Part 3 of the Battle of Ligny. The Battle of Ligny and the battle of Quatre Bras both occurred on the 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 part 4 of the battle of Ligny between Blucher’s Prussian army and Napoleon’s French army.
The Battle of Ligny – part 3
Click for Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4
At 3:15pm a messenger rode up to Napoleon and delivered him a message from General Labou who was stationed with his VI Corps of 10,000 men at Charleroi. Distracted by the progress of the battle, Napoleon failed to read this message or order Labou to march to either battlefield. At 4:15pm Napoleon finally remembered the message from Labou, which read
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 engagements and only in small numbers. I am 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″
Napoleon still failed to order Labou to march to Ligny or Quatre Bras – a decision that would remove much needed reserves for the French.
At 4:30pm Napoleon, anxiously awaiting the arrival of d’Erlon, sent a message to Ney ordering him to ask d’Erlon for an estimated time of arrival to at Quatre Bras. d’Erlon replied to Ney that he would arrive at Quatre Bras after 6:00pm. This information was not passed back to Napoleon.
The Prussian Right: 4pm-5:30pm:
The destruction of the Cuirassiers
In an attempt to eliminate the French Horse Artillery the 4th Prussian Hussars charged the eighteen cannon. The French gunners waited until the last moment to open fire and deadly canister killed and wounded two hundred cavalrymen. Shocked by the loss of a third of their numbers the Prussian Hussars came to a halt seventy yards from the cannon. Seeing the Prussian move stalled, the 1st Cuirassiers charged the blown cavalrymen. The 4th Hussars tried valiantly but the fresh Cuirassiers were just too much, two hundred more Prussians were killed or captured. Battle mad from this victory the 1st Cuirassiers surged past the safety of their own lines in an attempt to find more Prussians to kill but instead halted in no mans land.
Von Sohr ordered the 11th Hussars to succeed where the 4th Hussars had failed. The 11th Hussars charged the 13th Cavalry Division’s Horse Battery. Again, the French gunners held their fire to the last moment and nearby French batteries gave supporting fire. One hundred more Prussians went down but this was not enough to stop the charge and the French gunners were cut down to a man. The 11th Hussars charge continued towards the 4th Cuirassiers who retreated rather than face the Prussians. The exhausted 11th Hussars finally came to a halt surrounded by French Cuirassiers. The 5th Cuirassiers immediately charged the hussars. This charge was too much for the 11th Hussars and they fled. The Frenchmen tried to catch the fleeing men but instead were countered by the 3rd Hussars. The unexpected arrival of 600 fresh Prussian cavalry turned the pursuit into a rout with two hundred and fifty cuirassiers killed and captured.
Horse Battery No.14 turned to fire on the flank of the 1st Cuirassiers who broke from the surprise. Twenty-four Prussian cannon fired on the 12th Cuirassiers at long range. Fifty men were lost and a ricochet from a cannonball hit General Milhaud in the arm forcing him to seek medical attention. The French horse artillery was forced to change direction to face the 25th Infantry Regiment which was sent to flank its position. This gave von Sohr, leading the 5th Hussars, an opportunity to finally eliminate the French Horse artillery. The 14th Cavalry Division’s battery limbered up and moved to safety accompanied by General Delort. The hussars caught 3rd Cavalry Division’s battery as the gunners were attempting to limber. Those gunners not immediately killed surrendered whilst the Prussians continued the charge towards the 7th and 12th Cuirassiers. By this time, French morale was beginning to decline and after a token resistance three hundred cuirassiers were killed or captured. Amongst the dead was General Wathier. The 5th Hussars continued on, this time targeting the 5th and 10th Cuirassiers. Surrounded by fleeing comrades the 5th and 10th Cuirassiers also turned and fled leaving behind two hundred captives.
The French IV Cavalry Corps was in chaos. General Wathier was dead, Milhaud wounded and Delort seeking refuge. Only the 6th and 8th Cuirassiers remained in good order, 400 sabres out of the original 3,000. Twelve cannon were also lost to the Prussians who still had three thousand 3,000 sabres available.
