THE WATERLOO CAMPAIGN, like almost any military engagement, was compounded of strategic and tactical errors on both sides, including serious communications and intelligence blunders, tragic friendly-fire incidents, and occasionally an indictable lack of initiative. Few but the Emperor’s most chauvinistic acolytes will deny that many more mistakes, both in quantity and gravity, were made by the French side than by the Anglo-Allied-Prussian coalition.
Wellington, it is true, was caught largely unawares by Napoleon’s incredibly swift deployment of the Armée du Nord. He was, by his own admission, ‘humbugged’. It is on balance unfair to criticise Wellington for leaving his army too widely dispersed before Napoleon attacked, since he had a huge area of operations to patrol and did not know where that attack might fall — or even if Brussels, rather than, say, the Channel ports was in fact the Emperor’s prime objective. (He also had a duty to protect Louis XVIII’s exiled court in Ghent.)
Yet Wellington’s immediate troop dispersals after he had coherent and trustworthy word that Napoleon was on the offensive have been very severely criticised, particularly in recent works by the historian Peter Hofschröer. It is also undeniable that in a despatch written at 10.30 a.m. on 16 june — the day of Ligny and Quatre Bras — Wellington misled Blücher about the exact position of some of his troops. Other historians such as Jac Weiler and John Ropes argue that this was unintentional and the result of the ‘muddle’of Wellington’s Quartermaster-General Colonel Sir William De Lancey, whose papers were subsequently lost after he was mortally wounded at Waterloo.1 It is difficult to accept that Wellington misled his ally on purpose, but this debate will doubtless continue. Nor is the blame all one-sided: the intelligence that Gneisenau and Zieten gave Wellington has been described by one distinguished historian of the campaign as ‘incomplete and late’.2
The criticism made of Wellington that at such a crucial moment as the evening of 15 June he went to the Duchess of Richmond’s ball is more easily dealt with. By attending — if only relatively briefly — he calmed the fears of the Brussels populace, put heart into his assembled colonels, showed that Sir Francis Drake was not the only British hero to display insouciance in the face of danger, and lost little by it, since not much serious fighting — perhaps 3,000 casualties incurred by the French and the Prussians — had taken place that day.
The accusation that Wellington left too many troops at Hal, covering an attack from Napoleon that never transpired, does not fully take into account Napoleon’s track record, something that Wellington took great pains never to underestimate. Among several other French historians, General Jomini argued that Napoleon should indeed have chosen the more open route to Brussels via Möns, employing wide circling movements on the extreme left flank, not least to avoid the bottleneck before the Forest of Soignes. By the time it was clear that Napoleon had no extra troops to effect this it was far too late to bring the Hal detachment over to Waterloo, even supposing that Wellington had not intended them to help cover his retreat to Ostend were he defeated.3 It was an error of Napoleon’s — one attested to by Soult, Reille, Foy and indeed Wellington himself — to have adopted the frontal assault tactic at Waterloo, but, crucially, it was not one that Wellington could have known was going to be made. Hence, Hal was an acceptable insurance policy.
Both General Picton and Napoleon criticised Wellington’s choice of battlefield at Waterloo, but few have agreed with them. The folds in the ground, the east-west lateral Ohain road hidden from enemy view, the advanced farmhouses and flanking woodland made the battlefield ideal for the kind of dogged infantry and artillery defensive action that the British army excelled at and in which Wellington was expert. A visit to the battlefield itself — which I very heartily recommend to any reader of this book — will, especially if one has the energy to climb the Lion Mound, immediately allow one to appreciate its advantages to the defender. (It should be recalled that Picton only saw one part of the battlefield, and died before he had a chance to appreciate the rest, and that Napoleon had his own bitter and political personal reasons for criticising Wellington’s displacements.)
The loss of La Haye Sainte has also been put down to Wellington’s not supervising the resupply of ammunition to Baring’s 2nd Light Battalion of the King’s German Legion, who fought with rifles rather than standard-issue muskets and therefore needed specialised powder and shot. The wagon that carried the battalion’s ammunition had overturned in a ditch, but it was surely up to Baring rather than the commander-in-chief to see to its rescue.
By contrast with these relatively footling complaints, the errors made by Napoleon and other French commanders during the Waterloo campaign were severe, indeed perhaps even decisive. The first blunder might simply have been for Napoleon to have quitted Elba at all, considering the unanimity of European opinion about his unfitness for the throne and therefore the inevitable invasions of France that it would trigger. Yet his own destiny was always more important to Napoleon than the thousands — and finally millions — of lives that were lost in the course of his pursuit of it.
The Emperor’s next error, at least so Wellington believed, was to have struck north and fought on coalition territory rather than fighting defensively inside France. Some of Napoleon’s best victories had been won with relatively small forces in 1814, and the border fortresses of France could have held up large numbers of coalition soldiers for months. Instead Napoleon was impelled by the political advantages he felt would accrue from a restoration of la Gloire and a magnificent entry into Brussels.
