The Nassau contingent at Quatre Bras
by John Franklin
One of the most fascinating contingents within the Allied Army commanded by the Duke of Wellington was the Nassau or Nassau-Usingen. The troops from Wiesbaden, Darmstadt, Dillenburg and throughout the Hessen region fought bravely at Quatre Bras and Waterloo. Many officers and men had previously served in the French army against the coalition forces, and for various political reasons those present in the Low Countries in 1815 were separated into two groups. The first comprised the three battalions of the 2nd Nassau-Usingen Regiment, together with the 1st Battalion of the 28th Orange-Nassau Regiment. These units had been in the Low Countries since 1814 and served in the Netherlands Army, in accordance with the agreement reached at the Congress of Vienna over the newly created Kingdom of the United Netherlands under the rule of the House of Orange-Nassau.
On the 12th June 1815, prior to the outbreak of hostilities, these units were joined by the 2nd Battalion of the 28th Orange-Nassau Regiment, and a company of volunteer Jägers. Together they formed the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Netherlands Division under Colonel Friedrich von Goedecke. However, an accident on the 15th June (when von Goedecke received a severe kick from the horse belonging to his adjutant) led to the command of the brigade devolving upon Prince Bernhard von Sachsen-Weimar. The new commander was only twenty-three years of age when his troops engaged the French on the 15th June. It was the result of their actions which prevented the enemy from seizing the important crossroads on that day.
On the 7th June the three battalions of the 1st Nassau-Usingen Regiment, under the command of Major-General Baron August von Kruse, arrived in the Low Countries. These troops were quartered in the vicinity of Brussels as part of the reserve, along with the 5th and 6th Divisions and the Brunswick Corps. A wealth of material on the Nassau contingent exists in the archives and municipal establishments within the Hessen region, and a remarkable number of unpublished items have also come into my possession from associates in America. I have selected a small number in order to outline the part played by these troops at Quatre Bras.
Bernhard von Sachsen-Weimar
Perhaps the most candid letter among those I have translated from members of the Nassau-Usingen contingent was written by Bernhard von Sachsen-Weimar. Although the letter was penned many years after the events, the details given to Captain Ernst van Löben-Sels, who was collecting information on the role of the Dutch, Belgian and Nassau troops at Waterloo, were vivid and tainted by the lack of due recognition the officers and men under his direct command had received in the official reports. The following extract provides an indication of the content:
‘At the outbreak of hostilities the brigade was posted under the command of Colonel von Goedecke who was stationed at Houtain-le-Val, while my headquarters were in Genappe. The day before the colonel had broken a leg following a kick from a horse, but in spite of this he continued to command the brigade and issued orders from his bed. During the morning of the 15th June I noticed a surprising movement on the main road; a large number of people retreated from Charleroi saying that the French troops had crossed the border and were approaching their town. Later, the officer of the Maréchausée stationed at Charleroi came to confirm the news and added that the French by then must have already passed his residence. I did not have time to make a report to the commandant of the brigade that all of these people had passed through Frasnes, where Major von Normann was garrisoned with the 2nd Battalion of the Nassau-Usingen Regiment and, as I later learned, the light battery of Captain Bijleveld. Not long after my conversation with the officer of the Maréchausée I heard cannon fire from the direction of Charleroi, and without waiting for orders I determined to march my regiment to Quatre Bras, the designated assembly point for our brigade. During my departure from Genappe, having sent a short report with my reasons for moving to the commander of the brigade, Staff Captain, now Colonel, von Gagern arrived on behalf of the division commander, Lieutenant-General Perponcher whose headquarters were in Nivelles, to see what was happening at our position. I told him of my reasons for moving and to report them to his chief. You will have found, my dear captain, within Napoleon’s memoires that this general complains that no report was sent straight to Bruxelles to the Duke of Wellington. My response to this is that the order of battle of the Allied army had never been communicated to the superior officers, and that I had not been informed which troops were stationed immediately behind me, nor where the general headquarters was positioned; I had only to forward my reports to my immediate superiors at Houtain-le-Val and Nivelles, therefore, I am wrongly being held responsible for the blunder of the English general staff, who did not know how to gather information about the enemy.
