Now came the critical point of the campaign. Men had marched with heavy loads and sore feet. Boots didn’t come fitted for left and right. They were both the same, and had to be broken in. Some soldiers feet were so swollen by the end of a march that boots either had to be cut off, or left on with the attendant risks of trench foot and infections. A large number of soldiers were already dead or wounded along with horses and animals. Civilians across the area’s affected would have fled, or if not they would have hidden their valuables as best they could from the inevitable looting that would always accompany armies whether friendly or not. A very few brave and enterprising folk stayed and tried to turn a profit by selling everyday items to troops at vastly inflated prices.
Think about how that actually impacted the civilians. There was no social security or disaster relief fund. No international aid agencies or United Nations to help. Unlike todays disaster zones where mechanised transport of some kind is usually available to help with evacuations, or make repairs, in 1815 it was muscle power, sweat and maybe horses that were used to rebuild. Imagine having to scoop up your children and leave your home because an army is marching through. Are they friendly? Even if they are, is it safe to remain? Friendly armies might confiscate your food, requisition your horses, maybe even conscript your children, or force you to act as a guide. Leave the decision too long though and you might not have time to flee. Friends and foes aren’t always easy to identify at a distance.
Where do you go? Do you flee to a nearby city? Risk being trapped there penniless and perhaps under siege in the future? Or do you try to head to the wider countryside, perhaps to starve or die of exposure or disease. Robbers will prey on the weak and the isolated. Cavalry from the various armies might chase you or you might be mistaken for a spy and hung.
Even if you did avoid the armies, you might return to your home to find it a burnt out shell. With no insurance or government programs to assist you, no banks or savings accounts to draw on, no organised charities, the loss of a house or a farm due to a stray foraging party being careless with a torch or having it reduced to rumble by battle could leave you destitute. You might have to flee to the city or hope neighbours can help. Starvation and death were real possibilities.
This is the horrific dilemma that was being faced as Europe in 1815 prepared itself for a war that it thought was over. All across Belgium people had to decide. To stay, to run, to fight the French or to oppose them, or somehow wait long enough to know. All Frenchmen and women asked themselves “What sane man or woman would want another war?” And yet, and yet the fat French king had replaced the great old soldiers and heroes of France with preening boys in his royal guard. The hated Austrians had worked with the Prussians and occupied Paris, and now, and now the Emperor had returned to right the wrongs. Many French people wondered how could any true Frenchman not march at this hour, with the returned veterans. Iron hard men who had fought at Austerlitz and Borodino.
Perhaps the new soldiers noticed that the Sergeant had lost half his fingers in the cold of Russia? Maybe they thought “surely today, after the beating of the Prussians yesterday, surely the Marshal would crush the hated British, those cold hearted money lenders who paid Germans and Austrians to kill Frenchmen so they could sit back in safety and steal French land.” Wasn’t this what they had joined for? To march under Le Rougeaud Marshal Ney himself, that brave winner of battles. Fiercest of the Marshals with great victories to his name.
If most people have heard of Marshal Ney at all, it is probably only as a blunderer at Waterloo. I’m probably going to give him a bit of criticism here too, so I want to give a picture of the man before we get into detail. It isn’t fair to reduce a historical persons life to just one brief snapshot and then heavily criticise them. I can’t cover everyone the podcast mentions, but I can at least try to give you a background on Ney. If you wanted to find an example of a real life D’Artanian of the Three Musketeers, you could certainly pick Ney. He was born in a working class family, on French German border. After a getting bored of civilian life he joined the army. Because pre-revolutionary France would only allow aristocrats to be officers he had to join the cavalry as a private. He showed immense talent and bravery, rising to sergeant and then officer in the post revolutionary army. He was periodically wounded and lead various cavalry charges. He rose to the rank of General and Marshal in 17 years. He commanded a corp successfully, decisively winning battles like Echlingen, and being instrumental at Jena. He also managed some successes in Spain, including a clever rearguard action against Wellington despite being heavily outnumbered, but his fiery temper lead to clashes and dismissal from command. His shining hour came in the disastrous Russian campaign. Here he was instrumental in holding the battered and frozen rear guard together. His courage became legend. He shouldered a musket with his troops in the bitterest cold, under Russian artillery fire and cavalry charges by savage cossacks. Bearded, frost covered and unbroken, he was separated from the army and thought lost, only to emerge from the snows like a hero from a novel.
Here’s a quote from Napoleons Marhals describing it [QUOTE] He was the last man to cross the Niemen at Kovno and reached German soil. General Dumas, one of the officers of the general staff, relates how he was resting in an inn at Gumbinnen, when one evening a man entered clad in a long brown cloak, wearing a long beard, his face blackened with powder, his whiskers half burnt by fire, but his eyes sparling with brilliant lustre. “Well here I am at last he said “what General Dumas, do you not know me?” “No, who are you?” “I am the Rear Guard of the Grand Army Marshal Ney. I have fired the last musket on the bridge of Kovno: I have thrown into the Neiman the last of our arms, and I have walked hither as you see across the forests” [END QUOTE] In the difficult year of 1813 he lead at least five desperate infantry charges with conscript troops, but his overall strategic movements were erratic and poor.
He was almost as famous in the army as Napoleon. He was loved by the men. The Bravest of the Brave. The picture that emerges is of a clever, aggressive, difficult man. One who was tactically brilliant in action, but sometimes haphazard and not at his best in independent command. His later career displayed elements of a strange indecisiveness and some commentators have suggested he might have suffered from PTSD. Being always in the heart of the action under fire for years at a time would certainly be enough to trigger it. In a strange way he was a bit like Blucher. A born fighter, loved by the men, he needed a brilliant and detail oriented chief of staff to ensure that the basics were covered. He was simple in his tastes, hating society, with plain manners and difficulty reading. He was the very image of the bluff, blunt plain soldier. If you are a Bernard Cornwall fan, then he is very much like Sharpe himself. His wife was by contrast a high spirited society lady, pushing him to be more ambitious.
As dawn broke on 16 June 1815 near Quatre Bras, the fiery, aggressive Marshal Ney, seemed curiously quiet. The Marshal spent the morning half heartedly massing some elements of his I & II Corp plus conducting reconnaissance. Here though was the moment for him to change history. The cross roads at Quatre Bras were still lightly held. Napoleon marched to crush the Prussians. I want to emphasise again that right now, at this point, Napoleon was on cracking form. He had performed the nineteeth century equivalent of a blitzkrieg. The daring, the speed and success of his opening moves was astonishing.
An early assault by Ney would push the British back, and perhaps if he had moved fast enough he would not only have captured the cross roads with the vital road to Nevilles that linked the British and Prussians. Perhaps he could have caught the scattered elements of the British army as it marched to Quatre Bras. If this had happened, then it is possible the British would have suffered a military catastrophe on a scale equal to Dunkirk or worse. The annihilation of the main British field army in Europe under their best commander would probably have destroyed the British government, wrecked the army for a decade and cut the finances off from the coalition. Napoleons defeat of the Prussians would have probably knocked the Prussians out of the war, secured Belgium, instilled an inferiority complex of no mean order in the allies to remind them that the Master of War had returned, and it would have made him politically supreme in France.
With that in mind, it is no exaggeration to say that Marshal Neys actions were crucial and have been the subject of intense scrutiny. What is certain is that orders from Napoleon were received by Ney by 10:30, allowing for the imprecise nature of time keeping and recording. Please remember that timings might sound precise, but they aren’t. It is unlikely that officers watches would have been in strict synchronicity with each other. Here is Napoleon’s order to Ney:
[QUOTE] “There, according to circumstances, I shall decide on my course, perhaps at three in the afternoon, perhaps this evening. My intention is that, immediately after I have made up my mind, you will be ready to march on Brussels: I will support you with the Guard which will be at Fleurus or Sombreffe, and I shall expect you to arrive at Brussels tomorrow morning. You will march this evening if I make up my mind early enough for you to be informed of it today, and to accomplish three or four leagues this evening, and to be at Brussels at seven o’clock tomorrow morning. You should dispose your troops in the following manner: the first division at two leagues in advance of Quatre Bras, if there is no hindrance; six divisions about Quatre Bras, and one division at Marbais.” [END QUOTE]
Similar orders were sent from Marshal Soult to Marshal Ney and must have been received shortly after Napoleon’s orders as Ney replied to Soult at 11:00. Also you are hearing an English translation of this order written in French. You are hearing it with a C21st century mindset, absent the contexts and subtexts that would probably have been clear to someone in 1815. Certainly Ney didn’t seem to see any problems with Napoleon’s order. He replied to Soult, saying [QUOTE] “All information to hand tends to show that there are around 3,000 hostile infantry at Quatre Bras and very few cavalry. I think that the Emperors arrangements for the advance on Brussels will be carried out without great difficulty.” [END QUOTE]
What seems really poor of Ney was that it was only after receiving the Emperor’s orders that he began drafting orders to get General Reille moving. The key thing to remember about all of this is that Marshal Ney was a senior Marshal of France, a tier only just below the Emperor himself. A man in this position had to demonstrate leadership, courage, initiative, high level organisational skills, tactical and strategic abilities of the 1st rank, and the rare ability to identify the pivotal moment and seize it. Ney had an amazing career as a marshal.
Sometime in the morning a more urgent order was sent from Napoleon via Soult to Ney. It read [QUOTE] Monsieur le Marechal, an officer of the lancers has just informed the emperor that the enemy has appeared in force near Quatre Bras. Concentrate the corps of Counts Reille and D’Erlon and that of Count Valmy, who is just marching to join you. With these forces you must engage and destroy all enemy forces that present themselves. Blucher was at Namur yesterday and it is unlikely that he has sent any troops towards Quatre Bras. Thus you will only have to deal with the forces coming from Brussels. Marshal Grouchy is moving on Sombreffe as I informed you, and the Emperor is going to Fleurus. You should address future reports to His Majesty there. [END QUOTE] Napoleon left for Fleurus at 10:00 so this order was probably with Ney by around 11:30 to 12:00. This order was clear and unequivocal. The enemy at Quatre Bras was to be engaged and destroyed.
No military command of Ney’s level can really sit on their hands and wait orders in a situation like this. Ney had to be ready to act, organised and able to do so as required. He knew that he had an enemy of some kind to his front, that his Emperor was seeking the Prussians and that he had to be ready to be in Brussels the next day. He had orders to have troops at Quatre Bras, and by mid day had been told of Napoleon’s plans for the day, which even included Napoleon’s accurate prediction of the arrival of allied re-enforcements from Brussels during the day. Even if Ney thought the enemy didn’t have many troops there, or that they would swiftly retreat, he should have been moving to carry out his mission. He should have already had his troops ready to carry out these orders. First light was at 04:00 so he had plenty of time to be up at 05:30 if he was resting the troops and have them moving by 09:00. Then he would have had his two corp up in position just south of Quatre Bras by the time he received the first order from Napoleon. He would have been able to make an overwhelming attack at Quatre Bras at 11:30 if he didn’t act on the first order. The first real allied re-enforcements wouldn’t have arrived until 15:00 so the allies would have been cut off from each other. At 14:00 Ney had 18,000 troops against the Anglo-Allied force of 7,000 but only 4,000 French were put into action.
He certainly sent orders to his core commanders Generals Reille, and D’Erlon. Neither of these officers displayed much sense of urgency. They delayed and muddled their marches somewhat. Ney seemed content to let things drift and Reille also waited for orders before even getting his spread out troops concentrated ready to move, in almost a mirror of his commanders behaviour. By 08:00 the troops Reille commanded were up and armed ready to go, but the orders to move weren’t given. D’Erlon was badly held up in his march because he was behind Reille. Worse, Reille decided to delay his move further, ignoring Ney’s eventual order to move, because he was worried about enemy troops on his flank. This was idiotic. Any small Prussian units on his flank were for the army centre or army right to deal with as they moved. This was a fact that should have been obvious to a senior general like Reille.
So here at a crucial point in the campaign, a campaign that the fate of France rested on, apathy and delay reigned.
Now that is a fairly conventional narrative that I’ve given you. It is worth briefly pointing out that some historians have a very different view on this. I’m conscious that there is always dispute between historians on most topics. The alternative view is that Ney was justified in waiting for Napoleon’s order, and that Napoleon was waiting on changing events as the day developed. This alternative view is much more dependent on the “if there is no hinderance” phrase in Napoleon’s order, and the idea that Ney was justified in waiting for more positive orders. This is not the majority consensus amongst historians. It seems somewhat undermined by later orders as well to be honest.
By 12:30 though, Ney had a good force to take Quatre Bras but didn’t actually fully start the battle until 14:00 when he finally launched an attack. So for hours in the morning Ney could have sent three divisions against the single, weak and poorly supplied Dutch division that was bravely holding the cross roads. Indeed at the start of the action at 14:00 Marshall Ney had 10,000 men and 30 guns with 2000 cavalry and an emergency reserve of 2,400 Guard Cavalry, facing only 8,000 infantry, some with only 10 rounds of ammunition, and 16 guns.
