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Camps, Quarters, and Casual Places by Archibald Forbes

Part 5 out of 5

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objectionable is proved by his blunt comment to Hardinge--"If they fight
here they will be damnably licked!"

It would have been possible for Napoleon to have crushed the Prussian army
in the early hours of the 16th when it was in the throes of formation for
battle; and this he would probably have done if Ney had occupied Quatre
Bras on the previous evening. But in Ney's default of accomplishing this
Napoleon, in his solicitude that Wellington should be hindered from
supporting Bluecher, determined to delay his own stroke against the latter
until Ney should be in possession of Quatre Bras with the left wing,
where, in Soult's words, "he ought to be able to destroy any force of the
enemy that might present itself," and then come to the support of the
Emperor by getting on the Prussian rear behind St. Amand. Napoleon's
instructions were explicit that Ney was to march on Quatre Bras, take
position there, and then send an infantry division and Kellerman's cavalry
to points eastward, whence the Emperor might summon them to participate in
his own operations. If Ney had fulfilled his orders by utilising the whole
force at his disposal, in all human probability he would have defeated
Wellington at Quatre Bras, whose troops, arriving in detail, would have
been crushed by greatly superior numbers as they came up. As it was,
although at the beginning of the battle he was in superior strength, Ney
never utilised more than 22,000 men; whereas by its close Wellington had
31,000, and, thanks to the stanchness of the British infantry, was the
victor in a very hard-fought contest. But Mr. Ropes has reason in holding
it humanly certain that he would have been beaten--in which case the
battle of Waterloo would never have been fought--had not D'Erlon's corps
of Ney's command while marching towards Quatre Bras, been turned aside in
the direction of the Prussian right.

In the justifiable belief that Ney was duly carrying out his orders
Napoleon at half-past one opened the battle of Ligny. He had expected to
have to deal with but a single Prussian corps, but the actual fact was
that, while he had 74,000 men on the field, Bluecher had 87,000 with a
superior strength of artillery. The fighting was long and severe. From the
first, recognising the defects of his adversary's position, Napoleon was
satisfied that he could defeat the Prussian army. But he needed to do
more--to crush, to rout it, so that he need give himself no further
concern regarding it. This he saw his way to accomplish if Ney were to
strike in presently on the Prussian right; and so, with intent to stir
that chief to vigorous enterprise, the message was sent him that "the fate
of France was in his hands." The battle proceeded, Bluecher throwing in his
reserves freely, Napoleon chary of his and playing the waiting game
pending Ney's expected co-operation. About half-past five he was preparing
to put in the Guard and strike the decisive blow, when information reached
him from his right that a column, presumably hostile, was visible some two
miles distant marching toward Fleurus. Napoleon sent an aide to ascertain
the facts and until his return postponed the decisive moment. Two hours
later the information was brought back that the approaching column was
D'Erlon's from Ney's wing. This intelligence dispelled all anxiety.
Strangely enough, no instructions were sent to the approaching
reinforcement, and the suspended stroke was promptly dealt. The Prussians,
after desperate fighting, were everywhere driven back. Napoleon with part
of the Imperial Guard broke Bluecher's centre, and the French army deployed
on the heights beyond the stream. In a word, Napoleon had defeated the
Prussians, but had neither crushed nor routed them. There was no pursuit.

D'Erlon's corps on this afternoon had achieved the doubly sinister
distinction of having prevented Ney from gaining a probable victory at
Quatre Bras, and of detracting from the thoroughness of Napoleon's actual
victory at Ligny. While it was leisurely marching towards Frasnes in
support of Ney, it was diverted eastward towards the Prussian right flank
in consequence of an order given (whether authorised or not is uncertain)
by an aide-de-camp of the Emperor. It was about to deploy for action,
when, on receiving from Ney a peremptory order to rejoin his command; and
in absence of a command from Napoleon to strike the Prussian flank, it
went about and tramped back towards Frasnes. D'Erlon's promenade was as
futile as the famous march of the King of France up the hill and then down

Mr. Ropes considers that on the morning of the 17th Napoleon had thus far
in the main fulfilled his programme. This view may be questioned. He had
merely defeated two of the four Prussian corps; he had not wrecked
Bluecher. He had failed to occupy Quatre Bras; the Anglo-Dutch army had
succeeded in effecting a partial concentration and in repulsing his left
wing there. Still it must be admitted that with two corps absolutely
intact and with no serious losses in the Guard and cavalry, Napoleon was
in good shape for carrying out his plan. If Ney had sent him word
overnight that Wellington's army was bivouacking about Quatre Bras in
ignorance, as it turned out, of the result of Ligny, he might have
attacked it to good purpose in conjunction with Ney in the early morning
of the 17th. But Ney was silent and sulky; Napoleon himself was greatly
fatigued, and Soult was of no service to him.

