Wellington's epic and decisive victory over Napoleon was nonetheless 'the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life'.
Wellington's epic and decisive victory over Napoleon was nonetheless 'the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life'.
The Battle of Waterloo was fought thirteen kilometres south of Brussels between the French, under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Allied armies commanded by the Duke of Wellington from Britain and General Blücher from Prussia. The French defeat at Waterloo drew to a close 23 years of war beginning with the French Revolutionary wars in 1792 and continuing with the Napoleonic Wars from 1803. There was a brief eleven-month respite when Napoleon was forced to abdicate, exiled to the island of Elba. However, the unpopularity of Louis XVIII and the economic and social instability of France motivated him to return to Paris in March 1815. The Allies soon declared war once again. Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo marked the end of the Emperor's final bid for power, the so-called '100 Days', and the final chapter in his remarkable career.
Napoleon Bonaparte had always been driven by his desire to make France a European empire and was an experienced warlord and leader. He had carried out a coup against the government of the First Republic of France (the 'Directory') in 1799 and established himself as ruler and First Consul, eventually to declare himself First Consul for life and Emperor in 1804. In 1802 the French Republic was officially recognised and the Peace of Amiens signed. Napoleon had higher ambitions and pursued his desire to make France the most powerful country in Europe by conquering other countries including Britain. In 1803, Britain declared war on France and the ensuing 'Napoleonic Wars' were fought between France and various Allied coalitions over the next 11 years. The Allies successfully invaded in 1814 and forced Napoleon to abdicate at the Treaty of Fontainbleau.
Napoleon described Britain as 'the most powerful and most constant ... of my enemies'
The European powers were meeting in Vienna to re-establish the territorial balance in Europe when news came of Napoleon's escape from Elba on 1st March 1815 and his re-entry into Paris on 20th March. The powers immediately renewed their declaration of war on Napoleon and the 7th Coalition between Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia was formed on 25th March. They began assembling their troops in readiness for war, intending to attack along the French borders and march on Paris from different directions with enough strength to crush the French. In the event, only the armies of Wellington and Blücher were in place in Belgium. The Austrians and Russians arrived after Napoleon had been defeated.
The Allied army under the Duke of Wellington was a coalition of British, Dutch, Belgian and German soldiers. Napoleon described Britain as 'the most powerful and most constant ... of my enemies'. Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, had never been beaten by the French and had a reputation as a talented coalition general. He came to prominence in India and then successfully directed the Peninsular Campaign of 1811 when the British went to support Portugal and Spain against Napoleon. He was made a duke at the end of that war and appointed ambassador to the restored Bourbon court in 1814.
Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher was the commander of the Prussian army. He was 72 at the time of the Battle of Waterloo and the only man to have beaten Napoleon more than once. Age and experience meant that Blücher was less afraid of Napoleon than any other commander. His self-confidence and career record had a positive effect on his army, helping to keep morale amongst the Prussians high.
After his return to France, Napoleon developed his strategy to defeat the Allies. He re-established himself in Paris and began building up his army in preparation for an invasion of Belgium, his goal was to capture Brussels. His battle plan was to mount an offensive attack on the Allied troops gathering in Belgium and to destroy them. In order to do this he wanted to divide the armies before defeating them separately, forcing Wellington's army to retreat back to the Belgian coast in the west and the Prussians to retreat to the east. With speed he deployed his army along the French border and centred his headquarters at Beaumont just across the border from Belgium. He was ready to attack on 15th June 1815.
Had Marshal Ney attacked Quatre-Bras earlier the outcome could have been very different ...
In order to separate Wellington and Blücher's troops, Napoleon ordered Marshal Ney to advance on Quatre-Bras, a crossroads on the roads between Brussels and Charleroi and Nivelles and Namur. Allied Dutch-Belgium troops under Prince William of Orange were already positioned around the area and succeeded in holding off the French attack until reinforcements arrived. They continued to hold their ground, resulting in stalemate on 16th June. The result may have been a coincidence of timing. Had Marshal Ney attacked Quatre-Bras earlier the outcome could have been very different as, until the reinforcements arrived, the French army greatly outnumbered the Allies and their chances of victory were good. If the Allies had been defeated, they may have retreated completely rather than regrouping at Mont St Jean, a few kilometres north of Quatre-Bras. Wellington admitted surprise at the direction of the French attack; 'Napoleon has humbugged me', he declared.
