Monday, 29 June 2015

Mont St. Jean, Genappe, Quatre Bras - Belgium 2015

Prince William of Orange leads the 5th Dutch militia  back into the fight at Gemioncourt Farm.
Our touring of the Waterloo campaign battlefields got well and truly under-way with a full day of driving down to Quatre Bras, Ligny, up to Wavre and back to Waterloo along the route taken by Blucher and his Prussians.

The following day was planned to focus on Waterloo and Plancenoit to end our visit.

If you are going to attempt a trip like this in two and a half days, you really need a plan and it helps to have a local guide and driver who knows the ground you want to cover. The plan was based around the original two day tour devised by Dr David Chandler from his days leading the Sandhurst tours back in the 70's and the map plan was based on that. Our guide was Mr Alan Lindsey who, as well as providing his vehicle, brought along his excellent knowledge of the campaign, the key sights and was a very nice chap to have along on our day out. I have provided a link to contact Alan should you wish to follow this route.

Alan runs about two guided tours a week and can cater for up to four people in his 4 x 4 Jeep and it is a good idea to drop him an email well ahead of any proposed visit, especially, if like me, you would like to work a planned itinerary.

David Chandler's map used as the basis for our one day "whistle stop" tour
As you will see I had adapted the map to focus on elements that we wanted particularly to include and after forwarding this to Alan we added in his further suggestions and made adaptations to allow more time to stop at various points along the route.

The basic idea was to start the journey with the French view point of the campaign and pick up the story following Napoleon's first contact with the Prussians and follow up to Fleurus with the right column under Grouchy and with Ney's left column contacting the Dutch Belgians at Frasnes les Gosselies.

I had planned to look at Ney's HQ at Frasnes (Cabinet le Moulin), but after Alan did a bit of pre-recce it seems likely that the original building had been demolished, so we went instead to Ney's HQ on the eve of Waterloo instead.

So leaving Waterloo along the Brussels to Charleroi road we would look at Quatre Bras and Ligny, moving from the latter along the route taken by the Prussians to Wavre and from there to Waterloo via the Paris Wood. We changed this slightly due to time and went up to Wavre on the quicker route taken by Grouchy.

On our journey to Quatre Bras we passed the farm at Mont St Jean, a British field hospital during the battle, and located the spot where Gunner John Butterworth was found dead and bled out opposite, in his effort to find his way there after losing both arms below the elbow following a freak accident. I found a link to Captain Cavelie Mercer's account describing the event and it is attached below.

The farm of Mont St Jean
Captain Alexander Cavelie Mercer

Tom & Will on the spot where Mercer found the poor dead Gunner Butterworth. The Lion mound shows how far he managed to walk back from Wellington's line on his way to Mont St Jean Farm.
The death of Gunner John Butterworth as described by Captain Mercer

Moving down the Brussels road and across the main battlefield of Waterloo we passed the very famous La Caillou, Napoleon's HQ on the eve of Waterloo. It was then that Alan suggested the small detour to our plan to discover the little known and little visited Ferme du Chantelet that was Marshal Ney's accommodation and very close to the Emperor's billet.

The farm is in a beautiful condition and the little chapel attached to the walled enclosure is very evocative of Hougomont and by the looks of it dates back to the Spanish Netherlands period.

We then moved on and stopped briefly at the key town of Genappe that played host to all of the key commanders during the campaign and saw an interesting little rear guard action with Uxbridge and his cavalry covering the allied retreat to Waterloo on the 17th June 1815.

The road leading downhill from Mont St Jean, where Uxbridge launched his cavalry rear-guard

This coaching house was used by all the senior commanders of all the armies involved in the campaign as they passed through the town 
As well as the famous British rear guard action described in my previous post,

Genappe saw the comings and goings of all the principle armies involved in the campaign with, following their loss at Waterloo the full rout of the French forces followed up by the vengeful pursuing Prussians; with the bottleneck over the Dyle causing huge problems for the French in their attempt to escape. As you will see the Dyle is a formidable channel for an army to negotiate at the best of times. The Prussians managed to "bag" the Emperor's carriage here in the town during the retreat.

The house where General Duhesme died
In addition to the movements of the various armies, most of the senior commanders came to or stayed at the coaching house in the town and General Duhesme was brought to a house here after being mortally wounded leading the Guard in their desperate battle with the Prussians in Plancenoit, dying in the house near the inn on the 20th June 1815.

