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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 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 British service.
Belgians and Dutch wore dark blue.

The Hanoverian troops wore red uniforms similar to the British.
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
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 fire.

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 Highlanders
French Cuirassiers attacking the 42nd Highlanders

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.

Battle of Quatre Bras - 28th Regiment attacked
The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras by Lady Butler.
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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
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 remained there.

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
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 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 Waterloo.

Casualties: 4,700 allied casualties against 4,300 in Ney’s force.

Follow-up: Two days later the battle of Waterloo was fought.