So began the morning of Waterloo. After the night of brutal weather, one of the greatest battles of Europe history was about to be fought. It was also to be one of the last of its kind. Never again would Europe see the massed ranks of finely dressed, superbly drilled troops fighting in a tiny field of battle, barely 6 square miles. Until the outbreak of the Franco Prussian war, the continent would be free of large scale conflict, and when it did burst into war the battles were on a vast scale that would be a precursor to the type seen in world war one.
The men probably were wondering if they had been wise to sign up. The life of a 19th century civilian could be brutal and the army at least offered regularish meals. Still those who had enlisted for a meal might be about to pay a high price. Imagine the desperation you had to feel to have joined to march into the cannon’s mouth. To be forced to stand in line motionless until commanded to move or act. Men being blasted to pieces around you by cannon shot. Black smoke burning your eyes, and drying your mouth like sand. At any moment enemy infantry could emerge from the smoke, or worse the cavalry could catch you by surprise. Riding you down or splitting your skull before you could form square. But these were the risks of the day. Hunger was a powerful motive, well captured in a ballard written by Joseph Lees in 1805, called Jone o Grinfilt
The ballard was originally in the Oldham dialect but I’m going to read out the modern English standard version.
Says John to his wife on a hot summer’s day,
“I’ve resolved in Greenfield no longer to stay;
For I’ll go to Oldham as fast as I can,
So farewell Greenfield, and farewell to Nan;
For a soldier I’ll be, and brave Oldham I’ll see,
And I’ll have a battle with the French.”
“Dear John,” then said Nan, and she bitterly cried,
“Will you be one of the Foot, or you means for to ride?”
“Zounds! woman I’ll ride either an ass or a mule,
Before I’ll cower in Greenfield as black as th’ old devil
Both hungry and starving, and never a farthing,
It would really drive any man mad.”
“Yes, John, since we came to Greenfield to dwell,
We’ve had many poor meals, I can very well tell.”
“Poor meal, begad! Yes, that I very well know,
There’s been two days this week we’ve had nothing at all;
I’m almost decided, before I’ll put up with it,
I’ll fight either Spanish or French.”
Then says my Aunt Margaret, “Ah! John, you’re so rash,
I’d never go to Oldham, but in England I’d stop.”
“It matters not, Madge, for to Oldham I’ll go,
I’m nearly starved to death, somebody shall know:
First Frenchman I find, I’ll tell him my mind,
And if he’ll not fight, he shall run.”
Then down the brow I came, for we lived at the top,
I thought I’d reach Oldham before I would stop;
Begad! How they stared when I got to the Mumps,
My old hat in my hand, and my clogs full of stamps;
But I soon told them, I’m going to Oldham
And I’d have a battle with the French.
I kept straight on through the lane, and to Oldham I went,
I asked a recruit if they’d made up their count?
“Now, now, honest lad” (for he talked like a king),
“Go with me through the street, and to you I will bring
Where, if you’re willing, you may have a shilling.”
Begad! I thought this was remarkable news.
He brought me to the place, where they measure their height,
And if they are the height they are nothing about weight;
I reached myself and stretched, and never did flinch:
Says the man, “I believe you’re my lad to an inch.”
I thought this will do; I shall have guineas enough.
Begad! Oldham, brave Oldham for me.
So farewell, Greenfield, a soldier I’m made:
I’ve got new shoes, and a very nice cockade;
I’ll fight for Old England as hard as I can,
Either French, Dutch, or Spanish, to me it’s all one;
I’ll make them stare, like a new started hare,
And I’ll tell them from Oldham I’ve come.
Not that the Emperor was passing a cold wet night, followed by a scramble for food like most combatants on either side. He spent the night in a comfortable farm house called La Caillou, 3 km south of the battlefield. Whether he himself was comfortable is debatable. Some historians have stated that the Emperor was in agony from serious piles. Napoleons brother Jerome states that Napoleon was suffering from acute piles and was in considerable pain. We know from the famous French Physician, Dr Larrey that Napoleon had to be treated for piles using hot clothes just after the Battle of Ligny. However his night passed, he rose early around 04:30 and began issuing orders.La Cillou is still there and if you have a chance to visit you can see Napoleons camp bed and some other bits and pieces of interest.
