Battle of Quatre Bras (part 3) 6-Jan-09

090106artilleryPart 3 of the battle of Quatre Bras. The Guard Light Cavalry arrives on the battlefield, bringing fresh hopes to the French side of Marshal Ney. See whether they were able to alter the historical outcome.

The NWA Napoleonic group put on another of their New Year big battles recreating the battle of Ligny and the battle of Quatre Bras at the same time. Read this report about the conclusion of the Quatre Bras battle.


The Battle of Quatre Bras - part 3

Click for part 1 of the battle of Quatre Bras

Click for part 2 of the battle of Quatre Bras

Arrival Of The Guard Light Cavalry

At 5:15, something of a commotion is caused to the French rear as Lefebvre-Desnouettes arrived with two units (Lancers and Chasseurs á Cheval) of Guard cavalry. However Lefebvre-Desnouettes had instructions from Napoleon that he was not to get seriously engaged in the battle. A rumour begins that Napoleon himself will follow shortly.

The arrival of the Guard cavalry and the attendant rumour gives French morale a huge lift. Ney wrote another message to Napoleon

"The Guard Light [cavalry] finally arrived, thankyou! Please please please can I use them?! Am falling back on Thyle and will make a stand. d'Erlons timely arrival would be greatly appreciated. Jerome's Division is redeploying. British Guard units have arrived and I'm outnumbered"

Ney mistook Alten's 3rd Division for the British Guards. 5th infantry division forms up on the south side of the Gémioncourt stream as though making ready for an attack towards Quatre Bras. Jerome's 6th division, having moved across from the west, arrives to the south of Thyle and is now in position to support any attack Foy's 9th division may attempt. However, 9th division continue to retire south-eastwards.


 

The Movements Of D'Erlon

At 5:45 a messenger from Ney's headquarters at Frasnes rushed to Ney at delivers a message that two Infantry Divisions of d'Erlons corps were making camp at Frasnes. Ney seethed with anger but composed himself to issue the following

"Why are you stopping?! You were given specific orders to assist me in vanquishing the Dutch and British. You better have a good reason!!! Short of a direct order from the Emperor I expect you to follow mine!"

Skirmishing occurs from this time until 6:00pm. The French become totally defensive. They even, somewhat pointlessly, occupy Gémioncourt farm. The British troops led by the Duke retire to the sunken road and the attack from the far right is called off as it is faced by the Guard Chasseurs à cheval in large numbers. It's at this time that Lord Wellington orders a shift of weight to the left flank and troops start moving to comply with the orders. The Maj-Gen G.Cooke's British infantry (Guards) division arrive and are moved to the left centre.

Whilst the French are busy organising a defence in depth, the Duke continues to organise a left flank attack to open the road to the east. 4 batteries of 9 pounders are formed together on a ridge line east of Cherry wood and begin pounding the French positions. The final elements of the Brunswickers arrive on the field.

The French continue to consolidate around Thyle. Two of the units still north of the Gémioncourt stream and in skirmish order are moved slightly north-west. This proves to be a catastrophic blunder as the units are charged by the Brunswick Uhlans. As a consequence, the skirmishers are scattered to the winds. The elated Uhlans halt their victorious charge approximately 150 yards north of Thyle and are immediately forced to retreat by gunfire from 1st Coy, 6th Foot Artillery supporting 9th division, stationed just outside the village. The Allied build up on the left looks very intimidating and the attack is imminent.

At 6:15 Ney receives a reply from d'Erlon that he was following his orders of 10am that Durette and Jaquinot were to march to Marbais and the remaining two divisions were to march to Frasnes. Ney wrote back

"Please make all possible speed and come to my assistance. I am outnumbered and in peril. I need you here now!!"

The 2nd Chevaux-Lègers Lanciers (‘Red' Lancers) have been moved west and are now positioned to support the French extreme right which is anchored by two batteries of horse artillery. Part of the Guard Chasseurs á Cheval hold the French left, the remainder bolster the centre. In between the wings, troops are all holding defensive positions or in the act of withdrawing. There are only two actions of note. The first is that Bijleveld's and Stievenart's batteries fire on the Guard Chasseurs at extreme range and register a hit. The second is that the 1st/95th move out of Cherry woods to fire on one of the few remaining units of 9th division still north of the stream. The fire is destructive enough to break the unit which dissolves in panic. It is about this time that attention is drawn to a large dust cloud or smoke in the sky to the south of the French position.

The French continue to move units around ‘strengthening' their defensive positions. What's left of the Kellerman's cuirassier brigade moves north, the opposing Brunswick battalion forms a square. The Allied attack from the vicinity of Cherry woods begins to develop. The four batteries of 9 pounders target the battery which forced the Brunswick uhlans to retreat and hit it hard. The large cloud hanging over the rear of the French position is confirmed as dust and appears to signal the arrival of major French reinforcements. The Duke sends 2nd Coldstream and 2nd/3rd Guards back towards Quatre Bras as a safety measure. The time is 7:00pm.

The 6th Lancers charge the gap between Cherry woods and the sunken road. The charge is met by a counter charge from van Merlen's rather tired Dutch-Belgian cavalry who are forced to retreat. The charge, intended to cover the escape of the last infantry battalion of 9th division north of Gémioncourt stream, leaves the lancers in some peril from nearby Allied infantry. The attempted escape fails as the 1st/95th is within range and deliver a devastating fire into the unit's backs causing another instant rout. For the second time in the day, errant artillery fire, this time from the two right wing horse artillery batteries hits the Duke's staff party, another close call for Wellington as Copenhagen is killed.

Wellington receives information that the large dust cloud is probably d'Erlon's 1st corps. At about the same time scouts warn him of movement on the Ligny road which also appear to be French troops. With no news from Blucher and the need to ensure his communications northwards, Wellington calls off the left wing attack and moves his troops into whatever cover is available.

As darkness begins to fall, Wellington puts out a heavy screen of pickets, backed up by 2nd Coldstream and 2nd/3rd Guards, on the north bank of the Gémioncourt stream. This measure enables him to carry off the abandoned French guns.


 

Conclusions

At the end of the battle it is strategic rather than tactical considerations which stop the Allied assault on the French right. There was no longer any real purpose to the fight with news arriving that the French were being heavily reinforced from the south and the road to Ligny is probably cut further east.

The French made a complete hash of the initial attacks. The Allies are strongest in the west and that's where the French used two divisions to try and force Bossau woods. The Allies are weak in the centre but the French desire to take Gémioncourt farm held up their attack. This allowed time for new Allied units to arrive and strengthen the defence. The Allies are extremely weak in the east. No attack was made in the vicinity of Cherry woods, just some light probing with skirmishers. After the initial attacks fail Ney decided that he could not defeat the Allies. The arrival of the Guard light cavalry perked up the French spirits but break-off orders had already been issued and were activated. From this point on, without extra troops, there was absolutely no chance of the French taking the cross-roads.

Ney made a strategic mistake by asking Napoleon of d'Erlon's location and orders. Sending a messenger to Ligny and back took about 4 hours. It would have been much faster sending a messenger straight to d'Erlon.


Click for part 1 of the battle of Quatre Bras

Click for part 2 of the battle of Quatre Bras