by Douglas Allan
Revised June 2015
(an example of the great articles our members receive in our Newsletters)
The English-language (i.e. British) Battle of Waterloo
The English-language Waterloo deciding moment
Then There Is the Small Matter of the Prussians
Why the French lost – The Commonly Accepted View
Why the French lost – The reality
Observations on Waterloo
The major mistake that cost the battle
And Some Common Misperceptions
Some Follow-Up Observations on Quatre Bras and Waterloo
Much of recorded “history” is biased, inept, and sometimes even fraudulent. Political, nationalistic and other misinformed or biased reporting is hardly limited to our lifetimes. Most students of Napoleon are well aware of his “Bulletins”, classics of disinformation. Much of what comes down to us is slanted by the bias or perspective of the writers. Waterloo is a classic example.
This article presupposes familiarity with the battle, and is an overview with a rather different perspective. Victory has a thousand authors; as for the vanquished, they usually blame each other. This would be no exception.
Most of what we read in the U.S., UK and other English speaking countries about Waterloo is of course, taken from British sources. Not unreasonably, most of them focus on the glorious actions of the British led Allied Army, while downplaying the critical role of the Prussians. Then there are the Napoleon apologists, who blame everyone else. There are Napoleon critics, who concentrate on this or that “belated” command, as if they knew every galloper whom Napoleon sent to Ney, Grouchy, Reille et al. The truth can be most elusive.
Contrast what is commonly accepted among casual readers (and many “historians”) of the battle of Waterloo, and what actually happened.
In most English language accounts, Napoleon, commanding about 84,000 Frenchmen, was beaten by the Duke of Wellington, with an Anglo/Allied force of approximately 78,000 (1) That way it can be considered a fairly even battle, with an edge in numbers to the French. In order to reach those numbers though – i.e. make Napoleon and Wellington look evenly matched – Wellington’s right flank covering of about 17,000 men under Prince Frederick – admittedly ten miles west of the action – has to be totally omitted. Wellington considered that safety valve vital; a tactic oft used by British armies, as was also true in Portugal under Gen. Sir John Moore some years prior. The path to the Navy had to be protected.
But even if one includes only those combatants in action at the Waterloo battlefield, one must count them all, not just the ones under Wellington! There is the small matter of the Prussian army, which contrary to many accounts, was in heavy combat at Waterloo for most of the battle.
The actual numbers excluding the Wavre affaire: Blücher and Wellington, with about 140,000 allied troops (2), beat Napoleon, commanding about 72,000 Frenchmen. The Prussians alone had far more men engaged in the battle, and suffered more casualties than Wellington’s British army.
The Old Guard advances in a last ditch attempt to destroy the indomitable British lines as the Prussians link up with Wellington’s left, is stopped cold by crack English Guards regiments, and routed. Wellington waves his hat in the air, the British advance, and the French are beaten.
The Reality: The Old Guard did not form the advance; it was part of the Middle Guard (see Ney’s letter to the French Senate during the aftermath; Ney personally led the attack). The Old Guard covered the retreat.
Von Bulow had evaded Grouchy’s blocking force and showed up at Plancenoit with 30,000 troops at around 4:30. By 6:00, the Prussian artillery was engaged, and by 6:45, eight battalions of the Young Guard had been pulled from Napoleon’s reserve to support Count Lobau’s outnumbered 10,000 man defending force. The fighting was house to house, and the French were more than tenacious, but Von Bulow had more men available to commit. By 7:15, Napoleon was forced to dispatch two Old Guard battalions to Plancenoit. This delayed the final French attack against Wellington’s center, as the Prussians were barely prevented from enveloping Lobau’s right flank at that point.
Finally, as the situation at Plancenoit (or Planchenoit if you like) seemed to stabilize, five Guard battalions (incorporating the remnants of two others) were regrouped for one last attempt to break through the British/Allied lines. Two more Prussian corps under von Ziethen and then Pirch arrived, and attacked the flank of the advancing French. The Guard marched uphill against Wellington’s Guards, the British 52nd, and the Nassauers, while the Old Guard battalions and D’Erlon’s remaining force simultaneously fought off the Prussians to their right. In short, the sheer number of British, Nassauer and Prussian forces overwhelmed the French, while von Bulow’s corps finally got in the rear of the French at Plancenoit.
Napoleon was well past his prime, fat, suffering from hemorrhoids, and lethargic. His orders were belated, and he delegated command of the left wing – most of his army – to the brave but stupid, hotheaded, and incredibly inept Marshal Ney. Ney made mistakes any subaltern would never have made, and should never have been given command in the first place. His incompetence was matched only by the slow-moving bumbler Marshal Grouchy. Napoleon sorely missed the legendary Marshal Berthier as chief of staff, and Marshal Soult was a very poor substitute. Given the generals available, Marshal Davout should have been given Ney’s job, rather than wasting him in Paris.
