Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Which Way to Fleurus? (Part I--First Brigade and the French Left Wing)

I'm currently painting up the 1st and 3rd Brigades of the I Corp of Blucher's army for the Waterloo campaign.

Its known that small elements of 1st brigades 4th Hussars (1st Silesian) somehow ended up attaching themselves to Wellington's army at Quatre Bras.  Upon reading further accounts it appeared perhaps more of 1st brigade had been in the vicinity of Quatre Bra on the 15th.  Thus a short research project was born.

Public Domain: 
The Waterloo Campaign 
By Lt.-Col. Sisson Cooper Pratt (1907)

On Waterloo
By Clausewitz

Quatre-Bras, Ligny and Waterloo: A Narrative of the Campaign in Belgium, 1815
By Dorsey Gardner (1882)

The Waterloo Campaign, 1815
William Siborne, (1844)  


A Short Digression...:
(Since I'm on the subject of Public Domain... two or three generations from now when future generations start wargaming the wars in the middle east and want to do research it is ridiculous and rather tragic that the books written today by a 25 year old officer wont be out of copyright until the year 2132--120 years from now... so much for the public benefit part of the Copyright Clause of the Constitution.)

Introduction to Movements of the French Left Wing:
Now one spent that much ink on June 15th so didnt take long to skim through the works.  Some interesting things came out of it. The bottom line is it unclear how 1st Brigade got there, but they arrived after 11pm at St. Amand well to the north of the rest of I Corps at Fleurus. One of my compatriots who has Girard's 7th Division painted up once commented "they got lost and ended attaching themselves to Vandamme's III Corps".  They in fact did not get lost, per se... they were chasing 1st Brigade all over the country side and happened to end up on top of the left flank of the right wing of the French at Fleurus at the end of it.

Ziethen's I Corps was spread out over 40 miles from Binche to Namur (with outposts and pickets South of Sambre River even farther out).  It is approximately 17 miles from Binche or Thuin on the extreme right of I Corps to Charleroi and 22 miles from Namur on the extreme left. 1st Brigade HQ is at Fontaine-l'Évêque.  2nd Brigade HQ is at Charleroi and 3rd Brigade is encamped around Fleurus.  A bit of luck along with some decent execution and advanced planning allowed Zeithen to delay Napoleon approximately 36hrs (all of the 15th plus morning of the 16th) before Napoleon brought the entire Prussian force to battle at Ligny.  I Corps losses were estimated between  1000 and 2000 men for the 15th of June (600 of those losses are from the III/28th battalion; the remainder largely from III/2nd Westphalian; the two battalions are combined).

Zeithen's Conduct of the 14th and Planning:
Ziethen's outposts discovered French concentrations on the 13th/14th by the light of their campfires and all brigades were placed on alert.  The evening of the 14th the men of I Corps were to be kept at arms and on watch.  Blucher was informed around 10pm on the 14th by Ziethen and ordered concentration of the army at Sombreff. Zeithen had already given instruction in May to his Brigade commanders in the event of an attack on I Corps and Zeithen did not alter May orders on the evening of the 14th--the Corps was to retire on Fleurus in the event of attack.

The French Left Wing and the Road to Gosselies:
Hostilities commence at 3am with Reille (one of the few Corps to step off on time) skirmishing with II/1st Westphalian Landwehr on the south bank of the Sambre before Lobbes and III/1st Westphalian Landwehr at Malandrie before Thuin.  By 4am these troops are pushed back retreat over the Sambre river.  Reille brings up gun batteries and begins to assault III/2nd Westphalian Landwehr at Thuin.  The cannon reports are heard distantly in Charleroi.  The Waterloo Campaign has commenced.  The III/2nd Westphalian LW are pushed through Thuin and retreat in front of Reille throughout the morning on the south bank of the Sambre.  At Montigny they make a stand and take heavy losses.  The III/2nd Westphalian will be reform as combined battalion by the end of the day.

Between 10am and 11am Reille arrives at Marchienne where the I/2nd Westphalian Landwehr and the remnants of the III/2nd Westphalian hold barricades on the bridge.  The bridge is forced.  The II/6th Line holds the other side of the bridge and delays Reille.  Some confusion results as to the retreat route of these troops.  Siborne clears it up.  The II/6th Line retired to the east crossing the Peiton and joining the rest of 2nd brigade in the retreat on Gilly from Charleroi.  The I/2nd Westphalian (and possibly the remnants of III/2nd Westphalian) retreat to the north and attach themselves to Steinmetz's 1st Brigade making for a crossing of the Peiton above Gosselies.  Reille delays (or more generously rests his troops) in Marchienne until noon.  He is ordered up the Brussels road from Charleroi by Napoleon around 1pm.

