Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Portable Ligny - The Battle

A just observation of the battle narrative so far has been that it has been hard to follow the action, switching as it is from one sector to another, and I daresay the multiple angles from which the pictures were taken probably are not much help. I may go back an label some of the elements in some of the pictures as an aid to orientation. We left the action as depicted in the general view above of the battlefield, and the map below. Perhaps even then some explanation is indicated.

The Prussians are light blue. I Corps (Ziethen) are still defending from Wagnelee throughh to Ligny, the unlabelled small rectangles for the most part individual regiments. II Corps (Pirch: 5th-8th Brigades plus cavalry on the Sombreffe road) are moving up - not very rapidly - in support of I Corps. III Corps (Thielmann: 9th - 12th Brigades, plus Hobe's cavalry at Balatre) are counter-attacking east of Ligny.

The French are dark blue edged with red (a scheme I'll not use again; it looks horrible). Vandamme's III Corps (8th, 10th and 11th Divisions, with 7th attached from II Corps), having carried Saint Amand, are now attempting to storm the villages beyond: St Amand la Haye and Wagnelee. Alongside them to the right, the Young Guard is also gradually forcing back the Prussian line. Gerard's IV Corps (12th-14th Divisions) is attacking around Ligny. The 12th has become by now much depleted; General Gerard himself has been hit, but remains in command. Fourteenth Division was prevented from occupying part of Ligny from which they forced the defenders out, by the intervention of the Prussian 9th Brigade.  Coming up behind IV Corps is the Imperial Guard, horse and foot. A private battle has developed on the farthest eastern flank, between two French Cavalry Corps, and the Prussian 11th Brigade and Hobe's light horse. Count Lobau's VI Corps is approaching...

I thought henceforth that the thing might be more comprehensible if I divided the action into 4 battlefield sectors, and approached the narrative sector by sector. Narrating the action has shown me just how complicated the action was, something I didn't particularly notice at the time. As it was, the sectors had no distinct boundary lines, each impacting and being impacted upon by those adjacent.

Assault on Wagnelee and St Amand la Haye 

Probably the hardest fighting was taking place on the French left, where the attackers had a whole series of built-up areas to try and force. Saint Amand having fallen, the Divisions of Vandamme's Corps had to storm across the slight stream between that village and those of Saint Amand la Haye (henceforth I'll call it 'la Haye') and Wagnelee.

Fortunately there was enough in the way of clear fields on the far side of the stream from which attacks might be prepared. Time was getting short, too, as elements of Pirch's II Corps were looming nigh. Very briefly the landwehr garrison fell back from la Haye, but not before driving back the attackers themselves. For a brief moment, la Haye might have fallen into French hands, but they were unable at once to exploit. 

Soon the Landwehr regiment - 1st Westfalen - were back in residence, and in no mood to be evicted a second time. They received considerable assistance from the last remaining regiment of 3rd Brigade, which, with the support of the I Corps Artillery were keeping 8th Division occupied close by la Haye.  However, outnumbered as they were, they were soon driven all the way back to Brye.

The French following up rather isolated  the garrison of la Haye, which became even further marooned when 7th Division successfully stormed the eastern end of Wagnelee.  

Meanwhile, IV Corps, assisted by the Young Guard, were continuing their attacks between Ligny and Brye Woods, which feature tended to form a boundary between those operations and Vandamme's battle.

By now Pirch's II Corps was near enough to make a difference to that battle. Intercepting the French advance upon Brye, 6th Brigade forced 8th Division back alongside la Haye. Seventh Brigade was not far behindhand and was clearly preparing themselves for an assault upon the French-held sector of Wagnelee. Fifth Brigade had formed up west of Wagnelee as a flank guard against a possible envelopment there by French cavalry.

Suddenly Vandamme was faced with a considerable Prussian counter-offensive. Following up, 6th Brigade was starting to inflict losses upon 8th Division, and the garrison of la Haye threw back 10th Division across the river into Saint Amand. Far from isolating the defenders of la Haye, 7th Division now found itself isolated and under heavy attack from the 12th Prussian Infantry Regiment as well as 7th Brigade of II Corps. The defence didn't last long before the French were also flung back across the stream. The Prussians had retaken Wagnelee.

General Vandamme, fire-eater as he was, urged forward his 8th Division once more, and 6th Brigade suddenly found itself going backwards. Recovering from their repulse, 10th Division once more essayed the storm of la Haye.
Driving back 6th Brigade made room for 11th Division to join the 10th in its renewed assault upon la Haye. Nothing loth, 7th Division splashed back across the stream to attack Wagnelee.

The assaults were still going in, yet to yield positive results as night began to draw in...

Assault upon Ligny

All this while, complicated events were unfolding around Ligny. General Gerard's IV corps, especially 12th and 14th Divisions, had been depleted during their assaults upon Ligny, though the latter Division had momentarily driven 19th Infantry from the northern sector of the village. The sudden irruption of the Prussian 9th Brigade from III Corps onto the 14th's right wing prevented exploitation. 

