Quatre Bras & Ligny


Napoleon’s escape from Elba – the Regiment ordered on active service – Position of the English Army before Waterloo – The Cavalry Force – Napoleon Takes the Field – The Battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras

THE news of Napoleon’s escape from the Isle of Elba and his progress towards Paris became known throughout Europe at the beginning of March 1815. “If a thunderbolt had fallen amidst the congress of Vienna then sitting, greater consternation could not have been excited than the announcement that Napoleon had secretly left Elba. All minor differences that had ensued throughout the nations of Europe owing to the Treaty of Paris the year previous were immediately forgotten … All lesser subjects of alarm were absorbed in the pressing danger arising from the return of Napoleon to the Throne of France.” [1] A declaration signed by all the powers was forthwith drawn up proscribing Napoleon as a public enemy, and expressing their determination to employ the whole forces at their disposal to prevent Europe from being again plunged into the abyss of revolution. The Russian troops in Poland were ordered to prepare to march. Austria put on a war footing their armies in Italy and Germany, and Prussia called out the Landwehr. England being now delivered from the pressure of the American War, and thus in a position to employ her resources more freely, poured troops into Flanders, and provided at the same time for the equipment of the newly raised forces of the Belgians. Levies were also raised in Hanover. These troops, brought together for the defence of the Belgian frontier, were placed under the command of the duke of Wellington, and a Prussian army under Prince Blücher took the field to co-operate with him.

In April great additions were made to the English Army. Amongst these, on the 6th of that month, the 10th Hussars were augmented by two troops, and the Regiment received an order for three squadrons to hold themselves in readiness for embarkation for active service. On the 9th they commenced their march, the depot moving to Brighton, and on the 16th the first detachment embarked about two in the morning and landed about five in the evening at Ostend. The remainder of the six troops sailed on the following day, but did not complete their disembarkation until the 18th. On the 20th the whole Regiment marched to Bruges, and afterwards took the following route: – 21st Eccloo; 22nd, Ostacher, and other villages near Ghent; 23rd, Oudenarde; 24th, Berhem, where a halt of some days was made. Upon arrival at Aspelaer, near Ninove, on the 2nd May, after a long march in very hot weather, it was found that the orders for the Regiment’s cantonment had been changed, consequently the right Squadron, with headquarters, moved to Oultre, and the remaining squadrons to Voorde. In these villages the Regiment remained several weeks.[2]

The force under the duke of Wellington at this time was scattered over a great extent of country in order to facilitate the subsistence of the troops. On the left the armies were connected with the Prussians near Charleroi, while their centre and right were at Mons and Tournai.

The cavalry of the Anglo-Allied army, commanded by the Earl of Uxbridge, consisted of seven brigades. Of these the British and King’s German Legion Cavalry, with the Hanoverian Brigade, were stationed at Gramont and Ninove and the villages in the neighbourhood. The sixth or Hussars Brigade was commanded by Major-General Sir Hussey Vivian. It consisted of the Tenth Hussars, 390 strong, under Colonel Quentin; the 18th Hussars (396) under Lieutenant-Colonel the Hon. H. Murray; and the 1st Hussars of the King’s German Legion (493) under Lieutenant-Colonel von Wissell.[3]

“As there was little expectation of a change of quarters for some weeks, the Officers had many opportunities of visiting Brussels, about eighteen miles from the Cavalry Headquarters. The monotony of the regimental camp-life also was enlivened by amusements arranged among officers of their own brigade and the Guards. Horse-racing was established, and many successful meetings held. Perhaps most successful of these was one that took place on the 23rd May, during which the Officers of the Tenth gave a grand fete. About 200 sat down at this entertainment, amongst the number Lord Hill and Lord Uxbridge. Again on the 30th another race meeting was held, when the Regiment again entertained its friends at luncheon, when the Prince of Orange and also Sir Sidney Smith were present. These races were held near Grammont, the stewards being Sir Hussey Vivian, Lord Robert Manners, and Sir Noel Hill. The last of these meetings appears to have taken place on the 1st June, when Lord Uxbridge presented a cup to be run for. On this day the 10th and 18th Hussars gave a parting fête to the 7th Hussars as the latter regiment was now told off to serve in a different brigade. At the same time drills were constantly held, and the brigades were exercised three times a week under their respective commanders.”[4]

