The Battle of Quatre Bras
Battle: Quatre Bras
War: Napoleonic: The Waterloo Campaign.
Date: 16th June 1815
Place: South of Brussels in modern Belgium at the
cross-roads on the Brussels-Namur road.
The Duke of Wellington passing British guns on the way to Quatre
Bras. The officer on the right still wears his silk stockings from
the ball the night before given by the Duchess of Devonshire.
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Combatants: The allied British-German-Dutch-Belgian army
against the French.
Generals: Marshal Ney against the Duke of Wellington.
Size of the armies: Around 25,000 allied troops
against 24,000 French troops.
Uniforms, arms, equipment and training:
The British infantry wore red waist jackets, white trousers,
and stovepipe shakos. Fusilier regiments wore bearskin caps. The
two rifle regiments wore dark green jackets.
British heavy cavalry wore red tunics and roman-style crested
helmets. The British light cavalry wore either the light blue of
light dragoons or hussar uniforms of shabrach, dolman and busby.
The Royal Horse Guards and Royal Artillery wore blue tunics.
The Royal Horse Artillery wore blue uniforms with the old light
dragoon style crested helmet.
Highland regiments wore the kilt with red tunics and tall
black ostrich feather caps.
The King’s German Legion, which comprised both cavalry and
infantry regiments wore red, as did other German units in the
Belgians and Dutch wore dark blue.
The Hanoverian troops wore red uniforms similar to the
The French army wore a wide variety of uniforms. The basic
infantry uniform was dark blue. The Grenadiers of the Guard wore
the characteristic tall bearskin that the Grenadiers were to
adopt after the battle.
The French cavalry comprised Cuirassiers wearing heavy
burnished metal breastplate and crested helmet, Dragoons largely
in green, Hussars in the conventional uniform worn by this arm
across Europe and Chasseurs à Cheval also dressed as hussars.
The French artillery dressed in uniforms similar to the
infantry, the horse artillery in hussar uniform.
Map of The Battle of Quatre Bras
The standard infantry weapon across all the armies was the
musket. It could be fired a three or four times a minute,
throwing a heavy ball inaccurately for only a hundred metres or
so. Each infantryman carried a bayonet which fitted the muzzle
of his musket.
The four British rifle battalions (60th and 95th Rifles)
carried the Baker rifle, a more accurate weapon but slower to
Throughout the Peninsula War and the Waterloo campaign the
Duke of Wellington was plagued by a shortage of artillery. The
British Army was sustained by the haphazard system of volunteer
recruitment and the Royal Artillery was never able to recruit a
sufficient number of gunners. Napoleon had exploited the
advances in gunnery techniques of the last years of the Ancienne
Regime to create his powerful and highly mobile artillery. Many
of his battles had been won using a combination of the
manoeuvrability and fire power of his guns and the speed of his
columns of infantry, supported by the mass of his cavalry.
French Cuirassiers attacking the 42nd
At Waterloo, provided the infantry were able to form square
they were impervious to cavalry attack because neither the
British nor the French cavalry horses could be brought to ride
through an unbroken infantry line.
While the French conscript infantry moved about the battle
field in fast moving columns the British trained to fight in
line. The Duke of Wellington reduced the number of ranks to two
to exploit fully the firepower of his regiments. During the
Peninsula War the ability of British, Hanoverian and Portuguese
battalions to deploy their full fire against French troops
advancing in columns had been decisive.
Winner: Marshal Ney failed to drive the Duke of
Wellington off the Quatre Bras cross-roads, but the Allies were
forced to retreat north, up the Brussels road to the village of
Waterloo, due to the defeat of the Prussians under Marshal
Blucher by the Emperor Napoleon in the linked battle of Ligny a
few miles to the South East of Quatre Bras.
On Thursday 15th June 1815, after his return from exile on the
Island of Elba and the flight of the Bourbon King Louis
XVIII, the Emperor Napoleon crossed the border from France into
Belgium with his reconstituted French army and advanced north.
The Duke of Wellington had his headquarters at Brussels with his
army of British, German, Dutch and Belgian troops cantoned
across the countryside. The Prussian army under Marshal Blücher
lay to the East.
The Emperor’s plan was to advance in three columns. The
centre and right columns would attack the Prussian army, while
Marshal Ney, commanding the left column, was to seize the Quatre
Bras crossroads to prevent Wellington coming to Blücher’s
assistance. Ney would then attack the Prussians in the rear
completing the destruction of Blücher’s army.
44th Foot attacked by French Cavalry
Napoleon expected Ney to occupy the Quatre Bras cross-roads
during the afternoon of the 15th June 1815. For some unexplained
reason Ney failed to do so. A squadron of Polish lancers from
Ney’s Corps reconnoitred the cross-roads, finding it unoccupied,
but withdrew. Soon after the departure of the lancers, one of
Wellington‘s officers, the Prince of Saxe-Weimar, arrived at
Quatre Bras with a small force of infantry and some guns.
Recognising the importance of the cross-roads Saxe-Weimar
During the night of 15th June 1815, Napoleon formulated his
plan of attack on the Prussian army which was rashly forming up
around Ligny in Napoleon’s line of advance. Napoleon
re-emphasised to Ney the importance of seizing the Quatre Bras
cross-roads without delay the next day.
42nd Highlands at Quatre Bras
In the morning the French army began its attack on the
Prussian positions around Ligny. If Ney complied with his orders
he would take the cross-roads and then launch a devastating
attack on the rear of the Prussian right wing at the point when
Blücher’s men would be fully committed dealing with the heavy
French frontal assaults.
The 42nd Highlanders (Black Watch) at the Battle of Quatre Bras.
(The officer still wears his dress uniform from the Duchess of
Richmon's Ball in Brussels the night before)
In spite of his instructions, Ney failed to act with urgency
and it was not until late morning that he began his move on the
cross-roads. By this time a substantial number of allied units
had arrived from the Brussels area. Ney found himself unable to
make any headway against the troops holding Quatre Bras. The
fighting continued for the rest of the day. At one point Ney
launched a charge by a brigade of Kellerman’s cuirassiers. The
British 69th, 30th and 33rd Regiments of Foot were swept aside
in the assault, suffering significant casualties, but in turn
the French cuirassiers, unsupported, were repelled and retreated
in confusion taking much of Ney’s force with them.
Ney was unable to take Quatre Bras and his attack deprived
Napoleon of a significant force that would have enabled him to
defeat the Prussians conclusively, thereby preventing them from
taking any part in the Battle of Waterloo the next day. In the
event the intervention of Blücher’s army’s was one of the
decisive factors in the Emperor’s final and conclusive defeat at
Casualties: 4,700 allied casualties against 4,300 in
Follow-up: Two days later the battle of Waterloo was