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Waterloo - Bias, Assumptions, and Perspectives

(Article by ALLAN Douglas )

 Bibliographical details

The English-language (i.e. British) PC Battle of Waterloo
The English-language Waterloo deciding moment
Why the French lost - the PC view
Why the French lost - the reality

Observations on why the French lost the battle

The major mistake that cost the battle

Much of recorded "history" is biased, inept, and sometimes even fraudulent. One recent example was the Tet Offensive of 1968, reported by the media in the U.S. at the time as a North Vietnamese/Vietcong victory. In fact, Tet was a great victory for the U.S./South Vietnamese. Only years later, were the facts revealed - the North Vietnamese invading army had been nearly totally obliterated, and never again attacked the U.S. in force.

Political, nationalistic and other mis-informed or biased reporting is hardly limited to our lifetimes. Many of our members are well aware of Napoleon's "Bulletins", classics of disinformation. Much of what comes down to us is slanted by the bias or perspective of the writers. Waterloo is a classic example.

  The English-language (i.e. British) PC Battle of Waterloo

Most of what we read in the U.S. is based on English-language (i.e. British ) sources. Not unreasonably, most of them focus on the glorious action of the British army, while completely ignoring or downplaying the critical role of the Prussians. Then there are the Napoleon apologists, who place blame everywhere else. There are even the Napoleon haters, who concentrate on this or that belated command, as if they knew every galloper whom Napoleon sent to Ney, Grouchy, and Reille et al. No, the truth is more complex.

Contrast what is commonly accepted among casual readers (and many "historians") of the battle of Waterloo, and what actually happened.

Napoleon, commanding about 84,000 Frenchmen, was beaten by the Duke of Wellington, with about 78,000 Anglo/German/Dutch allied forces. That way it can be considered a fairly even battle, with an edge in numbers to the French. One problem: battles aren't fair.

The actual battle of Waterloo: Blücher and Wellington, with about 157,000 Prussian/Anglo/German/Dutch allied troops, beat Napoleon, commanding about 105,000 Frenchmen. The Prussians had more men engaged, and suffered far more casualties than Wellington's forces. Napoleon's right wing, under Grouchy, pinned the Prussians at Wavre, but the Prussians outflanked him, and marched to the sound of the guns, as Blucher had promised. Leaving out the Prussian army in counting numbers engaged at Waterloo is hardly legitimate - the arrival of the Prussians determined the outcome of the battle.

  The English-language Waterloo deciding moment

The Old Guard advances in a last ditch attempt to destroy the indomitable British lines, is stopped cold by crack English Guards regiments, and routed. Wellington waves his hat in the air, the British advance and the French are beaten.

The actual deciding moment: as above, with one very minor detail added - the Prussian onslaught. Von Bulow had evaded Grouchy's blocking force and showed up at Plancenoit with 30,000 troops. Several Young Guard, and finally Old Guard battalions had been forced to support Count Lobau's outnumbered 10,000-man force, which Napoleon moved to defend Plancenoit. As the situation seemed to stabilize, seven Guard battalions regrouped for one last attempt to break through the British lines as two Prussian corps appeared on the field and attacked the French right flank. The Old Guard marched uphill on wet ground against Wellington's Guards and the Nassauers. They were blindsided by Ziethen's corps, which had broken through the gap between Lobau's troops trying to hold off von Bulow at Plancenoit, and d'Erlon's corps. In short, the sheer number of British, Nassauer and Prussian forces overwhelmed the French.

  Why the French lost - the PC view

Napoleon was well past his prime, fat, suffering terribly from hemorrhoids, and lethargic. His orders were belated, and he delegated command of the left wing - most of his army - to the brave but stupid, hotheaded and incredibly inept Marshal Ney. Ney made mistakes any subaltern would never have made, and should never have been given command in the first place. His incompetence was superseded only by that of the slow-moving bumbler Marshal Grouchy. Napoleon sorely missed the legendary Marshal Berthier as chief of staff, and Marshal Soult was a very poor substitute. Given the generals available, Marshal Davout should have been given Ney's job, rather than wasting him in Paris.
The battle itself: Jerome should not have continued the attack on Hougoumont.  Napoleon had in Wellington's words, become "only a pounder after all", and had foolishly attacked the center of the Allied line. Then Ney blundered forth against La Haie Sainte, was ineffectual and then the committed the inconceivable - he sent forward the entire unsupported French cavalry against British squares, which were in Soult's opinion, "invincible".
The miserably ill Napoleon foolishly held back the Old Guard until the end, and then Ney led the Guard the wrong way up the hill.

