The Battle of Wavre 18th – 19th June 1815
The Battle of Wavre is often discounted in accounts of the Waterloo Campaign, with much of the focus being on Grouchy’s failure to march to the sound of the guns. it was however a significant engagement in it’s own right and the Prussian defence enable the rest of the Prussian army to march to Wellington’s aid at Waterloo.
Few sources are to be found concerning Wavre in detail. The two main accounts are obviously Siborne and Houssaye while Chandler has written a noteworthy summary of the action illustrated with two fine maps. Various engravings also impart some idea of the battlefield to the historian, as does a visit to the Wavre area itself.
Marshal Blucher’s Prussian forces, badly mauled at Ligny on the 16th June, had pulled back during the 17th to Wavre, pursued by a French force under Marshal Grouchy which was detached from Napoleon’s main army. In the morning of the 18th June. Blucher marched three corps off to support Wellington at the Waterloo battlefield, leaving Thielemann’s III Corps as a rearguard. Grouchy’s Frenchmen started to arrive at Wavre towards three o’clock in the afternoon and the ensuing clash boiled up into the Battle of Wavre.
DISPOSITIONS FOR DEFENCE
Thielemann had three infantry and two cavalry brigades under his command, in addition to five batteries of artillery. It was not much, but well posted, such a force was likely to detain the French for a considerable length of time. The Prussian line of defence was formed upon the north bank of the River Dyle, swollen after the storms of the 17th June and now impassable except by several bridges. The Prussian left flank in the east, rested on the bridge at Basse-Wavre. This post was held by sharpshooters who made provisions for defence; in particular they destroyed the wooden bridge. A French passage of the river in this sector was now out of the question. The Prussian right wing was meanwhile situated at the village of Bierges. Advanced skirmishers occupied this post, together with the barricaded wooden bridge over the Dyle at this point and the mill, a veritable fort, which was on the other side of the waterway. In between these two wings was the town of Wavre, resting mainly on the north (Prussian) bank but with a suburb on the south side. There were two bridges here: the main one was of stone, termed the “Bridge of Christ” and barricaded. The other was slightly to the west and, according to Siborne, “left perfectly open”. Three battalions under Colonel Zepelin were stationed in this town and these prepared for the coming fight by knocking loopholes in the houses of the north bank adjoining the river. The rest of Thielemann’s force was stationed in the rear of this front line, as a reserve.
The Prussian commander”s own headquarters were to be found at the Château of La Bavette, two kilometres to the north of Wavre. Near here were positioned almost the whole of the Prussian cavalry force, under General von Hobe: Hussars, Uhlans, Dragoons and Landwehr (militia) horsemen. Attached to this force were two batteries of horse artillery: sixteen bronze guns mounted on mud-spattered carriages painted light blue. Further forward were the infantry brigades, each of which had two cavalry squadrons and an artillery battery attached to it. Behind Wavre and Basse-Wavre was Luck’s 11th Brigade consisting entirely of inexperienced landwehr troops from the province of Kurmarck. Directly behind Wavre Thielemann had stationed Kampfen’s 10th Brigade while, finally, StUlpnagel’s brigade the 12th was formed up in support of the advanced skirmishers in Bierges. Throughout the morning the rest of the Prussian army had rolled out of the area in long columns of march towards Waterloo. A fire had broken out in Wavre, this having considerably delayed the Prussians until it was extinguished by some pioneers and an infantry battalion of Pirch’s 11 Corps.
