien and Braine-le-Comte, caught up in the infernal confusion that had enveloped much of the Allied army. Wellington's orders had brought the cavalry from Ninove to Enghien, where it began to get lost in the crowd of mixed infantry units. The congestion was appalling, even by the modest standards of those days.

Captain Mercer of the Royal Equestrian Artillery reports, "The 23rd (Light Dragoons) Regiment has been making a hard advance... About noon, after passing through much mud and a few streams, not being sure whether we were going in the right direction, we came out on more level and dry ground.... Several columns of cavalry were joining in the same place and near the wall of a park we found Sir Vandeleur's brigade.... Here we also dismounted to await the arrival of Major McDonald.... All the corps, as they arrived, I noticed followed this road and then continued their advance ... waiting half an hour and with no indication that Major McDonald would soon make his appearance, I began to look around for some one who could give us some information, but no staff officer was present and no one else knew anything about the matter. Body after body came and passed us, generally without stopping, but all showing ignorance as to the destination.... Sir Ormsby cut me off with a completely unnecessary harshness: "I know nothing about you! I know nothing!" "But will you kindly tell me where you are going?" "I don't know anything about it, sir! I've already told you that I know absolutely nothing about you!" Finally, Mercer's battery reached Braine-le-Comte. "Here, as before, I was unable to obtain any information as to our march, its direction or purpose, being struck with utter ignorance..." Soon, Mercer's battery began to scatter among the dragoons and hussars. "We were presently taken over by Major McDonald, who, without making any mention of the Enghien bivouac, of which he had probably not even heard, ordered me to attach myself to the Guards Brigade..."

In the meantime, Wellington rode to Blücher. The Duke, speaking fluent French, asked him and Gneisenau: Que voulez-vous que je fasse? (The Prussian officer Müffling acted as translator for the discussion. Blücher's plan was simple; to give battle, aided by a significant force to be sent by Wellington.

On Ney's arrival, he only noticed the German and Dutch outposts. He remarked to General Reille, commander of the II Corps: "There is hardly anyone left in the Bossu Forest, we must occupy it immediately." The Bossu Forest was very important, but the main attack was directed east of the forest, along the road to Quatre Bras. Marshal Ney concluded that with the attack along the road, the enemy in Bossu Forest would be forced to withdraw their lines to avoid being enveloped.

The French attack

At around 2pm, the French advanced in force and the Allied outposts withdrew to Grand-Pierrepont. The French artillery opened fire as the infantry columns, preceded by gunners, began their advance. While Bachelu's division repulsed the Dutch 27th Jäger Battalion towards Gemioncourt, Foy's division advanced against the enemy centre. Bijleveld's and Stevenart's battalions suffered considerable losses in artillery and horses.

Half of Foy's division (Gauthier's brigade) attacked the southern part of Bossu Forest, but was stopped by the 1st Nassau-Orania Infantry Battalion and the 8th Militia Battalion. The two battalions were then pushed back 250 yards into the forest by another French attack (during this battle, Colonel de Jongh of the 8th Dutch Militia Battalion was wounded and ordered his adjutant to tie him to the saddle to stay with his battalion).

Duke Bernhard led the volunteers of the 2nd Battalion

Allied reinforcements

Outnumbered and under constant pressure, the Dutch troops under Bijlandt and the Nassauers were in a very critical situation. Before 3.30 pm van Merlen's cavalry brigade (5th Light Dragoon Regiment, 6th Husari Regiment) arrived with two guns. Both regiments were Dutch. Merlen was an experienced general, yet his soldiers were exhausted. The horses had been harnessed since the morning of the previous day and had marched nine hours in the heat that day.

Soon after Merlen, the British 5th Division, commanded by Picton, arrived. He arranged his troops as follows: Kempt's brigade and part of Pack's brigade in the front line, Best's Hanoverian brigade in the second line, the Hanoverian battery on the right flank and the British on the left. Sir Thomas Picton was one of the most aggressive British generals. He was respected for his bravery and feared because of his irascible temper. In 1810, at Wellington's request, he was appointed divisional commander in Spain. By the end of the Peninsular War, Picton was one of Wellington's principal subordinates. The commander-in-chief, it is true, never gave him as much credit as he did Beresford, Hill or Craufurd. Nevertheless, meticulous and punctual in carrying out a well-defined task, Picton had no superior in the army. Then came several strong infantry battalions from Braunschweig along with artillery and cavalry. The Braunschweig troops were stationed between the Bossu forest and the road to Charleroi. The Duke of Braunschweig positioned two companies of the vanguard battalion in the forest and the Jäger battalion in a ditch near Gemioncourt. The Jägers were arranged in groups of four at intervals of six paces.