Upon my arrival at Quatre Bras I found Major Heckmann [sic] with the 3rd Nassau-Usingen Battalion, who through his military instinct had directed his battalion to this point. I ordered the two battalions of my regiment to take a position to the left of the houses at Quatre Bras, in rear of the road to Namur. We superior officers gathered together in conversation, during which time we heard several cannon shots in front of us and a short fusillade. After this a non-commissioned officer of the train with Captain Bijleveld’s battery came in full gallop to tell us that the French cavalry had just entered Frasnes and that Major von Normann had retreated with his battalion in column towards the woods between the roads from Charleroi and Nivelles, covered as much as possible by the battery of Captain Bijleveld. As I was the only colonel among the superior officers I assumed the command of the assembled troops and I advanced with the 3rd Nassau-Usingen Battalion to a position between and within a few hundred paces of the roads to Chaleroi and Namur, with the intention of covering the retreat of the battery that was operating on the road from Charleroi to Quatre Bras. I was advised to retreat to the heights behind Genappe, but having studied the map I judged Quatre Bras to be of the highest military importance and rejected this advice. You will agree with me, my dear captain, that if I had followed this suggestion the battle of Waterloo probably would not have taken place, and you will no doubt acknowledge that fate is often determined by the smallest trinket.’
Among the various Waterloo reports within the War Archives at the Hauptstaatsarchiv in Wiesbaden is that written in January 1836 by Johann Sattler. Like Bernhard von Sachsen-Weimar, Sattler had been elevated to a higher command immediately prior to the start of the campaign, leading all three battalions of the 2nd Nassau-Usingen Regiment at Quatre Bras and Waterloo, instead of the 1st Battalion. With regards to the events on the 15th and 16th June, he recollected:
‘The regiment had been directed by a divisional order to use the village of Quatre Bras as an assembly point in case of an alarm, and to that end a beacon was placed on the heights. An order had been sent some days prior to the outbreak of hostilities for the regiment to “stay in arms during the day and to establish outposts on the surrounding heights.” On the 15th June, early in the morning, strong cannon fire was heard in the direction of Charleroi, which was taken as fire from the Prussian artillery, as no news had been received about an enemy advance, and since the Prussian artillery was prone to engage in such exercises. But as the cannon fire became more distinct in the afternoon, Major Normann, who was billeted in Frasnes, placed the 2nd Battalion and a battery of horse artillery a few hundred paces in rear of the village on the road to Quatre Bras, in such a way that the artillery was able to sweep the terrain. Moreover, he left an observation post with a sergeant and twelve men on the other side of the village on the road to Charleroi. At the same time he sent an artilleryman on horseback with a report of the occurrences to regimental command. I had this message forwarded to the divisional commander, whose headquarters were in Nivelles, through Adjutant-Major von Mühlmann. Then I went with the 1st Battalion to the assembly point at Quatre Bras.
During this time, at about five o’clock in the evening, the picquet, which had been established by the 2nd Battalion, was attacked by French lancers in red uniforms, although a salvo drove them off. However, immediately thereafter the 2nd Battalion was menaced on all sides, but withdrew slowly and in good order on the road as far as a farm, which was situated half way between Quatre Bras and Frasnes, where it took up an advantageous position with the artillery, which the enemy no longer attacked. At the advance of the 1st Battalion to the place of assembly I detached two companies on the Houtain-le-Val side of the wood, which was situated between the roads from Nivelles and Frasnes, in order to occupy its extreme point towards the aforementioned village, and to maintain communication with the 2nd Battalion. The remainder of the 1st Battalion arrived at the meeting point at six o’clock in the evening, where the 3rd Battalion was already assembled. The Regiment of Orange-Nassau also arrived, and therefore the 2nd Brigade was fully assembled. As the enemy, whose strength was unknown, made no further attempts to advance, but restricted himself to maintaining the village of Frasnes, the 2nd Brigade bivouacked in this position until the following morning.
At daybreak on the 16th June Lieutenant-General Perponcher arrived with the rest of the 2nd Division. Major von Normann advanced to reconnoitre Frasnes with the 2nd Battalion. However, he came upon an enemy cavalry picquet, which retreated, and the battalion advanced without hindrance as far as the height of Frasnes, and halted, having almost regained the ground which had been lost the day before. Shortly thereafter, when the Duke of Wellington and the Prince of Orange arrived, and on their order, the battalion detached two companies to engage the enemy; but it became clear that the enemy had been reinforced by infantry and cavalry, and so any further advanced was prevented. Towards eleven o’clock the 2nd Battalion was ordered to retire to Quatre Bras and was relieved by the 3rd Battalion, who occupied the most advanced of the outposts. During the morning of the 16th June no significant encounters took place; the three battalions of the 2nd Regiment took it in turn to skirmish with the enemy, until towards one o’clock, after which time some of the English and Dutch armies arrived. The attacks by both parties became increasingly violent from this time, as the enemy developed his masses, which had hitherto been concealed. The 2nd Regiment was under fire the whole time until nightfall. It was mainly engaged in the defence of the wood between the roads of Nivelles and Frasnes, where it repelled the most violent attacks of the enemy Cuirassiers and infantry. Of the Allied troops, the Regiment of Orange-Nassau, a detachment of Brunswickers, and a Scottish battalion took part in the defence of the wood, by defending the seam between Quatre Bras and Frasnes. The regiment bivouacked in the opened during the night of the 16th to 17th June.’
