From: Carl von Clausewitz and Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. On Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington, and the Campaign of 1815. Ed./trans. Christopher Bassford, Daniel Moran, and Gregory W. Pedlow. ClausewitzStudies.org, 2010. ISBN-10: 1453701508. ISBN-13: 9781453701508. 318pp. List price: $18.00.
STRATEGIC OVERVIEW OF THE CAMPAIGN
by Carl von Clausewitz
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Blücher's Concentration at Sombreffe
In consequence of the news of the enemy movements and the arrival of Bonaparte, an order was sent from Namur to General von Bülow on the evening of the 14th to assemble his troops so that he could reach Hannut in a day's march. General Bülow received this order at 5 a.m. on the morning of the 15th and carried out the measures that had been ordered.
During the night of the 14th/15th, after General Ziethen reported the advance of the enemy, a second order was sent to General von Bülow to advance immediately to Hannut and establish his headquarters there. General Bülow received this order at 11 a.m. on the 15th. If he had then ordered to his troops to make the second march to Hannut after a short rest—which was certainly feasible, since Hannut is only 23 miles from Liége and most of his troops were stationed in-between—his corps could have been assembled at Hannut on the night of the 15th/16th. But General Bülow thought he could postpone obeying this order until the following day, first because he was convinced that the concentration of the Prussian army could take place only around Hannut and that there would therefore be plenty of time for him to reach this location; and secondly because he thought that as long as there was no declaration of war, there was no danger of hostilities.
He reported this to headquarters and announced that he would be in Hannut at midday on the 16th. This report arrived after Marshal Blücher had left Namur. A third and then a fourth order dispatched in the course of the 15th from Namur to General Bülow ordered him to continue his march to Sombreffe on the 16th. As Sombreffe is 23 miles from Hannut, and Bülow's corps could only have reached Hannut during the night of the 15th, he might—by tremendous effort—have reached Sombreffe with his advanced guard by the afternoon of the 16th, but the rest of his corps could not arrive before the evening. It is obvious that there was not enough time for any of this.
Both of these orders were sent to Hannut, where General Bülow was supposed to go and was expected, hence they remained there. But General Bülow had remained at Liége on the 15th and first received these orders at 10 a.m. on the 16th. The loss of time was now so great that it was only at 3 a.m. on the 17th that he reached Haute et Basse Baudeset, an hour’s march from Gembloux and three hours from the battlefield. Had he arrived twelve hours sooner, he might still have decided the outcome of the Battle of Ligny.
Unfortunate circumstances also prevented the Prussian 3rd Corps from receiving its marching orders until 10 a.m. on the 15th, although they had been written on the night of the 14th/15th. Nevertheless, this corps was on the field of battle at 10 a.m. on the 16th, having left behind only some troops who were in outposts. The 2nd Corps arrived shortly before.
The news that Field Marshal Blücher received on the 14th, which led him to order the concentration of his army on the night of the 14th/15th, seems not to have induced Lord Wellington to take any decisive steps. Even on the evening of the 15th, when he received the report that General Ziethen had been attacked and driven back by the main French army at Charleroi, Wellington still considered it unwise to march with his reserves towards his left wing, and even less advisable to weaken his right. Instead, he believed it was more likely that Bonaparte would advance on the road from Mons, and considered the clash near Charleroi to be a feint. Thus he was content simply to order his troops to be ready.
It was not until midnight, when news came from General Dörnberg (who commanded the outposts at Mons) that he had not been attacked and that the enemy appeared instead to be moving to the right, that Wellington gave orders for the reserve to begin its march, passing through the Soignies Forest. According to the account of General Müffling, this was carried out at 10 a.m.  From there it was only 14 miles to the battlefield at Sombreffe; the duke's reserve might therefore have arrived on time. But much time was lost while the duke first went to his left wing at Quatre-Bras, reconnoitered the enemy near Frasnes, and then hastened to Prince Blücher at Sombreffe, where he arrived at 1 p.m. The duke wished to see for himself whether the enemy was advancing here with his main army, and he also wanted to make the necessary arrangements with Prince Blücher. During this time the reserve appears to have waited for further orders at the edge of the Soignies Forest, where the road divides in the directions of Nivelles and Quatre-Bras. Even then there would still have been sufficient time, but the duke had completely splintered his forces in order to be able to meet any contingency and had previously not wanted to take the right wing of the Prince of Orange away [from Nivelles]. He was therefore too weak to be able to support Blücher, as we shall examine more closely.
