Battle of Ligny

Arc de Triomphe: LIGNY

June 16, 1815

After escaping from exile on Elba and retaking Paris without a shot being fired, Napoleon realized that the powers of Europe that exiled him in the first place would likely move against him and France. Napoleon immediately made diplomatic overtures to negotiate peace, but his letters were not opened by the Allied powers. The Allied powers felt so threatened by his return that they had already set aside their differences and formed a new coalition to remove him from power. Despite Napoleon's genius and the French army's considerable strengths, France could not stand alone against the combined might of England, Prussia, Austria, Russia, Spain, Portugal, and Sweden. However, at the time only the armies of England and Prussia were near the French border, and it would take a considerable amount of time for the other allies to mobilize their armies and bring them against France.

Napoleon realized that his best chance of remaining in power was to defeat the armies of each Allied power in turn, thereby evening the odds and hopefully fracturing a tenuous coalition. With this mindset, he dispatched some of his best independent commanders to defend the borders of France while he secretly formed the Army of the North. The two most immediate threats to France were the English army commanded by the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian army commanded by Field Marshal Blücher, both stationed near Brussels in Belgium. Wellington and Blücher intended to wait for their Austrian and Russian allies to arrive, but Napoleon had no intention of giving them the opportunity to concentrate their forces.

Napoleon's plan was to launch an offensive against the English and Prussians, moving forward with two wings and a reserve, where the reserve could quickly react and support either wing in battle. He hoped to drive a wedge between the two Allied armies, thereby preventing them from supporting each other and giving the French the numerical advantage at any major battle. Marshal Grouchy was appointed to command the right wing, Marshal Ney was appointed to command the left wing, and the Imperial Guard and VI Corps formed the reserve.

On June 15th, Napoleon launched the offensive which caught Wellington completely by surprise and would have caught Blücher by surprise if not for the sudden defection of General Bourmont. The Prussian contingency plan was to form a defensive position at Sombreffe and the various Prussian corps began moving forward to take up that position. While Napoleon had initially intended to defeat the English with the left wing first, on the 16th he joined Vandamme's III Corps and upon seeing the Prussian force at Sombreffe, he immediately changed the plan to defeat the Prussians with the right wing at Ligny. Only a day had passed and already the Prussian army was exposed and isolated, unable to be supported by the English.

Map of the Battle of Ligny

The Prussians had moved three corps into position for battle and were awaiting the arrival of a fourth corps and their English allies. Napoleon had no intention of allowing them to gather their forces though and launched the attack that afternoon. The French plan was for the cavalry to pin the Prussian forces on the right, meanwhile the III and IV Corps would attack the Prussian center. On the left, Marshal Ney's wing would march to join the battle and fall on the Prussian right and rear, and then the reserve force would launch a fatal blow against the Prussian center.

The French began the attack around 2:30 in the afternoon with considerable élan, but almost nothing went according to plan, somewhat due to poor staff work and communication. Napoleon's best chief of staff, Marshal Berthier, had died earlier that year, and Berthier's understudy General Bailly de Monthion had been snubbed and upstaged as chief of staff by Marshal Soult. VI Corps received its orders to march late, preventing it from reaching the battlefield in a timely manner. Meanwhile the French left wing under Marshal Ney had engaged the English as Quatre Bras. Therefore the left wing could not maneuver to fall on Blücher's right and rear, but it could still detach some troops to support the battle raging at Ligny. In fact Napoleon had ordered I Corps to march to the left of Ligny and play that decisive part in the battle. I Corps, commanded by General Drouet d'Erlon, had been marching to Quatre Bras to support Ney when it received the orders to march to the left of Ligny. General Drouet d'Erlon immediately reversed his corps' march and headed back towards the battlefield at Ligny.

The Prussians fought ferociously and the villages of Ligny and Saint-Amand-la-Haye changed hands repeatedly. But by five in the afternoon, all of the Prussian forces were committed to battle while the French reserve force was still uncommitted and fresh, eager for battle. Suddenly an unknown force appeared behind French lines and therefore Napoleon delayed launching the reserve into battle. After an aide investigated, it turned out to be I Corps, marching farther south than they were supposed to be. However, by this time Marshal Ney had learned of I Corps marching for Ligny, and in the thick of battle and incensed at his lack of support, he failed to grasp the strategic situation. Ney ordered Drouet d'Erlon to march back to Quatre Bras, ignoring the fact that there was no way Drouet d'Erlon could arrive before nightfall. Rather than follow Napoleon's orders, Drouet d'Erlon split his command, leaving General Durutte's division near Ligny and taking the rest of I Corps back towards Quatre Bras.

Nevertheless, Napoleon still had the Imperial Guard in reserve and around 7:30 that evening he sent them on a direct assault against Ligny. The Prussian line wavered and broke, but Marshal Blücher was not going to give up. He charged forward with cavalry in a last attempt at a counterattack, but the French Imperial Guard fought the Prussians off. Blücher's horse was shot from under him and he was thrown to the ground with his horse collapsing on top of him. The French cavalry passed by twice without realizing the Prussian commander was on the ground next to them, and finally an aide and some of Blücher's men freed him and they escaped in the darkness.

The French had won a great victory, breaking the Prussians and sending them retreating from the battlefield. However, it was an incomplete victory, for the blow on the Prussian right and rear was never delivered and the Prussian army was able to retreat as a fighting force. Blücher escaped capture and was determined to support the Duke of Wellington in battle even though the English had not arrived to support him at Ligny. Napoleon was disappointed that the victory was not more decisive and criticized both Marshal Ney and General Drouet d'Erlon. But he considered the Prussians defeated for the time being and turned his attention to the English army, not realizing that only two days later the Prussians would be strong enough to march to Waterloo and ruin his campaign there.


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Updated December 2014

© Nathan D. Jensen