At Ligny, the Prussian army occupied strongholds of walled gardens, stone houses and farmhouses and lined up on the forward slope of the Ligny Brook with the right guarding the villages of St Armand and St Armand Haye. Heavy fighting ensued with casualties on both sides, but the Prussians were forced to commit more and more troops. Although the French were victorious, they failed to totally destroy the Prussian army. They were able to retreat, albeit with numerous injured and dead, north to Wavre (about 18 kilometres east of Waterloo) Napoleon had succeeded in his aim of keeping the two Allied armies apart but mistakenly believed the Prussians were defeated. He was confident that Wellington could also be defeated.
On the morning of 18th June 1815, Wellington was occupying the ridge of Mont St Jean, just south of Waterloo, and Napoleon that of La Belle Alliance across the valley. The corps were divided into three under the commands of Lord Hill, Prince William of Orange and Sir Thomas Picton. Wellington was short of well-trained infantry and the cavalry were inexperienced, but he believed in the use of carefully deployed firepower. They had some 156 cannon and the standard gun for the infantry, a smoothbore musket fitted with a bayonet on a socket over the barrel of a gun Observing that his troops were outnumbered by the French, Wellington decided that his best plan was to stand firm until the Prussians could come to his aid. He lined the majority of his troops up out of sight behind the ridge and garrisoned some in front at the farms of Hougoumont, La Haye Sainte and Papelotte. The bulk of the army was positioned on the right flank, the side of the Hougoumont farm, while the side of Papelotte, the left, was lightly guarded in the hope that the Prussians would arrive quickly as reinforcements. The right flank was also closer to the French as the two ridges were not parallel.
Napoleon had built up his army from veterans, disenchanted peasants and conscripts ...
In the meantime, the Prussians were regrouping at Wavre. Blücher ordered an undefeated corps, under the command of General Bulow, to go to St-Lambert in readiness to support Wellington if necessary while other troops were ordered to follow when ready. Marshal Grouchy had been sent in pursuit of the Prussians with orders from Napoleon to prevent the Prussian army from linking up with the Allies.
Napoleon had built up his army from veterans, disenchanted peasants and conscripts, all hastily trained having been assembled at short notice. His strength lay in his artillery and cavalry, which were greater than Wellington's. He relied on surprise and aggression rather than firepower, his priority was to break the enemy's frontline. He aimed to create a diversion by attacking Hougoumont first, following that with heavy artillery bombardment to soften the defences on the Allied centre and left before mounting a full attack on the ridge. Marshal D'Erlon's Corps I was positioned in the front line on the right behind the guns and Reille's Corps was positioned on the left. The cavalry was lined up in reserve with Lobau's VI Corps. The Imperial Guard was kept in final reserve at the rear.
11:30am The French launched their diversionary attack on Hougoumont. The Allied line hid behind the ridge except for Bylandt's Dutch-Belgian brigade which was forced to retire. The diversionary tactics were not carried through as Napoleon's brother, Jerome, made an attempt to capture the farm. He involved his division and a brigade from another division in a full-scale battle. Wellington stood firm.
1:00pm The Grand Battery of heavy artillery opened fire before d'Erlon's Corps marched forward in their traditional columns across the field from the French right past La Haye Sainte. They came under fire from the garrisons at La Haye Sainte. Despite suffering heavy casualties from Allied artillery fire, the French succeeded in capturing Papelotte and surrounding La Haye Sainte. As Wellington's troops moved forward from the ridge to engage the French before they could break columns and form a line, the reserves moved up to support the left.
At the same time as the infantry was attacking, Napoleon intercepted a message from Bulow to Wellington revealing the Prussian's presence in the St Lambert area to his right. He sent Lobau's infantry and Domon's and Subervie's cavalry to face the Prussian troops.
As his centre began to give way and La Haye Sainte became vulnerable, Wellington sent in his reserve led by Picton's brigade to plug the gap. The French were beaten back from La Haye Sainte and Wellington ran home his advantage by having the cavalry brigades under Somerset and Ponsonby attack. The French infantry were surprised and easily overcome, but the Allied cavalry was badly decimated during a counter attack by a cuirassier brigade and some lancers.
Through the smoky haze, Ney had seen lines of Wellington's wounded soldiers walking along the road to Brussels.
Once again Wellington withdrew behind the ridge and reinforced La Haye Sainte while Prince Bernhardt of Saxe-Weimar retook Papelotte. The left flank was now very weak but Napoleon's right flank was also badly wrecked. Wellington was unable to take advantage of this without Prussian support. Artillery continued to be fired on both sides and a battle continued at Hougoument while, at St-Lambert, Lobau stood against the Prussians.