The lack of action had not escaped Napoleon’s notice. Cannon fire can be heard for miles and the absence of sounds of cannon fire from Ney’s direction told the emperor that the attack hadn’t started. At 13:00 he penned a furious note to Ney [QUOTE] “Monsieur le Prince de la Moskova, I am surprised at your great delay in executing my orders – there is no more time to waste. Attack everything in from of you with the greatest impetuosity. The fate of France is in your hands.“ [END QUOTE]
The delay until 14:00 gave the allies hours to repair the situation. Wellington had had time to reach the Prussians to talk to Blucher and learn that the Prussians intended to stand their ground and fight. He returned to Quatre Bras to find that despite all the delays, Ney was putting the position under immense pressure. Worryingly Ney had received reinforcements of 3 of Kellermans finest Cavalry Brigades but he stationed them 5km back and forgot about them. In all Ney had around 40,000 men under his command, but his failures to get them up, moving and in position early meant he was fighting with far, far fewer.
Allied re-inforcements had already started to arrive at 15:00 just before Wellington himself. The situation was desperate for the British though. Ney’s delay had robbed him of an easy victory, but the British force was close to cracking. Wellington even ended up nearly getting cut down by French cavalry at one point, but his arrival had stabilised the situation with fresh troops arriving on the allied side. He knew it was in the balance saying in reflection on the battle [QUOTE] By God if I had come up 5 minutes later the battle was lost [END QUOTE] The battle was on a knife edge and included moments of epic bravery on both sides, but allied troops kept arriving to support the beleaguered defenders. The French cavalry nearly shattered the British and Dutch, but heroic efforts kept the defenders together, then as Ney prepared a hammer blow for the British at 15:30 re-inforcements arrived spearheaded by the 95th Rifles. I’m sure the Sharpe fans out there can picture him arriving on the battle field in the knick of time at a critical moment.
What made the battle especially difficult for the French was that the British were experts at concealing troops in terrain, and suddenly leaping out to deliver punishing volleys at close range. Ney was becoming frustrated, but seemed to be in a strong position after early gains. He was now positioned for his main assault. Three regiments of British Infantry – 1st (Royals), 32nd (Cornwall), and the 79th (Cameron Highlanders) were viciously engaged with the General Bachleu’s division but eventually pushed them back. According to some of my sources, this appeared to cause the French to be more cautious in their attacks just at a time when vigorous assaults were needed. My sources also suggest the French were mentally put on the back foot by being reminded of the constant defeats at the hands of Wellington in Spain. I’m not sure how much weight to put on those opinions. Without a lot of first hand evidence, it is easy to project onto people in the past. How many of Ney’s men had actually fought in Spain for instance. A far simpler explanation is that the French weren’t well co-ordinated and they suffered for their delays. It doesn’t require complex psychology to see that troops suffering heavy casualties in an assault against a smaller force might well be a bit battered and more cautious. The French assaults were a fair way ahead of their supporting artillery. Bachleu’s division were pushed back to their start position by the British counter assault. The British who followed the retreating French then came under intense French artillery fire as the French fell back and into range of their artillery.
Skirmishing between the lines was vicious in the extreme, and the Rifles on the British left were eventually pushed back by French skirmishers. The Namur Road was now occupied by the French and the Allied flank was exposed. The French had hardly any troops but the Rifles were the only thing holding Wellington’s flank and preventing the French Rolling it up. Ok, I’ll make a really short explanation of flanking. The flank is basically the side of a military unit or position. Imagine a line or two of 100 men. standing shoulder to shoulder. It is hard to break through that line when you run at it, with them all shooting at you. But if you come round the side, suddenly instead of facing 100 men, you are only facing the one or two on the end of the line. You can then push through them and cause chaos, rolling them up like a blind. Regiments and even armies would sometimes attempt to flank the enemy to get round the sides and rear to shatter the enemy. It required co-ordination and timing. You had to pin the enemy in place with a small force in front whilst you moved your troops around the sides. You needed to have reserves ready to exploit the chaos. You could be very vulnerable to counter attack as you moved.
At around 16:30, some hard pressed Brunswick regiments attempted to withdraw to a stronger position but were broken by French Lancers. The Duke of Brunswick was killed. The chaos spread and the 42 Highland regiment mistook French cavalry for friendly Brunswick cavalry. They didn’t form square quickly enough. Hundreds of men of the light company were ridden down and sabred or lanced by the French 6th Lancers. All in all the 42nd lost 284 men. The French cavalry alone couldn’t take the cross roads, and despite the odd disaster, the Allies formed squares and beat off the enemy horsemen. The allies were hurting though and the men were aware that this was a hard fought affair.
Meanwhile Napoleon had been hammering the Prussians at Ligny. He had them pinned at Ligny under intense artillery fire. It was a brutal battle. The Prussians had declined Wellingtons advice to deploy on the reverse of a sloop to shelter from French artillery. They suffered for it. The battle swung between the two sides, but the French began to gain the upper hand. Napoleon had carefully managed his Imperial Guard reserves and after brutal fighting was positioned to launch them at the desperately weakened Prussian centre. He scented an opportunity to exploit the victory and turn it into a annihilation of the Prussians. He had formed the idea that he could by late afternoon expect the victorious Ney to swing his troops around from Quatre Bras and catch the Prussians in the flank and rear. To assist him, the Emperor sent an order to General D’Erlon to change direction from going to support New at Quatre Bras, and march to aid him at Ligny instead. D’Erlon had been delayed badly but was finally getting towards a point where he could have soon arrived at Quatre Bras to support Ney. His arrival at around 16:00 would have probably tipped the balance decisively in Ney’s favour. Ney was waiting anxiously for him. The Allied reinforcements had stopped Ney’s great assault and the crisis of the Allies of 15:00 had stabilised but if D’Erlon and his 20,000 men arrived, nothing would have stopped Ney. When Ney learned that the Emperor had redirected D’Erlon he was furious and countermanded the order. D’Erlon duly swung his march from Ney to Napoleon and then back to Ney. An almost in excusable blunder. If French reinforcements had arrived on the Prussians flank, it is likely that Napoleon would have broken them and trapped them between the two French forces. He would then have been free to swing the entire Armee Du Nord to face the remnants of the allies.
Finally, in a last desperate effort, and a foreshadowing of Waterloo, Ney ordered his heavy cavalry to seize the crossroads. By now he was virtually raving saying [QUOTE] Ah those English balls, I wish they were in my belly [END QUOTE] Ney sent for Guiton’s Cuirassier Brigade in one last attempt to win. The heavy cavalry charged, but without any support and without horse artillery. The British 69th Foot fired a volley at 30 paces. The British square was charged by the 8th Cuirassiers and broken up. Cuirassier Henry with the help of Maréchal-des-logis Massiet jumped to the ground and picked up the king’s colour of the II Battalion of the 69th (the South Lincolnshire) from the arms of ensign Clarke who had been hacked down by 23 saber cuts. For this, Cuirassier Henry received the Legion of Honour. Alas despite the desperate bravery of the late charge, the cavalry couldn’t hold the cross roads and were driven back.
By the end of the day Ney had blundered his way to losing a battle that was handed to him on a plate. He had delayed for no purpose, lost sight of his troops and muddled his command. His former fiery aggression and ability to know how to time an assault seemed to have deserted him. The mix up with D’Erlon had certainly cost him the chance for victory, but frankly he should have seized it earlier without him. His interference though with the Emperors order to D’Erlon meant that the opportunity to utterly annihilate the Prussians was lost. In the end D’Erlon and his corp spent a day marching from place to place, missing all the fighting. Certainly Ney had fought a hard battle. He inflicted higher causalties on the enemy than he suffered, and he was able to take Quarte Bras on the 17th June when the British began to withdraw, but whilst some historians have called this a victory, which it is if you just compared the number killed, overall it was a strategic defeat.
Now as the sun set, the campaign was all but decided. Napoleon had won his last victory – Ligny, but he had all but lost the campaign. The last great, brilliant gamble of the great emperor was almost over. All through the night, exhausted, hungry and wounded men tried to rest and recover. The worst wasn’t close to over though. The survivors would now have to face the hell that was Waterloo. But before we close this episode, we actually need to quickly deal with the missing day between Quatre Bras and Waterloo.
Exhausted and hungry men and even some women would have collapsed into sleep that night. The next day broke with pleasant weather. The Allies had been mauled badly. By 09:00 Wellington received messages telling him about the near disaster of Ligny. Now was the time for the British to retreat otherwise they would be cut off from the already retreating Prussians. Here was a last chance for the French. The Prussians in retreat, and the British army having to pull back alone and unsupported. Yet again though, Ney seemed lethargic. Napoleon toured the battlefield of Ligny, assessing it, talking to the wounded and re-organising his troops. Messages finally crawled in from Marshal Ney informing Napoleon of events at Quatre Bras the day before. The Emperor finally arrived at the realisation of what was actually going on. His enemies were in retreat whilst his Marshal sat on his hands again, but with swift action, the enemy could be at his mercy. Napoleon’s first words to Ney were the vicious “You have ruined France” Napoleon began to drive his army hard in pursuit. Marshal Grouchy was dispatched with 30,000 troops to chase the Prussians
Now happens one of those strange, intangible events in history. A random occurrence that no one at the time could predict, but which changed things irrevocably. Throughout the morning, the weather had got hotter and heavier. Men tired from marching removed great coats, stripped down to thin shirts, rolled up sleeves and abandoned excess baggage in the extreme heat. Suddenly though, as the French cavalry began their intense pursuit, the storm clouds gathered and darkened. The British cannon covering the retreat opened fire, and as they did, the storm broke with fury. Temperatures plummeted and the open fields were turned into mud baths. Horses that tried to move off the roads into the open fields quickly sank. Pursuit slowed to a crawl as the roads become clogged. Muskets misfired, and the cold rain made the hot sweat freeze the bodies of men and horses.
Gradually the Anglo-Allied force struggled to the ridge at Mont St Jean later known as Waterloo. This was the last obstacle between the French and Brussels. The gloom of night gathered, but tired men could find almost no food or shelter. Officers paid inflated prices even for looted chairs to avoid sleeping in the mud. Uniforms colours dissolved as the dyes ran out of them. Rifle green became mud soaked black, whilst the bright red coats of the line regiments typically turned a washed out brown scarlet. Many men hadn’t eaten for days, but a lucky few “acquired” food from various sources. Luckier still were those men who found a sheltered sleeping spot. Unluckiest of all were those cavalry units sent out on picket duty. The murk made this job difficult, tired the already exhausted horses, and left them exposed to the elements on top of horses but not allowed to sleep in the saddle. Horse artillery men would sleep on their limbers if they could, and generals ousted people from farm houses to get shelter for the night. Exhausted gunners who had been in action all day, dragging their guns through the mud sank down for rest.
Finally orders ceased and men took what rest and shelter they could as the rain raged on through the night of misery. Not that the French had things any better as they halted on the ridge at La Belle Alliance opposite the Anglo Allied force. Even the vaunted Imperial Guard suffered, although not to the same degree as the line troops. So passed the night; brutal and with only the promise of battle on the next day.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode. What I find fascinating here, is not the military actions. It is the hints of the psychology at work underneath. Why did clever, experienced soldiers make such terrible mistakes? Was it just the normal confusion of war, or was it more? Was there PTSD? Did the pressure of command lead to myopic focus on the wrong things? Was it just inevitable? Things go wrong in war and Ney was a man who was not good in an independent command? There’s an old expression “the reasons you get into trouble, are the reasons you don’t get out” Putting Ney in the position he was put in was perhaps the cause of the trouble, so Ney was the reason the French army didn’t get out of it. Why was an aggressive assault oriented commander suddenly so hesitant? Why did he suddenly switch from hesitancy late in the battle to almost insane aggression with his cavalry? He was an experienced commander, he’d won battles before, so why did he do so badly? Ultimately we will never know. Perhaps only Ney could know what was going on in his head. The stress of combat is beyond anything most people experience, but for a fighting commander in the Napoleonic Wars it was incredibly stressful. Command was at the front, under artillery fire with thousands of mens lives directly in the hands of the commander. Ordering men forward into the face of muskets and cannons. Watching them get shot, limbs blasted off, trampled by horses, closing up their ranks and marching onwards. That added to the stress load on a commander immensely. Commanders were probably always wondering if they had done enough, been clever enough, or fast enough.
Ultimately though Ney and the French did what they did and things turned out how they turned out. They would have to deal with the situation as it was, not as it might have been. I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode. Join me next time as we examine Waterloo.
The dawn of the day of Waterloo brings only fear, discomfort and suffering. This is the first in the Waterloo episodes series. It covers
- The feelings of the men and a most important breakfast.
- Why Napoleon felt he was onto a sure thing.
- The weather and terrain.
- The reasons why Waterloo was chosen, and how it compares to some other historical battles.
