Chapter 7


Napoleon’s selection of Marshal Emmanuel Grouchy to command the right wing of his army was one of his more controversial decisions. As a hereditary aristocrat, Grouchy was used to wielding authority and had proved himself an able general. However, he had only recently received his promotion to Marshal of France and had never before commanded a whole army of combined arms. After spurning Murat’s services, Napoleon could still have appointed more experienced men like Davout or Suchet and his choice of Grouchy was probably dictated by political rather than military considerations. It is also interesting to speculate how events would have turned out if the fiery, impatient Ney had been dispatched after the Prussians rather than the methodical Grouchy, still new to this command and unsure of himself. Overall, considering how important it was for Napoleon to prevail in this campaign, his selection of this commander was a curious decision.

Denied permission to mount a pursuit until midday on 17 June, Grouchy began at a disadvantage as French cavalry scouts had lost contact with the enemy, permitting them a considerable head start. The French were further misled by the number of scattered units and deserters fleeing from Ligny, and their efforts to determine where the main body was headed cost valuable time with Grouchy heading northeast initially. Progress was slow because of muddy and saturated roads but by nightfall, his main force was approaching Gembloux. Yet his scouts had overlooked the presence of a Prussian cavalry outpost at Mont St Gilbert due to the heavy rains and it was not until 10.00pm that night that he learned that the Prussian Army was at Wavre.

Grouchy changed his plans according to this new intelligence. He wrote to inform the Emperor that he guessed the Prussians would remain at Wavre to regroup and would probably march towards Brussels the following morning. He deemed it unlikely that they would conduct a forced march over difficult terrain to re-establish their link with the Anglo-Allied Army after suffering a major defeat (a view shared by Napoleon). Nonetheless, his army was tired after conducting a long and difficult march, many of them having also fought at Ligny. Therefore, Vandamme’s III Corps did not set out until 6.00am on 18 June with Gérard’s IV Corps following 2 hours later.

By around 11.25am, Grouchy was at the village of Walhain-St Paul, just north of Gembloux, in conference with his generals and famously eating strawberries as a late breakfast. This minor detail has often been used to imply that Grouchy was in no hurry and was not taking his duties seriously, which is perhaps unfair. During this conference, the sound of massed cannon fire was heard from the west and they correctly surmised that Napoleon was fighting a serious engagement.

The Battle of Wavre – afternoon.

Marshal Grouchy who faced considerable difficulties in pursuing the Prussians after the Battle of Ligny.

General Valazé also presented a local man he had been using as a guide to the Marshal who told Grouchy that the fight was at Mont St Jean. ‘We should march to the sound of the cannon,’ Gérard suggested, a view supported by Valazé. Annoyed at this blunt statement in front of junior officers on his staff, Grouchy disagreed and reminded them of the Emperor’s orders. He added that Napoleon would hardly have given him this command if he anticipated needing these troops and that the lateness of the day, along with the poor state of the roads, meant that they would be unlikely to reach the conflict in time to intervene.

General Baltus agreed with his chief but others argued that Mont St Jean was only 16 miles (25.5km) away and Valazé’s command included sappers who could make the route more practicable. Once more, Gérard gratingly insisted: ‘Monsieur le Maréchal, it is your duty to march to the sound of the cannon.’ Irritated by Gérard’s tone, which verged upon insubordination, Grouchy replied coldly: ‘My duty is to execute the orders of the Emperor, which direct me to follow the Prussians; to follow your advice would be an infringement of his instructions.’ He then gave orders to continue the march on Wavre.


Although Napoleon believed the Prussians to be a spent force after their defeat, the French failure to press their retreat allowed the Prussian Army to regain its cohesion. Blücher reformed his battered army on von Bülow’s IV Corps, which had arrived too late to take part in the fighting at Ligny and was relatively fresh.

He was determined to honour his promise to Wellington and bring at least two corps to his assistance. He ordered von Bülow, whose Corps lay around Dion le Mont 2 miles (3.2km) south-east of Wavre, to march at 4.00am. Bülow complied but had to march through the town itself, which was congested with troops from II Corps. A mill had also caught fire near the main bridge in the centre and this large conflagration delayed the march even further. Yet, once he had moved north of the town, IV Corps began to make steady progress. Bülow had around 9½miles (14km) to cover and eventually reached St Lambert at around 10.00am. He reached the Bois de Paris by 4.00pm and was poised to attack from there half an hour later but nearly turned around upon hearing heavy firing from Wavre’s direction.

The Prussians were aware that they were being pursued by a strong force and General Thielmann was ordered to defend Wavre and protect their rear for as long as possible with a force of 15,000 men. Prussian cavalry scouts believed Grouchy’s army was cavalry based and estimated their number at 20,000. In fact, Grouchy had 33,000 men (including 2 infantry corps) and possessed 96 guns in comparison to Thielmann’s 35 cannon. Thielmann established his headquarters in the Chateau of La Bawette and deployed his main force in and around Wavre. He placed the bulk of his reserves and cavalry, under Major General von Hobe, to the north of the town.

As Blücher began his march westward, confusion set in and the bulk of Thielmann’s 9th Brigade left with him, unaware that they were supposed to be part of the rearguard. In contrast, elements of Ziethen’s I Corps were left behind in the rush and the 19th infantry battalion along with three cavalry squadrons under von Stengel remained to guard the bridge at Limal village.

