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Waterloo! There are only a few battles in history whose names have become so famous as to mean something even to those least interested in military affairs. The epic showdown that ultimately brought down the French empire erected by Napoleon Bonaparte is so well known that it has even entered into common language. Phrases such as “he met his Waterloo” now signify ultimate defeat and the end of all hopes. On June 18, 1815, south of the small Belgian hamlet Waterloo, in what was then the Kingdom of the Netherlands, one of the bloodiest battles of history occurred. Napoleon hoped to destroy the European coalition arrayed against him by means of a quick, decisive victory over one, or preferably both, of his main antagonists. These were the Anglo-Allied army under Field Marshal The Duke of Wellington, and the Prussian army under Generalfeldmarschall Gebhard Leberecht Fuerst Bluecher von Wahlstatt. Admittedly, preparations for the campaign took a couple of months and after its conclusion some more weeks were needed to bring the French empire to its knees, and there were other theaters of war besides the one in Belgium. Yet the Waterloo campaign proper, the just four days between the crossing of the Netherlands border by the Armée du Nord on June 15, 1815, and its disastrous defeat at the hands of the combined Anglo-Allied and Prussian armies on June 18, decided the fate of the emperor, and by implication, the Empire. Napoleon’s second reign, unlike the first, had lasted only the proverbial “Hundred Days”. His triumphant return to Paris from the Mediterranean island of Elba to his humiliating second exile to the South Atlantic island of St. Helena was to be a short lived affair.
campaign may well be the best researched and most often studied military operation
in history. The absence of major wars in central Europe for half a century
after 1815 made sure that the last great campaign they had fought remained
significant for the armies to study, for veterans to boast of, and for societies
to commemorate. The fact that it was a coalition effort has perhaps contributed
to the ongoing fascination of the campaign even today.
Not only were a Prussian and a British army in the field, the latter also comprised a significant share of troops from the Netherlands and minor German states. Accordingly there is a wealth of literature that more or less openly seeks to secure for their own countries the greater share of the laurels by denigrating the efforts of the allies, or questioning their motives. In such a way, the numerically superior German contingents in the combined armies of the victors are often dismissed in British accounts as barely trained levies with questionable loyalty that ran on the first shot of the enemy. In return, German or Netherlands authors accuse Wellington of having won his victory with their countrymen’s blood and then claimed all the fame for himself. Beyond these trivial issues, there is of course the myth of the lost cause, the final assault of the legendary Old Guard, the last flight of the eagle … without doubt, Waterloo retains its fascination.
So often has the campaign been described in books long and short, scholarly and popular, English, French, Dutch, and German, it hardly warrants repetition. In any brief account on a few pages, the informed reader is likely to find what he considers unacceptable omissions and probably outright errors (the same most likely goes for the game itself, but such is the fate of those who dare design wargames on famous campaigns …). Besides the grognards and students of military history who will hopefully play this game, there will be others who have heard of Waterloo, but not read on the events surrounding it, who in fact start playing without the benefit of hindsight. For these, a brief outline of the course of the campaign will without doubt be useful.
The General Situation:
With a country partially in civil war and his rule far from firmly established, Napoleon had no desire to go to war in the spring of 1815. In fact, he tried to achieve peace at almost any cost. The great powers of Europe, however, were determined to get rid of the menace once and for all. Thus while Napoleon was scraping the barrel of French manpower to raise forces with which to defend his country’s 1,000 mile-border, the British, Prussians, Russians, and Austrians, together with most of the minor countries of Europe, reassembled the armies they had just partially demobilized. In the Low Countries, a coalition army of British, Dutch, Belgian, and German troops was forming under the Duke of Wellington which by June would have a strength of over 110,000 men. On the lower Rhine, four Prussian corps (130,000 men) were concentrated under the command of the old warhorse, Marshal Bluecher: uncouth, sometimes mad, but always energetic. Coming up from north-west Germany were the contingents of the minor states, under the command of another Prussian general, Friedrich Graf Kleist von Nollendorf—over 20,000 men (which would miss the campaign). An Austrian and South German army, 220,000 strong, under Austrian Feldmarschall Karl Philipp Fuerst zu Schwarzenberg, the victor of Leipzig, was being assembled on the upper Rhine. Russian Field Marshal Mikhail Bogdanovich Barclay de Tolly, of Scottish descent and a former Russian Minister of War, had somewhat less than 200,000 troops in general reserve coming up from eastern Germany. Various smaller contingents were closing in on the French border in Switzerland and upper Italy, bringing the grand total for the Coalition to about 700,000 troops. United under Schwarzenberg as commander-in-chief, they were scheduled to invade France simultaneously on June 1, 1815.