Although Ney has been criticised for not capturing Quatre Bras early on 16 lune, there is some debate about exactly when Napoleon actually ordered him to do so. This has been gready complicated by the ex-Emperor’s almost complete inability when in exile on St Helena to tell the truth about anything much regarding the campaign.4 His zeal in laying the entire blame for his defeat on Ney, d’Erlon, Grouchy and several others — none of whom was admittedly guiltless — led him to play very fast and loose with the facts. Over Quatre Bras, for example, he claimed that he had ordered Ney to capture the crossroads at dawn, whereas twenty years later Ney’s son published the actual orders which showed that of the three instructions Ney received, the first did not mention Quatre Bras and the one that did was written several miles away, at Fleurus, at about 10 a.m. Indeed, Weiler goes so far as to state of Ney: ‘That he began his battle as soon as he did is probably to his credit.’5
Whoever was to blame for the fact that General d’Erlon’s corps arrived at neither the battlefield of Quatre Bras nor at Ligny on 16 June, at either of which it could have been decisive, must bear heavy responsibility for the loss of the campaign. History has still not precisely ascertained the guilty party. The fact that d’Erlon spent six hours marching between battlefields cannot wholly be put down to the General himself, who had little option but to obey the commands of the Emperor, Marshal Ney, or Marshal Soult, the chief of staff, but a little more initiative from him when he was within striking distance of either Ligny or Quatre Bras would have paid dividends. If Nelson could affect a blind eye to a signal, d’Erlon might just as easily have disobeyed the command to trek back across country until 9.30 p.m. without ever firing a shot in anger.
Napoleon certainly missed two important opportunities on Saturday, 17 June, in simultaneously allowing Wellington to retreat from Quatre Bras and in losing all connection with the Prussians as they escaped northwards to Wavre. Grouchy should probably not have been sent off to follow the Prussians at all, but if he was going to be, he needed to be despatched at daybreak, not in the afternoon, by which time the trail had gone cold.6 ‘March together! Strike together!’ was a favourite military maxim of Napoleon’s; another was ‘An enemy should be outflanked, or enveloped, without separating one’s own force.’7 These sensible rules of warfare were emphatically not adhered to by their author during Saturday, 17 and Sunday, 18 June 1815.
At Waterloo the French ought to have attacked Wellington’s position the moment that all their troops had arrived from Rosomme, breakfasted and cleaned their weapons after the previous night’s downpour. It is very doubtful that that cold, windless and largely sunless Sunday morning really dried the ground to any great degree for the artillery. Once again, it was simply time wasted.8
When battle was joined before noon, and the Grand Battery’s eighty-four guns had opened up on the Anglo-Allied position, Grouchy ought to have immediately marched westwards towards the sound of them, as his subordinate General Gérard urged. Yet this would have been to disobey Napoleon’s direct orders, sent at only ten o’clock that morning, to march on Wavre. It is also unlikely that even if Grouchy had taken Gérard’s advice and marched towards Plancenoit he would have got there in time to affect the outcome of the battle, because he would have soon encountered the Prussian divisions of Pirch and Thielmann, which would have held up his advance, while those of Bülow and Zieten could have carried on to help Wellington.9
On the battlefield itself, the French failure to use any artillery to batter and breach the walls of Hougoumont was a palpable error, as was the perhaps unimaginative divisional formation adopted by d’Erlon’s corps in its attack on the Anglo-Allied line. Napoleon and Ney’s decisions to attack with infantry under-supported by cavalry and artillery, and later with cavalry under-supported by infantry and artillery, must also be regarded — for whatever tactical reason they were made — as grave errors. (Equally, Uxbridge was gravely at fault for allowing his cavalry counterattack against d’Erlon so disastrously to overreach itself.)
The timing of Ney’s great cavalry charge is similarly open to criticism, as taking place too early and going on for too long after it had failed in its objective to overwhelm the Anglo-Allied infantry, which had formed into squares. If, as seems to be the case from the new evidence presented in Appendix II, the charge happened largely by accident, this cannot really be laid at Napoleon’s door. By the time the Imperial Guard was committed towards the end of the battle, Napoleon cannot be blamed for rashness; there was virtually no other choice for him at that stage. The Guard was well-supported, but it still adopted a columnar formation that the British Peninsular infantry had turned back again and again over six years of continuous campaigning.
