Memoirs of Napoleon— Volume 14

Author: Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne

Chapter VIII. 1815.

—[Like the preceding, this chapter first appeared in the 1836
edition, and is not from the pen of M. de Bourrienne.]—


The moment for striking a decisive blow had now come, and accordingly, early on the morning of the 15th, the whole of the French army was in motion. The 2d corps proceeded to Marchiennes to attack the Prussian outposts at Thuin and Lobes, in order to secure the communication across the Sambre between those places. The 3d corps, covered by General Pajol’s cavalry, advanced upon Charleroi, followed by the Imperial Guard and the 6th corps, with the necessary detachments of pontoniers. The remainder of the cavalry, under Grouchy, also advanced upon Charleroi, on the flanks of the 3d and 6th corps. The 4th corps was ordered to march upon the bridge of Chatelet.

On the approach of the French advanced guards an incessant skirmish was maintained during the whole morning with the Prussians, who, after losing many men, were compelled to yield to superior numbers. General Zieten, finding it impossible, from the extent of frontier he had to cover, to cheek the advance of the French, fell back towards Fleurus by the road to Charleroi, resolutely contesting the advance of the enemy wherever it was possible. In the repeated attacks sustained by him he suffered considerable loss. It was nearly mid-day before a passage through Charleroi was secured by the French army, and General Zieten continued his retreat upon Fleurus, where he took up his position for the night. Upon Zieten’s abandoning, in the course of his retreat, the chaussee which leads to Brussels through Quatre Bras, Marshal Ney, who had only just been put in command on the left of the French army, was ordered to advance by this road upon Gosselies, and found at Frasnes part of the Duke of Wellington’s army, composed of Nassau troops under the command of Prince Bernard of Saxe-Weimar, who, after some skirmishing, maintained his position. "Notwithstanding all the exertions of the French at a moment when time was of such importance, they had only been able to advance about fifteen English miles during the day, with nearly fifteen hours of daylight."

It was the intention of Napoleon during his operations on this day to effect a separation between the English and Prussian armies, in which he had nearly succeeded. Napoleon’s plan for this purpose, and the execution of it by his army, were alike admirable, but it is hardly probable that the Allied generals were taken by surprise, as it was the only likely course which Napoleon could have taken. His line of operation was on the direct road to Brussels, and there were no fortified works to impede his progress, while from the nature of the country his numerous and excellent cavalry could be employed with great effect.

In the French accounts Marshal Ney was much blamed for not occupying Quatre Bras with the whole of his force on the evening of the 16th. "Ney might probably have driven back the Nassau troops at Quatre Bras, and occupied that important position, but hearing a heavy cannonade on his right flank, where General Zieten had taken up his position, he thought it necessary to halt and detach a division in the direction of Fleurus. He was severely censured by Napoleon for not having literally followed his orders and pushed on to Quatre Bras." This accusation forms a curious contrast with that made against Grouchy, upon whom Napoleon threw the blame of the defeat at Waterloo, because he strictly fulfilled his orders, by pressing the Prussians at Wavre, unheeding the cannonade on his left, which might have led him to conjecture that the more important contest between the Emperor and Wellington was at that moment raging.

It was at six o’clock in the evening of the 16th that the Drake of Wellington received the first information of the advance of the French army; but it was not, however, until ten o’clock that positive news reached him that the French army had moved upon the line of the Sambre. This information induced him to push forward reinforcements on Quatre Bras, at which place he himself arrived at an early hour on the 16th, and immediately proceeded to Bry, to devise measures with Marshal Blucher in order to combine their efforts. From the movement of considerable masses of the French in front of the Prussians it was evident that their first grand attack would be directed against them. That this was Napoleon’s object on the 16th maybe seen by his orders to Ney and Grouchy to turn the right of the Prussians, and drive the British from their position at Quatre Bras, and then to march down the chaussee upon Bry in order effectually to separate the two armies. Ney was accordingly detached for this purpose with 43,000 men. In the event of the success of Marshal Ney he would have been enabled to detach a portion of his forces for the purpose of making a flank attack upon the Prussians in the rear of St. Amend, whilst Napoleon in person was directing his main efforts against that village the strongest in the Prussian position. Ney’s reserve was at Frasnes, disposable either for the purpose of supporting the attack on Quatre Bras or that at St. Amand; and in case of Ney’s complete success to turn the Prussian right flank by marching on Bry.


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Chicago: Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, "Chapter VIII. 1815.," Memoirs of Napoleon— Volume 14 in Memoirs of Napoleon—Volume 14 Original Sources, accessed November 29, 2022,

MLA: Fauvelet de Bourrienne, Louis Antoine. "Chapter VIII. 1815." Memoirs of Napoleon— Volume 14, in Memoirs of Napoleon—Volume 14, Original Sources. 29 Nov. 2022.

Harvard: Fauvelet de Bourrienne, LA, 'Chapter VIII. 1815.' in Memoirs of Napoleon— Volume 14. cited in , Memoirs of Napoleon—Volume 14. Original Sources, retrieved 29 November 2022, from