General Pirch’s II Corps set out at around midday with Ziethen’s I Corps following shortly thereafter. The march towards Mont St Jean proved very heavy going as their route lay over hills and through woods, which obstructed the passage of the artillery, particularly since much of the ground was still wet. Furthermore, the narrow roads were slow to travel over as the march of the preceding corps had churned their rutted and muddy surfaces even further. Yet Blücher’s indomitable spirit inspired the men who had been disheartened by their recent reverse, as one Landwehr officer recalled:

The firm bearing of the army owed not a little to the cheerful spirit and freshness of our seventy-four-year-old Field Marshal. He had had his bruised limbs bathed in brandy, and had helped himself to a large schnapps: and now, although riding must have been very painful, he rode alongside the troops, exchanging jokes and banter with many of them and his humour spread like wildfire down the columns.

Yet the Prussian command knew that their army was vulnerable on the march and feared it might be intercepted if the French pursuit bypassed Wavre. Their attempt to restore the link with the Anglo-Allied Army was therefore a brave but highly risky manoeuvre. Prince August of Thurn and Taxis (a Bavarian officer on the headquarters staff) wrote that their journey became harder as they approached their destination:

The terrain now began to get surprisingly difficult. There was a steep drop into the Lasne valley, and immediately after that, an equally steep rise on the other side. The path was very narrow and in a poor state. The defile delayed us for a very long time, and we had particular difficulty in bringing the artillery up the far height. A very small enemy detachment could have disputed its passage with us the whole day.

The encouragement Blücher gave to his troops raised morale, making the difficult march towards Wellington easier to endure.


Lieutenant General Count Dominique Vandamme had an extensive career and reputedly joined the Royal Army in 1788 only to desert shortly afterwards. After the Revolution, he enlisted in the infantry in 1791 and served in the West Indies. He raised his own company of chasseurs in 1792 and was promoted général de brigade by 1793. However, he was suspended for looting in 1795 and similar accusations dogged him throughout his career. Bluntly spoken and aggressive, he was renowned for his fighting ability but was notoriously insubordinate. Only Bonaparte’s intense personality cowed him and gained his respect. He once admitted: ‘So it is that I who fear neither God nor the Devil, tremble like a child when I approach him.’

Vandamme saw extensive campaigning in Germany, the Netherlands and Spain. He was one of the two divisional commanders who led the decisive attack at Austerlitz in 1805 and was wounded at Wagram 1809. He commanded II and later VIII Corps during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia but was dismissed for brigandage, which was quite a feat in an army that permitted its soldiers to live off the land and often condoned looting.

Several administrative appointments followed, such as the governorships of Boulogne and Lille but Vandamme was accused of embezzlement during his tenure in these offices. He served under Davout during the 1813 campaign and many officers said that only this severe disciplinarian was capable of controlling him, albeit with some difficulty. Captured at Kulm 1813, he was questioned by the Tsar himself who accused him of looting only to receive the taunt: ‘At least I have never been accused of killing my father.’

Released in 1814, he was exiled from France by the Bourbons and hastened to rejoin Napoleon in 1815. Had it not been for his unsavoury reputation, Vandamme would have been raised into the marshalate but the Emperor recognized his value as a fighting soldier nonetheless. He had little respect for Grouchy and the decision to place him under his command was unwise and caused problems. His value as a soldier needed to be weighed against his frequent insubordination and lack of self-control. Napoleon’s verdict was revealing: ‘If I had two Vandammes, I would have one shot. But I have only one and I keep him for myself because I need him and I am unable to replace him.’


Wavre was a sizeable town with a large suburb stretching out to its south over the River Dyle that ran through it. There were partially wooded heights to the north and south and there were two stone bridges over the Dyle in Wavre, the largest of which was the Bridge of Christ. The Prussians barricaded both spans but encountered difficulty in finding the means of doing so at first as most townsfolk had fled, locking their doors as they did so. Nevertheless, they manhandled three wagons and a dozen large barrels onto the bridge to block it and the houses on the north bank of the Dyle were loopholed and garrisoned with at least a thousand light infantry and sharpshooters. Thielmann had artillery batteries placed on the northern bank between houses or on the heights north of of the town, well positioned to enfilade the approaches of the two bridges.

French skirmishers arrived on heights south of Wavre at around 3.00pm that afternoon. Although his cavalry had only carried out a brief reconnaissance, General Vandamme chose to attack immediately with his III Corps, without waiting for orders or mounting a preliminary bombardment. Vandamme resented Grouchy’s recent promotion, having coveted a marshal’s baton for years, and believed the appointment should have been his. Aware that talented rivals like Gérard might outstrip him, he hoped to impress the Emperor with a display of bravery and initiative. Historian Hyde Kelly believed that he may also have been motivated by the desire to move swiftly before the Prussians could elude them.

A French staff officer observing enemy positions. (Messonier)

By 3.30pm, the attack was under way and Generalmajor von Borcke’s 9th Brigade was swiftly driven back through the southern half of the town. Vandamme attacked using General Habert’s entire 10th Division consisting of battalions of the 22nd, 34th, 70th and 88th Ligne. They attacked in column and, after their skirmishers had cleared most of the enemy infantry out of the houses to the south, pressed on rapidly towards the bridges. Two horse artillery batteries of 12-pound cannon were brought up and, although eventually their fire proved effective, they drew fire from the Prussian guns and provided little support during the first attack until they were firmly established.