Von Thümen had remained in reserve with the 1st Brigade II Korps Reserve Cavalry. He moved his brigade forward to exploit the hussars’ success. The 6th Dragoons turned the now open flank of the French 7th Division
To keep the pressure on the 7th Division, von Tippelskirch ordered the 1/25th, 2/25th and 3/25th Infantry to charge the 2/9th Légère. Deployed in line, the French delivered a devastating volley into the Prussian column which stopped the charge in its tracks. The 2/9th Légère decided to drive back the Prussians by counter charging but a scrambled volley from the Prussians halted them too.
Vandamme realised that the 7th Division was about to be encircled and ordered them to break off from the front line. The French were able to extricate themselves from a perilous position with the 1/9th and 2/9th Légère forming square to protect the division against the Prussian cavalry. Von Tippelskirch led the 1/2nd, 2/2ndand Fus/2nd Infantry forward and charged the French squares. Outnumbered and in square the French were massacred with seven hundred men killed and captured.
The sacrifice of the 9th Légère was not in vain as Vandamme managed to form a defensive line west of St. Amand. This line consisted of the 11th and 7th Divisions supported by a grand battery of thirty-two cannon and the 3rd Cavalry Division. Milhaud, now recovered from his wound, slowly withdrew the 6th and 8th Cuirassiers to the left flank of Vandamme’s position and managed to rally what he could of the 1st and 10th Cuirassiers.
Von Röhl from II Korps Artillery Reserve had finally moved his command to a position on the heights near Wagnelee and opened fire on the French position. No more than thirty minutes later a new order arrived. It transpired that the Imperial Guard were marching to assault the Prussian centre and he was needed there. He limbered his thirty-two cannon and began a counter march to the centre.
Just as von Pirch was planning to drive the Cuirassiers back and turn the French position and the grand battery, he was hit in the arm by a musket ball.
It was 5:15 and the forty-four cannon from the Old Guard artillery arrived to support Vandamme. Two horse batteries moved to support IV Cavalry Corps, the 14th and 17th Dragoons with six hundred sabres, arrived to reinforce IV Cavalry Corps while the thirty-two 6pdr cannon reinforced the French grand battery. With von Pirch temporarily incapacitated 2nd, 5th and 6th Infantry Brigades continued to march straight towards sixty-four French guns. Cannonballs struck the Prussian lines killing hundreds. In this confusion the 14th Dragoons charged the 2nd Infantry. The fusilier battalion was unable to form square in time and was massacred by the French cavalry with only two hundred men escaping. Luckily, the 2/2nd Infantry were able to form square and halted the victorious dragoons.
About this time, von Pirch realised that the French reinforcements would prevent a quick victory on the flanks and any assault would cost too many Prussian casualties. He therefore decided to pull back to a defensive position on and around Le Hameau. Von Wahlen-Jürgass reformed his grand battery in front of the 1st Cavalry Brigade, now holding the frontline.
Vandamme, worried about the situation on his flank, sent a message to Napoleon asking for a brigade of the Old Guard to support his position. This simple request for reinforcements changed the course of the battle. Napoleon, upon receiving the request, ordered the Division of the Old Guard Grenadiers and Chasseurs, with the exception of the 1st Grenadiers a Pied and 1st Chasseurs a Pied to about face and counter march to the west of St. Amand. The movement was to be supported by the Grenadiers à Cheval. This redeployment kept 6,000 bayonets and 800 sabres out of the battle for ninety minutes and further weakened the French centre.
The Centre: 3:30-5:30pm
Deployment of Old Guard grand batteries
At around 3:30pm the batteries of the French Old Guard were observed marching toward the gap between Ligny and St. Amand. These guns consisting of thirty-two 12pdr cannon and thirty-two 6pdr cannon with twelve 6pdr Horse cannon trailing in the rear formed a giant column. Artillery fire from the Prussian batteries on the heights behind St. Amand on the limbered Old Guard batteries caused the loss of two guns and a further two guns were destroyed while the Old Guard batteries were unlimbering. But when the French opened fire with all eight batteries the effect was catastrophic; five Prussian guns were destroyed in the first fifteen minutes.
