The Waterloo campaign

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The Waterloo campaign began in earnest at 3.30 a.m. on Monday, 12 June 1815 when the Emperor Napoleon, exhibiting none of the torpor and lack of decisiveness that his supporters later claimed afflicted him, left Paris after a farewell dinner with his family and was quickly driven north in his carriage, crossing the Belgian border with an army of 124,000 men a mere three days later. He had only been in France for three months, having landed at Fréjus near Antibes from his island exile on Elba on 1 March.

Napoleon had initially hoped to regain his throne from the legitimate Bourbon monarch of France, King Louis XVIII, without a war, but on 13 March the rest of the European powers, then in congress at Vienna, had denounced him as an outlaw and a ‘disturber of world repose’. Once Louis had fled Paris on 18 March and Napoleon had entered the Tuileries Palace the following day, it was perfectly clear to all that the Emperor would have to defeat at least four nations’ armies to survive in power. Nor was time on his side.

Napoleon’s strategy was really dictated to him by the fact that although vast enemy armies were being despatched towards France, they could only arrive at its borders piecemeal and so could, he hoped, be defeated one by one, through his employing the superior generalship that had allowed him to win all but ten of the seventy-two battles he had fought in his career.

Although it is very difficult to be accurate as to exact troop strengths throughout this period, Napoleon had roughly 20,000 troops under Marshal Davout in Paris, 85,000 guarding France’s frontiers, 10,000 putting down the royalist revolt in La Vendée in western France, and 123,000 in the Armée du Nord. To add to these 238,000 effectives, around 115,000 French troops were either on leave or absent without leave, 46,000 conscripts were in training at depots, and there were National Guard units garrisoning border fortresses who could have been called upon were Napoleon to be granted more of his most precious commodity of all: time.

To march north quickly, defeat either the Anglo-Allied armies under the Duke of Wellington or the Prussian army under Marshal Gebhard von Blücher, Prince of Wahlstadt, would have the immediate effect of re-establishing la Gloire. As one historian has summarised Napoleon’s plans: ‘His object was to defeat one or the other before they had time to concentrate and then, forcing both back on their divergent communications, to enter Brussels as a conqueror. Thereafter … the Belgian common people would rise against the Dutch, the war-weary French take heart and unite behind him, the Tory government in London fall, and his Austrian father-in-law [Emperor Francis II], deprived of British subsidies, sue for peace.”

There were other factors that imparted a sense of urgency to Napoleon’s actions, principally the knowledge that British regiments were on their way back from America, no fewer than 200,000 Russians were marching towards France along with 210,000 Austrians, and a Spanish/ Portuguese force of around 80,000 might also take the field in the south. Napoleon therefore formulated a bold plan, as one might have expected from a commander who, though he had tasted catastrophic defeat in Russia in 1812, terrible reverses in 1813, and the humiliation of abdication in 1814, nonetheless remained one of the most formidable strategists of world history.

Even though over 700,000 Allied soldiers were being mobilised to defeat him, only a fraction of these were guarding Brussels — roughly 116,000 under Blücher and 112,000 under Wellington — and the Emperor had crushed six enemy coalitions in the past. Furthermore Wellington needed to leave some of his troops garrisoning Brussels.

The logistical, supply and communications problems involved in coordinating the coalition’s efforts would, Napoleon hoped, be exacerbated by certain political differences that had emerged between them in Vienna. Whatever the odds against him, he was certainly not about to give up the chance of ruling France again, and of one day handing on his throne to his beloved son Napoleon, the King of Rome.

France had been exhausted by almost continual warfare since 1792, and although she despised the Bourbons and failed to support them on Napoleon’s return, only a quick victory would encourage the majority — and especially the middle classes impoverished by twenty-three years of war — to return to his standard. Accordingly he set the nation to work to prepare for the coming invasion. Parisian workshops had been busy throughout April, May and the first half of June turning out over 1,200 uniforms per day and manufacturing twelve million cartridges. Muskets were produced at the impressive rate of 12,000 a month, with another thousand a month being repaired and reconditioned.

By the time his Armée du Nord crossed the River Meuse and captured Charleroi on Thursday, 15 June, it was as fine and as well-equipped a force as Napoleon had commanded in years, indeed since the loss of the flower of French manhood in the endless pine forests and frozen winter wastes of European Russia three years earlier. Yet because several of his former marshals had refused to serve under him, many of the rank-and-file of his army were highly suspicious of their officers; talk of treason abounded. ‘Never,’ wrote one historian, ‘did Napoleon have so formidable or so fragile a weapon in his hand.’