During the battle, Jerome should not have continued the attack on Hougoumont. Napoleon had in Wellington’s words, become “only a pounder after all”, and had foolishly attacked the center of the Allied line. Then Ney blundered forth against La Haie Sainte, was ineffectual and then committed the inconceivable – he sent forward the entire unsupported French cavalry against British squares, which were in Soult’s opinion, “invincible”.
The miserably ill Napoleon foolishly held back the Guard until the end, and then Ney led the Guard the wrong way up the hill.
First, some observations about the fat, past-his-prime Napoleon and the motley band of incompetents who lost the battle.
Napoleon Bonaparte: The greatest general in history. He had just won a phenomenal battle at Ligny two days before, after one of the greatest blitzkriegs ever mounted. During his lightning advance, he had managed to separate two major armies who knew he was coming, and inflict simultaneous defeats on both of them. The victory would have been decisive if Napoleon hadn’t pulled d’Erlon’s corps from Ney in the middle of the battle, had Ney not called it back, and Napoleon called it back again. Both men wanted to win their respective brawls, and even with the total loss of d’Erlon’s corps that day, both did. (3) At Waterloo, Napoleon may have been ill with “piles”, but he was very much in command.
Ney: I’ve read “historians” who’ve said he wasn’t fit to command a company, much less an army. The truth: his rise had been one of the most meteoric in the French army. Ney was consistently lauded by his superiors for his intelligence. General Lemarche’s observation of Ney in 1792 was typical. “…intelligence, intrepidity, activity and courage…even in the midst of danger he has displayed a discernment and a tactical insight that is seldom found.” At Waterloo, Ney had 23 more years of experience, was the most legendary leader in the French army (excepting the Emperor!), had fought in over 40 campaigns and battles, about 100 actions, and been directly responsible for some of the toughest victories in history, including the brutal win at Borodino, commanding 3rd Corps. Ney was renowned for coolness under fire.
The supposedly “hotheaded” Ney had moved cautiously toward Quatre Bras. That was initially because his scouts had determined that there was only a skeleton force of 3,000 defenders, which would withdraw at the approach of the French. Napoleon’s first order of the day was actually sent from Charleroi around 8 a.m. by General Flauhaut and received by Ney between 10:30 and 11:00. After discussing his own position, intending to arrive at Gembloux, the Emperor ordered the following:
“There, according to circumstances, I shall decide on my course, perhaps at three in the afternoon, perhaps this evening. My intention is that, immediately after I have made up my mind, you will be ready to march on Brussels: I will support you with the Guard which will be at Fleurus or Sombreffe, and I shall expect you to arrive at Brussels tomorrow morning. You will march this evening if I make up my mind early enough for you to be informed of it today, and to accomplish three or four leagues this evening, and to be at Brussels at seven o’clock tomorrow morning.
You should dispose your troops in the following manner: the first division at two leagues in advance of Quatre Bras, if there is no hindrance; six divisions about Quatre Bras, and one division at Marbais…”(4)
So all the nonsense about Ney not having attacked Quatre Bras early in the a.m. is just that; he only received his orders late in the morning. Far from being able to “move” (i.e. uncontested) a division north of Quatre Bras, Ney ran into a serious blocking force at Quatre Bras that only increased as the battle wore on.
The Emperor had hardly been indecisive – knowing when and where to strike is as important as the strike itself. Blucher had been expected to retreat; instead he had offered battle. Wellington also was not withdrawing; he intended to fight, and Ney shortly found himself outnumbered. Ney’s generalship was prudent under the circumstances, and – given the loss of d’Erlon’s corps, successful. Though Ney pulled his outnumbered force back toward the end of the battle, Wellington retreated the next day.
Napoleon (and others since) later faulted Ney for not having beaten the Anglo/Allied army earlier, and turned his corps to support Napoleon at Ligny, allowing the Prussians to escape. That’s not even remotely fair. At the climax of the battle of Quatre Bras, an entire corps, half of his force, was pulled from Ney by Napoleon, at which Ney did – and justifiably – go ballistic. Who wouldn’t have? So Ney goes down in history as too timid and hotheaded – at the same time.
Grouchy: One of the very finest of the French generals, and a brilliant cavalry commander. He had been instrumental in winning the Battle of Hohenlinden, the victory at Ligny, and had until Waterloo, an exceptional war record. In the weeks following Waterloo, Grouchy conducted one of the great defensive campaigns of the Napoleonic wars against overwhelming odds. Though a cavalry general by background, he commanded a corps of mostly infantry very successfully.