At 08:00 he had breakfast and a conference with his generals. His beloved personal crockery had turned up. After breakfast, the table was cleared and maps spread out. These maps would have been difficult to read for a modern person. They were small, drawn in inks or pencils and without the clear colour coding we are used to from modern ordnance survey maps. Often they were ad hoc and prone to significant errors. Whilst contour lines technically existed, they weren’t used in the same way as today. Wellington’s map is good, but very hard to read. The French original is terrible. Indeed it has been recently claimed to be error filled and caused much confusion.
I’m going to quote from a Telegraph article about a French documentary on the topic
[QUOTE]Napoleon was relying on a false map for his strategy in his last battle, said Franck Ferrand, the maker of a documentary broadcast on French television. This explains why he mistook the lie of the land and was disoriented on the battlefield. It is certainly one of the factors that led to his defeat. The strategic farm of Mont-Saint-Jean was shown a kilometre from its real location. One kilometre was the range of his cannons so you can see what a difference it must have made, he added.
The false map, used by one of his officers and identical to Napoleons own, was discovered by Bernard Coppens, a Belgian illustrator and historian, still stained with blood, at a Brussels military museum.
We compared the printed map used on the battlefield with the original handdrawn one it was copied from,Mr Ferrand said. We realised it was a printing error. Not only was the farm in the wrong place, but the map showed a bend in the road that did not exist. He added: We also found a letter from his younger brother, Jerome Bonaparte, which described him as looking completely lost on the battlefield of Waterloo. [END QUOTE]
Pre-battle talks have to be moral boosting. No matter how grim the situation, the supreme commander cannot convey defeatism without courting disaster. In his book Vienna 1814, David King gave the following account of the post breakfast discussion
[QUOTE] We have ninety chances in our favour, and not ten against us, Napoleon said, calculating the odds of success that day. Marshal Ney, however, was troubled, fearing that Wellington would sneak away in a retreat and the French would miss the opportunity for a decisive victory. Napoleon rejected the possibility outright. Britain could no longer leave the scene, he said. Wellington has rolled the dice, and they are in our favor. Marshal Soult, the recently appointed chief of staff, was also concerned, though for a different reason. Soult had fought Wellington in Spain several times, without success “the British infantry was the devil himself”, as he had once put it. Perhaps Napoleon should recall Marshall Grouchy and the thirty-three thousand men whom he had dispatched the previous day to pursue the Prussians. Napoleon bluntly dismissed the suggestion: Because you have been beaten by Wellington, you consider him a great general.â€ â€œWellington is a bad general, Napoleon continued, the English are bad troops, and this will be like eating breakfast. I earnestly hope so, Soult replied. [END QUOTE]
There was of course the usual mass grumbling of men marching into position. Gunners set up their pieces, and muskets had been cleared and loaded. Surgeons laid out tools ready to take care of the injured. Still his generals at breakfast were downright gloomy. Napoleon didn’t normally like to eat breakfast with others, he was noted as a somewhat indifferent eater with poor manners and bad taste in wine. Probably he felt that he needed his commanders together and to plan. The breakfast has become justly famous, which you can’t often say about a breakfast as a rule.
I cannot emphasise enough the importance for military commanders of keeping a positive mindset. Of course this shouldn’t blind a commander to reality, but it is worryingly easy for a commander to talk himself and his army into defeat. Also Napoleon actually had fairly good reason not to highly rate Wellington so far; the Duke had already been caught flat footed by the invasion, then made dangerous mistakes in his response to the attacks at Quatre Bras. Balanced against that, the French Marshals had been repeatedly beaten by Wellington in Spain. They were convinced a frontal attack against British infantry was hopeless, and only flanking moves would work. General Reille said [QUOTE] I consider the English infantry to be impregnable [END QUOTE] and went on to say flanking attacks were required to beat them. This was not the answer Napoleon was looking for as he was planning direct frontal assaults for the day. It appeared clear to him that the weather and mud would stop quick movement. He also dismissed suggestions that he summon Marshal Grouchy back with his men. Fatally though, he accepted suggestions to delay the start of the battle to allow the ground to dry out more for the artillery.
