18 June 1815 Part II

Chateau Hougemont under attack by the French.

Sous Lieutenant Legros wielding his axe through the North Gate, Hougoumont.

The role played by Hougoumont will always arouse admiration and invite controversy. Victor Hugo went so far as to say that its conquest was one of Napoleon’s dreams and that, had he seized it, it would have given him the world. Extravagant language, but perhaps not to be rejected out of hand. Hougoumont had two doors to its court, one to the château itself on the southern side, one belonging to the farm on the north. It was this latter door that was smashed open by a huge French officer who, followed by some of his jubilant men, rushed into the courtyard. They were instantly set upon by soldiers of the Coldstream Guards, who then succeeded in closing the doors and barring them with a vast wooden beam. Wellington was later to observe that his success at Waterloo had depended on closing these doors. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that a successful defence of Hougoumont was a crucial part of Wellington’s strategy. It was because he appreciated its significance and had seen the scale of the French attack on it that he reinforced the garrison with four companies of the Coldstream Guards, thereby doubling its complement of Foot Guardsmen. Their remarkable achievement may be judged when we consider that, as Victor Hugo put it, they held out for seven hours against the assaults of vastly superior numbers.

After the initial failure of Napoleon’s brother, Prince Jérôme, to take Hougoumont, neither he nor Napoleon himself took the decision to bypass this stubborn centre of resistance and get on with the main business of attacking Wellington’s main line. Jérôme, in short, allowed what was a diversionary, albeit important, objective to take his eye off the main tactical purpose which was to pierce Wellington’s centre. Instead of getting this principal attack under way, Jérôme poured more and more troops into the desperate struggle for Hougoumont. The divisions of Foy, Guilleminot and Bachelu hurled themselves against it; nearly all Reille’s corps took their turn and failed; Bauduin’s brigade was not strong enough to force Hougoumont from the north, while Soye’s brigade, although making the beginning of a breach in the south, could not exploit it. Jérôme had been making one of the classic errors of war – reinforcing failure – and on such a scale that he was robbing the French army of the strength to sweep Wellington aside before the Prussians came up to support him. Wellington, on the other hand, had reinforced success. Thus the contribution which Hougoumont’s defenders made to victory at Waterloo was incalculable.

What would have happened if the gates had not been closed? For the purposes of speculation, we must assume that the French would have taken Hougoumont, for if, even though the gates were not closed, the British had still defied the French attacks and held on to the château, and if Napoleon had also permitted the same continued attempts to persevere, there would have been no change of circumstance. So we must ask ourselves what Napoleon would have done after capturing Hougoumont, had this happened; and in answering the question let us assume further that this capture was effected early on, in other words before Jérôme had dissipated his main forces against it. Napoleon then has two possible courses of action: to persist in the frontal assault on Wellington’s centre, which in the event is what he did do, or try to outflank the Allied right and so roll up Wellington’s position. This would have been the sure touch of Napoleon at his tactical best, as in former days when he instantly saw that the key to taking Toulon was to capture the Le Caire peninsula and so bring artillery fire to bear direct on the Royal Navy’s ships; or when at Austerlitz he seized the fleeting opportunity to strike at and destroy the Austro-Russian centre, roll up their left wing and finish the thing off. In short, if the chance of closing the Hougoumont gates had not befallen, and the château had fallen early on into French hands, Napoleon’s attack would not have been delayed or impeded. He would have been presented with great freedom of tactical choice, and provided he had taken a proper grip of the battle there and then, he must surely have prevailed. We will see shortly what might have come about had Napoleon defeated Wellington, but for the time being we may concede that the latter’s comment about the closing of Hougoumont’s gates, while an over-simplification as to what brought about success, does at least deserve serious consideration. Yet even given Hougoumont’s retention in British hands, and the fact that Napoleon exerted himself far too late to rescue his army from the tactical blunders made by his subordinates, there was still one more chance, one more If which will always persist in the minds of those who ponder great battles.

‘On a perdu la France’ was Napoleon’s comment to d’Erlon, referring to Ney’s mistakes at Quatre Bras when he joined him there at midday on 17 June. The comment might equally well have applied to Grouchy. When on that same day Napoleon detached Grouchy and his 33,000 men to follow up and harass the Prussians, Grouchy himself and Soult tried to dissuade him, but the Emperor insisted. Not only was he giving himself too many objectives, he was dissipating his forces. A single aim – the defeat of Wellington – and a concentration of force to do so would have served him better. Moreover, his instructions to Grouchy were far from clear. Grouchy was required to pursue the Prussians and reconnoitre their movements so that Napoleon could determine their intentions. He needed to know what Wellington and Blücher meant to do. During the early hours of 18 June, Napoleon received a despatch from Grouchy announcing his intention to follow the Prussians towards Wavre and prevent their moving towards Brussels and Wellington’s position. The Emperor’s reply confounded confusion and contained these words: ‘His Majesty desires you will head for Wavre in order to draw near to us [my italics] . . .’ This in itself was contradictory for whereas Wavre was to the north of Grouchy, Napoleon was to the west. Had Napoleon’s former Chief of Staff, Berthier, been there instead of Soult, he would never have permitted such sloppy phrasing. But Soult did at least press for the instant recall of Grouchy, only to have his intervention dismissed by the Emperor. The full impact of Grouchy’s detachment was still to be felt.

