Battle of Waterloo, 1815
Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher and the Duke of Wellington versus Napoleon Bonaparte: Faced by the greatest coalition of states to date, a French army under Bonaparte races to occupy the central position between Prussian army under Blücher and an Anglo-Dutch army under Wellington which Bonaparte plans to defeat in detail. Will Bonaparte’s subordinates prove capable of carrying out his orders or should he be more concerned with his own abilities? Includes the Battles of Quatre-Bras, Ligny, Waterloo and Wavre. Click on images below to view PowerPoint presentation. | Legend |
What is the significance of this campaign? The story is that following the defeat of Napoleon the tyrant and the end of perpetual revolutionary war, Europe was relatively peaceful for a century with few major wars, involving few great powers. This is too uncritical a position to adopt for such a transformative period of history. The “peace” that followed Waterloo was peace among states and hardly that. This peace ignores the brutal repression of the Revolutions of 1848 in which all great powers cooperated to maintain their sovereignty. This peace ignores the ruthless colonization of Africa permitted by the stability in Europe. This “peace” ignores the underlying social forces and tensions which culminated in World War I as if to make up for the lack of violence in Europe the previous century. Discourses and histories regarding what is war and what is peace are thus complicated by the intrinsic relation between the two concepts, evident in the period following the famous Waterloo Campaign.
It is important to remember that all of the mistakes, successes, failures and crises that characterize this battle are present in every battle. It is the immensity of detailed accounts of this battle that bring them to light so brilliantly. D’Erlon’s corps was not the first or last unit to be in the wrong place at the wrong time as a result of confused communications! The campaign showed illustrious heroics – Colonel Macdonnell and Sergeant Graham who closed the gates at Hougoumont – as well as mere realities of war – 10,000 of Wellington,s 68,000 simply ran away (Chalfont, 1979: 193). In addition, Waterloo’s “ultimate result cannot be attributed to any one particular cause – it was the product of a combination of factors, both tangible and intangible, as is the result of any battle” (Chandler, 1980: 187). What follows is a few, only a few, of the valuable lessons and explanations for explaining the campaign’s bloody conclusion at Waterloo.
For his defeat, Napoleon could blame the poor weather, which saved the Anglo-Dutch army on June 17th and made the ground soggy for cavalry charges and artillery richochets on June 18th; and his subordinates: “I would have crushed them at Ligny if my left had done its duty. I would have crushed them at Waterloo if my right had not failed me” (quoted by Champagne in Chalfont, 1979: 183). The former is much more excusable than the latter – even assuming Soult, Ney and Grouchy all performed poorly – for it is Napoleon who chose his subordinates.
For the war against the allied coalition, Napoleon needed to fill eleven high-level commands: six tiny observation “army” commanders from the Pyrenees to the Rhine, one army commander to suppress Bourbon sympathizers, one minister of war in Paris, two wing commanders for the main army and one chief of staff. Despite his immense talents, it is difficult to imagine another doing as much as Davout accomplished as vital minister of war although one may speculate as to what may have transpired if he and Napoleon switched roles. Chandler probably accurately speculates on which personalities would have been better suited for each role (1980: 53-57).
Soult’s talents as an army commander were wasted in his appointment as chief of staff and Suchet would have served Napoleon better in this role rather than command a relatively unimportant observation army. Soult could have commanded the left wing which faced Wellington, whom he was well-acquainted with after his exploits in Spain. Grouchy was a cavalry commander and had never commanded a force the size he did during the campaign, and never one so diverse in infantry, cavalry and artillery. The fact that his two subordinate corps commanders, Gérard and Vandamme, argued for an immediate march to the sound of the guns on June 18th suggests that either of them were better suited for the role of right wing commander. Rapp, commanding an unnecessarily large observation army (Becke, 1914: 1.37), proved his worth along the Rhine and may have also been valuable in the main theater.
Chandler speculates that Napoleon “needed a tremendous demonstration of success; he did not wish to share the laurels of victory with such able subordinates as Davout or Suchet” (1980: 57). If this has any validity, Napoleon was arrogant to assume he could achieve the impossible without his best subordinates. There are many reasons, but Napoleon’s hubris, arrogance and disrespect for his foes are likely the prime reason for his defeat: “he deprecated Wellington’s staying power, discounted Blücher’s loyalty to his ally and inveterate hatred towards himself” (Chandler, 1980: 189).