Thielemann’s fourth infantry brigade (Borcke’s) had become tangled up in the confusion of this march and had followed Blucher off to Waterloo, leaving behind solely a few skirmishers in Wavre and Basse-Wavre with two cavalry squadrons. Those Prussians left in the area were ready for action, however, and Siborne concluded by writing;
Thielemann’s position was certainly a very favourable one, and the occupation of it was arranged with great skill
PHASE 1: WAVRE
Towards three o’clock French skirmishers were observed on the heights opposite Wavre. Grouchy’s forces were arriving. Vandamme’s French III infantry corps rolled up in strength between three and four with green coated dragoons protecting its right flank at Basse-Wavre. Three batteries were drawn up just south of Wavre town and immediately opened fire. Cannonballs soared into the air before plunging into the streets of the town in the valley beneath. One such missile crashed through a window into the Church of st. John the Baptist embedding itself into a stone pillar inside and remaining there to this day. This fire was less of a bombardment than a show of strength in support of the first wave of French attackers. Vandamme was a hot headed and fiery general. Houssaye rightly commented that he launched his attack “without reconnoitring the position, or preparing for the action by his artillery” and without waiting for Grouchy to arrive in person. French skirmishers threaded their way down the slopes to the suburb on the south bank followed by a whole division commanded by Habert and formed up in heavy assault columns.
Wavre today has been modernized and expanded. The population of the town is currently 34,000. In 1815 it was only 4,000. The town also suffered in 1914 when the Germans are said to have destroyed much of it. However if one drives along the N43 today, up to the junction with the N4~ then a superb view of the slope down into Wavre can be found. It is a steep hill, the French poured down it and the Prussians quickly evacuated the suburb. The French followed them closely, storming up to the two bridges. Both appear to have been strongly barricaded, both to have had a crossfire poured on to them from Prussians hidden in loopholed houses on the north bank and both to have been impassable. The stone Bridge of Christ became clogged with bodies. It has been replaced since apart from the crucifix but the brick walled banks of the river remain. A metal plaque states simply that the bridge was the scene of a combat in 1815 between the French and Prussians. The French were under a terrible fire. Houssaye mentioned in his account Prussian cannon established at various altitudes up the steep streets leading down to the river. These poured a withering fire on to the attackers. The French divisional commander (Habert) and six hundred rank and file were put out of action in a few minutes. The survivors could not advance. The Prussian barrage hitting the slopes behind them meant that they could not or would not retreat. Grouchy who arrived at that moment, summed the situation up: “they were wedged into a kind of cul de sac”
PHASE 2: BIERGES AND WAVRE
There was only one thing to do: to send in reinforcements to crash through the barricades on the bridge and to batter through the Prussian fire into the heart of Wavre. More French units had now arrived on the battlefield. Exelmans’ dragoons were in front of Basse-Wavre, protecting that flank. The second French infantry corps of Grouchy’s command, Gerard’s was approaching fast. Another division from the Vandamme’s corps Lefol’s, went into Wavre. Skirmishers of the two armies extended along each bank of the Dyle, all along the battlefront from Bierges to Basse-Wavre. They sniped and reloaded, hid behind trees and hedges. Another French assault on the Bridge of Christ failed; a battalion was detached from Lefol’s to attempt to cross at Bierges. This attack similarly failed. It was five o’clock. Some time ago an order had arrived from Napoleon, directing Grouchy to “establish operational and liaison contact” with the main French force at Waterloo. Grouchv therefore sent orders to those of his formations still marching towards Wavre to head towards the bridge at Limal, upstream from Bierges. The securing of a crossing at Limal would result in the opening of a more direct route to Waterloo. Pajol’s and Vallin’s cavalry regiments, together with Teste’s infantry division headed for Limal. One division of Gerard’s corps, Hulot’s, had now arrived at Wavre. Hulot himself led a battalion of the 9th Light, Ney’s favourite regiment, to renew the assault on Bierges under supporting artillery fire. A visit to this area is worth while. The fields next to the Dyle are marshy and open: there is little cover from musketry. On the 18th June, 1815, with the recent storms, the deep, broad ditches running parallel to the River Oyle were filled with water, between four and six feet deep. French sharpshooters from the 9th regiment dashed across these fields under a hail of fire. The ditches were too broad to leap, so they plunged into them and were nearly drowned. Bullets, fired from behind trees on the northern river bank, whizzed around their heads as the discouraged Frenchmen fell back. Gerard, in a foul temper following recent disagreement with Grouchy, arrived with another battalion to storm forward. The assault was about to go in when Gerard was hit in the chest by a bullet and was carried to the rear. A memorial stone is nearby. Baltus, an artillery general, was next requested by Grouchy to lead the attack. He refused. Grouchy dismounted.