Napoleon’s orderly Jardin gave the following account
[QUOTE] On the 18th Napoleon having left the bivouac, that is to say the village Caillou on horseback, at half-past nine in the morning came to take up his stand half a league in advance upon a hill where he could discern the movements of the British army.
There he dismounted, and with his field glass endeavoured to discover all the movements in the enemy’s line. The chief of the staff suggested that they should begin the attack; he replied that they must wait, but the enemy commenced his attack at eleven o’clock and the cannonading began on all sides [END QUOTE]
Now, the Emperor was ready. Now was the time to start in earnest. The displays, the careful moves, the clever plans. The time for that was past. Napoleon had to beat the Allied army. I am repeating the word allied here, not British army. That is seriously important. We must get past the historical airbrushing. Wellington’s army was an international mix from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Hanover, the Netherlands, the Indies, Brunswick and Nassau. It was a truly international force. Only 36% of it was actually British. Even that 36% was neither entirely English or entirely white.
I want to tell you about Pvt George Rose. He was born as a slave in Jamaica but escaped in 1809. He somehow made it to London. He joined the 73rd Foot. He served in Ireland where he became a Methodist, then later in German and the Netherlands in 1813-1814. He was known to have been in the thick of combat at Quatre Bras, but today would be a new level of hell for the former slave turned soldier – all of his hopes and ambitions rested on surviving the day without being maimed or otherwise incapacited from service.
Prt Rose certainly wasn’t the only black soldier fight for the allies. What I find really fascinating though is that it wasn’t the black soldiers that were the target of the disdain of most English & Scottish soldiers. The real vitriol seemed aimed at the Irish, who had a very complex relationship with the Scottish and English. As you will see in later episodes there was immense social tension involving the Irish and they were accused of stealing English jobs during the Victorian period. My speculation is that black soldiers were not common, and were often driven to prove themselves as being as good or better than their white comrades. That probably made the relationship easier, and since they weren’t in direct competition with the English for large scale employment, they were viewed more as a novelty than a threat. This isn’t to say that racism didn’t exist, just that it was a good deal more complicated than might be assumed. By being posted to elite regiments to serve as trumpeters they gained respect, yet at the same time were victims of racism since the fashion for black musicians was linked to aristocrats displaying their wealth by having servants and this filtered through to the more elite Guards regiments. Still service in the West Indies and India accustomed a lot of British white regiments to non-white soldiers and civilians, creating a more open racial relationship in the early part of the C19th than would be seen in the mid to late c19th. It was of course still racist, and promotion was exceptionally hard for black soldiers, who encountered serious prejudice being regarded as less disciplined and morally inferior. I’m just mentioning this, because I’ve yet to see any real art work that shows black troops at Waterloo, despite their contribution. There is a piece of art called “The Recruiting Officer” which shows a black soldier as a trumpeter in a recruiting party. Most people who are only vaguely familiar with Waterloo seem to think of it as a triumph of white English soldiers helped by some Scots, beating the French. As you’ve already seen in reality things were much more complicated.
Wellington displayed little trust in his foreign allies. He broke them up in the main, scattering them around the army by including foreign brigades into British Division, thereby mixing British officers in with the foreign formations. This caused a lot of resentment. Many senior officers felt slighted, and it was hard for foreign troops to accept strange British officers appearing to take over. Some worried that the British were using them as cannon fodder. Wellingtons near open disdain for some of his allies didn’t help. He was scathing about his allied contingents. Early in the battle a few hundred Nassu troops from their skirmish companies were desperately holding the woods around Hougoumont against odds of 10:1. They were driven off after an hour of heavy fighting, and retired to the main farm buildings under intense pressure, having inflicted heavy casualties on the French. Wellington was annoyed and remarked to a Russian attache [QUOTE] it is with these scoundrels that a battle must be won [END QUOTE]
Now to be fair to Wellington, a lot of the nations under his command were either newly created, had patchy military records or in the Belgium case had recently fought for Napoleon. Some Belgiums uniforms were Napoleonic but with the cap badges changed. Still Wellington had extensive experience operating in coalition armies. Even if his British officers or troops displayed their usual sense of superiority (justified or not), Wellington knew that success depend on the Prussians. Wellington was only willing to fight at Waterloo because he was convinced that at least one Prussian corp would reach him to help.
