The Brunswick Corps at Quatre Bras
by John Franklin
The officers and men of the Brunswick Corps under Duke Friedrich Wilhelm made an important contribution to the Waterloo campaign, and nowhere was this more evident than at Quatre Bras on the 16th June 1815. It was during this engagement that the Duke of Brunswick was mortally wounded, being the highest ranking Allied officer to fall on that day. It is curious therefore to note that the vast majority English language histories of the campaign have been scathing in their portrayal of the Brunswickers, casting them as unreliable and weak, which is completely false.
During the course of more than twenty years research into the events of June 1815, I have had the opportunity to visit almost all of the major museums and depositories in central Europe where material relating to the campaign can be accessed. It was during one such visit to the Niedersächsisches Staatsarchiv in Wolfenbüttel in 2004 that I came across a private collection of more than forty original letters and reports relating to the part played by the Brunswick troops during the campaign. This had been amassed in the 1930s and contained a wonderful array of information. I shared some of this material with my friend Mike Robinson, author of the book: The Battle of Quatre Bras. However, the majority of the items have never been published.
It is clear from reading the letters, which align remarkably well with the extant Order Books and Court Martial records for the corps that the troops functioned under the most extreme duress, especially following the loss of their beloved duke, and despite suffering from desertion (including that of Lieutenant-Colonel Friedrich von Specht who originally commanded the Line Infantry Brigade), they coped remarkably well. Contrary to the popular myth, they were actively involved in the fighting at Mont St. Jean, a fact borne out by the losses the Brunswick units sustained. Yet it was their role in holding the crossroads at Quatre Bras which perhaps best illustrates their contribution to the cause. I have selected a small number of letters and reports, all of which have been translated from German, and by using the words of the various officers and men, I hope to show the value of their sacrifice on the 16th June.
The most detailed account of the part played by the Brunswick troops at Quatre Bras and Waterloo was given in a lengthy report, dated 20th December 1827, written by Adjutant Heinrich Köhler of the General Staff. Köhler had served as an Ensign with the Leib Battalion during the campaign and witnessed the death of Duke Friedrich Wilhelm. An extract from his account of Quatre Bras is given here:
‘Towards 3 p.m. the Duke of Brunswick arrived with his corps and the 2nd Light Battalion under Major von Brandenstein was immediately detached in the direction of Piermont [Piraumont] to cover the left wing and to occupy the wood nearby. The enemy troops in the wood were expelled and the position taken. Meanwhile, the two companies of Grey Jägers of the Avantgarde were detached to the right to the Bois de Bossu as well as small detachments of cavalry, the latter were ordered to occupy a position close to the wood and to observe the movements of the enemy from that position. The Line Brigade and the Leib Battalion formed the second line behind the division under General Picton, on the left of Quatre Bras. However, the artillery and the 1st and 2nd Light Battalions had not arrived at this time.
The deployment of the English troops and the Brunswick Corps into the line took place under a most violent cannonade from the enemy, who as stated previously, were deployed on the left and right of Gémioncourt in order to advance upon Quatre Bras. This was the situation when a Hussar Regiment belonging to the Belgian cavalry arrived and made an immediately attack on the enemy, only to be beaten back and to flee in disorder. For this reason our infantry formed squares and the Brunswick Hussars, who had themselves only just arrived, moved to engage the enemy cavalry, which remained firm with the French infantry without attacking. Now the English division commanded by Count von Alten arrived in the field and formed on the right flank of General Picton’s Division.
Immediately thereafter, the Duke of Wellington personally ordered the Duke of Brunswick to advance without delay with four battalions and two companies from his corps on the road to Charleroi. The Leib Battalion, along with the 1st Light Battalion and the two Light Companies of the Avantgarde advanced on the road and took a position between Schafferie [La Bergerie] and the stream; a skirmish line was extended to the front and right in order to make contact with the Allied troops in the Bois de Bossu; the Brunswick Hussars and the Uhlans formed in rear of these troops. The 2nd and 3rd Line Battalions were positioned in, and close to, Quatre Bras, as a reserve and to cover the possible withdrawal of the troops in the front line.
