Friday, 16 June 2017

The battle before Waterloo (the one everyone forgets)

The battle of Quatre Bras took place exactly 202 years ago today. Arguably, it was a much more important battle than Waterloo. The French came within a whisker of winning it and, had they done so, the Allied forces would have been unable to stop Napoleon taking Brussels. Yet few people know about it.

The battle features in my book, Burke at Waterloo and I blogged about it on the 200th anniversary. That post became one of my all-time top ten most-read blog posts, but I know that I have more readers now and I imagine that many of you never saw it. So here it is again.

Quatre Bras

Wellington fought two battles against Napoleon in June 1815. The first was 200 years ago today – two days before Waterloo.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 at Quatre Bras by Richard Knotel

While the French hesitated, Wellington was desperately moving forces from Brussels to defend the position at Quatre Bras. Throughout the afternoon both sides moved more troops into the fight. On several occasions, it seemed that the Allied positions must be overrun, but, every time, reinforcements arrived at the critical moment. The fighting was intense. Much of it was in fields of rye which grew up to eight feet high. The infantry could not see each other. (It's quite possible that if Prince William had been able to see how many French he faced at the beginning of the fight, he would have withdrawn.) There was extensive use of skirmishers and the cavalry often advanced in very loose order, unable to group for a classical charge because of the amount of woodland at key points around the battlefield. The result was a very fluid fight, much of it very close quarters. At one point, the Duke of Wellington himself was almost captured, riding a little too far ahead of his line. He famously escaped by fleeing at a gallop toward his own troops and ordering them to lie flat as his horse jumped across the British soldiers who then rose to their feet and drove off the French cavalry that had been pursuing their general.

Black Watch at Quatre Bras by William Barnes Wollen

At the end of the day, both armies were in a similar position to where they had been when the engagement had started. To the east, though, Napoleon's troops had been successfully driving back the Prussians in a separate battle at Ligny. Wellington feared that, as the Prussians withdrew, Napoleon would be able to do exactly what he had planned: defeat the British the next day at Quatre Bras and then turn his army against the isolated Prussians. Wellington therefore took the decision to withdraw back toward Brussels, in the hope that he would be able to form a common front with the Prussian army further north. We now know that that was exactly what happened. The Prussians were able to join up with Wellington's forces at Waterloo, and it was their arrival which finally produced an Allied victory. At the time, though, Wellington was taking an enormous gamble. With no proper communications with the Prussian army, he could not be sure that they would not just retreat for home. In fact, there were elements in their command who wanted to do just that, and Napoleon was confident that they were not going to assist the British forces. The French, then, saw Quatre Bras as a victory. The day after the battle, the British were withdrawing northward, and the French were in pursuit. The British, by contrast, have always considered Quatre Bras as an Allied victory. An overwhelming French force was held at bay for a full day, with the British making an orderly withdrawal to a previously planned position in order to meet up with the Prussians at a strategically optimal point.

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".

A Word from our Sponsor

The battle of Quatre Bras is described in reasonable detail in Burke at Waterloo. ("A good general account of the battles described." - Amazon review) Burke at Waterloo is available on Kindle at a ludicrously cheap £2.99/$3.64. Click HERE for the link. It is also available in paperback.

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