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  The 1815 Campaign: The Battle of Waterloo

By Cherub Marechal

The battle between Napoleon Bonaparte and Arthur Wellesley in the quaint Belgian countryside on the eighteenth of June 1815 was the final major battle fought in the era following the great upheaval of 1789. The importance of the Battle of Waterloo has never been underestimated by historians, but it has led to controversial conclusions and misguided perceptions. For many the battle is merely the definitive blow against the questionable reputation of Napoleon. However, the story behind the outcome of the Waterloo campaign is more than just the Duke of Wellington beating Napoleon on June 18. The story stretches all the way back to 1779 when the struggling Carlo Bounaparte brought the young child Napoleon to France for a formal military education. The story continues through the bloody turmoil of the French Revolution, the wars of the republic, the Consulate, and the First French Empire. All the events spanning from 1784-1814 helped lead into the Waterloo campaign of 1815 and contributed to the eventual end of the Napoleonic Era. The defeat of the French northern army at Waterloo undermined any chance for Napoleon to maintain his position leaving his second reign in shambles and the world irreversibly altered. Never again would the French experience the power, the glory, and the triumphs Napoleon brought them. Great Britain continued its ascendancy to world domination. Germany united and showed the world it was no longer a second rate power. Russia stumbled into one of the darkest chapters in its history. Revolution shook nearly every corner of the world and these legacies continue to change the world in the twenty-first century.
Napoleon Bonaparte and Arthur Wellesley were born and raised in the eighteenth century, in the same world their fathers knew. However, by the time they had both entered the military profession, times had already changed dramatically with the American War of Independence and then the French Revolution. The arms and weapons of their predecessors were the same weapons they would fight with, but the tactics, strategies, and indeed, the face of warfare, had changed forever in Europe. No longer were wars the hobby of untouchable monarchs moving pins around on a map. Armies were transformed from small, professional bodies of rigidly disciplined machines during the days of Marlborough and Frederick the Great into gigantic formations of national draftees. Wars were fought in the dead of winter, whole nations were divided and conquered, millions of men were under arms, and from the smoldering wreckage of twenty years of warfare one name rose above the rest: Napoleon.
Napoleone Buonaparte was born on August 15, 1769 to Carlo and Letizia Buonaparte on the small island of Corsica in the Mediterranean. Corsica had just fought a war of independence, first from Genoa, and then from their new French masters. The movement failed and in the end the Corsicans were defeated and the island firmly held under the Bourbon flag. Carlo Buonaparte had fought alongside the rebel leader Pascal Paoli but after the defeat of the rebellion he accepted French rule and received recognition from the court of Louis XV of the Buonaparte family’s noble heritage. This recognition would play a great role in the education of his children, especially for Napoleone. Using his status as a minor noble in Ajaccio, Corsica he won royal scholarships for his two eldest children, Joseph and Napoleone. Charles took his two eldest sons to France in late 1778 where they were enrolled in French schools where their education was paid for by their royal scholarships. It was in France Napoleone Buonaparte became Napoleon Bonaparte, a name history will never forget.
Napoleon went on to spend the next thirty years of his life in military service, beginning at L'Ecole Militaire in 1784 and continuing through 1815 with the Battle of Waterloo. He personally commanded over fifty victories during his lifetime and broke four continental coalitions. Few generals in Western civilization can lay claim to such lofty laurels. In hindsight, the battle on the June 18 almost two hundred years ago serves as a fitting conclusion for the Napoleonic Era--a time when the world revolved around one man.

All of France was astir as the word spread that Napoleon had landed on March 1, 1815. France's former master had been sent to the island of Elba in mid-1814 after the Treaty of Fontainebleau ended the First French Empire. Napoleon had built his great empire from the ruins of the decadent institution that was Revolutionary France. After Napoleon’s abdication, the Bourbon Louis XVIII was brought back from England at the head of the allied armies and installed as the King of France although he hadn’t seen his country in over two decades. Over a million French citizens had fought and died for the ideals of the French Revolution, the Republic, and Napoleon. It was now wrought meaningless with the reintroduction of the very thing the revolution had been fought to prevent. Countless French soldiers and civilians had died in vain. An entire generation of French blood had been shed without purpose.
No sooner had Louis XVIII been hastily crowned than he saw it fit to disregard the articles of the very treaty that had made him king. He refused to send Napoleon the stipulated pension of two million francs. Outraged, Napoleon sought redress for this betrayal only to be soundly rejected by the Congress of Vienna. To those whom he had humbled on the field of battle, he was now nothing more than a petty criminal. With no chance for justice, Napoleon took matters into his own hands and taking a select following of one thousand men, he embarked for France, slipping past the naval patrols in the area.
Napoleon's invasion of France in 1815 was one of the strangest in history, but undoubtedly one of the most successful. With a thousand men, Napoleon landed on French soil to dethrone Louis XVIII. He set out to conquer the French royal army of over two hundred thousand men and subjugate nearly fifty million citizens. Calling Napoleon’s gamble bold is a dramatic understatement.
What followed is told well enough in the multitude of books and articles dealing with this period of the Napoleonic Era. To be concise, it was a “parade.” As Napoleon had hoped, not a single life was lost in his conquest of France. The towns threw open their gates and the soldiers deserted the Bourbon colors without hesitation. On March 20, Napoleon entered Paris. It had been just over two weeks since he had landed on French soil. Louis XVIII and his court fled into Belgium and back into the hands of the enemy armies. The eagle had returned to its nest.
