The Waterloo campaign began when Emperor Napoleon I invaded Belgium with his army of the North to defeat the Anglo-Allied forces of the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian army under Blucher. Napoleon hoped that a great victory might restore his military reputation, whilst confirming his political status within France. The French Emperor also believed that a swift success might deter the allies from marching upon France or even topple the coalition against him, creating circumstances that would allow him to negotiate a peace with the Allied powers in his favour.
With four great battles spread over as many days, Quatre Bras, Ligny, Wavre and, of course, Waterloo, Napoleon's dream of restoring his fortunes was shattered when the campaign reached its dramatic climax at the Battle of Waterloo on the 18th June 1815. Resulting from the unwavering cooperation of Wellington and Blucher, Napoleon suffered a defeat so crushing that his credibility was irretrievably lost, for upon returning to Paris he was forced to abdicate a second time.
The political and military career of arguably history's greatest soldier was over and with it his dreams of Empire. Only the humiliation and suffering of his final years in exile on Saint Helena beckoned, but even then he was not idle, for with the time that was left to him, he laboured to construct the Napoleonic Legend which still blazes bright today.
PreludeNapoleon's audacious march upon Paris in the spring of 1815 to regain his imperial crown and to restore his Empire, must surely rank as one of the boldest ventures ever undertook by a single man, even for a man of his towering stature. It's stunning success crowned him with fresh glory and he later recalled his triumphant entry into Paris as the happiest day of his life as he was swept up in triumph and borne up into the grandeur of the Tuilleries amid the frenzied adulation of the people. The Hundred Days had begun.
To the Allies meeting at the Congress of Vienna, who sought to turn back the clock and redress the map of Europe after two decades of incessant war, Napoleon's return was greeted with rather less enthusiasm and despite their bickering over whom should receive what, which threatened to fracture their tenuous alliance, they placed aside their differences to declare war on their common enemy; Napoleon Bonaparte. Not France, but one man. By the formation of the Seventh Coalition which formally came into being just five days after Napoleon's return to power , they pledged to refrain from signing any individual peace agreements with the usurper and to remain in the field until he was utterly and finally defeated, with each agreeing to provide 200,000 men.
Upon learning of Napoleon's return, Joachim Murat , King of Naples rushed off to offer his services to his former master. In 1814, Murat had betrayed Napoleon by siding with the Allies in the hopes of securing his own kingdom as the French Empire collapsed. Subsequently, after Napoleon's defeat the treacherous Murat had become only too aware that his tenure of Naples was temporary; that the Allies intended at some point to usurp his kingdom, hence his return to Napoleon, knowing he must stand or fall with his former master.
Once he had regained his throne, Napoleon quickly found that circumstances within France had changed. He was no longer the spoiled child of victory, but one man amongst many. He sensed a new mood sweeping France. The optimstic enthusiasm of the glory years of the Empire had vanished, to be replaced by a yearning desire for peace, for the recent horror of war was still fresh in the minds of many after the collapse and defeat of France in the spring of 1814. Napoleon needed peace too, in order to restore confidence to the French people, but also to secure himself as ruler of France. As a realist, Napoleon must have known that the chances of securing peace were fragile; that the Allies would never permit him to rule within France's borders. But the effort had to be made anyway on behalf of the French people and for himself, for he desired to be seen as the victim of the Allies agressive intentions. Without much optimism and hoping against hope that the peace could be maintained, Napoleon made overtures to the major powers of Britain, Austria, Russia and Prussia by trying to reassure them of his his peacefull intentions.
But his peaceful overtures were rejected. The cold stance of the Allies was perfectly clear. War was inevitable and Napoleon felt morally justified in preparing for a new war. Only by war could he restore his fortunes and secure his future as leader of the French nation.
Any hopes that Napoleon's overtures might have been received favourably, were dashed by the rash actions of his brother-in-law Joachim Murat, who in an attempt to curry favour with his former master, but without consideration of his actions, declared war on Austria and promptly advanced on Rome with 40,000 men and 56 guns. At first, Murat's expedition to liberate Italy met with success as the Pope fled to Genoa and his troops occupied Florence, but Austrian forces were mobilising and Murat was decisively defeated at the Battle of Tolentino on May 2nd. Fleeing to France, Murat's repeated offer of his sabre to his brother-in-law met with an icy silence for Napoleon was incensed at Murat's rash stupidity which he saw as squandering his peace overtures by pre-empting a new war. Murat kicked his heels around Lyon's unemployed, but his services at Waterloo as a unsurpassed leader of cavalry would be sorely missed.Napoleon at once employed his formidable energies and organisational skills into mobilising for a war of survival as he saw it, and by June the impossible had been achieved with the help of Marshal Davout, whom he had appointed minister of war and military governor of Paris. Davout, the victor of Auerstadt in 1806, was a warrior rather than an administative clerk; indeed one of Napoleon's finest fighting generals, and he made it known that he would prefer a field command. Unrelenting to Davout's wishes Napoleon needed someone to instill 'backbone' into Paris if he were obliged to leave the capital and take to the field once again against his enemies. Ruthlessly efficient, loyal to the extreme and ebued with an iron will in seeing a job finished, Davout was that man. Only Davout could be entrusted to safeguard the capital in his absence.
The strategic concept of the Allies called for a massive demonstation of their power along the whole of the French eastern frontier. Two major offensives were planned under the supervision of Prince Schwarzenberg, aimed at Paris over the Rhine and the Meuse as well as a smaller supporting offensive aimed at Lyons. This could take several more months of course to build up the concentration of troops required. Only in Belgium under the Duke of Wellington and Field Marshal Blucher were the Allied armies already rapidly gathering in strength. In early May, Blucher ever eager to come to grips with the French pressed for an advance into France to begin in June, but Wellington being more cautious, persuaded his impetuous ally to await the arrival of the Austrians and Prussians first, though both agreed that in the event of an attack by Napoleon, they would draw in their forces to unite as one entity, Blucher concentrating his army at Sombreffe, Whilst Wellington would concentrate his own forces towards him.
To meet the hostile intentions of the Allies, Napoleon had managed to assemble 232,000 men at arms, ressurecting in the process of filling the ranks of his newly reformed Grande Armee such notable units as the elite Old Guard which would form the backbone of the army. As in 1805, Napoleon needed a great victory that would ensure his survival. Nothing less than a stunning success could restore his military reputation, his fortunes and fill the nations empty treasury. Two choices were thus open to Napoleon. He could either attack the Allies before they had a chance to organise against him or else he could sit back to wait for the Allies to come to him and defend against their encroaching forces in the style of the 1814 Campaign. Whilst the latter plan was attractive for it might enable him to build up and train his forces, he was also aware that this strategy had failed the previous year. Much more attractive to Napoleon was the first plan, and he intended to seize thew initiative first by assuming the offensive before the Allies could possibly have time to bring their superior forces to bear against him.
Since Wellington, commanding the Anglo-Dutch army which he estimated at being some 105,000 strong and Blucher's Prussian army which he likewise estimated having in excess of 120,000 men were the nearest within striking range deployed in Belgium, Napoleon planned that this was where his axe would fall first. But, in order to strike at the two allied armies, Napoleon would have to split his total available manpower of 232,000 men in order to leave sizeable fighting units upon the frontiers to pin and to hold the encroaching Austrians and Russians whilst he dealt with both Wellington and Blucher. Of his 232,000 men, only 128,000 men would be available to launch his campaign in the north. Thus, Napoleon would be at a numerical disadvantage from the start. To fight a united Anglo-Dutch and Prussian army would be to court disaster therefore, but Napoleon had a concept called the 'Strategy of the Central position' which could offset this. It was easier to attempt than to achieve and a lot would rely on speed and surprise , but Napoleon was confident he could pull it off. The strategy entailed splitting the two armies apart by slicing between them. Moving against one army with his main strength to defeat them, Napoleon would detach a smaller, token force to pin and hold the other force to prevent it from intervening. With his primary foe defeated and in retreat, Napoleon would then march his main body to rejoin his detached force and then force the secondary enemy army to a battle of annihilation.Napoleon anticipated a short and sharp victorious campaign in which he would defeat and throw back the two Allied armies and subsequently occupy Brussels, after which he was confident the Belgians would rise to declare for him. With the defeat of their most celebrated general and the destruction of their army, the English government that was hostile to him might well collapse like a pack of cards, to be replaced by a party more sympathetic towards him. With the Prussians likewise reeling back upon their lines of communications via Liege to the Rhine, perhaps in utter defeat, only the Austrians and the Russians would be left to deal with. Maybe a great victory, another Austerlitz in Belgium would prove enough to give the Allies food for thought. With England defeated, it was not inconceivable that the union binding them might break as each power broke away to pursue their own interests. In the event that the Russians and Austrians still showed the inclination to fight as they fell upon General Rapp and Marshal Suchet guarding the Eastern frontier, Napoleon considered he would be well placed in Belgium to fall southwards upon their flanks and rear, cutting their supply lines from their bases.
In the unlikely event that his lightning strike against Belgium failed, Napoleon reasoned that he could still fall back on his secondary strategy to redeploy his forces before Paris and Lyons to fight a repetition of the 1814 campaign with a still reasonable chance of success. Mindful of the betrayal and intrique that had enabled the swift capitualtion of Paris to the Allies the year before, Napoleon was confident that the loyal and dependable Davout could safeguard the city against any possible repeat of the previous years treachery.
Secure in the knowledge that his capital was in capable hands, Napoleon departed Paris in the early hours of the 12th of June to rejoin his army at Beaumont near the Belgium border where it was poised to strike at the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies.
The Commanders and their Armies
Here is a quick overview of the involved parties.
The Emperor Napoleon
- Main article: Napoleon I
"In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon."―The Duke of Wellington when asked who had been the greatest general of the age
Napoleon in 1815 was still the greatest military commander in Europe, his reputation easily eclipsing that of his two opponents despite his recent fall from grace. For many years, Napoleon had adhered to a style of warfare that was truly 'Blitzkreig' in it's nature. Speed was an essential ingredient of his formula as well as concentration and overwhelming force. Typically, he would move his legions with lightening speed to close on the enemy who would be thrown of balance by the rapidity of his advance. Having gained the initiative before the enemy could react, Napoleon would then seek to deliver the 'coup d' grace' by fighting the decisive battle that would end the war.
With an insight to strategy on the grand scale that was breathtaking and an instinctive intuition for war that was probably unsurpassed, Napoleon held to this successful formula which brought him victory after victory. But familarity breeds contempt, and his enemies eventually learnt from their mistakes to develop counter measures to his varilous ploys and tactics. It is noteworthy that after 1809, although he still won the overwhelming majority of the battle he fought, he still nonetheless failed to win a campaign outright as his style of warefare was diluted by the enlightenment of his opponents. In sum, he was eventually brought down not by his own failing powers, but by the steady evolution of his opponents as his own stagnated. On St-Helena Napoleon boasted "I have fought over sixty battles and I learnt nothing that I did not know in the beginning." It was an awful admission to make, which showed within a brief moment one of the key reasons for his defeat.
Another factor which was to dilute Napoleon's generalship at Waterloo and to ultimately affect the outcome of the campaign was the fact that Napoleon in 1815 was no longer the all dynamic and decisive leader he had once been. The struggles of the past two years seemed to weigh heavily upon him. After so many reverses since the Retreat from Russia, his old unwavering confidence in himself appeared shaken and he now experienced periods of self doubt which he tried to mask behind bold and authorative outbursts. "I hardly recognise the Emperor I used to know" lamented Lazare Carnot, "he now talks more instead of acting."
Much controversy also rages as to the state of his health during the Hundred Days and the Waterloo Campaign. In his book, One Hundred Days - Napoleon's Road to Waterloo, Alan Schom writes that "Ever since his attempted suicide attempt the year before, a handkerchief was constantly ready to control the flow of saliva seeping from the corner of his mouth. His breathing was hard and irregular and often interrupted by a cough." This description of Napoleon in 1815 is also echoed in Napoleon his Wives and Women, by Christopher Hibbert.
Ceratinly his legendary stamina seemed to desert Napoleon on several critical occasions during the Waterloo Campaign, but this may have simply been the result of nervous and physical exhaustion brought about by the tremendous pressures upon his shoulders, for since his return to France he had with typical heroic resolve and energy, subjected himself to a gruelling eighteeen hour a day work schedule. Snatching a few hours sleep when he could, he wrestled almost single handedly with the titanic task of restructuring the nations finances, consolidating his power, and rallying the people to his banner to meet the hostile intentions of the Allies. When his doctor became alarmed at his workload and urged him to rest, he snapped back, "I have not got the time."
At forty six years of age therefore, Napoleon still displayed a level of activity which would have daunted a much younger man and this alone confuses the issue of his general health. And yet, there is no doubt that Napoleon was unwell during the night of the 16th/17th after the battle of Ligny from an acute attack of piles which left him in great pain and distress which might account in part for his lethargic, withdrawn and undecive showing at Waterloo on the 18th, as well as his disastrous decision to appoint Marshal Ney effective battlefield commnander, whilst he himself assumed a supervisory role.