Bonaparte's Thrust is Directed at Blücher
Now that our reflections concerning the assembly of the armies have brought us to the moment when Bonaparte is about to attack General Ziethen, we must consider more closely Bonaparte's plan, how he chose this direction for his attack, and what the objective of this thrust was.
While still in Paris, Bonaparte must have had pretty good knowledge of the cantonments of both Allied armies. However, his plan of attack could have been based only on the general situation, not on the positions of individual corps like General Ziethen’s at Charleroi, since those positions might easily have changed, given that his information must have been eight or ten days old. Therefore, we cannot assume that his thrust toward Charleroi was aimed specifically at the Prussian 1st Corps. He knew of Blücher's plan to concentrate and deploy his forces behind Fleurus, but he could not base his plan in Paris on anything as uncertain as a point of concentration, which might long since have been altered without his knowing it. Bonaparte could only be sure that Wellington and his army were in and around Brussels, and that Blücher was with his in and around Namur. He presumably had a reasonably precise estimate of their strength, but it is quite likely that he considered these accounts exaggerated. General Sarrazin relates in his book De la seconde restauration that when Bonaparte was told that more than 200,000 men opposed him, he shrugged his shoulders and answered that he knew for certain that the English had 50,000 men and that just as many Prussians under Blücher were on the Meuse. Even supposing that Bonaparte made such remarks only to encourage his men, it is still very likely that he estimated Wellington's army at not over 60-70,000 men, and Blücher's at not above 80-90,000, thus altogether about 150,000 men, and of these he certainly expected that a substantial proportion would not come into action. We should not be misled if he gives relatively accurate strengths for both armies in the Memoirs. It is easy to see that these details are drawn from later accounts, and Bonaparte was too much in the habit of underestimating his opponent not to have done so in this case, in all probability.
If Bonaparte concentrated in his center, thus between Maubeuge and Givet, which was the shortest distance and thus also the best route for achieving surprise, then he would find himself oriented more toward Blücher than toward Wellington. At the same time, most of Wellington's army was a day's march away from Blücher. If Bonaparte now went through Charleroi, he could hardly fail to encounter Blücher, for it could be taken for granted that the two Allied commanders would want to remain in contact and that Blücher would therefore assemble his army not on the right bank of the Meuse but on the left. The route via Charleroi thus would lead Bonaparte against either Blücher's main body or his right wing. To fall upon Blücher and attack him first was undoubtedly what Bonaparte preferred, in part because he clearly felt a much greater animus toward Blücher and the Prussians than toward Wellington and the English, in part because the Prussians were stronger than the others, and finally because they were more restless and combative. Our view concerning Bonaparte's plans has also been confirmed by his memoirs, for he says he knew that Blücher, an old Hussar and bold to the point of folly, would certainly hasten to assist Wellington more rapidly than the ever-cautious Wellington would move to assist Blücher.
If Bonaparte encountered the main part of Blücher's army, he hoped to defeat it by a sudden attack before Wellington could come over. It would not be as good if Bonaparte fell on Blücher's right wing, but he could still expect that in pursuing it he would encounter Blücher himself and bring him to battle somewhat later, while also pushing him even farther away from Wellington. In both cases, Bonaparte expected that Blücher's force would not be properly concentrated while marching to join Wellington, as this march—being a strategic flank movement from scattered quarters—would not permit the forces to be completely united.
This, it seems, is how we must understand and explain Bonaparte's particular plan of operation. All the writers who have described this campaign begin by saying that he threw himself between the two armies in order to divide them. This expression has become part of technical military jargon, but there is actually no clear underlying concept behind it. The space between two armies cannot be the objective of an operation. For a commander like Bonaparte, who has to deal with an adversary twice his strength, it would be very unfortunate if, instead of striking one-half of his opponents’ forces with all of his own, he would instead strike at the empty space between them, thus launching a blow into thin air. He would be wasting time, when only the strictest economy of time would enable him to get double duty out of his own strength.