3:00pm Knowing that La Haye Sainte was a key stronghold, Napoleon ordered Marshal Ney to capture it, thereby smashing the Allied centre. Through the smoky haze, Ney had seen lines of Wellington's wounded soldiers walking along the road to Brussels. Possibly believing the British were retreating, he ordered his cavalry to charge across the battlefield towards the ridge. Wellington's infantry formed squares behind the ridge to receive them and the Allied artillery lined up in front of them, enabling the gunners to continue firing until the last possible moment and then to take refuge behind the squares. Wellington's formation stood firm and the French cavalry made little impact especially as Ney no fresh infantry reserves available, as they were tied down by the Prussians. The French artillery also had to cease firing because, had they continued, they would have inflicted casualties on their own side as much as on the enemy's. Wellington was short of cavalry and artillery but counter attacked by sending in his cavalry reserve to stand between the infantry squares.
Despite sending in more cavalry to attack, the French eventually had to retire. However, an infantry force did manage to capture La Haye Sainte which Wellington was unable to reinforce. This meant that French artillery were able to line up right below the ridge so making the Allied infantry sitting targets if they appeared over it. Wellington could only await further developments. Ney called on Napoleon for reinforcements. "Some troops!", he replied, "Where do you expect me to get them from? Do you want me to make some?" At the time Napoleon was more concerned about the Prussians who were continuing to advance and had captured Plancenoit. Desperate to stop them from joining Wellington, he decided to send his Imperial Guard to recapture Plancenoit first and then sent the remainder to fight Wellington's troops.
7:00pm The group marched in echelon across the field between Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. The troops near Hougoumont were fired upon by Allied forces and decimated, but those on the side of the French-held La Haye Sainte got through and went up and over the ridge. The Allied forces were waiting for them and, although the Guard broke through the front line, Maitland's brigade in the reserve surprised them by hiding in the corn. The Guard fled, some of them forming squares in the centre of the battlefield to block the Allied advance and screen their Emperor's retreat from the battlefield. It was the first time that the Imperial Guard had ever been forced to retreat. Under orders from Wellington who had seen the Prussians advancing on his left, the Allied line swept down from the ridge and successfully defeated the Guard. The Prussians retook Plancenoit and Papelotte.
9.00pm Blücher met Wellington at La Belle Alliance. A fresh Prussian cavalry pursued the retreating French. Blücher wanted to name the battle "La Belle Alliance" but Wellington insisted upon a tradition of his, that it be called after the place where he had spent the night before the battle, Waterloo.
Wellington described his victory as a 'damned near-run thing'. The battle was closely fought and either side could have won, but mistakes in communication, leadership and judgement led, ultimately, to French defeat.
Communication was key. The fastest way to communicate was by sending messages with horseback riders but this meant a delay in instructions being carried out, and there was a high chance of them being intercepted and never arriving. Given the numbers of troops involved and the distances involved, it had potentially fatal results if communication failed. Ney failed to capture Quatre-Bras because he delayed attack and was waiting for further communication. Similarly, d'Erlon's corps failed to see real action at either Quatre-Bras or Ligny because of a confusion of orders. Napoleon did not have any system in place to ensure that the orders had been received.
Mistakes in communication, leadership and judgement led, ultimately, to French defeat ...
In his choice of leaders, Napoleon's judgement was poor. Grouchy was said to be a great General but he was out of his depth as a Marshal. He showed little initiative and was tardy in his pursuit of the Prussians, giving them time to regroup. He failed to keep the Prussians separate from the other Allies and, although engaged in battle with the Prussians at Wavre, he failed to prevent a corps being deployed at St. Lambert. His battle at Wavre continued until he had defeated the Prussians but, by that time, Napoleon was on his way back to Paris.
Ney also proved unreliable as a leader failing to take advantage of his situation in the precursory battle at Quatre-Bras and then in leading the cavalry, unsupported by infantry and artillery, at Waterloo.
The weather also played its part, causing Napoleon to postpone the main attack until 1pm to allow the land to dry out. The muddier the ground, the more difficult it was for the army to move as feet and wheels sank into the mud, and the men and animals tired more quickly. Making matters worse, the muskets became damp, preventing them from firing properly. Had Napoleon attacked earlier, the Prussians would not have been so near the battlefield and the result may have been different. However, as the Prussians were so far from the battlefield, the mud delayed their march by several hours.
Ultimately, the Emperor must take responsibility for the defeat. He was the overall leader and his misjudgements resulted in failure. He was also too confident, perhaps arrogant, believing he could win back the support of France and overcome the Allies.
Defeat at The Battle of Waterloo ended Napoleon's hundred days reign, he was exiled to the island of St Helena where he died in 1821. Wellington fought his last battle at Waterloo and became a hero, throughout Europe. He was Commander-in-Chief during the occupation of France and advocated a non-punitive peace deal. He organised loans to restore French finances and advised the withdrawal of troops after three years. He returned home in 1818 and became Prime Minister in 1828.
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