Saturday, January 31, 2015

Some Notes

Battle of Waterloo

The battle of Waterloo is one of the most analysed, or more accurately over analysed 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. 74,000 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 aim 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 practically 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.

So in great secrecy Napoleon concentrated an army near the Belgium border near the junction between Blucher’s and Wellington’s army. Napoleon’s campaign plan was simple. It was to drive between the two allied armies and defeat each in turn driving them both out of Belgium and hopefully securing by this enough time for Napoleon to secure the resources and support of France and perhaps causing the collapse of the allied coalition.8

As mentioned above both Wellington and Blucher were completely caught out by Napoleon’s attack and had difficulty concentrating their forces to oppose Napoleon.

The result was the confused battles of Quatre Bras and Ligny. Because the allied commanders were caught by surprise both of them had severe problems concentrating their forces and basically sent their forces piece meal into battle. This was especially true of Blucher whose conduct of the battle was ham-fisted and uncoordinated. Napoleon was in direct command of the forces opposing Blucher and basically had Blucher dancing to his tune throughout the day.

Wellington meanwhile was busy gathering up his forces and fighting forces under the command of Ney at Quatre Bras. Ney handling of his forces was clumsy but still he came close to defeating Wellington and Wellington was fortunate in getting a stalemate.9

Napoleon was able to inflict a serious and possibly fatal defeat on Blucher. In fact the chief mess up of the day on the French side was the confusion regarding d'Erlon's  corp. that spent the day marching and counter marching between Ney’s forces and Napoleon’s and as a result had no impact on either battle.

In fact if Ney had had d’Erlon’s corp. he probably would have defeated Wellington and if Napoleon had had d’Erlon’s corp. the result would have been a crushing defeat of Blucher rather than Blucher’s severe defeat.10

Still Blucher’s army was defeated and Wellington was faced with the prospect of facing Napoleon by himself. Not surprisingly the prospect, especially given the quality of his army, filled Wellington with dread. So not surprisingly Wellington withdrew the day after the battle. Whether or not Wellington would accept battle depended on whether or not he could get any support from the Prussians.

Here luck came to Wellington’s rescue. Blucher had been nearly killed / captured by the French in the early evening at the end of the battle of Ligny and was unable to command his army. Blucher’s Chief of staff decided to fall back on Wavre rather than further east. If the defeated Prussians had fallen back further east they would have been unable to lend any support to Wellington.11

Wellington on the 17th of June, (The day after the battle of Ligny and Quatre Bras), was informed that the Prussians could support him with his minimum demand of at least one Prussian corp.12

Napoleon now made his most disastrous decision of the campaign. Instead of concentrating all of his available forces against Wellington; Napoleon sent 1/3 of his army to pursue the Prussians.

Now Grouchy the commander of the forces sent against the Prussians has received a lot of blame for losing the battle for Napoleon, for not marching to the sounds of guns at Waterloo. The criticism is unfair. The bottom line is that Napoleon’s orders on any reasonable interpretation did not allow for Grouchy to do this without disobeying orders. So if anyone one is to blame for Grouchy’s refusal to march too Napoleon’s assistance it should be Napoleon.13

The result of Napoleon’s refusal to concentrate his army against Wellington was that instead of a significant superiority of numbers over Wellington’s army he had only a very slight superiority of a few thousand.14

Wellington meanwhile had done something that greatly helped Napoleon. Since the beginning of the campaign Wellington had been inordinately concerned and convinced that Napoleon would seek to out flank him by seeking to cut him off from the Belgian seaports. That this merely would drive Wellington into the arms of the Prussians and thus would have been the last thing Napoleon wanted seems to have entirely passed Wellington by. The result of this foolish belief was that Wellington left 17,000 men in the town of Hal a full day’s march from the battlefield of Waterloo because he thought Napoleon would try to outflank him by cutting him off from the coastal ports.15.

Thus Wellington had a slight inferiority of numbers to Napoleon and almost lost Waterloo. As it is only the arrival of the Prussians saved Wellington from defeat.

Much has been made of the alleged effects of rainfall in terms of slowing down the French and delaying the start of the battle. This is little more than excuse hunting. The rain also slowed down and affected the British and Prussians also so that in effect in terms of affecting the outcome the effects cancelled each other out.16

Both sides had made serious mistakes but in the end the British and Prussians were able to concentrate the bulk of their forces at the decisive battlefield and Napoleon was not able to do so and so he lost.

At another point I may discuss the actual battle itself.

1. Fuller, J. F. C., A Military History of the Western World, v. 2, Da Capo, New York, 1955, p. 492.

2. IBID, pp. 540.

3. IBID, p. 524, Schom, Alan, Napoleon Bonaparte, HarperPerennial, New York, 1997, p. 751. Note Fuller gives Napoleon c. 71,000 men and Schom gives Wellington c. 74,000 men.

4. Fuller, p. 517.

5. Barnett, Correlli, Bonaparte, Hill and Wang, New York, 1977, pp. 201-203, Schom, pp. 718-727.

6. IBID.

7. Chandler, David, The Campaigns of Napoleon, MacMillan Pub. Co. Inc, New York, 1966, pp. 1015-1018, Fuller, pp. 498-499.

8. IBID, Fuller, Chandler, pp. 1016-1020.

9. Fuller, pp. 510-514, Schom, pp. 747-749, Chandler, pp. 1052-1057.

10. IBID.

11. Fuller, p. 517, Chandler, pp. 1057-1058, The Prussian commander who gave the command was Gneisenau.

12. Footnote, 4, Chandler, 1057-1058.

13. Fuller, p. 520, Barnett, p. 208.

14. Footnote 3.

15. Fuller, p. 524, Chandler, p. 1066.

16. Fuller, pp. 518, 519. With all due respect to Fuller the fact is the wet weather also impeded the allies especially the Prussians marching to support Wellington on the day of the battle of Waterloo June 18th. See Barnett, p. 208.

Pierre Cloutier

No comments:

Post a Comment