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The Battle of Wavre and Grouchy’s Retreat

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The Battle of Wavre and Grouchy’s Retreat
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Author(s): W. Hyde Kelly
Date Published: 2010/04
Page Count: 124
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-067-9
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-068-6

The story of the French Army that never arrived at Waterloo Almost everybody who is interested in the Battle of Waterloo knows that the campaign began auspiciously for Napoleon. The Prussian Army under Blucher was first engaged and it suffered a savaging at Ligny after which it retreated. After Quatre Bras Wellington’s allied army retreated and took position on the ridge before Waterloo—Blucher, harassed by Grouchy retreated towards Wavre. Though thoroughly mauled, the Prussian Army embodied no spirit of defeat and so was not—as Napoleon or Grouchy believed—an army in flight but a grim, avenging and lethal force undertaking a sweeping manoeuvre which would bring it as promised—just in time—onto the momentous field of battle slamming into the right flank of the French Army to ensure victory and an end to an epoch. Most histories of this campaign concentrate on the action that took place over the fields between Genappe and Mont St. Jean. Grouchy’s part in the campaign is often considered as no more than ‘noises off’ and a footnote about lack of resolve and lost opportunity. This book investigates Grouchy’s actions and the activities of his Prussian enemy—and explains why this luckless marshal did not ‘march to the sound of the guns.’ Available in soft cover and hard cover with dust jacket for collectors.

Grouchy, impatient and fretful, rode off to meet the remainder of the Fourth Corps and Pajol’s force, still some distance behind on the Namur-Brussels road. Ordering Pajol to make all haste for Limale, he returned to the field, where he found that matters had made no progress. Infuriated by the repeated failures to carry the bridge and Mill of Bierges, he himself led a fresh attack with Hulot’s men, but nothing could overcome the fire of the Prussians. Gérard fell wounded and was carried off the field.<br>
Finding his attacks on Bierges and Wavre unsuccessful, Grouchy left Vandamme and Excelmans to carry on the fight, while he himself led the remainder of Gérard’s Corps to Limale. Pajol had arrived in front of the Limale bridge shortly before dark, with Teste’s Division and his own cavalry. Stengel, who held Limale with three battalions and three squadrons, had omitted to barricade the bridge, and when Pajol perceived this he sent a regiment of Hussars at full speed on the bridge, and, charging four abreast only, these horsemen burst through the Prussians posted at the farther end. The passage was forced and Teste’s Division was sent across; and Stengel, finding himself very much outnumbered, abandoned Limale and took up a position on the heights above the village. Hearing of Stengel’s difficulties, Thielemann sent the Twelfth Division (Stulpnagel’s) and Hobe’s Cavalry to reinforce him. Thielemann saw now that the real point of crossing was Limale, and not Bierges or Basse Wavre, and he moved all the troops he could spare towards his right. Four battalions of the Tenth Division took up Stulpnagel’s former position, and three battalions of the Twelfth Division were left to defend Bierges; the remainder marched to join Stengel.<br>
It was now dark, but the battle continued with vigour. Grouchy posted his battalions in front of Limale, and, considering the darkness of the night, it is surprising how he managed to place them without confusion. Stengel’s men kept up a harassing fire on his columns as they wound their way through the muddy lanes from the village to the height above the Dyle and deployed to receive Stulpnagel’s attack. Pajol moved his cavalry to the French left flank.<br>
Stulpnagel, his division now reduced to six battalions, left one battalion (the Fusilier battalion of the 5th Kurmark Landwehr Regiment) and one battery in a copse north of Bierges, as a reserve, and joined Stengel, who was now on his right, with his remaining five battalions. His orders were to endeavour to regain Limale, and drive the French across the Dyle. He formed his attack with two battalions in first line, with three in support. His two squadrons were sent to reinforce Stengel, and the rest of the cavalry posted in rear, to be in readiness for a flank movement.<br>
The darkness was so great that little cohesion was possible between the units, and it is not surprising that the attack fell to pieces. The formation of the ground was unknown, and the little folds and features which make or mar a night attack were plentiful: and unfortunately for the Prussians, they marred their plans. As the front line was advancing in fair order, a hollow lane was suddenly met with, and caused great confusion, being unexpected; but worse than this, the opposite side was lined with French sharp-shooters, who poured volleys across into the disordered Prussians. There was, for a time, no attempt to seek cover, and the losses from the fire of the French opposite were heavy, in spite of the darkness. The second line, which was to have supported the first, moved too far to its left, and became itself a front line, engaging more French skirmishers. Stengel, on the right, was charged by cavalry and compelled to retire.<br>
Stulpnagel perceived that little good could come of an attack the successive steps of which had merged into a confused line, and resolved to withdraw to the shelter of the wood behind Point-du-Jour, leaving a line of outposts to watch the front edge. The cavalry took post behind the infantry; and the French fearing to venture through the uncertainties of the night, the fighting on this side ceased.<br>
Meanwhile, on the Prussian left, before Wavre and the Mill of Bierges, the fighting went on most vigorously. The darkness did not prevent the fury of the fight; it only seemed to add to the grimness of it. The whole of Vandamme’s Corps was now engaged, and time after time the French rushed at the barricades on the bridges. Thirteen separate assaults were beaten back by the Prussians, and no less than five times the defenders, in pursuing the routed enemy, attacked and drove them from the houses on the far side of the Dyle.<br>
Once, the French had possession of the main bridge, and had even occupied some of the neighbouring buildings, but the Prussian reserves were hurried up, and these drove out the French. Each time there seemed a chance of the enemy obtaining a footing on the left bank, the Prussian reserves, judiciously posted near at hand among the side-streets and dwellings, rushed out and overwhelmed the intruders. Four battalions defended Wavre against the whole of Vandamme’s Corps. But while the attackers were exposed at each attempt to cross the bridges, the defenders were secure behind their loop-holed walls. Only a great superiority of artillery fire to prepare the way for the assault, and to destroy some of the nearer walls, could have made a crossing successful. A few daring Sappers might have brought up bags of powder to blow in the barricades; they could only have done so by sacrificing themselves, but heroes and brave men were not wanting. Shortage of powder, however, explains the fact that no such attempt was made.<br>
At Basse Wavre, lower down the stream, the attack had not been pressed. Excelmans’ Cavalry had been ordered to make a demonstration on that flank, but cavalry cannot cross a stream without bridge or ford. Only one French battalion, supported by a single gun and two squadrons, had shown themselves, and these were of no use without a bridge to carry them across.<br>
The only advantage which Grouchy had obtained was on his left, which had rolled back the Prussian right, but had in no way destroyed it. Firing ceased at about 11 p.m., and great preparations were made on both sides for a renewal of the fight at daybreak. But Grouchy was well pleased with his success on the left, since he assumed that he had at least cut off half of the Prussian army. It was now too late for him to be of assistance to Napoleon, and the din of the distant battle had long ago died out.<br>
But Grouchy took no steps to ascertain how matters stood with the Emperor. He merely sent orders to Vandamme to bring his Corps across the Dyle at Limale, as he intended making an end of the Prussian right flank, and marching to join Napoleon before Brussels, thinking, for a reason which cannot be explained, that the allies had been beaten. Perhaps it was his confident belief in the invincibility of the Emperor; but yet again he made no efforts to gain information or to confirm his own views. Teste’s Division came up during the night, and, crossing the Dyle at Limale, took post on the right flank of Gérard’s Corps, between Limale and Bierges, and resting its own right flank on the Dyle.