Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Note on Napoleon’s bad choices for subordinates.

Scene from Battle of Waterloo

The battle of Waterloo is one of the most analyzed, or more accurately over analyzed campaigns and battles of all time. In fact we have an incontestable surfeit of accounts of the campaign and battle.

The great military historian J.F.C. Fuller has it largely right when he says:
The Waterloo Campaign has been so thoroughly investigated and criticized that the errors committed in it are apt to appear exceptional and glaring. They were not, they were the usual errors found in most campaigns.1
The chief reasons that the campaign generated such a storm of writing were that it ended the career of one of the greatest of military leaders of all time and further that it brought into conflict the two most capable military leaders of the time. In this case Napoleon and Wellington.

That Napoleon went down in defeat before Wellington is the most common theme of discussions of the battle. It is however quite wrong. In much of the literature it is forgotten that Blucher the commander of the Prussian Army, was responsible for Napoleons defeat. In fact English language books about the battle tend to significantly down play Prussian involvement in the battle.

What this ignores is that without Prussian intervention Wellington would almost certainly have been defeated at Waterloo. As it was it was a close run thing and victory was only very narrowly achieved.2

When the battle started Napoleon had c. 72,000 men and Wellington 68,000 men.3 Normally given the Duke of Wellington’s defensive tactics and his excellent defensive position, and near equality of numbers this should have enabled Wellington to hold his position without difficulty. However not only was Wellington facing the greatest military mind of the time, Napoleon, but his army in terms of quality was significantly inferior to Napoleon’s. In fact the inferiority was such that Wellington, well aware that his army was significantly outclassed only accepted battle on the promise from the Prussians that a significant number of Prussians would intervene on the day of battle. Otherwise Wellington felt he would be inevitably defeated.4

The fact is both Wellington and Blucher had been caught with their pants down by Napoleon’s campaign.

After Napoleon had reestablished his rule of France at the beginnings of the Hundred Days, he was faced with a significant dilemma. Napoleon’s reestablished rule was precarious in France. Large sections of French opinion to say nothing of certain districts, such as the Vendee rejected his rule and mistrust of his aims was widespread. So was the desire not to engage in another round of wars with an enemy coalition. That the other European great powers distrusted Napoleon was not surprising, so was their refusal to talk to him and to declare war on him.5

The resources that the allies could apply against France were overwhelming, in effect over a million men. War weary and at least partially mistrustful France could at best come up with ½ that and that was being very optimistic.6

Waiting around for the allies to invade was just waiting around to have a repeat of the 1814 campaign in France with numbers eventually delivering victory to the allies.7

Not surprisingly Napoleon decided to be proactive.

Napoleon decided that he had to attack first. The nearest allied armies were Blucher’s and Wellington’s in Belgium. Napoleon’s scheme was to attack at the “hinge” where Wellington and Blucher’s armies touched and then defeat one and then turn on and defeat the other. Neither Blucher nor Wellington were expecting Napoleon to attack where he did so Napoleon achieved surprise. Further Wellington was convinced that any attack that Napoleon tried would be directed against the Belgium coast and be designed to cut Wellington off from England. The problem with this idea is that such an attack would do absolutely nothing to prevent Wellington from uniting with Blucher and thus achieving overwhelming numbers. The idea that Napoleon would try such a frankly suicidal strategy was an obsession with Wellington and in the end nearly cost him the battle of Waterloo. It seems to have never occurred to Wellington that Napoleon could hardly try something that would lead to Wellington falling back and joining Blucher.8

Anyway Napoleon’s surprise attack coming were Blucher and Wellington least expected it completely disrupted the allied campaign plan. Blucher and Wellington attempted to concentrate their scattered forces and face Napoleon.

Now it is here that Napoleon’s greatest mistakes of the campaign should be mentioned. To put it simply Napoleon made several disastrous choices of subordinate commanders.

