One day, two battles
On 16 June, French forces under Marshal Ney engaged with an Allied force at Quatre Bras. At first, the Allies were vastly outnumbered. The ferocity of the encounter is captured in a famous painting called The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras by Lady Elizabeth Butler which is now held in the National Gallery of Victoria.
If Ney had moved decisively against the Allies in the morning, he could have routed them. Instead, Wellington was given time to reinforce his troops and push back the French. Wellington’s army then turned north towards a site that Wellington had reconnoitred the year before as a possible battleground, namely a low ridge called Mont-Saint-Jean. This ridge was 15km south of Brussels and 1.6km south of the village of Waterloo.
On the same day, Napoleon defeated Blücher’s Prussians 12km to the south-east at Ligny. This should have ended in a rout of the Prussians but, instead, they were permitted an orderly withdrawal; a decision that would later prove decisive in Napoleon’s defeat.
“The decisive moment of the century”
Napoleon had expected Blücher to withdraw towards the east, away from Wellington. Instead, the Prussians marched north towards Wavre, parallel to Wellington, who later described this manoeuvre as “the decisive moment of the century”.
Napoleon had failed to drive the wedge he wanted between the Allied armies. The French were now hot
Wellington’s considerable task was to contain Napoleon until the Prussians could arrive on Napoleon’s right flank. Napoleon needed a decisive victory before Blücher’s arrival.
Napoleon always preferred firm ground upon which to manoeuvre his artillery, so he waited while the ground began to dry. He wanted Wellington to move troops to each flank so as to weaken the Allied centre. This would enable the French to concentrate their forces where the Allies would be most vulnerable. The French would be unstoppable.