Here’s What You Need To Remember: The entire Hundred Days campaign turned on D’Erlon’s failure to follow either Ney’s or Napoleon’s conflicting orders to join battle at Ligny or Quatre Bras. Ligny was a tactical victory but a strategic defeat as Napoleon vanquished Blucher’s Prussians but failed to knock them out of the war. Quatre Bras was a tactical defeat in that Ney failed to rout the Anglo-Dutch or even take the crossroads, but a strategic victory in that he prevented Wellington from going to the Prussians’ aid.
In the face of disaster, few military commanders in history maintained the British stiff upper lip as well as Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. In mid-June 1815 he attended a ball given by Charlotte Lennox, Duchess of Richmond, in her Brussels home. Her guest list included all the highest nobility and military commanders of the city: Prince William of Orange-Nassau; Frederick, Duke of Brunswick; Lt. Gen. Sir Thomas Picton; right down to 18-year-old Lord James Hay, heir to the Earl of Erroll. “With the exception of three generals, every officer high in the army was to be there seen,” wrote Lady Katherine Arden, daughter of Richard, Baron Alvanley.
If the Richmond home was practically a military headquarters, it was with good reason. In March Napoleon Bonaparte, the former Emperor of France and would-be conqueror of Europe, had escaped exile on Elba. From the Mediterranean to Paris, the heart of Europe rang once more with cries of “Vive l’Empereur!” And that very day reports indicated that France’s 130,000-strong Army of the North had invaded Belgium.
“When the Duke [of Wellington] arrived, rather late, to the ball I was dancing, but I went to him to ask about the rumours,” wrote the duchess’s 17-year-old daughter, Georgiana. “He said very gravely, ‘Yes, they are true; we are off to-morrow.’” As supreme commander of the combined armies of England and the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, which at the time included modern Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg, Wellington would face death in the days ahead. But that was no reason for him to miss the duchess’s ball that evening.
Guests arrived into the night. Colorful gowns and resplendent uniforms swirled across the ballroom floor. The Gordon Highlanders performed a sword dance and reels. Around midnight a messenger arrived with urgent news. Wellington conferred with Prince William, who begged leave to depart. One by one the other officers also began slipping away. “Those who had brothers and sons to be engaged openly gave way to their grief, as the last parting of many took place at this most terrible ball,” wrote Lady Katherine.
Sitting beside Lady Georgiana, Wellington indulged in food and conversation until around 1:30 amand then retired to his guest quarters. Before taking leave he inquired of his hosts if there was a good map in the house. In the study, behind closed doors, he compared field reports to the terrain. The duke had won fame in the Spanish Peninsula as a master of defensive tactics who had fought in nearly 60 battles and never lost; however, he had never fought Bonaparte. He had cantoned the Anglo-Dutch army to the southwest, around Nivelles, to protect his supply line from England, but the French had taken Charleroi, due south, and were just 13 miles from Brussels. “Napoleon has humbugged me, by God; he has gained 24 hours march on me,” Wellington famously declared.
Across the border, another great general was also trying to keep up with Bonaparte. Marshal of France Michel Ney had risen from the ranks in every major battle his country fought, from Valmy in 1792 to Leipzig in 1813. He had commanded the French rear guard on the retreat from Moscow, even though at one point completely it was cut off from the main army. At the final escape across the Beresina River he became renowned as “the last Frenchman on Russian soil.” His men knew him as Le Rougeaud for his ruddy complexion and fiery disposition. Napoleon himself called Ney the “Bravest of the Brave.” He had promoted Ney to Marshal of France and titled him Prince of Moscow.
Yet it had been Ney who, after the surrender of Paris, led the Revolt of the Marshals, refusing to fight on. What is more, when Napoleon went off to exile on Elba Ney joined the royalists. But on Bonaparte’s return, it was Ney whom fat, gouty King Louis XVIII sent to bring him to heel. “Sire, I hope I shall soon be in a position to bring him back in an iron cage,” said Ney.