The Dutch repel the French cavalry and Jamin's brigade

Meanwhile, French infantry captured Gemioncourt. With the 5th Militia Battalion dislodged, the British 28th Regiment also withdrew and the Allied centre was in imminent danger of collapse. Despite all odds, the Dutch 5th Militia Battalion managed to hold the north of Gemioncourt Farm. Noticing the arrival of new reinforcements, the militiamen attacked the farm with bayonets and drove the French gunners (from Jamin's brigade, Foy's division) from the walls and field. Only a handful of French held out inside the farm.

Several militia companies were then posted south of Gemioncourt. They were chartered by the 6th Mounted Rifle Regiment. Supported by Bijleveld's battery fire, the 5th Dutch Militia Battalion fired a deadly salvo from close range to repel the French. The fighters turned and fired again. And again they were repulsed. The third cavalry barrage was made by the 6th Lancers Regiment. Meanwhile, the militiamen were joined by the Prince of Orania, who began to encourage them. The Lancers were also repulsed.

Several battalions of French infantry under Jamin advanced east of Gemioncourt. The Prince of Orania ordered Merlen's cavalry brigade to harass these forces, while the 5th Dutch Militia Battalion and the 27th Jäger Battalion were to attack from the flank. The two units attacked and drove off the French infantry.

French lancers create panic

Van Merlen's Brigade was attacked by the 5th Lancers and 1st Mounted Rifle Regiments while still in position. The Dutch cavalry fled in panic, with the French in close pursuit. The Prince of Orania's aide-de-camp, Major van Limburgh Stirum, was seriously wounded. The Lancers advanced to Bijleveld and Stevenart's batteries, where they killed many gunners. They then hit the 5th Militia and 27th Jäger Battalions, inflicting heavy casualties. The Prince of Orania was trained into retreat, but was saved by the speed of his horse. This was also when Wellington was returning from his encounter with Blücher at Brye, his horse also helping him in a similarly precarious situation.

The Lancers became disorderly due to the charade and so were easily repulsed by musket salvos fired by the 2nd Nassau-Orania Battalion and a British battalion. The cavalry slowly began to withdraw. Meanwhile, the 5th Belgian Light Dragoon Regiment was fighting the 6th Mounted Rifle Regiment. After a brief engagement, the Belgians withdrew, but the French did not pursue. The Scots mistook the Belgians for the French and fired. Williams notes, "Then occurred one of those tragic incidents of war, in which men die through the mistake of friends. Seeing the Dutch in blue (Hussars) and green (light dragoons) galloping wildly towards the crossroads and hearing them shouting in French, the Scots of the 92nd and 42nd Highland Regiments along the Namur Road mistook them for French and were ordered to open fire on them. Many horses in particular fell to the ground as they presented the biggest targets... Piré's soldiers, bypassing Merlen's wounded horse, came under fire from Rogers' battery, which was firing machine guns, to the left of the junction and withdrew, unsupported by infantry or equestrian artillery... Merlen was left to reflect with sadness on the losses his unit had suffered and bitterness that most had been inflicted by the Scottish allies rather than the French."

French columns are stopped by British infantry

The Braunschweig Jägers in the ditch had put their big hats on the bushes in front of them. They attracted the relentless musket fire of the French voltigeurs. The 95th Rifle Regiment failed to recapture the village defended by Bachelu's infantrymen. The Prince of Orania sent several companies of the 27th Jäger Battalion to assist the British, but language proved a barrier to useful cooperation. Sir Andrew tried to encourage the Dutch to march forward in line with his men, but the Dutch tried to explain that the enemy were too numerous to attack head-on.