The task that lay before Napoleon was almost as impossible as his invasion was impractical. True, he had returned to his throne without having to shed a single drop of blood and he enjoyed the support of the people, but many things had changed. Many of his trusted officials, ministers, and generals were dead, retired, or had fled with Louis XVIII. The government's finances were in chaos and the people restless. Even before Napoleon’s representatives could reach the Congress of Vienna and seek peace, he was declared an outlaw and the allied armies began marshalling. War it was. Seeing this, Napoleon--with his customary skill--feverishly set about procuring funds from old friends and businesses, creating new armies from nothing, and doing away with the abysmal Bourbon restoration. However, Napoleon was not the absolute ruler of Europe anymore. The emperor had to accept a liberal constitution and his powers were severely hampered. Anticipating another campaign against the odds, Napoleon summoned what men and generals he could and prepared to draw the traditional first blood. After all, seizing the initiative was Napoleon's martial trademark.
Napoleon found his old and trustworthy commander, Marshal Davout, arguably his greatest lieutenant, and appointed him the new minister of war. His last minister of war, General Clarke, had betrayed Napoleon in 1814. Exercising caution, Napoleon set about finding the leaders for his new armies. Many of his former marshals were retired, exiled, or refused Napoleon's summons. Marshals Bessières, Lannes, and Berthier were dead. Not only was the senior leadership missing, but it also must be understood the army regulars in 1815 were not the same regulars who had served in the Grande Armée that swept aside three allied coalitions. The National Guard was called up and many of its men were used to fill the holes in Napoleon's regiments. Napoleon collected retired pensioners and boys of sixteen to complete the rosters in 1815. Not only was the infantry corps’ quality left wanting, but Napoleon also faced an acute shortage of cavalry. The cavalry arm had always been a pivotal part of Napoleon's Grande Armée, but now the horses were scarce and the men who were trained to ride them even scarcer. Most of the cavalry Napoleon called for in 1815 was still training in France when he launched the invasion of Belgium in June.
Napoleon made the best of a desperate situation and managed another miracle. In three months he put together a dozen armies to defend France's lengthy borders. Under his personal command would be the Army of the North consisting of 125,000 troops. Accompanying him were Marshals Ney, Grouchy, and Soult. Soult replaced Berthier as Napoleon’s new chief of staff after the tragic death of the former. Berthier had been one of Napoleon’s ablest lieutenants and an impeccable chief of staff at his master’s side. He was called the “Emperor’s Wife” with good reason, but namely because he spent so much time working beside Napoleon, mapping out the campaigns that fill our history books. The consequences of Berthier’s absence in the 1815 campaign are best summed up in the words of Napoleon himself, “If Berthier had been there, I would not have met this misfortune.”1
The Army of the North was to be the primary offensive weapon for the coming campaign and destined to be under the personal command of Napoleon. Roughly 22,000 cavalry served in this army--the bulk of cavalry in France at the time--as well as 300 pieces of artillery. The number of infantry approached 100,000 by the close of the campaign. The Army of the North was then subdivided into several corps, an innovation partially credited to Napoleon.
The army consisted of the I Corps of 20,000 troops commanded by General d'Erlon, whose controversial role in the 1815 campaign is overshadowed only by the performances of Marshals Grouchy and Ney. General Reille led II Corps which mustered 25,000 soldiers, while General Vandamme's III Corps numbered 20,000. The two remaining infantry corps were IV and V Corps led by Generals Gerard and Lobau respectively, commanding 15,000 and 10,000 troops. Finally, there was the 20,000-strong Imperial Guard under General Drouot. The newly appointed Marshal Grouchy held command over four organized cavalry corps which initially numbered 14,000, later reinforced to 22,000. This was to be the Army of the North and with these 125,000 soldiers Napoleon set off on his pre-emptive offensive. Oblivious to the designs of Napoleon, the allies began mustering their armies in preparation for another invasion of France.
Even before he had reached Paris, the primary leaders of the Congress of Vienna had declared Napoleon an outlaw conveniently ignoring that it was Louis XVIII who had breeched the treaty by refusing to honor the clause granting Napoleon a modest pension. England, the generous bankroller of six previous coalitions, did not hesitate to send millions to the continent a seventh time. Three million English pounds was handed out to the major allied powers to raise and arm their soldiers to defeat France.2 Millions of cartridges, muskets, and munitions came over on England's merchant fleet to service the allied coalition. The preparations to defeat France were still incomplete when Napoleon struck.
However, the allies were confident of victory sooner or later. Napoleon's cabinet in Paris was full of traitors and royalists. Not only was the central administration in Paris corrupt, the lesser government officials in the other major cities and the surrounding countryside were also treacherous. The allies were well aware of the weaknesses of Napoleon's armies: his lack of cavalry, infantry of mediocre quality, and the desperate conscription measures. In addition, the allies held numerical superiority.
Five major allied armies were formed for the 1815 campaign. In Belgium were two allied armies: the first under Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and the other under Field Marshal von Blücher. The Duke of Wellington was the talented British commander who had driven the French from Spain after several long years of campaigning against the legions of Napoleon. Under his command was a mixed force of 25,000 British, 29,500 Dutch-Belgians, and 36,500 German troops. The Duke of Wellington was eager to finally have the opportunity to go against Napoleon on the field of battle. In all his years in the Peninsula, Wellington never had the chance to fight Napoleon in person. In 1815, Wellington was to be surprised how quickly he was granted his wish. On Wellington’s left were von Blücher and 120,000 Prussian soldiers stationed in the peaceful Belgian countryside. A further corps of 25,000 Prussian troops was also standing by not far away.
In addition to the Prussian and British armies in Belgium, other allied armies were marshalling on the Rhine, in Germany, the Austrian Empire, and Italy. The Austrian Prince Schwarzenberg had over 210,000 troops in the Black Forest region ready to invade France, as they had done in 1814. A mixed Austro-Italian army of 75,000 troops under Frimont was formed to the south of this army. Mustering far away were Barclay de Tolly's 150,000 Russian troops marching from the Polish frontiers. By the end of the campaign some three quarters of a million allied troops were ready to crush any remaining resistance Napoleon might rally. Counting every man under arms in France, Napoleon could have met these seasoned allied armies with roughly a half million Frenchmen. Certainly the numbers alone gave the allies reason enough to be confident.