The Duke of Wellington
- Main article: Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
"Wellington in the management of an army is fully the equal of myself, with the added advantage of possessing more prudence."―Napoleon
If Napoleon enjoyed the greater reputation of military prowess, then Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington enjoyed the distinction in 1815 of never having lost a battle. He perhaps lacked Napoleon's genius for strategy on a grand scale which had enabled the French Emperor to the pinnacle of military prowess, but in tactical affairs he was a master of his trade who was fully his opponents equal. In the sphere of minor tactics, ie the personal handling of bodies of troops down to a brigade level on the battlefield, he was perhaps Napoleon's better, since upon becoming Emperor in 1804, Napoleon had increasingly been unable to devote himself to the level of micro-management that Wellington could enjoy, becoming increasingly reliant to delegate battlefield responsibilities to his subordinates, and In some respects, the Emperor Napoleon was the death of General Bonaparte.
Born in 1769, the same year as Napoleon, Wellington had learned many valuable lessons about how to wage war in India in the years 1797-1805. These crucial years honing his military skills stood him in good stead, providing a solid foundation to take on the French conquerors of Europe in the Spanish Penninsula where he proved once and for all to an astounded Europe that the French were not invincible after all, by taking on and beating every French Marshal sent against him, which in turn emboldened Napoleon's enemies to continue the fight. Soon The French themseves had begun to develop a healthy respect for him, half admiringly calling him "Monsieur Villainton," whilst to his own troops he was known as "Old Hookey" in reference to his hooked nose, or the "Bugger that beats the French." To his own officers he was simply known as "The Peer."
In many ways Napoleon and Wellington were the antithesis of one another. Napoleon was a master of strategy and of the offensive art of war. He led by his sheer charisma which spoke to the soul to electrify the fighting men. Wellington was a master of tactics and of the defensive battle, although he could fight a superb offensive battle if he so wished. His style of warfare was characterised by a careful, methodical approach as opposed to Napoleon's intuitive grasp of warefare which amounted to genius. Being aristocratic in nature, he was stern and aloof, critical of his own officers and allies to the point of rudeness, whilst he made no secret of his disdain of the rank of file, whom he still nonetheless knew he could rely on to fight any foe.
Wellington's health in 1815 is on more solid ground than his opponent. A keen horseman, he would ride hard in all weathers which helped endow him with an hardy constitution. Her enjoyed excellent health and the Waterloo campaign would demonstrate that that he was a leader who had few qualms about exposing himself to danger. Wherever a crisis developed, Wellington would be in the thick of it, personaly leading and inspiring his men by his own cool example.
Field Marshal Blucher
- Main article: Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher
"After a defeat he resumed his advance, as if in fact he had just won a victory."―Napoleon, speaking of his adversary in admirationThe last of the trio of great generals participating in the Waterloo Campaign was the fiery seventy two year old Gebhard Blucher. Fiercely Patriotic, rough and blunt mannered, he still possessed a certain streak of the hussar which compelled him to charge straight into the thick of action somewhat impetuously, which had sometimes landed himself and his army in a perilous situation as had happened at the Battle of Vauchamps in 1814. Yet, spurred on by his hatred of Napoleon and the French, he had done as much as anybody and more than most to ensure Napoleon's defeat the previous year by instilling courage into his wavering Allies to continue the fight.
Blucher, like Napoleon, enjoyed the unswerving adoration of the soldiers who marched beneath him. Like the French Emperor, he was a soldier at heart with a soldiers appetites and sensiblities who knew how to speak their language. With affection, and in reference to his habit of being ready to advance once more after a defeat, he was known to his soldiers as "Old Forwards." He may not have had the strategic grasp of Napoleon, nor the tactical brilliance of Wellington, but he was endowed with common sense and unsurpassed courage. Perhaps even more so, Loyalty and a sense of honour were his greatest strengths and these qualities alone would stand the Allies in good stead during the campaign, for without Blucher, Wellington could never have hoped to stand alone and triumph at Waterloo.
Unlike Napoleon and Wellington, he recognised the limits of his intellect and was happy to share the reins of his leadership with his extremely able Chief of Staff, Gneisenau who in some respects at least, was in a sense the commander in chief of the Prussian army in 1815, who provided Blucher with strategic and tactical guidance. Gneisenau was the brain, but Blucher was the symbol and figurehead of the Prussian army. He was the engine and mainspring which drove and kept the Prussian army focused on it's goal. Together, the combination of Blucher and Gneisenau was a truly formidable partnership.
His health in 1815 was open to question for he was after all, seventy two. In the 1814 Campaign in France , serious illness had laid him low at a crucial point at the Battle of Laon, which had allowed Napoleon to escape to fight another day. But, in 1815 he showed remarkable powers of vitality and recovery for a man of his years.
The French Army
- Main article: Grand Armee
Numbering 128,000 men and 366 artillery pieces, The 'Armee du Nord' as he had designated it for his forthcoming campaign, was quite possibly one of the most formidable he had ever commanded; the backbone of the army composed as it was of a large percentage of of seasoned veterans and soldiers whom had fought in at least one previous campaign. Many of the raw conscripts of 1814 were now considered old soldiers and suffering from their wounded and battered pride, many had joined up volunarily, eager to rejoin the Imperial eagles and march beneath the Emperor's banner once to avenge the indignities and humiliations of their defeat in 1813/14. Morale was superb and expectations were high. All in all it was a truly formidable and nationalistic army composed almost exclusively of Frenchmen; an army of which Napoleon could be proud. And yet, despite it's impressive and imposing potential, it's fatal flaw lie beneath the surface for it was irredeemably divided in it's unity. Mistrust and a fear of treachery stalked its ranks, for the die-hard Bonapartists viewed with scorn and suspicion those who had so eagerly accepted and served the Bourbon monarchy.This fear of betrayal would ultimately contribute to the army's undoing during the final hour at Waterloo.
The army itself was divided into five army corps led respectively by General's D'Erlon, Reille, Vandamme, Gerard and Lobau. It was supported by four reserve corps of cavalry, led by General's Pajol, Exelmans, Kellerman and Milhaud. Each of the five army corps was in effect a miniature army in themselves, comprised of infantry, cavalry and artillery. Napoleon believed that a solitary corps finding itself faced by the enemy had the means to fight independantly, at least until neighbouring corps could arrive and reinforce it. In addition, the army comprised of a 25,000 strong reserve of the elite Imperial Guard which fell under Napoleon's personal command. This formidable reserve was also comprised of all arms and the infantry was divided into the Old, Middle and Young Guard."Dont use the Marshals," an old soldier wrote to Napoleon upon his return. To be sure, after a decade of war, the Marshalate which was created in 1804 was largely 'washed out.' Many were dead, too old or just simply lacked the incentive after being heaped with honours and titles as well as vast estates to now risk their lives in a new and uncertain war. Either they remained loyal to Louis XVIII or else they retired to their estates in neutrality. In either case, they were simply struck off the list of Marshals. Napoleon was far sighted enough to see the merits of raising junior officers up through the ranks who were still hungry to succeed, but for reasons of prestiege and in view of his still shaky throne, Napoleon still needed the support of the big names that were still willing to offer their services to him.
Marshal Davout and Marshal Suchet, two of Napoleon's most gifted commanders who did return to him were not destined to take to the field in Napoleon's last campaign. In Napoleon's absence in Belgium, the utterly loyal Davout was deemed indispensable by the Emperor in safeguarding Paris against a repeat of the intrique and betrayal which had helped defeat Napoleon the previous spring. Likewise, Suchet who had enjoyed the greatest successes in the Pennisula War, was also kept far away, being given independant command of the 'Armee d' Alpes' comprising of 23,500 men in south-eastern France where he was to link up with Marshal Brune's pathetic skeleton force of 5,500 men and attempt to stem the tide of an anticipated onslaught by 70,000 Austrian and Italian troops.
The military talents of Davout and Suchet would be sorely missed during the Waterloo Campaign, but perhaps Napoleon deliberately left them behind in order to throw his own anticipated success into a sharper focus, for in 1815, as already mentioned, Napoleon desperately needed a stunning success on his own merit in order to both restore his damaged military reputation and to cow the hostile crowned heads of Europe.Certainly it seemed as if Napoleon fielded a second rate team, at least in the higher echelons of command and this would seem to support this view, although it could also be said that Napoleon may have took both Marshal Soult as his Chief of Staff and Marshal Ney to command his left wing along with him to enable him to keep a watchful eye on them. Both men had been proven to be individuals of no fixed loyalties, happily swapping sides when and if opportunities favoured them.
Perhaps Napoleon's biggest loss for the campaign in 1815 was the absence of Marshal Berthier as his Chief of Staff. All through the glory years of the Empire, Berthier had superbly translated Napoleon's intentions and plans to the various army corps, contributing to the stunning successes of the Grande Armee. Berthier's replacement, Marshal Soult was no substitute, having had little or no administrative experience and the campaign would be hindered by his vague and contradictive orders which would be misplaced, arrive late or not at all. Indeed, as soon as the campaign opened it would almost be derailed by his shoddy staffwork. Soult was an outstanding field commander and given that he had personaly fought Wellington in the Spanish Penninsula and knew his likely tricks and stratagems, would have been an ideal choice for command of the left wing, but that went to Ney...
Marshal Ney was invited at the last moment to be "present at the first battles" as Napoleon rode off to war. Ney would arrive at the front after the campaign had already got underway to be told little by Napoleon about the broad concept of campaign, except to be informed that he was being given command of the left wing. Ney rode off to take up his command very still much in the dark as to what Napoleon expected of him, which in itself, would result in dire consequences for Napoleon's chances of a successful outcome during the campaign. While Ney was a courageous man, perhaps second to none, his ability to think along strategic lines in order to bring success was limited by his impulsive character. On form, Ney could be breathtaking, but by 1815 Ney's conduct on campaign was to wildly fluctuate, being interspersed with periods of impetuous activity and lethargy.
The last of the key commanders was that of the newly appointed Marshal Grouchy. Being given his Marshal's baton on Napoleon's return to power, Grouchy was given command of the right wing. As a leader of cavalry, Grouchy was perhaps second only to Murat himself in expertise of handling mounted divisions, but he had never before tasted independant command of a mixed force of infantry, cavalry and artillery, and he would soon find himself out of his depth. To make matters worse he was placed in rank above two subordinates in the form of General's Vandamme and Gerard who resenting being placed under a man whom they considered inferior to their own suitabilility to command, would only serve him with scornful reluctance.
Napoleon had achieved wonders to mobilise and re-equip the French army at such short notice, but in order to do so the industries of France had been strained to the limit and as a result, not all of the army's equipment was of the highest quality. In particular, muskets were in short supply or in need of repair and once on campaign, Napoleon would order that all captured muskets to be hoarded carefully.
Order of Battle: The French Army
The Anglo-Allied Army
On the 9th of May 1815, A far from pleased Wellington, described his command as "....An infamous army, very weak and ill equipped and a very inexperienced staff." To be sure, Wellington's army could not compete in terms of raw experience to Napoleon's army, and unlike the French army which was composed almost exclusively of French nationals, Wellington's was composed of many different nationalities of varying experience and dubious loyalties; a polyglot mix of British, German, Hanoverian, Brunswick, Nassau and Dutch-Belgian troops. On the other hand there was a much relieved enthusiasm in the ranks at Wellington's arrival in Brussels to asume command as Sgt Wheeler of the 51st regiment declared, "Glorious news! Nosey has got command! Won't we give them a drubbing now!"
Eventually through dogged perserverance, Wellington was able to build up the strength and quality somewhat of this so called 'infamous army' up to 106,000 men and 216 guns. But still, only barely 32, 000 men, one third of his army could be called British. Therefore it was a British army only in the loosest term of the word. Even worse, many of the British troops were far from the veterans who had fought beside him in the Pennisula; many of those formidable warriors having been posted overseas to fight a useless war North America, and still in the process of returning. Despite being well trained, many had never even experienced active combat conditions. Even the highly regarded North British Dragoons, better known as the Scots Greys had seen little active service since 1801. The most worrying aspect of the army to Wellington was the non British contingents, for Wellington could not be sure if they would stand in the heat of combat or remain loyal at all. The Dutch-Belgians's remained the most suspect, for these had recently been comrades in arms with the French, before the creation of the Netherlands state which was in itself, resented. Wellington feared they might desert, or at best have little inclination to fight. Yet, Wellington's very reputation as well, it can be argued the campaign itself, was saved at Quatre Bras on the 15th, when Perponcher commanding a brigade of Nassau troops, disobeyed orders in an act of intelligent initiative and held firm at the crossroads, denying the French
But it was not all gloom and doom in the Anglo-Allied army that was being hastily assembled to meet the French threat. Sir Thomas Picton's 5th division contained a considerable proportion of Peninsula veterans, which included the ferocious 92nd Highlanders, dubbed the 'Ladies from Hell.' Picton's division therefore, as well as his British troops in general, could be relied upon to face any foe and Wellington also knew he could rely on the superb KGL, the Kings German Legion. These German troops were trained by Britain and were clothed in British style uniforms. They were also led by excellent officers. To stiffen morale in the ranks and minimize the risk of desertion of his weakest troops, Wellington was careful to intersperse his British troops amongst them.