The enemy now deployed an artillery battery close to Gémioncourt and unleashed a relentless barrage against the Brunswick column. The losses sustained by the Brunswick battalions, who maintained their positions for a considerable time, in the face of this terrible onslaught were appalling. This continued until they received the support of two English batteries, which opened fire on the enemy and silenced their fire. It was now that Maréchal Ney, from his advanced position, ordered Prince Jérôme Bonaparte to move with his division against the Bois de Bossu; the enemy occupied Pierrepont and immediately advanced along the edge of the wood. The Duke of Brunswick ordered the Hussar Regiment, which was hindered by the terrain and the close proximity of the wood, to retire onto the other side of the road towards Quatre Bras, and collected the Uhlans and attacked the enemy. However, the attack failed completely due to the strength and composure of the enemy infantry, and the Uhlans were themselves compelled to retreat toward Quatre Bras.’
Another young officer serving with the Leib Battalion at Quatre Bras was Friedrich Cappel. He also wrote a lengthy account of the part played by the Brunswick troops during the battle of Waterloo in his journal, together with an extensive resume of his military career. With regards to Quatre Bras, he noted:
‘On the 14th June the battalion celebrated the Lord’s supper, at which the priest, by the name of Westphal, spoke in a manner which touched every man who was present; for many men this proved to be their last celebration of the Lord’s supper, for we soon heard the fire of the French cannon from the field of Ligny. During the night of Thursday to Friday, the 16th June, I was woken by the alarm and supposing that our commander-in-chief, Lord Wellington, had instigated another exercise, I immediately prepared myself, although I made the mistake of wearing boots that were too tight. Upon my arrival at the assembly point I found our Duke, Friedrich Wilhelm, lying on the ground studying a large map.
Everything was being prepared so as to move without delay, and the Scottish bagpipes could be heard in the distance, which signalled that the whole of the army was being put in motion. An ample supply of ship’s biscuit was distributed to the men and we set off in a south-westerly direction. After an intensive march which lasted for several hours we stopped for a short rest by the side of the road; it was here that we received the order: ‘Stop, and load your weapons!’ The enemy stood in front of us! Duke Friedrich Wilhelm, who had ridden ahead, returned to our ranks and while smoking a short pipe, said: ‘Children, let us charge the weapons quickly!’ The first thing we saw as we came into the field of action was a regiment of Belgian Dragoons in the greatest disorder, who were retiring very hastily before the French! Now we knew that the war had begun, and advancing with the greatest courage we exchanged blows with the enemy. We had to withdraw on a number of occasions and many men were slain at my side, but with the onset of night the game ended. That night there were only 223 men left out of the 600 men from our battalion who had entered the fray; many men were missing, although some returned later.
During the night we remained on the battlefield in close proximity to the enemy, amidst the heaps of Highland Scots who had been killed and who were strewn over the fields around us; I took a knapsack from one of the dead and used it as a pillow, as well as a good blanket to protect me against the cold night air. However, I could not sleep because I was disturbed by the cries for help from the dying and the wounded men who surrounded us on all sides, and the frequent exchanges between the advanced outposts.
The death of our beloved Duke was only confirmed the following day, although he had fallen close to our battalion (he had lost his horse before this and I had almost been ridden over by the horse he had received as a substitute). I had seen him on several occasions during the action, as he waited on our left flank with the Hussars. But we were no longer to witness his encouraging presence! The impression this loss had on our Brunswick legions was not as it was subsequently described. Each of us, be he an officer or a simple soldier, had enough to concern himself with, and we were unable to dwell upon this tragic event for any length of time, only the memory of our beloved Duke, Friedrich Wilhelm.’
The role of the Brunswick infantry has been subject to considerable authorship in the past, but little in the English language has been given over to the part played by the Brunswick artillery in the campaign. One of the most fascinating letters among the collection is that written on the 20th June 1815 by Chief Gunner August Hellemann of the Brunswick Foot Artillery, in which he described the campaign to his parents and sisters in Braunschweig. With regards to Quatre Bras, he commented:
‘It was the 16th June at 8 o’clock in the morning when we set out. Our good landlady did not want us to leave, but part we must, and we continued our unhappy march. The route took us through Bruxelles on the road to Lille, and the people accompanied us for a time and offered us their best wishes. We had marched for some hours when we heard the thunder of the cannon in the distance. A terrible fear seized us all. At about half past three we met the wounded and the baggage in full retreat, and we were shocked to hear that the Brunswick Hussars had been engaged since 10 o’clock in the morning, as well as the Leib Battalion (formerly Pröstler’s). The two Light Battalions and the three Line Battalions had also been under fire and had repulsed the enemy several times. Unfortunately, I formed the rearguard with Lt. Bredenschey. A powder wagon broke down and we had to stay with it until it was repaired. We arrived at half past five to face the enemy. Both our batteries and two English batteries were positioned on a height, from where the enemy was within our range at all points. On the way our father, the Duke, was being carried past us in a woollen blanket, and we heard that he had been shot through the left hand into the abdomen, and that the wound was fatal. Upon our arrival the cannon fire became more intense, and it lasted until 10 o’clock at night, when the slaughter came to an end. On this day Major von Cramm was killed – likewise Major von Strombeck, whom I helped to bury the following morning. Major von Rauschenplatt lost an arm, etc. This was the first day, but nothing compared with those which followed.’