During the night the Prussians "had folded their tents like the Arabs, and
as silently stolen away." They had neither been watched nor followed up,
all touch of them had been lost, and there was nothing to indicate their
line of retreat. This slovenliness on the part of the French would not
have occurred in Napoleon's earlier days; nor in those days of greater
vigour would he have delayed until after midday of the 17th to follow up
an army which he had defeated on the previous evening, and which had
disappeared from before him in the course of the night. The reports which
had been sent in from a cavalry reconnaissance despatched in the morning
indicated that the Prussians were retiring on Namur. No reconnaissance had
been made in the direction of Tilly and Wavre. This was a strange error,
since Bluecher had two corps still untouched, and as above everything a
fighting man, was not likely to throw up his hands and forsake his ally
after one partial discomfiture. Napoleon tardily determined to despatch
Grouchy on the errand of following up the Prussians with a force
consisting of about 33,000 men with ninety-six guns. Thus far all
authorities are agreed; but as regards the character of the orders given
to Grouchy for his guidance in an obviously somewhat complicated
enterprise, there is an extraordinary contrariety of evidence. It is
stated in the _St. Helena Memoirs_ that Grouchy received positive orders
to keep himself always between the main French army and Bluecher; to
maintain constant communication with the former and in a position easily
to rejoin it; that since it was possible that Bluecher might retreat on
Wavre, he (Grouchy) was to be there simultaneously; if the Prussians
should continue their march on Brussels and should pass the night in the
forest of Soignies, he was to follow to the edge of the forest; should
they retire on the Meuse, he was to watch them with part of his cavalry
and himself occupy Wavre with the mass of his force, where he should be in
position for easy communication with Napoleon's headquarters. Those orders
are certainly specific enough, but there is no record of them; and they
may be assumed to represent rather what Napoleon at St. Helena considered
Grouchy should have done, than what he was actually ordered to do.

Grouchy's version, again--and it is adequately corroborated--is to the
effect that about midday of the 17th on the field of Ligny, the Emperor
gave him the verbal order to take the 3rd and 4th Corps and certain
cavalry and "go in pursuit of the Prussians." Grouchy raised sundry
objections which the Emperor overruled and repeated his commands, adding
that "it was for me (Grouchy) to discover the route taken by Bluecher; that
he himself was going to fight the English, and that it was for me to
complete the defeat of the Prussians by attacking them as soon as I should
have caught up with them." So much for Grouchy for the moment.

Soon after the Emperor had given Grouchy this verbal order, tidings came
in from a scouting party that a body of Prussian troops had been seen
about 9 A.M. at Gembloux, considerably northward of the Namur road. The
abstract probability no doubt was that the Prussians would retire towards
their base. But that Napoleon kept an open mind on the subject is
evidenced by his instruction to Grouchy to "go and discover the route
taken by Bluecher," and this later intelligence, it may be assumed, opened
his mind yet further. He thought it well, then, to send to Grouchy a
supplementary written order which in the temporary absence of Marshal
Soult he dictated to General Bertrand. This order enjoined on Grouchy to
proceed with his force to Gembloux; to explore in the directions of Namur
and Maestricht; to pursue the enemy; explore his march; and report upon
his manoeuvres, so that "I (Napoleon) may be able to penetrate what the
enemy is intending to do; whether he is separating himself from the
English, or whether they are intending still to unite in trying the fate
of another battle to cover Brussels or Liege." To me I confess--and the
view is also that of Chesney and Maurice--this written order is simply an
amplification in detail of the previous verbal order, which by instructing
Grouchy "to discover the route taken by Bluecher" clearly evinced doubt in
Napoleon's mind as to the Prussian line of retreat. Mr. Ropes, on the
other hand, bases an indictment on Grouchy's conduct on the argument that
not only was the tone of the written order altogether different from that
of the verbal order, but that the duty assigned to Grouchy by the former
was wholly different from that specified in the latter.