From the standpoint of anyone else, the campaign looked bleak, if not outright hopeless for the French. However, Napoleon was not just anyone else. He came up with a daring central strike plan. His central army group would seize the central point between the two allied armies and defeat them separately. After destroying the Duke of Wellington and von Blücher, he planned to sweep into Brussels, driving the combined allied armies into the sea or Germany. By removing two allied armies with over 200,000 troops, Napoleon reasoned the other powers would begin peace negotiations. If the allies remained persistent, he would almost have equal numbers to carry the campaign into Germany or beyond. With impudence he could swing south and hit Schwarzenberg's flank taking the Austrians out of the war before the Russians could arrive. If all had gone according to his plan, this may very well have been what transpired in 1815.
For this bold plan to succeed, Napoleon had to strike quickly. If he waited too long the Russian armies would arrive from Poland and the Austrians would drive into eastern France with over two hundred thousand soldiers. To defeat the two armies in Belgium, Napoleon planned to drive a wedge between the Anglo-Allied army of the Duke of Wellington and the Prussians under von Blücher. To carry this out, he would deploy part of his army on each flank to act as a pinning force while the central army group would engage and defeat either given flank. This strategy was as bold as it was brilliant. The alternative would have been to stay on the defensive, muster as many soldiers as possible, and await the inevitable invasion of France from a dozen directions by a dozen armies with overwhelming numerical superiority. Such an approach was alien to Napoleon's nature and the 1815 campaign would have been a nothing more than a less dramatic repeat of 1814. With this in mind, Napoleon set out to tackle what would prove to be one of the greatest challenges of his life.

The Campaign is Launched
June 12-15
Just as Napoleon anticipated the Allied command was caught off guard by his invasion of Belgium in early June. The Duke of Wellington and Field Marshal von Blücher had considered the possibility of French forces operating in the north but they did not anticipate Napoleon himself with an army of 120,000 troops on the offensive. The two allied commanders shared the views of their colleagues in Vienna who expected Napoleon to strike Schwarzenberg and the Allied center in the south. If Napoleon were to strike the northern theater, the Duke of Wellington assumed it would be to the west, along the Belgian coast. Based on this assumption the duke strung his army out all along the Belgian frontier with a reserve near the coast. The allied commanders seemed to have forgotten the lessons of the past two decades. Outnumbered two-to-one and striking the dead center of the two allied armies was sheer folly, the allies reasoned, demonstrating how little they had learned in the twenty years of fighting Napoleon.
With civil matters loosely in order and a shaky administration in place, Napoleon hoped for the best and left Paris on June twelfth. Among those left behind was Marshal Davout, arguably Napoleon's ablest and most trustworthy lieutenant. It was Marshal Davout who had defeated a Prussian force immensely superior to his single French corps at Austerdät in 1806. However, lacking other qualified men, Napoleon saw no other reasonable choice for minister of war in 1815. The betrayal of Clarke from the previous year was still fresh on his mind.
For better or worse, Napoleon did have the audacious Ney by his side. It was Ney who only a few months earlier had turned over an entire Bourbon army to Napoleon. One of the bravest and most fearless commanders serving in Napoleon's legions, Ney did lack something for independent strategic command. He could lead men to the gates of hell, as was amply demonstrated by his role in leading the rearguard of the central army during the retreat from Moscow in 1812, but the fine art of strategy was beyond his scope. During the coming campaign, Ney was given complete command of Napoleon's left flank.
The other major French player in the 1815 campaign was Marshal Grouchy, recently named by Napoleon as the twenty-sixth and final marshal. Grouchy’s role was to be commander of Napoleon's right flank. He was a fair cavalry commander, but that was the limit of his abilities. Like Ney, Grouchy’s command was above and beyond his ability and his performance would have a crucial impact on the battle of Waterloo and its aftermath.
In early June one hundred and twenty thousand French troops with their baggage and supply train began concentrating on Charleroi by Napoleon's orders in preparation for the invasion of Belgium. The troop concentration was precise with the army units arriving at preordained times to cross the bridges over the Sambre avoiding traffic and logistic problems--by Napoleon's design. He was not one of the greatest military commanders in history with nothing to show for it. Napoleon did not intend to specifically strike von Blucher or Wellesley. As was his style, Napoleon set a plan of operations in motion and awaited the opportunities that would occur. If von Blücher's Prussians fell back upon Napoleon's attack at Charleroi, Napoleon would simply swing the Army of the North against Wellington while pinning von Blücher down with Grouchy’s command. If the Duke of Wellington fell back, Napoleon would concentrate against von Blücher and overwhelm the Prussians. The risk inherent was that the allies could join together and crush the French with numerical superiority at any point. Napoleon accepted this challenge and set his eyes on victory.
As in the three previous campaigns, treason was to hamper Napoleon's grand operations. A certain General Bourmont, commanding a division of French infantry on the right flank, went over to the allies early on the morning of June 15. This was not his first act of treason, Bourmont's record during the republic and empire is well-documented with betrayal, treason, and royalist intrigues. He soon reached the Prussian high command and turned over Napoleon's dispositions. With this invaluable information in their possession, the Prussian army began to assemble as quickly as possible to receive Napoleon's hammer blow.
The first shots of the war were fired when the Prussian outposts began resisting the French advance elements approaching Charleroi and the surrounding countryside. The town itself, particularly its bridges, was fiercely defended by Prussian Jäger infantry. Napoleon arrived in the forenoon and drove the Prussians off with Imperial marines and other troops. The Prussians in the area retired in good order and the French army began pouring over the Sambre in force. Already things had gone awry for Napoleon.
