In June 1815 Napoleon faced a problem.
The army which the Emperor had gathered amounted to 123,000 men, yet the Anglo, Dutch and Prussian forces combined amounted to around 200,000 men. Napoleon knew that if he faced this unified force his chances of winning a decisive victory were reduced. He therefore adopted a bold strategy, by making a daring lunge for Brussels down the gap between the two forces. His aim was to prise the two armies apart, forcing them to withdraw along their supply lines which ran in opposite directions (the British towards Ostend and the Prussians towards Liege). With the two forces separated, he would then use the bulk of his own army to encircle and crush one the nearest force, before turning on the other.
It was an inspired plan. It very nearly worked.
On 15th June, after having kept the French-Belgium border shut for days to prevent Wellington and Blucher hearing any rumours of French troops collecting in the area, Napoleon threw his army across the border, and rapidly took Charleroi. The objective for the first day of the campaign was the cross-roads of Quatre Bras, which were vital for Wellington and Blucher’s forces to be able to communicate with one another.
Marshall Michel Ney
The French vanguard, under Marshal Ney, almost took the crossroads on the evening of the 15th, but encountered strong resistance from a force of Nassau infantrymen, who kept the French at bay until darkness fell. When news arrived in Brussels of the speed of the French advance, Wellington, and many officers of the British army, were at a ball which was being held by the Duchess of Richmond. The British, Dutch and Prussians had been taken completely by surprised. Their forces were scattered across southern Belgium, and would need most of a day to gather, yet Napoleon was already just 20 miles from the Belgian capital. Wellington hastily ordered his British and Dutch troops to gather at Quatre Bras, where he hoped to hold the French until his army had collected, and he could take the initiative. Meanwhile Blucher ordered his Prussians to Ligny, where he planned to do the same.
The Bloody Stalemate
The Battle of Quatre Bras was the smaller of the two battles which took place on the 16th June. Marshal Ney was ordered by Napoleon to take and hold the crossroads, yet the task was more challenging than it sounded. Ney needed time to allow his troops to move up from the positions where they had camped the previous night, strung out along the road from the Belgium border. He dared not attack without his whole force, fearing Wellington’s reputation for hiding troops within the terrain. Wellington’s reputation, on the 16th June, equated to an entire army that wasn’t actually there as there were just 8,000 allied troops in the area, facing 25,000 French men. Nonetheless, the hesitation bought the allies valuable time in which to bring up the troops that were desperately needed.
When the attack began at 2pm, the French made rapid progress. Initially Wellington was not actually present, having ridden to meet Prussian commander Marshal Blucher in person to discuss their strategy. The Dutch troops holding the line around the Gemioncourt farm, which included some militia units, were pushed back, and by the time Wellington returned at 3pm the French were advancing through the Bois du Bossu and preparing for a final assault on the Quatre Bras crossroads itself.
At this crucial moment a British division under General Picton arrived, and were able to hold the Allied left flank, whilst their centre rallied, and more British troops were pushed forward to face the French attack. Dutch cavalry were used to try and halt the French advance, but broke and fled. An attack by the Duke of Brunswick’s cavalry were also driven back and the Duke of Brunswick himself was killed.
By 5pm, however, another 8,000 reinforcements had reached Wellington, and he was able to resume the offensive. As British troops inched forward on the left flank, Ney received a letter from Napoleon telling him that the fate of the campaign depending on his success at Quatre Bras. With the prospect of victory slipping through his fingers, Ney ordered an elite unit of cavalry, the cuirassiers, to charge the Anglo-Dutch position. French cavalry at briefly captured the crossroads, 2 British battalions were caught by surprised and were badly mauled and Wellington was even forced to jump his horse over a line of British soldiers in order to escape the cavalrymen pursuing him. However, the cavalry could not hold the crossroads, and, suffering under Allied artillery fire, were pushed back.
View from the Duke of Brunswick Memorial looking North towards the Quatre Bras Crossroads. (Author's Collection)
By 10pm, the Anglo-Dutch army had pushed the French back on all fronts, and halted along the line they had occupied at the start of the battle. Quatre Bras had been a draw.
The French lost around 4,000 men at Quatre Bras, compared to an allied loss of around 4,600, but crucially the French had been held back from the crossroads. How the campaign would unfold in the coming days would depend on the outcome of Napoleon’s battle with the Prussians at Ligny.
Up Next: Ligny: Napoleon’s final victory
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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)
Rory Muir, Wellington: Waterloo and the Fortunes of Peace (Yale: Yale University Press, 2015)