He adds that Grouchy constantly and persistently denied having received
any other than the verbal order, that in this denial Grouchy lied, and
that "the mischievous influence of this deliberate concealment of his
orders by Grouchy caused for nearly thirty years after the battle of
Waterloo to be prevalent a wholly false notion as to the task assigned by
Napoleon to the Marshal." Certainly Grouchy's conduct is inexplicable to
any one holding the belief, as I do, that there is nothing in the written
order to account for Grouchy's denial of having received it. It is more
inexplicable than Mr. Ropes appears to be aware of. It is true, as Mr.
Ropes proves, that Grouchy vehemently denied receiving the written order
in all his works printed from 1818 to 1829. But he had actually
acknowledged its receipt almost immediately after Waterloo. In his son's
little book, _Le Marechal de Grouchy du 16me au 19me Juin, 1815,_ is
printed among the _Documents Historiques Inedits_ a paper styled
"Allocution du Marechal Grouchy a quelques-uns des officiers generaux sous
les ordres, lorsqu'il eut appris les desastres de Waterloo." From this
document I make the following extract: "A few hours later the Emperor
modified his first order, and caused to be written to me by the Grand
Marshal Bertrand the order to betake myself to Gembloux, and to send
reconnaissances towards Namur. 'It is important,' continued the order, 'to
discover the intentions of the Prussians--whether they are separating from
the English, or have the design to take the chance of a new battle.'" It
is strange that this acknowledgment should never have been cited against
Grouchy; stranger still that in the face of it he should have maintained
his denials; yet more strange that those denials were never exposed; and
most strange of all, that finally the "written order" should have appeared
for the first time in a casual article published in 1842, without evoking
any explanation from Grouchy, or any strictures on his persistent

It may be questioned whether the force of 33,000 men entrusted to Grouchy
was not either too large or too small. The main French army, in the
possible contingencies before it, could not safely spare so large a
detachment, as events showed. Grouchy's command was not sufficiently
strong to oppose the whole Prussian army; two corps of which could
certainly have "held" it, while the other two were free to support
Wellington. Mr. Ropes thinks it might have been diminished by one-half,
but then a single Prussian corps could have dealt with it. It is difficult
to discern in what respect the 6000 cavalry assigned to Grouchy should
have been inadequate to such service as could reasonably have been
expected of his whole command.

The British force about Quatre Bras on the morning of the 17th amounted to
about 45,000 men. Early on that morning Wellington was in conversation
with the Captain Bowles previously mentioned, when an officer galloped up
and, to quote Captain Bowles,

whispered to the Duke, who then turned to me and said,
"Old Bluecher has had a d----d good licking and has gone
back to Wavre. As he has gone back, we must go too. I
suppose in England they will say we have been licked--I
can't help that."

He quietly withdrew his troops from their positions, an operation which
Ney, with 40,000 men at his disposal, did not attempt to molest,
notwithstanding repeated orders from Napoleon to move on Quatre Bras.
Early in the afternoon Napoleon reached that vicinity with the Guard, 6th
Corps, and Milhaud's Cuirassiers, picked up Ney's command, and mounting
his horse led the French army, following up Wellington's retreat. His
energy and activity throughout the march is described as intense. Those
characteristics he continued to evince during the following night and in
the morning of the eventful 18th. In the dead of night he spent two hours
on the picquet line, and about seven he was out again on the foreposts in
the mud and rain. His anxiety was not as to the issue of a battle with
Wellington, but lest Wellington should not stand and fight. That
apprehension was dispelled when, as he rode along his front about 8 A.M.,
he saw the Anglo-Dutch army taking up its ground. He was aware that at
least one "pretty strong Prussian column"--which actually consisted of the
two corps beaten at Ligny--had retired on Wavre. But notwithstanding the
disquieting vagueness and ineptitude of Grouchy's letter of 10 P.M. of the
17th from Gembloux, and that up to the morning of the battle he had sent
no suggestions or instructions to that officer, he yet trusted implicitly
to him to fend off the Prussians; and it did not seem to occur to him that
Wellington's calm expectant attitude indicated his assurance of Bluecher's