Even if no time is lost, a blow against one army, delivered so as to push it away from the other, can still be very dangerous, since as a consequence you may be attacked in the rear by the other army. If, therefore, this other army is not far enough away to insure against such a threat, a commander is very unlikely to mount an attack merely to push an opponent away.
Bonaparte therefore chose the direction that led between the two armies, not in order to divide them by squeezing between them, but because he had reason to believe that in this direction he would fall upon Blücher, either concentrated or in separated corps.
The Action at Charleroi
On the evening of the 14th, the French army was deployed in three columns at Philippeville, Beaumont, and Solre-sur-Sambre, 18 miles from Charleroi. There are no definite reports on whether or not General Ziethen observed their fires, or whether he had drawn his brigades together to the extent the defense of the approaches allowed. His outposts were driven in at four o'clock on the morning of the 15th. The three French columns pushed towards the three crossings of Marchiennes, Charleroi, and Chatelet. All three were defended by portions of the 2nd Brigade. General Ziethen's outposts withdrew, but the battalion that had defended Thuin for some time was lost to a cavalry attack while retreating toward Marchiennes.
General Ziethen's outposts were drawn back from the vicinity of Binche, Thuin and Ham to the Sambre River at Charleroi, a march of two and a half hours. This had been necessary for the security of the corps, but it is preferable in any case to pull back such extremely extended outposts once one has learned of the advance of the main enemy force and is therefore prepared, making it unnecessary to continue to place the outposts in jeopardy.
On the morning of the 15th, the positions of the centers of the brigades of General Ziethen's corps were:
1st, at Fontaine-l'Evêque
2nd, at Charleroi
3rd, at Fleurus
4th, at Moutier-sur-Sambre,
The Reserve Cavalry, divided between Gosselies, Charleroi, Fleurus, etc.
We can here consider the 3rd Brigade to be the reserve, the 2nd as the force that actually defended the Sambre, and the 1st and 4th Brigades as flank protection.
Accordingly, General Ziethen could not have intended to become decisively engaged on the Sambre, for he had personally chosen the 2nd Brigade's intended position near Gilly and wanted to defend the three crossings of Charleroi, Marchiennes, and Chatelet only as long as might be done without danger for the troops involved. A second stand was to take place near Gilly, in order to gain time for the flanking brigades to reach the area behind Fleurus. There the whole corps was to unite and, through its concentrated resistance, gain the time still needed to assemble the army.
On the whole, this plan was carried out successfully. It is true that the 1st Brigade, which had wanted to continue toward Heppignies, found the advanced guard of the enemy column that had advanced via Marchiennes already at Gosselies and therefore engaged it. But because the 1st Brigade was supported in this action by a regiment from the 3rd Brigade at Fleurus, which had been sent to meet it, the 1st was able to continue its retreat without great difficulty to the vicinity of Saint-Amand.
The left wing brigade was not attacked by the enemy. This is probably the reason it pulled back its outposts so much later and reached Fleurus only that evening. It had therefore not suffered any losses at all.
The situation of the 2nd Brigade was as follows:
The outposts were attacked at 4 a.m.; the attack on Charleroi did not begin until 8 a.m. and lasted until 11 a.m. During this period the French also took Marchiennes, but the French right-wing column did not reach Chatelet. The 2nd Brigade now withdrew toward Gilly. The French awaited the arrival of their 3rd Corps under Vandamme, which had lost its way and therefore arrived only at 3 p.m. The time from 3 to 5 p.m. was lost in reconnoitering and in passing through Charleroi. Finally, between 5 and 6 p.m., just as General Pirch II was about to begin his withdrawal toward Fleurus, the attack began. General Pirch therefore had to conduct a fighting withdrawal, during which he lost many men. In addition, one of his battalions was overrun by the enemy's cavalry before he could reach the woods at Lambusart. At nightfall Ziethen's brigades reached the area around Fleurus, and the enemy took up a position in the Lambusart woods.
Since the enemy had already begun attacking at four o'clock in the morning and had therefore spent the night and the whole previous day on the move and in combat, it was pretty clear that he would neither undertake anything further during the night, nor even resume his attack very early the next day. It could thus be foreseen that if a battle was going to take place at Sombreffe on the 16th, it could begin only in the afternoon, so the armies would have until mid-day to assemble.