Napoleon took up headquarters outside Charleroi and began changing his plans and reading intelligence reports. At this time Ney arrived and was given command of the left wing of the Army of the North while Grouchy was given the right wing. The two commanders would prove to be unfortunate choices during the next few days. Even on the afternoon of the fifteenth, the first actual day of the campaign, there were command problems. For example, Grouchy was given orders to bash in the Prussian rear guard. After failing to carry this out, he spent several hours arguing with General Vandamme before Napoleon arrived and took personal command and pushed the Prussians back. On the left, Ney made contact with a small group of Dutch-Belgian militia holding the village of Quatre Bras. Ney was supposed to have reached Quatre Bras by evening of the fifteenth, driving out any enemy forces therein. Ignoring the fact the town was held by a miniscule allied force, Ney brought his columns to a halt and spent the rest of the day assessing the situation. Both flanks of Napoleon's army had failed to reach their assigned objectives for the first day. The evening was not pleasant at imperial headquarters.
The emperor was unhappy, but the situation was still under control. Most of the French army was in position or within reasonable distance of their objectives and had pushed the Allied forces back. By evening reports began pouring into the headquarters of Field Marshal von Blücher, the Duke of Wellington, and Napoleon. The British commander was attending a ball in Brussels when news reached him of Napoleon's pre-emptive offensive. The Duke of Wellington had actually sent orders out to the effect that Quatre Bras was to be abandoned and the allied army move to Nivelles. This would have separated the allied armies even further and play right into Napoleon's grand scheme. However, upon receipt of the actions on the fifteenth, Wellington consulted his maps again. Realizing he had been beaten by Napoleon, he immediately sent out orders to assemble his forces around Quatre Bras. Posterity has preserved the Duke of Wellington's famous expression that night after looking at his maps, "Humbugged, by God."

The Battles of Ligny & Quatre Bras
June 16
After reviewing the information before him early on the morning of June 16, Napoleon decided to lead the main army to Brussels with Ney and Grouchy on the flanks covering what he believed to be the retreat of both allied armies. No major enemy forces had been encountered on the fifteenth. Wellington’s army was spread out to cover the extreme allied right flank and the supply lines snaking back to Brussels. The Prussians had fallen back considerably after the skirmishes on the fifteenth and Napoleon believed von Blücher was falling back to avoid battle. It looked like the Campaign of 1814 with the allied generals avoiding pitched battle with Napoleon and seeking to unite against the main imperial army. Based on his intelligence from the fifteenth, Napoleon's grand scheme remained the same. A contested battle was not expected for several days.
As Napoleon's troops began their orderly concentration, the allied camps were in near turmoil. Wellington's headquarters was in considerable disarray with Ney bearing down on Quatre Bras, Napoleon thrusting towards Brussels, and their entire army strung out over the countryside. Multiple sets of orders were issued from Wellington’s headquarters throughout the early morning concerning movements. Many hours were lost in the confusion as the army began its concentration at Quatre Bras. The Prussians began a similar assembly around Sombreffe, but with more speed and purpose. Field Marshal von Blücher was determined to stand and give battle to Napoleon--a man he wanted dead more than anything else. A dispatch had arrived from the Duke of Wellington which led von Blücher to believe the Anglo-allied army would send reinforcements to the Prussians if they were to give battle on the sixteenth. Von Blücher never liked the idea of running from his hated foe and was resolved to defeat Napoleon personally.
The Battle of Ligny opened with Marshal Grouchy driving off Prussian skirmishers in the Sombreffe area. Seeing a large force before him, Grouchy sent for assistance and around 11 a.m. Napoleon arrived on the French right flank. Through his field spyglass the emperor observed fields of grain, rolling hills, and small peasant villages tucked along a creek named, Ligny. A large village by the same name was also discerned from his observations. Noting the positions, Napoleon saw a massing of Prussian troops as if to give battle. Sensing a key opportunity to concentrate against the Prussians and defeat von Blücher, Napoleon began to act.
About the same time that Napoleon and main French army began mustering before the Prussian positions, the Duke of Wellington arrived at the Prussian headquarters and the allied commanders held a council of war. The Prussians were ignorant of the dangerous dispositions of Wellington’s army. For his part, the Duke of Wellington was still unsure of Napoleon's intentions and the entire council ended as an awkward and inconclusive affair. The Prussians left believing the entire Anglo-allied army was already concentrated at Quatre Bras. They also believed the Duke of Wellington would push on from there and aid the Prussians to crush Napoleon on the field of Ligny in a pincer envelopment. Wellington left the council still unsure of Napoleon’s intentions. The miscommunications at the council were to prove almost disastrous for the allies on the sixteenth.
The Battle of Quatre Bras began at a little after two in the afternoon when Ney began his attack on the 8,000-strong defenders of the village and the surrounding area. Ney disposed of several French divisions, some cavalry units, and a respectable artillery force. After pushing the allied forces back, reinforcements totaling 8,000 troops under Prince Jérôme arrived to bring Ney’s strength to over 22,000 troops. The Duke of Wellington returned to the field shortly after Jérôme’s arrival only to discover most of his army was now bogged down on the roads leading to Quatre Bras. Unlike Napoleon's precise troop movements at certain timed intervals, Wellington's orders had called for an all out scramble to Quatre Bras resulting in a traffic jam of men, artillery, baggage, and horses all trying to use the same roads. In fact, nearly sixty thousand of Wellington's troops were crowded into a massive column trying to use one of the only roads in the area leading to Quatre Bras.3
A great deal of credit must be given to the Dutch and Belgian units that held Quatre Bras and made the French pay dearly for the ground taken. These militia units held out against a vastly superior French force until allied reinforcements arrived. Wellington’s forces soon rose to 20,000 by the early evening and by the end of the day he outnumbered Marshal Ney. Ney's inability to dislodge the allies from Quatre Bras earlier in the day and then marching to the aid of Napoleon at Ligny was to have dire consequences for the rest of the campaign.