The French were in a high field and not visible to Sir Andrew's men. He insisted that his marines advance unescorted, only to be repulsed at once by a massive volley. (This typical problem stemmed from the mutual inability of the forces in the polyglot Allied Army to understand each other. British troops were unfamiliar with the terrain at Quatre Bras. The Dutch, on the other hand, had been on this ground and had exchanged fire intermittently with the French for nearly 24 hours. The Dutch Jägers, unable to speak English, tried to indicate by gestures the situation they were in. Some British soldiers understood, while others did not. Kincaid, for example, wrote: "The Dutch Jägers were a group of recruits who had never been under enemy fire before; and could not be persuaded to join our gunners." The Dutch officers and many soldiers, who had served in the French army in Germany, Spain and Russia, had held their positions unaided all morning. From such unfounded comments as Kincaid's was born the British myth of the 'cowardice' of Dutch troops. If they were indeed cowardly or sympathetic to Napoleon, they would have fled the night before or betrayed their position instead of doing what they did: stand alone against the French forces whose numbers were steadily increasing, ignoring Wellington's orders. Siborne's attempts to impute cowardice to the Dutch troops was a diversion to distract history from the inept performance of the British staff officers).

Meanwhile, Marshal Ney ordered Bachelu's division and half of Foy's division to advance. Five batteries were posted between Gemioncourt and Pireaumont to provide support. Wellington positioned seven British battalions 500 yards south of Quatre Bras and four Hanoverian battalions on the Namur road. This strong force was supplemented by the 95th Rifle Regiment and Rogers' Battery. The British 28th Regiment was sent to reinforce the Dutch troops at Gemioncourt. The French columns crossed the creek and were met with powerful volleys fired by British and German infantry. The fire was overwhelming and the French stopped. Then they were attacked by Highlanders and Hanoverians. The French infantry retreated.

Wellington's forward movement fails

Allied infantry was stopped by French artillery fire, then confusion was created by cavalry barrages. Eventually it managed to form chariots, which held out against the French cavalry at first, but the 42nd Regiment's chariot was breached and the 44th Regiment's was thrown into disarray, and a fight ensued in an attempt to capture its flag. Sergeant Anton of the 42nd Highland Regiment:

"We were ready and in line... and we rushed forward though we saw no enemy ahead. The stalks of rye, resembling the papyrus that grows on the edges of marshes, opposed our advance; the tops reached to our berets, and we struggled our way through them as fast as we could. By the time we reached a clover field on the other side, we were mostly scattered; however, we gathered in line as fast as time and our rapid advance permitted. The Belgian gunners fell back among our ranks, and in an instant we were face to face with their victorious pursuers.... Marshal Ney... noticed our wild and reckless zeal and ordered a regiment of lancers to attack us. I saw them approaching from a distance as they emerged from a forest and mistook them for Braunschweig soldiers advancing to envelop the retreating infantry... were approaching our right flank, from which our gunners were extended, and we were in no fit formation to repel an attack... without a moment's preparation to receive them as the enemy; except to reload our muskets.... A German ordinance of dragoons galloped up to us, exclaiming "Franchee! Franchee!" and, executing a turning movement, moved off. We instantly formed a regrouping square; no time for particulars: every musket of the soldiers was loaded, and our enemies were approaching at full speed; the hoofs of their horses seemed to rend the ground.... Our brave colonel now fell, pierced through the chin by the bullet that had gone to his brain. Captain Menzies collapsed covered with wounds... The Grenadiers, whom he commanded, continued to fight to save him, or at least to avenge him, but fell under the enemy's spears."

The Verden Battalion failed to withdraw quickly enough, so most of the soldiers were killed or taken prisoner. Wellington rallied the Braunschweig hussars and, gathering the remnants of Merlen's cavalry, prepared to advance and plug the hole. But before the troops could be positioned to advance, Piré's superior forces struck, driving even Wellington himself behind the junction. The latter, to avoid death or humiliating capture, rode back to the 92nd Highlanders. Shouting for the men to dismount, he jumped his horse over their heads and took cover behind them. About two squadrons of French Mounted Hunters attacked the battalion of the 92nd Highland Regiment, but without success.

Due to the charades of the French cavalry, Wellington's forward movement failed. He was forced to order Picton's division to withdraw from their current positions to take cover in their original positions along the Namur Road. The Duke of Saxa-Weimar observed this scene from the Bossu Forest and, while he was defending the forest, the enemy pushed the Allied left wing (Picton) right up to Quatre Bras, at about the same time the Duke of Braunschweig was killed.

