By Arnold Blumberg

The French plan for opening the campaign of 1815 was vintage Napoleon: take the initiative by attacking the Allied forces closest to France, separate them by assuming the central position, then beat them one at a time. Accordingly, the first blows directed by Napoleon’s newly formed Army of the North would be against those partners of the Seventh Coalition located in the Netherlands, that is, the Duke of Wellington’s mixed English/Dutch/Belgian/ German allied force, and Field Marshal Blücher’s Prussian Army of the Lower Rhine.

Achieving strategic surprise, Napoleon’s hosts crossed the Franco-Belgian frontier on June 15, catching the Prussians in the act of assembling to meet them while Wellington’s army, still unaware of the French movement, remained stationary and widely dispersed. On the 16th the Emperor beat Blücher in the Battle of Ligny, but failed to destroy his command. At the same time, Marshal Ney had confronted elements of the Anglo-Allied army eight miles to the west at Quatre Bras. That fight was a draw, but its result could have proven decisive if events of the next day had taken a different turn.

Napoleon wanted to occupy Brussels on June 16, the 17th at the latest. By doing so he would score a diplomatic victory with wide-ranging consequences. With its fall to the French, Wellington’s army would have to run for the coast and eventually embark for England; such an event might very well bring down the British pro-war government. Further, Napoleon in Brussels might bring enough pressure on the Dutch to cause them to change sides in the conflict, thus adding 30,000 men to French resources.

On June 17 Napoleon had the opportunity to accomplish his mission and one significant other thing: the destruction of Wellington’s forces guarding the approach to Brussels at Quatre Bras. What follows is a description of how the British-Dutch army—with help from its opponents—evaded the fate that could have befallen it, thereby assuring that the Battle of Waterloo, the next day, would be fought.

June 16th—The Close of the Day

The bloody struggles at both Ligny and Quatre Bras, fought eight miles apart, ended about the same time, around 9 PM on June 16. At the former battle site losses on both sides had been extensive, with the Prussians sustaining 16,000 killed, wounded, or missing and a further 8,000 to 10,000 deserting the colors within the next 24 hours. French casualties numbered 12,000 from all causes.

Farther to the west, as the sound of gunfire faded along with the sunlight, the cost to the opposing French and Allied forces was tallied. The battle for the small crossroads on the highway leading to Brussels yielded 4,000 French versus 4,400 Anglo-Allied losses. (The latter number included 2,400 British regulars).

Marshal Ney, having been brought to a standstill by elements of Wellington’s polyglot army since 2:30 that afternoon, found himself outnumbered by 15,000 men and chose to retire his 20,000-man army two miles back to the heights near the town of Frasne. Exhausted, the English-led enemy did not follow the Frenchmen but went into bivouac just south of Quatre Bras. Picket lines were thrown out by both sides.

During the evening, reinforcements reached both parties. Some infantry and all the British cavalry joined the encampment at Quatre Bras by 1 AM on the 17th, increasing Wellington’s strength to 46,000. Ney also received help in the form of most of d’Erlon’s II Infantry Corps, which arrived a little after 9 PM. It was posted to the rear of Frasne.

With the day’s fighting ended, and his command going into camp, Lord Wellington and his staff made their way back to his headquarters at the village of Genappe, about four miles north of the battlefield on the Brussels road. There, comfortable beds and supper awaited them at the inn known as the Roi d’Espagne.

Napoleon directs his forces around Ligny on the 16th. By the end of the day he thought he had destroyed Blücher’s army as an effective fighting force.
Napoleon directs his forces around Ligny on the 16th. By the end of the day he thought he had destroyed Blücher’s army as an effective fighting force.

As the Duke and his retinue trotted away from the carnage-littered field, members of his army, including the Gordon Highlanders, turned to the somber task of removing the wounded to shelter and burying the dead— “especially the officers.” At this point, Wellington cheerfully assumed that “Old Blücher had at the very least repulsed the French at Ligny. The first indication to His Grace that all had not gone well for the Prussians at Ligny came from a Captain Hardinge…. This young officer had entered the Roi d’Espagne about 9:30 PM looking for a surgeon to take to his brother, Henry Hardinge. Henry Hardinge had been with Blücher’s forces and had had a hand taken off by a French cannonball during the Battle of Ligny. Captain Hardinge told Wellington that although he could not be sure, he thought there had been a Prussian defeat but that at any rate they had ‘suffered severely.’”