The fierce resistance at Quatre Bras was unexpected. The emperor was unaware that allied forces had Ney tied down throughout the sixteenth. Napoleon’s orders were for Ney to clear Quatre Bras, establish a small garrison, and march with his remaining forces to Ligny. He was then to fall on the exposed Prussian right flank and roll von Blücher’s army up. Napoleon would tie down the rest of the Prussian army and await Ney’s coup d’grâce. Had Ney actually carried out his orders, the Prussian army would conceivably have been destroyed on June 16.
Napoleon began the opening moves of the Battle of Ligny at 2:30 p.m. on June 16. He fully expected Ney to arrive in the late afternoon or evening with the bulk of the left wing of the imperial army and crush the Prussians. With this in mind Napoleon had begun the battle with only 50,000 French troops against over 80,000 Prussians. By late afternoon it became apparent to Napoleon that Ney would not be joining him after all. After raising his strength to 58,000 with the addition of Lobau’s VI Corps, Napoleon sent for General d'Erlon's I Corps of 20,000 which was located between Quatre Bras and Ligny. This was not the first or last order sent by Napoleon commanding d'Erlon to march to Ligny. Napoleon reasoned that if Ney could not march with Reille’s corps and the rest of his command to Ligny, the emperor would settle for d’Erlon’s men as compensation. However, Marshal Ney followed a different line of reasoning believing that his battle at Quatre Bras was the more important battle. The result was a tug-of-war between Napoleon and Ney over d’Erlon’s corps. The result was 20,000 French troops spending the entire day marching back and forth between the two battles. D’Erlon’s men didn’t fire a single shot on the sixteenth.
At Quatre Bras, the battle was beginning to look bleak for Ney by the early evening. Allied units continued arriving throughout the day and the numerical balance shifted in Wellington's favor. Becoming increasingly desperate, Ney sent for I Corps only to be told d’Erlon was marching to Ligny. Outraged, Ney at once countermanded the orders and turned d'Erlon's corps around. This was repeated several times.
The troops of I Corps would have doubled Ney's battle strength and given him a chance to finally push the allies out of Quatre Bras. Had the corps arrived at Ligny, the 20,000 troops would have quickly enveloped the Prussian right effecting von Blücher’s annihilation. The confusion of orders between Napoleon and Ney over d’Erlon arguably cost Napoleon his empire in 1815. It is hard to underestimate the impact of the failure of d’Erlon’s corps to fight anyone on the sixteenth. The most obvious result of the dual battles on the sixteenth was setting the stage for Waterloo two days later. Waterloo was made possible because Ney failed to take Quatre Bras in a timely fashion and d’Erlon failed to carry out the orders of his emperor.
By 6 p.m., Wellington outnumbered Ney by over 10,000 troops and began pushing the French back until night fell and the fighting ceased. The two opposing forces were left in the same positions they had held that morning. The allies had suffered 5,000 casualties and the French over 4,000. Things went better for the French at Ligny, even though Napoleon never held numerical superiority over the Prussians, a fresh testament to his military prowess.
The battle had been going on for some time when the Imperial Guard was launched against the Prussian center at 7 p.m. The Prussian line was soon breeched as the rain started to come down. The aged Field Marshal von Blücher made a last ditch effort to salvage his battered army by leading a bold cavalry charge. However, his boldness resulted in the field marshal nearly getting captured by the French who broke his cavalry charge putting the Prussians to rout. Fortunately for the allies, von Blücher was saved by an attentive officer and the crippled army limped through the mud as a fierce thunderstorm racked the heavens. The rolling Ligny battlefield was covered in bodies and the wreckage of war. The Prussian army had sustained over 16,000 casualties or a 20% casualty rate. Napoleon was disappointed for the Prussian army was only wounded, not destroyed, and it had cost him 11,500 French casualties. If only d’Erlon had followed orders, if only Ney had driven the Dutch-Belgian militia out in the morning, if only Berthier was still at his master’s side.
Like the fifteenth, things hadn't gone as planned on the sixteenth. For consolation, Napoleon had inflicted a serious defeat on the Prussian army and Ney's 20,000 men had technically fought Wellington's army of 35,000 to a draw. However, the Prussians had managed to retain some order during the retreat. Instead of falling back on their communications and retreating to Prussia, they were marching north towards Wavre. The road they took was roughly parallel to the route the Duke of Wellington took on June 17 on his way to Waterloo. The decision to march to Wellington’s assistance instead of heading home rests with von Blücher. Against the strong objections of his staff, the Prussian field marshal was adamant that his army aid Wellington even though the British commander had failed to support the Prussians at Ligny. Von Blücher’s decision was to bear decisive results on the eighteenth when he proved as good as his word.

The Stage is Set
June 17
Meanwhile, the Duke of Wellington ordered the Anglo-Allied army to re-concentrate in the Waterloo-Mont-Saint Jean vicinity. Pulling out of Quatre Bras, his army marched throughout the seventeenth to reach the future battlefield of Waterloo by evening. Wellington received word that von Blücher would not be far off with the Prussian army. If Wellington engaged Napoleon on the eighteenth, von Blücher promised to come to his aid and together they would defeat the emperor of the French. Napoleon observed the British positions on the slopes of the battlefield during the night of the seventeenth and decided a battle was eminent on the morrow.
The seventeenth found the French unprepared. Pursuit of the two retreating allied armies was half-hearted at best during the day. By the time Napoleon arrived at Quatre Bras to see what was going on, the Duke of Wellington was well on his way to Waterloo. The weather was rough throughout the seventeenth hampering efforts to catch up with the allied armies. All fighting was rendered useless under the sheets of rain that fell wetting the powder.
