Three armies fought at Waterloo in 1815 under three very different commanders. Rarely has the style of leadership played such a key role in battle.
By Peter Hofschröer
Last updated 2011-02-17
Three armies fought at Waterloo in 1815 under three very different commanders. Rarely has the style of leadership played such a key role in battle.
At the battle of Waterloo, on 18th June 1815, the army of Napoleon Bonaparte contained a fair number of veterans, good cavalry and a large contingent of artillery. It was homogenous and enjoyed the command of a single man with one objective.
The Duke of Wellington's army was a mixture of Germans (the largest contingent), Netherlanders (often referred to as 'Dutch-Belgians') and British (many of whom hailed from Ireland). The sprinkling of veterans, particularly the British and King's German Legion units, were the corset-stays holding together this volatile mixture of men, some of whom had fought for Napoleon only the previous year.
Field Marshal Blücher's Prussians came largely from German provinces, although there were some ethnic Poles in certain units. A substantial number of his men came from newly acquired German provinces on the Rhine, which had been under French control for most of the previous 20 years. Many of his men were untried militia.
The allied forces therefore had to be spread across the entire length of the southern frontier ...
In terms of fighting power, Napoleon's army was the strongest, but it was not strong enough to defeat the two allied armies together. To win, he had to separate them and defeat them individually. Conversely, to defeat Napoleon, Wellington and Blücher had to unite their forces. That was easier said than done, because it was far from certain at which point Napoleon's attack would come. The allied forces therefore had to be spread across the entire length of the southern frontier of the kingdom of the Netherlands, to cover every possible line of approach, whereas Napoleon could concentrate his forces at the point of the attack and gain local superiority in numbers.
Napoleon had every chance of doing this. A master of deception, he used Wellington's own network of spies in Paris to send false information to Brussels, and he teased the allies along the entire length of the frontier, keeping them guessing about his intentions. Marches and counter-marches, particularly in the area of Lille, kept Wellington's attention fixed on his right flank and his line of communication via the Channel ports.
Napoleon was ever a gambler. On paper, he had no chance. The forces of the Fifth Coalition drawn up against him included armies not only from Britain, Germany and the Netherlands: the Austrian army was also assembling on the Upper Rhine and in Italy, while thousands of Russians were moving westwards. Once all these forces were concentrated, they need only march into France to overwhelm Napoleon easily, with their vastly superior numbers. Napoleon had to strike first and strike hard, expecting that a defeat would cause this cumbersome alliance to stumble.
Those allied forces best prepared were the two armies in the Low Countries. The southern Netherlands was French-speaking and had been part of the French Empire until 1814. The capture of Brussels would destabilise the newly founded Kingdom of the Netherlands (consisting of modern Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), cause a revolt in its army and be welcome news in Paris. Maybe then the allies would sue for peace. Napoleon's immediate aims were clear.
The allies could then bring their superior numbers into play, and defeat Napoleon.
Wellington and Blücher were very much aware of the danger they faced. So critical was the defence of Brussels that they themselves adopted a highly risky strategy - the defence of Brussels to the fore.
The best reaction to the kind of attack that Napoleon seemed intent upon, was to concentrate to the rear. Rather than do that, however, the allied strategy was to advance to meet the threat. Against a commander as skilled as Napoleon, the risk was that the part of the allied forces meeting the initial threat would be defeated before the allies could bring their superior numbers into play.
Once the point of Napoleon's attack became clear, the allied forces would have to move rapidly on this point, linking their armies within 24 hours and uniting all their forces within 48 hours. The allies could then bring their superior numbers into play, and defeat Napoleon. Wellington and Blücher had given each other firm assurances of mutual support in such circumstances.
Napoleon was well aware that any confusion in the respective allied headquarters as to his intentions, and any consequent delays in their movements, would have potentially catastrophic results for his adversaries. Naturally, he fully exploited the situation.
The campaign opened well for Napoleon. Although the allies knew of his concentration in the Maubeuge area and had much information regarding his plans, he was nevertheless able to dupe Wellington into delaying his movements for 24 hours.