Reacting to this gloomy, but as yet unconfirmed news, Wellington ordered his aide-de-camp, Lt. Col. Alexander Gordon, to reconnoiter to the east in search of the Prussians. Accompanied by two squadrons of the 10th Hussar Cavalry Regiment (Major General Hussey Vivian’s Light Cavalry Brigade) Gordon left Genappe about 10 PM. With little interference from the French, the scouting party got as far as the village of Sombreffe, about six miles from Quatre Bras. There, after running off some French pickets, Gordon found elements of General Ziethen’s Prussian 1st Infantry Corps headquarters. The Britisher learned that the Prussians had been beaten the day before, but not how badly or where they had withdrawn. Gordon then returned to Wellington with the incomplete news he had gathered.

June 17—The Quiet Morning

Near 3 AM June 17, the tranquility that had prevailed throughout the night was suddenly broken by, at first, sporadic musket fire followed by the continuous popping of small arms along the entire length of the opposing picket lines. It seems that a British cavalry patrol had gotten lost between the outpost positions, causing both alarm and the shooting. Officers of the two armies rushed to see what the problem was. As soon as it was determined that neither side was preparing to advance against the other, the informal truce maintained the previous night was reinstated all along the front. Unfortunately, before the firing had ceased, both the Brunswick and Bremen battalions had suffered casualties.

Around 3:30 AM Wellington returned to Quatre Bras from Genappe. As a light rain fell, he met with Sir Hussey Vivian, whose cavalry brigade was posted just to the left (east) of the crossroads. The cavalry leader informed the Duke that all was “perfectly quiet” and that the French showed no signs of making ready to advance.

Wellington, who had yet to hear from Blücher, scanned the horizon in the direction of Fleurus through his telescope. Seeing French pickets but no Prussians in that direction, he concluded that it was possible that Napoleon had cut the Namur road (and with it his communications with Blücher). If that were the case, it would not be long before the enemy moved to attack him from the left and rear while Ney pinned the Anglo-Allies in front. Wellington remarked to his staff that he had to have more intelligence about the whereabouts of the Prussians.

To that end, Colonel Gordon was again dispatched down the Namur road. His escort was provided this time by only a single troop from the 10th Hussars. Moving cautiously, Gordon’s little party skirted several French patrols near the village of Marbais and reached the hamlet of Tilly about 5:30 AM. There Gordon was able speak with General Ziethen himself. To his horror he was told the truth about Ligny and was informed that the Prussians were withdrawing toward Wavre and away from Wellington. Gordon hurried back to report to his chief.

At Quatre Bras, Wellington moved into a drafty hut constructed for him by the 92nd Foot. The hut provided some relief from the morning chill. Gordon appeared at 7:30 AM, his horse in a lather. The colonel whispered his news to Wellington, who showed no emotion as he then announced to all within earshot that “Old Blücher has had a damned good licking and gone back to Wavre, 18 miles. As he has gone back, we must go too.”

Wellington then gave the preliminary instructions for the retreat as his staff filed into the makeshift hut to work out the details. Once inside, the English commander finalized the route of withdrawal and its purpose—to unite with Blücher’s army and fight the French as early as the next day. Wavre was only seven miles due east from the nearest point on the Brussels road, not much farther than Ligny from Quatre Bras. If the Anglo-Allies could retire level with Wavre, Blücher and Wellington would be in supporting distance of one another. That would enable them to force a battle on the French with an advantage in numbers of almost two to one.

Noting the continued inactivity of Ney’s force a little to the south, and seeing no sign of a flanking movement coming from Ligny, Wellington took the risk of allowing his men to breakfast before commencing their retrograde march. By 9:30 AM the first of the baggage wagons were moving north to Brussels from Quatre Bras.

Orders had already been sent to the British 2nd and 4th Infantry Divisions near Nivelles to proceed to Waterloo. The army’s trains—then on the road from Braine-leComte to Nivelles—were turned back to the former and then directed to Brussels. All spare musket ammunition was to be stockpiled just north of Genappe, while Prince Frederick of Orange was instructed to take his 1st Infantry Corps to a position in front of Hal.