If a soldier can’t make his subordinates obey, he must know how to be killed!
The third French assault was hence led by the gallant French marshal in person and yet it failed just as gallantly as the other two. It was by now clear that no crossing could be forced at either Bierges or Wavre. Grouchy left Exelmans, Vandamme and Hulot in front of Basse-Wavre, Wavre and Bierges respectively to maintain frontal pressure and detain the Prussian forces in this area. He himself set off with the other two divisions of Gerard to Limal. During the Bierges fighting, Vandamme had continued to lead assault waves on to Wavre. Thirteen separate attacks were made before the conflict gradually flickered out towards eleven in the evening. The action is a superb example of “fighting in a built up area”, extremely costly in men and ammunition. One of Vandamme’s regiments, the 2nd Swiss, bore distinctive red coats and a tradition of courage. Before the campaign they had numbered seven hundred. After the repeated and bloody attacks on the Bridge of Christ they no longer, as a unit, existed. Enormous quantities of rounds were fired. During the American Civil War it was, on average, necessary to fire an enemy’s weight in bullets in order to kill him. 1815 muskets were much less accurate. The Church of St. John the Baptist still bears numerous bullet scars on its walls. The fortunes of war swung back and forth,rapidly, suddenly, chaotically. It is said that in five separate instances the Prussians managed to dislodge the French from the south bank suburb. More waves of French infantry, firing, cheering, frenzied, flooded back into the town. The Prussians gave way; the French were halted at the river; Vandamme sent in reinforcements.
Once the French managed to secure the stone Bridge of Christ. Then they stormed some houses on the north bank, breaking open the doors and capturing the lower storeys. The Prussians retreated to the upper floors and held out. The Prussians in Wavre had kept their reserves concealed and sheltered in streets running parallel to the Dyle and to the north of it. Now some of these rushed forward to repel the French who were pinned down by skirmisher fire. The Prussians in the upper storeys of the houses were relieved; the French hurled back across the bridge. Luck sent in a battalion of Kurmarck Landwehr to support the troops in Wavre and so four battalions were defying a French corps. There was bravery on both sides, though. The French 70th Line Regiment was formed mainly of conscripts who had already broken and fled at Ligny. Now they fell back again. Their commander, Colonel Maury, courageously seized the eagle.
What, you scoundrels? You disgraced me two days ago, and again today! Forward! Follow me!
The unit surged forward again, Maury was hit and fell, his regiment dissolved. The 22nd Line had to advance to retrieve the eagle. When night fell the Prussians still held Wavre and both its bridges, the smaller one being barricaded in the darkness in preparation for a renewal of the fight on the next day.
PHASE 3: LIMAL
French troops – Pajol’s and Vallin’s cavalry and Teste’s infantry division – arrived at Limal at around seven in the evening together with three artillery batteries. At Limal today can be found the modern bridge, replacing the wooden one existing in 1815. It is called the Bridge of the 13th Algerian Tirailleurs and a memorial plaque reads: To the glorious defenders of the Dyle, remembering the combats of the 14, 15 and 16 May 1940. The Dyle was a military barrier and defence line in 1940 as well as in 1815. While the French army defenders of 1940 fought bravely and stubbornly, however, the Prussian detachment here in 1815 hardly fought at all. The Prussian commander here was Lieutenant-Colonel Stengel; with his force of three battalions of the 19th regiment and three cavalry squadrons. No attempt had been made to either barricade or destroy the wooden bridge. Destroying bridges was not a strong point of the Prussian army. On the 15th June 1815 the French took the Charleroi bridge intact, despite the several hours’ warning the Prussians had had of the French invasion. One of the Wavre bridges had not been barricaded before the battle. In Paris after the campaign, Prussian engineers failed to blow up the Bridge of Jena – fortunately for the French who retained the symbol of their great victory over the Prussian’s of 1806 and more specifically for the British sentry who was on top of the bridge at the time.