- The mental state of senior commanders.
- Deployment, tactics, plans and confusion.
- The last grand review of the Armee Du Nord.
Waterloo can be a confusing battle, so maps are available on the website.
Here we are then. The scene is set. It must be war. The politics, the philosophy and the cultures of the European great powers are now to be decided on the battlefields. In many ways this conflict was about far more than Napoleon, or even the ideals of the French revolution versus the Ancien Regime. This is the climax of a clash that defined Europe since the discovery of the New World. Would Europe be a land empire, ruled by the French, facing the mediterranean and projecting power to the old core of Western civilisation, into the Balkans and the middle east, or would the British Atlantic facing international empire triumph. That might sound outlandish, but some historians have certainly viewed it that way. Britain had financed Prussia and other nations to attack the French to conquer French oversea’s territories. William Pitt the Elder, a famous British politician had explicitly stated this aim “While we had France for an enemy, Germany was the scene to employ and baffle her arms.” meaning that Britain would arm and finance continental powers to weaken the French to seize French oversea’s colonies.
Europe was at war. The fate of nations and armies hung in the balance. As people made hard choices, Napoleon began his attack. He planned to beat the Prussians, but that meant Marshal Ney had to face the British and their allies. Here was a chance for swift and decisive victory, but was Ney the man to seize it?
This episode covers
Implications of being in the war zone
Position of the armies
Why Ligny and Quatre Bras were key battles
Detailed analysis of pre-battle events and orders
The Battle of Quatre Bras and a background on Marshal Ney
Consequences and the missing day.
Speculation on psychology of Marshal Ney.
In the trouble world of 1815, there can be no peace in Europe. Napoleon must go to war. Join me in discovering how the storm clouds of war that had gathered over Europe finally broke.
This episode covers
An introduction to the position of the forces on 14 June 1815
How the armies began their open moves and the views of the key players.
A description of how the chaos of war was both tamed and unleashed.
Why Napoleon was making the best moves of the war and Wellington was making the worst.
The start of the battles, and confusion in command
Finally the crucial meeting on the eve of 16 June 1815, and how French gold opportunities were lost.
LINK TO TRANSCRIPT AND MAPS CLICK HERE
Thanks for your listening. I hope you enjoyed it. If you want to get in touch, I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at
Hi Welcome to the Age of Victoria Podcast. I’m your host, Chris Fernandez-Packham.
If your new to the podcast, I’d strongly recommend listening to the introduction and the first 2 episodes. I’ve just been building up to the Waterloo campaign and the forging of the legend of Waterloo.
We talked about France quite a lot in the last episode, so I think now is the time to see what the coalition were doing and to take a closer look at the British army on the eve of its great triumph of 1815. I know that last time I said we would cover the invasion but we haven’t even looked at the British armed forces that would be fighting in the campaign.
Like France, Britain was one of the great powers of the age. She already possessed the seeds of the world dominating empire that would come to its height under the Victorians. She was not the super power colossus that she would become. The first traces of the industrial revolution were beginning to transform Britain but the real changes were far ahead. Still, if not quite the titan she would become, Britain was a financial powerhouse and had a surprisingly large population for her land size.
Britain was certainly militarily respected, especially after her Peninsular victories, but she was primarily regarded as a naval power. As I’d mentioned in earlier episodes, British foreign policy was bent towards supporting the navy and preventing any single power establishing dominance on the continent. The navy was, and remains, the Senior Service. In contrast the army was small and regarded with suspicion. It was mistrusted as being an instrument of royal power and repression. Its woeful performance in the American Wars and its habit of losing men in the thousands to disease in the Caribbean meant that it was not seen as an attractive prospect for recruits. In contrast the navy rarely saw defeat, was well armed and supplied, highly prestigious, allowed a great deal of advancement on merit, and provided the glorious possibility of prize money. The amounts could be staggering – some crews were lucky enough to receive 10 years pay after the capture of two Spanish frigates in 1799 and the British Captains got a then mind boggling £40,000. It is difficult to convert monetary values over time, but there is some excellent work out there and is an issue we will probably spend time on at various points in our podcast. As a rough estimate, that £40,000 would probably translate to £1.3 million in today’s 2017 money. Keep in mind though that this was before the mass consumer market, so whilst it might translate to the purchasing power of over £1.3 million, the products you could have spent it on would have varied enormously. Property, food and clothing were the essential items to cover, and the upper middle class would add servants to the list of essentials. So let’s take Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice as an example. I looked at an article to give us a comparison. This is taken from an article written in 1988 so inflation will have changed the figures a far bit. “How Wealthy is Mr. Darcy – Really? Pounds and Dollars in the World of Pride and Prejudice by JAMES HELDMAN (Persuasions #12, 1990)“
[QUOTE] Mr. Darcy is very wealthy. He has an income of £10,000 a year; if we multiply that by $33.13, then we see that Mr. Darcy has an income of well over $300,000 a year. On the face of it, that hardly makes him Lee Iacocca. But Mr. Darcy’s income is at least 300 times the per capita income in his day. Moreover, Mr. Darcy belongs to a very select group. G.E. Mingay, an economic historian, estimates that in 1790, about twenty years before the time of Pride and Prejudice, there were only 400 families among the landed gentry in England whose incomes fell within that range, a range from £5,000 to £50,000 a year, with the average being £10,000 a year. [END QUOTE]. That begins to give you an idea of how amazing that £40,000 in prize money was for those captains. With careful management they had acquired an income equivalent to Mr Darcy’s for around 4 years. That would probably have made them an eligible catch for any Elizabeth Bennets. As you can imagine events like this were lottery wins, but highly motivating for the Royal Navy.
In contrast the army paid a small amount for horses or guns captured. A prize money system existed but was fraught with delays. The British private soldier had to supplement his meagre income with looting – an offence that could potentially see him shot. Still, you will see that vast fortunes were looted by the Victorian army. The sacking of the Old Summer Palace in China in 1860 by the French, British and Indian troops is a notable example and the wounds it created fester to this day.
The British army of 1815, unlike the continental armies, was in theory almost entirely professional, made up of willing volunteers. Recruitment was a vexed issue as annual wastage for the British army in the Napoleonic Wars never fell below 16,000 men. Imagine finding 16,000 men every year. The army came to rely on tricks and dodges, plus a huge boost from foreign troops or mercenaries. A small number of naval shipmen were “pressed” but the army didn’t make use of a press A lot soldiers enlisted because poverty left them no other choice. A number were gaolbirds or convicted criminals, offered the choice between service or the gallows. Given the state of prisons during the 19th century, the risks of a soldiers life might have been more attractive, plus there might be a chance to dissert later. A small number joined for pure patriotism, others to escape unhappy marriages or starvation or the pure boredom of a long life behind a plough on the farm, some had been tricked by unscrupulous recruiting sergeants. The recruiting sergeants were more than willing to get men drunk to trick them into enlisting. There was an infamous incident in 1795 when a recruiting sergeant gave a gullible boy a shilling to buy him tobacco from a nearby shop. When the lad took the money, the sergeant grabbed him and told him that he’d take the King’s Shilling and was required to serve. Luckily the boys cries brought an angry mob to dunk the sergeant in a nearby pump. The recruiting sergeants were more than willing to get men drunk to trick them into enlisting.
In theory the army was rigidly structured on class lines. The officers were expected to be gentlemen. Commissions were purchased not earned on merit as in the French army. The system of commissions is actual a more complex issue than straight forward aristocratic privilege. They provided the officer with a stake in the regiment provided and were also a form of pension for a retiring officer when he came sell his commission. Whilst they allowed the talentless to rise, they allowed the rich and talented to gain command at a comparatively young age. The Duke of Wellington wouldn’t have achieved such a high rank at such a young age without the system.
Commissions could be granted for gallantry or patronage though, and any commission was considered to mark the holder as a gentleman. The commission itself had a fixed warrant price, but there was invariably an additional and illegal non-regulation premium. To avoid being accused of making an illegal payment over the regulation warrant price, the deal was made privately and usually handled via an agent. A good example is Edward Cooper Hodge of the 4th Dragoons. His father, Major Hodge 7th Hussars died near Quatre Bras the day before Waterloo. Edward Cooper Hodge was given a Cornets commission at 16 when he left Eaton by the Duke of York as an act of Patronage, sparing Hodge the £840 regulation price. His jump to Lieutenancy cost him £350 regulation and an additional £250. His Captaincy cost £2,035 regulation and £1,200 on top. His Majority and Lieutenant Colonelcy cost him even more. All told he paid over £9,620 for his ranks. It was money well spent though, as it gained him command of the 4th (Royal Irish) Regiment of Dragoon Guards at the Battle of Balaclava. His bravery at the battle earned him his full Colonelcy on merit. For his service during the battle of Balaclava he was promoted to Colonel on the 28th of November, 1854, and made a C.B.
For his services during the campaign, he also received the Crimean War medal with three clasps (which he disliked) and the Turkish Crimea medal. He received the 3rd Class Order of the Medjidie and was made an Officer of the French Legion of Honor. Promotion to Major-General and then Lieutenant General and various commands followed but he clearly remembered his beloved 4th (Royal Irish) as he got himself appointed Colonel of them in later life. When he finally died at his home at 26 Cornwall Gardens, London on the 10th of December, 1894, it was as General Sir Edward Cooper Hodge, G.C.B., Colonel of the 4th Dragoon Guards. Not bad for a boy from the small town of Weymouth in Dorset.
What particularly strikes me about Sir Edward’s career is the variety. He was clearly not a rich, thick aristocrat playing at soldiers. He got his introduction from a rich patron, and his quick rise up the ranks was by purchase, but his service in the Crimea was difficult and dangerous. It involved the major battles of Balaclava and Inkerman, the siege of Sebastopol, the night-attack on Russian outposts on the 19th of February, 1855, and the battle of Tchernaya. He certainly hungered for distinction. In his diary he wrote [QUOTE] I wish I could get the Legion of Honour and a high caste Turkish Order [END QUOTE]. He achieved both, but interestingly he felt that medals should be available to all front line troops who had been under fire. Idle bubbles were not what he strived for. He clearly earned his generals rank on merit. We will met him again.
Officers were expected to be brave, honest, and to lead from the front. They were often heavy drinkers, and given to fighting and duelling. This last custom caused Wellington significant agitation as he didn’t want to lose talented officers that way. He also felt it set a very bad example to the men, and he learned to distrust officers who drank heavily. Unlike some continental armies, the British Officer was by and large expected to be at the front sharing danger with his men. There were exceptions as with everything in life. Some NCO’s did receive field commissions provided they could read and write. Some gentlemen could not afford to purchase a commission. They served as private soldiers awaiting an officers vacancy and they messed with the officers. They were known as “Gentlemen Rankers” These Gentlemen held a social standing somewhere between the “proper officers” and the rank and file. They would receive purchase free commissions when a vacancy became available. They were a well known enough feature of the army to inspire Kipling to pen “The Gentlemen Rankers” but they weren’t common. Other educated men who couldn’t afford to purchase a commission could perhaps find a specialist role.
Like their French opponents, the British relied on a mix of musket armed infantry, with the study heavy .75 calibre Tower Infantry Musket known as the “Brown Bess”, combined with cavalry and artillery. The British army also included a number of dragoons plus some unique units like the light infantry armed with Baker Rifles, or the Rocket Battery composed of Congreaves artillery rockets. Specialist units of sappers and engineers were available, and the Marines were occasionally pressed into land service. All in all the British Army of the period, especially in the peninsular was highly professional, tough and to use the awful modern phrase “punched well above its weight.” It had its share of bad officers or low quality units, but if well led it had some world class units, especially the crack Light Division. Its military reputation in the Napoleonic period was mixed as it had suffered a number of disasters in Buenos Aires, Holland, Flanders, the US war of Independence and the War of 1812. The Victorians and modern British tend to remember the brilliance of Wellington in Spain and the success at Waterloo, and forget the mixed record of the period.
It was highly disorganised in terms of an overall structure. Hierarchies were confused, and the artillery was actually not part of the army at all. It reported to the Board of Ordinance in London. Its officers were promoted solely based on seniority, not merit. This caused Wellington no end of headaches and there were times when he was virtually at war with his own gunners. When he did find a gunnery officer he liked and wanted to have a command position, he was rarely able to get the officer into the position due to the obstinacy of the board in London. When praise was due, Wellington lavished it on his infantry and cavalry but rarely passed up a chance to snub his long suffering gunners. It caused a great deal of resentment. British troops in Ireland were not under the control of the War Office, instead they were moved to the control of the Irish Establishment. The Corp of Engineers also remained under separate control. Also, sitting uneasily along side this were the vast independent armies of the Honourable East India Company.
The British army suffered a habitual drink problem at all ranks, and many foreign military observers of the period considered it a drunken, barely disciplined rabble that fell apart if not carefully supplied. As we will see the Victorians took the view in general that since Napoleon was brilliant but was beaten by Wellington, then that made Wellington the greatest soldier who had ever lived. It followed that to try to reform the army was to tinker with the work of the Great Duke and that would be unthinkable. This would become more and more of a problem for the British as we move through the 19th century.