Having determined his course of action and initiated its execution, Wellington took a brief nap, covering his head with some recently arrived London newspapers. Rising from a short rest, he proceeded to ride a little south of Quatre Bras. There he examined the countryside through his telescope. After a few sweeps, he turned to those with him and remarked that maybe the French were also retreating; that would account for their inexplicable lack of activity. With that thought in mind, he turned his horse back toward Quatre Bras.

At 9 AM, he was met at the crossroads by Lieutenant Massow. Sent by Blücher’s chief-of-staff, Gneisenau, the junior officer informed the Englishman of the Prussian retreat and planned concentration at Wavre. Responding to this, the first direct communication from his German ally, Wellington immediately wrote to Prince Blücher, telling him of his current movement and intent to face Napoleon the next day in front of the village of Waterloo if the old marshal would come to his aid with at least two army corps.

June 17th—The Retreat Begins

At 10 AM with the weather turning sultry, the Allied forces at Quatre Bras started for the defensive position at Mont-St. Jean, a few miles south of Waterloo. In order to mask the retreat, light troops continued to hold the army’s outpost line as the main body of troops left for the north.

Then the 1st and 5th British Infantry Divisions joined with the 2nd Dutch-Belgian Division and the Brunswick Corps to form a column. Their march would be protected by Alten’s Infantry Division supported by the 1st Battalion of the 95th Rifles, the 2nd and 3rd Brunswick Light Infantry Battalions, the Brunswick Lieb Battalion, and the light companies of Byng’s British Guards Brigade. This portion of the army followed the main highway to Brussels and—despite a delay occasioned by the narrowness of the bridge over the stream in front of Genappe, as well as the constricted nature of that town’s streets—it passed through to the north with little disorder.

As the individual brigades started to form up, they were told that in case of enemy pressure they were to “halt and form up alternately, so as to show everyone a good front to the enemy.”

At 11 AM most of Alten’s Division began its move away from Quatre Bras. To alleviate the crowding that would take place on the Genappe route, this formation took a crossroad running west of the Brussels highway and crossed over the stream below the town. The division moved by alternate units until it crossed the waterway, then proceeded to move with its subunits in echelon.

The countryside that the Allied infantry was marching through was generally open with cornfields and occasional large and thick woods. Undulating ground was not uncommon, but the rises were gentle and there were few hedges or other impediments of any kind to the movement of large bodies of men, cavalry, or wheeled traffic.

As the infantry hurried on its way, the weather became oppressively hot. But even the day’s blazing yellow sun could not hide the appearance on the southern horizon of a gathering of thick, dark storm clouds.

A little before noon, the light companies of Alten’s Division left the picket line to rejoin the rest of the division,

which had departed an hour earlier. To protect the rear of his retreating column, at 10 AM Wellington ordered his cavalry chief and second-in-command of the army, Lt. Gen. Henry William Paget, the Earl of Uxbridge, to replace the departing infantry rear guard with a cavalry screen. This was accomplished by drawing up all the British cavalry at Quatre Bras (about 10,000 troopers) in two lines immediately contiguous to and in rear of the Namur road; the heavy cavalry formed the second line, and pickets were thrown out from the first (light cavalry) line. Two battalions of the 95th Rifles—as well as Lord Wellington—remained with the horsemen to lend support.


Of great benefit to the English commander’s plans for the 17th was the absolute lack of aggressiveness and activity shown by his French opponents on that day as well as the preceding evening. There were two reasons for this apparent failing of Napoleon and Marshal Ney: First, the Emperor did not know until early on the 17th the situation Ney faced on the Quatre Bras front. Second, and most importantly, the French leader did not know where Blücher’s Prussians had gone after their defeat at Ligny on June 16, and what their intent was.

Not until 11 AM on the 17th did Napoleon feel secure enough in his knowledge of the Allies’ probable intentions to order a concentration of his army toward Quatre Bras. Only at that time did he feel confident that Wellington’s army, and then Brussels, should be his next target in the campaign.

To that end, Napoleon ordered his 6th Infantry Corps,

supported by light cavalry and the Imperial Guard, to concentrate at the village of Marbais on the Nivelles road four miles southeast of Quatre Bras. If the Emperor could strike the English from the flank while Ney held their attention to his front, then the decisive battle of the campaign could be fought and won.