Another officer serving with the Brunswick artillery was Surgeon Wilhelm Schütte. He was with the Horse Artillery, and his role meant that he had to treat both the horses and the men. His original hand-written letters to his parents in Wolfenbüttel form part of the collection, and that written on the 2nd July 1815, was published. It provides an insight into the difficulties the Brunswickers faced:
‘Soon we arrived at Quatre Bras where we were deployed in a position on a small height. The cannonade was tremendous, and it made me feel that the heavens were falling down. However, shortly thereafter I was laughing at myself, because I kept turning my head with every shell, which you can recognise by the whistling noise as they pass your ears. I remained behind the batteries until the major told me to install my workbench in one of the houses nearby, where he would bring the wounded. It was there I met Vorlop, Krüger, Schmidt and Meineken. They were already in the midst of their work, as they had arrived at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. It was a scene of butchery, and afterwards you looked like a torturer.
In the evening I joined the battery which was extended to the left along the road to Maubeuge [sic]. On my way I saw our soldiers lying dead in their blood, then a horse, then an arm or a leg or a head, etc. When suddenly a silly thing happened to me: I rode peacefully along the path and a shell landed just beside me in some bushes, which caused branches and pieces of wood and dirt to come crashing around my ears. My horse became mad and I had to chase it as it jumped over fences, trenches, corpses, dead horses and everything that was in the way, until I reached the battery once again, who were resting in a field mourning the dead – although there were but a few from the artillery – and the loss of 7 to 12 horses.
The thunder of the cannon lasted until sunset, which produced a grand spectacle that evening, and the night was spent in the field. The battle recommenced with the light of day and lasted until noon, although nothing of importance occurred. At this time my servant rejoined me. He had been left with the baggage, and he arrived with a horse that had fallen prey to him. I was very happy to see him again. We retired at 10 o’clock for about 6 hours. The weather was awful in the afternoon and it rained throughout the night. I forgot to tell you the most important thing: it was at 4 o’clock in the afternoon of the 16th when our Duke was killed by a ball which passed through his hand and his body. He was said to have been very angry, and was one of the foremost in the battle.’
The collection also contains seven wonderful letters written by Sergeant Wilhelm Langenstrassen to his brother in Neundorf. Langenstrassen was a veteran of the war against France and served with the 4th Company of the Brunswick Hussars. His understanding of events was therefore different from a number of the other letters written by younger men, and his belief in the Almighty and hatred of the French equally striking. He provides a compelling account of the fighting at Quatre Bras and Waterloo, a brief extract of which is given here:
‘At two o’clock we arrived at the battlefield, hardly knowing how we had managed to do so. We were the only cavalry present on our side, and therefore, were ordered to cover two batteries, the worst possible task I can think of, because you stand with your sword in your hand without being able to defend yourself against the missiles and shells, let along parry them. The Duke smoked happily on his pipe and rode up and down in front of our corps. Suddenly, a shot took the leg off our Major and he slipped off his horse, although still alive. As our surgeons were not with us he died from loss of blood. Shortly thereafter, Pavel was shot off his horse, but was killed instantly. Lt. Rudolphi was severely wounded while Lt. Clauditz, at my side, was slightly wounded. We continued to maintain our position on that day, although charged by some French Cuirassiers, but they did not dare venture from close to the large coppice. The Duke, who attacked them on their left flank with our Uhlans was shot and thrown from his horse, mortally wounded. He died a few hours later. Meanwhile, on our left the Prussian cannon became very lively until the end of the day. It was a bad night. The heavy losses, the long corn and nothing to eat meant that the men and horses suffered.’