On the 6th May the Hussars Brigade was inspected by Lieutenant-General the Earl of Uxbridge. On the 29th the duke of Wellington reviewed the whole of the British Cavalry in the presence of Field-Marshall Prince Blücher, the Duc de Berri, and other distinguished Officers. “The troops were drawn up with the 7th, 10th, 15th and 18th Hussars, with Horse Artillery, in the first line, each half squadron taking a squadron interval (this line was commanded by Generals Grant and Vivian.); the First Life Guards, the Blues, 2nd Life Guards, and the 1st Dragoon Guards in the first line, under Lord E. Somerset, and the 1st Royal Dragoons, Inniskillings, and Greys under General Ponsonby; the 11th, 12th, 16th and 23rd Dragoons, under Vandeleur, in the third line. On the arrival of the Duke of Wellington and Marshall Blücher a salute was fired.” Captain Charles Wood, in a letter, says “Old Blücher, upon passing my troop, recognised me immediately and gave me his hand,”[5] &c. &c. “We brought into the field 5,600 swords besides the Horse Artillery, thirty six guns, all looking in first rate condition.”

On the afternoon of the 1st March Napoleon had reached the Gulf of Juan and landed on French territory with 400 of his Old Guard. He marched first on Grenoble, where, on the 6th March, he met troops detached from the garrison of that place sent to arrest his progress. Advancing to the front of his own men, he called upon the soldiers to join him. This the whole garrison did with the greatest of enthusiasm, and Napoleon’s force was brought up to 3,000 men. Daily adding to these numbers, he continued his march, and reached Lyon on the 12th. At this place he was joined by Marshal Ney, who had been sent by Louis XVIII to oppose him, but who came over to his side with the whole army under his orders. This act virtually gave him back the government of the country. On the 20th Louis XVIII abdicated, and at nine o’clock the same night Napoleon arrived at Tuileries. “Nothing which vigour and activity could do was wanting on the part of The Emperor Napoleon to provide the means to oppose the phalanx of enemies ready to overwhelm him.”[6] He restored to the old regiments their numbers, provided arms and ammunition, and by rousing the national spirit revived the worn-out finances of the country. All this he accomplished in three months, and, having collected an army with the greatest rapidity, early in June decided to take the field against the allies in Belgium. He selected the direct route to Brussels by Charleroi for his main line of advance, the road on which Blücher’s right and Wellington’s left rested,[7] intending by striking between them to defeat the Prussians in the first instance and then fall upon the English.

“On the 12th June Colonel von Wissell, whose regiment, the 1st Hussars of the German Legion, formed an extensive line of outposts in front of Tournai, supported by the remained of the Hussars Brigade, reported to Sir Hussey Vivian that he had received information of the French army having assembled on the frontier.” On the 14th Napoleon himself arrived on the scene of operations and took command of his forces, now concentrated on the right bank of the Sambre. At sunrise on the 15th he moved forward in three columns, and by eleven o’clock was in full possession of Charleroi. The Prussians fell back fighting, and concentrated at Ligny by nightfall. About five o’clock the same afternoon the Duke of Wellington received information of the advance of the French and orders were at once issued for the British Army to march in the direction of Quatre Bras, with the Prussians concentrated on the left of Ligny.

“The intelligence of the arrival of Napoleon upon the scene of operations was known to few in Brussels beyond the duke and his immediate staff, and on the evening of the 15th the famous ball, of which so much notice has been taken, and which has become historical, was given by the Duchess of Richmond in a house in the Rue de la Blanchisserie. The duke of Wellington and all the officers in and near Brussels attended; amongst them Lord Robert Manners and other Officers of the Tenth Hussars were present. It had been hinted to the generals of the division and brigade that one by one, as the night drew on, they should take their leave. Orders likewise had been issued to the troops to hold themselves in readiness to march … By-and-by general after general withdrew from the duchess’s party, some on the plea that their commands were far away, others because duty or private business


called them. The Duke remained until a late hour, and returned thanks after supper for the health of the Prince Regent, which was proposed by the Prince of Orange. He soon afterwards retired, and the company broke up. A bugle call, heard first in the Place d’Armes, and taken up and echoed back through various quarters of the town, roused all classes of people in a moment. Regiments were seen to muster in the dim light of the stars in square, street and alley, and as they were ready marched off in the direction of the Forest of Soignies”.[8]

The Tenth received its orders at midnight, and the Hussar Brigade, breaking up its cantonments, moved towards Nivelles in the early morning of the 16th. On arriving at that place an express was received, ordering the Brigade to proceed on the Namur road to Quatre Bras, which, after a long and harassing march, hampered with many obstructions, was reached the same evening.

