The Hundred Days: The Battle of Ligny
Patrick Harris -Battle of Quatre Bras, Napoleon battled the Prussians at Ligny.
This story starts on February 26th, when Napoleon slipped away from his exile on Elba on the Brig Inconstant with a mere 600 men. He landed in France on March 1st, and began swiftly marching towards Paris. The newly installed King of France, Louis XVIII, sent his forces to stop Napoleon, but at each turn they joined his cause. At one point, Napoleon threw open his coat and invited Royalist troops to shoot him, to "Shoot the Emperor". These troops joined him. Soon, the King was forced to flee, and Napoleon was greeted with cheers in Paris. On March 13th, he was declared an outlaw by the Congress of Vienna, and each power committed 150, 000 men to the cause of arresting him. Thus the Seventh Coalition was born.
The first front of this war would be Belgium. It had been chosen carefully by Napoleon, having been a part of France until Napoleon's abdication in 1814, at which time it became part of the Netherlands. Napoleon hoped for a pro-French insurrection. Belgium was also home to a British force under the Duke of Wellington. This force was mainly raw recruits and second line troops, as the veterans of the Peninsular War had mostly been sent to North America to fight in the War of 1812. Napoleon thought he could beat this force.
Contrary to popular belief, these were not the only forces of the Seventh Coalition in the area who would play a central role in the saga to come. The Waterloo Campaign truly was an Allied Campaign. There was of course the army of the Netherlands which was attached to Wellington's force, while a Prussian army under Blucher made up the Eastern side of Belgium's defence's on the French border.
When Napoleon's Armeé du Nord crossed the Belgian frontier, he went straight for the Prussians, easily brushing aside their light defences on the border, advancing on the Prussians. He expected them to be caught napping. This was not the case though, and Blucher was apprised of the French movements from the moment they crossed the border by a superb intelligence array.
The French met the Prussians at Ligny. The French 3rd Division attacked the hamlet of Saint-Amand-la-Haye. The hamlet was critical to Blucher's right flank, and he made great effort to retake it. After many failed attempts, Blucher personally led the last attempt, and Prussian control was re-established.
It was now that Napoleon started his main attack. Gérard's IV French Corps attacked the village of Ligny itself, succeeding in taking a few buildings. The Prussian's counterattacked, and vicious house to house fighting ensued.
Napoleon had ordered a part of Ney's force (d'Erlon's Corps), to detach and approach Ligny to protect his left flank. Due to several different countermanding orders from Napoleon and Ney, d'Erlon turned around right as he approached Ligny, and his Corps did not fight in either battle that day.
Blucher saw the weakness on Napoleon's left flank, and ordered a Corps into it. This attack was later repulsed by the Young Guard. Blucher deployed his last reserves, and personally led a counterattack into Ligny, the centre of the battle. They were in turn met by Chasseurs of the Old Guard, and were forced to retreat.
Napoleon committed the entirety of the Imperial Guard at the retreating Prussians, piercing their centre and moving decisively on Ligny. The battle was lost for the Prussians, but Napoleon could not hope to pursue, as Prussian cavalry counter charged to protect the retreating army. The French were exhausted, and a successful Prussian rearguard action prevented them from going any further. Thus the Prussians lived to fight another day, and would meet the French again at Waterloo on June 18th, in concert with the Anglo-Dutch army.
Blucher had displayed a great amount of personal bravery during the day, and during one of his many charges, his horse was shot out from under him, and he was nearly trampled underfoot. He had to be transported from the field unconscious and battered, but alive.
Stay tuned for the next post in the series!