  Why the French lost - the reality

First, some observations about the fat, past-his-prime Napoleon, and the motley band of incompetents who lost the battle.

Napoleon: the greatest general in history. He had just won a phenomenal battle at Ligny two days before, after one of the greatest blitzkriegs ever mounted. During his lightning advance, he had managed to separate two major armies who knew he was coming, and inflict simultaneous defeats on both of them. The victory would have been decisive if Napoleon hadn't pulled d'Erlon's corps from Ney in the middle of the battle, had Ney not called it back, and Napoleon called it back again. Both men wanted to win their respective brawls, and even with the total loss of d'Erlon's corps that day, both did.  At Waterloo, Napoleon may have been ill, but he was very much in command.

Ney: I've read "historians" who've said he wasn't fit to command a company, much less an army. The truth: his rise had been one of the most meteoric in the French army. Ney was consistently lauded by his superiors for his intelligence. General Lemarche's observation of Ney was typical. "…intelligence, intrepidity, activity and courage…even in the midst of danger he has displayed a discernment and a tactical insight that is seldom found". That was in 1792. At Waterloo, Ney had 23 more years of experience, was the most legendary leader in the French army (excepting Napoleon), had fought in over 40 campaigns and battles, about 100 actions, and been directly responsible for some of the toughest victories in history, including the win at Borodino, commanding the 3rd Corps. Ney was renowned for coolness under fire.

The "hotheaded" Ney had moved cautiously at Quatre Bras, because he suspected the entire Anglo/Dutch/German army awaited him with a trap. Furthermore, some of his troops were still not in place. Ney's restrained generalship was prudent under the circumstances, and - given the loss of d'Erlon's corps, successful. Wellington retreated after the battle.

Napoleon faulted Ney because Ney hadn't beaten the British and Allies earlier and turned his corps to support Napoleon at Ligny, allowing the Prussians to escape. That's not even remotely fair. At the climax of the battle of Quatre Bras, an entire corps was pulled from Ney by Napoleon, at which Ney did - and justifiably - go ballistic. Who wouldn't have? So Ney goes down in history as too timid and hotheaded - at the same time.

Grouchy: One of the very finest of the French generals, and a brilliant cavalry commander. Had been instrumental in winning the Battle of Hohenlinden, the victory at Ligny, and had until Waterloo, an exceptional war record. In the weeks following Waterloo, Grouchy conducted one of the great defensive campaigns of the Napoleonic wars against overwhelming odds.

Soult: Another of Napoleon's best generals. Berthier's expertise had been in organization and logistics. The Waterloo campaign was exceptionally well run, particularly for a new chief of staff. In fact, the campaign was nearly won at Quatre Bras and Ligny. On the battlefield of Waterloo, there would have been no comparison between Soult and Berthier. The French campaign was magnificent, and had Grouchy's block of the Prussians succeeded, all the historians would have called Waterloo Napoleon's most brilliant battle. Soult had done a demonstrably excellent job on short notice as chief of staff.

Davout: Undoubtedly a world class general, Davout was left to hold Paris, which Napoleon considered a hotbed of intrigue. Given that Austrian and Russian armies were on their way, Davout was the best man to keep Paris stable; he was renowned for his iron-clad style and reliability.

  Observations on why the French lost the battle

The ground was soaked from a terrible rainstorm the prior night, delaying the artillery barrage for several hours. This was a prudent move by Napoleon, who assumed that Grouchy had blocked the Prussians. Waiting for the ground to dry would increase the effectiveness of Napoleon's artillery.

Some historians talk about the "mistake" made by Jerome in trying to take Hougoumont, when it should have been a feint. This is preposterous. You have only to look at the battlefield to see the key position of Hougoumont. Jerome's mistake was not in attacking with tenacity, but in neglecting to use massive artillery first.
Napoleon of course, rectified the mistake.  Wellington declared after the battle, that Hougoumont had been the key. This of course, presumes a British perspective.
I should like to put to rest once and for all the foolish conclusion, repeatedly stated in British/American history books, that Napoleon's battle plan was uncharacteristically incompetent. Specifically, critics claim he mounted a "frontal" attack on the entrenched British, rather than attacking the British right, and had proven to be - as Wellington jibed - "just a pounder after all". The facts speak otherwise. Here's what Napoleon said on St. Helena about the battle-plan. Although Napoleon was a practiced liar, in this case, he had no agenda other than to explain why he acted as he did. As you'll see, it makes perfect sense.