After Ligny, Napoleon assumed the Prussian army was shattered beyond repair, explaining why he did not order an aggressive pursuit to ensure this. Napoleon then assumed he could crush the Anglo-Dutch army and its “sepoy general” at his whim, disregarding his subordinates’ warnings who had fought Wellington before in Spain. Napoleon felt he did not need to recall Grouchy to defeat Wellington; even if Blücher did come to his aid, Wellington would be long defeated by the time the Prussians engaged in force. Napoleon made all of these decisions under the belief that Wellington alone outnumbered him! Becke is particularly critical of Napoleon’s hubris at Waterloo, arguing that Napoleon – regardless of the wet ground – could have swept Wellington from the field by 2pm if he had attacked at 10am in desperation (1914: 2.145-6).
It is important to remember how vital Prussian assistance was at Waterloo. Despite christening the final engagement as the Battle of Waterloo to reflect a British victory, Wellington wrote in his dispatch, “I should not do justice to my feelings, or to Marshal Blücher and the Prussian Army, if I did not attribute the success of this ardous day to the cordial and timely assistance I received from them” (quoted by Chandler, 1980: 195). It is difficult to imagine Wellington’s line surviving had Blücher not drawn off the bulk of French reserves, three and a half infantry and three cavalry divisions. In addition, it was Ziethen’s Prussian corps which broke the French wing and made the victory decisive when the final French attack faltered. The psychological impact on the battle was also significant for the Anglo-Dutch knew that their allies were fighting the battle with them whereas the French were tricked into thinking the Prussian troops were French, simulating feelings of betrayal.
Napoleon never unhinged his enemies with an indirect approach as the unexpected Prussian approach affected his decision-making. Further reflecting his low opinion of his opponent, Napoleon’s plan was a sequence of massive frontal attacks, “hardly one of his most subtle schemes” (Chandler, 1980: 126). There was no attempt to outflank or outmaneuver Wellington, who admitted that maneuver was his army’s primary weakness (Becke, 1914: 2.222). Reserves were placed behind the French center and only committed against the Anglo-Dutch center. Seymour notices a change in Napoleon’s tactics over the years: “he had come to rely on heavy concentrations of force. Artillery was used for massive bombardments; columns of infantry were sent against the enemy, and when the enemy were sufficiently demoralized they were subjected to shock cavalry charges” (In Chalfont, 1979: 186). Napoleon did not commit the fullest force to achieve victory in such an attritional slugging contest.
Despite these shortcomings, Napoleon did almost win the day at Waterloo but a serious lack of command and control also contributed to his defeat. Napoleon was the commander-in-chief but granted Ney considerable leniency as to how to direct the battle. While it is easier to blame Ney, it is easier to ask why Napoleon did not merely conduct the battle himself or at least monitor its activities. Jérôme dragged nearly an entire corps against Hougomont; Ney attacked with cavalry and infantry separately; D’Erlon’s corps attacked in a completely ineffective tactical formation. As commander, Napoleon could have at least checked to ensure his soldiers were being used as properly as possible.
Instead, Napoleon became preoccupied with the fight in the east against the Prussians where Napoleon committed the bulk of his reserve. Napoleon failed to see the grand view of the battle as a whole and thus he and Ney waged separate battles on the same field. Despite Ney’s shortcomings at Waterloo, Napoleon robbed him of the chance of redeeming himself when, after seizing the ridge with skirmishers and artillery, he began to blast the Anglo-Dutch center away. Ney requested reinforcements, reserves, anything, to finish off the Anglo-Dutch center but was rebuked by Napoleon who snapped back, “Troops? Where do you expect me to get them from? Do you expect me to make some?” (Chandler, 1980: 155). At this time of course, eleven battalions of the Guard sat idle in a long line facing east in the unlikely event that the Prussians completely expelled the Guard’s comrades from Plancenoit and pushed on La Belle Alliance. At Waterloo, Napoleon granted his subordinate freedom of action but not enough resources or trust to achieve his objective. It is a shame that Napoleon and Wellington did not truly meet in battle.
