Command Decision


In many ways, the British victory at Waterloo was very much as the duke of Wellington described it in his report to Parliament: “a near run thing.” Until the last minutes, it could very well have been a French victory. When something is that close to succeeding, there are many things that could have been done differently that might have changed history. In the case of the Battle of Waterloo, perhaps the greatest factor was a personnel mistake made by Napoleon Bonaparte days earlier.

Newly returned from exile on Elba, Napoleon had just re-formed his Grande Armée, though more than ever this army was made up of newly trained recruits. On France’s border, every other nation in Europe was arming. Within days, the emperor would have to march out and defeat at least two armies as large as his. It was a time of decisions that would determine his future and that of France.

Before leading the new Grande Armée north from Paris, Napoleon had to fill a number of command positions. The most important two positions were those of commander of his new army and who would control Paris, which was under martial law. Two men were considered to be commander of the French army under Napoleon. These were two experienced marshals: Michel Ney and Louis-Nicolas Davout. A comparison shows that these two soldiers were very different men:

Michel Ney

Courageous to a fault and often wounded. He was known as “the bravest of the brave.” He preferred to lead his men into the hottest part of the battle, often charging with his corps’ cavalry.

Commanded a force that was sent to intercept Napoleon on his march toward Paris and instead joined his men to his emperor’s.

Competent, but not intellectual. Impetuous and anxious to please. Not the best administrator.

Loyal to Napoleon, reacting to situations rather than planning for them. But for a moment he had hesitated before changing sides from the king to Bonaparte, and this bothered him. Perhaps putting extra pressure on him to be a hero once again.

Immensely popular with all of the soldiers.

Louis-Nicolas Davout

Brilliant, well organized, commanded the largest and best of Napoleon’s corps, the Third, for years.

Loyal to Napoleon and equally so to France as a nation.

A thinker and planner. The most competent administrator but not at all flamboyant.

Commanded from the rear. Davout was very popular with his own men, but was not the common soldier’s hero that Ney was.

Napoleon’s decision was to put Davout in charge of Paris and have Ney command the army for him. When Davout protested, Napoleon explained that he needed his best man to hold the heart of France for him while he was away with the army. Davout responded that if he won battles, Paris was his, and if Napoleon lost battles, no one could save Paris.

The only chance the French emperor had to defeat the massive number of soldiers being rallied against him all over Europe was to defeat them one army at a time. Napoleon and the French army of the north first met the Prussians at Ligny on June 16, 1815. Napoleon proceeded to defeat the Prussians in a hard-fought battle and turned west to confront Wellington. To ensure he did not have to deal with the Prussians again, Napoleon sent a third of his army, more than 30,000 men commanded by Marshal Emmanuel, Marquis de Grouchy, to harass them and drive them back to Germany. His plan to defeat the more numerous allies in detail, taking on each force individually before they could unite, was off to a good start.

The Battle of Waterloo took place on June 18, two days after the Prussian defeat. Fighting began late in the morning due to wet ground. Cannon was less effective and cavalry at a disadvantage in soft mud. So the two armies sat and waited for the battlefield to dry. There was another difference in this battle from Napoleon’s victory at Ligny, beyond a slow start. Napoleon was ill. He had suffered from “piles,” a painful and debilitating illness for years, and it flared up the day of Waterloo. Thus he was forced to leave much of the actual commanding to Ney as his field commander. If he had not had this unexpected problem, Napoleon himself might have been more active on the battlefield and his selection of Ney would have had less effect.

Until the midafternoon, the two equal-size armies fought and bled with no major effect. In a well-executed combined army attack, Ney captured La Haye Sainte, a fortified villa in the center of the battlefield. It was not until in the later afternoon that Wellington decided to march his infantry from their forward position to one behind a hill. This would protect them from the French artillery. As the day progressed, the ground had dried, allowing the round cannonballs to bounce and roll with deadly effect.