Of all the items I discovered within the collection, the most revealing are from the diary of Carl Lindwurm. This young officer served as an Ensign with the 4th Company of the 2nd Line Battalion. The battalion played an active part at Quatre Bras, and the details contained within the letter to his parents and sister in Braunschweig on the 23rd June 1815 provide an idea of the contribution:
‘After a march of almost twenty-five miles in the hot June sun, we arrived at 3 o’clock at the battlefield of Quatre Bras. We had hardly deployed when a French cavalry regiment advanced towards us. We quickly formed square, and when we had finished the cavalry turned away without launching an attack. After some time our 2nd Line Battalion was deployed to defend the village of Quatre Bras, a small place where two highroads cross. The French shot at us with canister, which caused an unpleasant whistling in the air, but only a small number of men were casualties. Towards 5 o’clock a French column advanced so as to capture the village, by which they would have gained the victory. Quatre Bras was defended by a courageous regiment of Highlanders and by our two battalions of Brunswickers. Our artillery had not as yet arrived, although it was expected. When it eventually arrived it was ordered into position by our brave Olfermann, and greeted the assaulting French column with canister, and they retreated. Unfortunately, our beloved Duke was killed by a musket ball during the French attack. As the French retreated, our battalion was ordered to pursue them. With joyful enthusiasm and wild shouts of hurrah we pursued them for 15 minutes, when the enemy Cuirassiers brought help to the fugitive infantry. Our Major, von Strombeck, quickly ordered us to halt and to form square on platoon 6. The very well disciplined battalion moved quickly and repulsed the attack by the Cuirassiers, and we shot plenty of their horses. Colonel Olfermann, this most courageous and fearless man, who commanded our corps after the Duke’s death, was in our square and called repeatedly: ‘Well done, men, bravo 2nd Line Battalion!’ The losses of our battalion were great since the enemy infantry, which we had pursued, being aided by the cavalry, turned around and shot into our packed ranks at very short distance. Each ball was a hit so that we lost a lot of men in a short time. At Olfermann’s instigation, his Adjutant, Captain Bause, called an English cavalry battalion for assistance. The French retreated and so did we. It was 8 o’clock in the evening. We retired to a corner of the battlefield and lay down. The knapsack of a brave soldier named Stelter served both he and I as a pillow. I slept peacefully until the next morning.’
The official reports are also held by the archive in Wolfenbüttel. Among these is the report dated the night of the 16th to 17th June 1815, written by Colonel Johann Elias Olfermann, upon whom the command of the Brunswick Corps devolved following the death of Duke Friedrich Wilhelm. The report, and the return of the killed and wounded which was enclosed, gave the authorities in Braunschweig some idea of the role the troops had played at Quatre Bras:
‘After we had received orders to march on the 15th at 11 o’clock in the evening, we set out on the 16th for Quatre Bras, which was located some 10 to 11 hours from the billets in which the corps had been placed. One of the bloodiest battles took place there, and tragically our beloved Duke, after having taken part with his usual courage and bravery, and playing a significant role in all of the orders, was struck by a ball which penetrated one hand, his body and liver. This took place in the afternoon towards 6 o’clock as he personally led two battalions against strong enemy columns which threatened our entire right wing, but which were momentarily halted, although the immense supremacy of the enemy nevertheless forced them to retreat to the second line. The only words the Duke uttered to Major von Wachholtz before his death were: ‘Ah, my dear Wachholtz, where is Olfermann?’ Captain Bause looked for me at once, but as the Duke died almost immediately any last wishes he may have had were unfulfilled.
Apart from this irreplaceable loss, we also regret that amongst those officers killed were Majors von Strombeck and Cramm. Major von Raunschenplatt is also severely wounded. The three of them were either killed or wounded by my side, and as the exact number of killed, wounded and missing in the corps cannot currently be ascertained, as the on-going operations of the army do not permit such a task, I will have to inform the ministers of the council as soon as this information is at my disposal. The most significant loss was suffered by a part of our corps that was on the right wing of the army, which was inflicted by a violent cannonade that lasted for 3 hours, to which we could not reply as we had no artillery, as that attached to the corps had not arrived at that time, due to the distance it had to travel from the cantonments; the cavalry suffered especially at this time, likewise the infantry battalions which were stationed there, as the cannon assailed them cold-bloodedly with canister, although from time to time they were able to reform amidst the terrible canister and shell fire.
