Battle of Ligny During the Napoleonic Wars

Battle of Ligny
Napoleon at Ligny. Public Domain

The Battle of Ligny was fought June 16, 1815, during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). Here's a summary of the event.

Battle of Ligney Background

Having crowned himself Emperor of the French in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte embarked on a decade of campaigning which saw him win victories at places such as Austerlitz, Wagram, and Borodino. Finally defeated and forced to abdicate in April 1814, he accepted exile on Elba under the terms of the Treaty of Fontainebleau.

In the wake of Napoleon's defeat, the European powers convened the Congress of Vienna to outline the postwar world. Unhappy in exile, Napoleon escaped and landed in France on March 1, 1815. Marching to Paris, he built an army as he traveled with soldiers flocking to his banner. Declared an outlaw by the Congress of Vienna, Napoleon worked to consolidate power as Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia formed the Seventh Coalition to prevent his return.

Armies & Commanders

Prussians

  • Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher
  • 84,000 men

French

  • Napoleon Bonaparte
  • 68,000 men

Napoleon's Plan

Assessing the strategic situation, Napoleon concluded that a swift victory was required before the Seventh Coalition could fully mobilize its forces against him. To achieve this, he sought to destroy the Duke of Wellington's coalition army south of Brussels before turning east to defeat Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher's approaching Prussian army.

Moving north, Napoleon divided his Armee du Nord (Army of the North) in three giving command of the left wing to Marshal Michel Ney, the right wing to Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy, while retaining personal command of a reserve force. Understanding that if Wellington and Blücher united they would have the power to crush him, he crossed the border at Charleroi on June 15 with the intention of defeating the two coalition armies in detail.

That same day, Wellington began directing his forces to move towards Quatre Bras while Blücher concentrated at Sombreffe.

Determining the Prussians to pose a more immediate threat, Napoleon directed Ney to seize Quatre Bras while he moved with the reserves to reinforce Grouchy. With both coalition armies defeated, the road to Brussels would be open. The next day, Ney spent the morning forming his men while Napoleon joined Grouchy at Fleurus. Making his headquarters at the windmill of Brye, Blücher deployed Lieutenant General Graf von Zieten's I Corps to defend a line running through the villages of Wagnelée, Saint-Amand, and Ligny. This formation was supported by Major General George Ludwig von Pirch's II Corps to the rear. Extending east from I Corps' left was Lieutenant General Johann von Thielemann's III Corps which covered Sombreffe and the army's line of retreat. As the French approached on the morning on June 16, Blücher directed II and III Corps to send troops to reinforce Zieten's lines.

Napoleon Attacks

To dislodge the Prussians, Napoleon intended to send forward General Dominique Vandamme's III Corps and General Étienne Gérard's IV Corps against the villages while Grouchy was to advance on Sombreffe.

Hearing artillery fire coming from Quatre Bras, Napoleon commenced his attack around 2:30 PM. Striking Saint-Amand-la-Haye, Vandamme's men carried the village in heavy fighting. Their hold proved brief as a determined counterattack by Major General Carl von Steinmetz reclaimed it for the Prussians. Fighting continued to swirl around Saint-Amand-Haye through the afternoon with Vandamme again taking possession. As the loss of the village threatened his right flank, Blücher directed part of II Corps to attempt to envelop Saint-Amand-le-Haye. Moving forward, Pirch's men were blocked by Vandamme in front of Wagnelée. Arriving from Brye, Blücher took personal control of the situation and directed a strong effort against Saint-Amand-le-Haye. Striking the battered French, this assault secured the village.

Fighting Rages

As fighting raged to the west, Gérard's men hit Ligny at 3:00 PM. Enduring heavy Prussian artillery fire, the French penetrated the town but were ultimately driven back. A subsequent assault culminated in bitter house-to-house fighting which resulted in the Prussians maintaining their hold on Ligny. Around 5:00 PM, Blücher directed Pirch to deploy the bulk of II Corps south of Brye. At the same time, a degree of confusion struck the French high command as Vandamme reported seeing a large enemy force approaching Fleurus. This actually was Marshal Comte d'Erlon's I Corps marching in from Quatre Bras as requested by Napoleon. Unaware of Napoleon's orders, Ney recalled d'Erlon before he reached Ligny and I Corps played no role in the fighting. The confusion caused by this created a break which allowed Blücher to order II Corps into action. Moving against the French left, Pirch's corps was stopped by Vandamme and General Guillaume Duhesme's Young Guard Division.

The Prussians Break

Around 7:00 PM, Blücher learned that Wellington was heavily engaged at Quatre Bras and would be unable to send aid. Left on this own, the Prussian commander sought to end the fighting with a strong attack against the French left. Assuming personal oversight, he reinforced Ligny before massing his reserves and launching an assault against Saint-Amand. Though some ground was gained, French counterattacks forced the Prussians to begin retreating. Reinforced by General Georges Mouton's VI Corps, Napoleon began assembling a massive strike against the enemy center.

Opening a bombardment with sixty guns, he ordered troops forward around 7:45 PM. Overwhelming the tired Prussians, the attack broke through Blücher's center. To halt the French, Blücher directed his cavalry forward. Leading a charge, he was incapacitated after having his horse shot. The Prussian cavalry was soon halted by their French counterparts.

Aftermath

Assuming command, Lieutenant-General August von Gneisenau, Blücher's chief of staff, ordered a retreat north to Tilly after the French broke through at Ligny around 8:30 PM. Conducting a controlled retreat, the Prussians were not pursued by the exhausted French. Their situation improved quickly as the newly-arrived IV Corps deployed as a strong rearguard at Wavre which allowed a rapidly-recovering Blücher to reassemble his army. In the fighting at the Battle of Ligny, the Prussians sustained around 16,000 casualties while French losses numbered around 11,500. Though a tactical victory for Napoleon, the battle failed to mortally wound Blücher's army or drive it to a location from which it could no longer support Wellington. Forced to fall back from Quatre Bras, Wellington assumed a defensive position where on June 18 he engaged Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. In heavy fighting, he won a decisive victory with the aid of the Blücher's Prussians which arrived in the afternoon.