While approaching the bridges, French infantry were subjected to cannon fire and a devastating hail of musketry fired from the houses or behind hedges on the northern bank. During the attempt to storm the Bridge of Christ, the Prussians were able to sweep the approaches with musketry and fire into their attackers’ flanks as they charged on to it. Lieutenant General Berthezène cursed Vandamme’s recklessness by attacking prematurely, writing contemptuously:

He simply ordered Habert’s division to enter it [the town] in column. In spite of the murderous fire of the enemy, this column reached the bridge but when Habert was wounded, it retired in disorder … This stupid attack cost us five or six hundred men … Besides, the occupation of Wavre could have no influence on the outcome of the campaign.

The River Dyle at a point to the northeast of Wavre. The river was wider and less constrained by modern efforts to contain it in 1815. It was also swollen by heavy rainfall when Grouchy’s troops attempted to cross it.

They had rushed headlong into a well-prepared defence and suffered accordingly. Colonel Fantin des Odoards recalled that the bridge was heavily barricaded and that returning fire against men ensconced within houses had little effect. The French regrouped and tried to rush the bridges several times. The 70th Ligne suffered horrendous losses and Colonel Maury (already embarrassed by his regiment’s poor performance at Ligny) rallied them when they withdrew, brandishing the regiment’s Eagle standard and shouting: ‘What, rabble, you dishonoured me the day before yesterday and you offend me again today! Forward! Follow me!’ The gallant Colonel reached the barricade on the bridge but was shot down as he did so. Odoard claimed that Prussian infantry were reaching over the barricade to grasp the treasured standard and would have taken it if he had not led another bayonet charge with the 22nd and recovered it.

Thielmann had placed his reserves so that buildings running parallel with the river protected them. Every time his defensive front line suffered losses, he drew upon these forces for reinforcements. Grouchy arrived after the first attacks had been repulsed and soon realized that, without massive artillery support, frontal assaults were unlikely to succeed. He later described the French position here as being: ‘engulfed in a kind of cul-de-sac,’ adding that: ‘They crowned all the heights behind Wavre and extended towards Limal. Numerous artillery pieces defended this strong position at the foot of which runs the Dyle. The nature of the country hardly allowed me precisely to estimate the enemy numbers …’ Grouchy issued orders for the infantry to break into the houses along their side of the Dyle and cut loopholes in their northern sides. Firing from the cover of the houses, they were to exchange fire with Prussian light infantry occupying the buildings on the opposite bank.

The French knew that there were small wooden bridges at Bas-Wavre to the north-east and the villages of Limelette, Limal and Bierges. Fords existed but the river had risen so high during the recent weather that they were unusable. Therefore, Lieutenant General Exelmans was dispatched with eight regiments of dragoons to Bas-Wavre. Major von Bornstedt had two companies of the 1st Kurmark Landwehr here but was unable to blow this bridge up before the dragoons arrived. His men severely damaged the structure with picks and axes but the French attacked before they could destroy it. Nonetheless, the French deemed it incapable of bearing the weight of artillery in its current state and only made one serious attempt to seize it with Exelmans subsequently deploying men along the riverbank to skirmish with the Landwehr across the Dyle.

Grouchy decided that his best option was to engage the Prussians in and around Wavre by holding the line of the Dyle. He would then move further upriver and try to force a crossing in sufficient numbers to outflank the town’s defences.


The village of Bierge lay further upriver where there was a small wooden bridge next to the mill of Bierge. The Prussians had placed a company of the 31st Infantry in the mill with the rest of their battalion along the riverbank and the surrounding area. This position was supported by further infantry along the riverbanks and artillery batteries to the south of the village. Lieutenant Baron Etienne Lefol’s Division attacked at this point but their first attempts to take the mill were driven off.

The Battle of Wavre – evening.

Gérard brought up more troops from IV Corps to support him but soon discovered why the position was so hard to approach. The meadows on the flood-plain were saturated after the rains and the river was swollen and had broken its banks in places. Staff officer Captain Thouvenin recalled that:

I was sent to reconnoitre the river above the mill occupied by the enemy … its width was about nine metres. Its parallel, low banks gave it the appearance of a miry canal. I pushed my horse in and I had water up to my waist. Captain Pellissier and his voltigeurs helped me to retrieve my horse.

It proved difficult to support the attack due to the flooded fields and ditches on either side of the bridge and when Hulot ordered men to throw themselves into the ditches and use them as cover if they could not leap them, they found they contained 4 or 5ft feet of water. As soldiers struggled through this marshy terrain, the Prussians unleashed a storm of musketry against them and Gérard, trying to organize the attack, was shot in the chest and carried from the field.

As Grouchy rode up to see how matters stood, he was astounded when General Baltus declined to mount another assault against the mill. Disgusted by this blunt refusal to obey orders, he dismounted and roared: ‘if a soldier can not make his subordinates obey him, he must know how to get himself killed!’. Drawing his sword, he led another bayonet charge against the mill under heavy fire, yet this attack eventually stalled and failed as before.

At around 5.00pm Grouchy received a dispatch written by Marshal Soult at Napoleon’s dictation. Sent at 1.00pm, it was a rambling and confusing message. Napoleon appeared to want Grouchy to both intercept Bülow’s Corps, which he now knew was approaching him, and simultaneously continue with his previous mission. Written in pencil, it was smudged and barely legible in places and its content was ambiguous at best. Only Soult’s postscript, reading: ‘the centre of the English army is at Mont St Jean, therefore manoeuvre to join our right flank’, was clear but failed to convey any sense of urgency.