With an abundance of Waterloo what-if scenarios out there, I will leave you with one of the more alluring options available to Napoleon. Becke describes what action Napoleon should have taken when Bülow’s Prussian corps was sighted approaching from the east on June 18:
Inasmuch as Napoleon must have recognized at 1.30 p.m. that Marshal Grouchy’s arrival at La Belle Alliance was, at any rate, problematical, was he wise to risk a pitched battle with such odds against him? By only one method could he effect a timely concentration with the French right wing; and that was by calling Marshal Grouchy’s detachment, and, at the same time, moving in the Marshal’s direction. To carry out this manoeuvre it was necessary for Napoleon to retreat from in front of Wellington. Of course it is true that although, by this means, Napoleon could effect his concentration with Grouchy, yet this move would not prevent Wellington and Blücher from joining hands; and then the Emperor could only oppose about 110,000 troops to their 160,000. But surely it would have been better to postpone a general action, than to continue it with the almost certain result that it would prove disastrous. Further, although Napoleon would slip away from Wellington, yet he might hope to score some success against the Prussians on June 18, as he marched to effect his concentration with Grouchy.
Again, it may be accepted as a general principle, that whenever a commander finds himself in a critical position, the best course usually to pursue is to slip out of the toils. By acting in this way he will upset the enemy’s plans, which have been laid with forethought and care to meet the especial case; and it is most difficult at a moment’s notice for the foe to modify his arrangements so that he can meet an unexpected development in the campaign. In the case under consideration, the Prussian plans (already in course of execution) were clearly based on the hypothesis of a battle being waged at Mt. S. Jean, between Napoleon and Wellington on June 18; or, if Napoleon remained quiescent in his position until June 19, then a joint attack was to be delivered on the French position at La Belle Alliance on the latter date. But, by declining wager of battle and slipping away on June 18, Napoleon must have disarranged the Allied plans; and he might have made it difficult for them to avoid taking some serious risk, or even making a bad mistake.
Also the Anglo-Dutch Army were standing on the defensive, and they had taken up their position as to await the French onslaught; therefore they could not have passed over rapidly to an offensive attitude; such a manoeuvre is one of the most delicate of all warlike operations, also in this especial case it would have taken considerable time to carry out; and Wellington’s Army, in particular, was singularly ill-adapted to carry out this difficult and delicate manoeuvre with nicety and speed. The manoeuvring power of the Anglo-Dutch Army, and particularly their manoeuvring power in attack, was not to be compared with the splendid defensive qualities which this army possessed.
Therefore, in all probability, Marshal Ney, in command of Napoleon’s first line – the I and II Corps – and supported by Kellermann’s Cuirassiers, would have sufficed to hold back the Anglo-Dutch Army, and delay, control, and regulate their advance in pursuit of the retiring French Army; this the Marshal would have effected by fighting a series of combats en retraite (yielding fights). The Marshal Prince of the Moskowa would have been able to dispose of some 45,000 men to hold back the Duke of Wellington’s 67,000; and this bore a greater proportion to Wellington’s strength, than the force which the Marshal had in hand at Quatre-Bras on the evening of June 16. Further, Marshal Ney was a master in the art of rear-guard fighting, and of the tactics which it was necessary to display to compel and enemy to consume an hour in time in advancing over every mile of ground; he would have shone in this manoeuvre. Marshal Ney would have had to keep the essential in the problem before him; he would have had to avoid rushing at the foe, or opening a precipitate retreat, or being drawn into a general action. But he would have sought to gain his end by the employment of the most skillful rear-guard tactics.
Meanwhile Napoleon would have moved off the remainder of the Armée du Nord, via Plancenoit and Maransart, and at Mousty, on the Dyle, he would have met Marshal Grouchy’s detachment, whom he would have summoned thither. Thus by 6 p.m., on June 18, the French concentration on the Dyle would have been effected; and then Napoleon could have disposed of at least 60,000 men, and thus he would have been in a position to have attacked any Prussian troops, whom he might have located between the Rivers Lasne and Dyle.
If the Emperor advanced on Wavre, he could have been opposed only by Pirch I and Thielemann, with about 40,000 men. But these two Prussian Corps he would have annihilated; and the case would not have been altered, had Bülow attempted to support the two corps in question. Meanwhile, Marshal Ney would have continued his retrograde movement towards Genappe. Doubtless at so early an hour as 1.30 p.m., on June 18, Napoleon could not be expected to know all the Prussian movements accurately; but it was logical to think that Bülow would not have marched to support the Anglo-Dutch Army alone; at least one other corps would have been pushed up to strengthen Wellington’s left. Merely by upsetting this combination, the chance for delivering a telling blow might arise.