Indeed Wellington had not been idle. He had been up since at least 03:00 hours writing orders and letters. At 06:00 he began the serious work of the day.
[QUOTE] About six O’clock that chilly and damp morning, the duke put on his blue coat, his blue cloak, and his boots, high up on the leg. With his hat in hand, which he typically wore front-back as opposed to Napoleon, who wore it side to side, Wellington walked over to his small charger, the chestnut Copenhagen, stepped into the iron stirrup, and vaulted into the stiff hussar saddle with the high pommel in front. He rode off to be everywhere at once. [END QUOTE]
Wellington, much like Napoleon was physically extremely brave and would routinely be under fire during battles.
Yet curiously, no one is actually quite sure when exactly the battle of Waterloo began. Wellington said 10:00, others 11:30, Marshal Ney thought 13:30.
We do need to discuss time and time keeping. I’ve given you the precise time of sunrise as that can be verified by astronomy. You can work out times for sunrise and sunsets, lunar phases and eclipses over centuries. Other times in this battle will be given precisely where a source mentions them, but that is misleading. Time was not standardised in 1815. Local times varied widely. The reason Navy chronometers were set to Greenwich Mean Time as a standard was to make sure that ship navigators keep their time from a standard point so they could work out a ships longitude. The armies at Waterloo would have recorded time differently. Watch quality varied, and time pieces became damaged during the campaign. Watches were usually set by solar time at noon and had to be kept carefully wound. A British captain might swear blind that a French cavalry regiment charged him at 14:00 as part of a large charge, but his watch might be badly off, and he might be mistaking a small action for part of a wide movement that wasn’t happening.
Battles are not like computer games, with set turns where a unit moves then another unit, then the player turn ends and the computer takes a turn. Battles have an ebb and flow to them. More like a game of football that moves with teams generally attacking or defending depending on whether they have possession, but with individuals in the team moving forward or backwards against the flow. Even in the most vicious battles, there were moments of slack as men paused to reload, reform, spit, piss, look for bits of kit, swallow some spirits or wait for orders.
Piecing together a coherent timeline of Waterloo means relying on the mass of letters, memories, diaries, accounts, official dispatches, reports and interviews. Added on top of this are layers and layers of later books, articles, studies and research. This leads to a narrative. What narrative is told, and what lessons are drawn from it, is often down to the perceptions and biases of the individual historian. We can known some facts as definitive, others are more of a speculation or reasonable conclusion. For example, we know there were a series of great massed cavalry charges against British position. We can be confident that Marshal Ney ordered it. We can be confident that Napoleon carried on with it once it had been launched. We can reasonably conclude that Napoleon carried on because he felt once it was launched, then it had to carry on. We can know that it had limited artillery support. We can speculate that if it had been supported by horse artillery and had spiked British guns, then Napoleon would have broken the British position. We can then construct a narrative like this
Ney foolishly ordered a mass cavalry charge against the British, either in the mistaken belief that they were retreating, or that they were so shaken that the massed heavy cavalry would break them. As Marshal Ney was somewhat aggressive, and not a good planner, he failed to bring up artillery to give close support to break any resistance. Had he done that he would have broken the British squares. His men had also missed the opportunity to spike the British guns. His lack of clear thinking, and failure to exercise close control, resulted in the slaughter of the elite French cavalry. This was an inexcusable blunder. Not only was the charge the wrong decision, and he allowed it to carry on too long, but in wasting the cavalry he exposed the entire French army to disaster as without cavalry the French army was horrifically vulnerable when moving and had nothing to cover their retreat.
I’ll be honest and say that is a fairly conventional narrative. It seems plausible on the evidence, and the assessment of many professional military observers and commentators.