As Napoleon gathered his enveloping force, Ney, still facing Wellington at Quatre Bras, did nothing. He was unclear about his role in Napoleon’s new plan and felt he did not have the strength to attack Wellington frontally. Besides, he reasoned, if Napoleon was going to initiate a flanking maneuver, that would be enough to pry Wellington out of his current position. As a result, both Ney and his Imperial master spent precious hours early on the 17th waiting for the other to start the assault on the Anglo-Allied army at Quatre Bras.

June 17th—The Pursuit

One o’clock found Lord Wellington riding with Sir Hussey Vivian near and in front of the 10th Hussars at Quatre Bras. While viewing the surrounding countryside he spotted heavy masses of the enemy approaching from Marbais about two miles distant. At first the Duke took the oncoming foe to be thick columns of infantry, but another look showed that in fact it was cavalry pounding up the highway. The body of the enemy column was made up of cuirassiers, “from whose steel corselets the light was reflected as if from a thousand mirrors.”

Spearheading the column were the 1st and 2nd Lancer Regiments of General Subervie’s 5th Cavalry Division. At about the same moment Ney began to probe toward Quatre Bras from the south, his own horsemen leading the advance.

As the French cavalry moved in from the south and the southeast, the 18th British Hussar Regiment in front of Quatre Bras and the 11th British Dragoons on the Namur road skirmished with the advancing enemy, all the while slowly falling back. Presently, Vivian’s cavalry brigade realigned itself to face the onrushing Lancers; Vandeleur’s cavalry brigade—to Vivian’s rear and in front of Quatre Bras—remained stationary as it prepared to receive Ney.

At this juncture, Wellington felt satisfied that his infantry had made good its escape and that soon all the remaining forces then at Quatre Bras should retire. To this end, he ordered off the field the 95th Rifles and Byng’s men. (They proceeded to Genappe where for a time they took up position at the entrance of the town.) Turning to Uxbridge, he enjoined him to avoid anything like a serious engagement but to remain in his present position for as long as he conveniently could. The Duke then rode slowly for Genappe.

Uxbridge knew his remaining time at Quatre Bras would necessarily be brief. First, an overpowering force of the enemy was practically upon him. Second, any retreat from his present position would be hindered by having to cross the Dyle and Fouteny Rivers that bordered Genappe and the move through the town itself.

To lessen the obstacles to his withdrawal, the cavalry commander formed his command into three columns for the retirement north. A right- hand column made up of General Dornberg’s Brigade would cross the Fouteny to the west of Genappe. A center column, comprising the “heavies” of Somerset’s Household and Ponsonby’s Union Brigades, would travel along the main Brussels road and through Genappe itself. This force would be covered by the 23rd Light Dragoons Regiment, with the 7th Hussars (of Grant’s Cavalry Brigade) acting as rear guard. Finally, an eastern column, consisting of Vivian’s and Vandeleur’s light brigades, would cross the Dyle at a bridge found at the hamlet of Thuy just to the east of Genappe.


As the British horse was preparing to depart, French cavalry continually darted at their positions. Enemy horse artillery was also seen in the area. To counter the latter and delay the former, while giving his men time to form up for the retreat, the cavalry general ordered Gardiner’s Troop (i.e., battery) of Royal Horse Artillery and Webber-Smith’s Troop to move to the front, unlimber, and place fire on the nearest enemy.

The gunners quickly brought their 6-pounder pieces into action, and a short but warm exchange of fire between them and some enemy horse artillery ensued.

This resulted in keeping the French cavalry at a respectable enough distance to allow the British mounted formations time to form up and quit the field. As the brigades made their exit, the redoubtable artillerists limbered up and, using “whip and spur,” galloped away. (After the action of the 17th, the commander of Wellington’s horse artillery justifiably praised, if somewhat understatedly, their performance by writing: “Our horse artillery yesterday were of much use.”)

As the British cannon opened fire on the French and in turn were answered by enemy guns, the long-threatening rain began to pour down from a sky black with storm clouds. Just before the rain came it started to lightning, followed by the roar and crack of thunder, which seemed to shake the ground.

