Ligny – Napoleon’s Final Victory

Ney costs campaign victory, two days before Waterloo

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Battle of Ligny 16th June 1815

On the 1st March 1815 Napoleon Bonaparte landed in pro-Bourbon southern France with only 1200 soldiers. By 20th March King Louis XVIII had fled and Napoleon had reclaimed his Emperors crown in Paris.

Napoleon Bonaparte – Emperor of France

Napoleon attempted to make peace with Europe. Prussia refused the peace overtures, as did Great Britain. Austria wavered as Emperor Francis I (Napoleon’s father-in-law) weighed up his options. His mind was made up when Joachim Murat – King of Naples (Napoleon’s brother-in-law) launched a campaign against Austria without consulting Napoleon. Nicholas I of Russia sent an expeditionary force towards France, despite Napoleon’s attempts to prevent them from joining a coalition against him by sending a secret document that showed Great Britain and Austria would oppose (by war if necessary) Russia’s plan to annex Poland.

Napoleon acted swiftly. His plan was to keep the Prussian army (84,000 men) from joining the British (51,000) and Dutch and Belgium (17,000) armies and defeating them separately. This had to be achieved before the Russians (170,000) and Austrians (300,000) could get close to France.

The Situation

Napoleon marched north with an army of 120,000 men and entered Belgium targeting the gap between the British, Dutch and Belgium forces concentrated around Brussels and the Prussians further east near Ligny. He divided his army into three columns. The first under Marshall Ney was to take the Quatre Bras crossroads from the British and drive them towards Brussels. The other two columns under Marshall Grouchy moved against the Prussians in the direction of Namur.

The British were caught off-guard and were slow to react with the crossroads at Quatre Bras only lightly held. However, the over caution of Marshall Ney meant he did not press home his overwhelming advantage and seize the crossroads.

The Campaign position on the eve of the Battle of Ligny

The Battle

The town of Ligny lay in a valley surrounded by low hills. The country around the town was comprised of rye and wheat fields, broken up by glades of trees. At around 1500 hours the French stormed and took the cluster of three villages on their left flank.

Army positions at the opening of the Battle of Ligny

This was followed by an assault on Prussian held Ligny itself which lay between the two armies. The fighting in the narrow streets of the town was particularly bloody with high casualties on both sides. The French eventually outflanked the town and their concentration of artillery fire swung the battle in Napoleons favour. At this point some of the Prussian units in the line behind Ligny broke and ran from the battlefield. The Prussian line was starting to crumble.

Street fighting in the town of Ligny

As Napoleon was about to drive the remaining Prussians from the battlefield he received word that a large troop formation had been sighted approaching his left flank from the rear. Fearing it was part of the British forces, Napoleon halted his attack for an hour while he established whether the approaching forces were friend or foe.

Earlier Napoleon had sent orders to Marshal d’Erlon (whose Corp was supporting Ney) to march to attack the Prussians in their flank. Ney overrode those orders and recalled d’Erlon believing that his need in attacking Quatre Bras was greater. When orders came again for d’Erlon to support Napoleon he obeyed, but the vagueness of the orders meant instead of moving to cut off where the Prussians would retreat too, he marched towards Napoleon’s positions. It was d’Erlon Corp that was spotted and delayed Napoleon’s advance by an hour.

Field Marshal Prince von Blucher

Field Marshall Blucher saw the opportunity with Napoleon’s hesitation and led an attack on the French which made some ground. The battle turned again when Bluchers horse was shot from under him and he injured his ribs and was pinned by the dead horse. A quick thinking aide covered his ribbons and braid with a cloak as French cavalry counter attacked and he narrowly avoided capture. The Prussians began to retreat from the battlefield.

A depiction of Bluchers injury in the closing stages of the Battle of Ligny

The Aftermath

The Prussian Army retreated in some disarray. Blucher was physically unable to remain in command. His Chief-of Staff von Gneisenau took over command of the Prussian Army. The Prussians had lost around 24,000 men killed, wounded or captured. The French around 10,000 men killed, wounded or captured. Some Prussian broken units retreated towards Namur in the direction of home. The French had won the battlefield and inflicted greater casualties on the Prussians than they suffered themselves. It was a victory for Napoleon but it could have been so much more. If Marshal Ney had not meddled in Napoleon’s intentions then it was likely that d’Erlon would have cut off the Prussian retreat, resulting in the destruction of a large part of the Prussian Army. This would have effectively won the campaign for Napoleon with his remaining forces likely to be too string for the untested coalition forces under Wellington.

Crucially for the Prussians and Wellington, von Gneisenau – despite being against Bluchers desire to fall back to Wavre and be within distance to assist Wellington’s forces against Napoleon rather than protect their homeland – ordered that the army retreat towards Wavre. Two days later at what the French called the Battle on Mont Saint Jean the Prussian forces arrived in time to attack the French right flank and turn the tide of battle in the coalitions favour. This was the end for Napoleon. He was deposed for a second time and the Napoleonic Wars that had raged in Europe and the America’s for over 20 years were at an end.

Marshal Ney

Overall the responsibility for the French failing to turn a victory at Ligny into a decisive victory for the campaign rests with Marshall Ney. If he had attacked and seized Quatre Bras upon his arrival in the early evening of the 15th June and not overridden d’Erlon’s orders to support Napoleon then it is likely that a sizable portion of the Prussian Army would have been annihilated and the remainder retreating in a direction that left them unable to support Wellington.

Napoleon’s appointment of Marshal Soult as his chief-of staff was another major mistake. His lack of staff experience resulted in confused orders or in some cases no orders at all. This played a major part in the inability of d’Erlon to inflict a crushing blow on the Prussians. Confused orders at Waterloo resulted in Grouchy’s Corp playing no part in a battle that they may have played a decisive role. However, it is with Ney that the fault lies. If there was any doubt as to the unsuitability of Ney as a commander of sizable forces in a major campaign this was removed at Waterloo where he again proved himself out of his depth in commanding large formations. His failure to deliver what his Emperor required ensured that Ligny was Napoleon’s last victory.