Grouchy would later claim that he misread the line ‘la battaile est engage’ (‘battle is engaged’) as ‘la battaile est gagnée’ (‘the battle is gained’). Whether this was true or not, at 5.00pm Grouchy now had no chance of disengaging and reaching the field of Waterloo in time even if he had chosen to do so. He did not seem unduly alarmed by this message and probably thought that dealing with the matter in hand was his first priority. He may have been guilty of complacency or failing to read between the lines but, in fairness, he was in the middle of commanding a battle.

It was clear that crossing this well-defended bridge across waterlogged ground was going to be difficult if not impossible. Therefore, Grouchy marched most of IV Corps towards Limal, leaving some troops to maintain pressure in the area and occupy the Prussians. Houssaye speculates that, while Grouchy plainly intended to force the river at Limal and assail Wavre from that direction, he also meant to dispatch some of his force to assist the Emperor.


Born in Dresden (Saxony) in 1765, Thielmann (also spelt Thielemann) enlisted with the French after his country became part of their Empire. During Napoleon’s invasion of Russia 1812, he commanded the 1st Brigade of the 7th Cuirassiers Division (part of IV Cavalry Corps) in the Grande Armée. At the Battle of Borodino, he led a charge of mostly Saxon and Polish cavalry against the Raevsky Redoubt, winning some renown, though some said that Napoleon denied him his just deserts in favour of French soldiers who took part in this action.

He commanded the garrison at Torgau in 1813 but defected to the Allies on 12 May that year when the tide began to turn against France. Commanding a force largely composed of Cossacks, he attacked and defeated General Lefebvre-Desnouëttes at Altenburg on 28 September while attempting to sever French communications between Leipzig and Erfurt.

He joined the Prussian Army in early 1815 and commanded the Prussian III Corps, which fought at Ligny on 16 June. Stationed on Blücher’s left wing, Thielmann’s corps was heavily engaged, suffering serious losses, but was selected as the army’s rearguard nevertheless. His successful action at Wavre was a considerable achievement as he held off a force double the size of his own for 20 hours, enabling Blücher to march to Wellington’s aid. Although Grouchy was eventually victorious, III Corps remained intact and Thielmann only carried out a temporary strategic withdrawal, permitting the French only 30 minutes of glory before they retreated themselves.


Lieutenant General Count Claude Pajol was ordered to lead his command to the village of Limal and seize the bridge there if possible. He led the 4th and 5th cavalry and the 21st Infantry Battalion into attack almost as soon as he reached the area at around 7.00pm. Although a battalion of Prussian infantry was posted to defend the bridge, they were caught off guard when Pajol sent a cavalry charge straight over the span. Although the wooden bridge was only wide enough for four riders marching abreast to cross, General Vallin’s hussars rode right into the defenders and the speed and shock of their attack sent them reeling back into the village, where they attempted to regroup.

Although Stengel had occupied houses on the northern bank and laid down a heavy fire, Teste’s infantry swiftly followed up on the cavalry’s successful attack. They charged over and a fierce street fight ensued. After resisting for at least an hour, Stengel withdrew to heights north of Limal. Grouchy now had his breakthrough but as Houssaye commented: ‘The road to Mont Saint-Jean was open: but for a long time the cannon of the Emperor had been silent.’

Throughout the day, Thielmann feared that he would be overwhelmed or forced to retreat. Knowing that his task was vital to protect the whole army, he sent several dispatches to Blücher requesting reinforcements. By the time he received the first of these messages, the Field Marshal was poised to intervene on the field of Waterloo and remarked dismissively: ‘Not a horse’s tail shall he get.’ He knew that the outcome of the campaign depended on him reinforcing Wellington and he could not afford to support Thielmann, seeing the rearguard’s sole purpose as an action to buy him time. Gneisenau was starkly pragmatic, murmuring softly: ‘It doesn’t matter if he’s crushed as long as we gain the victory here.’

By 9.00pm, Grouchy had arrived at Limal and rapidly sent more men across the river. Fighting continued in Wavre until 11.00pm that night, although an artillery exchange designed to weaken the houses along the riverbanks, continued for some time afterward. The French had briefly seized the Bridge of Christ but were unable to force their way across and gain a foothold on the northern bank. During the artillery duel, a number of houses caught fire and many wounded perished inside them, being unable to escape the flames.

Marshal Blücher whose plan to re-establish the link with Wellington would only work if Thielmann managed to hold Grouchy’s forces at Wavre.

Thielmann hoped to contain the French bridgehead at Limal and Colonel von Stülpnagel was sent with most of the 12th Brigade and some of the reserves to try and restore the situation where: ‘I found Limal and the heights in front of it already occupied by the enemy and Stengel’s detachment retiring to these heights. The darkness prevented a judgement of the enemy’s strength. As Limal was an important position, I was of the firm belief that I should do everything to recapture it.’ Accordingly, he chose to attack under cover of darkness, hoping to surprise the French and drive them back across the river. He attacked with five battalions formed in two lines (two in front and three behind them). A large number of skirmishers preceded this attack and cavalry was placed at the rear to exploit any breakthrough.

However, the ground they fought over was uneven and seamed with ditches in many places. Second Lieutenant Mannkopff of the 31st Regiment later recalled that they soon encountered the enemy: ‘We advanced with our skirmishers out in front and a long and determined battle broke out with the enemy voltigeurs in the darkness and amid the man high corn that covered the fields.’ The two sides kept running into each other unexpectedly in the dark and close-range fire or brief and vicious bayonet fights ensued.