Attacking the hinge between the two allied armies on 15th June, Napoleon was able to force back the Prussian vanguard, the I Army Corps under Lt-General von Zieten, and begin to drive home a wedge between Wellington and Blücher. By that evening, his scouts advanced as far as the vital crossroads at Quatre Bras, endangering the line of communication between Wellington's headquarters in Brussels and Blücher's in Namur. There had been some confusion in Napoleon's opening moves, but this had done little to delay his advance.
Of the three commanders, Wellington had made by far the gravest errors that day.
By the end of day one, Napoleon's plans were running well, Blücher's Prussians had fought a determined rearguard action, while the rest of the army had been ordered to move on the Sombreffe position to fight a major battle the next day.
Wellington had done nothing that day save issue two sets of orders that evening, the first for his men to assemble the next morning, the second to march to various points the next day, pending a decision on where to concentrate his army. Blücher, although he did not know it, was out on a limb. Also, there had been a foul-up in the issuing of orders to General von Bülow's IV Army Corps, which was not going to arrive the next day. This would exacerbate the position.
Of the three commanders, Wellington had made by far the gravest errors that day. His inaction meant that none of his troops would be able to link up with Blücher. By contrast, and despite his faulty staff work, the Prussian commander would have 75 percent of his men in position on time the next day.
Two major battles were fought the next day, 16th June. At Ligny, Blücher's Prussians took on Napoleon in person, while Wellington's forces clashed with the commander of the French left wing, Marshal Ney, at Quatre Bras. The Prussians had a strong position at Ligny, using the cover of hills to hide their reserves, and the villages along their front as strong defensive points, hoping to buy enough time for Wellington to arrive.
The French attack that afternoon at Quatre Bras took Wellington by surprise and it was fortunate indeed that the Prince of Orange, who was in command while Wellington was at Blücher's headquarters, had sufficient presence of mind to ensure reinforcements were rapidly marching to Quatre Bras; otherwise Wellington would have paid the price for his errors.
Blücher held on for most of the day until the final French assault that evening punctured his centre. His army fell back that night, order only being restored by the next morning.Wellington's muddled concentration was by now beginning to sort itself out. He held his positions as Quatre Bras and was able to offer battle there the next day, if required.
The night of 16th-17th June was to be the turning point in the campaign.
Napoleon had been victorious that day, but had lost his one real chance in that campaign of inflicting a crushing defeat on the allied forces. A muddle in orders resulted in d'Erlon's Corps (19,000 men) marching and counter-marching between the two battlefields without becoming involved in either combat. The presence of these men at either Quatre Bras or Ligny would have proved decisive.
Despite this failure, the odds were still very much in Napoleon's favour. The Prussian army was in full flight, having lost over 20,000 men that day, including 8,000 deserters, although Wellington had lost less than 5,000 men. Napoleon's total losses were around 11,000 men. The French leader appeared to be in a position where he could move the bulk of his forces against Wellington and defeat him, before entering Brussels in triumph.
The night of 16th-17th June was to be the turning point in the campaign. As Blücher was missing, his chief-of-staff Gneisenau assumed command and set about restoring order to the defeated Prussians. He first attempted to rally the army at Tilly, a short march from Wellington, and when that did not work, he selected Wavre as the point for the army to concentrate. Bûlow's Corps was force-marched there. The Prussians spent the next 24 hours turning a tactical defeat into a strategic victory.
Once it became clear that Blücher had suffered a check, Wellington staged a slow withdrawal on the Mont St Jean position, where he would offer battle the next day. Napoleon appeared to be in no rush on the morning of 17th June. He sent off Grouchy with a third of his men to pursue the Prussians, but by the time he had done this, contact had been lost. He followed up Wellington's withdrawal. Napoleon was letting his gains slip away.
Despite his errors, Napoleon started the day of 18th June with the odds very much in his favour. Wellington did not concentrate his entire army at Waterloo for the battle. Furthermore, at least half of his army consisted of troops of much lower quality than Napoleon's. The Prussians were miles away, and thanks to the muddy country lanes they would have to use, would be much delayed.
The Prussian intervention determined the result of the battle.