"I had preferred to turn the enemy's left, rather than his right, first, in order to cut it off from the Prussians who were at Wavres, and to oppose their joining up again, if they had intended doing so; and even if they had not intended doing so, if the attack had been made on the right, the English army, on being repulsed, would have fallen back on to the Prussian army; whereas, if made on the left, it would be separated therefrom and thrown back in the direction of the sea; secondly, because the left appeared to be much weaker (note: because Wellington had expected the attack to be on his right, ed.); and finally, because I was expecting every moment the arrival of a detachment from Marshal Grouchy on my right, and did not want to run the risk of finding myself separated from it."

This strategy was not only brilliant, it was the only intelligent plan, and would have succeeded but for the untimely (from the French point of view) arrival of von Bulow and his 30,000 fresh 3rd Prussian corps.

Grouchy had cornered the Prussians at Wavre. He sent a messenger to Napoleon the night before Waterloo, telling the Emperor that he wanted to feed his men, so they'd be fresh in the morning to take on what was still, a considerably larger Prussian force. (This decision has been bitterly criticized; in my opinion, it was the right one. It's the duty of a commander to know the state of his troops before a battle).
Grouchy's mistake came next.

  The major mistake that cost the battle

Grouchy had only caught up to the Prussians at nightfall. The next morning he got a (inexcusable) late start and, hearing the artillery cannonade at Waterloo, determined to march to the sound of the guns. Napoleon tells the rest.

"The marshal appeared to be convinced, but at this moment he received the report that his light cavalry had arrived at Wavres and was at grips with the Prussians, that all their units were assembled there; and that they amounted to at least 80,000 men…. Believing that he had in front of him the whole Prussian army, he took two hours to take up battle stations and make his dispositions."

Believing that the Prussians were retreating (i.e. eastward), Grouchy had let three of the four Prussian corps get between his single corps and Waterloo. This was obviously an intelligence failure, presumably on the part of Grouchy's hussars. He didn't know the Prussians had stopped their retreat, and were headed to the sound of the guns. Given what he knew, i.e. that his orders were to block and/or drive back the Prussians while Napoleon and Ney licked the Allies, his decision not to march to the sound of the guns would have been correct. The failure was that of the intelligence with which he was provided, and resulted in his subsequent failure to turn his corps leftward to hit von Blucher's two Prussian corps on the march in the flank.
As a result of the error, von Bulow showed up on Napoleon's right/rear flank at Plancenoit around 4pm After bitter fighting, the Prussians had broken through, forcing Napoleon to commit regiments of the Young Guard, and to deny fresh reserve infantry to Ney, when Ney needed it most. This was not a mistake, it was a necessity; it was however, why Ney's desperate attacks failed.

And now to clear up several oft-repeated errors at once; the first that Napoleon was lethargic, the second that Marshal Ney foolishly ordered the cavalry charge, the third that it was a mistake. Let's listen to an eyewitness who was aware of the facts. Let me quote the Emperor Napoleon.

"It was two hours since Count d'Erlon had got possession of La Haie, had out-flanked the whole English left and General Bulow's right…. Count Milhaud thereupon crossed the height with his cuirassiers and warned General Lefebvre-Desnouettes, who started at once at the trot to back him up.

"It was five o'clock, the moment when General Bulow's attack was at its height when, far from being held, he kept on throwing in new troops, which formed his line to the right. The English cavalry was repulsed by the bold soldiers and chasseurs of the Guard. The English abandoned all the battlefield between La Haie-Sainte and Mont-Saint-Jean…  At the sight of these charges, shouts of victory were heard on the battlefield. I said 'It is an hour too soon; nevertheless what has been done must be followed up.

"I gave an order to Kellermann's cuirassiers, who were still in position on the go at full trot to support the cavalry on the plateau. General Bulow was at this moment threatening the flank and rear of the army; it was important not to fall back at any point, and to hold the present position, which had been taken, although it was premature. This move at full trot by 3,000 warriors who passed by with shouts of 'Vive l'Empereur', and under the eye of the Prussians, created a fortunate diversion at this critical moment. The cavalry were marching on as if to pursue the English army…
"However, the heavy cavalry division of the Guard, under the orders of Gen. Guyot, who was in the second line behind Kellerman's cuirassiers, followed at full trot and proceeded to the plateau. I noticed this, and sent to recall it, it was my reserve…it was already committed and any movement of withdrawal would have been disastrous.
"However, these 12,000 picked cavalrymen performed miracles; they overwhelmed all the more numerous enemy cavalry which sought to oppose them, drove in several infantry squares, broke them up, seized 60 pieces of artillery, and in the middle of the squares, captured ten standards, which three Chasseurs of the Guard and three cuirassiers presented to me in front of La Belle Alliance….