The Duke was present throughout this violent cannonade and he inspired the soldiers by his presence with courage and calmness. The 2nd Line Battalion, the 2nd Light Battalion and the Leib Battalion have distinguished themselves. The first by the calmness it showed when forming square to repel repeated charges from enemy Cuirassiers, and by so doing prevent the enemy from advancing. A significant number of the enemy horsemen were killed. The other two battalions were engaged in a wood, which was taken and re-taken three times. The battalions were the last to impose themselves; these troops, who for the most part were very young, fought with the utmost courage, which was heightened by the fact that the Duke led them in person against the enemy and instilled in them the greatest confidence by his presence. A great deal must also be said of the behaviour of the officers of the General Staff. Lt-Col. Heinemann, Major von Wachholtz, von Grone and von Marenholz, Captains von Lübeck and Bause, as well as my Adjutants Captain von Morgenstern and von Zweifel, all proved to be active and brave, and were especially useful to me when, after the unfortunate death of the Duke, the command of the corps was partly given over to me. Major von Grone and von Marenholz were occupied with the Duke’s dead body.
The army commanded by the Duke of Wellington won the battle, despite the superiority of the enemy; the outposts having been placed one hour ago with the French in the same position they occupied at the beginning of the battle. Tomorrow we are going to be engaged in another battle. Some prisoners have informed us that Napoleon, and below him Ney, commanded the enemy army.’
‘The losses of the Brunswick Corps on the 16th June 1815 at Quatre Bras were as follows:
General Staff: 1 officer killed.
Hussar Regiment: 2 officers and 15 soldiers killed; 2 officers and 27 soldiers wounded.
Uhlan Regiment: 4 soldiers killed; 10 soldiers wounded.
Horse Artillery: No casualties returned.
Foot Artillery: No casualties returned.
Avantgarde: 9 soldiers killed; 4 officers and 43 soldiers wounded.
Leib Battalion: 15 soldiers killed; 5 officers and 106 soldiers wounded.
1st Light Battalion: 3 soldiers wounded.
2nd Light Battalion: 18 soldiers killed; 3 officers and 49 soldiers wounded.
3rd Light Battalion: No casualties returned.
1st Line Battalion: 1 officer and 16 soldiers killed; 2 officers and 86 soldiers wounded.
2nd Line Battalion: 2 officers and 23 soldiers killed; 4 officers and 162 soldiers wounded.
3rd Line Battalion: 4 soldiers killed; 1 officer and 19 soldiers wounded.
Total: 6 officers and 104 soldiers killed; 21 officers and 505 soldiers wounded.
In addition to the above 16 men were taken prisoner and some 200 were unaccounted for and returned as missing. Therefore, on the 16th June 1815 the corps sustained a total loss of 26 officers [this should read 27 officers] and 829 soldiers. Furthermore, the Hussar Regiment lost 63 horses; the Uhlan Regiment 8 horses and the Horse Artillery 2 horses.
The officers killed during the action at Quatre Bras on the 16th June 1815 were as follows:
His Serene Highness, Duke Friedrich Wilhelm
Major von Cramm commanding the Hussar Regiment
Captain von Pavel of the Hussar Regiment
Ensign Hercher of the 1st Line Battalion
Major von Strombeck commanding the 2nd Line Battalion
Captain von Bülow of the 2nd Line Battalion
An encounter with the enemy during the night at Piermont [Piraumont] and the retreat on the 17th June resulted in the following losses:
2nd Light Battalion: 1 wounded.
3rd Light Battalion: 1 killed and 28 wounded.
Total: 1 killed and 29 wounded. The wounded included Lieutenant Franz von Specht and Ensign Seeliger *, both of whom were serving with the 3rd Light Battalion.’
* A highly detailed account of the fighting by Ludwig Seeliger also forms part of the private collection held at the Staatsarchiv, Wolfenbüttel.
The Brunswick troops skirmish with the French between the Bois de Bossu and the high road to Charleroi. The Grey Jägers of the Avantagarde are on the left of the scene. In the centre the Duke of Brunswick can be seen receiving his mortal wound. Painting by Richard Knötel (Landesmuseum, Braunschweig)