Teasing Wellington's sensitive right with what was supposed to be a feint against the farm of Hougoumont, Napoleon then drew up his substantial artillery in a grand battery and pounded away at Wellington's centre, expecting it to be sufficiently weakened for d'Erlon's attack to pass like a hot knife through butter.
Wellington's tactical handling of his troops, however, was superb. He used the cover offered by the ridge of Mont St Jean to protect his men from the worst of the bombardment, then halted d'Erlon with his infantry before chasing him off with his cavalry. Hougoumont held out all day. The farm of La Haye Sainte, the key to Wellington's centre, held out until the evening, and the farm of Papelotte on his left changed hands several times without having any significant effect on the battle.
Wellington was always present at the crucial point, steadying his men, and he personally handled the tactical situation that led to the defeat of the final French assault on his centre, made by the Imperial Guard at 7:00pm. It was this tactical ability that played the major part in the eventual allied victory.
Napoleon left much of the tactical handling of the battle to Ney, but kept hold of his reserves, and deprived Ney of the infantry he needed to smash through Wellington's centre. In addition, the Prussian advance on his right forced Napoleon to commit vital parts of his reserve to prevent a breakthrough. First was Lobau's Corps (10,000 men), then the Young Guard (4,000 men) and finally elements of the Old Guard (1,000 men). None of these troops could attack Wellington. This, and the commitment of a large number of men to futile attacks on Hougoumont, deprived Napoleon of victory.
It was Blücher's personal charisma and Gneisenau's organisational ability that had rejuvenated the previously defeated Prussian army. Their unexpectedly determined advance from Wavre to Plancenoit had attracted Napoleon's attention from early in the day, and deprived him of much of his vital infantry reserves, and it was the capture of the strongpoint at Plancenoit in the right rear of the French position that was the decisive final blow on Napoleon's wavering army. The Prussian intervention determined the result of the battle.
Napoleon's gamble had had good prospects, but was thrown into jeopardy because of his mishandling of d'Erlon's Corps on 16th June, and his commitment of large numbers of troops to the assault on Hougoumont on 18th June. The Prussian intervention, meanwhile, had sealed his fate.
Wellington made serious errors of judgement on 15th June, and almost lost the campaign for the allies. However, he kept his cool, muddled his way through on 16th June and was from then onwards in a position to play a vital role in the campaign. His tactical handling of the Battle of Waterloo contributed significantly to the allied success.
Blücher's poor staff work on 15th-16th June almost caused disaster ...
Blücher's poor staff work on 15th-16th June almost caused disaster, particularly when compounded with Wellington's errors of judgement. His tactical handling of the Battle of Ligny, however, did much to rectify that, and by turning the retreat from Ligny into a strategic advantage, he ensured that the Prussians were in a strong enough position to determine the outcome of the campaign.
The Waterloo Companion by Mark Adkins (London, 2001)
1815 - The Waterloo Campaign by Peter Hofschröer (2 vols, London, 1998/99)
History of the Waterloo Campaign by Capt William Siborne (reprinted London, 1995)
Waterloo Letters by Herbert T Siborne (reprinted London, 1993)
National Army Museum, Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, London SW3 4HT (tel: 020 7730 0717), has a Waterloo exhibition and the Large Waterloo Model made by Capt Siborne.
The Royal Armouries, Armouries Drive, Leeds LS10 1LT (tel: 0113 220 1999), has Siborne's Lesser Waterloo Model on display.
Apsley House, Hyde Park Corner, London W1J 7NT (tel: 020 7499 5676), contains the Duke of Wellington's collection of Waterloo memorabilia.
Peter Hofschröer is a specialist in Napoleonic history and has written on the Prussian and Hanoverian armies in the Osprey Men-at-Arms series as well as on Leipzig and Lützen in 1813 in the Campaign series. He has contributed numerous articles to magazines and journals such as War in History, the Journal of the Society of Army Historical Research and the Age of Napoleon. He was also involved in the production of the computer game based on the Waterloo campaign Fields of Glory, published by MicroProse. His two-volume study of Waterloo 1815 - The Waterloo Campaign was published in 1998 (Greenhill Books) and was awarded the 1999 Literary Award of the Napoleonic Society of America.
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