Upon arriving in Brussels in early April, Wellington had found the 18,000 strong Dutch-Belgian troops under the command of, the Prince of Orange. 'The Young Frog' as the prince was nicknamed, was the eldest son of the King of the Netherlands and his appointment by his father was political since although endowed with the reckless courage of youth, he had little experience of warfare, much less leading men. Furthermore, the Prince of Orange had an exaggerated view of his own abilities and fanced himself as a great leader, continually threatening to mount an offensive on his own initiative. It was recipe for disaster, and with tact, Wellington to everybody's relief managed to assume overall command of the whole army, the Prince being relegated to command of the 1st Corps where Wellington could hopefully keep an eye on him.Initially too, Wellington had been sent Sir Hudson Lowe as his Quartermaster-General, who would later win wider fame as Napoleon's gaoler on St-Helena. Wellington called him a "Damned old fool," and sent him away. He was replaced by Sir William de Lancey, a Peninsula veteran and Wellington was much pleased. Another appointment and one that might have not pleased Wellington, for he had eloped with his sister-in-law, was the arrival of the Earl of Uxbridge to command his cavalry. He was an excellent officer who had distinquished himself in the Pennisula and Wellington was satified with his appointment. Wellington also received Lord 'Daddy' Hill, one of his most trusted subordinates during his Penninsula days, and a man very popular amongst the troops. Then there was Sir Thomas Picton, another Peninsula veteran. Picton, was a rough spoken, ill mannered Welshman, but his courage was legendary and he was also popular with the troops. Although not liking him much, Wellington respected his worth and asked for his services. As well as these appointments, the Duke also received many other experienced officers who had fought iun the Peninsula and were both reliable and competent. They would fill key positions and provide inspiring and firm leadership to the troops in the uncertain days ahead.
However, perhaps the most important man at the Anglo-Allied headquarters after The Duke of Wellington himself was the Prussian representative, Baron von Muffling. Muffling, an intelligent man of charm and tact in his role as Liason officer would communicate between the Anglo-Allied army and the Prussian Army to smooth out any misunderstandings between the two. Muffling as such, would do as much as anyone to assure victory by ensuring that the two armies would remain united in their goal by his patient and firm diplomacy between the two camps.
The army was organised into two infantry corps led by the Prince of Orange and Lord Hill respectively, and a cavalry corps commanded by the Earl of Uxbridge. Wellington himself kept direct command of the army reserve.
Echoing the hybrid nature of the army, much of the equipment was of a hodge-podge nature. The British aspect of the artillery for instance carried, 6 and 9 pounder guns as well as a smattering of 5/12 inch howitzers, but some of the other Allied units carried gunsn modelled along French lines. The infantry across the army carried a curious mix of British, Prussian as well as French made weapons which would complicate the logistical aspects of ammunition and supply.
Order of Battle: The Anglo-Allied Army
The Prussian Army
The Prussian army of 1815, had already undergone great reforms, being restructured largely on French organisational and tactical lines after it's disasters in the Jena-Auerstadt campaign in 1806. Since then, it had rapidly proved itself as a force to be reckoned with, managing to inflict defeats upon the hitherto invincible French forces. 1813-14 had proved crucial tests to it's mettle and under the inspiring leadership of the indomitable Blucher, it was not found wanting as it had exacted it's revenge for past defeats which in turn restored both it's pride and morale.The spread of nationalistic patriotic pride had helped to create something like a true peoples army. Despite this, the enthusiasm of 1813-14 had largely evaporated, but the return of Napoleon had refired both the willingness of the army and the nation to fight and take the war to the French in 1815. Blucher summed up the feelings of many, declaring as he did at every opportunity, "This time, Bonaparte and the French are going to suffer for it!"
It could not however compete with the French army in terms of raw expertise as it's ranks were filled with a very high proportion of raw conscripts and reservists. Up to half of the the foot army was of "Landwehr" status, ill equipped, short of rations, with even no shoes in some cases. In the cavalry regiments, only twenty two out of forty nine regiments were of regular status. In addition, the loyalty of many of the troops from newly acquired provinces who had frormerly fought for Napoleon were suspect. For instance, 10,000 troops from the former Confederation of the Rhine deserted after the defeat at Ligny and the Saxon/ Silesian troops mutinied even before the campaign opened. Discipline in the ranks still left something to be desired, but there was no denying that despite the high proportion of conscripts and recalled reservists, the Prussian army enjoyed a high level of morale as well as a patriotic spirit of loyalty to it's king, and it's overall performance during the campaign showed it to be a potent instrument of war
The army of 128, 000 men and 312 guns under the overall command of Field Marshal Blucher was compised simply of just four corps commanded respectively by von Ziethen, Pirch I, Bulow and Thielmann. Unlike The French and Anglo-Allied armies, it did not retain a reserve. All of the Prussian resources were thus placed within the four corps which potentially could be a grave weakness. It was noticable too that the Prussian army of 1815 was short of heavy cavalry.
Somewhat surprisingly, much of the Prussian equipment was of French origin.Much was also of British origin, vast amounts being supplied by Great Britain from 1813 onwards.
Order of Battle: The Prussian Army
June 15th - Napoleon Invades Belgium
Napoleon's masterly concentration of his army on the Belgian frontier must rank as one of his greatest achievements. It had been brilliantly planned and even if Ziethen's 1st Prussian corps stationed around Charleroi did see a mass of camp fires burning over the border around Beaumont on the night of the 13th of June, they were not unduly disturbed and no significant precautions were taken. For the French army poised to invade Belgium, the omens of a stunning success seemed to beckon.
On the eve of the Invasion, Napoleon's rousing proclamation, was read out to the troops..."Soldiers, today is the anniversary of Marengo and Friedland: Victory will be ours... For all true Frenchmen the time has come to conquer or perish..."
At around 2:30am on the 15th of June as Napoleon's troops readied themselves to cross the River Sambre, twelve regiments of cavalry under the command of Pajol moved off into the night to spearhead the invasion. Despite Napoleon's carefully laid plans, the advance which initially began in two columns did not quite get off to the successful start that was hoped for due to considerable confusion and delay. The right column of Vandamme's III Corps, Lobau's VI Corps, Gerard's IV Corps and the Guard, moving towards Charleroi was hampered when Vandamme's Corps which was meant to lead the way, was late taking to the road owing to a delayed order. Vandamme was aghast when Lobau's VI Corps marching up behind, crashed into his own stationary men causing a jam of tangled bodies between the two formations which took some time to distangle. To help ease the jam, Napoleon ordered Gerard's division to march to and cross the Sambre at Chatelet. As soon as General Gerard reached Chatelet, General Bourmont commanding his leading division promptly deserted to the Prussians to divulge to Ziethen, sensitive details of the deployment and strengths of Napoleon's army. The underlying fear of treason which lay just beneath the surface of Napoleon's otherwise formidable army appeared to be founded, and Bourmont's troops were dismayed and unsettled at this unexpected development.
On the French left, Reille's II Corps and D'Erlon's I Corps moved towards Marchienne. Reille reached his objective on time, but the Prussians put up such a spirited defence, that Marchienne only fell to the French by midday.
Owing to the confusion of the French thrust at Charleroi, Pajol's cavalry found themselves fighting without any infantry suppoert as the Prussian's fought to hold on to Charleroi, but at 11 am, Napoleon himself appeared at the head of the Guard in person and Ziethen decided to abandon the town and fall back in accordance with Blucher's wishes.
Acting on General Ziethen's news of the French invasion, together with Bourmont's information, Blucher had already to concentrate his army at Sombreffe, as he had previously agreed with the Wellington as part of the Allied strategy to unite in the face of an attack. Wellington on the other hand, although being informed at around 3pm on the 15th that Ziethen had been attacked at Charleroi, was still not convinced that the main French attack was in fact through Charleroi. Somewhat obsessed with his lines of communications which ran through Ostend, Wellington feared that the main French attack would strike through the Mons - Brussels highway to cut himself and his army away from the channel ports and thus from home. Thus convincing himself that the French attack through Charleroi was a mere diversion after all, Wellington actually ordered his troops to concentrate west of Brussels to cover the Mons road, and away from the main French thrust in effect aiding the French and putting his ally in a dangerous position.
Unwittingly, Blucher by endeavouring to order his I, II, III and IV Corps to concentrate at Sombreffe was without Wellington's cooperation, blundering his way into Napoleon's hands, for to concentrate his scattered forces peacemeal against the concentrated might of the 'Armee du' Nord,' was a dangerous manoevre indeed.
At around 3:30 pm, Marshal Ney appeared at Charleroi to receive orders from Napoleon. After being told by the Emperor that he was glad to see him, Ney was appointed commander of the left wing consisting of D'Erlon's I Corps and Reille's II Corps together with Lefebvre-Desnouettes cavalry of the Guard. After ordering Ney to advance rapidly up the Charleroi- Brussels road, Napoleon next summoned Marshal Grouchy forward and subsequently gave him command of the right wing which consisted of Vandamme's III Corps and Gerard's IV corps also with supporting cavalry. Napoleon himself retained under his own command, Lobau's VI Corps together with the Imperial Guard which were to remain in a central position, able to be thrown to support either wing as circumstances might dictate.
Initially, Marshal Ney made rapid progress on the left flank as his forces advanced up the Brussels road, sweeping the last obstinate defenders of the Prussian rearguard out of Gosselies by the late afternoon. Hereafter, the left wing faltered as the advance guard of Lefebvre-Desnouettes cavalry came under enemy infantry and cannon-fire as they probed towards Frasnes. In due course, a single infantry battalion arrived after a request for support, but perhaps something of Wellington's reputation preceded him, for gazing at the high standing corn in the summers evening, Ney became wary of pressing a further advance should the high stalks conceal enemy formations. It was now around 8:00 pm and despite there still being perhaps two hours of daylight left, the light was fading and the men were tired after covering twenty-two miles that day, so a cautious Ney justified his decision to call a halt for the day and make camp.
Had Ney but known it, just 4,000 men and 8 guns opposed him, He himself had in the region of 50,000 men in the vicinity and could easily have smashed through this numerically inferior force to seize the strategically important crossroads of Quatre Bras which lie beyond. The crossroads would prove to be one of the key-points around which much of the fate of the whole campaign would be balanced
Several miles to the east, the tardy advance of the right wing was characterised by the excessive caution which Marshal Grouchy displayed, which in his case, can be partly explained by the fact that he had been thrown into the 'deep end' so to speak, into a position of responsibility of which he had no prior experience. Napoleon, perhaps with some misgivings at Grouchy's appointment to Marshal, became so alarmed at the apparent lax progress of the right wing, that by the late afternoon he decided to intervene in person, joining Grouchy at Gilly to infuse the troops with a sense of urgency. With Napoleon at the helm, the effect was dramatic as French infantry battalions stormed the Prussian positions, obliging them to withdraw in some disorder, hounded by the French cavalry in pursuit which wrought havoc upon them. As the Prussian battalions continued to withdraw with difficulty to Fleurus, General Letort of the Guard Dragoons attempted to induce the 28th Fusiliers to surrender in face of their futile circumstances, but he was killed. Furious at their beloved leaders death, he was not long avenged when his comrades fell upon the hapless 28th in an unrestrained fury. The 28th lost over 600 men and 13 officers that day
By last light, Grouchy's right wing had fought itself into the outskirts of Fleurus; infantry were called for to storm the town, but General Vandamme refused to lend his support to a superior whom he still held in contempt, so Grouchy was obliged to be content with the day's gains already made and to call a halt to the day's operations.
With both wings of the army now halted for the night, Napoleon himself retired back to Charleroi where he had made his headquarters for the night. Despite the initial mishaps and delays that had characterized the first day of the campaign, he still had reason to feel pleased with the day's results. Even if either of his two senior commanders had failed to carry vital objectives; Ney the crossroads at Quatre-Bras and Grouchy, Sombreffe, he had nonetheless gained a brilliant strategic initiatve by catching both of his opponents by surprise. Most importantly, his army was now wedged firmly in the central position between his two opponents. By the close of the 15th, Napoleon had his army in hand, his two opponents did not, and thus he had the fate of all three armies within his grasp.
The Duchess of Richmond's Ball
At around the same time as Napoleon had retired to Charleroi, the Duke of Wellington was preparing to attend the Duchess of Richmond's ball, a decision for which he was criticised then and since. Yet, he had undoubtedly made the right decision in the circumstances, for by now Brussels was ablaze with rumours of the French attack. "In war morale is everything" Napoleon himself had said as much, and Wellington a great commander in his own right was equally fully aware of it's full significance. In the undercurrent of fear that swept Brussels in the wake of the news, he knew that it was vitally important to maintain an outward show of calm to help prevent a widespread panic.
Prior to attending the ball, he had received a message indicating that Marshal Blucher was concentrating his army at Sombreffe and another despatch which informed him that all was quiet around the Mons sector. Besides being in receipt of knowledge that Ziethen had been attacked at Charleroi, Wellington considered it could be a feint attack by Napoleon, with the decisive blow of the axe to fall elsewhere. In this regard, he clearly decided to wait for more reliable news rather than to act rashly. Although he still feared that the main French attack would fall well to the west, he was still sufficiently impressed by the news because one hour later whilst at the ball he adjusted his afternoon plans to order a general concentration towards the inner flank and to order the reserve to ready themselves to march southwards to Mont-St-Jean.
Any illusions he had of a major French attack to the west, was shattered at the height of the Duchess's ball in the early hours of the 16th, when Wellington at last learnt the full scale of the French attack through Charleroi, and of what had transpired just south of Quatre-Bras. In the face of the potentially fatal implications which the news brought, Wellington was a model of calm composure as he asked the Duke of Richmond for a map and was led discreetly to an empty room. Behind closed doors, Wellington at last allowed his emotions to show. Poring over the map he exclaimed in admiration for his opponent "By God! Napoleon has humbugged me, he has gained twenty-four hours march on me!" After being asked what he intended to do, Wellington replied " I have ordered the army to Quatre Bras, but I shall not stop him there, and if so, I must fight him here," as he passed his thumbnail over a place called Waterloo.