General Ziethen’s losses on the 15th are given as 1,200 men, but they may have been as high as 2,000. With this sacrifice, the 1st Corps had delayed the enemy's army for 36 hours, which is no unfavorable result.
Only the center and the right wing of the French pursued General Ziethen. Bonaparte gave command of the left wing to Marshal Ney, who had arrived at Charleroi at 4 p.m., along with instructions to advance against the English army on the highway through Frasnes to Quatre-Bras, smash whatever he encountered, and take up a position at that crossroads.
Ney had found Reille's 2nd Corps near Gosselies with one of its divisions (that of Girard) detached against Fleurus and d’Erlon’s 1st Corps still between Marchiennes and Gosselies. At Frasnes he encountered a brigade of Perponcher's Dutch Division. Because he had received a report from Girard's division that large masses of troops had been seen at Fleurus, he did not have the nerve to press on to Quatre-Bras, partly because his troops were not all together and partly because he may have been concerned about getting too far away from the decisive battle. He was therefore content merely to drive the Dutch brigade under Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar out of Frasnes and occupy that place with his advance guard.
That evening the position of the French army was as follows:
The advanced guard of the left wing in Frasnes
The 2nd Corps between Mellet and Gosselies
The 1st Corps between Marchiennes and Gosselies
The 3rd Corps and the cavalry in the woods in front of Fleurus
The Guard between Charleroi and Gilly
The 6th Corps behind Charleroi
The 4th Corps near Chatelet
Bonaparte's headquarters was in Charleroi, that of Ney in Gosselies.
Situation the Morning of 16 June
As we have said, Blücher had already issued his orders for concentrating his army on the night of the 14th/15th. Wellington did not issue his until the night of the 15th/16th, thus 24 hours later.
Blücher's 2nd and 3rd Corps began marching on the 15th. By midday on the 16th, 36 hours later, they were on the battlefield ready to receive the 1st Corps. As we have already shown, the 4th Corps could have reached the field of battle by midday with no more than its advance guard, the other brigades [arriving] in the evening. But it did not arrive at all, because by a series of unfortunate circumstances the orders that General Bülow might have received on the 15th at 2 p.m., reached him only on the 16th at 10 a.m., twenty hours later. As a result, instead of being at Sombreffe at six o'clock on the evening of the 15th, the 4th Corps was still three hours away at six o'clock the next morning, a difference of about fifteen hours.
What was happening on Lord Wellington's side?
It was not until midnight on the 15th that Lord Wellington issued his orders for a march to the left. To what extent his troops—particularly his right wing—had already assembled earlier is not recorded anywhere. This must of necessity have happened already if the right wing really was concentrated at noon on the 17th near Hal, as has been asserted. For it stands to reason that orders could not have gone to Nieuport, and the troops then have marched from there to Hal, between the night of the 15th and midday on the 17th.
We must leave this unresolved and merely state what we know, namely that the English army was in the following positions on the morning of the 16th:
1. Perponcher's division and one brigade of Dutch cavalry, consisting of eight squadrons, at Quatre-Bras.
2. Chassée's Dutch division, probably with the other two brigades of Dutch cavalry consisting of twenty squadrons, at Nivelles.
3. Picton's division, the brigades of Lambert and Pack, and the Nassau and Brunswick troops on the march from Brussels to Quatre-Bras.
4. Cooke's and Alten's divisions, belonging to the left wing, on the march from the vicinity of Enghien to Quatre-Bras.
5. The cavalry under Lord Uxbridge on the march from their quarters to Quatre-Bras.
6. Clinton's division, belonging to the right wing, on the march from the vicinity of Ath and Leuze to Quatre-Bras.
7. Mitchell's brigade of Colville's division, likewise belonging to the right wing, on the march from the vicinity of Renaix to Quatre-Bras.
8. Stedtman’s and Anthing’s divisions, two brigades of Colville's division (Johnston and Lyon), and Estorff’s Hanoverian Cavalry brigade on the march from their quarters to Hal, where they did not arrive until the 17th.