In his most agreeable account of Marcellin Marbot’s adventures as a cavalry général de brigade, based on Marbot’s own memoirs, Vyvyan Ferrers suggests that these memoirs gave Conan Doyle the inspiration for writing his stories about Brigadier Gérard. Ferrers also notes that the choice of the name Gérard was surprising, for as already recorded, one of the corps commanders at Waterloo was General Etienne Gérard, and on the fateful afternoon of 18 June he was with the newly appointed Marshal Grouchy, who was vainly attempting to follow up Blücher’s army to Wavre and engage it. It was while Grouchy was pondering what to do that the thunder of guns at Waterloo was heard. If ever the initiative inherent to any great military commander needed to be employed, it was now. To march to the sound of the guns – at a time when your own force was contributing nothing to the battle’s resolution – was so fundamental that Grouchy should have given instant orders to do so. Yet at this very moment General Gérard intervened and publicly told Grouchy that it was his duty to march upon the guns. Despite his own indecision, the one thing Grouchy was not prepared to tolerate was a lesson in command from one of his own subordinates, and after an ill-tempered dispute, the Marshal made it plain that his duty was to carry out the Emperor’s orders and proceed to Wavre. And so he turned his back on the struggle which was to determine Europe’s future. Had he marched to the guns with his 33,000 or so men, he would have intercepted the Prussian movement towards Waterloo and reinforced Napoleon at a moment when such reinforcement would have been decisive. Napoleon would not then have had to respond to Ney’s plea for more troops with a petulant: ‘Troops? Where do you expect me to find them? Do you expect me to make them?’ They would have been to hand at the very moment when Ney was poised to execute the coup de grâce.

It is clear, therefore, that the various Ifs that we have looked at so far spring from mistakes made by Ney, Soult, Grouchy and Napoleon himself. Vincent Cronin names three blunders committed by the Emperor before the main battle had even begun: first, not crushing Wellington on the morning of 17 June, when the Prussians were retreating and the French could have brought overwhelming numbers against Wellington; second, his misjudgement both of the quality of British soldiers and the tactical skill of their commander; third, his gross overconfidence – had he taken the whole affair much more seriously, he would not have delegated Grouchy on his fruitless errand and ignored his subordinates’ plea to get Grouchy back in time for the main attack.

  1. G. Macdonnell finds fault not so much with Napoleon as with Marshals Ney, Soult and Grouchy. We have examined Grouchy’s fatal indecision; Soult fell down by not stemming the tide of mistakes; Ney lost the battle by his ill-tempered countermanding of the Emperor’s order on 16 June to send up d’Erlon’s corps so that Napoleon could have destroyed Blücher’s army rather than simply mauling it and pushing it back. Had this been done, Grouchy would have remained with the main body and Napoleon would have had an extra 33,000 men to dispose of Wellington, who in turn would have received no last-minute support from the Prussians. The mere fact that Wellington called it a close-run thing indicates how easily the scales might have been turned. Yet when all is said, we may be sure that Napoleon would have taken the credit for victory, and so must bear responsibility for defeat.

But what if he had won? In his essay ‘Ruler of the World’ Alistair Horne argues that victory at Waterloo would not have brought about Napoleon’s ultimate success.

There were vast fresh forces of Russians, Austrians and Germans already moving towards France. A second battle, or perhaps several battles, would probably have followed Waterloo. But even if the ultimate engagement had ended in the likely defeat of Napoleon, with Britain out of the war, it would have been a continental and not a British victory. What followed would have, therefore, been a peace dominated by Metternich’s Central European powers – by Russian, Austria and Prussia instead of Great Britain.

I am not so sure. On hearing of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and with the Allied resolution to outlaw him, Czar Alexander of Russia had told Wellington at the Congress of Vienna that it was for him to save the world again. With Wellington and Blücher beaten, would the resolve of the other powers have held firm? We have to imagine a triumphant Emperor entering Brussels at the head of his troops, frantic enthusiasm from the Belgians, who instantly declare for him, the Netherlands also changing sides, then Napoleon’s return to Paris, acclaimed by all, even Talleyrand and Fouché – whose heads Napoleon might or might not have demanded – overtures for peace pouring out from the Tuileries, promises of democratic reform, the formerly circumspect Marshals rallying to their Commander-in-Chief, France jubilant, Napoleon overhauling the Grande Armée and preparing for the defence of the country’s frontiers. In spite of the gathering Allied armies, their leaders might have recalled Napoleon’s former ability to defeat them one by one or two at a time. They might have recalled the Emperor’s pulling on his long boots in 1813 and 1814, winning battle after battle at Lützen, Bautzen, Champaubert, Château-Thierry, Vauchamp, Montereau – and these victories won with a small army of some 50,000 men. What he might now do with an army of four or five times that number, commanded by the most valiant and able set of lieutenants under his own unique direction, would surely have given the Allied sovereigns pause for reflection and compromise.