When the Prussians encountered a hollow lane, it was hotly contested by French skirmishers and proved such an obstacle that the second line of battalions was forced off course. Consequently, they were unable to support the first line and confusion set in. When the French sent cavalry forward, their attacks caused further disruption, and while Stengel’s cavalry charged on the Prussian right, the resulting clash was inconclusive. Realizing that the attack had hopelessly stalled, Stülpnagel called off the attempt against Limal and fell back.

The night attack had failed but the Prussians were determined to hang on to the territory they still held and the two forces bivouacked remarkably close to one another around Bierges and the Rixensart Forest. Lieutenant Wehmeyer of the 31st Infantry remembered that: ‘The outposts were standing so near to the enemy that every word could be heard. Many wounded men lay just in front of the line of outposts, or even among them, and their groaning could be heard all night. Enemy patrols clashed with us constantly.’

That night Grouchy heard an unconfirmed report that the Emperor was marching on Brussels, whereas Thielmann received rumours that the French had suffered a major defeat. In any case, both sides had no intention of withdrawing and meant to resume their offensives the next day.


During the night, Grouchy communicated with Vandamme in Wavre, asking him to recommence his attacks with III Corps on 19 June and occupy the Prussians there. This would prevent them making any manoeuvre against his right flank when he mounted a major attack that morning.

Although the report of Napoleon’s defeat was unconfirmed, it was enough to convince Thielmann to renew his assault on Limal on 19 June and he informed his troops, hoping the news would inspire them. This information also persuaded Stengel to march to rejoin I Corps but preparations for a counter-attack were put in motion. If this intelligence was correct, he believed that the enemy were about to withdraw and an attack would speed them on their way or even rout them. Viewing their lines through his spyglass, he believed that it was possible that the troops he could see might even be a rearguard and that they had already begun pulling out.

Accordingly, the Prussians commenced a heavy bombardment at 4.00am. This inflicted some damage and a roundshot actually cut down one of the sentries guarding Grouchy’s command tent. A cavalry attack was also sent forward, Colonel Marwitz leading the 8th Uhlans and two squadrons of the 6th Kurmark Landwehr Cavalry against French positions near Lamal, with the 5th and 7th Uhlans advancing on his left in support. However, the French had been preparing to attack themselves and their batteries immediately returned fire. A fearsome artillery exchange ensued and, having more guns, the French soon gained the upper hand, dismounting six Prussian cannon.

With its artillery outgunned, the Prussian cavalry was subjected to heavy cannon fire and rapidly withdrew. The Prussians now held a line stretching from Bierges to the woods of Rixensart with the village of Point du Jour in their centre. The French now began their offensive. Colonel Carl von Clausewitz (who later became famous as a military theorist) was the chief of staff for the Prussian III Corps. He observed: ‘At first light, the first cannon shots fell, fired from a range of just 500 paces. A determined battle developed, in which the French moved their four divisions methodically forward, covered by a strong line of skirmishers.’

Grouchy was attacking with infantry drawn mostly from IV Corps and advanced all along the Prussian line from Bierges to the woods. Mannkopff was now in command of a skirmish line on the edge of the Rixensart Forest; he sheltered under the cover of the trees and observed:

At daybreak the edge of the wood facing the enemy filled with our entire force of skirmishers, while the battalion columns formed up in support to our rear in the forest. We had hardly deployed in this fashion when some French voltigeurs, who had very skilfully crawled up to us unseen in the tall corn, opened a superior fire on us.

The Prussian skirmishers fell back as the French battalions came up and these soon entered the woods and began to exchange volleys with the Prussian infantry. Captain Charles François of the 30th Ligne was disconcerted by the kind of insults the enemy taunted them with during this firefight. ‘Come with us, brave Frenchmen! You no longer have an army. Napoleon is dead!’ they yelled.

Vandamme, perhaps smarting at the criticism he had received for his unauthorized and fruitless assault the previous day, renewed hostilities slowly and with little enthusiasm. Yet it made little difference as the French enjoyed a numerical advantage and IV Corp’s attack swiftly carried all before it. The enemy was forced out of the Rixensart Forest and General Teste’s attack succeeded in capturing Bierge. As the key to the Prussian line, the fall of Bierge left a yawning gap, meaning that Thielmann’s line of retreat was in danger of being cut off.

Accounts vary over when Thielmann received confirmation of Napoleon’s defeat. Some say that it arrived as early as 6.00am but he had certainly heard by 9.00am that morning. He now knew that Pirch was leading II Corps to reinforce him but also that they were some distance away. Consequently, he decided to pull back to a third position at around 10.00am: ‘I decided to quit Wavre and fall back on the road to Louvain. The Reserve Cavalry covered this manoeuvre and the corps fell back … towards St-Agatha-Rode, two hours from Wavre … Here, we took up positions on the left bank of the Dyle with our outposts in Ottenburg.’ St-Agatha-Rode lies about 5 miles (8km) north of Wavre and Thielmann added that, once they began to withdraw, they suffered few losses as the French failed to press their advantage. Moving slowly across the abandoned bridges into the north half of Wavre, Vandamme encountered little resistance. Marching beyond the town, he encountered two battalions of the 4th Kurmark Landwehr, supported by cavalry, who stood their ground to exchange fire with his infantry. The French began to bring up reinforcements to attack this small rearguard but halted their preparations when they received news of Napoleon’s defeat.


