June 16 1815: Battles at Quatre Bras and Ligny

“On June 16, Napoleon divided his army into three. Ney took the left wing with three corps to prevent the juncture of the two enemy forces by capturing the crossroads at Quatre Bras – where the north–south Brussels–Charleroi highway crosses the vital east–west Namur–Nivelles road that was the principal lateral link between Blücher and Wellington – while Grouchy was on the right wing with his corps, and Napoleon stayed in the centre with the Imperial Guard and another corps.61 Later that day, as Ney engaged first the Prince of Orange and then Wellington himself at Quatre Bras, Napoleon and Grouchy attacked Blücher at Ligny. ‘You must go towards that steeple,’ he told Gérard, ‘and drive the Prussians in as far as you can. I will support you. Grouchy has my orders.’ While these mission-defined orders might sound somewhat casual, a general of Gérard’s enormous experience knew what was expected of him. Napoleon meanwhile ordered an army corps of 20,000 men under General d’Erlon, which an order from Soult had earlier detached from Ney’s command on its way to Quatre Bras, to fall on the exposed Prussian right flank at Ligny. Had d’Erlon arrived as arranged, Napoleon’s respectable victory at Ligny would have turned into a devastating rout, but instead, just as he was about to engage, he received urgent, imperative orders from Ney that he was needed at Quatre Bras, so he turned around and marched to that battlefield. Before he got there and was able to make a contribution, Soult ordered him to turn round and return to Ligny, where his exhausted corps arrived too late to take part in that battle also. This confusion between Ney, Soult and d’Erlon robbed Napoleon of a decisive victory at Ligny, where Blücher lost around 17,000 casualties to Napoleon’s 11,000 and the Prussians were driven from the field by nightfall.”

Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts

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