Prior to the rain, the brigade and regimental officers attempted to regulate the retreat as if it were no more than a series of movements on the parade ground. Occasionally, the rearmost troop of a retiring force would be charged; after offering as much resistance as they could, the outnumbered men would gallop back to their supports who would come on with sabre and pistol to drive the enemy back. Every so often when a full brigade reached a favorable piece of ground, it would turn to face its pursuers, almost daring them to come closer. Vivian’s Brigade did this once, and he had his 18th Hussars Regiment drawn up with the command “Make Ready to Charge.” To support them, he placed two of Gardiner’s guns in their front and ordered the gunners to fire away at the French. But the French cavalry seemed undeterred even as the artillery blazed away at them; they dashed straight at the guns, forcing Vivian to order them back behind the Hussars. Then the rains came, turning the ground into a quagmire within seconds. Every step the horses attempted resulted in their sinking up to their knees into the rapidly softening earth. The charge of the 18th Hussars had to be cancelled; the regiment and the rest of the brigade turned from line into column and moved to the rear.

Within five minutes of the start of the deluge, the ground was completely soaked, the falling water crushing the grass and washing away the growing barley. “It rained as if the water tumbled out of tubs,” recalled an officer of the Scots Greys. A young member of the 16th Light Dragoons (Vandeleur’s Brigade) later wrote that it was the heaviest tempest he had ever seen. The country roads became full of water, and movement was restricted to a slow walk except on the main road to Brussels. The fields on either side of all the roads became swamps.

Pummeled by the rain, the English cavalry continued its retreat, the driving water blinding both horses and riders so much that even the “liberal use of spurs could not keep their heads to the storm.” Those traveling on side roads had to contend with deep ruts filled with water and a stiff slippery clay surface which, combined with crowding from the rear, pushed animals and men into deep ditches.

And all the while the troopers struggled to make headway in these conditions they heard the constant refrain of officers and sergeants, “Faster, faster, you must move faster.” The retreat was no better for the units of the Royal Horse Artillery attached to the different cavalry commands. Sections of Gardiner’s Troop suffered damaged axles to caissons and limbers as they struggled along the miserable roads with French Lancers yelping at their heels.

Mercer’s Troop, running “helter-skelter” toward Genappe, for a time could not see more than a few yards to its front due to the downpour, nearly causing its “vehicles to smash into trees or go off into the ditches.” The rain was not the only problem the British had to overcome during their flight; the French tried hard to close with their foe. At times, seeming almost to be enjoying the chase, the French Lancers would taunt the British with laughter and heap curses on them. With cries of “Vive L’Emperor,” the French horse repeatedly strove to cut the British off from their escape route. (Vivian’s Brigade, starting the retreat nearest the enemy, was in constant danger of this from the time it left Quatre Bras to its crossing of the Dyle a few hours later).

Of course, the conditions of the ground due to the rain affected the French as well as their quarry. Not long after the ground became saturated, quick movement by anyone was impossible. As a result, the headlong rush at the British gave way to a slow following punctuated by mounted skirmishing and artillery fire by the horse gunners.

At about 3 PM Vivian’s and Vandeleur’s Brigades reached the bridge at Thuy, a half-mile from Genappe. The slow movement of the latter’s men in crossing the span caused both formations to be held up on the south side of the Dyle, while the French were slowly approaching and skirmishing with the rear of Vivian’s Brigade.

Pushing Vandeleur’s men ahead of them, Vivian’s troopers finally crossed, and in order to delay the enemy and give support to Vivian and his rear guard still on the south bank, the 10th Hussars were dismounted on the north side of the crossing site and told to provide covering fire for their comrades. As Vivian and the last of his command raced across the bridge, the 10th Hussars discouraged any French attempt to follow.

French cavalry on the move. During the 17th, units such as this did their best to overwhelm Wellington’s retreating masses, but came up short.
French cavalry on the move. During the 17th, units such as this did their best to overwhelm Wellington’s retreating masses, but came up short.

For the remainder of the day, Vivian and Vandeleur set out to find the rest of the army. They arrived at Mont-St. Jean a few hours before dark. Their Gallic pursuers had turned west from Thuy and made for the main Brussels road, leaving only a small patrol to tail the light brigades. A half-mile to the west of Genappe, the four cavalry regiments under Dornberg successfully crossed the Dyle at a little-used ford. As was the case with Vivian’s and Vandeleur’s commands, the French gave up their run at Dornberg after he crossed the river. By evening the western British cavalry column had found its way to the rear of the rapidly forming Allied line near Waterloo.

The Action at Genappe

As the flank columns were making good their escape from the French, the center force (Somerset’s and Ponsonby’s Brigades, accompanied by the 23rd Light Dragoons and 7th Hussars Regiment) with equal success had fended off its antagonists and crossed the bridge at Genappe, taking up position beyond the town.