At best, perhaps all he could do was fight a skillful delaying action to bring himself and Blucher some time to bring their forces together for Wellington was aware of the scattered nature of his forces and knew that in all likelihood, they would not be able to reach the crossroads in time to prevent a breakthrough by the French.
June 16th - The Battles of Quatre Bras and Ligny
By 7:30am, the Duke and his staff were riding south to Quatre Bras, preceeded by the army reserve which had left at dawn.
At Charleroi, Napoleon determined to fight a decisive battle against Wellington on the 16th, for he had learnt from Marshal Ney who had visited him in the small hours, that Quatre Bras still remained in Allied hands. He planned to march his reserve to link up with Ney's forces and to smash through Wellington's defences and make a triumphant march upon the political prize of Brussels. His growing conviction was that Blucher would retire from his exposed position around Sombreffe, but to be certain that the Prussians could not interfere and lend their support to Wellington's Anglo-Allied army, he prepared to launch preliminary manoevres around Sombreffe and Gembloux as a precaution. After his expected victory over Wellington and the occupation of Brussels, he would then confront Blucher himself with the full might of his 'Armee du Nord.'
Over at Quatre Bras itself, victory remained to be snatched with relative ease by Ney, but the Marshal who had once been dubbed the 'Bravest of the Brave,' by Napoleon for his unsurpassed courage during the Russian retreat, seemed to be no more, for he made no move to advance and secure the vital crossroad which was still lightly defended. With time very much of the essence in this campaign, every hour which he squandered away, gave Wellington's own forces time to reinforce the position. Perhaps in his defence, Ney was unsure as to what the Emperor expected him to do and perhaps believed he was to await the arrival of Napoleon in person along with Lobau and the Guard. Certainly a despatch he received at 10:am indicated this. On the other hand, the Ney of old would almost certainly have acted instead of procrastinating.
As for Napoleon, by mid morning he was in the process of switching the emphasis of his attack from Ney's left wing to that of Grouchy's right wing... News had now reached him from Grouchy, that significant Prussian forces were arriving in the vicinity of Sombreffe in force. He was reluctant to give credit to such reports and decided to ride over to see for himself. Joining up with Vandamme's III Corps in front of St-Armand, the masses of Prussian troops he could see marching into range through his spyglass convinced him of the need to now turn his attentions upon the Prussians
Napoleon estimated that he could not be ready for battle until 2:00pm, for time was needed to bring up his troops and deploy them; namely Gerard's IV Corps into the front line and his Guard which would form the reserve. His battle plan which he began to formulate, envisaged a large part of Ney's command marching over from the crossroads at Quatre Bras which he assumed Ney would have taken and secured by mid afternoon. Coming from the west, Ney's forces would commence an enveloping assault on the flank and rear of the Prussians right flank, at which point Napoleon would unleash an irresistable attack by his Imperial Guard which would pierce a mortal wound through the centre of the Prussian line. Napoleon imagined a great and decisive victory, which might well decide the fate of the entire campaign, for with the defeated Prussian's reeling back along their lines of retreat to Namur and Liege, nothing could stop him from turning his full attention from Wellington's army who would be isolated from their Allies. "If Ney carries out his orders thoroughly, not a gun of the Prussian army will get away" Napoleon declared
Field-Marshal Blucher for his part, was determined to stand his ground and offer battle to the French, and shortly after noon he had three Corps in his hand on the intended field of battle. Ziethen's I Corps of 32,000 men formed his central battle line. It's centre was placed upon St-Armand with its left flank on Ligny itself, whilst it's far flank hinged on Wagnele. Pirch's II Corps was deployed behind I Corps and Theilmanns III Corps would form up between Sombreffe and Mazy on the far left. Blucher also hoped to bring up Bulow's IV Corps, but as it turned out, this formation was too far distant to be of any help.
Sometime around 1:00pm as both armies were still deploying for battle, the Duke of Wellington himself arrived to visit Blucher. Wellington had arrived at Quatre Bras at 10:00am that morning, and after expressing his surprise to find the battlefield unduly quiet had rode over to see his ally. Wellington at once saw the exposed positions of the Prussian troops which invited easy targets for the French artillery. Perhaps he tactlessly pointed this out to his Allies, for Gneisenau, perhaps in a slight to Wellington's well known preference to concealing his men, retorted that "The Prussian soldiers prefer to have a plain view of their enemy" With some forebodings in respect of the Prussian deployments, Wellington set off back to Quatre Bras, but before he did so, he promised to aid Blucher by "Bringing over part of my army, providing I am not attacked myself..."
Nonetheless with 84,000 Prussians on the battlefield, which included 8,000 cavalry and 224 guns holding a seven mile front along the marshes of the Ligny brook, and holding all of ten vilages which dominated the approaches over all four of the main bridges, Blucher believed he was well placed to offer strong resistance to the French.
Napoleon's plan for total success depended very much upon Marshal Ney's full cooperation, and at 1:00pm, Napoleon, noting the inexplicable lack of any action from the direction of Quatre Bras and furious that his orders were not being obeyed, despatched a sharp note to Ney, demanding him to "Attack without further delay, all that is before you with the greatest impetuosity." ominously, the message ended with the words, "the fate of France is in your hands."By 2:00pm, the French army was more or less deployed to fight. Grouchy's cavalry Corps of Pajol and Exelmanns were deployed on the French far right. Their task would be to tie down Thielemann's Corps whom they opposed. Vandamme's four infantry divisions on the French left and Gerard's three infantry divisions together with supporting cavalry, would assault Blucher's left flank and centre respectively. At around this time, Napoleon also decided to elaborate on his 1:00pm note to Ney, adding, "Attack all before you, and after driving it back, you will turn in our direction to bring about the envelopment of Blucher's forces.
Shortly after 2:00pm,the French guns at Quatre Bras at last roared into action. Reille, the French Corps commander had in excess of 20,000 troops, but having fought Wellington in the peninsula, he dreaded being surprised by large numbers of Allied troops who might lie in wait,concealed from view. Consequently, the initial French advance was cautiously pressed and the scant forces under Perponcher were able to cling on to their positions. At 2:30pm, the Battle of Ligny erupted. As the cavalry formations of Pajol and Excelmans manoevred to tie down the Prussian left, Vandamme led his divisions forward in a ferocious attack upon St-Armand, whilst simultaneously, Gerard hurled two of his divisions at Ligny itself to both pin down Ziethen's forces and to draw more Prussian reserves into the rapidly escalating struggle. On the western edge of the battlefield, the fighting became particulary bloody as both sides fought for possesion of the lateral road running to Quatre Bras, from where they hoped reinforcements might appear. Every hedgerow and house was hard fought for with a desperate 'no quarter given' mentalty as soldiers fought tooth and nail for possession of St-Armand and Ligny in bloody street battles, with the result that horrendous casualty list began to mount up rapidly on either side.
By 3:15pm, Napoleon himself was gazing in the direction of Quatre Bras, expecting by now to be catching sight of Ney's column's approaching the enemy flank. Exasperatedly, Napoleon sent out another note to Ney, telling him again that the fate of France was in his hands, and urging him to attack the Prussian right flank without delay. No sooner had this message gone, when a message at last arrived frrom Ney informing the Emperor that he was now committed in battle against an Allied force of at least 20,000 men. Since it was now obvious that Ney would not be able to fulfill his original plan, Napoleon followed up his last note by telling his subordinate that he required him to send over D'Erlon's I Corps only. Only now did Napoleon remember that Lobau's VI Corps still stood idle near Charleroi, and yet another message was sent out requiring him to march with speed to lend his support to the Emperor's army.
The battle was by now inexorably swinging to the French. After five attacks upon Ligny, they had finally managed to gain a foothold. With the French now pouring into Ligny, and more and more Prussian reserves being sucked into the eye of the storm in the centre, Napoleon's plan was taking effect and the French Imperial Guard began to form up in readiness for their decisive attack that would herald victory. Napoleon only awaited D'Erlon's Corps to unleash his attack.
Ney most certainly was committed to a struggle at Quatre Bras. After wasting at least six hours before launchiing an attack that aftenoon, his opportunity to win an easy victory had now passed for Dutch Belgian cavalry and Picton's veteran 5th division with 12 guns had arrived to bolster the Allied line which had wavered dangerously before their arrival after Ney's divisions had captured Piraumont farm on the Allied left wing and Gemioncourt farm which lie central on the Allied battle line. Furthermore, Wellington had now arrived back to personally take charge. When Ney confidently sent forward four French columns of infantry in expectance of victory, Picton's elite soldiers quickly reduced them to a screaming, demoralised mob as they were repulsed and hotly pursued by the Highlanders.
On the French left, Napoleon's youngest brother, Jerome Bonaparte, enjoyed more success as his men broke through the Brunswick line. As the French cavalry raced to exploit this victory, The Duke of Brunswick launched an ill concieved counterattack at the head of his 'Death's Head' Hussars' which were decimated, costing the Duke of Brunswick his life.
It was now 4:00pm. Successful on his left, but with his attack on Wellington's right in ruins, Napoleon's 2:00pm message reached Ney, which stated "Attack all before you, and after driving it back, you will turn in our direction to bring about the envelopment of Blucher's forces"At this juncture, Ney decided that he needed the manpower of D'Erlon's I Corps of 20,000 men to help him deliver the decisive blow against Wellington's line, in order to accomplish this task, but I Corps to Ney's consternation, was absent from the field.
As messengers rode out to urge D'Erlon's Corps to Quatre bras with all haste, Pire's chasseurs and lancers in the meantime made a surprise attack upon the Allied line which almost achieved Ney's sought after victory when Wellington, caught of guard himself, was forced to ride for his life and seek shelter within an infantry square to evade capture. The Allied troops caught within this superbly timed cavalry attack were lucky to form up in sqare at all, caught as they were in the very act. After some heart-stopping moments, Pire's cavalry was finally beaten off, though not without grievous losses on the Allied side. Nonetheless, Wellington's crisis had now passed. He had both received and dealt with all the best that Ney had to offer and now more reinforcements were arriving to upon the field to tip the balance in his favour.
With the initiative slipping away from him, the crisis for Ney was just beginning for he had no fresh troops with which to mount another offensive against Wellington's line, and without the assistance of D'Erlon's 20,000 men, all he could hope to do was hold his own, let alone take the vital crossroads. Even now, his tired troops were falling back. With the pressure mounting on him in a situation, which in all fairness he had brought upon himself through the mornings idleness, Ney's frame of mind when a messenger rode onto the field to inform him that D'Erlon's Corps was actually marching upon the Ligny battlefield and thus away from him can only be imagined at. Ney's fury that D'Erlon's movement was being made without his direct authorisation was all the more exasperated by the fact that Wellington, with a now numerical superiority, was launching his own offensives across the field. Clearly D'Erlon would have to be recalled...
D'Erlon's I Corps was by now almost upon the Ligny battlefield and it was extremely unlikely that he would not be able to reach Quatre Bras in time to be of any usefull assistance, but the ever impulsive Ney, without thinking of the implications this might mean against the larger picture of Napoleon's campaign itself, immediately ordered his recall. No sooner had this been done, when yet another messenger appeared before him, bearing Napoleon's 3:15 message urging him to "attack the Prussian flank without delay" For Ney, it was the final straw. Furious that the Emperor had no concerns for the diffiiculties he faced at Quatre Bras, he flared up in a rage, prompting the despatch rider to forget the written message which he still had in his pocket which would have explained Napoleon's intentions.
Fired up to something resembling his old self, Ney was now intent on snatching a victory without D'Erlon through deperate means, even if that meant mounting a heroic, but suicidal charge with Kellermann's partially arrived Cuirassiers, numbering 750 men. When Kellermann quite rightly questioned this order, Ney made it clear that he would brook no argument, although he promised the support of Pire's cavalry. "Go and go now," he said.Amazingly, with a little help from the incompetence of the Prince of Orange, Kellermann's charge by his heavy cavalry at around 5:00pm, almost carried the day. Swirling around the battered squares upon the front line, they drove onwards and caught the 69th, who upon the orders of the Prince, was actually forming back from square into line formation. They were subsequently cut to pieces by the maurading French cavalry and their colour captured. After a gun crew was slaughtered, the 33rd was also caught off guard, but despite receiving a severe mauling, they somehow managed to cling on and extricate themselves. Kellerman's exhausted horsemen almost reached the crossroads itself, but a deadly crossfire from Allied units present obliged them and remnants of Pire's depleted support to seek the safety of the French lines. Kellerman himself, with his horse shot from beneath him, was lucky to evade capture or death as he made good his escape by clinging on to the stirrups between two of his troopers.
The impetuous attack was Ney's last throw and had ultimately achieved little. Furthermore, the arrival of 5,000 soldiers of the British Guard's swung the fortunes of war in Wellington's favour and by the end of the days fighting, he had recovered all the ground he had lost during the day whilst Ney found himself back where he had started
Napoleon's Last Victory
At the battlefield of Ligny, it was now 6:00pm. Napoleon had finally decided to send in the Imperial Guard against the rapidly crumbling Prussian centre, with or without Ney or D'Erlon's help. Just as the attack was about to roll forward, it was reported that a dark column of troops was approaching the rear of the French left wing from the south-west. Could it be Wellington, coming to aid Blucher after a victory over Ney? Perhaps it could be D'Erlon? No one knew, and Napoleon deemed it wise to suspend operations until the marching body of troops which was already causing consternation in the raks was identified.