Still there is a completely different historical narrative that can be constructed
Marshal Ney had commanded a number of assaults against the British during the afternoon. The action at La Haye Sainte had been vicious and Hougemont had turned into a meat grinder. The battle was heavy with smoke, and the great guns of the grand battery had been pounding the British for hours. They had already mauled the British yesterday at Quatre Bras. There was only a thin line of infantry left, and they had barely repulsed the great French assault by General D’Erlon. Certainly D’Erlons men had been shattered by the British cavalry, but up to that point, the British and Dutch were crumbling. The British cavalry was in tatters and now there was movement. Some British gunners appeared to be retiring. The British must be on the last gasp. Only the British line regiments held the allied regiments in place. After Quatre Bras, Hougemont, D’Erlon’s massed attack, the loss of their heavy cavalry, now must be the time as they wavered to push them over the edge. No army could take the pounding they had. Now was the time for the heavy cavalry. They just had to get over the crest of the hill, and onto the Brussels road and then it was over. He was on horse back with only telescopes, messengers and his own eyes to gather information. Who knows what Ney thought, but perhaps the memory of Marshal Murat’s grand charges, always launched with exquisite timing came into his mind. Surely Murat would have charged? Now perhaps was his moment too. Marshal Ney had always lead from the front, always pushed the assault. Just scatter the British gunners, and run down the unsteady enemy. Then even the most disciplined troops would break as they saw their friends run.”
This second narrative is also plausible and might well be what Ney actually did think and experience. In hindsight, the massed cavalry charge without infantry or artillery support was the wrong decision, but perhaps Ney really did make a reasonable decision on the information he had.
Waterloo is very much made up of these narratives; some helpful, some pedestrian, some misleading. No one can ever truly know what Napoleon, Wellington or Ney was really thinking and understanding; all we can do is draw reasonable inferences based on what we know of what they did and the circumstances they were in, trying hard to filter it through their personalities. Just rememberer this as we cover the battle in detail.
Whatever their background, and whatever their alligance, the time had come. One of the great battles of European history was about to be fought. It would change the politics and shape the nations of the continent for nearly the next century. It is worth setting aside those pop culture images of Waterloo. That it was neat lines, puffs of smoke, and splendid epic warfare. It was a truly vicious battle that resulted in many men being horrifically wounded, or killed, or left with crippling psychological injuries that would leave them changed for life. But what was especially unusual about Waterloo is that it was such a tiny battle field for such a huge number of men.
Let’s get some perspective on the battlefield and the scale. Remember the figures I’m about to give are very much approximations when it comes to ancient battles.
Alexander the Greats great victory at Issus was probably fought between 40,000 Greeks and 100,000 Persians including their allies
The battle of Cannae was a key battle in the wars between Rome and Carthage. It is remembered as being a supreme example of tactical brilliance by General Hannibal Barca against Rome. It was fought between around 50,000 Carthaginians and 84,000 Romans.
The battle of Adrianople could have had around 25,000 Eastern Romans against maybe 80,000 Visigoths and Alans.
After the fall of Rome and the transition to the Byzantine Empires, the size of battles in Europe dropped drastically.
The pivotal battle in European history of the middle ages happened at Tours where the Muslim conquests of Europe were finally checked. This involved probably around 15,000-25,000 on either side.
The battle of Hastings – you know 1066 and all that – was down to probably around 8,000-12000 a side.
The battle of Yorktown had perhaps around 28,000 men involved, mostly on the American side.
By contrast at Waterloo, the Allied army was 68,000 strong, and the French 72,000. They would fight crammed into an area no more than 3 miles wide.Marshal Grouchy was marching nearby with 33,000 men and the Prussians had around 50,000 men in the combat area. That means around 223,000 men were involved in the around Waterloo and Wavre on 18 June 1815. That’s slightly more than at Gettysburg.
The rain and Napoleon’s decision to batter the enemy rather than manoeuvre meant that this would be a meat grinder of a battle. Slogging and pounding were going to be the defining features of the battle. More men than were present at Issus were going to fight to the death in a tiny area between two ridges, in the mud, horse shit, blood and smoke.