In one of the cavalry charges toward the close of the battle of Ligny,
Bluecher had been overthrown, ridden over, almost taken prisoner, and
severely bruised; but the gallant old hussar was almost himself again next
morning, thanks to copious doses of gin and rhubarb, for the effluvium of
which restorative he apologised to Hardinge as he embraced that wounded
officer, in the extremely plain expression, "_Ich stinke etwas_."
Gneisenau, his Chief of Staff, rather distrusted Wellington's good faith,
and doubted whether it was not the safer policy for the Prussian army to
fall back toward Liege. But Bluecher prevailed over his lieutenants; and on
the evening of the 17th all four Prussian corps in a strength of about
90,000 men, were concentrated about Wavre, some nine miles east of the
Waterloo position, full of ardour and confident of success. That same
night Mueffling informed Bluecher by letter that the Anglo-Dutch army had
occupied the position named, wherein to fight next day; and Bluecher's
loyal answer was that Buelow's corps at daybreak should march by way of St.
Lambert to strike the French right; that Pirch's would follow in support;
and that the other two would stand in readiness. This communication, which
reached Wellington at headquarters at 2 A.M. of the 18th, has been held to
have been the first actually definite assurance of Prussian support. The
story to the effect that on the evening of the 17th the Duke rode over to
Wavre to make sure from Bluecher's own mouth that he could rely on Prussian
support next day, to the truth of which not a little of vague testimony
has been adduced, may be now definitely disregarded. The evidence against
the legend is conclusive. An authoritative contradiction was given to it
in an article in the _Quarterly Review_ of 1842, from the pen of Lord
Francis Egerton, afterwards Lord Ellesmere, who confessedly wrote under
the inspiration of the Duke, and in this instance directly from a
memorandum drawn up by his Grace. Quite recently there have been found and
are now in the possession of the Rev. Frederick Gurney, the grandson of
the late Sir John Gurney, the notes of a "conversation with the Duke of
Wellington and Baron Gurney and Mr. Justice Williams, Judges on Circuit,
at Strath-fieldsaye House, on 24th February 1837." The annotator was Baron
Gurney, to the following effect:--"The conversation had been commenced by
my inquiring of him (the Duke) whether a story which I had heard was true
of his having ridden over to Bluecher on the night before the battle of
Waterloo, and returned on the same horse. He said--'No, that was not so. I
did not see Bluecher on the day before Waterloo. I saw him the day before,
on the day of Quatre Bras. I saw him after Waterloo, and he kissed me. He
embraced me on horseback. I had communicated with him the day before
Waterloo.'" The rest of the conversation made no further reference to the
topic of the ride to Wavre.

It is not proposed to give here any account of the memorable battle, the
main incidents of which are familiar to all. It was of course Wellington's
policy to take up a defensive attitude; both because of the incapacity of
his raw soldiers for manoeuvring, and since every minute before Napoleon
should begin the offensive was of value to the English commander, as it
diminished the length of punishment he would have to endure single-handed.
Further, he was numerically weaker than his adversary, while his troops
were at once of divers nationalities and divers character; his main
reliance was on his British troops and those of the King's German Legion.
Napoleon for his part deliberately delayed to attack when celerity of
action was all-important to him, disregarding the obvious probability of
Prussian assistance to Wellington, and sanguinely expecting that Grouchy
would either avert that support or reach him in time to neutralise it. Mr.
Ropes has written an admirable criticism of the errors of the French in
their contest with the Anglo-Dutch army, for which Ney was for the most
part responsible, since from before 3 P.M. Napoleon was engrossed in
preparing his right flank for defence against the Prussians. The issue of
the great battle all men know. The badness of the roads retarded the
Prussians greatly, and, save in Buelow's corps, there was no doubt
considerable delay in starting; but the proverb that "All's well that ends
well" might have been coined with special application to the battle of

It only remains briefly to refer to Mr. Ropes's elaborate _resume_ of the
melancholy adventures of Grouchy, on whom he may be regarded as too
severe. Sent out too late on a species of roving commission, more was
expected from him by Napoleon than could have been accomplished by any but
a leader of the highest order, whereas Grouchy had never given evidence of
being more than respectable. He received from his master neither
instructions nor information from the time he left the field of Ligny
until 4 P.M. of the 18th, nor until at Walhain he heard the cannonade of
Waterloo had he any knowledge of the whereabouts of the French main army.
On the morning of the 18th he was late in leaving Gembloux, on not the
most direct route towards Wavre; instead of moving on which, when he heard
the noise of the battle, he should no doubt have marched straight for the
Dyle bridges at Ottignies and Moustier. Had he done so, spite of all
delays he could have been across the Dyle by 4 P.M. But when Mr. Ropes
claims that thus Grouchy would have been able to arrest the march toward
the battlefield of the two leading Prussian corps, one of which was four
miles distant from him and the other still farther away, he is too
exacting. Had Grouchy made the vain attempt, the two nearer Prussian corps
would have taken him in flank and headed him off, while Buelow and Ziethen
pressed on to the battlefield. If he had marched straight and swiftly on
the cannon-thunder of Waterloo, he might perhaps have been in time to
effect something in the nature of a diversion, although it is extremely
improbable that he could have materially changed the fortune of the day;
but instead, acting on the letter of Napoleon's instructions despatched to
him on the morning of the battle, he moved on Wavre and engaged in a
futile action with the Prussian 3rd Corps there. A shrewd and enterprising
man would have at least seen into the spirit of his orders; Grouchy could
not do this, and he is to be pitied rather than blamed.


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