Grouchy finally received confirmation that Napoleon had suffered a terrible defeat at around 10.30am, just as he was about to exploit his victory at Wavre. The officer who brought the news was so exhausted that Grouchy thought him drunk or mad at first. Yet this intelligence was soon confirmed and he immediately called off the pursuit he had sent after Thielmann. His cavalry also brought news that the Prussian II Corps was approaching, which would outnumber his army once it combined with Thielmann’s III Corps. Accordingly, he ordered a general retreat and moved his army back over the Dyle.

Fighting was intense at Wavre with the Prussians recording 2,467 killed, wounded or missing. French figures are harder to ascertain but are estimated in the region of 2,500 casualties. Thielmann held out for a long time against odds of 2 : 1. He made excellent use of the defensive features available to him and his men had fought courageously, resisting a series of ferocious attacks. Thielmann achieved all of his strategic aims, preventing his opponent from intercepting the march of the main army, which was invaluable for the Allies as a complete victory at Waterloo would have been unlikely without Prussian intervention. Had Thielmann’s defence crumbled, it was probable that Blücher would have been compelled to turn and face the threat to his rear and been unable to help Wellington. In the event, Thielmann’s impressive rearguard action permitted him to strike a devastating blow against Napoleon’s army. Despite being forced into retreat, III Corps remained intact and inflicted a similar number of casualties on a superior force as it had suffered in return.

From the French point of view, Grouchy had won a hollow victory rendered strategically irrelevant by Napoleon’s defeat. It is interesting to speculate over what would have happened if he had acted differently. Historians have often raised this question and the unfortunate Marshal is regularly blamed for the ultimate French defeat in 1815.

Had Grouchy turned west from Gembloux that morning it is possible that he may have intercepted Bülow’s Corps on the march and prevented the Prussians from reaching their destination. Even so, he would have had to cover around 16 miles (25.5km) to Chapelle-St Lambert over difficult terrain. This could have been acheived if he had crossed the Dyle at Mousty or Ottignies before he reached Wavre. Yet the dispatches he had received up to this point did not appear to be urgent and by the time he had proceeded past these bridges, it was certainly too late for him to overtake Bülow. Furthermore, he was torn between the desire to carry out Napoleon’s original orders or, by seizing the initiative, risk provoking one of the Corsican’s infamous rages. Ney had already felt the Emperor’s wrath during the campaign to his cost and Grouchy had no wish to make the same mistake.

As to the message that Grouchy received as late as 5.00pm, Soult was certainly at fault for sending a poorly phrased and ambiguous dispatch, which was the last thing an officer busily engaged in commanding a battle wants to see. Grouchy later apologized to his generals and staff for not acting differently but perhaps he judged himself too harshly. The undiplomatic conduct of his generals at the famous Gembloux conference was unhelpful and it is not surprising that they drew an adverse reaction from a commander already under some strain. Vandamme’s performance at Wavre also added to Grouchy’s difficulties and did little to help him.

By the time Soult’s message reached him, Thielmann’s III Corps lay between Grouchy and the main body of the Prussians. By displaying more aggression, he may have pushed Thielmann aside and assailed the Prussian rear forcing their army to turn and deal with him. Yet, considering the strength of the Prussian position, this is unlikely and Napoleon himself deserves the lion’s share of the blame for issuing Grouchy with vague instructions and trying to recall him once it was too late. Grouchy had been handicapped from the start when Napoleon delayed permission for a pursuit and it was the Emperor who had miscalculated when assessing the Prussian intent and capability. Consequently, Napoleon’s bitter remarks about Grouchy contributing to his defeat as he languished in exile on St Helena seem grossly unfair.


Wavre rarely receives as much coverage as the other battles of the campaign and a visit there is often omitted from the itineraries of organized battlefield tours due to time constraints and the relatively small number of sites in its region compared to other 1815 battlefields. Notwithstanding this, the clash between Grouchy and Thielmann is an intriguing battle that is seldom written about and its outcome had a serious effect on events at Waterloo. Looking at the terrain in this area gives a good impression of the logistical difficulties that Grouchy and the Prussians faced in reaching their destinations and there are enough sites and monuments here to interest dedicated enthusiasts.


Marshal Grouchy reached the village of Walhain-St Paul at around 10.00pm on the night of 17 June and established his headquarters in the house of the local notary, Monsieur Hollert. This village is found by driving along the N4 that runs between Wavre and Gembloux. Take the first major turning north of Gembloux, which is clearly signposted towards the village.

In Walhain-St Paul, few houses date back to the battle but Hollert’s former residence is well worth visiting. As soon as Grouchy arrived he wrote to the Emperor, informing him of his progress: ‘This evening I will be massed at Wavre and thus find myself between Wellington, who I suppose is beating a retreat to run away from Your Majesty, and the Prussian army …’. Unfortunately for the French, his confidence was misplaced.

Evilard farm, as Hollert’s former residence is now known, is famous in France as the site of Grouchy’s notorious conference with his commanders. After Valazé brought his local guide to see Grouchy, Monsieur Hollert confirmed the information that a battle was likely to take place on the edge of the Forest of Soignes near Mont St Jean. This intelligence influenced many of Grouchy’s commanders and those who study the 1815 campaign often speculate over what would have happened had he followed their advice and marched in that direction.

