Battle of Ligny (part 4) 10-Jan-10


100110frenchcounter655sPart 4 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, as both armies make counter-attacks.

The Battle of Ligny – part 4

Click for Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

The Prussian Left: 4:30-7:30pm

The final Attack on Tongrenelle

Blücher arrived on the left flank at a time when there was a slight pause in the fighting. He was full of praise for von Thielemann’s conduct of his part of the battle. Blücher instructed him to continue with his original orders except that 12th Infantry Brigade was to move west and take up a position on the high ground north-east of Tongrenelle facing the town.

By about 5.00 pm, the Guard Heavy Cavalry Division, three batteries of Old Guard Artillery, 1st Grenadiers à Pied and 1st Chasseurs à Pied could be seen approaching Tongrenelle.

These movements were the beginning of a second assault on Tongrenelle that would last for over two hours.  The defenders, 8th & 30th Infantry Regiments of 9th Infantry Brigade and 15th and 16th Companies of the 3/27th Infantry made ready to receive the expected whirlwind assault.  The whirlwind did not eventuate immediately.

As the Old Guard units advanced towards Tongrenelle, the lead unit 1st battalion, 1st Chasseurs à Pied was hit by accurate and destructive frontal (12pdr Battery No.7) and flank (6pdr Battery No.35 and No.18) artillery fire.  To the joy of the Prussians and the dismay of the French, this fire caused the battalion to retreat in some disorder.  In retaliation for this impudence, 12pdr Battery No.7 was savaged by the Guard artillery and also forced to retreat.

For the next half an hour or so, the focus of the Old Guard infantry and artillery was turned eastward.  The artillery began to hammer 6pdr Batteries No.18 and No.35.  The Prussian gunners were also under fire from the rear, from French batteries just east of Boignee. To counter this, the 1st Kumark Landwehr Infantry was moved out of the fields on top of the spit to act as a shield in rear of the batteries. The 1/1st and 2/1st Grenadiers à Pied and 2/1st Chasseurs à Pied formed line to protect their own artillery and retreating colleagues.

To the far left, a combined arms attack, infantry, cavalry and artillery, appeared to be developing against 6th Kurmark Landwehr Infantry. Von Hobe immediately ordered the 1st Cavalry Brigade to their left flank as a counter measure though no artillery could be brought up at that moment.

At Boignee, 1/3rd and 3/3rd Voltigeurs who had been positioned south of the village moved north across the ford, formed line, and threatened the Prussian position on the spit. Prussian cavalry and artillery were immediately dispatched to support the threatened units.  Once again, the Young Guard infantry were unsupported and the swift arrival of cavalry on their flank forced the 2/3rd Voltigeurs to form square. There was an impasse which lasted for a few minutes before French cavalry splashed across the ford to form up on the left flank of the Young Guard.  This unit was met by cannon fire from the re-positioned guns of 6pdr Battery No.18 (6pdr Battery No.35 had been all but destroyed by the Old Guard artillery) and sent back to where it came from.  The 1/3rd and 3/3rd Voltigeurs were now hemmed in on three sides by infantry, artillery and cavalry.  The Young Guard units could not stand and fled in total disarray back across the ford and off to the south.

On the far left, at the eastern-most ford, Horse Battery No.20 arrived on the right flank of 6th Kumark Landwehr Infantry just as another Young Guard regiment attempted to cross the brook.  For reasons known only to their commander, the 1/1st and 2/1st Voltigeurs seemed unaware of the 1st Cavalry Brigade. The 8th Uhlan regiment launched a charge on the 1st Voltigeurs catching the flank of their columns. Isolated and in a disadvantageous formation, both Young Guard battalions fled south along the valley of the brook with the Prussian cavalry in pursuit.  At this time, General de Division Duhesme had half of his command routing from the battlefield.

General de Division Subervie attempted to counter the Prussian successes by pushing the 1st Lancers across the brook on the right flank of Horse battery No.20.  2/2nd Kumark Landwehr Infantry disposed of the threat by bravely advancing on the lancers own right flank and pouring a volley of musketry into them.

General Duhesme sent yet another Young Guard regiment across the Ligny Brook east of Balatre. They advanced upon elements of 10th Infantry Brigade holding the woods above the ford.  For the third time, unsupported infantry advanced and was again beaten back by a Prussian combined arms counterattack.  The collapse of 1st Voltigeurs left the 3rd Tirailleurs no choice but to retire.  By 7.00 pm, all serious French incursions (there were a few nuisance cavalry raids) on the left had been defeated and all further French movement was to the south and west.


The Final Attack

The final effort made, on their centre right, by French forces was against Tongrenelle.  The attack was made by the 1st Grenadiers à Pied and 1st Chasseurs à Pied and the remains of 14th Division which had been rallied by Gerard. The attack was supported by three batteries of Old Guard artillery and by the Empress Dragoons.