There are a number of sources in Wiesbaden which contain original material on the Waterloo campaign. During the course of my research I have endeavoured to trace the descendants of the men who participated in the fighting, in the hope that they might have letters or other artefacts. It was my good fortune to find the Büsgen family records, in which were several items of importance. Moritz Büsgen was the Captain leading the Grenadier Company of the 1st Battalion 2nd Nassau-Usingen Regiment prior to the start of the campaign, but the elevation of Major Johann Sattler meant that he was charged with command of the entire 1st Battalion. The family collection holds copies of several documents, including a previously unpublished report of the events at Quatre Bras, which Moritz Büsgen wrote in December 1835. The following extract provides details of the part played by the troops under his command:
‘Towards midday on the 16th, the 1st Battalion was ordered to advance on the road from Charleroi to Frasnes, which was occupied by the enemy, a cannon shot in front of the position of Quatre Bras. It positioned itself in a hollow on the right of the road together with the 1st Battalion of the Orange-Nassau Regiment. But it only remained in this position a short time, when it was ordered to occupy the edge of the wood which comes down from Quatre Bras on the right of the road from Charleroi parallel with Frasnes. The Orange-Nassau battalion followed suit and took up a position on the left, both with their fronts on the road. The edge of the wood was occupied by battalions from the army of the Netherlands as far as Quatre Bras, by forming a right angle with the main position.
Hardly had the 1st Battalion taken up its position when the enemy advanced on the road from Charleroi to attack Quatre Bras. At the same time he shelled the wood, which was on his left, with cannon and howitzer, whereupon Tirailleurs advanced, supported by closed columns, and fighting took place along the front of the wood. Prince von Sachsen-Weimar (who commanded the 2nd Brigade of Perponcher’s Division) ordered that three companies should be changed into Tirailleurs. These were composed of the regiments Nassau and Orange. The enemy managed to force his way into the wood above the left flank of the Orange Battalion. The Prince tried to throw them out of the wood by attacking their flank, but this attack failed, and the Prince ordered the 1st Battalion to retreat to Houtain-le-Val, while pursued by the enemy Tirailleurs. It was approaching five o’clock when the battalion formed in battle order 300 to 400 paces from the wood. The three companies which had been made Tirailleurs rejoined their respective battalions, and here the Orange-Nassau Regiment joined us once again. In that position we remained until dusk, when we reunited with the regiment further along the road towards Nivelles. We bivouacked there during the night of the 16th to 17th with 12 to 15 wounded.’
Within the brigade commanded by Bernhard von Sachsen-Weimar was a company of volunteer Jägers. They were led by Captain Emil Bergmann, who had responded to the call for men when news of Napoleon’s return from Elba was announced. These troops were raised from woodsmen, gamekeepers, hunters and such like, armed with a variety of different calibre rifles, and this created a severe problem in terms of the supply of ammunition which could not be overcome. In a letter dated 3rd January 1816, Emil Bergmann explained the situation to His Grace, the Duke of Nassau:
‘Your Excellency has in the name of our grateful fatherland graciously bestowed a medal on the Nassau forces present at Waterloo, and this has inspired the recipients to greater deeds on behalf of the fatherland. The Jäger Company, which I had the honour to command during the campaign, was engaged throughout the 16th June, and part of the 18th, and contributed to the extraordinary outcome. Your Excellency, I am convinced that it was not your intention that these volunteers, who enjoy a special attachment with the Prince, and who have received the most gratifying praise from the fatherland, should have been forgotten, and I dare to mention this fact to Your Excellency, in the name of those serving with the Jäger Company. Indeed, I respectfully request the Waterloo Medal on behalf of these subjects: The number of eligible Jägers is 166. However, if you decide to issue the medal only to those who were present during the battle on the 18th, the number engaged with the enemy from my company would only be 12. The reasons for this are as follows:
Following the call to arms from the king, the volunteers were able to enlist only until the 3rd May, so that we could march from Dillenburg on the 26th May. However, at this time we had an insufficient number of serviceable weapons, as part of those we should have received in Kölln and Lüttich were not available. I only received 50 rifles from Kölln, and none whatsoever from Lüttich. In addition, there was insufficient ammunition, and in Dillenburg I could only secure a thousand rounds of lead shot, which remained from the previous Jäger Company. When we arrived in Maastricht I used the presence of the king to request further rifles, but my applications for ammunition were in vain. The day after we received the outstanding rifles, we were consoled by an order to march to Genappe, to obtain a quantity of ammunition from the depot there. My first priority was to urgently ask Prince Bernhard von Weimar, under whom I served, and the Chief of Staff, Colonel Zuijlen van Nyevelt, for powder, flints and lead shot. But here I only received promises, and before any decision had been made by the authorities, the French crossed the border on the 15th June. On this day, towards evening, I received the order to march from Thinnes to Quatre Bras where, upon our arrival, I distributed the ammunition I had secured in Dillenburg to the troops. During the night my company was deployed in four separate detachments in the wood on the right of Quatre Bras, and we waited for further orders from Colonel Prince Bernhard von Weimar, through Adjutant, von Steprodt. We participated in the battle, and fought together with the 2nd Nassau-Usingen Regiment for some time. The onset of night brought the skirmishing to an end.