At the worst, during the evening, the French Army could retire across the Dyle at Mousty and Ottignies, and then effect their concentration with Marshal Ney on June 19; so that, on that date, the whole army would be reunited once more – having carried out a retrograde movement. But the suggested movement gave to Napoleon the opportunity of dealing powerful blows, such as no ordinary retreat could have afforded.
To have manoeuvred, in this way, would not have been a proof that Napoleon was lacking in intepridity. Granting that the first duty of a general who gives battle is the glory and honour of his country’s arms, and that the preservation of his men can only rank second; yet this was an extraordinary situation, and an extraordinary manoeuvre was required to save the situation, and to save – France.
Further by manoeuvring in this way, no chance of disaster was involed; and very dexterously Napoleon would have avoided the mortal would which the two Allies must deal him, directly they effected their battle-field concentration. (1914: 2.149-152)
I had never intended to animate the battle, let alone the entire campaign; I had already animated the Six Days’ Campaign and figured that would satisfy my own and others’ interest in Napoleon for some time. Requests piled up, no animation larger than seven sequences had been completed in almost eight months and The History Channel had removed its own fairly decent animation of the Battle of Waterloo so I upped the ante. I was extremely thrilled when I began this massive project – but that faded quickly. Bogged down in contradictory numbers and an information overload of detail, the project was much more difficult than anticipated. For awhile, when friends asked how I was spending any given summer evening, I could only say, “Working on Waterloo . . . No, not the song by Abba.” Five months later, my most time-consuming project ever was complete, encouraging me to aspire towards even greater ones. As I write this, I have vague plans to animate the entire Eastern Front – during World War I.
Please do not get too hung up on any specific numbers given for any army or formation because they are problematic because there is no definitive, consistent set of answers to the questions I sought to answer. I owe the overall strengths of the three armies at the theater level to Esposito who makes it painfully evident how defeat may force as many men to desert as were lost in the engagement (1965: 160). Lawford (1977) provides the exact numbers in each specific formation and the opposing sides at Quatre-Bras and Ligny because this work is the only one to be consistent with my overall numbers and cover all three armies. Not that it is of great importance, but I project 72,000 French against 68,000 Anglo-Dutch at Waterloo rather than the other creditable estimate of 70,000 French against 71,000 Anglo-Dutch.
For each of the four battles, each unit loosely represents a specific brigade or division although it is not explicitly stated which is which, with the exception of Waterloo. Each unit was “labeled” during the planning stages to be as accurate as possible in detailing actions down to a lower level. The Ligny battle sequences each represent up to 90 minutes whereas the Waterloo battle sequences each represent between 45 and 60 minutes, giving these animations a more precise timescale.
My aside regarding the significance of this campaign is somewhat different than others I have written for others. While there are plenty of critical interpretations of history, I direct my most avid viewers – those that actually scroll down to read my thoughts – to Foucault’s lectures in book form, Society Must Be Defended, in which he reinterprets Hobbes’ war of all against all, all the time, to deconstruct war and peace as polar opposites.
- Jonathan Webb
Becke, Archibald Frank. Napoleon and Waterloo: The Emperor’s Campaign with the Armée du Nord, 1815. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1914.
Chandler, David. Waterloo: The Hundred Days. New York: MacMillan, 1980.
Esposito, Vincent J. and John Robert Elting. A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars. New York: Praeger, 1965.
Fuller, J.F.C. The Decisive Battles of the Western World Vol. 2. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1956.
Lawford, James Philip. Napoleon: the Last Campaigns 1813-1815. New York: Crown, 1977.
Seymour, William, Jacques Champagne and E. Kaulbach. Waterloo: Battle of Three Armies. Edited by Lord Chalfont. London: Sedgwick & Jackson, 1979.
Siborne, William. The Waterloo Campaign, 1815. Westminster: A. Constable, 1895.
Allied soldiers: http://www.dy.pl/Handel/index.php?manufacturers_id=8&sort=1a&page=2
Duke of Wellington: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Wellesley,_1st_Duke_of_Wellington
French soldiers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grande_Arm%C3%A9e
Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gebhard_Leberecht_von_Bl%C3%BCcher
Napoleon Bonaparte: http://wil3.typepad.com/funny_pictures/2005/08/napoleon_bonapa_1.html
Tags: 1800s, artillery, attack from a defensive position, British, cavalry, Duke of Wellington, envelopment of a single flank, French, Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher, Gunpowder Era, infantry, land, modern day Belgium, Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleonic Wars, penetration of the center, Prussians, Season 6, War of the Seventh Coalition, Western Europe
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