Now think about the numbers involved here. The French I Corp under General D’Erlon was around 22,000 strong. That is nearly the size of the army that the Eastern Roman Empire could muster at Adrianople. Despite all the advances in technology, gunpowder and command structures, the way the army was actually controlled wasn’t that much more technically advanced than the Romans. Orders were shouted, trumpeted, drummed, and sent by messenger. Men moved by marching or riding. But the size of the army being commanded was now huge, the weapons more deadly, and the consequences for mistakes more punishing than ever. A Roman cohort ordered to march and mistakenly expose itself could usually rely on fighting its way out or stubbornly holding on till other cohorts rectified the problem. A miss deployed British regiment could be wiped out be French artillery in minutes. In the last episode I mentioned a British regiment that mistook enemy French cavalry for friendly Brunswick cavalry. They didn’t form square, and were shattered, losing 287 men in minutes. Now just at the time when army commanders could make fewer and fewer mistakes, they were having to command more and more men in more intricate ways that made the chances of a blunder even greater. Just to get a Napoleonic army onto a battle field, pointed in the right direction and fighting was a major achievement. By the end of the day at Waterloo, Napoleon was trying to do the impossible by fighting two battles at the same time. One against the Allied army of Wellington, and one against the approaching Prussians. The fact that he still nearly won is astonishing.
What was the battlefield of Waterloo itself like? Why was it here that the retreating Wellington had chosen to stand? Above all else, Wellington was a master at identifying and using terrain. For Napoleon the terrain was often incidental to the battle. It was speed, aggression, clever moves and great timing that won his battles. For Wellington, battles were avoided unless the odds favoured him. Terrain was always used to offset the weaknesses of his force and play to its strengths.
To understand the battlefield , we need to zoom out a bit to get a birds eye view, then zoom in to the level of the individuals at standing height. Waterloo on Wellington’s side was a really strong position. It was a high, long ride that was at right angles to the road to Brussels. It had a light wood behind it, and at the very top of the ridge was a sunken road, hidden from view. The cross roads of the road to Brussels and the sunken lane was a nice summit with a large Elm tree, where Wellington made his HQ for most of the day.
Some senior officers and Napoleon criticised Wellington’s choice. But the position had been carefully chosen by Wellington and kept up his sleeve. Above almost all his other many talents, Wellington was a sheer genius at picking and using terrain. The position allowed Wellington to hide much of his force from French view. That gave him surprise in his movements. It also allowed him to shield much of his force from artillery fire, especially his precious line infantry, supply wagons and medical facilities. The Allied army would be kept sheltered and supplied. It also had a wood behind it. Whilst that seemed to many like a dangerous disadvantage, Wellington had studied it previously. He knew that actually it had little undergrowth and so his army could slip through it if retreat was necessary. He also knew that the battlefield position had two farms Hougemont and La Hay Saint that stood out in front of the allied ridge like bastions, with another farm . Rather than creating Grand Artillery batteries of cannons like the French, Wellington supplemented his line regiments with light guns to boost their already impressive fire power. At ground level there were good views of the valley and the French positions, whilst the Allied troops were carefully concealed.
It is also worth noting that Wellington was only willing to fight at Waterloo because he expected the Prussians to arrive to help. He would not have chosen to make a stand here unless the Prussians were coming. He received messages indicating that they were so his left flank was left “in the air” precisely because he expected them to arrive from his left. His centre was carefully hidden behind the ridge and his right was anchored by Hougemont. Interestingly he sent 17,000 men further to his right, away from the main battle. These were to be his safety valve. They were to keep the routes to the sea open in case the Prussians didn’t come, and to prevent Napoleon swinging round to his right to cut him off or attack his flank.
Wellington’s plan for the day was simple. Select highly defensible terrain, hide troops out of sight, and put small forces into his bastions to hamper French assaults. Be miserly with using reserves, cling to the ridge, wear the French and wait for the Prussians to swing the weight of numbers decisively against the French. In boxing terms, it was classic defensive fighting from a technical scientist of the ring.
Napoleon also had a fairly simple plan. He wanted to keep the guard in reserve. He would pound the British with his artillery, use his cavalry to force them into squares, then send in his infantry to punish them before perhaps using the Guard to break the most stubborn points of resistance. He would smash the Allied army out of the way, crush it, and take Brussels, then swing round to rejoin Grouchy and pursue the retreating Prussians. Carrying on the boxing metaphor, Napoleon was abandoning boxing science in favour of hard punches in a close up match.
Napoleon seemed to believe that the Prussians were a spent force after Ligny, and that Grouchy would be able to push them back to stop them joining Wellington. He also clearly seemed to feel that manoeuvre at Waterloo was counter productive. The ground was still a mud bath. Trying to get round Wellingtons right would simply force Wellington back towards the Prussians, not away from them. Moving to Wellington’s left would potentially just push Wellington back along his lines of supply and achieve very little beyond delaying the battle.
