Part 1 of the Battle of Ligny. The Battle of Ligny and the battle of Quatre Bras occurred simultaneously in June 1815.
The NWA Napoleonic group put on another of their New Year big battles also recreating both battles at the same time. Read this report about the Ligny battlefield.
The Battle of Ligny – part 1
Click to go on to part 2 of the battle of Ligny
Click to go on to part 3 of the battle of Ligny
When it became apparent that the Prussians were concentrating the majority of their army in the Sombreffe area and preparing to defend a line on the Ligne Stream, Napoleon assembled his commanders for a conference.
“Gentlemen today we will defeat the Prussians and drive them back to Berlin. Ney has made contact with the British at Quatre Bras and once he has dealt with them he will dispatch forces under his command to this battlefield. But I will not rely on his timely arrival. Therefore we will do this business with the forces we have at hand.
We will fight this battle in three phases.
Phase One: Attack the Prussians at the decisive points of Ligny, the St Amands and Wagnelee. Hold these points to draw in Prussian reserves. The Prussians will be expecting this and we have to be smart to keep the Prussians wanting to counterattack and keep their troops forward. We need to convince the Prussians that these villages will be springboards for further French attacks if they are held and not contested.
Phase Two: Throw the Prussians off guard with a double flank attack.
On the right, through Balatre with a division of Young guard supported by Hulot’s division from IV Corps.
On the left from Wagnelee with 7th Division and 11th Division supported by cuirass from IV Cavalry Corps. To respond to these attacks the Prussians will have to commit troops from II and III Corps thus weakening their centre.
Phase Three: When the time is right, once the Prussian reserves have been committed; the Guard will attack to the right of Ligny. This will cut the Prussian army in two and eliminate the line of retreat for the majority of the army.”
After this speech, the following orders were dispatched for the commencement of the battle at 2:30.
III CorpsAssault and capture Wagnelee with 7th Division. Assault and capture St Amand le Hameau with 11th Division. Once captured, defend both these positions from counter attack. Reposition 3rd Cav Div to protect the left flank of 7th Division. Place 1st Brigade 13th Cavalry Division in a reserve position. Make preparations for the assault on Brye. Assault and capture St Amand with 8th Division. Once captured defend St Amand with one brigade of 8th Division and hold the other in reserve. Assault and capture St Amand la Haye with 10th Division. Once captured defend St Amand la Haye against counter attack and, if possible, hold one brigade in reserve.
IV CorpsAssault, capture and defend the village of Ligny. 12th Division to concentrate on the south of the town. 13th Division to assault the northern buildings. Place artillery for maximum effect on the town and the enemy troops behind the town.
GuardAdvance to the rear of Balatre on the right flank and await orders. Deploy the 12lb batteries of the artillery reserve to the right of Ligny and target the troops opposite. Three 6lb batteries to advance to a position to the left of Ligny to support the assault on the town. 4th Grenadiers a pied, 4th Chasseurs a pied and engineers to form a task force and advance to the rear of IV Corps to act as a support for the capture of Ligny.
At Prussian headquarters, Blucher had gathered his commanders. Observing the French superiority in cavalry the Prussians ruled out an offensive action. Promised support by Wellington and noting the relatively small numbers of French infantry, Blucher was determined to defend.
1st Brigade was ordered to defend St Amand and St Amand La Haye. A grand battery was to be formed in the rear of St Amand to fire on the assaulting French troops. Should the town fall, these guns would pin the French in the village. It was impressed upon Ziethen that St Amand La Haye must be held and that if it should fall, it was to be retaken immediately. The 1/2/12th Regiment were issued with the task or retaking the town if it fell. 2nd Brigade was held in reserve but was not to be used to defend the villages. It was to be held in a central position, in the rear, to counter any French breakthroughs.
Ligny was defended by the six battalions of 4th Brigade. The three battalions of 19th Regiment were ordered to hold the key points of the village while the 4th Westphalian Landwehr held the interior of the village. A grand battery was to be assembled to the south of the village to fire on any French assaulting Ligny. 3rd Brigade was deployed as a reserve for the forces in Ligny. It was not to be used to defend Ligny but to counter any French breakthroughs
Blucher had ordered 1st Corps to hold the 3 villages of St Amand, St Amand La Haye and Ligny until 4:30; using only 1st and 4th Brigades.
III Corps was deployed on the eastern part of the battlefield. This corps was made up of inexperienced troops and Landwehr. It was opposed by cavalry and was ordered to resist any French crossings but was not allowed to go on the offensive.
II Corps was to remain in reserve. It was not to take part in the defence of any villages but to launch a counter attack on the French positions. Two possible locations, for the counter attack, were planned before the battle:
East of Ligny – Aiming to catch IV corps in the flank whilst it was trying to capture Ligny. This would link up with 9th Brigade and act as its flank guard. This attack had the drawback of leaving no reserves where the French had their greatest strength.
West of St Amand La Haye – Crossing the Ligne Stream at Wagnelee, II Corps would attack the French III Corps as it was trying to assault St Amand La Haye and St Amand. It would then be in a position to link up with any British troops arriving from Quatre Bras.
The direction of the counter attack would be determined after the battle had started, when the French plans became apparent.
