Part 2 of the Battle of Ligny. The Battle of Ligny and the battle of Quatre Bras both occurred on 16th June 1815. These were the first battles after the return of Napoleon from his exile on Corsica.
The NWA Napoleonic group put on another of their New Year big battles also recreating both battles at the same time. This is the second part of the battle of Ligny between Blucher’s Prussian army and Napoleon’s French army, as the French open the battle.
The Battle of Ligny – Part 2
Click for Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4
The French opening moves
General de Division Vandamme began the battle with the 10th Division marching slowly through the fields towards St. Amand. The 11th Division advanced on St. Amand La Haye while the 7th and 8th Divisions advanced towards Le Hameau. In the centre the 12th and 13th Divisions deployed a skirmish screen towards Ligny while the 14th Division marched towards Tongrenelle. At Fleurus, Napoleon ordered the IV Cavalry Corps to support Vandamme.
Napoleon sent the following message to d’Erlon commander of II Corps:
“You will shortly receive an order from Ney detailing you to detach the first division and the heavy artillery to march to him at Quatre Bras, do this with all haste. Then, with the rest of your troops march to the village of Marbais, form up and attack towards Ligny village. Trap as many Prussians as possible. With this move we can destroy most of the Prussian army. The fate of our army is in your hands; follow these orders with the utmost haste.”
To ensure this order was carried out a message was also sent to Quatre Bras addressed to Marshal Ney:
“Since I sent you orders this morning, the tactical situation has changed. I now wish to trap as many Prussians as possible using d’Erlon’s corps, to do that I will need more troops to be sent to Marbais with the count. You can have the 1st division and the heavy artillery. Order d’Erlon to march with all haste to Marbais with the 2nd, 3rd and 4th divisions and the cavalry. Also if you do not need the guard light cavalry send it to Marbais with all haste. This, I expect, will change your objectives and if you cannot capture Quatre Bras then you are to hold your position until we are finished here.”
The Centre: 2:30-6:30pm – The Battle for Ligny
As the French skirmish screen approached Ligny, Generallmajor von Donnersmarck finalised his preparations for the 4th Brigades defence of the town. The 3/19th Regiment with 4 companies of the 1/19th and 2/19th Regiment occupied the church. The remainder of the 1/19th and 2/19th Regiment occupied the northern and southern sections of the town. The 2/4th Westphalian Landwehr occupied the centre of the town while 3/4th Westphalian Landwehr occupied the town on the northern bank of the Ligny brook.
Generallmajor von Jagow kept his 3rd Infantry Brigade as a reserve north of Ligny to counter any French flank attack.
Due to a misinterpretation of orders, a taskforce of the 3/12th, 3/24th Regiments and 2/1st Westphalian Landwehr remained at Brye for an hour until Ziethen rode across and yelled at them to get into their assigned position.
General de Division Vichery commander of the 13th Division attempted to take the church from the Prussian 3/19th Regiment. He led the 1/59th, 2/59th and 1/76th Ligne in their assault. A desperate struggle occurred with no quarter given but the Prussian defenders managed to push the French back. The 1/30th and 1/63rd Ligne led by General de Division Pecheux charged into the centre of the town but these French were also pushed back by the 2/4th Westphalian Landwehr
The French continued to try to take the town but in over 5 hours of fighting were unable to capture any building due to the stubborn resistance of 4th Infantry Brigade. A flanking attack by the French 12th and 13th Divisions at 6:30 was repulsed with the assistance of I Korps reserve artillery and 1/12th , 2/12th , Fus/12th and 1/24th, 2/24th and 3/24th Infantry.
The Prussian Right Flank: 2:30-4:00pm
The French successes at St. Amand
At 2:30pm when the French began their offensives, 1st and 3rd battalions of the 1st Westphalian Landwehr rushed to occupy St. Amand. This caused the French to launch a series of assaults using elements of 8th Division. The 2/22nd Ligne, 2/34th , 3/34th Ligne and 1/88th Ligne managed to push the 3/1st Westphalian Landwehr out of the southern section of St Amand with 360 casualties. The 1/1st Westphalian Landwehr held on to the northern section of the village until 4:30pm when, after regrouping, 8th Division finally cleared the houses.