There was another factor as well. Stengel’s detachment was not part of Thielemann’ force, but left behind as a rearguard by Ziethen’s I Corps which was by now at Waterloo. The Prussian army was divided very sharply into corps and each corps contained, roughly, units from the same province. Each corps had its own cavalry, infantry and artillery units: a miniature, independent army in itself. It is certainly possible to conclude therefore, that Stengel thought that his proper post was with Ziethen at Waterloo and not at Limal with another corps. This would explain his reluctance to hold on to the bridge and also his marching off to Waterloo later on in the battle. The French General Pajol, on the other hand, was an expert at capturing bridges by what Siborne terms “a brisk cavalry attack”. He had done so at Monterau in 1814, at Charleroi on 15th June 1815 and now he launched Vallin’s hussars chasseurs à cheval and dragoons at Limal bridge which was accessible to only four horses at a time. Stengel gave way. Pajol and Teste followed Vallin over on to the other side of the Dyle. The French at last had their bridgehead and~ compared with Wavre and Bierges at extremely little cost. The Prussian reaction to this crisis was typical of their method of fighting, as Weller writes:
“the Prussians appear to have perfected a system of not defending anything to the last extremity, of giving way before they were destroyed, so they could go on fighting from another position fairly close by”
Stengel had fallen back. Now Thielemann shifted the whole of the reserve line of his infantry stationed behind Wavre and Bierges, to the west. This freed Stulpnagel’s infantry and Hobe’s cavalry to rush south-west towards Limal to plug the hole in the Prussian defence line. Grouchy was meanwhile marching two divisions of Gerard’s corps, Pacheux and Vichery’s to the Limal bridgehead along the opposite bank of the Dyle. Grouchy arrived at the Limal bridgehead at dusk, towards nine o’clock, and before the Prussian reinforcements. He organized the dispositions of his forces with great skill. Despite the obscurity of the darkness, he hurried his troops up the heights by a “narrow, rugged road” The French line was perpendicular to the Dyle; light cavalry covered the left flank while the right consisted of infantry inside the houses of Limal. The crest of the plateau above the village now became a battleground. Stulpnagel had brought up six of his nine Prussian battalions to support Stengel. One was left in reserve together with an artillery battery and Hobe’s cavalry. The rest were launched at the French with Stengel and five cavalry squadrons in support to the west. The “mutual connection of the advancing troops was greatly impeded by the darkness of the night” wrote Siborne, but the existence of a French bridgehead on this side of the Dyle necessitated an attempt to recapture Limal. It went disastrously wrong. Two of Stulpnagel’s Prussian battalions were about to pass a hollow way when they received a devastating volley from the French on the other side. Their advance was checked. The other three battalions of the Prussian brigade inclined too far to the east and were pinned down by French skirmisher fire. Stengel in the west was checked by French cavalry and since these threatened his right flank, he fell back. Stulpnagel followed suit, leaving only a chain of advanced posts. Thus the Limal bridgehead was consolidated and a route was open. “But”, wrote Houssaye, “for a long time the Emperor’s cannon had ceased to be heard”. The Prussians settled down for the night in the woods of Rixensart; the French bivouacked in squares to the south. It was an uneasy night.
PHASE 4: 19TH JUNE
The Prussian dispositions in the early hours of the 19th June were as follows. The defenders of Basse-Wavre, Wavre and Bierges stayed at their posts and improved the barricades of the bridges.
Behind Wavre was part of Luck’s brigade, the rest was acting as a reserve for Kampfen’s brigade. This latter formation extended west from Bierges and linked up with Stulpnagel’s units in the Woods of Rixensart. Hobe’s cavalry was also in this area. Stengel at this moment was marching off to rejoin his parent corps at Waterloo. The result of Stengel’s action, of course, was that Thielemann was unnecessarily weakened. On the other hand, some unconfirmed news of victory at Waterloo had reached the Prussian commander, who therefore expected the French to retreat. To hasten them on their way, he renewed the fight at daybreak, around four o’clock, with a cavalry attack by Hobe’s horsemen. The French, however, displayed no intention of retreating (no word of the outcome of Waterloo had yet reached their ears). Indeed, the fierce artillery duel which developed resulted in five Prussian guns being lost.