- The big difference between the British and European armies was that the small British army believed in the offensive fire power of the line combined with British fire drill and discipline. The British volunteer troops were trained for a minimum 6 months, compared to the 2-3 weeks for the French. Napoleon and the Marshals certainly did believe in extensive training, but with a few exceptions it was done much more on the march with blank rounds. The British line infantry was usually higher trained than most other armies, especially when it came to live fire practice.
The British expected to fire a minimum of 3 rounds a minute. Some of the very best could fire 5. That compared to the French standard of 2 to 3. Luckily the British, as the richest nation in the conflict could afford to keep up plentiful supplies of ammunition including a large number of live practise rounds as well as blank practice rounds.
With light troops or riflemen pouring fire into the columns as they approached, and then the disciplined and brutal volleys of the line regiments, the British created a murderous killing zone that was nearly impossible to cross. As a highly professional army they were far, far less likely to break under pressure from attacking columns than the conscript armies of Europe. It wasn’t that individual British troops were braver than other nations, rather there seemed to be a core of stubborn steadiness that kept the British army in place when others cracked. This might in part be due to the strong regimental system of the British but also that the British were beginning to see the NCO’s of the army as modern Roman Centurions. Many Victorians would go on to almost idolise Roman discipline, social customs and success at Empire and it is clear that as the role of the sergeant evolved, they came to be seen as the backbone of the Imperial Armies. The image of the tough, brave and loyal sergeant guarding the colours, stoic in the face of impossible odds armed only with a bayonet and a mighty beard or moustache was one that would tug the Victorians heartstrings. These were hard men like Sergeant William Napier V.C of the 13th Foot, himself the nephew of a Waterloo veteran. He won his V.C. rescuing a wounded man who was under fire. Napier began bandaging the private when he was hit above the eye himself. The blood flow nearly blinded him, and the enemy closed in. Williams fought them off, still tending to the wounded private and his own injuries. He then dragged the private back to the safety of the convoy. He refused an officers commission as a reward but accepted the V.C. and advancement to Sergeant Major. Already a Crimea Veteran of 4 major battles, he would go on to fight in another 9 battles in India before seeking his discharge. Later colonial wars would show that the Roman model of expecting small numbers of superbly trained and disciplined troops to take on horrific odds and win was largely right. The tough determination of men like Sergeant Williams certainly helped.
A quick note on some terminology. The British army is organised by way of regiments but the regiments are typically broken down into Battalions. It was rare for a whole regiment to serve with all its battalions together in the field. Most regiments fielded a battalion and retained another battalion in Britain that acted as a training and recruiting battalion. Some regiments would become single battalion regiments during the various reforms. Typically a battalion is given a number in front of the regiment name or number. Take the famous 24th Foot, a regiment with a distinguished history starting in 1689. It fluctuated between 1 and 2 battalions. During the most famous event in its history, Rourkes Drift, it had 2 battalions. So they would be referred to as 1/24 for the first battalion and 2/24 for the second battalion. More confusingly though, battalions would usually fight in collections of companies whilst sending some of their companies off to do other tasks. Therefore it was possible for a regiment or battalion to fight in a number of different actions at the same time. The 2/24 fought at the disaster of the Battle of Isandlwana but a company of them was present at the battle of Rourkes Drift at almost the same time. I should note though that Isandlwana was only a disaster from a British point of view. The Zulu’s would naturally have counted it as an exceptional military victory.
It would be a mistake to think that the British infantry was only a defensive force. As the Russians would find out at Balaclava or numerous colonial foes would realise, the British line was like the Roman legion, able to defend against mass attacks, or deliver a brutal assault. Riflemen Costello gives a good example [QUOTE] the 88th Foot [Irish] next deployed into line, advancing all the time towards their opponents, who seemed to wait very coolly for them. When they had approached to within 300 or 400 yards, the French poured in a volley or I should say a running fire from right to left. As soon as the British regiment had recovered the first shock, and closed their files on the gap it had made, they commenced advancing at double time until within 50 yards nearer to the enemy, when they halted and in turn gave a running fire from their whole line, and without a moment’s pause cheered and charged up the hill against them. The French meanwhile were attempting to reload. But being hard pressed by the British, who allowed them no time to give a second volley, came immediately to the right about, making the best of their way to the village.”[END QUOTE] That quote has some interesting points to pick up on. The French were firing at longer range in an organised fashion and to some good effect. The British regiment received the volleys but their morale remained high enough not just to stand or hold cover, but to actually advance with discipline. Notice that they are said to advance at the double but then halt, give a return volley at close range and then execute a charge into melee. That requires incredible discipline and bravery. Of course the 88th Regiment of Foot was an Irish regiment of renown “The Devils Own.” Wellington happily employed them as shock troops and street fighters in the Peninsular Campaigns. Strictly speaking though the 88th Foot did not become the Connaught Rangers until it merged with the 94th Foot much later.
Standing and receiving a British volley then a bayonet charge was a hellish experience and most enemies broke before the charge was pushed home rather than face a fierce Londoner or Highlander with a bayonet.
There is considerable debate about the bayonet as a weapon system. It is a fairly simple weapon. It was a knife, dagger or sword that fitted over our under the barrel of a musket or rifle. The idea was to give the wielder a close combat weapon, indeed it may have originated as a back up hunting blade. Soldiers naturally adapted it to serve other duties such as wood cutting, or later on wire cutting. They could be laced together in camp and rammed into the ground to make improvised cooking stands or tent pegs. Crucially when fitted they extended the length of a musket to various degrees, combining the advantages of a spear with the firepower of the musket. They also allowed the formation of infantry squares. These squares would have bayonets fixed and pointing outwards. Charging cavalry horses would refuse to press home into the hedge of spikes presented by the bayonet. Early bayonets would plug into the barrel of the musket, meaning that firing had to stop. Developments in attachment types meant that bayonets could be fitted and muskets still fired.
Some historians take the view that the bayonet had a huge impact on warfare. Bayonets made the pike obsolete but still allowed black powder infantry to fend off cavalry. They also believe that bayonets allowed infantry to engage in real melee combat rather than the less effective push of pikes of earlier eras. Other historians are more skeptical about it. Casualty rates caused by bayonets were extremely low. It was almost certain that either the side receiving the bayonet charge would break and retire rather than engaging in a stabbing melee, or they would hold and the attackers would refuse to push home the charge into the defenders bayonets. Whilst clearing a position is often vital in military actions, the fundament point of military engagements is to engage and destroy the enemies main force to reduce his will and ability to resist to zero. Causing an enemy to retreat for no gain didn’t really help achieve that. If the charge wasn’t pushed home, a short range firefight was often the result. This could be confused and deadly, and potentially isolated an attacker from his artillery support. Another drawback was that commanders, especially Russian commanders, would use the bayonet charge in place of fire and manoveour to make up for the poor training and equipment of Russian troops. This would lead to excess casualties. Bayonets also made loading much slower, and made the weapon difficult to use in a confined space.
Bayonets haven’t ceased in military use, but from the US Civil War onwards their importance has declined as the lethality and range of other weapon systems has increased. Modern bayonets have become much more utility pieces, serving multiple roles although they are still used to clear determined resistance in close quarter battle situations such as in the Falklands War, in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
Officers of course would typically be armed with a pistol and sword of some description, which were easier to use in a confined space or a close quarter battle situation. A sword also marked the wielder as a gentleman. Line infantry officers were cursed with the 1796 pattern infantry sword. The blade was straight, thin and flimsy making it deficient in both cutting and thrusting. Prone to bending, it also had a inadequate hand guard. Such a poor quality weapon probably led to unnecessary casualties.
British light cavalry were lucky enough to receive the excellent 1796 light cavalry pattern sword. This beautiful sword 33″ long weighing about 2lb 2oz with it’s strong curved blade was an excellent cutting weapon, and was adopted by the Prussians. Well balanced and extremely durable, it was not a delicate weapon nor was it suitable for fencing but it a wicked cutting and slashing sword, easily capable of cutting off an arm or a leg. Lt Henry Lane carried one at Waterloo. Modified versions were issued to officers in the Rifles and light companies.
Of course no discussion of British swords would be complete without a mention of the heavy cavalry blade loved by Bernard Cornwalls fictional Major Sharpe. It had a straight, single edged blade that was ideally suited to bludgeoning enemies in melee from horse back. At 35″ long weighing about 2lb 2oz it was easily capable of smashing bones and splitting skulls. The hilt guard was perfectly shaped to act as a knuckle duster and troopers used it to smash the enemies teeth and jaw with glee. Even if the enemy survived, they would be disfigured and left in pain their whole lives as the rudimentary medicine of the time didn’t stretch to reconstructive surgery. It was an ugly but very effective weapon. Of course officers could and did purchase non-regulation swords. Usually officers would purchase an ornate dress version of the standard issue sword that was used for special occasions. They would also get a campaign sword that was essentially a very well crafted, but plain version of the standard issue sword. This meant the fine and flashy dress sword wasn’t scratched in a battle, and it made the wielder less of a target. A fancy sword marked a man as worth targeting and killing to try and loot the sword. Officers would usually change into their dress sword for ceremonial occasions. Again this would make Major Sharpe stand out; he carried his campaign sword at all times rather than switching. It is a nice touch. It is isn’t totally out of the realms of possibility either. Officers like Henry Lane had their swords given fancy hilts long after Waterloo but retained the original blades as a mark of their veteran status.
In contrast to the superb infantry, the British cavalry of 1815 was rather undisciplined. When it worked it was world class, but it never really matched the overall long term operational efficiency of the French cavalry. Another quirk of the British cavalry was that the light cavalry tended to ride heavier horses and be heavier men than light cavalry in other armies, meaning that there was sometimes little real difference between the light and heavy cavalry. Dragoons were being phased out in favour of Hussar or Lancer regiments but the process was uneven.
Also, please try to get the idea out of your mind that uniforms were actually uniform. Soldiers, unless on parade, typically carry different bits of kit in different ways. Many soldiers would acquire non-standard items that subtly change their appearance. Riflemen might swap out shakos for caps, backpacks and coats might be looted from the enemy. Dyes on coats would run in the rain, and trousers would end up patched and discoloured. The tailors and cobblers that accompanied any army were valuable men who could stop a man’s boots coming apart, or trousers turning to rags. With supply chains often precarious or ad hoc, losing boots could result in injured feet, incapacity or death.
The other super weapon of the British was the Shrapnel shell. Cannon of the period could fire a variety of ammunition. The standard was solid round shot, perhaps heated during a siege and with a long range. It could cut a man in half and do the same to two of three men standing behind him. There was chain shot for chopping down masts on ships, grape shot that looked like a bunch of grapes in a bag, but burst into fragments as they spat out of the cannon’s mouth. Canister shot was similar to grape but was held in a wooden container. At 400 yards canister would wreck havoc with enemy formations but like grape was made for short range work. It was extensively used and later adopted by the Americans, causing fearsome casualties in the American Civil War. The genius of Colonel Shrapnel was to produce a form of Canister Shot that could be fitted with a timer, allowing it to fire at a long range before air bursting above the target, spraying them with high speed fragments of metal. At long range British gunners could hit targets with round shot, then switch to the more deadly canister style shot at medium range using the Shrapnel shells, then to canister at close range. In contrast, the French were often limited to round shot as their grand batteries either acted at long range or had to be close to the enemy to switch to canister.
The French never really adapted to the British tactics. The marshals learned the brutal efficiency of the British killing machine in defeat after defeat in Spain. When Napoleon at Waterloo proposed a frontal attack on the British line on the ridge, they and their generals must have shivered a little – they were to assault the master of defence on ground of his choosing up a ridge and in the face of some of the most lethally disciplined fire power in the world.
Right, I think that’s probably enough of a background about the British army for now. Most Napoleonic era European armies fought with fairly similar equipment, tailored to their requirements and doctrines, although the rifle and shrapnel shell were limited to the British in the main.
If it seems like I’m spending a lot time on the Waterloo campaign, it is because it really is important to the Victorian period. Some of the key actors of the era were shaped by their experiences during the campaign. Not just Wellington, but a number of prominent Victorians were heavily influenced by the Napoleonic conflicts. Sir Edward Hodge was born in 1810 and lost his father in 1815. As you now know he will be involved in the key conflicts of the Crimea. Who knows how his life would have turned out if his father had survived Quatre Bras and Waterloo. Perhaps his son would have been sent into another career entirely. Harry Smith, was a dashing Peninsular hero who rescued and later married the lovely Juana María during the siege of Badajoz. He later became the Sir Harry Smith who fought in India in the 1840’s and in South Africa, becoming a colonial governor. His beloved wife had a number of towns named after her more formal name “Ladysmith” A much less successful British Officer Lord Raglan was a junior staff officer and military secretary to Wellington at Waterloo, where he lost an arm. Colin Campbell was learning his trade and receiving wounds in the Peninsular campaigns long before he became the famous & successful Victorian general. The Napoleonic Wars cast a long shadow indeed. More than that though, the post Waterloo political manoeuvres would draw the map of Europe for nearly 100 years and Europe was about to become the dominant area of the world in a way scarcely imagined even before.