Around 3:30pm the French made an assault on the village of St Amand La Haye. The village was held by the 1/29th and 2/29th Infantry Regiment. Wearing the old white uniforms of the Berg army the regiment had worn their greatcoats so as not to appear conspicuous. The French assaulted with the 1st and 2 battalions, 56th Ligne on a two company frontage. Defensive fire from the Berg infantry was too hot and forced the French to retreat.
The Prussian Assault on the Right flank
As the initial French moves were cautious the Prussian 2nd, 5th and 6th Infantry Brigades were able to cross Ligny brook, unopposed, at 3:15pm. The fields of crops surrounding Wagnelee slowed the march of 5th and 6th Infantry Brigades. 2nd Infantry Brigade marched ahead and the 2/6th Regiment captured Le Hameau, which was unoccupied.
Von Sohr of the Prussian 2nd Cavalry Brigade formed a battle line west of Wagnelee and Ligny brook. This front line consisted of the 3rd and 11th Hussars with the 5th Hussars in support. With French Cuirassiers approaching von Sohr held his hussars back against the 3rd Cavalry Division. To oppose this new threat von Jürgass brought up the 32 cannon of II Korps Cavalry horse artillery. The guns fired on the 4th and 9th Chasseur à Cheval Regiments with no ascertainable effect.
The 2/15th , 3/15th Légère, 2/37th, 3/37th Ligne and 1/64th Ligne tried to drive the 2/6th Regiment out of Le Hameau but the defensive fire of the Prussians was too strong and the French charge came to an abrupt halt.
At 4pm von Kraft at the head of the 6th Brigade, having observed the French failed attempt to take Le Hameau, seized an opportunity to defeat the disordered French battalions. The 1/9th, 2/9th Infantry and 1/26th Infantry were ordered to charge the 2/64th Ligne. The Frenchmen, disordered and outnumbered four to one were smashed by the Prussian column. Around 500 men were killed and captured. The Prussian charge continued, falling on the French support line of the 1/15th, 2/15th Légère and 1/37th, 2/37th Ligne. As a consequence of their previous victory, the Prussians élan was high and after a short melee the French fled. In just a few short minutes, General de Division Lefols’ 8th Division had lost five of his eleven battalions! This loss was too much for the morale of the remainder of the 8th Division; it broke and fled from the battlefield.
Observing the success of the infantry the 6th Kurmark Landwehr cavalry also attempted to exploit the disorder in the French lines by charging the 1/82nd and 2/82nd Ligne. However, these Frenchmen calmly held their fire until the last moment before blasting the charging cavalry. The accurate volley killed and wounded 50 men. This was too much for the Prussians and they retreated. Von Pirch was furious with the performance of the Kurmark Cavalry as an opportunity to enter the French rear had been missed.
Von Kraft continued to advance his brigade into the gap left by the 8th Division. He ordered the 2/26th and 3/26th Infantry to turn the flank of the French 11th Division. General de Division Berthezene found himself facing Prussians on three different fronts. He was relieved when a message from Vandamme arrived ordering him to break off to a new defensive position west of St Amand. The presence of the 12th Chasseurs à Cheval prevented the Prussian 2nd and 6th Infantry Brigades launching an immediate pursuit as they lacked cavalry support of their own.
The Prussian Left Flank: 2:30-4:30pm
French assaults on Tongrenelle
At 2:30pm 9th, 10th and 11th Infantry Brigades with the III Korps Reserve Cavalry made a stirring sight as they advanced together to the east of Tongrinne.
General de Division Gerard had ordered Hulot’s 14th Division towards Tongrenelle. The Prussian batteries 6pdr No. 18 and No.35 and 12pdr No.7 opened fire on the French with great effect.
Hulot’s advance towards Tongrenelle split into two assault columns. The first column, consisting of the 2nd Brigade advanced towards Tongrenelle while 1st Brigade advanced towards the ford over Ligny brook to the north of Tongrenelle. 1st Brigade was supported by artillery and 7th Cavalry Division.