Genappe stood on a slope rising above the valley through which the Dyle flows. It was a well-built town of 1,200 people possessing a long, narrow stone-paved avenue bordered by houses on either side that effectively formed a defile running for a thousand yards. Just north of the town the roadway stood one and a half feet above the adjacent fields and included dirt tracks on both sides which in turn were bracketed by ditches. The road was wide enough to allow 12 to 14 horsemen to ride abreast. When the British entered the town that afternoon, it was “choked up with wounded” from the battle of the day before.

Viewing the northern terminus of Genappe as a good place from which to both cover his light cavalry directly in front of the advancing French and to delay the enemy if need be, Lord Uxbridge sited the cavalry of the center column thusly: Somerset’s 1st Guards Brigade and the horse artillery deployed on and to the right of the chausse (i.e., main Brussels road); Ponsonby’s Union Brigade to the left of Somerset; the 23rd Light Dragoons between the town and the main cavalry line; and the 7th Hussars 200 yards outside Genappe. A lone squadron remained in the town.

At first formed in line to support the advanced light cavalry regiments, the heavy brigades were soon put into halfcolumns when it was learned the enemy was drawing near. Somerset remained close to the road and a little to its right, while Ponsonby was moved back a hundred yards. For 20 minutes after being put in their new formation, the British stood silently, the rain streaming down the entire time. Suddenly, from the direction of Genappe, they heard the shouts of oncoming French—lots of them. Delayed by a single squadron of the 7th Hussars (O’Grady’s) before the Genappe bridge for almost a halfhour, 24 squadrons of French cavalry finally made their way across the Dyle and through the zigzag main street of the town. They were met by Major Hodge’s squadron from the 7th Hussars, which was posted in the town. Sharp skirmishing commenced as the French pursued Hodge to the northern portion of Genappe. As he retreated, Hodge managed to capture some of the enemy, which was easily accomplished because these French had outrun their main body and were drunk!

It was not long before the huge French column ascended the twisting street and arrived at the northern end of Genappe. Its spearhead was made up of Lancers, many of them young men on untrained mounts. They belonged to the 2nd Lancer Regiment under the command of Colonel Sour. Upon reaching the northern end of town, this mass of French horsemen simply stopped, apparently undecided as to what their next course of action should be. This situation continued to prevail for another 15 minutes; all the while the column was becoming more jumbled and jammed in the narrow confines of the street as its rear elements pressed upon those in front.

Seeing the growing confusion in the French formation, Uxbridge, who had taken station on some rising ground just outside the town, ordered his 7th Hussars to charge the head of the enemy. The 7th sprinted off in compliance. A sharp contest ensued with the British using sabre and pistol in an attempt to break the phalanx of lances facing them. Hodge was killed as his men assaulted the now motionless foe whose ranks were protected by the buildings on both sides of the street and whose dense mass served as a shield. Soon the crash of artillery was added to the din of battle; a French horse artillery battery had been brought up and placed on the south side of the Dyle to the left of the town. Its round shot began to cause losses to the Hussars and disorder their ranks. Encouraged by the support it was receiving from their cannon, the French Lancers surged forward, pushing back their English opponents. Retiring a short distance, the Hussars rallied and, along with the regiment’s reserve squadrons, drove the French back into the village. Again the French counterattacked, and again the British were forced to retreat.

At this point, Uxbridge pulled the Hussars out of the fight and let them rally farther back from the town. He then found himself alone on the road, not more than 15 yards from the victorious French who were coming at him with cries of “En avant! En avant!”

Quickly, the British cavalry leader rode over to the nearest friendly unit—the 23rd Light Dragoons—and urged them to attack the French. “Not having been received with all the enthusiasm that I expected,” he ordered them to clear the chausse so another regiment might carry out his orders. That regiment turned out to be the 1st Life Guards of the Household Brigade.

At the time of the order to attack the French, the Life Guards were mistakenly directed to turn about and move to the rear. This put the regiment in a dangerous position since the French were nearly upon them. Turning once more to face the enemy, and encouraged by Uxbridge, who shouted, “They [the French] dare not come on, they only need to be properly attacked and they will retire,” the Guards charged.