Soult: Another of Napoleon’s best generals. Berthier’s expertise had been in organization and logistics. Nevertheless, the Waterloo campaign was exceptionally well run, particularly for a new chief of staff. In fact, the campaign was nearly won at Quatre Bras and Ligny. The French campaign had been remarkable, and had Grouchy’s block of the Prussians succeeded, all the historians would have called Waterloo Napoleon’s most brilliant victory. Soult had done a demonstrably excellent job on short notice as chief of staff.
Davout: Undoubtedly a world class general, Davout was left to hold Paris, which Napoleon considered a hotbed of intrigue. Given that Austrian and Russian armies were on their way, Davout was by far the best man to keep Paris stable; he was renowned for his iron-clad style and reliability.
The ground was soaked from a terrible rainstorm the prior night, delaying the artillery barrage for several hours. This was a prudent move by Napoleon, who assumed that Grouchy had blocked the Prussians. Waiting for the ground to dry would increase the effectiveness of Napoleon’s artillery.
Some historians talk about the “mistake” made by Prince Jerome in trying to take Hougoumont, when it should have been a feint. This is preposterous. You have only to look at the battlefield to see the key position of Hougoumont. Jerome’s mistake was not in attacking with tenacity, but in neglecting to use massive artillery first.
Napoleon of course, rectified the mistake. Wellington declared after the battle, that Hougoumont had been the key. In my own view, it was only one of several, and not the most important of them.
I should like to put to rest once and for all the foolish conclusion, repeatedly stated in British/American history books, that Napoleon’s battle plan was uncharacteristically incompetent. Specifically, critics claim he mounted a “frontal” attack on the entrenched British, rather than attacking the British right, and had proven to be – as Wellington jibed – “just a pounder after all”. The facts speak otherwise. Here’s what Napoleon said on St. Helena about the battle-plan. Although Napoleon was a practiced liar, in this case, he had no agenda other than to explain why he acted as he did. As you’ll see, it makes perfect sense.
“I had preferred to turn the enemy’s left, rather than his right, first, in order to cut it off from the Prussians who were at Wavres, and to oppose their joining up again, if they had intended doing so; and even if they had not intended doing so, if the attack had been made on the right, the English army, on being repulsed, would have fallen back on to the Prussian army; whereas, if made on the left, it would be separated therefrom and thrown back in the direction of the sea; secondly, because the left appeared to be much weaker (note: because Wellington had expected the attack to be on his right, ed.); and finally, because I was expecting every moment the arrival of a detachment from Marshal Grouchy on my right, and did not want to run the risk of finding myself separated from it.”
This strategy was not only sound, it was the only intelligent plan, and would have succeeded but for the untimely (from the French point of view) arrival of von Bulow and his 30,000 fresh 3rd Prussian corps.
Grouchy had cornered the Prussians at Wavre. He sent a messenger to Napoleon the night before Waterloo, telling the Emperor that he wanted to feed his men, so they’d be fresh in the morning to take on what was still a considerably larger Prussian force. (This decision has been bitterly criticized; in my opinion, it was the right one. It’s the duty of a commander to know the state of his troops before a battle). The crucial mistake came next.
Grouchy had only caught up to the Prussians at nightfall. The next morning he got a late start, because he knew his force was inferior numerically to that of his quarry, and he intended to attack them. Hearing the artillery cannonade at Waterloo though, he determined to march to the sound of the guns. Napoleon tells the rest:
“The marshal appeared to be convinced, but at this moment he received the report that his light cavalry had arrived at Wavres and was at grips with the Prussians, that all their units were assembled there; and that they amounted to at least 80,000 men…. Believing that he had in front of him the whole Prussian army, he took two hours to take up battle stations and make his dispositions.”
Believing that the Prussians were retreating (i.e. eastward), Grouchy had let three of the four Prussian corps get between his single corps and Waterloo. This was obviously an intelligence failure on the part of Grouchy’s hussars. Battle decisions are only as good as the intelligence driving them.
He didn’t know the Prussians had stopped their retreat, and were themselves headed to the sound of the guns. Given what he knew, i.e. that his orders were to block and/or drive back the Prussians while Napoleon and Ney licked the Allies, his decision not to march toward Waterloo was correct. The failure was that of the intelligence with which he was provided, and resulted in his subsequent failure to turn his corps leftward to hit von Blucher’s Prussian corps on the march in the flank. He couldn’t have stopped von Bulow; he might have stopped von Zeiten; he does of course, bear the responsibility for stopping no corps at all.
