Part 2 of the Battle of Ligny from 1815. Ligny begins to fall under the continued French attacks but the Prussians launch a counter-attack.
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 Ligny battlefield.
The Battle of Ligny (part 2)
Click to go back to part 1 of the battle of Ligny
Click to go on to part 3 of the battle of Ligny
Messages to the Battlefield
At 3:15 a messenger rode to imperial headquarters and gave the following message to Napoleon:
In conformity of the orders of your Majesty, I sent adjutant commander Jeanin to the corps commander of Marshal Prince of Moscow. This officer found the troops in echelon surrounding Grosselies until the village of Frasnes. He is a veteran of the war and believes that the enemy isn’t in great force but it is difficult because of the woods to judge with precision.
The colonel aforesaid consulted with several superior officers, and he has interrogated the deserters, and none of the individuals who were questioned bought the number of the enemy above 20,000 men. When the officer left the ground there were only skirmishers engages and only in small numbers. I am always in position in advance of Charleroi where I will stay until new orders. It will be good that your Majesty to order to replace the battalion that I have in town for the police and for the large number of baggage and to protect the injured, etc.
Charleroi 16th June 1815
The Lieutenant General aide de camp of the Emperor the commander in chief 6th Corps, Lobau
p.s. Colonel Jeanin reports the Colonel Tancarville chief-staff major Count de Valmy, told him the emissary arriving of the Count d’Erlon has declared that the enemy should be today marching from Mons to Charleroi. Your Majesty would surely appreciate this advice.”
Napoleon realising that Ney had enough forces at his disposal to deal with the English threat replied to Lobau.
Hasten to Fleurus with all your command
Ligny Begins To Fall
By 3:45 Gerard had reformed his divisions and was prepared for a second assault on Ligny. The three battalions of the 63rd Line, led by Pecheux and Gerard himself succeeded in capturing the church. In doing so, they killed, wounded and captured some 500 men of the 3/19th Infantry.
Vichery leading the 59th and 76th Regiments of 13th Division again tried to take the northern part of Ligny. Once again the attack was repulsed as the 2/19th Infantry Regiment stubbornly stood their ground.
Napoleon was becoming annoyed by the lack of progress and, at 4:15 ordered the 4th Grenadiers and the 4th Chasseurs forward. The 1500 Guardsmen made immediate inroads, taking the northern part of Ligny from the 2/19th Infantry and the 1/4th Westphalian Landwehr. This assault cost the Prussians dearly as 300 men were killed or wounded and a further 800 captured. At this stage more than half of Ligny was under French control but all of 12th and 13th Divisions were fully committed to the task. The fighting was hard and both divisions were becoming fatigued by the protracted time spent in close combat.
Blucher, noting the French successes in Ligny began stage 2 of his defensive plan and ordered the grand battery south of Ligny to march to a position behind the town from where it could bombard the French defenders.
Having taken the majority of St Amand, Vandamme turned his attention to the Prussian forces assembled between St Amand and St Amand La Haye. The 34th and 88th Line Regiments advanced from St Amand La Haye in an attempt to attack the flank of the Prussian Grand Battery. Ziethen reformed his skirmish line, 2 companies of the Silesian Schutzen and the 3/28th Regiment. In doing so, Ziethen’s skirmishers exposed their flank. The 37th and 64th Regiments, which had just cleared St Amand, could not believe their luck. A charge was immediately executed and both units were destroyed. The 88th Regiment, capitalising on the chaos thus caused, charged the flank of the Prussian artillery. The Prussian gunners fled, abandoning their guns to the French infantry.
At 4:15 the Prussian centre was in chaos. St Amand was all but taken and the French were pushing through. Ziethen, no other option available, committed his last reserve; the 2nd Infantry Brigade. The 88th Regiment had become isolated behind the Prussian lines. In an attempt to cut them off, the 2nd Westphalian Landwehr Infantry regimental commander von Winterfeld moved his 1st and 2nd Battalions to the rear of the 88th. Inexplicably, he failed to issue the order to fire on the rear of the Frenchmen and they were allowed to escape. Blucher, who observed this missed opportunity from nearby, was enraged. He rode up to the commander and screamed at him. “Were you wearing epaulettes I’d tear them off!” In an effort to stabilise the position Pirch II led the 1/28th and 2/29th battalions against the 34th managing to push the French back. Blucher personally led the 2/28th, 3/29th and 2/7th against the 1/37th and 1/64th Line but the French held their position. Even so, the Prussian gunners were able to reman their cannon. The Prussians had managed to stabilise the situation in the centre, but in doing so, Ziethen had used his reserve and 1st Brigade was only just holding the line.