Marshal Ney, having arrived at the French headquarters on the night of the 15th, was placed by Napoleon at the head of a force of 17,000 men, and the next day advanced to attack the English at Quatre Bras, with a view to preventing their concentration. Napoleon himself, with the main portion of his army, attacked the Prussians at Ligny. About two o’clock on the 16th the two battles commenced. The Prussians were defeated and fell back in the direction of Wavre. The English held their ground, and throughout the day continued to receive reinforcements as the troops came up from their various cantonments, so that Wellington, commencing with about the same number as Ney, had assembled an army of 30,000 men before the day was over. With this force he was able to drive the French back and remain in possession of the field. By nine P. M. the whole of the British Cavalry, whose cantonments had been on the extreme right of the extended position of the allied army, arrived at Quatre Bras and bivouacked on the field.

To secure the position taken up by the Hussar Brigade Sir Hussey Vivian threw out two strong piquets — one, under Captain Crocker from the 18th Hussars, on the Namur Road; the other, under Major the Hon. Fredrick Howard, from the Tenth Hussars, in front; and also from the latter regiment a smaller piquet, under Lieutenant Arnold, on the right of the Namur Road. But during the night (the 16th) the bivouac on the field of Quatre Bras remained undisturbed, save from some firing caused by outpost affairs brought on by a cavalry patrol passing between the adverse lines.[9]

Wellington, arriving early in the morning of the 17th, found the brigade posted as described; but Sir Hussey could give the Duke little information beyond the fact of the firing above mentioned, for the French continued quiet, and as yet no forward movement was indicated. In the direction of Fleurus a French vadette was visible, probably thrown out after last night’s battle from Marshal Ney’s extreme right. But there was no intelligence of Blücher; so Captain Grey’s troop from the Tenth Hussars was sent along the Namur road, accompanied by Lieutenant Bacon and Lieutenant-Colonel the Hon. Sir Alexander Gordon, A. D. C. to the Duke, in order to gain information. Advancing cautiously, the patrol discovered a French vadette posted on rising ground about a mile and a half beyond Petit-Marbais. Captain Grey now detached Lieutenant Bacon with a few men to explore, while with the remainder of the troop, placed in concealment, he awaited the result. On perceiving Bacon’s party, the enemy’s piquet mounted and galloped back to their supports. As the French showed no further disposition to advance, Captain Grey began to retire, and soon afterwards struck into a cross-road that led towards the Prussian line of retreat. Here he fell in with General Ziethen, commanding the rear guard of the Prussians, retiring on Wavre. Gordon obtained satisfactory information from the General, which he immediately reported to the Duke of Wellington. The Patrol did not, however, return to Quatre Bras until half-past seven in the evening.

The left troop of Howard’s squadron, under Captain Wood, was also sent to patrol in the direction of Wavre, and subsequently this Officer laid claim to having been the first to convey to the Duke the intelligence of the Prussian retreat to Wavre. Hence arose a difference of opinion as to which troop was the first to give this important information, and after a patient and thorough investigation Captain Siborne has decided in favour of Captain Grey’s troop, accompanied by Sir Alexander Gordon.[10]


[1] Alison

[2] Dr Jenks’ Diary

[3] Siborne’s Waterloo Campaign

[4] Extract from letter from Captain Charles Wood, 10th Hussars, to his brother, Colonel Wood, of Littleton

[5] Captain (afterwards Colonel) Wood had severed under Lord Stewart at the battle of Leipzig , and had been specially noticed by Marshal Bucher

[6] Alison

[7] Siborne

[8] Gleig’s Battle of Waterloo

[9] Siborne

[10] Siborne; Dr Jenks’s Diary

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