Ney stormed south but along the way lost his resolve and his royalism. “Embrace me, my dear Ney,” Napoleon told him at their meeting. “I am glad to see you. I want no explanations. My arms are ever open to receive you, for to me you are still the bravest of the brave.” Ney changed sides again, and so did France. On March 19, Louis fled the country, and less than 24 hours later Napoleon rode into Paris.
Austria, Russia, and Prussia agreed to contribute 150,000 men each alongside the English, Dutch, and Belgians, a Seventh Coalition to crush Napoleonic aspirations once and for all. “Thus France was to be attacked in the course of July by six hundred thousand enemies,” wrote Bonaparte’s aide-de-camp, General Gaspard Gourgaud. “But, at the beginning of June, only the armies of Generals [Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von] Blucher and Wellington could be considered as prepared for action. After deducting the troops, which it was necessary they should leave in their fortresses, they presented a disposable force of two hundred thousand men on the frontiers.”
But Napoleon intended neither to wait for the Allies to invade France nor fight them all at once. Preparation for war went on without Ney, who for six weeks awaited a command. “Send for Marshal Ney and tell him that if he wishes to be present at the first battles, he ought to be at Avesnes on the 14th,” Napoleon ordered on June 11. “My headquarters will be there.”
Ney and his aide-de-camp, Colonel Pierre-Agathe Heymes, arrived in Avesnes-sur-Helpe, on the Belgian border, on the evening of June 13. Forced to scrounge horses and places to sleep, they tagged along with the army like camp followers as it moved up. Before dawn on June 15, the II Corps under General Honore Charles Reille, supported by I Corps under General Jean-Baptiste Drouet, Count d’Erlon, crossed the border and pushed a Prussian battalion out of Charleroi. By noon nothing lay between Bonaparte and Brussels. He finally summoned Ney to his headquarters and revealed his battle plan.
The emperor expected impetuous Blucher to attack from the east, where Napoleon would knock him out of the war with his main force. All Ney had to do was prevent Wellington from coming to the Prussians’ aid until Bonaparte wheeled about. Together they would defeat the Anglo-Dutch in turn. The Allies would sue for peace before Austria and Russia even entered the fight. “Take command of the 1st and 2nd army corps,” Napoleon told Ney. “I am giving you also the light cavalry of my Guard, but don’t use it yet. Tomorrow you will be joined by [cavalry general François Etienne de] Kellermann’s Cuirassiers. Go and drive the enemy back along the Brussels road and take up a position at Quatre Bras.”
Quatre Bras, which means four arms, was a farm hamlet 10 miles north of Charleroi, where the road to Brussels crossed the route from Nivelles to Namur. By holding it, Ney would block Wellington’s path to Blucher. “Depend on it,” Ney assured Napoleon. “In two hours we shall be at Quatre Bras, unless all of the enemy’s army be there!” And with the same martial spirit he had shown his king, he hurried off in the service of his emperor. “But he forgot that there is nothing worse for a general than to take command of an army the day before a battle,” wrote Heymes.
Ney caught up with Reille’s II Corps at Gosselies, about seven miles short of Quatre Bras. With several hours of daylight left, he called upon the Guards Light Cavalry Division under General Charles Lefebvre-Desnoettes to follow him up the Brussels road to Frasnes, halfway to their objective. When they topped a rise overlooking the village, they came under cannon fire. A battery of horse artillery and a battalion of troops held the town.
Two squadrons of the 2nd Light Horse Regiment of Lancers of the Imperial Guard, General Pierre David de Colbert-Chabanais’s famous Red Lancers, rode around Frasnes in full view of the defenders. “As they observed that we were maneuvering to turn them, they retired from the village where we had practically surrounded them with our squadrons,” wrote Lefebvre-Desnoettes.
The enemy fell back not to the east, but to the north. These were not Prussian troops. They were Dutch: the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Nassau-Usingen Brigade, and the 2nd Netherlands Infantry Division. They withdrew toward Quatre Bras, knowing the entire brigade, four battalions under Colonel Prince Bernhard von Saxe-Weimar, was coming down the Brussels road.