Thus at noon, when the battle of Ligny began and that at Quatre-Bras could have begun, Lord Wellington had about 8,000 men at Quatre-Bras. By and by—throughout the whole engagement and continuing until nightfall—reserves arrived from Brussels and Cook's and Alten's divisions, perhaps also some cavalry, and the duke’s strength may have risen thereby to about 40,000 men. The duke could not bring himself to abandon the road from Nivelles, which to be sure would have been dangerous because the columns of the right wing were rushing over and crossing this road. Even toward evening, 40,000 out of the duke’s 90,000 troops were still on the march. Of the 50,000 already in position, 10,000 men (namely Chassée's division and twenty squadrons of cavalry) were at Nivelles, a place that was not attacked.
The Battle of Ligny
On the morning of the 16th Bonaparte's forces were not yet fully concentrated for an attack.
The left wing under Ney was “in echelon,” as the French say, from Frasnes to Marchiennes, a distance of about nine miles. The center and right wing were similar, because the 6th Corps stood behind Charleroi. Furthermore, the French troops had attacked the Prussian outposts at 4 a.m. on the 15th, so they had probably marched the better part of the night and then spent the whole of the 15th, well into the evening, either in combat or in readiness and on the march. On the morning of the 16th it was therefore impossible to mount an attack on Blücher at Sombreffe or on the Dutch troops at Quatre-Bras. Bonaparte had become convinced of this by the situation at Sombreffe, and he gave no thought to beginning the action there during the morning. However, the very same situation existed at Quatre-Bras. Thus his reproach of Ney for not having seized Quatre-Bras with his whole force, either on the evening of the 15th or early in the morning of the 16th, is accordingly frivolous and unjustified.
If it had actually been possible for the tactical engagement of the main forces to have occurred on the morning of the 16th, it would have been a tremendous mistake to have delayed it, for Blücher was still assembling his troops, as Bonaparte knew. Furthermore, since the overall strength of the Prussian force was so superior to the 75,000 men that Bonaparte could deploy against them, nothing could be more important than to begin the action before that whole force was assembled. The Prussian 3rd Corps, for example, arrived on the battlefield only at 10 a.m. But the French troops needed time to rest, get rations, prepare a meal, and then draw closer together. All this could not be done during a short summer night, and it is not surprising that these activities continued into the morning of the 16th. Between 11 a.m. and noon the French troops once again advanced against General Ziethen, who had already sent his brigades back into the positions allotted to them, though he himself had remained with his cavalry on the plain of Fleurus. The maneuvers by which this cavalry was pushed back to the main position lasted until 1 p.m. Bonaparte then reconnoitered the Prussian position. The real attack could begin only around 3 p.m.
Blücher's original idea, as we have already said, was to occupy the Sombreffe position along the Brussels highway and then, while Bonaparte was developing his attack there, to fall upon his flank with the largest part of the Prussian force. When the army assembled at Sombreffe on the morning of the 16th, concern arose about the need to immediately post strong forces to secure the area from which the Duke of Wellington was supposed to arrive with part of his army. A position was therefore chosen for the 1st and 2nd Corps between Saint-Amand and Sombreffe. But it was also thought that the area between Sombreffe and Balâtre could not be left unoccupied, because General Bülow was approaching there through Gembloux. The 3rd Corps was therefore ordered to occupy this position. As a result, there were two front lines. These formed an inward-pointing right angle. It was probably assumed that the enemy would not make the exposed right flank the principal object of his attack, because the Duke of Wellington was expected to arrive on that side with a considerable force. Against a secondary attack, however, this flank was considered fairly strong because of the string of villages extending from Saint-Amand to Wagnelée.
The principal Prussian mistake was to believe that the whole enemy force was opposed to them and that they could therefore count on Wellington's assistance with a substantial force (40,000 to 50,000 men). And it is true that a flank can be willingly exposed if 40,000 or 50,000 men are in echelon behind it. They must have thought that Bonaparte would attack both Prussian front lines, thus placing himself in a very disadvantageous position. This expectation proved false, and there would have been time during the battle to correct this mistake.
Dispositions on the Front at Ligny
The front from Amand to Sombreffe was occupied as follows: 1st Corps formed the actual front line; 2nd Corps remained in reserve behind the heights. 1st Corps had, through various mischances, gotten its troops rather oddly intermingled. While the 1st Brigade had three battalions in Bry, the other six stood behind Saint-Amand. On the other hand, the 3rd Brigade had three battalions in Saint-Amand, while the other six formed the rearmost reserve. [See Map 1, below.]