- This is the remastered version of episode 2. When I started podcasting, I was very much still learning about sound quality and editing. Looking back, I slightly shudder at how the early shows sounded. I have rerecorded some of the early shows to give new listeners a better experience. Content wise, they are pretty much the same, with some tweaks for clarity.
- What price is too high for ambition? It can be a difficult question. Ambition has driven us throughout history. It can be what makes a person strive for aN education or a job. It has built monuments and civilisations. But it has limits. How far is too ambitious? Does it depend on who you are? Or are the consequences more important? Is it ok to let your ambition kill people? After all just becoming a President or a Prime Minister or a Tsar means you will end up having people killed. Someone has to do those jobs though. If you exclude one person for being too ambitious, how do you know that the next person will be up to the job? Isn’t a certain amount of ruthlessness and ambition exactly what’s needed in a great leader? What should people with incredible talents and ambition do? If you are an Alexander or a Caesar, that ambition is going to kill people, but you know that you are cut from another cloth to most people. Because if people like Alexander or Caesar aren’t ambitious, then how does civilisation move and evolve? Without Caesar, maybe Rome stays a Mediterranean power, and there is no modern France or Spain or Britain. There’s no Constantinople; perhaps even no Crusades or contact with China – so maybe the world never moves past the technology, social structures and populations of 1st century AD. Imagine a world that doesn’t change from then and try to imaging what that’s like.
- The Victorians absolutely had to deal with this ambition problem though. It wasn’t an academic issue for them. Cecil Rhodes, Charles Napier, “Chinese” Gordon, Abraham Lincoln were all people who had to put a large dose of ambition and a willingness to see people dead to achieve what they thought were larger goals. Throughout our period, the British Victorians were building an Empire as were the French, Prussians, Russians and North Americans. That often leads to some very uncomfortable questions, about who is building it and why. That leads me to another trait that these great men often have, and that’s “they have a self confidence you could bend iron bars around.” That’s going to be a key to understanding the Age of the Victorians right there, the almost insane self confidence we’re going to see again and again. Searching for the source of the Nile, or the Northern Passage, journeying up the Amazon or taking a handful of soldiers and scraped together forces against enormous odds in far flung parts of the world.
- Think about what’s the biggest gamble you’ve ever taken? Have you ever staked it all on a risky throw of the dice? When most of us say we have taken a gamble, we usually mean something mundane like trying a new restaurant or seeing a film or going on a date. Even the big stuff is usually fairly small in the grand scheme of things. Quitting a job, starting a business or moving house is rarely going to kill you, and even if it does that is limited to you and your family. What I think we all have in common is a sense of fear of the unknown and that moment where the urge to jump on a chance becomes unbearable.
- In 1815, in what has to be one of the great gambles in world history, Napoleon left Elba with a handful of men to reconquer France. Now I can’t really imagine how Napoleon felt when he left Elba on 26 February 1815 and landed in France on 01 March 1815. I’m not going through the whole history of Napoleon. I’m going to assume that you know something about his rise from provincial nobody to revolutionary general to 1st Consul to Emperor of the French and master of Europe to exile on Elba. His return started what was known as the 100 days. With just 1,000 men, he invaded France. That has to be one of the most utterly self confident things anyone has ever done. Still, he was not leaping in the dark. The returned Monarchy had quickly wasted any goodwill it had, and it had treated the officers and men of the old Grand Armee disgracefully. The exiled aristocratic class had been banished from France after the French revolution, but had returned and begun the usual aristocratic practice of extraction, rents and despotism. The old army and people of France were ready for help to fight the tyranny of monarchy, but people’s sentiments were mixed and many just feared the chaos of a new war.
- Napoleon was like a lot of the “great men” of history – he had a belief in fortune and some greater destiny. He felt he was marked out for greatness. And if you look at him, you can see why. He was unquestionably an intellectual genius who was one of the greatest military commanders in history. At his best he was nearly incomparable. He regularly appears in the top 5 military leaders in history. He also possessed a highly scientific mind, and a formidable legal brain. It is worth remembering as we evaluate him and Waterloo, that he was also the sole ruler of France at the time, responsible for all civil affairs in her borders and colonies. He also had to deal with all international diplomatic relations, re-order the constitution and economy, re-form and re-supply the military then at the same time fight a campaign against an international coalition determined to use the resources of their combined nations to destroy him. I think you will come to see that the surprise is not that Wellington with Prussian help beat Napoleon, but how amazing it is he came so close to actually winning.
- I’m going to quickly digress as I think we should put the issue of Napoleon’s height to rest. He was 5ft 4 inches in French Imperial measure, which was 5ft 7 inches in British Imperial measure. That made him of average height for France in the early 1800’s. A number of modern political leaders are also the same height. For comparison, the Duke of Wellington was probably around 5ft 10inches. A lot of the reason for the confusion was highly effective British propaganda that made him out to be small, physically weak, combined with the mistranslation over the height from French measure to British Imperial. Later on Tolstoy (who loathed Napoleon) called him [quote] “the undersized Napoleon” [end quote] as well as other unflattering descriptions. Dr Alfred Adler, a psychiatrist first proposed the Napoleon complex to describe short men over compensating with aggression, which has set the myth in stone.
- Now let’s have a look at France on the eve of Waterloo campaign in the year 1815. She was without a doubt the great power of the age. She had a large population and was agriculturally rich. Like Britain she was a predominantly agrarian society with the bulk of the population involved in farming or labour, but was behind in industrial terms. Unlike Britain, France was not a strong naval power. A focus on continental strategy, rather than blue water power projection combined with a series of naval defeats meant France was unable to challenge British naval dominance, which was absolute in 1815. This had a huge impact on French strategy. When naval historians and strategists talk about navies, they will try and define the role of the navy. Navies can be vital in securing trade routes, for costal defence, troop transport, commerce raiding and if capable of long campaigns far from the home base, they can be called Blue Water navies. That means they can project power whether military, commercial or diplomatic, a long way from the home country. That can make them tremendously powerful. The down side is that they are immensely expensive. Just putting a fleet to sea costs more than money; it requires materials to build the ship, often these are hard to obtain. The British had to import timber from the Baltic. It’s not just materials to build though, fleets need men and supplies. They need training, secure harbours, support vessels, and as Mahon noted in his immensely influential work “The Impact of Sea Power on History”, a huge merchant marine fleet to give depth. They also need an arms industry tailored to their specific needs that can keep replacement weapons and ammunition flowing. The upside of this is that if you have a powerful navy, you can do a lot of things that perhaps your opponent can’t. In 1815, Britain had that navy and Napoleon didn’t. Not only did Britain have that fleet, but it could do the lot. It was a blue water fleet and could strike anywhere, but it could also protect commerce, transport troops, raid enemy merchants and blockade enemy ports. Lack of a blue water navy had condemned France to a continental strategy, and they missed the opportunity to assume a dominant role in controlling the Mediterranean. The British fleet allowed a global network of trade, colonisation and slavery that brought immense wealth and power to Britain. This in turn meant the French couldn’t control trade routes or prevent British troop movements by sea. As soon as Napoleon returned, almost the first thing that happened was that the Royal Navy swept the sea’s around France clean of French shipping. Getting supplies and allies from overseas would be an immensely difficult task for the Emperor.
- Napoleon was in a difficult position politically when he returned to France. He instituted important reforms, and established a civilian government. He was the Emperor, but his position was precarious, so the civilian authorities had considerable power. Napoleon had to topple the monarchy and set up a new government, then fend off the various invasions. That was not the time for full on ballot box democracy. It is a mistake to view him as a dictator at this stage though. He actually had somewhat less power than he did before his previous exile, and would rely more heavily on the civilian government.
- Napoleon in 1815 was not the same Napoleon who had repeatedly thrashed the powers of Europe in 1800-1806. He was older, fatter, slower and less energetic but the Emperor was not to be taken lightly. He was still renowned as a master of war with a glittering list of victories that went from Spain to Russia, from Italy to the Baltic and from the Danube to the Nile. He was not invincible as the disasters in Spain and Russia had proved, but his final defence of France in 1814 had been brilliant. Napoleon in 1815 had a serious problem though. He needed one thing above all else and that was time. He needed it because the powers at the congress of Vienna had declared him an outlaw and would form the 7th Coalition. He had put out peace feelers and appeared to be genuinely willing to work within an international framework. The war was not the Old World of Europe against France, it was against Napoleon. He needed time to get his veteran soldiers to return to the colours. He needed time to levee new recruits. He needed time to re-write the constitution, and completely restructure the economy, he needed time to get his Marshals to return to him and he needed the former prisoners of war who had been returned to be re-enlisted. That was a real problem for Napoleon because he knew that time was a double edged sword. The longer he waited, the more troops and supplies his enemies could put in the field against him.
- In an unfortunate stroke of timing, Napoleon had returned to France during the international Congress of Vienna. The former combatants had gathered to create what they claimed would be a new European order of peace and security. It would also just happen to re-establish the old aristocracies, especially in France because hey we’ve seen what happens when you put the people in charge, they actually want to try to run things and distribute land fairly, have an even handed legal system, abolish privilege and all kinds of non-sense. Luckily we can fix all that and oh crap Napoleon is back. Didn’t we just get rid of him?
- So the representatives of the European powers assembled at the Congress of Vienna issued a declaration outlawing Napoleon and agreed to place armies of at least 150,000 each in the field to oppose him.
- The Coalition Powers agreed on a coordinated invasion of France to start on 1 July 1815.
- Britain and Prussia would assemble their armies in Belgium (a territory recently acquired by United Kingdom of the Netherlands)
- The Russians would assemble an army and advance through Germany towards the French frontier
- The Austrians would assemble two armies and advance on the French frontiers
- The troops of Bavaria, Baden, Wurtemberg, and Hesse, would assemble their troops on the upper Rhine under the command of the Prince of Württemberg.
- Now try to imagine that you suddenly have to arrange to defend an entire country after you’ve just overthrown the government. You have to cover the frontiers, plan a strategy and set the victory conditions you want to achieve, create an organisational structure, move troops by horse, cart and foot, and work using only hand drawn maps. If you lose, it might cost you your life and your country could be conquered or broken up. A lot of us struggle to organise a routine office move, so try to conceive of the scale of the task that Napoleon has here. When he took over government on 19 March 1815 from the debased and despised Louise XVIII he inherited the standing army of just 46,000 combat ready troops. By the end of May Napoleon had managed to raise this to 198,000. Think about how difficult some companies find it to recruit even a handful of low level staff and now scale it up to the massive numbers Napoleon needed. He needed boots, uniforms, horses, reserves, gun limbers, carriages, bandages, food, muskets, ammunition, maps and a huge array of other supplies. To give you another idea of the scale of the challenge, remember that Napoleon didn’t just have to defeat the British & Prussians in Belgium. He had to prepare for an expected Spanish invasion, an expected British naval landing in Southern France, guard the Swiss and Italian borders and the frontiers of the Prussian/German states. The Allies could potentially field 989,000 men against him.
- I think you are beginning to see that far from some of the Victorian myths of Wellington “The Iron Duke” thrashing Napoleon at Waterloo and stopping the tyrant, in fact it was highly unlikely that Napoleon would succeed.
- Napoleon acted with characteristic brilliance. He carefully formed armies and smaller corps to cover the various trouble spots. He had a choice between a protracted defence of France, or to go on the offensive and try to defeat his enemies in detail before they could join up against him. By taking the fight to them he hoped that significant military victories would force them to the peace table. It is important to understand that everything Napoleon now did was to try to turn military advantages into diplomatic victories. It was a huge gamble though. It had failed utterly in Russia where he won battle after battle but his enemy simply refused to negotiate. Now he was fighting an enemy that wanted to destroy him personally. Some of the Coalition, such as Blucher, hated him and wanted him dead. They would no more negotiate with him than the Allies in WW2 would have negotiated with Hitler. It was all or nothing for most of them.
- Napoleon made things more difficult by making some fateful decisions. Ones that would perhaps doom him. He appointed one of best Marshals, Louis-Nicolas Davout, as his Minister of War. He was perfect for the role, both talented and loyal. His upright character and stern discipline meant he was utterly reliable. He was the right man for the job, but his presence as a marshal in the Waterloo campaign could very well have changed the course of history. Davout was a supreme military commander, arguably as good as Napoleon at the tactical, operational and theatre levels. His army corp was always the most disciplined and well supplied of the French forces.