With 3 signal shots from a cannon the battle commenced at 2:30. Both Napoleon and Blucher observed their opponents movement with an eagle eye.
The Initial Assault on Ligny
At 2:30 the French 12th and 13th division of IV corps deploy its skirmish line and move artillery into position for the assaults on Ligny. While the French were making these preparations the Prussian troops of 4th Brigade were putting the final touches to their arrangements for the defence of the village.
The French deployed a skirmish screen of 2000 men. The Prussian screen of 500 withdrew to the houses rather than risk being eliminated by superior numbers. At 3 o’clock the assault began. As the French infantry advanced, they blocked their supporting artillery. Unfazed by the lack of artillery support, Gerard and Pecheux both led the three battalions of the 30th Line as they charged the church held by the Prussian 3/19th Regiment. Inspired by the bravery of the generals the French reached the church and some vicious hand to hand fighting ensued. Eventually, the 3/19th managed to push the 30th Line out.
Unperturbed by the failure of the 30th Line, General Vichery ordered the 76th and 2/59th Line to charge past the 30th on to the next section of Ligny. As they charged, their flank was exposed to 3/19th Infantry. The Prussians took great pleasure in firing on the French flank and forcing the French to retreat. Vichery, still intent on victory, then led the 1/59th and 48th Line to try and succeed where the rest had failed. These men, seeing their comrades retreating instantly turn about and follow. Gerard, noting Vichery had 75% of his command in retreat and that Pecheux had halted, ordered their divisions to regroup. There was no further attack on Ligny for another 45 minutes.
At 3:30 the Guard reserve 12lb batteries were finally deployed. Their first fire was particularly effective as they inflicted 360 casualties on the 3/4th Westphalian Landwehr Infantry. This infantry had foolishly advanced from cover to observe the battle. The loss of so many men in such a short space of time spread panic and the Landwehr broke.
The Initial Assaults from St Amand to Wagnelee
At 2:30, the 7th, 8th, 10th and 11th Divisions of Vandamme’s corps advanced immediately toward their objectives of Wagnelee, St Amand, St Amand La Haye and St Amand le Hameau respectively.
In response, the Prussians rushed the 1/2/24th Infantry into St Amand to join the two companies already holding the town. The 1/2/12th Infantry, instead of marching to the rear of the St Amand La Haye to find a counterattack position, marched in front of the town and the entire French 10th Division. It was too tempting a target and the entire 1st Brigade of 10th Division charged. However, 1/12th Infantry deployed in line to protect the flank of the 2/12th Infantry. After a brief struggle the 1/12th Infantry managed to avert disaster and push the French Infantry back.
Sensing the possibility of the French capturing Wagnelee, Blucher ordered the 2/1st Westphalian Landwehr and two companies of the 3/24th Infantry to garrison the village. However at 3:30 the French 7th Division just beat the Prussian forces to the village. The heavily outnumbered Prussians pull back.
Berthezene of 11th Division has no problem taking the ungarrisoned town of St Amand Le Hameau.
Over at St Amand, Lefol’s 8th Division had a much more difficult task taking St Amand. Initially repulsed by the 3/24th the 15th Legere, 23rd and 37th Line regrouped and at 3:30 succeeded in driving out the Prussian defenders. The 1/24th holding the western part of St Amand was managing to stall the 15th Legere and 23rd Line but at 3:45 the French finally took this part of the village. Following this success the 37th and 64th Line pushed through the surrounding fields. This brought them under the guns of the Prussian grand battery which opened fire killing and wounding 300 men in a 15 minute period.
At this time, Ziethen sent a message to Blucher informing him that he had lost the majority of St Amand and may need to reform on a new defensive line. Blucher was confused by this message as in his orders he had allowed for St Amand to fall. This was the reason for the secondary defensive line, where the grand battery was formed.
At 3:30, Habert prepared his assault on St Amand La Haye. He rode at the head of 34th and 88th Line. When he reached within 100 yards of the Prussian defenders he fell from his horse with a mortal wound from a sharpshooter of the 2/28th Regiment inside the village. Demoralised from the loss of their commander, the 34th and 88th came to a halt just outside the village. Gengoult, took command of the division and pulled it back to regroup.
On The Right
At the beginning of the battle the artillery of both 14th Division and II Cavalry Corps were deployed to counter the two Prussian batteries at Tongrelles. Accurate firing saw 5 Prussian guns dismounted in half an hour. Von Grevenitz, III Corps artillery commander, rushed to the batteries and ordered them to withdraw into cover.
The Young Guard were in position behind Balatre by 3:30. They took the opportunity to rest, as they waited to be ordered forward. At 4:15 the attack order arrived and the Young Guard moved forward. They stormed the village of Balatre, capturing the garrison, two companies of 1/2nd Kurmark Landwehr Infantry. The Guardsmen then prepared to cross the Ligne Stream.
At 3:45 Von Grevenitz noticed that the Old Guard batteries were deployed with an exposed flank. Assembling what little artillery he had available, 12pdr Battery #7, 6pdr Battery #18 and Horse Battery #20, he opened fire on the exposed flank from across the Ligny Stream. The Prussian flank fire had little effect on the Old Guard gunners, they calmly turned their guns to face the Prussian batteries.
Click to go on to part 2 of the battle of Ligny
Click to go on to part 3 of the battle of Ligny