At 3:30pm the 1/44th and 2/44th Ligne charged the 15th and 16th Companies of the 3/27th Infantry holding the southern section of Tongrenelle. The French, disordered from the fields surrounding the village, were halted by the Prussian defensive fire. Meanwhile, Hulot’s 1st Brigade was encountering problems of its own. 12pdr Battery No.7, left in support of 11th Infantry Brigade was firing on the approaching Frenchmen and doing great execution. With what can only be described as heroic spirit, the French 2nd Brigade charged the 1/3rd and 3/3rd Kurmark Landwehr Infantry and forced the Prussians to retire. This charge was helped by the French finding dead ground which prevented 12pdr Battery No.7 firing in support of the Landwehr. Unluckily for them, the conclusion of the charge brought these brave Frenchmen out of the dead ground and at the mercy of a short range blast of grapeshot into their right flank. This was enough to see off the assault and with the failure of further attempts by 2nd Brigade on Tongrenelle, 14th Division was a spent and broken force by 4.30 pm.
During these same two hours the far left had not been stagnant. 9th, 10th and 12th Infantry Brigades with the support of the III Korps Reserve Cavalry and the Korps artillery (minus 12pdr battery No.7) had moved south. By 3.00 pm, 10th Infantry Brigade had its leading elements south of Ligny brook, east of Balatre. 12th Infantry Brigade was on the heights above the crossing point and 9th Infantry Brigade had moved south then west towards the ford below Tongrenelle. III Korps Reserve Cavalry were in a position threatening a crossing opposite Boignee and the artillery was supporting these movements from a number of positions. To the French, these manoeuvres were meant to have the appearance of a large scale assault on their right. The stratagem worked and by 3.30 pm, as ordered by Napoleon, Duhesme and his 8,500 Young Guardsmen were en route to oppose the phantom attack.
The first move of the Young Guard was a successful assault on Boignee; there were very few survivors from the garrison of the 1st and 2nd Companies of 1/2nd Kurmark Landwehr Infantry. By 4.30pm the village of Balatre had also been stormed with similar consequences to the 3rd and 4th Companies of the 1/2nd Kurmark Landwehr Infantry. The French had also pushed two of their cavalry units across the Ligny brook into the spit, formed by the brook’s meandering, north of Boignee and Balatre. This cavalry was a threat to the left flank of 9th Infantry Brigade. The 1st Kurmark Landwehr Infantry Regiment with support from 2nd Cavalry Brigade, III Korps Reserve Cavalry was sent south to deal with the threat and the French 5th Hussars were seen off. The second, unidentified, French unit charged the flank of 1st and 2nd battalions 30th Infantry. Both battalions were able to form square in the knick of time and the danger was averted.
The next French move came across the ford east of Balatre. The 1/1st and 2/1st Tirailleurs of the Young Guard charged across the ford and forced the 2/2nd and 3/2nd Kurmark Landwehr Infantry to retreat. 1st Cavalry Brigade, III Korps Reserve Cavalry was brought up and the Young Guard battalions, with no cavalry support of their own, halted and looked unsure of how to proceed. The French cavalry of 5th Cavalry Division, which could have been supporting the Tirailleurs, were threatening to cross the battlefield’s eastern-most ford. This move was countered by 6th Kurmark Landwehr Infantry in closed columns.
By 4.30 pm the position on “the spit” was under control. 1st Kurmark Landwehr Infantry was posted in the fields on the summit and was supported by batteries 6pdr No.18 and No.35. 2nd Cavalry Brigade had begun to shadow the regiment of Young Guard which, after taking Boignee, abandoned the village and moved eastwards. Another regiment of Young Guard was posted on the heights north of the village. Meanwhile, the 1/2/3rd Voltigeurs which had taken Balatre was threatening to cross the ford to the north of the village. This move was countered by Horse Batteries No.18 and No.19 supported by 2/2nd and 3/2nd Kurmark Landwehr Infantry.
Shortly after 4.30 pm, an ominous move was noted on the Prussian left centre. As 14th Division routed to the south, glimpses of large cavalry formations could be seen moving north. As these units approached, they went tentatively identified as the Empress Dragoons and the Grenadiers à Cheval of the Imperial Guard Heavy Cavalry Division. At the same time, further east, the 1/1st and 2/1st Tirailleurs retired towards the ford they had crossed. This presented 1st Cavalry Brigade with a glorious opportunity to turn this movement into a rout. Von der Marwitz, commander of the brigade, declined the risk and instead used his men to shepherd the Tirailleurs southwards.
Click for Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4