Whilst Marshall Ney engaged Wellington’s forces at Quatre Bras, Napoleon was fighting an equally important battle against the Prussian forces. Napoleon had also been forced to delay his attack until he was sure that Wellington’s forces were being occupied at Quatre Bras, and therefore would not be able to slip past Ney and attack Napoleon’s army in the flank.
The Prussians, meanwhile, had occupied a pre-arranged defensive live 7 miles long behind the Ligny stream – a position that included Ligny, Amand and Sombreffe. The position was an extremely open one, with gentle slopes providing the Prussians with little cover from artillery fire. When Wellington, having ridden from Quatre Bras to meet with Blucher, observed how exposed the troops were, he was haughtily told by General Gniesenau, the Prussian chief of staff “our troops like to see the enemy”.
With 84,000 men, Blucher had a slim advantage in numbers of Napoleons’ 78,000 men. However, he was content to wait after he and Wellington agreed that the Anglo-Dutch force would march to join his if they were not engaged at Quatre Bras. In the meantime, Napoleon had a devised a characteristically bold plan of attack. After ‘softening up’ the Prussians with an artillery barrage, he would contain the Prussian left flank with one attack under Marshal Grouchy, whilst launching his main attack on the centre at Ligny which would force Blucher to commit his reserves until Ney arrived having, Napoleon presumed, swept aside the Anglo-Dutch force at Quatre Bras. This would then encircle the Prussian force, and crush them, sending the survivors reeling back towards Germany.
The view from Sombreffe looking towards the French position. Notice the very open, gentle slopes. (Author's Collection)
The French bombardment of the Prussian positions began at 2:30pm, with Wellington’s concerns about the exposed Prussian position proving to be well founded. The French attacks made gradual progress, with Grouchy’s men eventually threatening to break through to Sombreffe. In the centre, the village of Ligny became the scene of fierce fighting, changing hands repeatedly over the course of the afternoon, with the burning buildings adding to the difficulties faced by both sides.
The sudden arrival of D’Erlon’s corps in the right rear of the French arm, which Napoleon had summoned from Quatre Bras, led to a pause of proceedings due to the unexpected position of its appearance. D’Erlon had taken the wrong road, and had appeared in a position where, if his troops had been hostile to the French, they could have dangerously threatened the entire army. Crucial time was wasted whilst scouts were sent to determine who these troops were, by which time D’Erlon himself had received orders from Ney to march back to Quatre Bras to help him attack Wellington’s men. The overall effect was for D’Erlon’s 12,000 men to spend the entire day marching back and forth between Quatre Bras and Ligny without helping either French force.
Frustrated by the delay, Napoleon committed his elite Imperial Guard to an attack on the centre at 7:30. The assault was a success, and began to break the Prussians. Keen to prevent the retreat which was now necessary from turning into a rout, Blucher personally led Prussian cavalry units in an attack to keep the French at bay. The cavalry bought the army a crucial hour which prevented catastrophe for their army, but in the process they were broken, with Blucher being unhorsed and ridden over by his own men.
With Blucher missing, and the centre broken, the Prussian army was forced to retreat. At this point Gneisenau made perhaps the most important decision in the campaign, by ordering a retreat towards Wavre, in order to be able to keep in touch with Wellington’s forces, rather than pulling back to Gembloux which would have provided an easier route of retreat towards Germany.
Napoleon decided against pursuing the Prussians as their flanks were still providing some strong resistance. Marshal Grouchy was ordered to pursue the Prussians in the morning, but not attempt was made to keep contact with the Prussian army overnight. This proved to be a crucial mistake, as Grouchy was therefore unaware that the bulk of the Prussian army had retreated towards Wavre.
In all, the French lost 12,000 casualties at Ligny, compared to Prussian losses of 24,000 men (including 8,000 deserters) and 21 canons. Crucially though, the Prussians had been defeated, and had pulled back, leaving the Anglo-Dutch force exposed and open to attack. It seemed that Napoleon’s grand strategy was working.
Got a question? Want to voice your opinion? Join the discussion in the forum now!
Interested in Learning More?
Charles Esdaile, Napoleon, France and Waterloo: The Eagle Rejected (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2016)
Jeremy Black, Waterloo: The Battle that Brought Down Napoleon (London: Icon Books, 2010)
Tim Clayton, Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe’s Destiny (London: Abacus, 2014)