The deployment of the French Old Guard batteries in this area had been anticipated. Oberstleutenant Lehmann, commander of the I Korps artillery used his authority to move the batteries to a new line between Ligny and St. Amand La Haye. Unfortunately, in the confusion of this part of the field, the order had to be sent five times before the Prussian batteries disengaged and pulled back. During this time twelve more Prussian guns had been destroyed for the loss of six French guns.
The redeployed Prussian batteries were joined by three other reserve batteries. The line consisted of the 6pdr batteries No.1, No.3, No.7 and No.15, 12pdr batteries No.2 and No.6 and Howitzer battery No.1. In all, forty-eight cannon were concentrated to oppose the expected attack in this area.
The situation looked critical for the Prussians as only the 1/12th, 2/12th Infantry and 1/24th, 2/24th Infantry supported by the Westphalian Landwehr Cavalry Regiment were immediately available to oppose the French 10th Division. This division had almost cleared St. Amand and would soon be ready to launch its assault. It was at this time that the Old Guard Artillery limbered and began to move again. The three 12pdr batteries marched toward Sombreffe and the five 6pdr batteries marched towards the left of St Amand. The Old Guard Horse Artillery followed the 6pdr batteries. At the same time the divisions of the Old Guard Grenadiers and Chasseurs were seen on the Fleurus road. They were supported by the Guard Heavy Cavalry Division consisting of the Grenadiers à Cheval and the Empress Dragoons.
The Prussian High Command now expected an attack on Sombreffe, so 6pdr Batteries No.1, No. 3 and No.15 of I Korps artillery were sent from the Ligny – St. Amand La Haye defensive line to Sombreffe. Generallmajor von Holtzendorf – Chief of Artillery – also recalled the reserve artillery of II Korps to the Sombreffe area. Blücher personally ordered 7th and 8th Infantry Brigades to be alert and prepared to move forward from their reserve positions behind Sombreffe. Generalleutnant von Roeder moved his cavalry of I Korps forward to a defensive position.
While the Prussians appeared to have enough solders and cannon in the area of Sombreffe all feared clashing with the famous Old Guard.
Exelmans crosses Ligny Brook
Whilst this redeployment was occurring General de Division Exelmans’ II Cavalry Corps, consisting of 3,300 dragoons, was observed crossing the Ligny stream about equal distance between St. Amand and Ligny. Accurate artillery fire of the Prussian gunners caused the 20th Regiment of Dragoons to break, but the remaining regiments continued to cross. The 10th division, which had taken St. Amand, also crossed the stream.
To counter this new threat 1st Cavalry Brigade of I Korps was redeployed to protect the Prussian batteries opposing the French dragoons. 7th Infantry Brigade was also ordered forward to the assembly area behind Ligny. The order to 7th Infantry Brigade failed to get through and, due to an administrative bungle, the order was not resent but by then the crisis had passed.
Napoleon had ordered the divisions of the Old Guard Grenadiers and Chasseurs along with the Grenadiers à Cheval to change direction and march in support of Vandamme. In the centre, this left only the 1st Regiment of Grenadiers, the 1st Regiment of Chasseurs and the Empress Dragoons. Blücher and Gneisenau watched in disbelief as seven thousand Guardsmen turned and marched away from the Prussian Lines.
Exelmans positioned his Dragoons in some dead ground near the Ligny brook and assumed a defensive stance. Instead of covering the Dragoons as was expected the French 10th Division was assembling to attack St. Amand from the east.
At 5:30 General de Division Habert gathered the 1/34th, 2/34th and 3/34th Ligne, 1/88th, 2/88th and 3/88th Ligne and the 2nd Swiss from the 10th Division and charged St. Amand. The French were already fatigued from three hours of fighting and the charge was disordered as it crossed Ligny brook and the fields surrounding St. Amand. After a volley of musketry from the 1/29th and the 2/29th, the Frenchmen retreated. No further attacks were made on St. Amand La Haye.
Oberstleutenant von Röhl now arrived in the centre with 6pdr Batteries No.10 and No.37 and 12pdr Batteries No.4 and No.8 of II Korps Artillery Reserve. This returned the number of batteries facing Exelmans to seven. With the threat to the centre gone, von Röhl was ordered to move again and return to the Wagnelee area. Once in position, he was to form a third defensive line on the hill behind Ligny brook.
Click for Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4