On the 17th we stood close to Quatre Bras, and I believed that after the events of the 16th almost all of the Jägers under my command had exhausted their powder and ammunition. Unfortunately, this was confirmed during an inspection of the troops.’
One of the few lower ranking men within the Nassau contingent to leave an account of the fighting at Quatre Bras was Sergeant Johann Döring, who served with the 1st Battalion of the 28th Orange-Nassau Regiment. His recollections were serialised in a regional German newspaper in 1988 and 1989. Unfortunately, the whereabouts of the original manuscript was not disclosed. This extract describes the dramatic action following the initial French attack upon the crossroads:
‘A Dutch battalion was immediately thrown into confusion, and as these troops were posted on the high road in the centre of the line, the greatest danger was created for our men and the other troops in their vicinity. The confusion increased as the Dutch suffered greatly from the ferocious enemy cannon and musket fire, and grew to such an extent that they lost courage and left their position, throwing their weapons to the ground in the process. To overcome this impending danger, and to retake the ground which had been lost, our colonel, Prince Bernhard von Sachsen-Weimar, ordered those adjacent to the Dutch battalion to charge the French. The colonel, who incidentally was one of the finest men I ever met, rode a large black Arabian stallion which he had received as a gift from Tsar Alexander of Russia. He had initially called for volunteers to lead the attack, but the entire battalion responded to his request. We advanced towards the position which had been abandoned by the Dutch troops and occupied by the French, drummers to the fore, and with bayonets levelled. The enemy were pushed back and the centre was immediately occupied. During this encounter Sergeant-Major Geiss of the 7th Company, who was from Dillenburg, had the scabbard of his sword torn from his body by a cannon ball. The tremendous force of the blow threw him to the ground unconscious, but he was not wounded and escaped with nothing more than the memory of this incident. As we advanced through the wood [the Bois de Bossu], which the enemy had vacated, I saw a Brunswick Jäger leaning against a tree. He had been shot in the abdomen by a musket ball and was bleeding heavily. He looked pale and complained of terrible pain, and he asked for a doctor. Our battalion surgeon, Neuendorf, a native of this placed, who had followed me, attended to the Jäger. I was later informed that he had removed the ball and thereby saved the man’s life. Many years later this man wrote to him, enclosing a most valuable gift, to acknowledge the service he rendered with the utmost gratitude. The fighting became fierce and bitter as Marshal Ney, who was continually reinforced by new regiments, attempted to break through the line with all of the means at his disposal. However, he did not succeed because the troops, especially the Scots and the Brunswickers, fought like lions, despite the terrible cannon fire. The latter were extremely angry when they saw that their duke, who had been at the head of their regiments, was mortally wounded by a French Dragoon and had to be carried from the battlefield. A regiment of Scots repulsed a regiment of French Cuirassiers which was about to break through the line. They were met with levelled muskets and fixed bayonets, and a great many kissed the ground. Despite all of his efforts, Marshal Ney was unable to gain the position, and as the darkness of night replaced the day, the firing gradually ceased on both sides.’