By the evening, Napoleon had surveyed the Duke of Wellington’s positions around Mont Sainte Jean and La Belle Alliance, south of a small village called "Waterloo." Confident, Napoleon resolved to do battle with the Duke of Wellington on the following day. Meanwhile, on the right, Marshal Grouchy had lost contact with the Prussians. He took his time pursuing von Blücher, believing the Prussians had retreated well out of range to assist Wellington. Concerned by intelligence reports, Napoleon decided to strengthen Grouchy's forces on the right flank to over 30,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. Napoleon gave the marshal orders to engage the Prussians and ensure they continued their retreat. The emperor stressed the need to keep the Prussians from linking up with the Anglo-allied army. Unfortunately, the importance of this directive was lost on his newest marshal.
Throughout the night of the seventeenth French units straggled in amongst the rain and mud to take up positions before the Duke of Wellington’s lines. It was a rough night for all parties concerned as most of the soldiers on both sides were exposed to the elements all night. Napoleon woke up several times during the morning of the eighteenth to make sure that the Duke of Wellington and his army had not retreated. The two main allied armies were now at their battle-ready strength.
Under the Duke of Wellington served roughly 68,000 troops and 156 artillery pieces. This can be further broken down into 50,000 infantry, 12,400 cavalry, and some 5,600 gunners. Before him were Napoleon and some 72,000 French troops and 246 cannons or 49,000 infantry, 15,800 cavalry, and 7,200 gunners. Within marching distance on the French right were Grouchy's 35,000 troops and only ten miles from Waterloo were 17,000 allied infantry at Hal. Neither of these forces was destined to participate in the Battle of Waterloo.

The Battle of Waterloo
June 18th
After a great deal of confusion, Grouchy brought his troops to task during the late morning of June 18. He arrived outside the town of Wavre to find a Prussian corps entrenched within the village limits. Believing this to be part of the main Prussian body marching to aid Wellington, Grouchy resolved to tie down the Prussians, preventing them from joining with the Anglo-allied army. What the marshal failed to realize was the corps at Wavre was the rear guard of the Prussian army, namely General Thielmann and his 15,000 troops of the Prussian III Corps. The main body under von Blücher was already on the western road marching to the field of Waterloo.
Essentially, all that was required of the Duke of Wellington was to keep Napoleon busy for a few hours and await the arrival of the majority of the Prussian army which would engage Napoleon's right. The emperor would simply be overwhelmed. The allied plan was very similar to Napoleon's strategic plan at the Battle of Ligny, except d'Erlon and Ney never showed up. Fortunately for Field Marshal Wellesley, von Blücher was to prove a far more trustworthy commander.
On the early morning of the eighteenth, Napoleon dispatched an order to Grouchy reminding the marshal of the need to keep in contact with the main Prussian army and prevent it from reinforcing the Duke of Wellington. With the ground still wet and muddy from the storms of the previous day, the opening moves of the Battle of Waterloo were delayed until 11:30. Napoleon began the battle with a general bombardment by the grand battery against the allied center. Under the boom of the cannons, tens of thousands of troops swung into motion with flags flapping and bands playing. At Wavre, Marshal Grouchy's breakfast was disrupted by the distant roar of Napoleon’s artillery at Waterloo.
Napoleon's battle plan for June 18 was straightforward. Napoleon would hit the entire length of the allied line, cause Wellington to deploy his reserves, and then smash in the allied center with the Imperial Guard. It was to be a battle of brute strength. Once the Anglo-allied army was routed, Napoleon would turn upon the Prussian army, which he now believed was in the neighborhood, and finish the job from the fifteenth.
The first maneuvers at Waterloo began with Reille's II Corps advancing on the allied right. Among the II Corps commanders was Prince Jérôme Bonaparte who commanded one of the infantry brigades. Like most of Napoleon’s siblings, he lacked even half the prowess his older brother possessed. According to Napoleon's orders, Hougoumont was not to be seized, only watched, since Reille's attack was only to be a diversion. However, after clearing the woods outside Hougoumont, Prince Jérôme launched an attack on the fortified chateau itself, with its several hundred entrenched defenders. What he was attempting was sheer folly, throwing infantry against a fortified position without any artillery. The result was hundreds of casualties and his brigade reeling back in confusion. The reasoning behind Napoleon’s orders was lost upon Prince Jérôme who called up several thousand more troops from a separate brigade and began a long afternoon of reckless slaughter. Just like the actions during the fifteenth, things were going wrong almost before the ink had dried on Napoleon’s orders.
While this diversion was under way, Napoleon received several disturbing intelligence reports. One showed that there was a substantial Prussian body approaching the French right flank. Furthermore, Grouchy had moved his troops so slowly they had yet to reach Wavre. Napoleon quickly dispatched a letter calling Grouchy to make all possible haste to aid the French at Waterloo and catch the Prussians on the march. Napoleon's early optimism paled considerably after learning Grouchy had failed to move in a timely manner.
At 1:30 p.m., the first main attack was launched. D'Erlon's I Corps formed into a giant column and advanced on Wellington's center while reinforcements were sent to aid Jérôme in taking Hougoumont. This massive column of French troops provided an excellent target for the British artillerymen. The round shot was especially damaging as it cut through multiple ranks of men before the cannon ball would come to a stop. The damage sustained by d’Erlon’s battalions escalated as they approached La Haye Sainte, a loosely fortified farm complex. A massive screen of French skirmishers tied down the Dutch-Belgian units in the vicinity while d’Erlon’s regulars advanced behind them. The skirmishers suddenly fell back and a French brigade fired a point blank volley into the Dutch-Belgians, inflicting severe casualties instantly. With the French charging their position, their officers dead and wounded, the allied infantry broke and fled to the rear of Wellington’s lines before their commander, Major General Bijlandt, could rally them. Many British historians have faulted the Dutch-Belgian units for breaking, but these inexperienced units were tired after fighting all day at Quatre Bras and retreating during the storms on June 17. The units did eventually rally and took part in fighting throughout the rest of the battle on the eighteenth. To the unit’s credit, by the end of the campaign they had suffered 24% of their brigade lost as killed or wounded.4
By this time d’Erlon’s assault was making good progress and was approaching the high point of the allied line. General Picton's division was thrown against the French I Corps to stem its advance, but they lost their commander to a musket ball. All was not lost, however, and sensing his chance, the Earl of Uxbridge intervened on his own initiative and led the allied cavalry into action. With close support from the local Scottish infantry formations, the British cavalry slammed into d'Erlon's straggling battalions, sending the French down the slopes in a chaotic rout. Hundreds of men were cut down as each unit collapsed upon the one behind it creating a terrible chain reaction. Napoleon and his staff watched in horror as an entire French corps melted into oblivion. However, the British cavalry carried their pursuit too far into the valley and towards Napoleon's artillery on the opposing slope. This was to prove very costly for the British as Napoleon sent in his lancers and heavy cavalry who quickly sliced through the enemy’s winded cavalry and sent them back up the slopes from which they had just come.