Grouchy organized a general offensive on this (west) bank of the Dyle. Some of Exelmans’ dragoons had arrived in the bridgehead from Basse-Wavre and were now scouting in the west. Pajol’s cavalry meanwhile guarded the left flank of the French infantry. Three columns of attack were organized, each of which was accompanied by an artillery battery and a feverish swarm of skirmishers. The Pecheux and Vichery divisions of Gerard’s corps formed the westernmost two columns, Teste’s division, detached from Lobau at Waterloo the eastern one. Gerard’s third division, Hulot’s, had arrived in Limal from Bierges and was in reserve.
The French ploughed forward, a Prussian counter-attack was thrown back. Twenty-two French battalions grappled with ten Prussian. Six more French were in support. Stulpnagel gave way, the French seized part of Rixensart woods. The Prussians rallied. At eight o’clock Thielemann was positively informed of the Waterloo victory and that Prussian troops were on the way to cut off Grouchy’s line of retreat. Morale rose, Rixensart woods were retaken momentarily before the French flooded back in. Teste’s column meanwhile had opened an attack on Bierges village. One of Vandamme”s divisions, under Berthezene, seconded this attack from the other side of the Dyle. It was a fierce fight. Teste himself was wounded and one of his brigadiers, General Penne, had his head crushed by a Prussian shell before the village finally fell. Even then, determined opposition by skirmishers of the Prussian 31st Regiment prevented the French debouching from Bierges. The 31st wore Russian uniforms, having been formerly part of the Russo-German Legion. Siborne rightly emphasised the importance of Bierges: the linchpin of his Thielemann’s position he wrote:
“The French forces after the capture of the village had an easy and quick link between the south bank of the Dyle and the troops in the Limal bridgehead. Before Bierges was captured, Grouchy had had to use the bridge way to the south at Limal. With the loss of Bierges, too, the Prussians had lost an anchor point for their line. A defence was less easy in open fields where the French advantage in numbers could be put to good effect than in houses and barns. The fall of Bierges was therefore a turning point of the fighting on the 19th June. Thielemann soon after, towards one o’clock in the afternoon, ordered a general retreat so as to avoid a crushing defeat, losing five cannon and a number of wounded. Colonel Zepelin pulled out of Wavre and was hardly attacked by Vandamme’s corps in the process. Later in the day, Vandamme started to advance out of the abandoned Wavre. Some French battalions were halted by a rearguard action to the north of the town: lithe gallantry and steadiness displayed in this affair by the Kurmarck Landwehr acquired for the latter great and well merited renown”
A cavalry force now guarded the Prussian retreat. Thielemann pulled back in several columns to St. Achtenrode via Ottenburg. The French did “not pursue fiercely. Soon, indeed, a messenger would arrive stuttering out a half incoherent message of the disaster at Waterloo.
Grouchy commenced his retreat to France on the same day. Successfully eluding Prussian forces sent to intercept him, he safely led his troops back to Paris via Namur. At first glance, the Battle of Wavre was a French victory. Traditionally however, the victor is he who has possession of the battlefield after the fight. The Prussians, were the real victors and the battle won on the 18th June. By the time Grouchy had opened a route to Waterloo at Limal, he was hours too late to intervene in that battle.
Casualties were not excessively heavy. The Prussians suffered around 2,400 and the French 2,600. Wavre may lack strategical importance when compared with the Battle of Waterloo, but it is a magnificent example of Napoleonic battle tactics. In addition, as Siborne commented, it was “one of the brightest examples of the defence of a town and of the passage of a river, recorded in military history”. Nor should Pajol’s storming of the Limal bridge be omitted. That feat of arms perhaps ranks with the capture of Remagen bridge during the Second World War. In addition, enough relics, monuments and views will be found today at Wavre battlefield, to make a visit today worthwhile.
TOTAL THIELEMANN’S FORCE: 15,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry, 40 guns. (approx.)
TOTAL GROUCHY’S FORCE: 25,513 infantry, 5,617 cavalry, 2,635 artillerymen, 96 guns.