Friedrich von Jeckeln
Another of the previously unpublished items I have discovered on the Nassau was written by Captain Friedrich von Jeckeln to his mother in Dillenburg on the 14th July 1815, in the immediate aftermath of the campaign. The description of the fighting is perhaps less interesting than other accounts, but the details of what the officers and men in the various Nassau regiments believed the situation to be when they engaged the French at Quatre Bras is compelling:
‘On the morning of the 16th, we stood in battle order at Quatre Bras and the enemy attack began with a fury without comparison. We had nothing with which to reply, other than our division about 8,000 men strong, and soon we had to contend with the two French army corps of d’Erlon and Reille, 50,000 strong. We also believed that Napoleon commanded in person. At 11 o’clock in the morning, and with great courage, we had to confront an enemy seven times stronger than ourselves, and it was only towards 3 o’clock that we withdrew 300 paces. At this time an English division 12,000 men strong came to our assistance. We then attacked the enemy and pushed them back to their original position. However, the fight continued until 9 o’clock in the evening and we remained in possession of the battlefield. During the battle I was personally engaged and almost stabbed by a French Grenadier of the Garde Impériale [sic]. The enemy would not retreat and I attacked them ferociously. I advanced with all my might and was full of emotion; my men followed me with enthusiasm and victory appeared to be ours. I had advanced to within a few paces of the enemy, yet they would still not retreat. I called to my men ‘Long live the King! Forward to victory!’ when a French Grenadier put his shako on the end of his bayonet and shouted ‘Vive l’Empereur! Avant! Avant!’ then ran towards me with his bayonet. However, one of my soldiers laid him low with a shot.’
Heinrich von Gagern
Although the three battalions of the 1st Nassau-Usingen Regiment were not engaged at Quatre Bras, the officers and men witnessed the scene as the approached the field of battle late in the day. Ensign Heinrich von Gagern, who served with the Flanguer Company of the 2nd Battalion, described the march to Quatre Bras in a letter written to his mother in Weilburg on the 26th July 1815:
‘During the night of the 15th to the 16th, at about half past eleven, we received the order to set out immediately. Everything was packed, and at four in the morning we were on the march. The regiment assembled in front of Bruxelles, and we marched together through Bruxelles, where a great many rumours reached us, which, however, I wish to refrain from repeating. On the road to Quatre Bras we heard firing some hours away. Here we rested a little, formed ourselves in columns and marched towards the battlefield without having anything to eat or drink. Two hours before we reached the battlefield the regiment received its orders. General von Kruse rode in front. From there the commotion could already be seen. All of the baggage retreated; the enormous English baggage blocked the road in such a way that the troops had to march in the fields, and by doing so, made themselves more tired than they already were. We hardly stood for half an hour, when we set out once more and advanced alongside the retreating baggage. However, this spectacle soon ended and was replaced by an even more unpleasant experience; for now we marched for an hour and a half between two columns of wounded, and very many men of our 2nd Regiment. Some of them imprudently told their comrades and fellow countrymen, whom they found in our regiment, that all was lost, the regiment dispersed, etc. The sight of the wounded alone is not a pleasant one, but the bad impression such talk had upon our young soldiers can easily be imagined. Most of the wounded we met were Highlanders and Brunswickers, who had lost their sovereign on this day. The men who interested me the most were the Highlanders, for they hardly uttered a word of complaint in recognition of their pain. As pitiful as they were, they quietly went to be butchered by the knife. Towards dusk we arrived tired at the battlefield and posted ourselves a little on the right of the road which goes straight to Bruxelles through Quatre Bras, for here two roads cross, from which the name Quatre Bras is derived. It was only now that we were told the full story of the affair, and indeed, of the beginning of the whole campaign, and since it has something to do with the introduction, I must include some of the details in this account, although superfluous.
On the 15th the French advanced into Brabant, overran the outposts and penetrated further and further. Major von Normann, who commands the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Regiment, and who was on the parade ground with his battalion, was startled by the fire coming nearer and nearer, and reported this at once to headquarters, from where the answer came that it was merely the Prussians exercising. However, he was convinced that it was the French, and he distinguished himself very much that day, as without waiting for an order, he retired somewhat with his battalion, so as to occupy a better position. He stopped the French, who were very strong, for many hours and gained sufficient time for the other troops to assemble and to join him. A Prussian corps under General Zieten had already been repulsed. That is how they spent the night. The result on the evening of the 16th was that the Prussians were actually totally beaten on the left wing, while the English army, or rather a part of it, for the least part of it was under fire on that day, had lost a great many men killed and wounded, but had maintained its position. We did not come under fire on that day, except for some balls which passed over our heads, and which did not injure a single man. As it became dark the firing gradually subsided and the onset of night brought the action to an end. This was the first night that I spent in the open. I lay down behind my battalion against the wall of the last house of Quatre Bras and went to sleep wrapped in my coat, hungry after the many hardships of the day.’
Front Image: H.S.H., Prince Bernhard von Sachsen-Weimar (second right) is shown discussing the situation at Quatre Bras with the senior officers from the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Netherlands Division on the morning of the 16th June 1815. Painting by Jan Hoynck van Papendrecht (Nationaal Militair Museum, Soesterberg)