The vacated sector quickly reoccupied, the pressure upon the town was eased by the complete and final repulse of 12th Division, and 9th Brigade's successfully driving 14th Division well away from Ligny itself. But such relief that brought didn't last long. Led by General Drouot himself, the Old Guard took up the assault upon the important village, whilst the remaining IV Corps Division enveloped the southern outskirts and, together with the Young Guard on their left, began engaging elements of the Prussian 2nd Brigade behind the place.

The situation was becoming rather awkward for the Prussian around Ligny, as, although there were supports in plenty - and Feldmarschall Prince Blucher himself was close by lending the light of his countenance to proceedings - the field was hereabout too congested for the easy disengaging of the embattled troops for their relief, and re-engaging with fresh reinforcements (I have an idea such was the case historically, as well).  

There was no denying, however, that for the moment, the III Corps counterattacks across the Ligny stream east of the village had gone a long way to compromise French chances of victory. Now reduced to a mere rump of its original strength, the depleted 14th Division could not last much longer (the 8 SPs with which it began was now reduced to 1SP).

On the other hand, matters were looking for the moment far more promising for the French west of Ligny, as their advances threatened a rupture in the Prussian line on both sides of the Brye woods.

But that threat was quickly closed down, at least temporarily, by the intervention of Pirch's II Corps, and the recapture of Wagnelee. But the Vandamme's Corps, with the aid of two Divisions of the Guard, still had the strength in hand to recover the initiative in this half of the field.

It was much the same in the other half. Although what was left of 14th Division finally broke up and fled the field, 19th Division of VI Corps and the Middle Guard infantry were by now ready to take up the quarrel.  

As night drew in, Napoleon's Armee du Nord was once again in the ascendancy and pressing for the breakthrough.

Clashes East of Ligny

For much of the action east of Ligny, between that village and bridge at Tongrinelle (see pic immediately above), the French seemed likely to reach the Ligny Stream opposed only by the Prussian 10th Brigade. For a good long while that Brigade, wholly unsupported, saw off the attacks by 7th Cavalry, but then had to endure further attacks from the Imperial Guard.
Ligny was about to fall, when  9th  and 12th Brigades, either side of the III Corps artillery, drew up along the river bank.  At once the artillery opened fire in support of 10th Brigade, isolated on the far side of the river (see pic below).  On the French side, 14th Division felt compelled to desist from exploiting its newly won victory at Ligny, and turn to face the menace to its flank.  Later historians were rather inclined to criticise the commander's caution on the grounds that seizing that part of the built-up area conquered would very likely have compromised the whole Prussian defence behind it.

Be that as it might have been, I Corps soon recovered the lost houses and enclosures, and the 14th were driven with loss well away from the village. Sustained with heavy loss for a considerable while, their retreat finally broke up into the rout of scattered fugitives. To balance this, the Prussian 10th Brigade were themselves forced back by the combined arms of horse and foot.

In the hope of at once crushing the 10th, the Guard heavies launched a charge - and were stopped cold.  Back they went, behind the Middle Guard, perhaps to await a more propitious moment. 

By mid- to late afternoon, a considerable battle was now raging between Ligny and Tongrinelle, 3 Division-sized Brigades on the Prussian side - though the 10th were badly depleted; and two infantry plus the Guard heavy horse on the French. But fortunes were to favour the French. 10th Brigade's eventual collapse was hardly compensated by the arrival of the 11th, driven back under intense French pressure all the way from Boignee to the line of Tongrinelle and the left flank of 12th Brigade. 

During its retreat, 11th Brigade had distanced itself from its pursuers, but they were only minutes behind. Soon 21st Division drew up alongside the Guard - though they, much to the chagrin of the whole Armee du Nord as well as the emperor himself - were driven back by 12th Brigade's vehement defence.

That setback was soon made good: the guardsmen's mettle was put once more to the test, and their counter-charge, along with the simultaneous push by the two VI Corps Divisions on either side, drove the whole Prussian III Corps infantry all the way back to the river's edge. So matters stood as the battle drew to a close.

The Fight for Balatre

The fight around Boignee and Balatre continued more or less as it began - a fair bit of swirling and milling about of the cavalry, followed eventually by the intervention of 21st Division of VI Corps. Held up more than once by traffic jams, the small 20th Division, together with the artillery, were still some distance off when finally the 21st clashed with Prussian infantry south of Tongrinelle.  

They were at once successful, driving the enemy in a running battle all the way to Tongrinelle and, on the Fleurus road, alongside 12th Brigade. At the end of the day, only remnants remained with the colours to sustain their end of the III Corps line.

Meanwhile, at Balatre itself, Hobe's light cavalry had finally been forced onto the Prussian side of the river, where, even in the fading light of the late afternoon, they set at defiance all attempts by the French cavalry to effect a crossing.

Decisive Victory!

So matters stood at the end of the day, with the French applying an unremitting pressure all along the line.  But obvious signs of Prussian exhaustion were setting in. No longer were French advances being overset by Prussian counter-attacks. Ligny fell to the Old Guard. The Young Guard, pushing up behind the village, would have obviated its recapture anyway, but the counter-action to achieve that was not forthcoming.   