It was a very different story for the Anglo-Allied force that had been under the command of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, only since April 1815. Although Wellington had been in overall command of the Anglo-Spanish-Portuguese forces that had fought in the Iberian Peninsula between 1808 and 1814, the army he now led had relatively few veterans of those fierce and brilliantly-fought campaigns. For the most part the heroes of Talavera, Badajoz, Salamanca and Vittoria were stationed in the far-off United States, where they had been fighting under Wellington’s brother-in-law, General Sir Edward Pakenham, against the American commander and future president Andrew Jackson. Although peace had come in January 1815, few had had time to make the long Atlantic crossing home.

‘I have got an infamous army,’ Wellington had privately complained only the month before Napoleon crossed the Meuse, ‘very weak and ill-equipped, and a very inexperienced staff. In my opinion they are doing nothing in England … ‘It was true that reinforcements had been slow to arrive in the Low Countries, so that by the opening of the campaign only a little over one-third of Wellington’s 112,0oo-strong force was made up of British soldiers, of whom some had never before seen a shot fired in anger.

Yet that does not tell the whole story; in all there were thirty-nine infantry battalions from the British army and the King’s German Legion (KGL), a crack unit loyal to George III that was equal in professionalism to any British one. Furthermore there were twenty-nine cavalry regiments, including several of the best in the army. As the distinguished Waterloo chronicler Ian Fletcher has observed: ‘It was a pale shadow of the old Peninsular army, but there were, nevertheless, some fine regiments present, and the British contingent was certainly not the inexperienced and raw army … that some historians would have us believe.’ To underline this one has only to name some of those famous regiments present, such as the 1st Foot Guards, Coldstream Guards and 3rd Foot Guards, as well as the 30th, 42nd, 73rd and 95th line regiments, the 1st and 2nd Light KGL, the 1st and 2nd Life Guards, Royal Horse Guards, 1st (Royal) Dragoons, 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons, 16th and 23rd Light Dragoons, 7th, 10th, 15th and 18th Hussars, and both light dragoons and hussars from the KGL.

Despite his private misgivings, Wellington was still confident that if he and the Prussians under Marshal Blücher could coalesce successfully, victory would be theirs. One day he came across the diarist Thomas Creevey in the park at Brussels, who quizzed him about his plans. ‘By God,’ Wellington said, ‘I think Blücher and myself can do the thing.’’ Do you calculate upon any desertion in Buonaparte’s army?’ asked Creevey. ‘Not upon a man,’ the Duke replied, ‘from the colonel to the private in a regiment — both inclusive. We may pick up a Marshal or two, perhaps, but not worth a damn.’ Wellington then spotted a British private wandering in the park, looking up at the statues. ‘There,’ he said, pointing out the man to Creevey, ‘it all depends on that article, whether we do the business or not. Give me enough of it, and I am sure.’

The French army might have feared treachery in high places, but the Anglo-Allied high command was equally concerned about whether the Dutch and Belgian contingents, which made up a quarter of Wellington’s force, would remain loyal in the field, not least those units which only the previous year had been in the service of the Emperor. Wellington’s German troops — which made up another third of his force — ranged from the superb King’s German Legion of 6,000 veterans to the less reliable contingents from Brunswick, Hanover and Nassau.

If Napoleon had cause not to fear the Anglo-Allied force overmuch, he could also feel relatively unperturbed about the 116,000 Prussians to his east. Although the numbers seemed large, over half the Prussian army was made up of Landwehr (militia) troops rather than regular soldiers, and many of them came from outside Prussia itself. Earlier in June a force of 14,000 well-equipped Saxons had mutinied and had to be removed from the theatre of operations. Yet the average Prussian regular soldier was a tough specimen, and no one in the army was tougher than the commander-in-chief, Prince Gebhard von Blücher, whose seventy-three years belied an offensive spirit second to none. His splendid nickname — Marshal Vorwärts (‘Marshal Forwards’) — was well-deserved.

Not everything about Blücher inspired confidence, however, since he suffered from occasional mental disturbances, including the delusions that he had been impregnated by an elephant and that the French had bribed his servants to heat the floors of his rooms so that he would burn his feet. The Prussian high command nonetheless exhibited a commendably broad-minded attitude towards these disorders; their army chief of staff General Gerhard von Scharnhorst wrote that Blücher ‘must lead though he has a hundred elephants inside him’.

The only two coalition armies ready to fight Napoleon in June 1815 were Wellington’s and Blücher’s. The two commanders had met only twice in May, when they agreed on the broad outlines of a defensive strategy should they be attacked before the coalition had had time to deploy its huge forces. Wellington was deeply cognisant of the disastrous campaigns that the coalition had fought against Napoleon in front of Paris in 1814, when they had lost battle after battle through lack of coordination. ‘I would not march a corporal’s guard on such a system,’ was his characteristically dismissive response to the failed strategy.