General Duhesme, mortally wounded leading the Young Guard in Plancenoit,
died on the 20th June in Genappe

The road leading down to the bridge over the River Dyle, down which the Lifeguards pursued the beaten French lancers
The bridge over the River Dyle in Genappe. The Dyle is quite a significant obstacle with a deep channel making it difficult to cross other than finding a suitable bridging/fording point.
This bridge was to prove quite a bottleneck as the opposing armies advanced and withdrew through the town


In my series of bicentennial posts I showed the pictures I took at Quatre Bras in 1976 so I was very keen to see how things had changed as well as looking at other key parts of the battlefield I missed back then.

Saxe Weimar briefs his commanders at the start of the fight to hold the crossroads at Quatre Bras

If you want to understand where the pictures were taken from, I have numbered the various points on the map below and will reference those numbers against the pictures. The exception is point 5 which is the Roman road and is off map. I have included a suplementary map to illustrate the road's relationship to the battlefield.

For a summary of the events of the battle, follow the link to my bi-centennial post.

If you want to see how the battlefield looked in 1976, follow the link to my previous post

Back in February 2013 I highlighted the threat to the farm at Quatre Bras and the need to rally support for its saving for future generations to see. 

Well it would seem that the building has been reprieved from the demolition ball and I believe their are plans to maintain the façade of the building.

Point 1. The still standing, just! Quatre Bras Farm seen from the Nivelle road, with the road to Brussels off to the left of picture
The one noticeable addition in recent years to the crossroads are the addition of monuments recording the valiant Dutch Belgian and British regiments who resisted the French attacks throughout the 16th June 1815 and were able to move over to the counter-attack towards the end.

Point 2. The new monument to the British regiments that served at Quatre Bras 

Point 2. The new monument to the Dutch Belgian regiments that saw service at Quatre Bras on the opposite side of the Nivelle road

The 6th Dutch Hussars, part of Van Merlen's brigade, wade into the 6th Chasseur a Cheval at Quatre Bras 16th June 1815

Point 2. The road to Nivelle
Point 2. Looking out through where the Bossu Wood would have been in 1815
Just as we were about to head off down the road to Frasnes, we were treated to a parade of re-enactors, holding up a lot of frustrated drivers. The colour of the pageantry just added to the significance of the ground we were touring

Once the parade had passed I was able to take a picture of the memorial to the Duke of Brunswick, seen below.

The Duke of Brunswick falls, mortally wounded, from his horse
Friedrich Wilhelm, Duke of Brunswick was mortally wounded when a musket ball passed through his left wrist and entered his abdomen. He was, at the moment of his wounding, attempting to steady the men of the Lieb Battalion, who, having been forced into square by the French dragoons under Count Valmy, had come under bombardment from nearby French artillery and were close to panic.

Fredrick Wilhelm, Duke of Brunswick aged 43 when he was killed at Quatre Bras
The Duke was seen to collapse to the ground on the right side of his horse, halfway between the Brunswick square and an enemy infantry column. The Duke was immediately carried to the rear of the buildings at Quatre Bras where he soon died and the command of the Brunswick corps passed to Colonel Elias Olfermann.

Point 3. Memorial to the Duke of Brunswick
The Brunswickers in action at Quatre Bras
Rather like the position at Mont St Jean, the Quatre Bras line was anchored to some extent by three walled farms that acted as forward bastions and resulted in much bloodshed as both sides fought to control them and the ground they covered. On the extreme allied right flank forward of the Bossu wood is the Pierrepont Farm, which today serves as a golf club house amid the last few remaining trees that formed the extensive Bossu Wood.

This part of the line was initially held by the Nassau Volunteer Jagers and the 8th Dutch Militia Battalion as the Prince of Orange tried to bluff Ney that his forces were stronger than seemed by spreading his few troops over a wide frontage.

Under heavy French cannon fire from II Corps Reserve artillery and with pressure forcing the Dutch Belgian centre back around Gemioncourt Farm in the centre, the 8th Dutch Militia was soon forced out of this area and by 3.00pm were back on the forward edge of Bossu Wood

Point 4. Grand Pierrepont Farm now a golf club house

The trees behind the club house are all that remain from the edge of Bossu Wood
As the fighting on the allied right flank moved into the wood, the Grand Pierrepont Farm was soon in the area of the rear French left flank.