The 1st Grenadiers à Pied cleared the fields south of Tongrenelle. The 1/30th and 3/30th Infantry, recent recruits into the Prussian army, opposing them failed to make a stand and backed off, eastwards, across the brook in disorder.  The 2/1st Chasseurs à Pied confronted the two companies of the 3/27th Infantry. The Prussians had spent 4 hours defending the village and had suffered fifty percent casualties; heavy musketry and the presence of the Old Guard were too much, their morale collapsed and they fled. 2/1st Chasseurs à Pied formed up in attack column in the fields west of Tongrenelle. The remnants of the 14th Division continued this line further west.  Von Borcke countered the assault with the 2/30th Infantry and the 1/8th, 2/8th and Fus/8th Infantry. 12pdr Battery No.7, having moved back into position, fired on the 2/50th Ligne causing it to retire.  Von Lützow moved his 2nd Brigade I Korps Reserve Cavalry up to the Ligny brook in support of the defenders.

Unexpectedly, 1st Grenadiers à Pied and the Old Guard artillery continued to manoeuvre and fire on the 1/30th and 3/30th Infantry which had already retreated from the fields.  The 2/1st Chasseurs à Pied charged the 2/30th Infantry which, bravely, tried to fight but was outclassed and massacred. The 1/1st Chasseurs à Pied formed column and turned right in order to flank the 8th Infantry Regiment on their left.  Nearly simultaneously, the Fusilier battalion of the 8th Infantry Regiment, formed line and changed face in spite of a galling fire from a number of French infantry units. It then delivered a volley into the flank of the 2nd battalion, 1st Chasseurs à Pied.  Stunned by the volley, the Chasseurs retreated and caused much disorder to the units in their rear.


Aiming to clear the 8th Infantry from the west side of Tongrenelle, the Empress Dragoons charged them. The 1/8th Infantry formed square and fought for the life of the entire Leib Regiment. The Prussian regulars remained steady in square and forced the Empress Dragoons to retire. This left the Empress Dragoons in an exposed position and Ziethen, commanding a grand battery of twenty-four cannon north of Ligny fired, at long range, on their flank and caused one hundred casualties.

The French appeared to be slightly surprised and taken aback by the adamant stance of Tongrenelle’s defenders.  The Empress Dragoons were moved rearwards out of harm’s way.  Then the French recovered their balance.  Firstly, the square of the 1/8th Infantry was hit by artillery fire and forced to retire. This was followed by frontal and flank fire on the Fusilier/8th Infantry which broke. The 2/8th Infantry, now isolated and about to be surrounded by the Old Guard moved north towards the safety of the woods.

Having pushed away the 8th Infantry Regiment, the support for Tongrenelle, the French were buoyed but slightly disorganized.  The 1/9th Légère had its flank exposed to fire from 12pdr Battery No. 7. A cannonball struck General Baume, who was attached to the unit, critically wounding him. Simultaneously, von Lützow gathered his old regiment, the 6th Uhlans. They surged out of their position by the bank of the brook and hurtled towards the French infantry. Unable to form square, the 9th Légère were cut down to a man and the 6th Uhlans, filled with bloodlust, lost control and swept south.  The next target in their sights was the Guard Artillery battery which had forced the square of the 1/8th Infantry Regiment to retire.  The gunners chose to defend their guns and hit the Uhlans hard with grapeshot; two hundred men fell but the 6th Uhlans would not be denied and continued their charge eviscerating the gunners in a maelstrom of violence.

Whilst the battle did not end at this time, approximately 7.30 pm, events elsewhere on the battlefield had determined Napoleon to accept defeat and orders were on their way for the various French divisions to disengage and retire.


The Prussian Right Flank: 7.00-7:30pm

The French counter-attack on the left

At 7:00pm with the sky beginning to blacken the French began to take the offensive on their left flank. Led by the 4th Grenadiers à Pied and the 4th Chasseurs à Pied a long column of Guard began marching towards the Prussian line. Vandamme ordered the 7th and 11th Divisions forward to support the Guard. Von der Schulenburg, at the head of the 5th Kurmark Landwehr Cavalry observed a regiment advancing towards his cavalry. The French were dressed in a varied collection of uniforms. With the assumption that the French were conscripts he launched a charge only to observe discover that it was the 4th Chasseurs à Pied. The Guardsmen held their fire until the last moment and killed 100 Prussian cavalrymen. The rest of the cavalry turned and fled. Von Röhl who had returned with the II Korps Artillery Reserve began firing 12pdr Batteries No.4 and No.8 as well as 6pdr Batteries No.10 and No.37 at 7th Division. The fire of the thirty-two cannon devastated the division with hundreds killed and a cannonball taking off General Girard’s leg.


The French had massed the remnants of IV Cavalry Corps with 2nd Brigade, 10th Cavalry Division, 3rd Cavalry Division and the Grenadiers à Cheval soon arrived to support them. Von Wahlen-Jürgass was certain that the French cavalry would charge his 1st Cavalry Brigade, but instead the French contented themselves with counter battery fire on the Prussian horse artillery. The Grenadiers à Cheval appeared to be looking to outflank the Prussian cavalry position.  Therefore von Wahlen-Jürgass ordered his artillery and cavalry to break off and form on a new position just south of the roman road. Horse Batteries No.7 and No.14 gave the Grenadiers à Cheval a parting salvo which caused one hundred casualties. The artillery moved towards the new position but von Thümen failed to move the 1st Cavalry Brigade back with the artillery.