Profitting by this temporary reprieve, Blucher used the time to strengthen his wavering line and actually managed to regain part of St-Armand.
Within the hour, the mystery column had indeed been identified as D'Erlon's I Corps who was marching on Wagnee instead of Wagnele on the Prussian flank as the Emperor had intended. The same hour also saw the mystification of Napoleon and his staff as they watched D'Erlon's 20,000 men do an about turn and begin to march back to Quatre Bras almost as soon as they had appeared. (D'Erlon had by now received Ney's strongly worded recall.
Napoleon made no move to call back D'Erlon's Corps for his assault to smash through the Prussian centre could be delayed no longer, so at 7:00pm, preceeded by an artillery barrage and an attack by the Young Guard which threw out the Prussian's from St-Armand, 6,000 warriors of the Guard advanced on Ligny in two columns whilst rain poured down, amidst the rumble of thunder overhead. Half an hour later the stricken Prussian line buckled and broke , and the Guard began to march through the ruptured centre in a triumphant prelude to Napoleon's now assured victory.
To buy some time for his defeated army to disengage and withdraw to safety, Field Marshal Blucher now placed himself at the head of 32 squadrons of cavalry and led a heroic counter charge into the shattered centre which was,together with subsequent charges, easily swatted aside by the Guard who continued their remorsless march through Ligny supported by French cavalry. Blucher's charge was however not in vain, for as he had intended, it allowed the bulk of the Prussian army to escape as even into the late evening, sporadic pockets of Prussian resistance fought on in supporting rearguard actions.
Although he could not know it at the time, Napoleon had just won his last victory.
The Prussian Withdrawal to Wavre
The Prussian army army quit the field of Ligny leaving behind them 16,000 dead and wounded. That they had suffered a heavy defeat was undenable, but although shaken, they were far from broken as a fighting force as evidenced by the relatively orderly withdrawal of the two Prussian wings that was enabled in no small part to Blucher's heroic charge.
The Prussian army streamed northwards to put time and space between themselves and the expected French pursuit, ignorant of their field Marshal's whereabouts, for at the height of Blucher's charges during the closing stages of the battle, he had fallen from his mortally wounded horse and had lain semi-conscious as cavalry of both sides swirled overhead. Luckily for the Prussians, the French did not realise the great prize that lie within their grasp and in due course Blucher would be rescued by the courageous actions of a loyal aide to rejoin the main army later on.
Napoleon had won his victory, but it was not the crushing success which might have clinched the campaign there and then. His own army had suffered 11,000 casualties, but more significantly, it was utterly exhausted after it's exertions after the hard contested battles for Ligny and St-Armand. Realising this, Napoleon refused to authorise an immediate pursuit upon the Prussians for he was still convinced his enemy might still be dangerous. Although hopeful that the Prussians's had been shattered by their defeat, he was not convinced, for he knew from his own bitter experiences fighting Blucher in 1814 to expect the unexpected... As he related to Campbell, the Briish Commissioner on Elba regarding Blucher " That old devil was always ready to attack again even after a defeat."
Exhausted or not, an immediate pursuit of the Prussian army was a necessity after Ligny, and the consequences of Napoleon's failiure to do so would have fatal consequences for the French within the next 48 hours.
In a bid to restore some order and a definate rallying point for the disorganised Prussian army, Acting in Blucher's absence, Gniesenau and the most senior generals held a makeshift roadside conference. By what little light they could find, the only place which stood out with any degree of certainty was called Wavre, directly northwards of Ligny, and so this was chosen. Gniesenau planned to rally the army around the as yet untouched corps of Bulow which would provide a nucleus. Once this was achieved, it was then Gniesenau's aim to continue the Prussian withdrawal eastwards towards the Rhine, for he had little trust in Wellington and his polyglot Allies. Fortunately for the Allies, Blucher's safe return to the army changed the scheme of things and he would not hear of any further withdrawal. Despite his shaken condition, his hatred as well as his desire to beat the French remained as strong as ever. As he put it bluntly, "Honour demanded that he stand by his ally, come what may"
Ironically, the location of Wavre itself, although chosen at random, provided Blucher with the ideal means to effect a juncture with Wellington on the 18th.
17th June - Interlude
By dawn on the 17th, Napoleon had sent out cavalry patrols to determine the general direction of the main body of the Prussian army. It was important for French Emperor to find out whether Blucher intended to rally his forces and make a stand to support Wellington or continue his withdrawal. Pajol's cavalry detachment reported a mass of fugitives streaming eastwards along the road towards Namur, which seemed to support that the Prussian's were withdrawing eastwards upon the lines of their communications, but for Napoleon, the overall picture was still far from clear. If he moved pre-emptively against Wellington now without finding out what Blucher intended, it was possible that he might find himself sandwiched between two hostile armies which could very well force him to withdraw himself behind a strong rearguard, leaving his Belgian campaign in tatters.
Napoleon, much to the dismay of his generals, thus subsequently spent the morning touring the battlefield of Ligny in an display of indecisiveness, discussing the political situation from Paris amongst other things whilst he awaited news. After a night in which he had been unwell, he still appeared tired and this only exasperated his irritability, for when Marshal grouchy pressed him once again for orders to pursue the Prussians, he exploded. " I will give you the orders when I see fit!"
On a plus side, Napoleon visited three divisions that had suffered the most heavily during the battle and by his charismatic prescence, raised their morale. Also, he allowed his battered formations more time to rest after their exertions of the previous day.
Finally a despatch arrived from Marshal Ney, and from this the French Emperor learnt that Wellington, far from falling back as he assumed he would after Blucher's defeat, was in fact still at Quatre Bras, and most importantly, his army was still in strength at the crossraods. It was news too good to be true, and at once Napoleon saw the golden opportunity that he had been unaware of all morning. Hoping that it was not to late, Napoleon threw of his cloak of lethargy and finally gave General Grouchy orders to pursue the Prussians with 33,000 men, comprising Vandamme's and Gerard's corps.
Soon Napoleon was his old dynamic self as he galloped along the road to Quatre Bras at speed with his staff, Lobau's corps as well as the formation's of his Imperial Guard in his wake. He hoped now to fall upon Wellington's flank and destroy him, assuming that Ney would pin Wellington's army in place by a frontal assault. But, he was disconcerted to hear no sounds of battle ahead of him as he drew near. When he did reach Quatre Bras, he was furious to find no battle in progress, for Neys men were quietly eating their lunch, leaving Wellington's forces free to withdraw northwards unmolested.
In fact, Wellington had been withdrawing his troops since mid-morning after hearing definate news of Blucher's defeat and the subsequent retreat of the Prussian army to Wavre. Wellington knew that by himself he was vunerable, and so must fall back to stay in close contact with his Ally. "I suppose in England they will say we have been licked," he said," but as Blucher has fallen back, we must do likewise."
Even now it was not to late for the French to prevent Wellington from escaping, and after briefly berating Ney for his tardy conduct and remarking bitterly to D-Erlon that "France has been ruined," Napoleon intervened personally to lead the pursuit of the Anglo-Allied army.
It was likely that Napoleon's army might well have caught Wellington's army, such was the reputation of the French for outmarching any opponent, but the weather was Wellington's friend and Napoleon's enemy. Now the dark clouds overhead broke into a thunderstorm which turned the ground into a quagmire, hampering the French pursuit and fascilitating wellington's escape. At Genappe, a furious cavalry melee erupted along the narrow streets when Lord Uxbridge's hussars turned to blood pursuing French lancers.
By 6:30pm, it was clear that Wellington had evaded Napoleon's clutches, and the French Emperor remarked bitterly "What would I give to have the power of Joshua to slow down the progress of the sun!" Indeed when Napoleon reached La-Belle Alliance within the same hour he could see little ahead due to the premature twilight brought on by the appalling weather. He gave orders to General Milhaud tp probe ahead with his Cuirassiers and when over sixty Allied guns roared out, unmasking Wellington's positions along the Mont St-Jean ridgetop opposite, Napoleon had his answer and the French Cavalry withdrew. Clearly Wellington intended to make a stand the next day.
"Have all the troops take up positions and we will see what happens tommorrow," Napoleon told D-Erlon before retiring to the farmhouse of Le Calliou where he had established his headquarters for the night.
18th June - The Battle of Waterloo
During the early hours of the 18th, Napoleon paced the Fremch lines, gazing towards the thousands of campfires which marked the positions of the Anglo-Allied army which faced his own. He appeared anxious, fearing that Wellingtomn might decide to slip away during the night and deny him the victory that would crown his Belgian campaign in triumph.
The French Emperor need not have worried, for his adversary, the Duke of Wellington was equally determined not to deny him the battle he sought. By the time the sun was rising over the rain sodden field where soldiers from both sides had spent a uncomfortable and miserable night, he had received definate word from Blucher confirming to him that the Prussians would be marching in strength that day from Wavre some fifteen miles away to the east in order to take the French army in the flank.
Wellington's plan was simple: Knowing that he had little chance of fending of Napoleon by himself, he planned to hold his ground and fight a purely defensive battle to buy himself some time whist he awaited the arrival Blucher's forces, which he hoped would tip the balance of fortune firmly in the Allies favour. Once the Anglo-Allied army had united with the Prussian army in strength, Wellington envisaged that combined, they could launch a powerful counter-offensive to decisively defeat the French army and end Napoleon's bid for Belgium. Well aware that he was facing a military genius, Wellington knew that he must be careful not to make any false moves in front of his opponent, and he was careful to skillfully arrange the dispositions of his troops so that his experienced soldiers were interspersed with his weaker units. Perhaps something of Napoleon's reputation urged him to be cautious too, for he placed a mixed force of 17,000 men at Hal, some ten miles west of the battlefield against an illusory french flanking attack that in the event never happened.
In and around Wavre, the Prussian army had made an astonishing recovery from it's defeat at Ligny less than forty-eight hours before. Both Blucher and the more cautious Gniesenau were now committed to a cooperative strategy with their ally to defeat Napoleon. The main fear in the Prussian camp was that if Wellington did not stand to fight or was unable to hold back Napoleon's army long enough to allow the Prussians time to effect their junction, then strung out on the line of march they might find themselves alone against the might of Napoleon's whole army. There was also the added complication of Marshal Grouchy with his 33,000 men to contend with, who was under orders from to prevent them interfering with the French Emperor's plans.
Fortunately for the Allied cause, Grouchy was out of his depth in his appointment on the right wing and had already let the Prussians slip away, for by 6:00am on the 18th, the French marshal was still dithering at Gembloux, seven miles south of Wavre, whilst the Prussian army embolded by his incredible laxity had already begun its march to Wellington's aid en-masse, leaving just one corps of 15,000 men under Thielemann to cover this movement and act as a rearguard should Grouchy try to intervene.
At 8:00am, Napoleon breakfasted with his most senior generals at Le-Caillou, whilst in the distance church bells from Plancenoit pealed. He appeared confident and expressed that, "We have ninety chances in our favour and not ten against." Even so, some of those present who had fought Wellington in Spain and were familiar with his tactics were not quite so sure, and they spoke up, advising the Emperor to fight a battle of manoevre rather than a costly frontal assault against the steadfastness of Wellington's redcoats. Soult was additionally worried about the absence of Grouchy's 33,000 men and urged them to be recalled. Napoleon's brother, Prince Jerome also related to Napoleon that he had intelligence from a Belgian waiter who had overheard two Allied generals discussing that the Wellington and Blucher would seek to unite their armies that day. Napoleon was dismissive of all these arguments and made a show of contempt for Wellington, and that was all it likely was, a show. It was against the principles of war to hold an opponent in praise and Napoleon merely wished to give his fearful generals a morale boosting 'pep talk.'
However, he was sufficiently impressed by Jerome's intelligence to order a detachment of hussars to take up a position behinfd Frichermont on thev eastern edge of the battlefield with extra detachment at Lasne in order to keep watch for the Prussians. Napoleon had wanted to commence battle by 6:00 am, postponed to 9:00am, but his artillery officers advised him give it at least another hour to let the ground dry out to enable the cannon to be manoevred freely. Besides this, many of the troops were stil assembling, having made camp as far back as Genappe during the rain sodden night, and so Napoleon, with fateful implications, postponed the battle.
But the initiative was already slipping away from Napoleon, for the Prussians were already on the march. Bulow's corps of 30,000 men had been marching since 4:00am that morning and had he but known it, Napoleon would undoubtedly have paid the mud scant regard and attacked Wellington sooner, for every hour that he wasted was to Wellington's advantage as the Prussians drew closer. By 10:00am, Napoleon at Rossomme, drafted a despatch for Grouchy stressing the need to draw closer to and to remain in contact with the main army. No sooner had this message been sent, when a despatch arrived from Grouchy informing him that it seemed two enemy columns were now converging on Brussels with the intention of joining Wellington. Dated 6:00am from Gembloux, Napoleon must have felt a little uneasy for the despatch told Napoleon that at the time it was written, Grouchy had not acted in a decisive manner on this information for he had not moved from Gembloux. Even if Napoleon felt uneasy, the die was cast, and so he rode out to review his army to thunderous aclaim from the troops as they formed up for battle.
