In England, a tiny hamlet like Quatre Bras would probably be called Four Ways. It was a few houses and some farms clustered around a crossroad on the main route north from Charleroi to Brussels. Napoleon was pushing as fast as he could toward the Belgian capital, desperate to get his army between the armies of Prussia and Britain so that he could pick his two opponents off one after the other.
Wellington had not expected Napoleon to move into Belgium through Charleroi and only a small force was positioned on that road. These were troops under the command of the Prince of Orange. Books like Sharpe's Waterloo present Prince William as an incompetent ass and his troops as cowards. You can't really blame Bernard Cornwell for taking this line: it's been a commonplace since Wellington returned victorious from a battle which everyone in London needed to believe had been won by the British. The role of Prince William and his Netherlands Army was played down then and has been played down ever since. Only recently have people began to question this story.
Prince William had 7,000 men and eight guns at Quatre Bras when the French arrived with 20,000 men and 60 guns. Another 20,000 Frenchmen were marching north to join them. There was, it seemed, no realistic prospect of Prince William's troops holding the position. Indeed, by 2:30 the French were close to taking the crossroads. Prince William's forces had increased to sixteen guns and 8,000 men, but this was all that stood between Marshall Ney and Brussels.
Nobody knows why Ney hesitated. It seems likely that Napoleon's orders had been unclear and that Ney was reluctant to commit himself without definite instructions. It was the first of a series of command blunders that suggest that Napoleon was no longer the brilliant general in complete command of his forces, as he had been before Elba. Some of his most solid and dependable marshals were no longer available to him and he was forced to put too much reliance on Ney, who, though undoubtedly brave, was not a master of strategy.
|Brunswickers during the Battle of Quatre-Bras by Richard Knötel|
|Black Watch at the Battle of Quatre-Bras, 1815, by William Barnes Wollen|
In fairness, I think that Quatre Bras is best regarded as a score draw. The French were not defeated, but they were delayed. The British were able to withdraw in good order and prepare themselves at Waterloo for the battle that would take place there two days later. What is clear is that if Ney had smashed through Prince William's lines at the point when he had overwhelming superiority, the French troops would have been on Brussels before the British could position themselves to mount an effective defence. It is quite probable that Napoleon would have ended by defeating the British. The Prussians, already beaten at Ligny would have withdrawn to Prussia, leaving Napoleon in control of Belgium. Many of the Belgian army would have rejoined the Eagles.
Could victory at Quatre Bras have saved Napoleon? In the long-term, probably not, but he would have seen off the British and Prussian Armies and been in a much stronger position to negotiate some sort of settlement with the great powers. It is possible that the young Prince William, inexperienced and totally out of his depth – and maybe only trying to hold the position because he lacked the strategic understanding that it should have been impossible to do so – changed the course of European history. It is also clearly true that the British victory at Waterloo was made possible because of the outstanding courage of the Dutch and Belgian troops who were later to be dismissed as "Waterloo cowards".