- Had Davout commanded the field at Waterloo instead of Ney, there would have been no blunders with unsupported cavalry charges, nor would the infantry have been allowed to plod in so many of their attacks. If he had commanded at Quatre Bras instead of Ney, he would have understood why the battle was so important and the need for decisive action – something seemingly absent from Ney’s rather slow actions of the day. It is one of the great might have been’s that Napoleonic history buffs have discussed since then.
- The other killer mistake for Napoleon was appointing Joseph Fouché as his Police Minister and de facto spymaster, and Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord to Foreign Minister. Both were ruthless, brilliant and utterly self centred with no scruples. Both had betrayed masters before with promises that they were acting in the best interest of France. Both were only absolutely loyal to themselves. Fouche quickly made himself indispensible, but Napoleon both mistrusted and somewhat feared him.
- On the upside Napoleon had many of his veterans. He had some capable marshals, who if not of the calibre of Massena, Lannes or Berthier his much missed Chief of Staff, at least included the Bravest of the Brave Marshal Ney and the formidable Marshal Soult. The Marshals are a fascinating group. Some of them had amazing careers. Indeed if not for Napoleon, some of them would be historical super stars but with the Emperor present they were always outshone. Soult’s position was especially interesting because rather than being given a corp or army command, he was appointed to the role of Chief of Staff. It was a role he was highly unsuited to, despite his strong performance in the Peninsular Wars. He was not tactically brilliant in the field like Napoleon or Massena but he was disciplined, courageous, a capable field commander, and a great organiser of armies. He had won a number of notable victories and had been instrumental in some of the Emperor’s successes. He had even had experience as a Chief of Staff in Spain. As an army commander he was highly respected by no lesser general than Wellington himself. In 1838 he represented King Louis-Philippe at the coronation of Queen Victoria. By then he was Duke of Dalmatia, and was pleased to hear cries of Vive Soult from the London crowd. He met his old adversary Wellington, who is said to have seized his arms and said “I have you at last”, a tribute to his difficulties fighting the wily Marshal in Spain. The evidence for this is a little slim, and might be from a fanciful painting, where the words are uttered by General Hill, not Wellington. Sadly, unlike Breathier, Soult struggled to translate Napoleon’s high level instructions into concrete detailed orders. Poor staff work dogged the campaign. Where Berthier ran a disciplined, efficient staff at a cracking pace, Soult was more leisurely. Berthier would send 3 messengers with the same order to ensure it reached the intended recipient, whereas Soult would only send one. It was also remarked that Soult used low quality horses and officers for the staff. It is unlikely that Berthier would have allowed the debacles of Grouchy or D’Erlon wandering aimlessly at crucial moments.
- Marshal Ney was another interesting choice. In his prime before 1812 he had been a fierce fighter and an exceptional winner of battles. After 1812 and the epic retreat from Moscow where he earned the title “Bravest of the Brave” he was not quite the same fiery genius. Napoleon writing with some hindsight said of him [QUOTE] “Admirable for his bravery and stubbornness in retreats, he was good when it came to leading 10,000 men, but with a larger force he was a real fool. Always first under fire, he forgot about troops who were not under his immediate command” [END QUOTE]
- When Napoleon marched north to confront the Coalition on 12th June, Marshal Ney went as a civilian and in disgrace having betrayed his Emperor then the Bourbons. He had been enticed by the Emperor to defect, and the troops cheered the decision of the beloved marshal to join the Emperor. Certainly it is likely that Napoleon had one eye on public opinion when he recalled Ney. Still he never really brought Ney back into the inner circle. Napoleon probably never forgave Ney for leading the marshals revolt that originally deposed the him.
- Ney was eventually summoned to join the Emperor on campaign. It was at short notice and Ney departed France with only 1 staff officer. Finally at a meeting with the Emperor on the road to Charleroi on the 15 June 1815, he was suddenly appointed to command of the 1st & 2nd Army Corp with 2 regiments of light cavalry of the Imperial Guard and 8 regiments of Kellerman’s heavy cavalry. This gave him a command of 50,000 men and 72 guns. These figures would not stay constant as brigades and divisions were abruptly shifted to command area’s as necessity dictated. It was a curiously spur of the moment appointment at a crucial moment in the campaign. Ney did not distinguish himself in terms of tactical or strategic ability on during the Waterloo campaign but his bravery was all that could be asked of a hero of France. Sadly, we will see it was an order of Ney’s to D’Erlon that probably doomed Napoleon before Waterloo was even fought. In fairness to Ney, being given command of an army on the march on the eve of a critical battle is a hellish task. He would have had to find out where, on the confused roads of Belgium, his troops, officers and supplies were, meet his officers, take control of them and begin his planning. He had to do this with horse messengers and hand written notes. I think for all his faults, history is often unkind to Ney. He was placed in a very difficult situation and the sight of Ney at the end of Waterloo is a display of courage almost unequalled on either side.
- The last of the Marshals was Grouchy. He was a brave cavalry leader who had impressed Napoleon at Wagram but had remained an overlooked general. His unexpected elevation to Marshal caused immense jealousy from his subordinates. Grouchy had never been good at getting the best from his officers and this appointment inflamed the hatred that Vandamme already had for his superior. Worse he had no experience of leading infantry or combined forces and his main achievements had always been under the command of the more capable Marshals like Davout or Lannes or when he was directly under the control of the Emperor.
- The whole myth of the disciplined British against the brave, dashing but undisciplined French became a Victorian myth but one that perhaps contained a good deal of truth. Certainly there are accounts that suggest that most troops and junior officers were fanatically loyal to the Emperor. A good number were veterans or former POW’s who were thirsty for revenge, many the victims of torture in captivity. The senior officers were more conflicted and many feared that the Emperors return meant France was destined for yet more wars. I’m not sure if they considered that actually committing wholeheartedly to Napoleon was the best chance for the French Republic to not just survive but thrive. The senior generals and marshals were in some ways disliked. They were seen as old and disloyal. Men who had owed everything to Napoleon yet had betrayed him. The return of Ney and Soult to the cause was welcome, but the army was not exactly a cohesive force. It has been described by many historians as being like a fine but brittle sword. It was the best army Napoleon had commanded for years and was filled with veterans, but at the same time it didn’t have the deep discipline and trust. It hadn’t had much time to practise together to develop real bonds of trust between the men, and the essential small unit cohesion that helps troops know what their fellows are going to do without having to be told.
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- The French troops were mainly line infantry. The typical French Infantryman was armed with a smoothbore, muzzle loading musket and carrying a knapsack.
- Muskets are accurate at up to around 50 yards, but could still kill at up to 300 yards. A good shooter with a musket could reliably hit a man sized target at 50 yards, but at 300 yards aiming was pointless. Soldiers simply fired into the mass of enemy on the principle it would hit something. Crucially, the musket was reliable, relatively quick firing, easy to produce in large numbers, and study enough to use in hand to hand. A blow from the butt of a musket could crush a man’s skull. Muskets were primitive compared to the highly accurate rifles and machine guns of later armies, but as historian John Elting wrote: [QUOTE] “In their own time they made and broke empires; they won, and nailed down, the independence of the USA. Together with the Roman short sword and the Mongol composite bow, they rank as the greatest man-killers of all-history.” [QUOTE]
- Most French infantry carried the ‘Charleville’ musket (fusil d’infanterie) model 1777 (AN IX), with overall length 151.5 cm, (barrel length 114 cm), and a triangular bayonet. It fired a French musket ball of .69 calibre using a flint lock. It was so popular that it was widely copied. The French version 1766 was so highly regarded it was the basis of the iconic American Springfield Musket 1795. Ammunition was cast to an approximate size, and there were no interchangable machine parts so standardise replacement parts weren’t typically available, so repairs needed an experienced gun smith. The quality of gun powder was variable and Napoleon would refuse to release gun powder producers for active service as their work was too valuable.
- The flintlock musket revolutionised warfare. They were powerful, large calibre weapons, and getting hit by one was almost certain to put a man down, even if he later recovered. They easily shattered bones, and shredded organs as the soft lead balls deformed on impact.
- To increase accuracy, mass volleys were used on the principle that quantity of fire would make up for low quality accuracy. This created a lethal kill zone at around the 50-150 yard mark and a danger zone at up to 300 yards, but it required intense discipline. Debates ranged in military circles about the best formations. Napoleon and the French adapted many of the best practices from other nations and perfected them.
- Lack of production facilities for muskets and ammunition limited the supplies. Training was also of increasingly low quality. In contrast inBritain, the industrial revolution and imperial trade networks meant plenty of ammunition was available. British troops trained for far long.
- There is a misconception that the French fought in large columns, but this is not true. The French used the 2 ranks formation at a tactical level at close range. At a larger level the various lines would combined to form the Attack Column. The attack column is not the same as the long deep marching column. It was more a rectangle formed by the individual companies of soldiers not a solid mass of men marching in a deep mass like you see on a parade ground or on the road.
- The columns were supported by screens of skirmishing troops that picked off enemy officers and covered the advance. A small volley might be fired on the way in and attacks were usually supported by heavy artillery fire and cavalry wherever possible, with columns trying to cross the lethal fire zones created by the lines of enemy troops.
- The precise formations varied throughout the Napoleonic wars. The highly trained French army of 1805 was able to adopt various formations that were beyond the abilities of the army of 1815, which didn’t. the training to adopt complex formations. Losses of high quality officers and NCO only exacerbated the problem. As the French infantry abilities decayed, the army relied more heavily on artillery and cavalry.
- Napoleon especially loved the heavy cavalry. Big men, on big horses with full cuirasses and heavy straight swords. A well timed charge by the Cuirassiers could smash enemy lines or shatter enemy counter attacks. He was careful that his Marshals and Generals ensured that the Heavy Cavalry didn’t charge unsupported by infantry or artillery. Napoleon developed the concentrated heavy cavalry doctrine and their use as a breakthrough force throughout his career, but they were supposed to be integrated rather than charging unsupported.
- The French also used various light cavalry, dragoons and lancers. Lancers were especially feared as they could under the right conditions reach past the bayonet wall of an infantry square and spear the men, especially if it was too wet to fire muskets. The British military were so impressed with the lancers that they adopted them for cavalry, although later reports on combat effectiveness in India were mixed. Dragoons would sometimes find themselves burdened with carbines and bayonets, whilst some light infantry officers and dragoons would be given rifle carbines.
- The artillery, referred to as guns, were the key to French tactics, as Napoleon said [QUOTE]Great battles are won with artillery. [END QUOTE] Yet a persistent issue for the French was lack of quality artillery pieces with plenty of ammunition.
- The French often requisitioned older guns for costal defence and Napoleon focused obsessively on his artillery. He and senior officers had done a vast amount of work to standardise and improve the artillery to make it world class. It suffered dreadfully in Russia and never truly recovered. It seems clear on reflection that British Artillery was of a consistently higher manufacturing quality, but sometime less effective.
- Uniforms varied widely depending on the time period, the whims of the local colonel, the vagaries of supplies and the interference of various re-organisations. Campaign clothing was often tattered and dirty, a world away from the formal regulation clothing worn on parade. The organisation of the Imperial Guard was kept separate and it acted in some ways as an independent army which drew higher and pay and was fed the best rations.
- The combined discipline of the French army, the battlefield brilliance of the fighting marshals, and the genius of Napoleon in bringing the maximum force against a limited point of his enemies’ lines and shattering them had allowed the French to become in 1805 the finest army in the world. The Emperor focused on fast movement, pinning attacks to the front whilst attacking the flanks and the rear and the ability to move his army corps in a dispersed fashion only to quickly converge at key points. Above all the Emperor was adaptable, expertly selecting the right tools and formations for whatever challenge was presented. He preferred an offensive campaign to allow him to deal early knockout blows against his enemies, overcoming the logistical shortcomings of the French field armies by winning the war before supplies became an issue. Too often the French army relied on the brilliant leadership insane bravery to make up for serious organisational difficulties.
- Whatever the short comings, Napoleon had to fight. He would teach the coalition how the Master waged war. He had achieved the impossible by seizing the throne and assembling the armies. Now he moved so fast that the coalition still believed he was in France, when he was actually marching to divide the British and Prussians. His goal was to destroy the Prussians, then the British before they had time to react. He nearly succeeded.
- Before I go though, I hope you are getting a sense of how tough and brave and powerful the French Army under Napoleon really was. The French have been the butt of some appalling jokes, and US President Bush referred to them as “Cheese eating surrender monkeys” This is a gross slur on an extremely brave and hard fighting nation. The French under Napoleon routinely displayed incredible courage under fire, and conquered most of Europe. The repeated charges of the British squares by the French Heavy Cavalry alone was valour of the highest order, and the British respected them immensely for it. Throughout much of her history France was regarded as the pre-eminent military and social power in Europe. Join me next time to find out about the famous British army of 1815 under the legendary Duke of Wellington.
If you’re a new listener I’d recommend you listen to our intro cast just so you know what to expect.