It is easy enough to enumerate the errors made on both sides during the Waterloo campaign, yet the difficulties that the commanders were acting under ought to be recalled. Communications could go no faster than a man on horseback, and by the time messages arrived they could be out of date. Commanders could see no further than topography and telescopes allowed them — indeed one of Wellington’s wisest sayings was: ‘All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I call “guessing what was at the other side of the hill".’ Sometimes commanders even had to guess what was directly in front of them, since the huge quantities of thick smoke emanating from the constant firing of cannon and muskets could wreathe and envelop a battlefield, cloaking large areas in dense, impenetrable grey. Thus snap decisions had to be taken from sudden and partial glimpses of the scene.
It is important not to employ too much hindsight in retelling the battle of Waterloo, since otherwise it might seem simply like a catalogue of errors on both sides, the victory going to the one that made the fewest. In fact Napoleon’s preference for mass frontal assault rather than manoeuvre did make Wellington’s job easier, but however sturdy the Anglo-Allied infantry were en masse there were also desertions, even — as in the case of the Cumberland Hussars — of an entire regiment.
The French outnumbered their opponents at the opening of the battle, especially in artillery; they had been victorious two days earlier; they were a homogeneous national force; and their morale was high owing to their being commanded in person by a general they firmly believed to be the greatest soldier since Alexander. The battle was therefore by no means a foregone conclusion, especially when La Haye Sainte fell at around 6.15 p.m. Wellington was right when he opined that Waterloo had been ‘a damned nice thing — the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life … By God, I don’t think it would have done if I had not been there.’
Nearly 71,000 men were killed or wounded in the battle of Waterloo and its immediate aftermath, to which horrific toll must be added 2,600 casualties in frontier clashes on 15 June, the 32,500 at Ligny, 8,800 at Quatre Bras, 400 on the retreat from Quatre Bras and 5,000 at Wavre — making a total of 120,300. Nationally, the breakdown over the entire 15–18 June period was roughly as follows: French casualties 67,500; Prussian 30,000; and Anglo-Allied 22,800. Sergeant-Major Cotton recalled: ‘The field of battle, after the victory, presented a frightful and most distressing spectacle. It appeared as if the whole military world had been collected together, and that something beyond human strength and ingenuity had been employed to cause its destruction.’10 Charles O’Neil wrote that ‘the groans of the wounded and the shrieks of the dying were heard on every side’. The pillaging of the corpses by local Belgian peasants, who, it was widely reported, were not above slitting the throats of the wounded the more easily to rifle their pockets, was a ghastly reality of the aftermath of the battle. O’Neil recorded how the morning after the battle ‘the mangled and lifeless bodies were, even then, stripped of every covering — everything of the smallest value was already carried off’.11 As Wellington himself remarked: ‘Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.’
‘Every man meets his Waterloo at last,’ wrote the nineteenthcentury American moralist Wendell Phillips, and the phrase has indeed slipped into the English language to imply that there is a fate, an inescapable destiny, awaiting us all. Yet was this really the case for that ultimate Man of Destiny, Napoleon Bonaparte? His career had hitherto been a series of floutings of the supposedly immutable laws of Providence. Like that of the great Mithridates Eupator, King of Pontus a century before Christ, Napoleon’s life had been a tale of unlikely adventures that each seemed to herald disaster but which time and again were turned into victories.
Just as Mithradates eventually met his Panticap$$um, so Napoleon met his Waterloo. Even had Napoleon won there he would sooner or later have been defeated by one or more of the vast Russian, Austrian and Prussian armies that were converging upon France. So does that mean that Waterloo was in fact insignificant, not one of the great turning points of history at all? No; it is important because of the decisive and undeniable way that it finished off la Gloire, the French sense of military superiority that had been the central factor of European politics ever since Napoleon had taken over command of the Army of Italy in March 1796. Without la Gloire, France has had to live on her myths and with her ever-mounting roll of defeats, from Sedan to 1940 to Dien Bien Phu.
If it opened a long era of French military humiliation, Waterloo also heralded the true beginning of the modern British Empire. Of course there had been significant colonial acquisitions long before Waterloo, including the Indian, Canadian and Caribbean territories won in the Seven Years’ War in the mid-eighteenth century, but the victory at Waterloo and the subsequent Congress of Vienna set Britain on the path of seemingly unlimited imperial territorial acquisition. With crucial nodal points being awarded to the United Kingdom by the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna, such as Malta, Heligoland, Ceylon, Tobago and Santa Lucia, as well as the sale of the Cape Colonies to Britain by Holland, Britain had all the strategic building blocks in place necessary for her subjects to swarm over Africa and Asia in the way they were to do over the next century.
The United States, too, benefited — if at one remove — from the defeat of Napoleon, following which there was not even the faintest danger of the Louisiana Purchase of 1804 being renationalised by a powerful French Empire. After the end of her two wars against Britain between 1812 and 1815, the United States was left entirely free to expand westwards and devote all her energies into exploiting her apparently limitless continental resources. By 1900 she could plausibly claim to have a manifest destiny to become a global superpower, which she triumphantly did in the coming twentieth century.