The Prussian Counter-attack
At 4:00pm Pirch noted that Wagnelee had fallen and that leading elements of 7th Division were beginning to cross the Ligne Stream. Judging that the timing was right for the counter attack he ordered 1st and 2nd Cavalry Brigades to advance west of Wagnelee to counter the French cavalry in the area. 3rd Cavalry Brigade was ordered to occupy the area north of the pond to support the flank of the other two cavalry brigades.
5th and 6th Infantry Brigades were ordered to attack the French infantry between Wagnelee and St Amand la Haye and, once having broken through, to attack the flank of the French forces assaulting 1st Brigade. Regrettably, Major General Kraft did not implement his order in time and marched 15 minutes after von Tippelskirch’s 5th Brigade had departed.
At this same time Napoleon had issued orders for the start of phase two of the French attack. With both sides taking the offensive the clash to decide the battle was about to begin.
The French 7th Division had deployed the 11th Legere to defend Wagnelee but the remainder of the division was strung out in column after just crossing the Ligne Stream. Attempting to catch the French before they could deploy into battle formation von Tippelskirch marched his Brigade straight towards the French.
Seeing some 13,000 Prussian infantry and 4,500 Prussian cavalry advancing against him, Girard became alarmed. He sent a panicky letter to Napoleon informing him of the situation and asking for fresh reserves to help stabilise the flank. Girard would later get his emperor’s reply; “Good luck but you are on your own”. The only reinforcements Girard received were the 12pdr reserve battery sent by Vandamme.
Girard hastily formed a defensive line using Wagnelee as a solid flank on his left. However, the right was not secure and Tippelskirch sent the 1/2nd Infantry Regiment against the open flank. The 2/12th Legere was the target and the battalion was quickly broken. Tippelskirch then ordered the 25th Infantry Regiment to charge the 82nd Line. The 82nd, seeing the 2/12th routing on its flank turned and retreated before the Prussians could close. Girard again sent a further, distressed, message to Vandamme saying “I am unable to hold the line of Wagnelee. Half of my division is in disorder; please send help”
Despite its slow start, Kraft’s 6th Brigade now caught up with 5th Brigade. They were opposed by Berthezene’s 11th Division. 11th Division had just marched up to a position south of the Ligne Stream in support of 7th Division. Pirch noticed the compact formation of the 11th Division and its open flank resolved to turn the flank and drive the division away.
The 25th Regiment was ordered to clean up what remained of 7th Division north of the Ligne Stream. The task was completed with ease as the survivors of the 4th and 82nd Line and 12th Legere Regiments were all routed. Tippelskirch then lead the 1/2/2nd Infantry Regiment against the already weakened 2/4th of 7th Division and 1/56th of 11th Division. The French defenders exhibited exceptionally courageous resistance which unnerved the Prussians who did no charge home but instead halted in front of the French line. Von Kraft, observing that the opportunity for success had passed, did not charge his division against the French. Instead, he sent the 1st Elbe Landwehr Infantry Regiment to turn the French right flank.
In a 30 minute period over half of Girard’s forces had either broken or retreated from the Prussians. The shock was too much for the 11th Legere who cravenly abandoned Wagnelee allowing the Prussians to reoccupy. 7th Division was shattered. In an effort to restore the situation, Girard issued an order for the division to rest and redeploy. However, morale was broken; the men could not be rallied and continued to run from the battlefield.
Blucher moved from his position near 1st Brigade to the head of 6th Brigade. He had hopes of leading the Prussian army to victory. Almost the moment he left 1st Brigade the French launched another assault.
The Second Crisis in the Centre
At 5pm 15th Legere and the 23rd Line finally managed to take the last section of St Amand from the Prussian defenders despite both regiments having sustained heavy casualties from the artillery fire of the Prussian grand battery. This latest loss is too much for the fatigued Prussian 1st Brigade. After defending its position against two French divisions for two and a half hours, the Brigade breaks. Steinmetz tried hard, but all attempts to rally the shattered brigade were futile.
The Prussian commander of artillery Holtzendorff, having just ordered the Ligny Grand Battery to take position behind Ligny sent a counter order. The battery was ordered to oppose any French breakthrough between St Amand and St Amand La Haye.
Pirch II formed his brigade into a new defensive position on the heights behind St Amand to resist any further attacks from 8th Division and 1st Brigade 10th Division. With 5th and 6th Brigades routing and 7th Division and 11th Division falling back Vandamme had to position 1st Brigade 10th Division to face the new threat. A lull then came over the area and Holtzendorff sent another order for the Grand battery to take up a position behind Ligny. To occupy the position vacated by the artillery and to protect his flank, Pirch II moved the Westphalian Landwehr Cavalry Regiment into the area. This movement alarmed the French and was to have an unexpected impact on the battle’s outcome.
Click to go back to part 1 of the battle of Ligny
Click to go on to part 3 of the battle of Ligny