I think that one of the first things to address is who or what is a Victorian? What is meant by the term? Is it just the people and things who lived between her birth and death? Was it just the period of her reign? Were Victorians just the people of the United Kingdom or were all imperial subjects Victorian? Does the term refer more to a period? After all, the influence of the British Victorians was felt globally, even in countries that weren’t part of the Empire. Is it just the people or do the art and artefacts count too?
It is actually a difficult thing to pin down. This podcast is about the Age of the Victorians. It is not the History of Victorian Britain. My brush is a lot broader. Luckily I’m not alone in this. Some historians have dated the start of the Victorian era as much earlier and ending much later. Historian G Price for instance argues that there wasn’t really an industrial revolution or a Victorian age. He argues that we should see the whole of the activity in Britain as a spectrum of continuity. In many ways this is obviously right; People didn’t wake up one day and say “Great the middle ages have now ended and I can stop living in a time of religious based superstition and poverty and move into the Renaissance era of increased religious and artistic freedom combined with improved social conditions.” People’s experiences are rooted in individual, but I think sometimes that there really is a sense of the end of an era and the start of the new one. The second world war really did draw a hard line between one era and another for example, as did the Mongol conquests.
From the podcast point of view we’re going to take the Victorian era as really starting at Waterloo. Waterloo seems a convenient bookend to the end of the Enlightenment and the start of the attitudes that really define the Age of the Victorians. It is easy to think of the Duke of Wellington as only the man who fought Napoleon at Waterloo, but he was also a Prime Minister shortly before Victoria became Queen, and some of his political actions would have significant influence on the early Victorian period, most especially his immense influence on the Victorian British Army. His organisation of the British Army in the Peninsular and at Waterloo set the pattern for the British Army till well into the C19th. It is thanks to his military legacy that Britain remained wedded to muzzle loading muskets, bright red coats and cavalry far past the point where they were militarily useful. Palmerston, Gladstone and Disraeli were all born before Waterloo but became key political figures in Victoria’s reign. Besides Queen Victoria herself was born in 1819, only four years after Waterloo so I haven’t started too early. It does mean we will sweep in the tail end of the regency and the reign of William IV but I think it is essential in understanding where the spirit of the age really evolved from.
There is another more important reason. After Waterloo there was a complex series of negotiations that set up the European order for the next 30 odd years. Without a background of where Europe stood before the settlement and what the settlement was designed to achieve, we won’t be able to understand the constant tension between the status quo seeking regimes in Europe, and the rising movements for reform in the United Kingdom and across Europe that eventually led to the year of revolutions of 1848.
When does the Age of Victoria really end? The Victorians didn’t just drop dead with Victoria. A person born in 1899 could claim to be a Victorian and live Again, the podcast will treat it as the time when the attitudes really died. Thatcher might have summoned the ghost of Victorian values in her speeches but she was not the product of the Victorian era. Instead I believe that the Victorian age died when the last great Victorian army led by the last great Victorian vintage generals died in the battle of the Somme. The great public school system, the emphasis on glory and dying for the country and the Empire and the playing fields of Eton really died on that battle field. Afterwards the realism of a post Victorian industrial world ushered in the poetry of the hard bitten cynics.
Now that’s fine as far as the podcast goes – it’ll give us a lot of time to cover in the episodes. I’m hoping that you’ll find that the Victorians packed more into a century than most countries have managed in an entire history. Unfortunately it doesn’t really fully answer the question of who the Victorians were.
Right then, you can close your eyes and see what a Victorian looks like to you. Chances are you might see Dick Van Dyke and Mary Poppins. Or perhaps you can see Iron Man Robert Downey Jnr as the ultimate Sherlock Holmes. Maybe you can see Mr Darcy. Perhaps the sad faced Oliver Twist springs to mind or the Christmas card perfect Victorian Family round the Christmas Tree? Maybe you see the downtrodden miners and workers in the factories in Lancashire? Quick note though, if you go strictly on dates you need to banish Mr Darcy from your imagination. Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 so he is not actually a Victorian at all, though he would have lived into the Victorian era and his children would have been shaped by his attitude. Likewise on a strictly date format, the Mary Poppins film is set in 1910 and is Edwardian.
All of these images have a place, well except Dick Van Dykes accent. They are shades and reflections of the age. Even the most accurate images would only be a snap shot of a place and time. How a person dressed and behaved in 1840 depended very much on where they lived, social class, wealth, occupation but also the thousands of hidden individual quirks that make people chose this colour or style over another. A provincial solicitor in 1840 might look rather strange and old fashioned to his London counterpart in 1895. An American businessman might well have shared similar social attitudes to his London counterpart, and they may have had more in common with each other than with the poor factory workers they employed – which might hold true in today’s world too.
The artefacts and buildings of the Victorians have often outlasted their creators and the originally envisaged lifespan. That means if some building is particularly interesting, I’ll probably finish its story off if feasible.
What I’m trying to get across to you though is that there isn’t really a bright line “before this someone or something isn’t Victorian, and after is.” History can be categorised and tagged to make it easier to study but the reality was a lot more messy. There was more of a growing recognition that the country and the world was changing and a new age was under way.
For now I think we will have to accept that who or what is Victorian will remain in the eye of the beholder. So let’s start our journey. I thought it might help if we started with a mini sketch of the UK and Europe in the year 1815.
Important note to near in mind. The UK is different from Britain. Britain is the island containing England, Wales and Scotland. The Crowns of England & Scotland merged in 1707 to form Great Britain when the treaties of Union were ratified by Parliament in the Act of Union 1707. The United Kingdom was formed in 1801 when the Kingdom of Ireland merged with the Kingdom of Great Britain to form – wait for it, The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This included the whole of Ireland. It wasn’t until after WW1 that Ireland succeeded from the United Kingdom and the name changed to the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland. That’s right, in our podcast the UK will have only been in existence for a very short period of time but it included the whole of Ireland. The Victorian age was as much a search for a unified national identity as anything else. National identity politics in the UK was, and still is, a complex issue as the 2016 EU membership referendum shows.
I will be talking about Scotland, Wales and Ireland a lot. We will need to bury the myth that Scotland was somehow a conquered country or junior partner in things and that any sins of Empire were uniquely English. The Scots were a huge, integral part of the Victorian age and so I won’t treat them as a “Scotcast special” because they are too central to the story as are the Irish and Welsh.
For those listeners who aren’t familiar with the UK, it is worth a quick look at a map of Europe. It can best be described as a small semi boot shaped blob with a smaller blob on one side, just north of France and what is now Belgium. The south coast of Britain touches what the English refer to as the English Channel. This stretch of sea separates the UK from Europe both physically and mentally. It also provides the main southern sea route from the North coasts of Europe to the Atlantic. A ship from the Baltic States, Russia, Central North Europe and the Low Countries can only access the Atlantic via the channel or by going up the North Sea and around the top of Scotland & Ireland. This position means that Britain is ideally placed to exercise strategic control over European trade, provided she has naval supremacy at the time in question. Remember though the map you look at now is very different from what you would have seen in 1815. Some of the great towns and cities of the United Kingdom would have appeared radically different. For example, Newport in Wales was a small town with a population of around 1,000 people in 1815. The locals main occupations were agriculture, salmon fishing at the mouth of the Usk, and work on the wharves, where a few ships put in from time to time. By 1900 coal, canals and Irish immigration had transformed it into one of the largest ports in Wales with a population of over 67,000. Similar transformation would occur across the whole of the UK and Europe.
The position of Ireland next to Britain made Ireland a site of strategic military importance as it was an easy staging post for an attack on Britain. Ireland had a long, complex history with Britain and the English. There were many Irish who loathed the English Crown & Government in particular and blamed them for local exploitation by Ango-Irish landowners, but there was also exploitation by absentee Scottish Landlords. There were also many Irish who were passionately pro-British.
Without the Irish, Welsh and the Scots, the British Empire and the United Kingdom absolutely could not have emerged as the world dominating force that it did.
The low countries would also be a key strategic concern for successive British governments. Napoleon deemed Antwerp, [quote]”a pistol pointed at the heart of England,”[end quote]. Antwerp had the potential to have a large naval base built by Napoleon to support an invasion. The distance from Antwerp the Southern Coast is Britain is very short, but the British also constantly fretted about naval bases on the North European shoreline.
Since the gifting of Gibraltar to the UK in perpetuity, the UK has also maintained a strategic grip on the Mediterranean sea routes as well. In the Victorian period, this grip on access to the Atlantic and Mediterranean is key to understanding Britain’s growth, her Empire and her international relations. In many ways you will come to see how the Victorians in Britain were defined by the geography and the constraints of being the premier naval power. The position of Britain outside Europe raised a paradox. On the one hand the nature of being an island made the prospect of a land invasion unlikely and allowed the British to maintain a small standing army relatively free from the risk of invasion. But this depended utterly on the British maintaining complete control of the home waters. If an enemy, or worse still, a coalition of enemies could seize control of the home waters, or if the British allowed their fleet to weaken and decay as they did during the Anglo-Dutch wars, then the protective seas around Britain would become highways for the enemy. It would give enemies almost unlimited freedom to choose when and where to attack with impunity. Britain simply couldn’t compete with European coalitions in terms of man power if the battles were fought on British soil.
The upshot of this is that for almost the entire of Britain’s post medieval history her entire strategic and diplomatic approach was bent to maintaining naval supremacy and preventing any one European power from dominating the balance of power in Europe, or forming a grand coalition against her. It is something to bear in mind as we discuss “Perfidious Albion” and some of the twists and turns of Victorian diplomacy and international relations. The incessant meddling that Britain often engaged in was often necessitated by this overarching imperative.
Britain is also extremely well placed in terms of climate. Now I know that some of you are probably thinking “Really? I thought it rained all the time” Well yes, it rains a lot. I admit that I’ve often had to have an umbrella at my summer BBQ but honestly it really doesn’t rain all the time. In fact, Britain has a mild Atlantic climate due to the North Atlantic Current. Considering how far north Britain actually is, we should have had Reindeer pulling sleds full of Anglo Saxon warriors rather enjoying a climate that made agriculture and commerce some of the most productive in the world.
It is worth bearing in mind that Britain has a wide range of weather and climate. Southern England is probably the warmest and driest part of Britain. Overall the UK has an immense range of variety in weather depending on location, local geography and the influence of Atlantic, Artic or European weather fronts. To my astonishment when I was researching this podcast, I found that the UK has the highest number of Tornado’s relative to its land area of any country in the world. On 28 December 1879 for instance a Tornado derailed a passenger train from the Tay Bridge, causing it to plunge into the Tay Estuary killing 74 people.
We will have to account for the fact British climate has changed dramatically over time. Britain, like much of Europe was still coming out of what is known as the “Little Ice Age” until around the 1850’s. This means that food production has been heavily impacted by changing climate. Some of those picture postcard White Victorian Christmas’s you may have pictured might well have been the result of the ending of the Little Ice Age. Rapid industrialisation was also beginning to increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, kick starting the process of man made global warming.
England has a range of environments from chalk grasslands to rolling farm lands to woodland, to the more valleyed South West down into the moors and bogs of Dartmoor and the rough Cornish coast. The north of the country also has excellent farmland, more valleys and gorges, a rougher climate with certain area’s more prone to storms. The centre of the country has a spine of mountains running up it and no part is very far from the sea. Wales and Scotland have their own unique climate and geography that we will look at when we look at the Highland Clearance and their Great Famine. We will also look at the climate and geography of Ireland in more detail when we get to what is known as the “Potato Famine” in Ireland.
At the beginning of our period, the climate and geography had much more of a day to day impact than it does today. The fastest methods of travel were the horse or a boat. The main forms of power were human muscle, the horse, ox or water mill. Troop movement especially remained tied to the rate of march of the infantry and is little different from Roman times.
The bulk of jobs were done by human labour with watermills and windmills being a useful supplement for key tasks especially grinding corn and wheat. The principle occupations were agrarian. There were some towns beginning to industrialise. The consumer market barely existed. Most, but not all, shops were local although Wedgewood china was beginning to create an international mass market. Britain could clearly be seen as at the start of its industrial revolution.
Heavy goods were still moved by horse, cart, barge or ship. The fastest messages were still sent by fast horse or by semaphore. There has been some historical debate about whether some messages were flashed like a Heliograph but I can’t find an accepted verified use of this method of communication before the invention of the Mance Heliograph in the 1869 by Sir Henry Christopher Mance.
Clothes were mainly from natural sources, and were not very well weatherproofed. Staying warm and dry was a key challenge in northern climates, especially at sea. Staying cool in warmer climates was difficult without modern cooling clothes and plentiful water. Add to this the fact that clothing was very fashion dependent and for the poor heavily price constrained. The lack of suitable clothing could be lethal in some circumstances, not just on difficult expeditions, but in day to day life.