The house itself lies on the edge of the village and was formerly known as Château-ferme Marette (Marette castle and farm). It is located towards the end of the Rue Sauvenière and is part of a large and imposing set of buildings. A tree-lined avenue leads up to Evilard farm and the complex possesses a large archway topped by a dovecote. Hollert’s former home lies on the right-hand side of this. Although part of the building was demolished some time ago, its appearance is similar to that it presented in 1815.

The chapel, stables and outhouses still exist and further buildings have been constructed to form a square around the courtyard. The garden where Grouchy’s famous strawberries were grown is still maintained and a plaque on the farm wall translates: ‘18 June 1815 Marshal Grouchy [was] stationed here while Waterloo was rising up in arms.’ The Commune of Walhain placed the plaque here and its wording leaves the reader in little doubt that its writer thought the Marshal would have been better employed elsewhere. Indeed, the choices he made here continue to arouse controversy among historians and enthusiasts.

Evilard farm is also notable as the place where General Gérard was brought for treatment after being severely wounded during the fighting at Bierges.


The town of Wavre has expanded greatly since 1815 and modern industry, housing and the motorway now obscure large parts of what was once a battlefield. Two world wars have also left their mark, as the Germans burnt much of Wavre in 1914 and heavy bombing took place throughout the whole region during 1940–45. Naturally, these factors have ensured that few relics of 1815 currently remain within the town.

Wavre lies south-east of Brussels and to the east of Waterloo. When travelling from the capital, use either the N4 or the motorway (E411/A4). Alternatively, if visitors wish to see the ground between Mont St Jean and Wavre traversed by the Prussians, proceeding along the narrow Chemin d’Ohain, you will eventually join the N271. Follow this towards Rixensart and you will eventually reach the motorway or proceed towards Wavre via the N238 or N239. This is a difficult and tortuous route and it is very easy to get lost. Nonetheless, it does give the visitor an impression of the difficulties experienced by the Prussians, when most roads were little more than unpaved tracks. The route is hilly in places with areas of forestry, numerous villages and narrow roads.

To get an impression of what Vandamme could see as he approached Wavre from the south, it is best to drive to the junction of the N4 and N43. From here, the slope leading down into Wavre from the heights is apparent, although the town’s appearance is considerably different today. By the time Vandamme reached this point (at around 3.00pm in the afternoon) several cavalry skirmishes had taken place in this area. It is preferable to drive into Wavre and park in its centre to reach the following locations on foot. The town is usually busy and high buildings mask even the tall spire of the Church of St John the Baptist, which is of some relevance to the battle.

Although the Dyle still flows along a similar route to that of 1815, it is much narrower than it was during the battle. Great efforts have also been made to contain the Dyle in cement channels and it was swollen after the June thunderstorms prior to Grouchy and Thielmann’s clash here. Therefore, its appearance contrasts with most eyewitness descriptions of the battle for most of its length within and in the immediate vicinity of Wavre. Although walking along its route is pleasant, Wavre has lost the majority of its old buildings following a succession of modern wars. Indeed, even on 18 June, at least thirty buildings were burnt to the ground near the Bridge of Christ with many more damaged or destroyed throughout the town.

Little exists to suggest that such intense fighting took place in the centre over the two stone bridges. Both spans have disappeared and the area where the larger Bridge of Christ once stood is now completely different, having been heavily built over, and the Dyle flows through a tunnel underneath. The crucifix that stood on the bridge has gone and the area is now a civilian precinct. Until recently, a plaque was placed on one of the buildings near the site where the bridge once was that read: ‘On 18 June 1815 this bridge was the focal point of a battle between the troops of Grouchy and Blücher’ – the valiant Thielmann fails to get a mention.

Indeed, most local people are entirely unaware of the battle that took place here during the Napoleonic Wars, although knowledge of local events during the world wars is far more widespread. Of the four battlefields for the 1815 campaign, Wavre is the only major clash that does not have a museum, battlefield centre or signposts directing visitors to related sites. With the bicentenary approaching, this situation may change in the near future.


This is by far the easiest location to find in Wavre. Building work on this church began during the fifteenth century but its vast spire was not completed until the 1600s, with a series of major structural additions taking place after that. The church is regularly closed to visitors, except for Sundays, and even then it is difficult to gain access unless one wishes to attend as part of the congregation. It is a large church and its walls display signs of musket-ball damage in places. Indeed, it is so large that attempting to get a side view photograph of the church is difficult due to the narrow roads on either side (even when photographers press right up against adjacent buildings).

There is a plaque outside the main door indicating bullet damage on the wall but it is well worth proceeding inside if it is possible to gain entry. Towards the top of one of the pillars, a cannon ball is set into the stonework. This penetrated the church during the battle but it is unclear whether it actually lodged here or was set into the stone afterwards. On the assumption that it has not been moved for display purposes, it was likely to have been fired by the French judging by the angle of entry.

A plaque is set around this projectile depicting a winged warrior (possibly an angel) striking down a naked man with the date 1815 emblazoned upon his shield. The Latin inscription translates as: ‘What force have you against this stone, violent cannon-ball? Certainly you will go no further! So passes the inconsiderate glory of the world.’ This dedication was placed here during the 1970s by one of the priests.


At least two large aid stations were established in Wavre to cater for the vast number of wounded. The first of these was placed within the former Hôtel de l’Escaille, which is now the Public d’Aide Sociale (Social Security Offices). This building’s address is 20 Rue de Bruxelles and it was here that the famed French Surgeon Major Seutin organized treatment for the wounded, assisted by medical officer Simonart and local Wavre surgeon Rayée.