The Anglo-Allied army was drew up before Napoleon blocking the road to Brussels in true Wellingtonian defensive style. Wellington had deployed his troops wisely, taking advantage of the natural terrain by hiding the bulk of his troops behind the reverse slopes where they were hidden from view and the destructive power of the French artillery. He had also taken advantage of the man made structures on the battlefield, fortifying, the Chateau of Hougoumont, the Farm of La-Hai-Sainte and the series of hamlets Papelotte, La-Haie and Frischermont to the far left of his position, to act as breakwaters against the French attacks. He had 67,661 men at his disposal, comprising 49,608 infantry, 12,408 cavalry and 156 cannon served by 5,645 men with which to frustrate Napoleon long enough to enable his Prussian allies to arrive in force. In anticipation of their arrival,Wellington had accordingly left space for their deployment on the far left of his position.
To defeat the Anglo-Allied army and take the political prize of Brussels in triumph, Napoleon had deployed facing Wellington, 71,947 troops, comprising of 48,950 infantry, 15,765 cavalry and 7,232 gunners serving 246 cannon. He deployed his troops into three lines, the centre of which straddled the Brussels road. Seven infantry divisions, comprised of Reille's II corps holding the left wing and D-Erlon's I corps holding the right wing formed the first line, In the second line were massed the cavalry divisions supporting the infantry divisions, whilst Lobau's IV corps stood central in reserve. Finally stood the formations of the Imperial Guard either side of the Brussels road.
Disregarding the earlier advice given to him regarding a battle of manoevre, Napoleon's battle plan which he laid down was a simple one which revealed that he intended to seek a quick victory by simply bludgeoning his way through Wellington's line by sheer brutal force, in a frontal battle of attrition. The plan called for a massive artillery bombardment to soften up his foe, followed by an overwhelming frontal infantry assault by the four divisions of D-Erlon's II corps which wpuld form the main attack. It was hardly a subtle scheme, and far from his finest, but in truth, the sodden nature of the ground after a night of rainfall must have hindered any battle of manoevre.
Being that the battle he was about to fight was crucially important to him, regarding his position as leader of the French nation as well as his military reputation, it was strange that he made a decision to hand over command of the battle to Marshal Ney, whilst he himself only assumed a supervisory role. Before the day was out, he would bitterly regret his decision.
11:25am - The Battle BeginsAt around 11:25am, the battle of Waterloo began when French guns from Reille's II corps opened up near the Chateau of Hougoumont. Their fire was preliminary to an attack by Prince Jerome Bonaparte who led the men of his division forward in an attack upon the Chateau. This attack was intended to be a diversionary affair, but it soon degenerated into a major battle itself as Jerome, infuriated by the fierce resistance within, led wave after wave of French troops forward in an effort to wrest control of the cluster of buildings. Upto 13,000 frenchmen would be committed to these futile attacks which were repulsed by a garrison of just 2,000 British Guardsmen.
Roughly twelve miles away to the east at Walhain, Marshal Grouchy and his staff had all heard the cannonade from the west. Almost at once General Gerard commanding IV corps had approached the Marshal to all but demand that they "March to the sound of the guns." In the circumstances it was a logical request, but such was Gerard's overbearing lack of tact to his superior, that Grouchy dug in his heels, stubbornly refusing to act upon Gerard's advice. Gerard's protestation's and subsequent plea to be allowed to at least march with his own troops cut no ice with the marshal, for Grouchy had no intention of splitting his forces which numbered 33,000 men. He was determined to follow the Emperors orders to the letter. So a great opportunity for the French to win the campaign was let slip, for if Grouchy had shown more self-initiative and marched to the guns even as late as midday, he must have caught Blucher's main body on the march to Waterloo.
During the first hour and a half, Napoleon had been supervising the formation of a grand battery of 88 guns, which positioned in front of D-Erlon's I corps thundered their destructive energy into Wellington's centre, prelude to Napoleon's grand attack by the four divisions which comprised D-Erlon's corps. Trouble was, apart from Bylant's exposed brigade which was horribly exposed on the forward slopes, Wellington had hidden the majority of his men behind the reverse slopes, which sheltered them from the killing power of the French guns. It might have been expected that some of the cannonballs might richochet over the ridgeline to fall amongst wellington's troops, but all too many shells fell harmlessly, burying themselves into the sodden ground. The French cannonade had thus more bark than bite. But the roar still must haver had a demoralising effect on the Allied troops, whist at the same time bolstering the spirits of D-Erlon's men who were preparing to attack.
At 1:00pm, just as Napoleon was supervising his attack, it was noticed that there seemed to be a dark cloud to the northwest. Early hopes that it might have been Grouchy's 33,000 men were soon dashed when a captured Prussian hussar, informed Napoleon in person that it was the vanguard of the Prussian army led by the 30,000 men of Bulow's IV corps on the way to support Wellington. Jerome's intelligence had been right after all... Reacting immediately, Napoleon ordered that Lobau's corps of 17,000 men, together with Domon's 3rd cavalry division and Subervie's 5th cavalry division should form a new battle line on his eastern flank to guard against this new threat that loomed on the horizon.
1:30pm - The Attack of D-Erlon's Corps
The battle still had to be won or lost however, and if Napoleon could sweep Wellington from the field before the Prussians arrived in force, then Blucher's intervention would be in vain, for he would have arrived to late to affect the issue. So at 1:30pm, as the grand battery fell silent, D-Erlon's four divisions, keen to prove themselves in the eyes of their Emperor, after having played no decisive part on the 16th, swept forward, supported by a swarm of skirmishers and two brigades of heavy cavalry who moved forward either side of La-Hai-Sainte, which was held by a battalion of the Kings German Legion, commanded by Major Baring.
There was perhaps as many as 17,000 men in this grand attack, and a it rolled forward it must have made a daunting sight to the Allies atop the ridge. On the far left, Quiot's infantry Division moved around La-Haie-Sainte, clearing it's garden and orchard and when Wellington sent reinforcement to Baring's aid, Dubois's curassiers butchered them. In the centre, the massive infantry columns of Donzelot and Marcognet marched seemingly unstoppable towards the Allied crest and in truth it was a critical time for Wellington, for just 3,000 muskets opposed the two advancing French columns which held all of 10,000 men. To Napoleon and his staff anxiously watching the attack from the opposing ridge, it seemed as if D-Erlon's attack would smash through Wellington's line with ease, but it was the high point of their expectations.
Sir Thomas Picton gave the order to fire and 3,000 muskets discharged a lethal hail of fire which threw Donzelot's division back, but Picton paid with his life as he was hit by enemy fire through his forehead. Even so, Marcognet's division scenting victory, marched unstoppable towards the crest giving an almighty "Vive l' Empereur," as Durutte's division began to deploy to their right. Wellington's army stood on the verge of disaster.
Lord Uxbridge now led his heavy cavalry divisions down the slopes in a perfectly timed rescue charge either side of the Brussels road, crashing into the advancing infantry divisions like a sledgehammer to cut them to pieces. Broken, D-Erlon's corps reeled back en-mass in great disorder losing 5,000 men and two eagles
Drunk with success, elements of the cavalry brigades, most notably the Scot's Greys, carried on through to reach the French grand-battery, but Napoleon with his eye on the ball had already gave orders to intercept them, and French cavalry on fresh horses swept in to wreak revenge. On blown horses, the Allied cavalry were badly cut up and flung back with great loss. Wellington had lost around 40 percent of his cavalry and almost all his heavy cavalry.
4:00pm The French Cavalry Attacks.
It was now about 3:00pm. Napoleon's grand attack to win the battle had failed and with D-Erlon's corps a disorganised shambles his situation was more desperate as the Prussians were now much more closer to arriving on the battlefield to support Wellington. Perhaps regretting even now allowing Ney too much free reign, Napoleon directly ordered the marshal to take La-Haie Sainte, but it was almost 4:00pm by the time Ney was able to organise an attack against the farmhouse with infantry brigades cobbled together from the wreckage of D-Erlon's corps which were still reorganising themselves. Still shaky from their bitter experiences, the troops that made up Ney's attack were beaten off, but even as they withdrew, Ney thought he saw a backwards movement from Wellington's army that seemed to signify a withdrawal. Hoping to capitalise on this chance and turn a withdrawal into a rout, Ney ordered up a brigade of Cuirassiers, which somehow escalated into a full blown attack by 5,000 cavalry of all types- many without orders.
Up on the Allied ridge, Wellington and his staff could scarcely believe their eyes as the French cavalry advanced between Hougoumont and La-Haie Sainte and this great mass presented a wonderful target to the Allied gunners as they came on, canister and roundshot tearing huge swathes into their ranks. But still they came on as the gunners ran for the cover of the Alllied infantry squares just beyond the ridge. Time and time again waves of French cavalry charged the squares, their attacks impotent against the hedges of bristling steel. Frustrated they withdrew to the valley to prepare to charge again. Amazingly, the French did not think to disable the Allied cannon, for each time the tide of horsemen withdrew, the allied gunners would venture out from the squares to man their guns and fire against the once again advancing mass which caused horredous loss casualties. Again and again the French attacked, each cavalry assault weaker than the one before.
Witnessing this catastrophe in the making, Napoleon then compounded Ney's mistake, by making another. Ordering up another 5,000 horsemen at almost 5:00pm in an attempt to break through Wellington's lines for the Prussians had by now erupted onto the field in force, to come up against Lobau's VI Corps of 7,000 men, who with cavalry support fought a skillfull delaying action before the bulk of the enemy could deploy.
Even this reinforced mass of cavalry, now numbering some 10,000 horsemen and driven forward by all of Marshal Ney's fury could not dislodge Wellington's troops from the Allied ridge, who stubbornly clung on, holding off all attacks within their squares. Finally, at 5:30 pm, accepting defeat, the French horsemen withdrew, vastly depleted in numbers, so much so that this magnificent arm was now wrecked as a viable fighting force for the remainder of the day. Wellington's troops had also been badly cut up, yet ironically not from the sabre or lances of the French cavalry. Obliged to remain in square as the cavalry withdrew between each cavalry attack, the French artillery had found wonderful targets amongst their densly packed squares.
Belatedly, near the end of the attacks, Ney had thought to make use of a neglected portion of infantry from Reilles II Corps. It was too late. Deprived of any significant cavary support since the horses were exhausted, it ws doomed to failiure, and the 6,500 infantry were blown away with little difficulty.
The Fight For Plancenoit.
The leading elements of Bulow's IV Corps, numbering some 30,000 strong, began to emerge onto the Battlefield in strength at around 4:30 pm. They encountered such firm resistance from Lobau's 7,000 men who fought a dogged delaying action, that Blucher determined to alter the axis of his advance and march on the village of Plancenoit. If he took this village, he could not only turn Lobau's flank, but would then be in a position to sever the Charleroi-Brussels highway to the rear of the French army, thereby entrapping Napoleon's forces who would be caught vice like between the pincers of both the Anglo-Allied and Prussian armies.
Unfortunately for Blucher, Lobau at once percieved the Prussian leader's intentions and the French raced to garrison the village before the Prussian's could beat them to it. Now the Prussians had to fight their way in, but as Pirch's II Corps came into action alongside Bulow, the scales began to tip in the attackers favour and Lobau was grudgingly forced to give ground before overwhelming enemy numbers.
By now, over at Wavre to the east, Marshal Grouchy at last had attacked the Prussian rearguard of Thielemann's 15,000 men of III Corps. He had at this time received Napoleon's 1:00pm order, which mentioned Bulow's marching columns to aid Wellington and the his orders to move closer to the main army and hinder the Prussian march. With the time now 5:00pm, there was no hope of linking up with Napoleon's army that day and the Marshal himself growing more impatient, led an attack to force a crossing over the River Dyle at Wavre itself, but the Prussian's proved far too stubborn. This attack repulsed, the French attempted to force acrossing at Bierges, where Gerard was severely wounded. This attack, was also fought off.
At the height of the afternoon's fighting as the French forced a crossing at Limale, to the west of Wavre itself, Thielemann sent a plea for assistance to the Prussian Chief of Staff, Gneisenau, by now leading the attacks on the French at Plancenoit alongside Blucher. Gneisenau's response was chilling. "It doesn't matter if Thielemann's forces are crushed, provided we gain the victory here."
By 6:00pm, the fight for Plancenoit was entering into a critical stage for the French, for the Prussians numerical superiority was rapidly ousting Lobau's tiring soldiers from their defensive positions witthin the village, as they swept in from three sides at once. Fearing for the integrity of his eastern flank and the consequences of his line of retreat should it collapse, Napoleon threw in a full eight battalions of the Young Guard to retake Plancenoit and bolster Lobau's struggling men. Blucher's exhausted troops were thrown back and Napoleon's line was temporarily stablised as the Prussians withdrew to regroup before a new onslaught.
6:00pm The French Capture La Haie Sainte
Whilst Napoleon directed operations upon the eastern flank against the Prussians, Marshal Ney had remained highly active in the centre against Wellington. At long last, displaying a tactical common-sense that had been absent for some time, he had strung together a series of well co-ordinated attacks upon the famhouse of La Haie Sainte using a combination of all arms which captured the stronghold dominating the centre of Wellington's line at around 6:00pm.