Although this latest action had removed the British cavalry as a threat for the remainder of the battle, things were getting considerably more desperate for Napoleon. It was after three in the afternoon and Wellington's line was shaken, but not broken. D'Erlon's entire corps had been shattered and would never recover. It was now known that nearly the entire Prussian army was marching on the French right, requiring Napoleon to deploy Lobau's VI Corps around Plancenoit. Half of Reille's II Corps was tied down on the left flank trying to storm Hougoumont. All Napoleon had left in good order was his cavalry and the Imperial Guard. Napoleon reflected upon his situation. What he came up with was a strategy he had tried at the Battle of Eylau in 1807. At Eylau the French cavalry had literally saved the day for the French by turning back the entire first line of the Russian army. Napoleon decided to again gamble by throwing his cavalry at the enemy center hoping to catch the British in the same fashion he had caught the Russian army eight years earlier on that barren Polish field. Napoleon called up his cavalry reserve and ordered Marshal Ney to smash Wellington's center. However, what worked in Poland did not work in the rolling Belgian countryside against British regulars. As the mass of French cavalry began its ascent up the slopes strewn with the corpses of d’Erlon’s corps, Wellington’s 18,000 infantry hurriedly formed into regimental squares. However, what ensued was arguably one of the most dramatic spectacles in Napoleonic warfare.
The infantry square of the Napoleonic wars was a solid hedge of bayonets. These foot long knives pointed out from all sides forming an almost impenetrable wall. Cavalry alone could not hope to break untouched squares, but with artillery or infantry support, squares could be broken. Most infantry squares were a battalion or a regiment in strength, consisting of several hundred to a couple thousand soldiers. A notable exception was at the Battle of Embabeh (the Pyramids) on July 21, 1798 where Napoleon formed most of his army into divisional squares: large rectangles consisting of thousands of troops with their baggage train and headquarters sheltered inside the wall of bayonets.5 During the Battle of Waterloo, both the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon sought shelter in infantry squares several times throughout the day. One wonders if on June 18, 1815 Napoleon recalled the hot July day in Egypt where he had been guarded by an infantry square nearly seventeen years ago.
Inside infantry squares the unit’s officers, bandsmen, and standards would be sheltered in the center. While the enemy cavalry harmlessly rode by, the infantry would fire by platoons or whole ranks, cutting down the horsemen whose only means of retaliation was usually nothing more than their horse pistols. However, if squares were incorrectly or only partially formed, cavalry could exploit the weakness with devastating consequences. Once a square was breeched, it could be irretrievably lost as more and more horsemen rode into the gap and surrounded the infantry inside. Another threat to infantry squares came from the lance. Although rare, cavalry units armed with lances were a formidable threat to enemy infantry as was amply demonstrated at Albuera, Katzbach, and Dresden.6 However, lance cavalry required a great deal of experience and training to properly yield their archaic weaponry. Perhaps the most famous lance-armed horsemen were Napoleon’s elite Polish lancers who formed much of the Imperial Guard light cavalry during the First Empire. With a few exceptions, only the French and Russian armies ever employed sizable contingents of lancers.
In accordance with his orders, Ney gathered about 5,000 French cavalry and led them up the slopes in a dramatic gamble. The British gunners waited patiently behind their weapons of death, the infantry stood steady with their muskets at the ready, and over 5,000 allied cavalry waited in the rear of the squares to meet the French attack. The carnage that followed defies comprehension. The advancing French cavalry were first hit with round shot from the allied artillery. These large cannon balls, once fired, carried incredible velocity as they shot through the air and bounced on the ground, tearing off limbs, breaking legs, downing horses, and unseating riders by the score. Next, the French were hit with canister and double-shot, which consisted of disintegrating shells loaded with musket balls and linked cannon balls. To understand the effects of canister shot one only needs to imagine the discharge of buckshot from a modern shotgun. After overrunning the allied guns the Frenchmen were cut down by a hail of musketry as they crossed the sides of the infantry squares. As if that wasn’t enough, the French were counterattacked by the British cavalry waiting for them with sabers and carbines. Entire squadrons were lost.
While Ney and the French cavalry swirled around the redcoat squares, the scales of numerical superiority were heavily tipped in favor of the allies. Von Blücher was on the French right forming up nearly 30,000 troops of General Bülow’s Prussian corps. At a little after 4:00 p.m. the Prussians and French clashed. To meet this threat was General Lobau with only 10,000 troops. Within an hour of intense fighting in and around the village of Plancenoit, another Prussian corps arrived. Trying to salvage the situation, Napoleon hurled an entire division of the Young Guard into the foray to stem the Prussian onslaught. Even this was not enough and two battalions of the Old Guard had to be deployed and by 6:45 p.m. the French right was back in order.7
After the failure of a dozen massed cavalry charges which eventually involved all the French cavalry available, Ney set about a new attack. This time the assault would be centered on the smoldering remains of La Haye Sainte. However, this time Ney carried with him a great number of infantry, a light cavalry assortment, and several batteries of artillery. The art of combined arms tactics was not entirely lost on the marshal.