This was the world of 1815. It was rooted in the local. It was mostly agrarian. The industrial revolution was barely under way, but some towns like Manchester were noticing the first massive changes of industrialisation and expansion. Life in some rural communities was little changed since the Renaissance, with traditions that might have stretched back to the middle ages. Disease was rampant. Cholera hadn’t yet reached Europe but by 1817 the first great pandemic would break out in India. Other great killers like Tuberculosis, Small Pox, Typhus and Dysentery ravaged Europe but medical science was still exceptionally primitive. Death could strike quickly and the Reaper extracted a huge toll. To live in 1815 was to live in an age which was at its heart little advanced from the middle ages. Superstition was still rampant and Europe was not as far ahead in terms of technology from many of its neighbours. Across Europe the accepted form of government was the hereditary monarchy. The only real exception was revolutionary France, which challenged the old order.
By the end of the Victorian Age, Western Nations had been utterly transformed. Public health measures, germ theory, mass vaccinations, plumbing, rubber, electricity and refrigeration fundamentally changed the world. Death rates dropped and populations had vastly swollen. In 1800 a fifth of the worlds population lived in Europe. By 1914 it was a third. These staggering demographic pressures would shape the Victorian age, forcing mass migrations. When combined with increased technological development and production, Imperial expansionism became almost inevitable. An Englishman or woman from 1815 might have an easier time understanding Renaissance England than he or she would of understanding the world and technologies of 1915.
Unlike today, the world of 1815 did not have a single hyper power. Instead there were a number of great powers. Great power status was important. It not only conferred prestige on a nation, but also increased the influence they could exert over other nations during treaty negotiations and trade. Great power status was also considered a mark of civilisation. Austria, Russia, Spain and Prussia were all considered great powers in 1815 but only Britain and France could claim to be international powers as well. The others were essentially regional powers, except the declining Spanish Empire. The Victorians would go on to make Britain the first truly global super power. Not until the rise of the United States in the early C20th was Britain’s international superpower status really challenged.
I’m going to give us a run through Europe as it stood in 1815 in the run up to Waterloo. I won’t go into depth on the background of each nation. It is just important that I give you an idea of how the main powers of Europe stood. Please remember that nation states were not the centralised powerhouses they would become in the C20th. Nationalism was on the rise but the world view of most of the population would be local, and rulers still claimed territory by hereditary right or marriage or treaty rather than in terms of strictly delineated ground on a map.
I’m not going to deal with the smaller nations of Europe in 1815. Firstly it is too much to cover in a summary, and secondly territories, duchies, vassal states, confederacies and principalities would shift about endlessly. Also I’m not going to do a summary of the world outside Europe. We will deal with the United States, Canada, Australia, China, India and many others during the podcast and I think that these countries will be better dealt with in depth later.
Our first great power, Spain, was one of the oldest. The high water mark of her empire had long passed, but she remained a powerful, proud nation. Spain is on the south west of Europe with Atlantic and Mediterranean seaboards. She was agriculturally rich, but frequently disorganised and corrupt with entrenched nobility who were ridiculously conservative even by the standards of the 19th Century. Despite her geographical riches, wealth in Spanish society was colossally unequally distributed. The bulk of the population were uneducated and the country had been ravaged by years of war during the French invasion and the British retreat then counter invasion. Her climate was often harsh and feeding campaigning armies in the country was difficult.
Spain had also suffered a number of naval defeats at the hands of the British, notably at Trafalgar. Their grip on their colonial empire was shaky to say the least. The country as a whole didn’t court modernisation or innovation, leaving them progressively weaker against the rapidly industrialising northern European nations.
Austria was Frances principle enemy of the Napoleonic wars along with Britain. It is probably better not to think of Austria as a nation like France or Britain. It was more a collection of political entities that came under the sway of the Hapsburg dynasty. The Austrian Empire was officially created in 1804 out of the personal holdings of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II as a result of defeats against the French, but obviously including the core Austrian territory itself, along with Bavaria. It was held together mainly by loyalty to the Hapsburg kings and Roman Catholicism. The ideals of the French Revolution were in many ways a direct strike against the threads that held the Austria and the Holy Roman Empire together. Its shape would be largely determined by one of the great figures of the period 1815-1848 Clement Lothar von Metternich-Winneburg-Beilstein fortunately better known to history as just Metternich, which is what I’ll be call him from here onwards. In 1815 Austria was still at the height of its power with territories in Italy, Poland and the Balkans. It had suffered serious and sustained defeats at the hands of Napoleon but thanks to Metternich would emerge into the post Napoleonic world even stronger and larger after the 2nd Congress of Paris. It was a conservative, reactionary entity that would come into conflict with emerging German and Italy. We will re-visit Austria and the Habsburgs more than once during the podcast as undergoes revolutions and wars against Prussia, setting the stage for the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Russia particularly craved international esteem. She was constantly torn between much needed internal reform, and lurches to autocracy. Until Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, Russia’s principle enemy was the Ottoman empire. Russia became a key part of the coalitions against France, and was instrumental in the campaigns against Napoleon in 1813-1814. Russia’s claim to great power status was fragile throughout the Victorian age. Her self confidence was sometimes brittle and she remained only superficially modern. After Napoleon’s defeat (come on, this really can’t be a spoiler), the other Western powers pulled well away from Russia in terms of industrial power, economic performance and social liberalism. The failure to introduce liberal forms of government made Russian’s claim to Great Power status precarious in the eyes of the rest of Europe. Military power alone was not enough to confer such status.
The great military power of the age was supposed to be Prussia. Before we start, can we please please get the idea that Prussia and German are the same thing out of our heads. Prussian and German unification will come about and Bismarck will use his immense genius to reshape them into a unified and coherent identity but they weren’t the same. Also there seems to be a tendency in modern culture to read Nazi influences and designs into early Prussia and Germany. Please don’t do it. Seriously, Nazi German borrowed images, themes and music from their past like magpies. The Prussians of 1815 were much of a creation of the Federick Kings and the infamous Frederick the Great. So successful were Frederick the Great’s military achievements that in the early days of the French revolution it was assumed that the Prussian army would sweep into France and stamp it out for good. Napoleon shocked the world by his constant humbling of Austria and Prussia. Ironically Prussia was often at war with Austria but after the crushing defeat it suffered against Napoleon & Marshal Davout at the Battles of Jena and Auerstedt in 1806
The main event of 1815 as far as anglo centric history is concerned was Waterloo. That great British legend, of the Iron Duke and the stiff upper lips beating the evil military pint sized tinpot dictator Napoleon. The charge of the Greys, the Squares standing firm, and the unflappable Wellington yelling “up guards and at em”
The reality is very different from the legend and the Victorians had a very large part in shaping this legend. Their attitude to it, and the art work they produced has created a lasting and deeply misleading understanding of Waterloo even to this day.
I hope you’ll join me next week as we explore more about the Waterloo campaign and begin separating the facts from the legend.
Thanks for your listening. I hope you enjoy. If you want to get in touch, I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at email@example.com, follow me on twitter @ageofvictoria, visit the website at www.ageofvictoriapodcast.com. The show also has a facebook page and group. Just search for Age of Victoria. Don’t forget to leave a review on Apple Podcasts, it takes less time than making a coffee. If you want to support the show on patreon, just click here or you can go to Patreon and search for age of victoria podcast or my name.
This is the first mini-episode “Minisodes” These will be mini releases to give listeners extra content between the main episodes. They will cover various topics that interested me, caught my eye, or don’t fall in the neat chronology of the main show. They will also include community news and announcements. They will very much be a “as and when I feel the need”
The main show will continue to be released every 01 of the month.
This one has a short reading from Dickens and hints at my ongoing sadness at poor service in the UK!
This episode covers the British army in 1815, its tactics, weapons and organisation. It also explains how it differs from the other European period. I start with a general explanation of the cost of living and the Royal Navy. I then deal with British Officers, commissions and recruitment. Finally there’s an explanation of how the army worked. Oh and Mr Darcy makes an appearance!
Thanks for your listening. I hope you enjoy. If you want to get in touch, I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at
The transcript for the episode is available here
In this episode I indulge my passion for Napoleonic history, and explore my fascination with Napoleon. I cover the great gamble of his return from exile, his struggles, the options available to him, and that magnificent instrument of war…..the French Army.
This show covers
The benefits and cost of ambition.
Napoleon’s gamble to retake the French throne.
The position of France, and the role of navies.
Rebuilding the French army, and what strategy to use?
Davout, Ney, Soult and Grouchy – the Marhals.
The musket; the infantryman’s best friend, and killer.
How to form up to die.
The cavalry – The Big Boots
The artillery – Napoleon’s daughters
- The Emperor’s first moves.
Thanks for your listening. I hope you enjoyed the show. If you want to get in touch, I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow me on twitter @ageofvictoria, visit the website at www.ageofvictoriapodcast.com. The show also has a facebook page and group. Just search for Age of Victoria. Don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes, it takes less time than making a coffee. If you want to support the show on patreon, just click here, or you can go to Patreon and search for age of victoria podcast or my name.
The transcript for this episode can be found at
This is the first full episode. It covers the situation in Europe in 1815, and gives a feel for life in Britain on the eve of the great events of the last campaign of the Napoleonic Wars.
- What does the term Victorian mean?
- History as a spectrum.
- What will the podcast cover & why start in 1815?
- Geography and climate of Britain in 1815.
- Britains military and strategic position.
- The naval impact of the Napoleonic Wars.
- Brief summary of the great powers of Europe in 1815 (Spain, Austria, Prussia and Russia).
Thanks for your listening. I hope you enjoy. If you want to get in touch, I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at
I’ve now added the transcript of this episode at
This is the map of the campaign as it opened on between 1st June 1815 and positions adopted by 07:00 on 16th June 1815. Napoleon was aiming to seize the Central Position between Wellington and Blucher. The Allies were spread out and had to work fast to concentrate their forces before Napoleon could isolate them and defeat them in detail. By moving from Charleroi as his point of concentration, Napoleon was perfectly poised to effect his strategy, whilst the strung out Allied forces risked a serious defeat or significant pushback. The crucial requirement for Marshal Ney to vigorously capture Quatre Bras and push on up the road is immediately apparent from this map. The opportunity for Ney to destroy the Prince of Orange’s force with an early assault before reinforcements could arrive is readily seen too.
Please note “Maps courtesy of the USMA, Department of History.” I’m very grateful for their kind permission to use them.
In the first episodes of the Age of Victoria we’ve been covering Napoleon and the 100 days. There are a ton of great sources out there. I’ve used
- Memoirs of Napoleon by Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne.
- The 100 Days by Philip Guedalla.
- Waterloo: A French Perspective by Andrew Field.
- Prelude to Waterloo: Quatre Bras: The French Perspective by Andrew Field
- Siborne’s 1815 Campaign Vol 1: The March to Waterloo.
- The Ascendancy of Europe: 1815-1914 by MS Anderson.
- French History since Napoleon edited by Martin S. Alexander.
- Waterloo 1815: Quarte Bras (Waterloo campaign).
- Redcoat by Richard Holmes.
- With Napoleon’s Guns: The Military Memoirs of an Officer of the 1st Empire by Colonel Jean-Nicolas-Auguste Noel
- Wellington’s Guns: The Untold Story of Wellington and his Artillery in the Peninsula and at Waterloo by Colonel Nick Lipscombe
- Rifles: Six Years with Wellington’s Legendary Sharpshooters by Nick Urban
- Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon’s Grande Armee by John Elting
- Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon by Gunther Rothenburg
- Marshal Louis Davout and the Art of Command by Major John M Keefe
- Napoleon and his Marshalls by MacDonell
- Waterloo: the aftermath by Paul O’Keeffe
French and British Sources will all contain some bias’s. Primary sources will naturally have limited views due to the confusion during battles, or the relative positions of the observers. Junior officers particularly tended to have a limited view point and overestimate the importance of their section of the conflict. After the restoration of the Bourbons, the writings of many senior French officers and key Bonapartists were necessarily constrained.
Other primary sources will be plagued by bias’s where people exaggerate their own importance (consciously or otherwise), or they will slander people they dislike or adopt national prejudices. Napoleon was habitually dishonest when it suited him and he was bad at accepting fault, preferring to shift the blame onto his subordinates albeit often deservedly. Still primary sources provide one of the best windows into events at the time and how contemporaries perceived them. Napoleon in particular has suffered at the hands of pro and anti Napoleon historians and writers, so especial care should be taken when reading Napoleonic sources. British sources are very prone to adopting a British=good guys, French=bad guys dichotomy.
This barely scratches the surface. There are reading materials covering everything from uniforms to supply wagons to cooking equipment to grand strategy. There are officers journals and accounts by private soldiers. Napoleon had an incredible career so it is well worth diving deeper into.
Hi. I’m Chris Fernandez-Packham and I’m the host of the Age of Victoria. This is my first podcast. I’m a big history fan but not a professional historian. I’m a philosophy graduate, with post graduate law (CPE & LPC). I somehow ended up working for the British Civil Service in the Home Office doing project management and IT.
The Victorians are just one of my passions, along with table top wargamming (Malifaux & Dungeons and Dragons), playing guitar, cycling, and all things Spanish (including my wife).