Wasting no time, Ney placed artillery pieces either side of the main road which at less than 300 yards range began to tear great gaps in Wellington's line bringing about a crisis for Wellington. With the Anglo-Allied line visibly crumbling before his eyes, Ney appealed to Napoleon for more troops with which to achieve a breakthrough and finish off the wounded Allied army before him, but if Wellington was in his hour of crisis, then so was Napoleon, for the Prussians had now regrouped and were launching another strong and determined attack on Plancenoit. Both Lobau's men of VI Corps and the eight battalions of the Young Guard were falling back before this new onslaught, and Prussian cannonballs were churning up the ground near La Belle Alliance Napoleon was distracted by the possible chance of victory in ther centre by this threat and as a consequence, Ney's request was met with a blunt refusal. "Troops? Where do you think I will find them? Do you think I can make them?" he, replied in agitation. With these words, Napoleon unwittingly threw Wellington a lifeline to shore up his battered line.
To stabilise his threatened flank, Napoleon sent in two battalions of the Old Guard, who supported by Lobau and the Young Guard, threw back a whole fourteen Prussian battalions to retake the village in a spectacular counter-attack. Both Lobau and the young Guard took heart at this brilliant display of military prowess and reoccupied the village once more. With his right flank now secure, at least for the moment, Napoleon returned to reconsider Ney's request and decided that it was now time to launch an attack on Wellington's centre using the remaining battalions of his Imperial Guard.
7:00pm The Assault of The Middle Guard
Even as Napoleon was preparing his formations, ever increasing masses of Prussians approaching the battlefield from the north-east could be seen. The gravity of the situation was clear. Defeat was on the horizon. To counter this and rally the whole army to support the Guard attack all along the front, Napoleon resorted to a deliberate ruse by ordering his staff to ride to tell the troops that Marshal Grouchy had arrived.With the drums beating the pas de charge, five battalions of the Middle Guard advanced from the Charleroi-Brussels road to march between Hougoumont and La-Haie Sainte. Three more battalions of the Old Guard were left in the valley to form a second wave in the event of a breakthrough, whilst another battalion of the Middle guard was posted near Hougoumont. Either side of the Brussels road near La-Alliance, the two battalions of the 1st Grenadiers, the Oldest of the Old, were left as a last reserve. Being raked by heavy artillery fire as they ascended up the slope to approach the Allied ridge and with barely 2,850 muskets with which to oppose the 15,000 troops which awaited them over the ridgeline and inadequately supported by cavalry, the outcome of the attack by the Middle Guard could never be in doubt, despite some worrying moments for Wellington when it actually seemed as if Napoleon's last ditch effort might be pulled off.
The French army fought desperately all along the line in support, pinning their hopes on the Guard's success, but outnumbered and outgunned, the Guard found itself under a withering fire from both the front and its flanks. The assault was halted, broken up and then flung headlong down the slopes in disorder to the shock and dismay of the whole French army who had been pinning their last hopes of a victory upon its success.
7:50pm La Garde Recule
Even as the Guard was falling back, the cry "La Garde recule" went up, and the French line faltered. Then Ziethen's 1st Prussian Corps was slamming into the French lines from the heights near Papelotte on the French extreme right. The realisation that these troops were not those of Grouchy after all, as they had been promised, hit home hard and the troops of D-Erlon's Corps and that of Lobau recoiled away from this new threat and a breech opened in the French lines which Ziethen's Prussians were not slow to exploit as they poured through the gap behind French lines. Aghast, French belief in victory collapsed and Napoleon's forces wavered. Judging the moment ripe to finish off this mortally wounded army, Wellington waved his hat high and forward. The whole Anglo-Allied army advanced all along the front, as before them the French army broke and dissolved into a mass of fugitives.
In the valley, Napoleon had been preparing a second wave consisting off the Old Guard. With his line ruptured and the battle lost, these squares of the Old Guard now valiantly fought a fighting withdrawal against the advancing Allied hordes to cover the retreat of their fellow compatriots. After putting up fierce resistance which hindered the Allies ability to close on the retreating French army, these magnificent formations were eventually broken up and dispersed to join the fleeing mob that sought sanctuary on the road south to Genappe.
On the Charleroi-Brussels road, only the two battalions of the 1st Grenadiers of the Old Guard, the oldest of the old, stood firm at Rossomme as Napoleon's army fled southwards. For a time Napoleon took shelter within one of its squares, as presenting a formidable hedge of bayonets, both squares withdrew slowly in good order, resisting attacks upon them.
Over in burning Plancenoit, desperate fighting raged on as the main body of the French army retreated. The Prussians, launching all out attacks on the position simultaneously to Wellington's general advance had encircled the position, entrapping the beleagered French garrison within. The Young Guard and the two battalions of the Old Guard fought with grim ferocity for they knew full well their fate should they be captured alive by the vengefull Prussians. It was almost dark by the time the fighting had died down, and their sacrifice alone together with the valiant withdrawal of the Old Guard on the Charleroi-Brussels road ensured that the bulk of the French army, as well as Napoleon were able to escape.
Some time after 9:00pm, as the last pocket of French resistance in Plancenoit was still being ground down, both Wellington and Blucher met between La Belle Alliance and Rossomme. Both armies were utterly exhausted after their ordeal with Napoleon's army, but both commanders recognized the strong need to pursue and harry the fleeing French to prevent Napoleon from rallying his men and resuming hostilities. Blucher, fiery with his hatred for the French, offered to take up this role and Wellington gratefully accepted. The Battle of Waterloo was over.
By late evening, Napoleon reached Genappe, hoping to rally his army, but his expectations were dashed as he witnessed his panic stricken men fighting one another to gain passage over the single bridge in their haste to escape to the south. Caught up in the press of troops, he himself was lucky to escape capture, having to make an undignified exit from his coach to leap upon a waiting horse, as the pursuing Prussians swooped down on the town, bent on revenge for Ligny.
With an escort of his Red Lancers, Napoleon rode onwards to Quatre Bras, now pinning his dwindling hopes on Girard's division, which had been left at Ligny after that battle. Of this formation behind which he surmised he could rally his army behind, there was no sign.
Over to the west at Wavre, Marshal Grouchy commanding 30,000 men had become aware that the sound of gunfire had now fallen silent to the west. Oblivious to the disaster that had befallen the French army at Waterloo, he continued to batter away at Theilemann's defences over the River Dyle, perhaps believing that Napoleon had triumphed and was even now marching on Brussels, pushing the defeated remnants of the Allied armies before him. Napoleon had of course sent an aide galloping off with all haste to Grouchy, informing him of his defeat and urging him to withdraw to safety. Grouchy would only learn this terrible truth at mid-morning ther next day, but in the meantime he managed to capture and consolidate a bridgehead at Limale by late evening, planning to force a passage over the river come dawn and defeat Theilemann's 15,000 men and take Wavre before marching on Brussels to link up with Napoleon.
Theilemann, commanding the Prussian III corps, had learnt in the course of the night the circumstances of Napoeon's defeat, and so was therefore surprised to find Grouchy's troops still in force come dawn. Theilemann opted to withdraw, since he was vastly outnumbered by the French and he had decided against the futile loss of life that would result when the main battle had already been won. As a result, Grouchy was able to take Wavre and claim a victory by 10:00am on the 19th, but by 10:30 am as he was preparing to march on Brussels, a messenger at last brought him the shocking news of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. Having won a hollow victory, Grouchy was forced to order a withdrawal.
Through the night, Napoleon had ridden on to Philippville on French territory near the Belgian border. Here he paused to rest, issue orders and consider his next moves. Considering his defeat and the fact that he had not heard word from Grouchy, who he considered must be captured, Napoleon wrote a rather upbeat message to his brother Joseph in Paris, stating "All is not lost... The Austrians march slowly: the Prussians fear the peasantry and dare not advance too far.... Everything can be repaired again."
From Phillipville, Napoleon reached Laon, planning to use that city as a rallying point for the remnants of his ill fated Armee du Nord. Some of his closest confidantes now advised him to remain in the field with his army to fight a delaying action against Wellington and Bluchers expected advance into France, thus buying him more time to raise more troops to meet the Russian and Austrian armies later on. To stay at the head of the army was desirable and had much to merit it, but Napoleon knew that if he must continue the struggle with any chance of success, then first he must return to the political centre of Paris to repair any damage that his defeat had wrought and to rally the French nation solidly behind him. Anxious, he remembered the intrique and betrayal of the previous year when he had lost his throne.
Instructing the border fortresses to hold out for as long as possible to buy time, Napoleon hurried back to Paris, intent on returning to place himself at the head of the French armies, with which within a few brief weeks he hoped could be at least 300,000 strong to oppose the Allies with. He had lost a battle, but by no means had yet lost the war.
Napoleon arrived in Paris on June 21st, dirty, dishevelled and exhausted from the exertions of the past week. News of his disaster at Waterloo was by now beginning to circulate throughout the city and his opponents, headed by the treacherous Joseph Fouche were already moving to depose him. Urged on by those still loyal to him to sieze absolute power by dissolving the government chambers and declaring a national emergency, Once the ability to act decisively had been one of his greatest gifts but now he was unsure of himself, and he hesitated, unwilling to assume the mantle of a dictator and give the Allies another weapon against him. In his state of indecisiveness, Napoleon's opponents were able to seize the initiative themselves and he found himself politically outmanoevered. As his opponents took steps to consolidate their own power, he was presented with a stark ultimatum: Abdicate or be deposed.
Outside of the Elysee palace where he had took up residence, crowds of ordinary people still aclaimed him. Encouraged by their fervour which was reminiscent of revolutionary days, Napoleon was encouraged to use regular troops to regain power against Fouche's National Guard, but the prospect of a civil war within France appalled him. " I did not come back from Elba to see Paris run red with blood, " he declared. Against this choice, Napoleon then decided to step down with dignity whilst he still could, and to let history judge the traitors. Accordingly, on the 23rd of June, Napoleon signed a new document of abdication and retired to his country house of Malmaison, where he wandered it's vast gardens, his thoughts lost in happier times.
Even so, the war still continued. Marshal Grouchy had carried out an amazing withdrawal from Belgium. bringing out almost intact all of his 33,000 men under his command, evading the Prussians with considerable skill.
By the 26th of June, both Wellington and Blucher were advancing southwards towards Paris. Wellington was advancing with disciplined caution, but the Prussians, urged on by Blucher who wanted to see Napoleon captured alive, pressed on impetuously, with the effect that both armies soon became isolated from one another, and thus vunerable. Furthermore, both armies had been obliged to detach numbers of troops to observe or besiege fortresses, or to guard their lines of communications. by the time Bluchers army had reached the outskirts of Paris, his army was down to 66,000 men and Wellington's, at least a days march behind numbered 52,000 troops.By his rapid march on Paris, Blucher had thus placed both himself and Wellington's forces in a dangerous predicament, for isolated they were in a position to be attacked and be defeated in detail.
It was a situation that Napoleon knew fully how to exploit, and with growing excitement he now realised that everything lost could yet be regained if he was quickly able to use the 128,000 troops that Marshal Davout controlled under the provisional government. Carried away by the dream of reversing his defeat at Waterloo by a stunning victory over Blucher, before turning on Wellington, Napoleon made to prepare to rejoin the French army, whilst a message was hurried off to ther provisional government, offering his temporary services as a mere general, in which promised he would retire after first repulsing the enemy.
It was a vain hope, for his offer was flatly refused by the provisional government who were prepared to give Napoleon no chance to regain his former position. Fouche for his paned against his former master and threatened to arrest Napoleon himself. Napoleon's position at Malmaison was fasrt, was by now in touch with the Allies and looking to seal a peace treaty. Even Davout had by now turt becoming precarious as the Prussians closed in, and the 29th of June saw an attempt by Blucher to capture him dead or alive. Davout who was adamant that Napoleon should not fall into enemy hands, had the bridges closest to Malmaison blown, thwarting Bluchers intentions. It was a close call, and one step ahead of the vengeful Prussians, Napoleon left for Rochefort, having by now received word from Fouche that a Frigate had been placed for his disposal in which he might sail for America.
Under pressure from French patriots who felt that he had 'sold out', Davout also felt obliged to act the very next day when he ordered an attack on the Prussians at Versailles, who fell back after receiving a sharp riposte. Blucher, having been checked thought it prudent to pause and await Wellington's arrival. On the 3rd of July, an agreement was signed at St-Cloud by which the French army was to retire south of the Loire. On the 7th of July the Prussians entered the heart of Paris, and the very next day Louis XVIII returned, having been recognised by the provisional government.
At Rochefort Napoleon found his way blockaded by the Royal Navy, and it was clear that he would not be permitted to sail across the Atlantic. Napoleon's choices were limited. He could either attempt to run the blockade which could prove dangerous or hand himself over to the English. Furthermore, rumours were now reaching him that the slippery Fouche had ordered his arrest. To attempt to escape across the sea held some appeal, but for the man who had become Emperor of the French on his own merit and who had forged a European empire greater than any seen since Roman times, the thought of a humiliating capture as he fled like a fugitive, held little real incentive. Rather than fall into Fouche's hands and thus likely be passed over to the Prussians, Napoleon decided to surrender himself up with dignity and honour to the English and trust that they might treat a vanquished enemy generously.
On the 15th of July, he boarded H.M.S Bellerophon and surrendered to Captain Frederick Maitland, RN. For a time Napoleon had entertained hopes that he might be permitted to live in Great Britain, but he deluded himself. The English considered him far too dangerous to be living in close proximity to Europe and were prepared to suffer no repitition of the hundred days. When it was announced that his final destination was to be the remote island of St-Helena in the South Atlantic, Napoleon railed against what he thought of an injustice, feeling that he had been betrayed since he had given himself up on his own free will.