I had begun monitoring the SP values some time before this, and it seemed for a while that the French were getting rather the better of the action. Events late in the action went towards the French advancing amid a battle of attrition. In that battle, the Prussians restored some parity, but the looked for result eventually arrived.

The Prussians losses finally reached their exhaustion point. Things weren't looking so very rosy for the French either, but they had still come capacity for offensive action. I called the battle at this point, although it could have gone on for a move or two longer. However it was a clear victory for the French, however hard and close fought.

The strength-point loss was about the same on both sides, about 55. This was well in excess of the Prussian exhaustion point of 48, and still a little short of the French 57. On the Prussian side, hardly anything was left of I Corps; and II Corps was barely scratched. III Corps has lost 10th Division outright, and the 11th was barely able to keep its place in the line; but 9th and 12th Divisions were still full of fight.

On the French side, IV corps bore the brunt: nothing remained of 12th, 14th Infantry and 7th Cavalry Divisions, though the remaining 13th was still going strong. The cavalry Corps of Pajol and Exelmans also had several knocks to show; Vandamme's III Corps also knew it had been in a fight.

So endeth the narrative. I mentioned earlier that one or two issues emerged in the course of this battle, which I hope to address in a day or two - tomorrow, perhaps, if my dental appointment doesn't raise any concerns... 


To be concluded.


  1. Most excellent, a good handling of a big battle. I have a couple of boardgames that cover the action and have found the Wagnelee and St. Amand part of the battlefield the most interesting and nuanced as far as play / outcomes go.

    To the East, I seldom get anything out of Pajol, who seems to be in a stalemate position, but it does seem an uphill task for poor old Prussian III Corps.

    1. Cheers, Norm -
      Probably among all the historical battles I have 'refought' on my table, this has been one of the most educational. On the whole, it seems my experience here has been similar to yours with your boardgames. I take some encouragement from that!

  2. So the Frenchies managed to a achieve a victory, albeit at some significant cost. That’s some consolation for the Prussians I dare say.
    In terms of Napoleonic gaming it’s safe to say I always support those who oppose the little corporal.
    Good luck at the Dentists Ion - I had a tooth extraction a few months ago. Ouch…

    1. Thanks for that, Geoff -
      Actually, I am hoping that the visit will be the same as last time: no new issues to deal with.

      I admit to being very much an admirer of Napoleon I, and, frankly, I believe the world is badly in need right now of someone with his capacity. With a couple of exceptions, the sort of leadership this world has on display is just woeful. Feldmarschall Blucher on the other hand, is not a character I much like at all. Can't deny his charismatic leadership though!

      In this refight, Napoleon didn't really have much of a role, not generally being the sort you want to insert into a desperate close action. In this action, the way I set up the armies was no help at all to the French - something that I shall be bringing up in the 'debrief'.

    2. At the moment I truly believe the vast, vast majority of world “leaders” are insufficiently capable to reach the dizzy heights of merely being woeful. Closer to home, in the UK, it does seem to be very much a case of “snouts” and “troughs”. 🐷

    3. I reckon! Our Jacinda has her good points, but, when all's said and done, she's still a neo-liberal wedded to the idiot 'let 'em eat horsesh*t' economics of Milton Friedman. I wouldn't vote National (Tory) to win a bet, and I doubt I'll be voting Labour (Tory Lite) either. I'm not Maori (not even a little bit) but I'd vote Maori Party if I thought they'd do any good. But they seem to be welded to identity politics - a luxury we can no longer afford.

  3. Similar to your comments Ion, it’s not a case of me voting for “who I want” here in the UK but rather not voting for those I don’t want. And, as it stands, I pretty much can’t see any party I’d be willing to positively vote for. Yet I wouldn’t want to not vote - I would exercise my democratic right to vote, I just can’t see any party worthy of my vote.
    Perhaps (I’m aged 64 now) it’s just because I’m a grumpy old man… 😎

    1. Geoff - I'm an even grumpier 71. Many years ago, I decided that a conscious abstention from voting IS a vote - a vote of no confidence. One year, two or three decades back, now, I was so grumpy that I scrawled across my ballot paper: 'I do my democratic duty and come here to vote, and THIS is what you offer me?!' Not clever, I grant, but for a change, I would like to vote FOR something or someone, and not AGAINST.

      I was willing to believe that our present government had some heart (not what you'd call noticeable in the major parties of the UK and the US), and even a brain cell or two, but they lack the drive to push through needed policy. Like the rest of the planet, they get tied up in identity politics, 'Wokeism' (Political correctness 2.0), and Orwellian 'newspeak'. Some of the issues therein matter no doubt a great deal to certain sections of society, but so do the things that matter to everyone else: health, shelter, nourishment, education, infrastructure, the means of acquiring the wherewithal to live ... survival.

      What worries me about the emphasis being placed upon wokism, is that these matters seem to be directed 'from above' - that is to say, it is the politicians and the Fat Cattists and the chattering classes who seem to be pushing that barrow. They have all the thumb marks, to my mind, of distracting from really important issues.