Besides, it is so agreeable to picture yet one more Congress of Vienna, convened by Metternich, who by then would have appreciated that Napoleon was not un homme perdu after all, a Congress at which not only did dancing gild the scene and amorous intrigue rule the plot, but at which Napoleon and Wellington finally met, with Talleyrand – whose cynical observation that treason was simply a matter of dates would have come full circle – hovering in the background, and Alexander once more falling under the spell of his brother Emperor. Would Marie Walewska have been there to consort with Napoleon, or would the wicked, dashing Hussar General, Count Neipperg, have been constrained to escort the Empress of France, Marie-Louise, to Vienna, bringing with them the King of Rome, Napoleon’s son, destined six years later – if we assume that the Emperor still met his death in 1821 – to succeed his father as Napoleon II? If we are going to rewrite history, we might as well do it with a flourish.

There is perhaps one further diversion here. However insubstantial the Ifs of history may be, we must all applaud Stendhal’s captivating suggestion that had Napoleon won at Waterloo, not only would there have been no liberals to be afraid of in the 1820s, but all the ancient sovereigns of Europe would only have kept their thrones by marrying the daughters of Napoleon’s Marshals. Judging by the mettle of these Marshals, the sovereigns in question could have done a great deal worse. There would have been one further benefit from Napoleon’s winning – George IV would not then have boasted that he had been present on the battlefield.

And what if Napoleon had been killed at Waterloo – the ‘good death’ that he pondered on St Helena?6 Why, the whole of France would have honoured him. Marshal Ney’s comment as he gazed at Bessières’ corpse on the field of Lützen, ‘C’est notre sort. C’est une belle mort,’ would have echoed round the world in honour of the General, whom Wellington called ‘un grand homme de guerre’, the greatest ever to appear at the head of a French army, and the magnificent ceremony, which took place in 1840, with Louis-Philippe on the throne of France, when Napoleon’s coffin, returned from St Helena, was received by Marshal Moncey, Governor of Les Invalides, would have been enacted twenty-five years earlier.

There is one last If we may perhaps contemplate when we recall A. P. Herbert’s delightful book, Why Waterloo?, in which he argues that Napoleon did not break out of Elba but was driven out. Had the French government honoured the treaty of Fontainebleau with regard to money, had Marie-Louise joined her husband on Elba, had Talleyrand been less malignant, or Colonel Campbell more vigilant, had Royal Navy frigates blockaded the island properly, there would perhaps have been no escape, no Hundred Days, no Waterloo. A. P. Herbert concludes that no single person could be arraigned for the tragedy that ensued. Yet he adds this: ‘The Emperor of Austria, if he had had more humanity; Louis XVIII, if he had had more sense and honesty; Marie-Louise, if she had had more faith and fortitude, could have altered history and let one of the world’s great men die peaceful and happy.’

It was while Napoleon was still on Elba that his brother, Lucien, wrote to Masséna: ‘Voilà donc enfin le drame terminé. Tant de gloire perdue par la plus lâche fin. Bon Dieu! Que de souvenirs. Que de regrets.’ It was when on that other island that Napoleon himself could not resist a resort to the ‘what ifs’ of history. Had he appointed some other general instead of Grouchy. Blücher would not have arrived in time to save Wellington from defeat. Yet we must recall that Napoleon, who was so often to reiterate, ‘Be clear and all the rest will follow,’ broke his own rule in his confusing instruction to Grouchy. On St Helena the Emperor, like Lucien, has his regrets. He should have had Talleyrand and Fouché hanged. What a difference that might have made to the Hundred Days. Then again: ‘To die at Borodino would have been to die like Alexander: to be killed at Waterloo would have been a good death; perhaps Dresden would have been better; but no, better at Waterloo. The love of the people, their regret.’

He regrets, too, ever having left Egypt. He would have preferred to be Emperor of the East than of the West. The desert had always fascinated him and his own name meant lion of the desert. Besides, to have been master of Egypt would have been to be master of India. What rascals the English were! ‘If I had been able to get to India from Egypt with the nucleus of an army, I should have driven them from India.’ Now the English would have to see what would come to them from Russia. ‘The Russians, already in Persia, have not far to go to reach India.’ It was this last point of Napoleon’s which some twenty years later was the cause of concern in the minds of the Englishmen who ruled India, and the cause also of their beginning to play the Great Game.