This assault was arguably the most successful of the French attacks all day. A bitter struggle took place at the La Haye Sainte farm as the French overran the German defenders who had run out of ammunition. No quarter was given as the French forced the survivors to forsake their position. Demonstrating some tactical finesse, Marshal Ney managed to set up his troops and batteries in an excellent position against Wellington’s center. His skirmishers and artillery batteries cut to pieces the allied formations the Duke of Wellington urgently shuffled to cover Ney’s new position. Sensing the fragility of the allied army at that moment, Ney sent back couriers demanding reinforcements to exploit the situation. After the fruitless assaults of the afternoon, the slaughter of their cavalry, and the shattering of d’Erlon’s entire corps, the French finally held a tangible strategic position and were tantalizingly close to beating the odds.
Despite holding at bay the entire French cavalry arm and breaking an entire infantry corps to pieces, the Duke of Wellington had essentially lost the battle at this point. All his reserves had been deployed, but his efforts to dislodge Ney were failing. His cavalry was completely exhausted and disorganized from its previous engagements throughout the day. Ney’s artillery was shredding the allied formations Wellington shifted to repulse the marshal. All that was required was the French to commit their reserves, and the entire allied line would crumple. If only one factor saved the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo, it was von Blücher.
The coup d’grâce was never delivered. While Ney was calling for reinforcements, the Imperial Guard was driving the Prussians out of Plancenoit under Napoleon’s spyglass. Realizing his danger, the Duke of Wellington managed to pull together his center and reserves to form a united front against Marshal Ney’s incursion. Precious time dwindled away before the situation settled down on the French right. Leaving several Imperial Guard battalions in Plancenoit to hold back the crush of Prussian troops, Napoleon turned his attention to the main battle. Seeing the opportunity that Ney had seen an hour earlier, the emperor ordered up the remaining nine battalions of the Imperial Guard. The emperor ordered Ney to break Wellington’s line, it was now or never. All along the twisted front, the French troops attacked with heightened spirits now that the Imperial Guard was advancing. With drums pounding, standards unfurled, the rows of bearskins advanced up the slopes and into the history books.
Unfortunately for Napoleon, it was too late. The window of opportunity that had existed was missed by only 30-60 minutes. If only Marshal Grouchy had tied down the Prussian army at Wavre, if only he had marched to Napoleon’s assistance. A new force of troops appeared not far off to the east and provided a brief elation of hope to the French as the Imperial Guard plodded forward. A great deal of confusion took place the Old Guard veered to the left. The entire Imperial Guard came under fierce fire from Wellington’s artillery firing point blank canister shot in addition to several close range volleys from the allied infantry. The assault faltered, and began to fail.
The final blow came with the arrival of Ziethen’s Prussian corps. Nearly 5,000 Prussian infantry and 1,300 cavalry tore through Lobau’s corps and drove into the valley between the two opposing armies. The entire French army was nearly cut in half in one cruel blow. Pandemonium swept the French army as Wellington and von Blücher ordered an all out charge. The Imperial Guard buckled and snapped under the pressure and a general route ensued, the likes of which had never been known for an army under Napoleon’s personal command. Tens of thousands of French troops, without order or discipline, streamed across the valley and towards the rear. Napoleon himself was nearly lost in the wave of fugitives. Fortunately, the Old Guard rallied and managed to form several squares to cover the rout of the main army. These squares fought long and hard into the night fending off the allied pursuit. Hundreds of veterans died that evening, covered in eternal glory.
The casualties suffered at the Battle of Waterloo were appalling. Wellington's Anglo-allied army suffered over 15,000 killed and wounded while the Prussians lost over 7,000 casualties during their short five hour involvement. The French Army of the North fared worse, with over 25,000 killed and wounded on the field of battle. A third of Napoleon's army was casualties on the June 18. From June 15-18, the French lost 60,000 casualties and the Allied armies 55,000. That's over 115,000 dead and wounded in the space of ninety-six hours.8 Only the slaughters at Wagram, Borodino, and Leipzig could compare. One is hard pressed to imagine such horrific figures could be obtained with flintlock muskets, smooth bore cannons, and sabers.
Waterloo was Napoleon’s final battle. He had faced off with the formidable Duke of Wellington, and had almost won in spite of the odds. Napoleon’s strategic decisions for the campaign can bring little criticism although his choice for commanders is suspect. The Napoleon of Waterloo may not have been the republican general who liberated Italy almost twenty years ago, but he was still Napoleon.
The Duke of Wellington, however, did not look like the master commander who had driven Napoleon’s legions from Spain and humiliated his marshals only four years ago. The British Field Marshal almost ruined his career in 1815. His army’s dispositions for the campaign left him vulnerable and strung out, which Napoleon duly exploited. Wellington had initially called for the abandoning of Quatre Bras and had almost cost von Blücher his army at Ligny. By the grace of God he narrowly avoided catastrophe at Waterloo.
Field Marshal von Blücher came out the hero. His stubborn hatred for Napoleon saved the allied armies from destruction and won the campaign. For his brilliant role on June 18, the Prussian commander was despised and ignored by many British historians who continue to lay the laurels of victory at Wellington’s feet.
With his army ruined, save Grouchy’s isolated corps at Wavre, Napoleon returned to Paris only to be promptly betrayed by his ministers and generals. He still had almost half of a million troops in France, but the treason was too great to overcome.9 Napoleon was again forced into abdication, but this time it was permanent--to Saint Helena. There he lived several more years, a sick and dying man forsaken by his wife, his country, and his family. On May 5, 1821, the greatest military commander in history, died in agony with only a few friends and doctors at his side. To his name were fifty victories and an empire rivaling Imperial Rome, and these were only a partial testament to what he had achieved in his short lifetime. Vive l’Empereur!


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