As a result of the error, von Bulow showed up on Napoleon’s right/rear flank at Plancenoit around 4 p.m. After bitter fighting, the Prussians had broken through, forcing Napoleon to commit several battalions of the Young Guard, then two of the Old Guard, and to deny fresh reserve infantry to Ney, when Ney needed it most. This was not a mistake, it was a necessity; it was however, why Ney’s desperate cavalry attacks failed.
And now to clear up several oft-repeated errors at once; the first that Napoleon was lethargic, the second that Marshal Ney foolishly ordered the cavalry charges, and the third that they were an incredibly incompetent mistake. Let’s listen to an eyewitness who was aware of the facts. Let me quote the Emperor Napoleon:
“It was two hours since Count d’Erlon had got possession of La Haie, had out-flanked the whole English left and General Bulow’s right…. Count Milhaud thereupon crossed the height with his cuirassiers and warned General Lefebvre-Desnouettes, who started at once at the trot to back him up.
“It was five o’clock, the moment when General Bulow’s attack was at its height when, far from being held, he kept on throwing in new troops, which formed his line to the right. The English cavalry was repulsed by the bold soldiers and chasseurs of the Guard. The English abandoned all the battlefield between La Haie-Sainte and Mont-Saint-Jean… At the sight of these charges, shouts of victory were heard on the battlefield. I said ‘It is an hour too soon; nevertheless what has been done must be followed up.
I gave an order to Kellermann’s cuirassier, who were still in position on the go at full trot to support the cavalry on the plateau. General Bulow was at this moment threatening the flank and rear of the army; it was important not to fall back at any point, and to hold the present position, which had been taken, although it was premature. This move at full trot by 3,000 warriors who passed by with shouts of ‘Vive l’Empereur’, and under the eye of the Prussians, created a fortunate diversion at this critical moment. The cavalry were marching on as if to pursue the English army…
“However, the heavy cavalry division of the Guard, under the orders of Gen. Guyot, who was in the second line behind Kellerman’s cuirassiers, followed at full trot and proceeded to the plateau. I noticed this, and sent to recall it, it was my reserve…it was already committed and any movement of withdrawal would have been disastrous.
“However, these 12,000 picked cavalrymen performed miracles; they overwhelmed all the more numerous enemy cavalry which sought to oppose them, drove in several infantry squares, broke them up, seized 60 pieces of artillery, and in the middle of the squares, captured ten standards, which three Chasseurs of the Guard and three cuirassiers presented to me in front of La Belle Alliance….
Not being backed up by a strong mass of infantry, which was still contained by General Bulow’s attack, this gallant cavalry had to confide itself to holding the battlefield which it had conquered.”
Napoleon makes it clear that he was in full command during the battle. He, not Ney, had ordered the “unsupported” cavalry attack, not because he’d lost his mind, but because the infantry reserves had their hands full with the threat to his rear by von Bulow. Unfortunately, the entire cavalry had gone forward, most without orders, and to be fair to Guyot, we don’t know why.
Then there’s Napoleon’s oft-quoted criticism of Ney, reportedly said to Soult as the French heavies failed to end the battle – “Ney has betrayed us as he did at Jena“. If he said it, and that’s doubtful, as Soult is the source of the quote (8) – that was obviously a remark made in anger and frustration in the heat of battle. Ney’s aggressive attacks, and the almost invariably victorious results, were legendary. The “traitor” was in the middle of having 5 horses shot from under him; the last on the personal order of the Emperor himself, as Ney led the Middle Guard up the hill.
And now, the coup de grace. Again, Napoleon tells the story.
“If Marshal Grouchy, as he had written at two in the morning from his camp at Gembloux, had taken up arms at first light, that is to say at 4am, he would not have arrived at Wavre in time to intercept General Bulow’s detachment; but he would have stopped Marshal Blucher’s three other corps; and victory would still have been certain. But Marshal Grouchy only arrived in front of Wavre at half past four and did not attack until six o’clock; it was no longer the time for it!
“The French army, 69,000 strong, which at 7pm. had gained a victory over an army of 120,000 men, held half the Anglo-Dutch battlefield, and had repulsed General Bulow’s corps, saw victory snatched from it by the arrival of General Blucher with 30,000 fresh troops, a reinforcement which brought the allied army in the line up to nearly 150,000 men, that is two and a half to one.”3
Napoleon and his generals had been sure the battle was won; Napoleon describes the excellence of the French disposition.
“They were only waiting for the arrival of the infantry of the Guard to decide the victory; but they were staggered when they perceived the arrival of the numerous columns of Marshal Blucher.