There are a huge number of myths around Waterloo, about Wellington, Napoleon and the various forces. Historians and armchair generals have a lot of trouble remaining impartial on events and the actions of the armies. Revisions can range from Napoleon the incompetent to how Napoleon the brilliant was robbed of his triumph by the Prussians. Indeed if you read some accounts, you could believe that Napoleon actually won Waterloo. Most accounts in English refer to Waterloo as a British victory or even an English one over the French, where Wellington proved himself the better general than Napoleon.
As always on the podcast, I have to say the reality is much more complicated. By the end of the day the French army was in a panicked rout. No amount of spin can change the end result; because spoilers, the French army was no longer a cohesive force in the field, and Napoleon was shortly to be out of power and in British captivity, but it was as a result of a multinational effort, and was much more than just Wellington beating Napoleon.
How events got to that point though is truly fascinating. If you listened to my last episode, you will have heard me speculating on the role stress played in the battle, and people’s decisions. Every Napoleonic battle was stressful, but Waterloo was going to be on another level. I cannot imagine the mental strain on Wellington, Napoleon, Marshal Ney, Marshal Soult and the many others. Making good decisions under stress is very hard. When stressed humans often fall back on practised responses, whether or not they fit the circumstances. Napoleon’s physical condition was well below healthy after a difficult start to the campaign. Marhsal Ney seemed to be suffering from PSTD since Russia in 1812 and was clearly tormented by his decisions to betray first Napoleon then the restored Bourbon monarchy. Soult was a poor chief of staff and in any event hadn’t been in the role long enough to get a real grip. Not that all of the Allied commanders were in great shape. Prince Blucher had been extremely badly injured two days before after the battle of Ligny. He nearly died when his horse rolled on him and was almost killed by the French as a result. Also he was not entire psychologically stable and was extremely bloodthirsty for revenge on the French. Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton GCB was a hard fighting Welsh officer. He had been recommended to Wellington by Francisco De Miranda and had served with distinction during the Peninsular war. (Oh and if you were following Mike Duncan’s excellent Revolutions Podcast, yes it was that Francisco De Miranda – he really did get everywhere). Picton was probably also suffering from PTSD by the time of the 100 Days Campaign, and had to be pressed by Wellington to accept command of the 5th Infantry Division. This was a fine division indeed, including as it did elements of Highlanders, old line regiments, rifles, a Hanoverian Brigade and horse artillery. It would see action in various forms in the Boer Wars and both World Wars until finally being disbanded in April 2012. Not only was Picton mentally unwell, but he had actually been shot through the hip at Quatre Bras, but he and his servant concealed the wound so he could continue to fight. He gained a glorious reputation after Waterloo, and was probably pretty crucial to the British so history tends to ignore his conviction for torturing slaves during his career – he was only acquitted because his lawyers successfully argued that torture without trial was legal under the colonies Spanish laws. The Prince of Orange was inexperienced and incompetent.
It wasn’t just the senior officers who were under stress. Battalion and company officers faced the additional problem of giving orders in difficult circumstances and translating the high level directives from senior officers into battlefield directions.
I’m going play you a short clip now. It’s taken from a film I haven’t seen. It gives you a wonderful example of the noise and complexity you might hear in a Napoleonic battle. The film is actually a recreation of the Battle of New Orleans, so the period is in a few years of Waterloo, and the sounds are very authentic. It gives an idea of what people had to deal with. Now imagine you had to give orders in this cacophony of noise.
[Sounds of firing, cannon, shouting and bagpipes].
Now, the Emperor was ready. Now was the time to start in ernest. The displays, the careful moves, the clever plans. The time for that was past. Napoleon had to beat the Allied army. The Armee Du Nord performed its final grand review on the slopes in front of La Bell Alliance. This is the last time the great display of French Napoleonic finery was on display. Trumpets blaring, drums beating, flags flying in the wind. Eagles gleaming in the sun and shouts of Vive L’Emperor. Just the spectacle would have been awe inspiring. Knowing that great mass of disciplined, power men would soon be attacking would shake the resolve of some armies.
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