Allies suffer losses

Wellington moved the Braunschweigers closer to the Gemioncourt and posted himself on the north bank of the stream. As the Allied flank was exposed, Pack's 42nd and 44th Regiments, which had partially recovered from the French cavalry attacks, advanced slightly along the road. To the left of the Braunschweig soldiers, on the Namur road, was the Luneburg Landwehr Battalion, which had replaced the 92nd Highlanders. The 3rd Line Regiment occupied several buildings on the Quatre Bras road, with the 2nd (Braunschweig) Regiment on its right and a battalion of the 92nd Regiment on its left in the ditch beside the road.

As the Braunschweigers and a few Scots formed the front line, they suffered casualties from artillery fire. The gunners of Foy's division were advancing through the bushes and along the stream. Other riflemen were firing from the flank in the Bossu woods. Their fire was quite annoying to the Allies. Major von Rauschenplat had his arm torn off by a cannonball and Major von Cramm was mortally wounded. The Braunschweig infantry under fire retreated slightly, while their squadron of ulans attacked the French 1st Light Regiment (of Jérôme Bonaparte's division), which was deployed in the square. A volley drove the buzzards off in great disorder. The Duke of Braunschweig and his horse were hit and fell near the Braunschweig Guards Battalion. He was rescued by the jägers, who carried him to the battalion, using their weapons as stretchers. It was a fatal wound, the musket ball crushing the Duke's only hand, his abdomen and his liver. Major Prostler of the Guards Battalion tried to rally his men, but two horse-drawn French guns swept them away with machine guns and they broke ranks, fleeing back towards the crossroads.

With a 2-1 lead, Wellington decides to go on the offensive

Just before 17:30 the British 3rd Division, made up of British and German troops, arrived. The French were outnumbered. Kielmansegge's Hanoverian brigade was sent towards Pireaumont, while Halkett's brigade positioned itself west of Quatre Bras. Major Lloyd, with four nine-pounder guns, advanced to the left of Rauschenplat's companies. Ney responded by deploying two equestrian batteries from his cavalry reserve, which soon disabled two of Lloyd's guns and killed numerous battery horses. The shattered remnants of Lloyd's battery raised their forequarters and retreated.

The French Equestrian Battery opened fire with machine guns on the British 33rd Regiment in Yorkshire-West Riding. "The Redcoats broke ranks and fled into Bossu Forest. Ney then sent three battalions (one in line and two in column), followed by three more battalions, between the road and Bossu Wood, now largely in French hands. Five battalions commanded by Gauthier (of Foy's division) advanced along the Charleroi road, with Piré's light cavalry in the rearguard.

A Prussian officer, Captain von Wussow, arrived at Quatre Bras. He was carrying a duplicate message from Blücher (the first courier, Major von Winterfeld, had been shot by Bachelu's gunners). Wussow had ridden through enemy musket fire, but managed to reach the English troops at Quatre Bras unscathed. There he found the Duke of Wellington on his feet, holding his telescope and watching the enemy's attack and movements.

In the meantime, the Emperor had thought that Ney might not succeed in carrying out the Quatre Bras encirclement movement and had instead engaged in an indecisive struggle with Wellington, with the result that d'Erlon's Corps would not arrive to support him in time. But Napoleon felt that Ney should be able to carry out the main mission of preventing Wellington from joining Blücher even without d'Erlon's Corps (Ney deliberately did not leave d'Erlon's I Corps behind).

Ney was speechless, surprised and alarmed when Delcambre informed him that, in accordance with an order from Napoleon, d'Erlon's Corps was marching to Saint Amand to attack the Prussians at Ligny. The Marshal was to hold back an army of three battle-worn divisions. Ney decided to countermand Napoleon's order to d'Erlon. In the meantime, Count d'Erlon had moved from the high road between Gosselies and Frasnes to the Roman road leading to Wagnele and his vanguard could just see the battlefield when he received the counter-orders from Marshal Ney (there has been much debate as to what would have happened if d'Erlon's I Corps had participated in either the Battle of Ligny or the Battle of Quatre Bras).