MAP 1. Detail from August Wagner's map of the Battle of Ligny.
NOTE: In the web version of this book, see a full—and much larger—version of Wagner's map.
The essentials of the deployment were: Bry was occupied by three battalions of the 1st Brigade; Saint-Amand by three of the 3rd Brigade; and Ligny by four battalions of the 4th Brigade. The remaining six battalions of the 1st Brigade were at the front in two lines just behind Saint-Amand (B). The eight battalions of the 2nd Brigade (one battalion having been lost), along with the remaining two battalions of the 4th, were in a second line between Bry and Ligny (C and D). Finally, the six remaining battalions of the 3rd Brigade were in a third line just behind the 2nd and 4th (E).
The 1st Corps’ reserve cavalry stood initially in front of the villages to observe the enemy, and afterwards placed itself as a reserve just in front of the 3rd Brigade (W).
The 2nd Corps stood along the Brussels road as the main reserve, the brigades next to each other (H, J, K, L,) in their prescribed order of battle of three lines in column. The reserve cavalry was behind (M). The artillery was for the most part still with the brigades. Just the three heavy batteries of the 1st Corps had been advanced between Ligny and Saint-Amand.
The intention was to fight only a preliminary action in the villages of Saint-Amand and Ligny, in order to disrupt the enemy's force, and then to fall upon it as soon as it advanced from the villages.
Dispositions on the Front at Sombreffe
The 3rd Corps placed its 9th Brigade to defend the extended villages of Sombreffe and Mont-Potriaux, as well as the ridge on which they are located; the 11th Brigade to defend the highway from Point-du-Jour; the 10th to defend the ridge of Tongrines and Tongrinelle; with the 12th Brigade and the reserve cavalry behind them as a reserve. The 9th Brigade initially occupied the village of Mont-Potriaux with only one battalion, while the other eight battalions remained in reserve behind the village (P). The 11th Brigade occupied the valley [of Ligny Brook] with one battalion (R) and kept the other four in the rear (Q), one battalion having remained at the outposts on the Meuse.
The 10th Brigade occupied the valley with two battalions and placed the other four on the ridge.
The intention was to use the skirmish line to hold the enemy in the valley at all points for as long as possible and then, when this line could no longer be held, to engage the enemy on the ridge with full battalions.
The artillery was distributed mainly on the heights in front of Mont-Potriaux, on the main road in front of Point-du-Jour, and on the heights at Tongrinelle.
Arrival of the Duke of Wellington
These arrangements were carried out very calmly by noon, because—as had been foreseen—the enemy could not begin his attack before then and did not in any way impede General Ziethen's withdrawal from Fleurus into this position.
At 1 p.m. the Duke of Wellington came to Marshal Blücher at the windmill of Bry. The duke told the field marshal that his army was at that moment assembling at Quatre-Bras, and that in a few hours he would hasten with it to assist Blücher. "At four o'clock I will be here," are supposed to have been the duke's words as he spurred his horse away.
It would have been unreasonable to suppose that the duke could arrive in a few hours with his whole army. Wellington must have meant nothing more than his left wing united with his reserve, which nonetheless amounted to 40,000 to 50,000 men. Both commanders thought that the whole French force (estimated at 130,000 men) was facing the Prussians. Blücher had assembled around 80,000 men, so if the duke came with another 40-50,000 there would have been a rough equality of forces. They were also counting on Bülow's arrival, although not without some uneasiness on that score. If his 35,000 men arrived, victory seemed pretty certain. Even though these ratios were not as advantageous as they might have been, given the Allies' great superiority of numbers, they still seemed satisfactory. A withdrawal in order to delay giving battle for a day seemed fraught with difficulties because of the two armies' diverging lines of retreat. Each army might have abandoned its natural line of communication for a short time and turned toward the base of the other, if they had been together. But they were not together, and a simultaneous march to the rear would actually have impeded their union. Furthermore, it would have made a bad impression on the troops and the public. All these reasons—which were indeed sufficient—confirmed Field Marshal Blücher’s resolution to stand and give battle. The battle was therefore undertaken in the belief that the Prussians would have to face a great superiority of numbers at first, but that by the end of the day the superiority would be on their side. It was only a matter of putting up sufficient resistance until then.