Napoleon’s Orders for the Day were famous for their uplifting sentiments, and that of Thursday, 15 June was no different. He reminded his troops as they crossed into the Austrian Netherlands (roughly modern-day Belgium) that it was the anniversary of his great victories of Marengo in 1800 and Friedland in 1807. ‘The moment has come,’ he stated in his peroration, ‘to conquer or to perish.’

Although British historians in the nineteenth century strove to conceal the fact, and Wellington himself denied it into old age, Napoleon’s swift operation to take Charleroi on 15 June and to advance quickly towards Brussels took Wellington and to a lesser extent Blücher by surprise. There is still considerable (and surprisingly bitter) debate over exactly when Wellington heard the first truly reliable information about where Napoleon was and what he had done, and what the first Allied troop manoeuvres were in response, but Wellington’s well-authenticated phrase ‘Napoleon has humbugged me, by God! He has gained twenty-four hours’ march on me!’ has come down to us through history, and seems vividly to sum up his understandable reaction.

Napoleon himself was worse than humbugged on 15 June when General Comte Louis Bourmont, one of his divisional commanders but nonetheless royalist in his politics, rode directly over to the Prussian 1st Corps commander General Hans von Zieten and surrendered to him with five of his staff. The information he was able to pass on about Napoleon’s invasion plans was immediately vouchsafed to Marshal Blücher, who nonetheless seems to have failed to take proper advantage of it. There is even some doubt whether he passed on all the information to Wellington about Napoleon’s proposed route to Brussels. (This might well have been because Blücher suspected deliberate misinformation; he certainly felt that Bourmont’s actions offended his sense of soldier’s honour.)

At this point Napoleon split his forces, always a dangerous thing to do at the start of a major campaign. He ordered Marshal Michel Ney to march west to take the strategically important crossroads of Quatre Bras before Wellington could reinforce it. Quatre Bras stood at the junction of the Charleroi-Brussels and the Nivelles—Namur roads, and would thus give Napoleon extra leeway when it came to deciding how to make his approach on Brussels. Possession of the crossroads would have kept French strategic options open, and Ney was under no illusions about how much Napoleon wanted to capture it.

Meanwhile the Emperor marched off towards Ligny in the east in order to engage the Prussians, who he rightly estimated had come far too far south when Blücher had decided to invest Sombreffe. (Few of these place-names were towns in the modern sense, and some villages mentioned later, such as Plancenoit, were in 1815 little more than a collection of cottages and outhouses, but any stone walls at all could be invaluable in a musketry firefight.)

Napoleon did not write down his strategic plans, nor did he vouchsafe them to subordinates, and since virtually everything he would ever write about the Waterloo campaign was factually suspect and politically motivated, it is impossible to do more than surmise what he intended on 15 and 16 June. Yet one thing is near-certain: by risking splitting his forces he was hoping to be able to drive a wedge between the Anglo-Allied and the Prussian forces, and thereby deal with first one and then the other separately, in a microcosm of his overall plans for the division and destruction of all his enemies in the coalition.

In this scheme Napoleon was enormously aided by the problems of communication during campaigns. Although semaphore and a very basic telegraph system were in existence in 1815, they were not comprehensive and did not extend across Belgium; neither were balloons in use on either side. Messages could thus only be sent at the speed of a galloping horse, and since there was much rain, and therefore mud, during the Waterloo campaign, this was consequently slower. The aides de camp who carried messages between commanders could be fired upon, captured, take wrong turnings, find that their quarries had moved on, or be subject to any number of problems that meant that messages — sometimes taken over significant distances — either never arrived or were delivered so late as to be utterly superseded by events. It was an occupational hazard of early-nineteenth-century warfare, and it seems to have struck particularly badly in the Waterloo campaign, on both sides.

Wellington might have complained about his inexperienced staff, but Napoleon too had to deal with a brand-new chief of staff, Marshal Soult, in the place of his long-standing and highly efficient Marshal Berthier, who had at first refused to take part in the campaign, and then had soon afterwards died in very mysterious circumstances, falling out of a high window on 1 June in Bamberg, Bavaria. Soult, a solidly professional soldier who had nonetheless been regularly defeated by Wellington during the Peninsular Wars, did not shine in his place.

On the night of 15 June, as Napoleon slept in Charleroi, Wellington and his senior officers were entertained at a great ball only thirty miles away in Brussels, at the invitation of the 4th Duke of Richmond and Lennox and his wife. It was perhaps the most famous social occasion of the nineteenth century, and any criticisms that Wellington should have been paying attention to French troop movements rather than enjoying a party were waved away with the argument that it was important to show the citizens of Brussels that there was no need to panic. ‘Duchess,’ Wellington told his hostess, ‘you may give your ball with the greatest safety, without fear of interruption.’ By the time the ball in the rue de Blanchisserie had begun, however, Wellington had received definite news from the Prussians that Napoleon had indeed crossed the border.

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