Gosselies--A Mini Quatre-Bras:
The few paragraphs on Gosselies are somewhat inconsistent.  What is clear is there is a meeting engagement between French Cavalry and the leading elements of Reille's Corps and 1st Brigade and its reinforcements.  The timing of the combat is also unclear as it see-saws and occurs approximately between 1pm and 3pm.  Pajol's 1st Hussars are pressing up the road to Gosselies.  Steinmetz is still on the otherside of the Peiton river must cross.  Napoleon's seizure of Charleroi at 11a.m. and the retiring of 2nd Brigade on Gilly opened up the Brussels road.  Hours before the skirmish at Gosselies, Zeithen anticipated Steinmetz might be in trouble and cut off as he still had to cross the Peiton and the Brussels road and Zeithen ordered the 29th Line (Berg) from 3rd Brigade at Fleurus to march on Gosselies to secure 1st Brigade's retreat

The French 1st Hussars approach Gosselies and are initially repulsed by Lt.-Col. Lutzow's 6th Uhlans and possibly infantry support with either the 29th Line of 3rd brigade (relief column) or the 24th Line of 1st Brigade.  Napoleon checking in on Reille sends the Guard Light Cavalry and a regiment of the Young Guard to spur Reille's lead elements at Gosselies.  The Prussians are driven back through Gosselies.  Steinmetz witnessing this hurrys the 1st Westphalian Landwehr (the boys that started the mornings combat at 3am holding Lobbes and Maladrie in front of Thuin against Reille's Corps) across the Pieton and at the French left flank.  This allowed Steinmetz to cross the Peiton. Its unclear whether there was a momentary breakthrough by the French north of Gosselies or the French were contained.  Siborne suggests the French were handily contained with few casualties for the Prussians.  Others make it a more close run affair. The 6th Uhlans and 4th Hussars (1st Silesian) screened the retreat.  The losses for all of I Corp were only 1,000 to 2,000 (600+ of which are accounted for at Gilly) so it could not have been too bloody of an affair.

Over the Hills and Far Away:
It is clear that Steinmetz was "forced from the roman road".  All maps presented in the above works do not show a road between Gosselies and Fleurus.  Steinmetz appears to have gone overland while being chased by Girard's 7th Division until Heppignies where Girard's lead elements are counter-attacked by the 12th Line and forced to momentarily retreat.  Somehow from here Steinmetz's 1st Brigade ends up at St. Amand after 11 PM (Fleurus was much closer...). Girard ends at Wangenies at 7pm,  practically a stones throw away from Fleurus (2km). Girard's 7th Division is possibly the most advanced element in the French army on Grouchy's Right Wing--rather sad considering the circuitous and cross country route they had to take).

Anyone cut off or lost in the mix-up at Gosselies would likely have been pushed back up the road to Quatre-Bras as the French reached towards Frasnes the evening of the 15th.  Perhaps rejoining such elements at St. Amand was why the 1st Brigade retired so far to the North.  Additionally the overland route taken by Steinmetz would have been roughly close to the ground D'Erlon would traipse back and forth over on the following day.

Closing Thoughts:
Ziethen's timely messages, orders and preparations got a lot of praise, especially by Siborne, Gardner, Clausewitz and to a lesser degree Pratt (who thinks the Prussians should have blown the bridges).  Ordering reinforcements for 1st Brigade's retreat hours before they were needed likely saved Zeithen an entire brigade.
I think he had some help from the French sloth... though recovering troops spread over 40 miles on both sides of the river Sambre and separated by other tributaries with 1000-2000 losses against more numerous and superior quality troops is really nothing to sneer at.

Map I Photoshopped together with annotations

A full version can be downloaded here:

A Random Note For Campaign Gaming:  
I think there needs to be at least three dice/randomization for the 15th.  First, what time Reille takes Marchienne. Second, when/who takes Charleroi (e.g. Vandamme gets his orders and is on time or Napoleon has to do it himself at 10-11am.) Third, what time Gerard takes Chatelet.  Vigorous and coordinated attack on any two of these locations would have forced the Prussians to defend much more vigorously the Sambre crossings or be split from the main body of Blucher's army, likely falling back via Quatre-Bras if they are able.  Even if you play historically, a more vigorous assault on either Gosselies or Gilly could see the loss of 1/4 to 1/2 of Prussian I Corps which affects Ligny. 

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