Luneburg Battalion captures Pireaumont

Because of the intense artillery fire, the Hanoverian troops were ordered to take cover on the ground. Both sides now engaged in heavy shelling and the French made several attempts to force the Allied left flank, which consisted of General Charles Alten's division (a British battalion and two companies of Braunschweig jägers, the only troops that had so far been able to resist on that side). They had just been attacked with such force that they had been driven out of the village of Pireaumont and pushed back so far that the enemy riflemen could fire on the head of the 1st Hanoverian brigade column, which was on the way.

Alten sent the 1st Lüneburg Battalion forward to drive the enemy back from the village of Pireaumont, which the Braunschweig infantry had been forced to leave. Lieutenant-Colonel von Klenke carried out his order with determination and succeeded not only in reoccupying the village, but also in driving the French back into a forest on the opposite side of the village and repelling further counterattacks. He barely managed to save a battery, which he moved near the village. As resistance grew, especially in the woods, the Grubenhagen Battalion was sent to support the Luneburg Battalion.

The French infantry tried to recapture Pireaumont. It attacked with a larger force, but the Allies already had two Hanoverian battalions and two companies in the village, with two more Hanoverian battalions in the rear. The French attack was repulsed. Halkett's British brigade, followed by two battalions from Braunschweig (Guards and 1st), arrived at the high rye fields. The Braunschweigers took up their positions in the ditches along the Nivelles road. Several columns of French advanced, so General Alten deployed the Grubenhagen, Duke of York and Bremen battalions against them. With the support of Cleves' artillery from the KGL, the columns were repulsed. On his right, the enemy cavalry tried, through several skirmishes, to make their way through, but without success. Lieutenant-Colonel von Ramdohr of the Landwehr Lüneburg Battalion distinguished himself in this action. He let the enemy get within 30 paces before ordering the men to get out of the ditch and firing a volley which repulsed the cavalry with heavy losses, several soldiers falling only five or six paces behind them.

The French cuirassiers scatter several British units

After Ney learned of the advance of the powerful I Corps towards Ligny, he realised that he had no reinforcements left and was thus outnumbered and unable to crush the enemy. The Marshal sent Guiton's brigade of cuirassiers in a last-ditch attempt to achieve victory. The heavy cavalry charged with swords drawn, but without support and without equestrian artillery. The British 69th Regiment fired a volley from 30 paces. The British chariot was charted by the 8th Tank Regiment and pierced. Private Henry, with the assistance of Charge Officer Massiet, jumped from his saddle and raised the flag of the 2nd Battalion, 69th (South Lincolnshire) Regiment, from the arms of Second Lieutenant Clarke, who had been wounded by 23 sword strokes. For this feat he was awarded the Legion of Honour.

The 69th Regiment immediately ordered its tailors to make a new flag and denied any loss. Unfortunately, Napoleon had already announced the capture. The British flag was not the only one captured by the French cavalry. The French general, Donzelot, also captured a Dutch flag. This, along with the British one, was eventually sold in 1909 to an English officer. The Dutch flag was brought to W.Y. Carman in 1956 for identification and he recognised it as the original relic. He arranged for it to go to the Dutch Army Museum in Leiden. There it was identified as belonging to the 2nd Battalion "Nassauche Ligte Infanterie" (Nassau Light Infantry). Only the centre remained at the time. On the light yellow silk was embroidered the shield of the Orania-Nassau coat of arms. The aggressive crowned lion stood in a field full of cantonments. The crown had five circles and the oval area was bordered by a wreath. The remains were not in the best condition.

The cuirassiers also scattered the British 33rd Regiment. The 73rd Regiment panicked at the fate of the 69th Regiment and broke ranks too, fleeing into the woods. The 33rd Regiment reformed on a hill and became the target of an equestrian battery that shot down its troops with machine guns, causing them to follow the others who had retreated. The 30th Regiment held its position. After the cuirassiers arrived at Quatre Bras, Wellington reacted immediately, forming two battalions from Braunschweig into tanks and posting them near the intersection. Kuhlmann's equestrian battery moved forward and opened fire.