Realising that he could not defeat the Old Guard but that time was on his side, von Pirch moved the 5th and 6th Infantry Brigades to new positions. He selected a defensive line on the north bank of Ligny brook around Wagnelee. Final preparations were being made to oppose the Old Guard when a messenger arrived from Blucher bringing news of the Prussian victory.


The Centre: 6pm-8pm

Blücher and Gneisenau plan the Prussian victory

At 6pm Blücher and Gneisenau met on the heights behind Ligny to discuss the state of the battle. Gneisenau observed that all elements of the French Guard were engaged leaving them no uncommitted reserves. It was also observed that the French had given up trying to capture Ligny and had left only the 63rd Ligne Regiment to cover the town. Gerard had ordered the rest of 12th and 13th divisions to cross the stream to the north to flank the town of Ligny. This movement was being countered by the Prussian 3rd Infantry Brigade, three batteries of I Korps artillery and the 12th and 4th Regiments of 1st Infantry Brigade. Gneisenau favoured a counterattack through the town of Ligny but Blücher preferred crossing the brook just south of Ligny. In order for this crossing to be made, the Dragoons of Exelmans’ II Cavalry Corps would have to be held in check. Blücher decided to use the cavalry of I Korps to attack the French Dragoons and screen the infantry as they crossed Ligny brook.

At 6:15pm, 7th Infantry Brigade was ordered to cross the brook but von Brause failed to move. 1st Cavalry Brigade manoeuvred to a position in the rear of the Prussian Artillery. 15 minutes later, von Brause advanced his infantry brigade. This formation had been held in reserve behind Sombreffe since 3pm. Still available, in reserve, were 8th Infantry Brigade behind Sombreffe and 12th Infantry Brigade on the heights north-east of Tongrenelle.

Blücher sensing victory was imminent attached himself to the head of the 5th (Brandenburg) Dragoon Regiment and positioned them to attack the two horse batteries of Exelmans’ II Cavalry Corps. Von Treskow and von Roeder seeing Blucher at the head of the Dragoons rode over to join him. The Westphalian Landwehr Cavalry Regiment moved onto the high ground to cover the flank of the 5th Dragoons and the 3rd Uhlan Regiment advanced into dead ground between the two regiments with vedettes placed to observe the French horse artillery.

The Westphalian Landwehr Cavalry Regiment was charged by the 15th Dragoons. The French charged from a distance and the Westphalians evaded leaving the dragoons exposed to artillery fire from the Prussian batteries. The French responded by bricoling their horse artillery forward. This immediately brought on a charge from the Uhlans. The gunners of the Horse artillery batteries were speared to the man by the Uhlans. The 4th Dragoons seeing this slaughter of their comrades charged the 3rd Uhlans. As the Uhlans were blown and disorganised after their own charge they fled before the Frenchmen could get close, but they lost one hundred men in the process.

After the Uhlans had fled, Blücher responded by leading the Prussian 5th Dragoons in a charge against the French 4th Dragoons. In the melee the French 4th Dragoons were routed. Blücher continued his charge and defeated the 12th Dragoons as well. With the Dragoons of the II French Cavalry Corps pushed back and covered by Blücher’s dragoons, the Prussian 7th Infantry Brigade advanced and crossed the brook unopposed. With no French formation to their front, the 1st and 2nd Squadrons of the Elbe Landwehr Cavalry Regiment thundered towards Fleurus and the unguarded French baggage. It was 7:15pm.


Napoleon was only four hundred yards from the Prussians as they advanced and he watched, impotently, as they crossed the stream. It was at this point that the French broke off and commenced a withdrawal from the battlefield.

At 8:00pm an officer arrived from the 4th Squadron 2nd Uhlan Regiment. This unit had been detached, at 12pm, to maintain a link between the Prussian and Anglo-Allied armies. Blücher was informed that a column of French troops were approaching along the Roman Road on the Prussian right. Preparations were made to meet this threat but, as night fell, there was no further action.

The French suffered heavily in the battle: II Cavalry Corps was disordered; IV Cavalry Corps was reduced to a division; 8th Division was broken; IV Corps had suffered heavily; 14th Division was reduced to a brigade and 12th and 13th Division was in retreat. The Prussians had also captured fifty-four guns.

As night fell the Blücher and his staff inspected the battlefield. They had given Napoleon a bloody nose. Significant formations had suffered considerable casualties but other formations had not been present at the battle so Napoleon’s army was still a force to be reckoned with. News of the Anglo-Allied defeat at Quatre Bras and their retreat to a place called Waterloo meant the right flank of the Prussian army was exposed. What to do? Wait for IV Korps and pursue Napoleon or retire to Wavre and re-establish communications with Wellington?

Click for Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


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