The French were caught at a severe disadvantage. They were still generally in close column moving uphill, and since leaving the town, they were in the open with a narrow defile to their rear. And British horse artillery had finally entered the action and had neutralized its French counterpart that had been so active up to that time. Passing through the reluctant 23rd Dragoons, two squadrons of the Life Guards smashed into the Lancers.

British light cavalry watch and their field artillery fires on the French during the Waterloo campaign
British light cavalry watch and their field artillery fires on the French during the Waterloo campaign

These big men on big horses pushed the stationary enemy back, then began to scatter them along the road, finally riding down large numbers as the mass of French cavalry attempted to turn and flee. It was not long before the Guards had driven their enemy back through Genappe almost to the Dyle.

After repulsing the French at Genappe, the cavalry of the center column continued its move to rejoin the army at Waterloo. The 23rd Light Dragoons now constituted the rear guard. According to Uxbridge, “The retreat continued at a slow pace and with the most perfect regularity.”

The French, although battered at Genappe, did not give up the pursuit of the British cavalry. As the two forces moved north along the Brussels road, the French continually tried to out- flank the British from the right. Ponsonby’s men, who retired by alternate squadrons and were covered by their skirmishers, were posted in that direction and managed to thwart every flanking maneuver.

Before nightfall the center column arrived at the prepared positions at Mont-St. Jean. Still protected by its light cavalry and supported by horse artillery, Uxbridge’s command took its place in the Allied line.

Years later, the then Marquess of Anglesey wrote that the retirement of his cavalry from Quatre Bras to Waterloo on June 17 was “the prettiest field day of cavalry and horse artillery that I have ever witnessed.” That “field day” cost the British cavalry only 95 rank and file killed, wounded, or missing. The French suffered approximately 60 more losses than their British counterparts during the retreat and pursuit.

June 17—The End of the Withdrawal

By late afternoon, the Duke of Wellington had passed Le Caillou and was approaching the ridges in front of Waterloo where he meant to give battle the next day. Around 11 PM the army was settled into the defensive lines it would fight from on June 18.

Napoleon arrived in front of the Waterloo position, at Belle Alliance, about dusk, just in time to see the last of the Brunswick Infantry rushing down the Belle Alliance ridge to the Anglo-Allied lines beyond. Fearing that Wellington might flee during the night, the Emperor wanted to test the enemy lines to see if they were being held in strength or merely acting as a cover for a future withdrawal. Sixty French cannon fired toward the Allied location. Sixteen enemy guns responded, indicating to Napoleon that his opponent’s position was held in force. Wellington was furious when he heard that his gunners had returned the enemy fire; the last thing he wanted was for the French to know where his artillery was before a battle started.

At 9:30 PM in the rain and fog Napoleon finished his inspection of his opponent’s lines. During this exercise he and his party stumbled around in the mud as he viewed Wellington’s dispositions through his spyglass. At one point, while leaning on his page Gudin, British shells fell nearby. Napoleon turned to his servant and remarked, “My friend, you have never been invited to a party such as this. Your baptism is harsh, but you will learn fast.”

The night of June 17 was spent much the same way by the French Emperor and the English Duke. At 1 AM the former returned to his outpost lines to see if the enemy was still in front of him. He returned to his headquarters at Le Caillou at 3:30 AM. He slept very little before the sun finally rose. Wellington, too, rested little, if at all, that night at Waterloo. Some time around 3 AM he awoke. It might have been because he received confirmation that Blücher would indeed come to his aid on the 18th; or it might have been because he was anxious about the forth-coming battle. Historians have not concluded either way.

With the dawn, both commanders rode to their respective advanced posts. Napoleon was confident of the day’s outcome; Wellington was calm and cool, expecting to be able to hold until help arrived in the form of the Prussians. What both leaders might not have fully realized (although Wellington might have had some hint) was that the results of June 18, 1815 had already been largely determined by the actions (on the British part) and the lack of action (on the French part) of June 17.

The events played out on the day prior to Waterloo were the determing factor of the 1815 Belgium Campaign. That was the only day in that short military operation that could have seen the definite destruction of one of the Allied armies when the other could not have been in a position to intervene. The escape of Wellington’s army handed the Allies the initiative, dictating where and under what conditions the decisive action of the campaign would be fought. Outnumbered as Napoleon was, and pitted against the enemy commanders whom he faced (the best in the Allied camp), it was an almost forgone conclusion that the Battle of Waterloo would have the result it did.

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