Napoleon Bonaparte spent the last six years of his life in a lonely exile on St-Helena, reduced to the belittling title of General Buonaparte by his gaolers, which in itself, became a potent source of conflict between himself and the English. His humiliating existence before his death in 1821, was a far cry from the glory of his Napoleonic empire, but even in adversity far from Europe, Napoleon worked to ensure that his achievements as the architect of modern Europe would not be forgotten. He forged the Napoleonic legend and paved the way for Bonapartism to remain a viable force in France, thus ensuring the rise of his nephew who rose to become Napoleon III and heir to the Second Empire in 1852.
The Waterloo Campaign was one of the shortest campaigns in all military history, yet it was also one of the most intense and bloody. The butchers bill at the battle of Waterloo alone testifies to the fury of the fighting where 47,000 soldiers became casualties; either dead or wounded in just one single day of combat.
Time, as Napoleon realised, was crucial to his chances of success. At the outset of the campaign, the French forces, despite some hitches, advanced rapidly enough to wedge themselves between the two Allied armies in Belgium. By speed, concentration,sheer audacity, as well as a little help from his enemies, Napoleon firmy held the initiative by the close of the 15th, and his army was finely placed to deliver a crushing blow to the allied forces on the 16th which could have won him the campaign.
Whilst Napoleon's plan of campaign was brilliant in it's concept, his strategy of the central position was an extremely risky manoevre. For it to work smoothly, it required commanders to be ruthlessly decisive in thought and to act quickly before the enemy forces could react quickly enough. Speed was essential. Unfortunately for Napoleon, he appointed to command the left and right wings, commanders who from the very beginning, displayed a cautious approach which allowed both of the Allied armies to recover from their initial shock at the French invasion and to regroup to negate his original strategy to keep them apart. Ultimately, it was this inability to prevent the Allied armies from uniting, which doomed Napoleon's chances of success.
Napoleon came within a whisker of a major success on the 16th, but Marshal Ney fighting the battle of Quatre Bras to the west allowed Wellington, through his own caution to sieze the initiative from him and strike back, which in turn directly affected Napoleon's battle at Ligny, for when a panicked Ney feared a now reinforced Wellington might break through, he recalled D-Erlon's 20,000 men marching east to attack the Prussian flank. Napoleon's subsequent victory at Ligny was thus diluted and in no way decisive and the Prussians limped away defeated, but not broken.
Napoleon too was not beyond censure. It was clear he was not in the best of health; certainly not his dynamic self a year ago in the Battle of France, yet alone the man he was in the years of his glory. Perhaps age really had caught up with him, for his ill heath and indecisiveness on the night of the 16th after Ligny, allowed the battered Prussians to pull away largely unhindered. By the time dawn broke on the 17th, the Prussians had broken contact and were well on the road to recovery, whilst Napoleon's continued indecisiveness as well as Ney's laxity allowed Wellington to withdraw northwards to dig in at a defensive position along a line parallel to his allies.
The attrocious state of the ground after the heavy rain of the evening of the 16th delayed Napoleon's attack on Wellington's position on the 18th, not so much because of the difficulty in manoevering his artillery, but because many of his troops were strung out a long way from the battlefield. Indeed, even as the battle began, elements of D-Erlon's corps were still arriving as well as the Imperial Guard. For Wellington, who played a waiting game, this proved a great advantage for he only had to hold his position long enough for the Prussians to arrive to swing the balance in the allies favour. On the other hand, had the ground remained dry and Napoleon had attacked earlier, then in all likelihood the Prussians would have arrived sooner too, for their march to Waterloo itself was difficult through the attrocious mud.
The advantage nonetheless was still Napoleon's as he faced Wellington at Waterloo, but suprisingly since this was arguably the most crucial battle of his career, he opted to make Marshal Ney battlefield commander, whilst he himself only assumed a supervisory role. This was hardly credible given Ney's erratic and lacklustre performance over the past few days and this decision was the first step towards Napoleon's defeat. It surely must have been a decision he bitterly regretted at the end of the day. Napoleon's leadership at Waterloo was thus loose and unfocused, whilst Wellington in contrast retained tight control and was present at every crisis to lend his charismatic presence. Wellington was much the more active of the two. We can see that Ney was given far too much free reign, whilst Napoleon failed to intervene and assume direct command himself at crucial moments, allowing the attack on Hougoumont to escalate for instance and actually compounding Ney's ill conceived mass cavalry attack on Wellington's lines by sending in 5,000 more horsemen. But he did nothing to stop the attack in the first place. By the end of the day, too many errors on the French side mounted up and placed the French army in a no win situation to send it down to a dire defeat.
Despite this, Napoleon's forces at Waterloo should still have won IF the Prussian's had not arrived to support Wellington, for Napoleon's army even under attack from the Prussians still proved capable of shaking Wellington's line to the very limits of endurance by the evening. The French cavalry attacks, even though they failed, still brought Wellington's army dangerously to the brink of defeat and by 6:30 pm, when the French captured La-Haie-Sainte, Wellington's line was visibly crumbling away as Ney's gunners bombarded the Anglo-Allied line at point blank range. A French victory at this point must have been certain had a strong infantry attack, perhaps spear-headed by the Imperial Guard gone in, but at that very moment, Napoleon with his eye of the ball was distracted, for at that moment the Prussian's were attacking in some of their strongest assaults of the day at Plancenoit and Napoleon seriously fearing for the collapse of his eastern flank and the consequences, refused Neys request. Had the Prussian's not attacked so hard at that point or had Napoleon been forefront in the centre along with Ney to see for himself Wellington's line wavering, history might have had a different story to tell.
The Prussian arrival on the battlefield to give assistance to wellington was not inevitable, and one key decision by Marshal Grouchy had far reaching effects. We can see that Grouchy was wholly unqualified to lead 33,000 men in an independant command. His showing was characterised by extreme caution and he displayed no initiative on his own part. His subordinates quite rightly advised him to "March to the sound of the guns," when the first cannonfire was heard from the west. Even if it were delivered in a disrespectful manner, it was still sound and logical advice, since Grouchy was still at that point in no position to intervene in a decisive manner against the Prussian's whom Napoleon had ordered him to prevent intervening in his battle against Wellington. Had Grouchy took up this advice and marched to the sound of battle immediately, his action might well had caught the Prussian columns strung out on the march who would have been obliged to about turn to contend with this powerful force on their heels. Even if some numbers of Prussian troops reached the battlefield, their numbers would have been much diluted, leaving Wellington out on a limb, who would have had to fight at greater odds, faced by Napoleon who would now have both a greater freedom of movement on the battlefield as well as a greater number of troops left in reserve.
The decisive factor at Waterloo therefore was the Prussian intervention, who were able to march to the battlefield unchallenged, eventually able to deploy almost 50,000 troops to fight. This considerable presence and contribution alone ensured that Wellington was able to successfully maintain his defensive position, for the strong Prussian attacks obliged Napoleon to divert his reserves to safeguard his flank, which he feared might collapse. In all, perhaps 18,000 French troops as well as a considerable quantity of artillery were committed to hold the Prussian flank attack, including 10 battalions of the Imperial Guard to hold the cornerstone of Plancenoit, where some of the fiercest fighting of the day took place. Almost twenty thousand troops were therefore absent for Ney to use against Wellington's centre which could have been decisive. True, the Prussian presence did not make itself known at least in a physical sense until a little after 4:30pm, but their march to Waterloo was spotted by Napoleon himself at about 1:00pm and confirmed by a captured Prussian hussar. Wellington must have been equally aware too and it must have been a huge psychological boost for him to know his allies were marching to support him, whilst the same knowledge must have harried Napoleon's peace of mind that the day could only turn out well if he could defeat Wellington before they could arrive in strength. His immediate order to send Lobau's 10,000 men marching to the eastern flank to hold up the Prussian advance is ample proof of his concern. So at just after 1:00pm, a little after one and a half hours after the start of the battle, the still distant Prussian's, even though they were not yet fighting, had already caused 10,000 men to be diverted from the attacking strength against Wellington's line. Already, early on in the battle, the it was evident Prussian's were already influencing the course of the battle.
By 6:00pm, the Prussian attacks on Napoleon's eastern flank were at their height. It can truly be said that two battles were now in progress; an offensive on by Ney to dislodge Wellington from his position on the ridge and a defensive battle directed by Napoleon to hold the Prussian's at bay long enough to enable this to happen. It was a precarious position for any army to be in and if some commentators do say (quite logically) that Napoleon should have formed a strong rearguard and withdrew to fight another day as soon as the Prussians were seen to be approaching in strength, then it can only be said that Napoleon weighed the political consequences over performing such an action. If he had withdrew without an outright victory, it must have meant political suicide from his point of view. In 1813 or 1814, he might still have been able to do so and continue the struggle. In 1815, fighting for his place to laed the French nation, such an action could only embolden his enemies at home and abroad when it was seen that his Belgian campaign had failed. It was tantamount to poitical suicide. With this in mind, he fought at more at Waterloo as an Emperor, rather than a general, so disregarding the strategic considerations, he gambled on against lengthening odds. By 6:00pm, even this option to withdraw had vanished, for was too deeply committed by then to carry out any such action.
It became a case of the final straw that broke the camels back, so to speak. Napoleon, at 6:00pm was in a precarious position, his reserves vanishing at a worrying rate as more and more Prussian's were poured on to the field, and his army was literally at breaking point to contain them. His overstretched line must break eventually as more Prussians entered the battle. It did just that. When Napoleon did finally decide to make one last bid to break through Wellington's line, it was both lacking in strength and made too late. With only 5 battalions of the Middle Guard in the first wave it had little chance of succeeding and the cavalry that might have reinforced it, had been squandered in the afternoon's attacks. This last attack and it's subsequent repulse was met almost simultaneously by a fresh eruption of more Prussians arriving on the field, who struck at the weakest part of the French line and penetrated between it. Napoleon's line was broken and the Prussian's poured through the gap like stormwater through a grate to come behind the French lines. Wellington seeing the French army waver on the repulse of the Guard's attack and the confusion caused by the Prussian breakthrough at last gave the order to advance, and the French army broke.
Two main events caused the French army's collapse. The Prussian breakthrough and Wellington's subsequent advance along the line. Both had to happen. If the Prussians had not broken through, the French army would have in all likelihood have held Wellington's advance. Likewise if the Prussians had broken through and Wellington had not advanced, the French would have rallied to contain them. Wellington's advance working with the Prussian breakthrough gave the French no time to rally. One other event worth mentioning which did great harm to the French army's ability to hold firm when Prussian's broke through was that Napoleon had deliberately sent word around the lines that Marshal Grouchy's 33,000 men were on the point of arrival, even before the Guards attack had gone in. Perhaps understandably in the hour of crisis, with his men wavering before the Prussian onslaught, Napoleon sought to restore his troops sagging morale. One can well understand the exhilaration of the French troops turn to utter dismay when Grouchy's 33,000 men in fact turned out to be Ziethen's Prussian's who struck the now demoralised French and broke through. Napoleon's ruse backfired to sensational effect.
English historian's like to describe Waterloo an English victory, playing down the German involvement, On the other hand German historian's do likewise and are fond of calling it a German victory. To the French, it remains the battle they should have won, a victory which somehow went awry at the last moment. It is fair to say that the Waterloo campaign and the Battle of Waterloo itself was an Allied victory. The English like to belittle the German involvement at Waterloo and after the battle The Duke of Wellington himself went to great lengths to conceal their part in the battle he tried to claim as his own. Indeed he forced William Siborne to remove the 40,000 Prussian troops from the Siborne Model. Nothing however can hide the fact that at almost 50,000 Prussian troops were in action at Waterloo and Marshal Blucher's suggestion that the battle be called The Battle of La-Belle-Alliance, after Napoleon's headquarters on the field, might understandably have been logical and fair, but Waterloo, has a certain ring to it. Wellington's Anglo-Allied army no more than Blucher's Prussian army could have bested Napoleon by themselves. After Quatre Bras and Ligny, both recognised this and knew they must cooperate together to have any chance of victory. They made every effort to unite and fight together at Waterloo, and this was the ultimate reason for their victory. Wellington pinned Napoleon's forces down by his tenacious defence, whilst Blucher's Prussian army made the spear-thrust at Napoleon's flank which proved a mortal wound. Napoleon's downfall was that he perhaps underestimated this coopertion between the two allied leaders, whilst he made the unforgivable error of spitting his own army which was made worse by allowing it to operate to far from the main field of action, which meant that he could not recall it in time when he needed it most.
Even so, the Battle of Waterloo might not have been decisive in itself. Napoleon's manpower after the battle was still greater than after his 1812 campaign or after Liepzig in 1813, and the allies had at least suffered equal losses over the course of the campaign. It all depended on the political support he could still harness in Paris, for he could at least still fight a repitition of his 1814 campaign, but with a far greater disposal of troops at his disposal than he had a year before. As he had feared though, failiure to win a victory outright severely dented his military reputation and robbed him of any further political clout to lead the French nation. His abdication was demanded and with grace he stepped down, realising that by himself he could do no more.
Waterloo: Battle Of Three Armies by William Seymour, Eberhard Kaulbach and Jacques Champagne
- Waterloo campaign on Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- An interview with Peter Hofschroer http://napoleonistyka.atspace.com/Waterloo_myths_2.html