First and worst Napoleon selected Ney as a commander for one wing of his army. Now Ney was a very brave man and a natural charismatic leader but when it came to tactics and strategy he had severe limitations has Napoleon well knew. For his other wing Napoleon selected Grouchy has commander. Now Grouchy was a very competent even brilliant cavalry general but he had never commanded an army wing composed of artillery, Cavalry and infantry and because of that tended to be cautious and very unwilling to go against Napoleon’s orders. Now generally Napoleon preferred soldiers who were unimaginative and did what they were told but at Waterloo that would be his undoing. For Napoleon’s last bad choice he selected Soult to be his Chief of Staff. Now Soult, a highly competent General, had no experience being a chief of staff. Napoleon selected him to replace the highly competent Berthier who had recently died. Soult was inexperienced and in over his head and quite simply did a, at best, mediocre job of it. Soult would have been a much better Corp commander than a Chief of Staff.9

Aside from the misuse of Soult, Grouchy and Ney Napoleon made two other bad decisions. He appointed Davout has military commander of Paris. Now Davout was undoubtedly the best tactician that Napoleon ever had among his Marshals as indicated by Davout’s brilliant victory at Auerstadt over a Prussian army that outnumbered him more than two to one, (28,000 to 60,000). Instead of having Davout as a commander in his army Napoleon inexplicably left him behind. We don’t know the reason why I suspect it was because Davout was a man of considerable independence of thought and action and Napoleon didn’t like his tendency to disobey orders.10

Napoleon was supposed to have told Davout that he needed him in Paris to insure the loyalty of the city and surrounding area. Davout supposedly told him:
But , Sire, if you are the victor, Paris will be yours, and if you are beaten, neither I nor any one else can do anything for you.11
The other bad decision was Napoleon’s refusal to hire Murat, undoubtedly his most gifted Cavalry commander. This is actually both understandable and excusable. Murat had married Caroline Bonaparte Napoleon’s sister and Napoleon had made them King and Queen of Naples. In early 1814, with Napoleon facing ruin Murat and Charlotte in a desperate effort to save Naples for themselves had allied with the allied powers against Napoleon and had helped to drive the French from Italy. Not surprisingly Napoleon refused to see let alone appoint Murat has his Cavalry commander, even though Murat had allied with Napoleon at the start of the 100 days and had been driven out of Naples by the Austrians in response, losing his kingdom. Murat then offered his services to Napoleon. Napoleon not surprisingly turned him down. Later on St. Helena Napoleon said that that was probably a mistake.12

The mistakes and disastrous outcome of the Waterloo campaign largely flowed out of Napoleon’s mistakes in selecting subordinates for this campaign. Despite catching Blutcher and Wellington with their pants down in the opening and administering a serious defeat to Blutcher at Ligny. Napoleon lost at Waterloo largely because his subordinates were not up to snuff.

There is a huge cottage industry heaping blame on Napoleon’s subordinates, Ney, Grouchy and Soult for the defeat at Waterloo yet the bottom line is Napoleon selected them when he had better men available and allowed them during the campaign to make decisions without supervision much of the time. The result was defeat. Napoleon knew these men, selected them anyway and is thus responsible for the resulting defeat.

Perhaps at a later time I will examine the Waterloo campaign some more.

1. Fuller, J. F. C., A Military History of the Western World, v. 3, Da Capo, New York, 1955, p. 492.

2. Chandler, David G, The Campaigns of Napoleon, Macmillan Pub. Co. Inc., New York, 1966, pp. 1064-1093, Fuller, 523-538.

3. Fuller, p. 524.

4. IBID, pp. 517-518, Chandler, pp. 1057-1061, Barnett, Correlli, Bonaparte, Hill and Wang, New York, 1978, p. 205.

5. Marshall-Cornwall. James, Napoleon as Military Commander, Penguin Books, London, 2002, pp. 260-265, Barnett, pp. 201-203.

6. IBID, Chandler, pp. 1012-1017.

7. Footnotes 5 + 6.

8. Fuller, pp. 502-503.

9. IBID, pp. 494-495, Marshall-Cornwall, pp. 263-264, Chandler, pp. 1021-1022.

10. Fuller, pp. 435-439, 495, Chandler, 489-497.

11. Fuller, p. 495.

12. IBID, pp. 494-495, Chandler, 1022-1023.

Pierre Cloutier

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