The sun had gone down, nevertheless, “the enemy…would be completely broken, as soon as the rest of the Guard debouched. A quarter of an hour was needed!
“It was at this moment that Marshal Blucher arrived at La Haie and overthrew the French unit defending it… the enemy cavalry swept over the battlefield…it was necessary to give orders to the Guard, which was formed up to go forward, to change direction. This move was carried out in good order; the Guard faced about (to handle the onslaught from two sides)… immediately afterwards, each battalion formed itself into a square. The four squadrons detailed for action charged the Prussians. At this moment the English cavalry brigade, which arrived from Ohain, marched forward. These 2,000 horse got in between General Reille and the Guard.
This account, which is more or less verified by the Prussian accounts (11), is rather different than that of the British accounts, which form the basis for most Anglo/American history books. These focus on Wellington’s, “Now Maitland, now’s your time” command; the withering fire of concealed British troops, Wellington waving his hat, etc. All of this is true, but the critical role of the Nassauers in slowing the Guard’s advance is usually totally omitted or downplayed, not to mention the decisive Prussian attacks on Plancenoit, on D’Erlon and on the Guard itself.
Then there’s the criticism of Ney swerving the Guard left, which causes incredulity among modern-day armchair generals. Ney, one of the great tactical commanders in all of history, had no choice given the Prussian onslaught on his right flank, which is barely referenced in English accounts, rather along the lines of “Some Prussian fellows did arrive – albeit belatedly”. Furthermore, moving from the expected line of attack (and away from the Prussians) was probably his only chance. All one has to do is look at any map of the battlefield – taking into account Zeithen’s corps – to get an idea of why Ney advanced as he did. Advancing directly through and then behind la Haie Sainte would have been extraordinarily difficult. (12)
Two of the greatest commanders in all of history faced each other, and the faithfulness of a third made the difference. Wellington, master of defense, was in an entrenched position that he had chosen, and counted on the arrival of Blucher. Napoleon had considered the Prussians under control by Grouchy, and had von Bulow and von Zeithen not arrived in Napoleon’s flank, the French would undoubtedly have won, and we’d be reading about Napoleon’s finest victory, Ney’s brilliant attacks etc.
Scant praise is given in English language books to Blucher and von Bulow, whose forces determined the outcome. Wellington, Orange and their patched-together armies’ heroics will be deservedly told for millennia to come and yet – there’s far more to the story. As Wellington cracked some time after the battle, “There’s plenty of glory to go around”.
- Some accounts say more.
- Chandler, David, Campaigns of Napoleon, MacMillan, 1966, p. 1121
- See part two of this article for my defense of my position that Ney – not Wellington – won at Quatre Bras.
- See Field, Andrew, Prelude to Waterloo – Quatre Bras, Pen and Sword Military, 2014, pp. 81 and following for an interesting listing of many of the key orders from Napoleon/Soult, Ney and Reille. Reading those orders are critical to understanding what happened. Napoleon later accused Ney of failing to attack at 6 a.m. on the 16th; his memory on St. Helena years later, and his actual orders on the 16th are very much at odds. Legions of historians accept Napoleon’s version, which wasn’t true.
- Bonaparte, Napoleon, Napoleon’s Memoirs (Edited by Somerset de Chair), Howard Fertig, N.Y., 1988, p. 525.
- , p. 533.
- , p. 531. (Naturally, Napoleon praises his cavalry, and discusses the squares they broke, omitting praise of the marvelous British/Allied units, most of which successfully maintained their squares. The British gunners deserve particular mention. Many of them fired at point blank range, and then, while running toward the safety of the infantry squares, were sabered.)
- Soult and Ney were personal enemies. Napoleon’s criticisms of Ney reported by Soult or his ADC must be considered suspect. Napoleon though, certainly had his own criticisms of Ney from his new quarters on St. Helena. Ney was in turn, highly critical of Napoleon in his report to the Senate.
- Bonaparte, Op. cit., p. 534.
- Interestingly, Captain Siborne of the English army reported that Blucher’s two corps arrived much earlier, at 7 p.m. See Lachouque, Henry, The Anatomy of Glory, Napoleon and his Guard, Brown University, 1962, p. 487.
- Hofschroer, Peter, The Waterloo Campaign – The German Victory, Greenhill, 1999 and the much shorter Waterloo 1815, Wavre, Plancenoit and the Race to Paris, Pen and Sword, 2006.
- Napoleon reportedly sent an aide to try to swerve Ney’s last line of attack directly forward rather than obliquely. Ney however, was not exactly an amateur at that particular task.