The Church of St John the Baptist in central Wavre, an area that was bitterly fought over as the French tried to establish a bridgehead over the Dyle and take the town.

A small calibre roundshot penetrated the church and is now mounted at the top of one of its pillars within. A priest set the cannon ball into this plaque with an inscription commenting on the futility of war.

The other aid station used to be a Carmelite convent but now serves as Wavre’s town hall. It was badly bombed during the Second World War but benefited from an extensive restoration project. It dominates the Place de l’Hôtel being the largest building within the square.


A small bridge lay very close to Bierges Mill (Le Moulin de Bierges) and this area was the scene of heavy fighting on the first day of the battle as the French fought desperately to cross the Dyle. The mill lies just outside Wavre on the left of the road to Ottignies about 218yd (200m) from the flyover of the Brussels–Namur motorway. The nearby presence of the motorway obscures the turning and this location can be difficult to find.

The mill itself dates back to 1687. Today it is more of a farm than a mill, though its workings are still operable, and numerous modern buildings have been built on the site. It is open to the public during the day except on Thursdays and Sundays. As well as being a working farm, it offers a range of services including animal foodstuffs, homemade food, handicrafts, gardening equipment and provides a nature area for birdwatching. The owners are very amenable and visitors should have no problem taking photographs or inquiring about the history of site with the proprietors.

There is a memorial on the edge of the grounds dedicated to the memory of General Gérard, who was badly wounded nearby. Its dedication reads: ‘It was here that General Gérard, Hero of the Empire and Defender of our National Independence, was wounded on 18 June 1815’. It is a stone memorial with an inset portrait of Gérard and was established here in 1958. The mention of national independence refers to his participation in the Belgian Revolution (1830–2) when the Belgians fought against Dutch influence in their national affairs.

This monument is partially obscured by hedges and bushes and can be difficult to find. Proceeding from the modern bridge across the Dyle here, visitors should walk northwards along the riverbank and turn right onto the N168. Walking along the pavement about 164yd (150m) down here, it should become visible as you proceed along this road.


Although Wavre itself is easy to find, driving to the related villages and finding locations can be complicated. The fact that two major highways run through and around the city (the N4 and E411 motorway) potentially adds to visitors’ confusion. It is easy to become sidetracked onto these and the smaller roads concerned are often obscured due to their dominance of the area.

The village of Limal fell to the French at around 9.00pm on 18 June. Grouchy established his headquarters here late in the evening, though he may have actually spent the night under canvas. The Ferme de la Bourse stands about 1,202yd (1,100m) north-west of the village centre. Its large archway with the date 1702 set into the brickwork above identifies it clearly. This also has the unusual feature of a large pedestrian doorway directly to its right, although gates and door are currently missing. The farm itself comprises several buildings and outhouses set around a courtyard. Limal witnessed serious fighting and some walls and buildings showed bullet scars and contained at least two large roundshot that had almost penetrated them, revealing how strong and thick these walls are. Unfortunately, these relics of 1815 were removed or plastered over some years ago.

Looking around the villages of Limal and Bierges today, there are few buildings dating back to the time of the battle. However, it is worth exploring the nature of the surrounding countryside. It is easy to see that the heights beyond the villages would have permitted the Prussian artillery a good view of the Dyle, allowing them to interfere in French operations considerably until they brought up batteries to silence them. Furthermore, the land between the two villages is still uneven, largely uncultivated and seamed by agricultural features such as drainage ditches. This reveals how the Prussian night attack was doomed to failure, as troops marching over this ground in the dark would have encountered great difficulties.


About 1,531yd (1,400m) north-west of Wavre stands the Chateau of La Bawette along the N4 towards Brussels. Thielmann chose the building as his headquarters, using it at various stages during the battle. It saw some action during the latter stages as two cannon balls remain embedded in its walls where they struck in 1815.

The French captured the chateau on 19 June but only occupied it briefly as they were soon compelled to withdraw. It was here that Grouchy called his officers to him and announced the news that their Emperor had suffered a major defeat and was returning to France. He explained that they were compelled to withdraw as Prussian reinforcements were heading their way and expressed his deep regret that they had been unable to prevent this disaster for French arms.

Today La Bawette is part of Viscount le Hardy de Beaulieu’s estate and a golf course lies within its grounds. The house was badly damaged during the Second World War so its appearance is rather different to that of 1815 despite extensive restoration.


In a cemetery on the edge of Wavre is a monument dedicated to the three Debève brothers who fell during the battle. This lies along the road to Louvain. It is a tall stone monument in the form of a large, fluted pillar, surmounted by a veiled funeral urn with a wreath around the pillar about halfway down its length. The base of the monument is inscribed on all four sides in French detailing the heroic deeds of the three men. The main dedication reads as follows:

In memory of the brothers Ph. Debève, Cavalry Captain, Knight of the Legion of Honour and of Ferdinand of Spain, – J.-B. Debève, Cavalry Captain, Knight of the Legion of Honour, – B.-J Debève, Chasseur of the Imperial Guard, decorated with the Saint Helen military medal. May they rest in peace.

On the other three sides are lists of the battles that they fought at including: ‘Austerlitz, Iena [Jena], Pultusk, Eylau, Heilsberg, Friedland, Ratisbon, Essling, Wagram, Vittoria, Saragossa, Cadiz, Lutzen, Bautzen, Dresden, Montmirail, Waterloo’. It is an impressive tribute and it is sad to think that this military family lost three of its members in the service of France here.

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