Point 4. A rather ancient and battered cross outside Grand Pierrepont Farm
Travelling further on down the road towards Frasnes we eventually found the obvious track of the Roman road used by D'Erlon's corps to move towards Ligny later in the afternoon. That dead straight design was a bit of a give away.

The Roman road or also known as the Brunhild Way was the link road used by D'Erlon's corps on it's abortive march between Quatre Bras and Ligny.
This road was the scene of the complete break down in Napoleon's command and control system on the 16th June 1815, with D'Erlon's corps ending up acting out the old military maxim, "Order, Counter-order, Disorder." With his troops failing to bring their power to bear on either Quatre Bras or Ligny.

The Roman road heading in the direction of Wagnele and the Prussian right flank at Ligny
Roman road heading back towards the Brussels road
I tend to think of the Gemioncourt Farm as one of the key landmarks of Quatre Bras, alongside the crossroads themselves and the Bossu Wood. Any wargames table is instantly recognisable with those three elements.

Point 6. Gemioncourt Farm
The farm was barely contested in the early stages of the battle as the Dutch Belgians were forced to give ground grudgingly in the face of a very strong attack up the central road by General Foy's troops.

The farm was initially taken and held by the 4e Legere, with the 100e Ligne taking station behind it. For most of the afternoon it acted as a central forming up point for further French attacks against the crossroads.

It was finally retaken by allied troops late in the evening as the battle drew to a close and French troops under pressure all along their line were compelled to give ground, with the farm being vacated rather than forcing the allies to fight for it.

Gemioncourt Farm held by Lt Colonel Jan Westenberg and the 5th Dutch Militia

The plaque on the gate pays tribute to the French soldiers killed fighting in the battle 
The views of the fields from Gemioncourt really show the dips and folds in the ground that together with the accumulated gun smoke from multiple cannons and musketry enabled French cavalry in particular to advance on allied infantry hidden from view until it was too late.

Point 7. Shows the view out over the battlefield from the entrance to Gemioncourt Farm looking towards the Namur road
The next part of the battlefield that we looked at was the allied left flank anchored on the Nivelle road.

It was along this road that Picton's 5th Division took shelter before advancing into the fields ahead to deal with another infantry attack launched by Ney in the wake of his artillery barrage. The British infantry dealt with the French columns in the "same old way", incurring the wrath of Pire's lancers and forcing the hard pressed redcoats into square.

Point 8. Looking up the Nivelles road towards the crossroads in the position held by Picton's 5th British Division
Point 8. On the Nivelle road in the direction of the Prussians at Ligny
Point 8 view from the Nivelle road looking out towards the French lines with the Brunswick memorial left of picture on the Brussels road
Point 9. Looking directly ahead towards the French lines
Carrying on further down the Nivelle road in the direction of Marbais and Ligny we came to the extreme allied left flank held throughout most of the late afternoon by men of the 1/95th Rifles who at one stage occupied these mill buildings on the Gemioncourt stream that leads into the Materne lake.

Point 10. The water mill on the extreme left of the allied line held at one time by the 95th Rifles
Later in the afternoon the 95th were joined by the Brunswick 2nd Light battalion and with their skirmish screen forward drove the French skirmish screen in on their supports the 61e Ligne and fighting their way into Piraumont (Piermont) village and farm.

Point 11. Piermont Farm held by both sides during the battle and still bearing the marks showing the fighting that occurred here
Later Wellington was able to add further support to his left by sending in the Hanoverian troops of Kielmansegge's brigade, the Bremen, Luneburg and Grubenhagen light infantry battalions to secure the hamlet and farm and drive the French troops back to the tree line of the Bois de la Hutte beyond.

Tell tale marks on the wall
The farm buildings still bear testament to the bitter struggle that was fought amongst them over two hundred years ago.

More damage around the windows
Allied order of battle - Quatre Bras

French order of battle - Quatre Bras

Other sources used in this post:
Waterloo the hundred days - David Chandler
Waterloo, Battle of Three Armies - Lord Chalfont
Waterloo 1815 (1) Quatre Bras - John Franklin

Next up, we continue the journey along the Nivelle Road to Ligny