Not being backed up by a strong mass of infantry, which was still contained by General Bulow's attack, this gallant cavalry had to confide itself to holding the battlefield which it had conquered."
Napoleon makes it clear that he was in full command during the battle. He, not Ney, had ordered the "unsupported" cavalry attack, not because he'd lost his mind, but because the infantry reserves had their hands full with the recent arrival of von Bulow's fresh 30,000 men. Unfortunately, the Guard Heavy Cavalry under Guyot had gone forward without orders, and to be fair to Guyot, we don't know why.
As regards Napoleon's oft-quoted criticism of Ney, said as the French heavies failed to end the battle - "Ney has betrayed us as he did at Jena" - that is obviously a remark made in anger and frustration in the heat of battle. The "traitor" was in the middle of having 5 horses shot from under him!

(Naturally, Napoleon praises his cavalry, and discusses the squares they broke, omitting praise of the marvelous British/Allied units, most of which successfully maintained their squares. The British gunners deserve particular praise. Many of them fired at point blank range, and then, while running toward the safety of the infantry squares, were sabered.)

And now, the coup de grace.  Again, Napoleon tells the story.

"If Marshal Grouchy, as he had written at two in the morning from his camp at Gembloux, had taken up arms at first light, that is to say at 4am, he would not have arrived at Wavre in time to intercept General Bulow's detachment; but he would have stopped Marshal Blucher's three other corps; and victory would still have been certain. But Marshal Grouchy only arrived in front of Wavre at half past four and did not attack until six o'clock; it was no longer the time for it!

"The French army, 69,000 strong, which at 7pm. had gained a victory over an army of 120,000 men, held half the Anglo-Dutch battlefield, and had repulsed General Bulow's corps, saw victory snatched from it by the arrival of General Blucher with 30,000 fresh troops, a reinforcement which brought the allied army in the line up to nearly 150,000 men, that is two and a half to one."

Napoleon and his generals had been sure the battle was won; Napoleon describes the excellence of the French disposition.

"They were only waiting for the arrival of the infantry of the Guard to decide the victory; but they were staggered when they perceived the arrival of the numerous columns of Marshal Blucher.

The sun had gone down, nevertheless, "the enemy…would be completely broken, as soon as the rest of the Guard debouched. A quarter of an hour was needed!

"It was at this moment that Marshal Blucher arrived at La Haie and overthrew the French unit defending it… the enemy cavalry swept over the battlefield…it was necessary to give orders to the Guard, which was formed up to go forward, to change direction. This move was carried out in good order; the Guard faced about (to handle the onslaught from two sides)… immediately afterwards, each battalion formed itself into a square. The four squadrons detailed for action charged the Prussians. At this moment the English cavalry brigade, which arrived from Ohain, marched forward. These 2,000 horse got in between General Reille and the Guard.

This account, which is verified by the Prussian accounts, is rather different than that of the British accounts, which form the basis for most Anglo/American history books.  These focus on Wellington's, "Now Maitland, now's your time" command; the withering fire of concealed British troops, Wellington waving his hat, etc. All of this is true, but the critical role of the Nassauers in slowing the Guard's advance is usually totally omitted or downplayed, not to mention the decisive Prussian attack.

Then there's the criticism of Ney swerving the Guard left, which causes incredulity among modern-day armchair generals. Ney, one of the great tactical commanders in all of history, had no choice for two reasons, the need for at least some element of surprise, and the arrival of the Prussians. All one has to do is look at any map of the battlefield - taking into account Zeithen's corps - to see why Ney advanced as he did.

Two of the greatest commanders in all of history faced each other. Wellington, master of defense, was in an entrenched position that he had chosen, and counted on the arrival of Blucher. Napoleon considered the Prussians under control by Grouchy, and had von Bulow not arrived in Napoleon's flank and rear, the French would undoubtedly have won, and we'd be reading about Napoleon's finest victory, Ney's brilliant attacks etc. 

Scant praise is given in English language books to Blucher and von Bulow, whose forces determined the outcome. Wellington, Orange and their patched-together armies' heroics will be deservedly told for millennia to come and yet - there's more to the story. As Wellington cracked some time after the battle, "There's plenty of glory to go around".

Further reading:
Napoleon, Memoirs
David Chandler, Campaigns of Napoleon
Peter Hofschroer, 1815, The Waterloo Campaign - The German Victory
Arnold, Marengo and Hohenlinden
Horrock, From Bonaparte to the Bourbons, the Life and Death of Marshal Ney.


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 Bibliographical details

Author :

ALLAN Douglas


Member's Bulletin, Napoleonic Society of America











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