French mounted fighters inflict serious losses on the British Guard

The British Guard arrived around 6:30 pm. Its artillery was deployed behind the ditch occupied by the Luneburg Battalion. It took almost two hours for the Guards to reach the southern part of Bossu Forest as the French infantry fought for every tree and bush in it. The Nassauers also participated in the recapture of the lost land. When the Guards emerged from the forest with disordered ranks heading for the Grand Pierrepont farm, they and the neighbouring Braunschweigers were shelled by French artillery, then attacked by Piré's lancers and driven back into the forest.

Other sources claim that the attack was carried out by Piré's 6th and 1st Mounted Rifle Regiments. The green-clad fighters attacked, forcing some of the Allied infantry to form chariots. They also caught the Guards, the cream of the British infantry, formed in line and in the open. The French charged from a concealed position in a depression near Pierrepont and had the British Guards on the run within moments.

The hunters shot down the Guardsmen as they fled and inflicted very heavy casualties. About 500 "redcoats" were killed or wounded and the remaining men retreated to the Bossu forest. The French infantry pursued them and its infantrymen recaptured some of the lost ground. Meanwhile, the 7th Cuirassiers Regiment attacked one of the battalions of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar. The infantrymen took refuge in the woods.

Wellington's offensive

At around 19:00 new reinforcements arrived for Wellington, represented by the 1st and 3rd Light Battalions from Braunschweig and von Kruse's 2,800 Nassauers. Wellington ordered the 3rd and 5th Guards and Divisions forward. The Prince of Orania moved his Dutch troops so as to drive the French out of the Bossu Forest. The outnumbered French troops were pushed back. The Allies held the positions they had occupied that morning.

At nightfall the fighting stopped. The officers coming from Brussels could see the traces of that day's battle: lines of wounded and straggling men on the road, all agreeing that the Duke had never before been so severely pressed and had never before had such great difficulty in holding his ground.

Ney had little to reproach himself for his actions that day. Throwing himself into battle at 11:00, with only three divisions of infantry and a small force of cavalry, his skill and courage had succeeded in carrying out the mission of his original orders: he had prevented Wellington from coming to the aid of the Prussians throughout the 16th. At Ligny the Prussians fought alone and were crushed. However, Ney can be partly blamed for the incident involving d'Erlon's Corps. Wellington had less to be pleased about. He had fought the most confusing battle of his military career. His staff had disappointed him terribly about the concentration of his army. Fortunately, however, his Dutch, German and British troops worked well together.

Had Davout, instead of Ney, commanded Napoleon's left wing, there would have been no doubt that Quatre Bras would have been a French victory. Even Michel Ney, the outnumbered 13-finger Michel Ney, most likely handicapped by a severe hangover, fought to a draw with Wellington, inflicting slightly more damage than he suffered. Victory at Quatre Bras would have changed the fate of that campaign and perhaps the whole war.

Wellington reported Quatre Bras as an English victory, won against superior forces (in fact the Duke enjoyed a two-to-one advantage) and so it went down in British history. As for the hangover, Belgian legend has it that Ney and his staff stayed in the residence of a Belgian dignitary who was famous for his wine cellar, which they explored thoroughly.

At Quatre Bras Marshal Ney lost between 3,400 and 4,250 men. The French also captured a British flag. Ney managed to stop any of Wellington's forces that tried to go to the aid of Blücher's Prussians. The Duke suffered heavier losses at Quatre Bras than Ney, with estimates ranging from around 4,800 to 9,000 soldiers killed or wounded. The following day Wellington's forces left the battlefield in French hands and withdrew.

■ Gral. Gauthier, commander of the 1st Brigade of the 9th Division of the II Corps.

"We had lost quite a few men to bullets, cannonballs and this cavalry barrage. Lieutenant Carondal was dead, Gérard a prisoner and several officers wounded. I had taken a bullet in the shako; it had grazed my skull, a centimeter below and I would have been fried. I believe and I am convinced that if the French had fallen into line and marched resolutely forward on Quatre-Bras, the position would have been taken. The English were not in line and we had not the strength to take the shock. The battalion was in the process of reforming. Many men were missing. We were returning, on the evening of the 16th, to set up our bivouac on the high road near the Quatre Bras farm. " (Scheltens).


  1. Battle of Quatre Bras
  2. Bătălia de la Quatre Bras

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