Napoleon was far behind the lines, and Ney, as usual, was close to the fighting. When he saw the British infantry begin to pull back and out of sight over the hill, he drew the conclusion that they were retreating. The best way to shatter an army that was beginning to retreat was to slash into them with a force they could not outrun, the cavalry. Without checking with Napoleon first, he saw a way to win the battle. Marshal Ney put himself at the head of more than 10,000 horsemen and charged. It was virtually all the riders still able to charge, and he led them after the “retreating” British foot.

The normal response by infantry of the day was to form a square of men who stood with their bayonets facing out on all four sides. This kept the cavalry at a distance, allowing others in the square to shoot at them. But the cavalry square was vulnerable to any infantry also attacking since it had only a quarter of its men facing in any one direction. A square of infantry is even more vulnerable to artillery fire, as the cannonballs and canister rounds wreaked havoc on the closely packed and motionless formation.

But there were not many unengaged infantry battalions nearby when Ney ordered the charge. Ney, impetuous as always, was more anxious to catch the fleeing British than to ensure a well-rounded attack. He did ask Napoleon to send infantry to follow up the attack, but there were few divisions left in reserve after the Prussians had appeared. So Napoleon had no infantry he could send to support Ney’s attack.

Ney’s lack of infantry support would not have been a problem if Wellington had actually been retreating. But the British were not running. They were just over the hilltop and quickly formed squares. Ney, his fighting spirit up, led charge after charge against those squares. French horse guns did come up and punish the British, but not enough to break them. There was no infantry to deliver a final blow. By the fifteenth or sixteenth charge, the French cavalry was so exhausted their horses walked up to the squares. Even without French infantry support, a few squares were broken and the soldiers in them slaughtered. Many of the British squares had as many wounded men sheltered in their centers as healthy ones who held the sides. It was recorded that some British units had lost so many men while facing the French cavalry that when they finally moved away, the location of the infantry square was marked clearly by the bodies left behind.

Napoleon was said to be furious when informed of the charge. With the Prussians approaching, he knew he had no infantry to support it. However, he and his guard were not ready to commit his last reserve. But there was no way to call back the attack and no way to stop Ney from charging time after time until the French horses were too blown to fight further.

Grouchy had pushed the Prussians from their rear, but was now tied up fighting a quarter of von Blucher’s Prussians with his third of the French army at Wavre. This left the rest of the Prussians to march toward Waterloo. When they appeared, Napoleon responded by sending his Young Guard to slow them. As the cavalry charges were ended due to the complete exhaustion of the horses, there still seemed a chance to at least drive off Wellington before enough Prussians arrived to guarantee defeat. So Napoleon Bonaparte turned to his last reserve. The Old Guard formed into massive columns and charged up the hill and toward the battered British and their Dutch allies.

At this point the Anglo-Dutch army was in bad shape. Some units were at less than half strength. Few British cavalry were capable of attacking, and the heart was gone from the Dutch units. It has to be remembered that less than two years before, these Dutch soldiers had been part of the Grande Armée, idolizing the French emperor they now fought. Wellington was quoted as saying all was lost unless they soon had the Prussians or sunset. Sunset was still a few hours away. He had no reserves left at all.

The Old Guard marched forward, hoping to smash through the punished British infantry. If they did, it was likely Wellington’s entire army would fall apart. Instead of breaking through, the guard’s massive columns were shot apart, and they were finally forced to retreat. When word spread that the Prussians had arrived and that the guard was retreating, it was Napoleon’s army of the north that dissolved. Victory or defeat had come down to the last fight between the French reserve and desperate British regiments.

An ill Napoleon had not been able to keep his impetuous second-in-command under control. Marshal Ney had ordered a charge with the last of the French uncommitted formation, its cavalry. Ignoring the fact that he was supposed to be commanding the entire French army, Ney charged over a hill and into the unknown. He expected to seal a victory and instead rode to defeat. If Napoleon had chosen the more competent and less impulsive Davout to lead his army, the Battle of Waterloo might well have ended as “a near run thing” that was a French victory. Had Napoleon Bonaparte won at Waterloo, he might well have been able to dictate a peace that could have kept him on the throne of France.

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