To oppose this juggernaut, Napoleon only had about 500,000 men by early June, in spite of frantic efforts to raise more. A significant part of these were needed for internal security duties and for guarding the minor theaters of war against the lesser coalition forces. Furthermore, some never made it in time to play a role in the campaign in Belgium. Just over 120,000 men would finally take the field with the Armée du Nord, Napoleons main strike force, of which he assumed command personally. These men immediately faced about twice their own number in British, Netherlands, and German troops in the Low Countries, so it was a desperate gamble from the outset—the war as such, but even more so the decision to fight it offensively. Yet the one luxury Napoleon did not have was time. With all Europe united against him, and an unruly country in his back, a war of attrition against overwhelming force held no prospect worth second thought. On the other hand, a quick, fatal blow against the nearest enemy armies in Belgium, while the others were still marching up, might unite France behind him and stabilize his rule. Napoleon hoped this would destroy the confidence and coherence of the Coalition, and maybe knock the British out of the war.
Speed and unity of action was of the essence. The one momentum that worked in Napoleon’s favor was the composition of the Armée du Nord, arguably one of the best armies he may ever have commanded. Built almost exclusively from veterans of the near continuous wars France had been fighting between 1792 and 1814, volunteers to a man, it could be compared to an épée, swift and deadly, whereas the armies facing it were more in the nature of a broadsword, unwieldy, but capable of overwhelming the enemy by their sheer mass once they struck. Napoleon had a possible, but by no means certain chance of dealing at least one knockout blow that would change the complexion of the war. He hoped this would be not so much in a military sense, but in a political way—by scaring Europe into negotiating with him.
The Anglo-Allied and Prussian armies were spread out about most of southern Belgium so to guard as much of the French border as possible and facilitate keeping themselves supplied from the country. Napoleon assembled the six infantry (counting the Imperial Guard) and four cavalry corps of the Armée du Nord a few miles south of the border, at Beaumont. By using the utmost caution, closing the traffic across the border, and spreading false rumors, the concentration was kept secret at least to a certain degree, so as to keep the Allies guessing. Beaumont was located centrally enough to keep several options open, including an advance northwestwards via Mons. This would hit the Allied right flank, thus threatening to cut off Wellington from the vital Channel ports. However, it was chosen by Napoleon primarily for another reason: it was the perfect jump-off point for a strike down the Paris-Brussels road through Charleroi—the juncture between the Anglo-Allied and the Prussian armies.
The Opening Moves:
On the morning of June 15, 1815, unimpressed by minor inconveniences like a General of Division in the first wave defecting to the Prussians, and the inevitable traffic jam when squeezing ten corps into as many miles of front, the Armée du Nord invaded Belgium. It crossed the Sambre river in three separate columns, and took the key town of Charleroi. Elements of Generalleutnant Hans Graf von Ziethen’s Prussian I Corps occupied the area mostly with isolated outposts. They fought bravely, but were finally brushed aside by vastly superior numbers. Ziethen managed to re-form his corps near Gilly, a short distance northeast of Charleroi, and delay the French right until the next morning by a skilful fighting retreat on Fleurus. Meanwhile the French left, temporarily under Maréchal Michel Ney, Prince de la Moskowa, advanced straight down the Brussels road. Ney got within a few miles of the key crossroads of Quatre Bras, where he encountered a strong Netherlands force which he chose not to engage with his command still badly strung out on the road. Thus nightfall of June 15 found the Armée du Nord with a foot firmly planted in the door of Belgium. The next morning it would try to push the door wide open.
The Allies were slow to grasp the significance and direction of the advance. Napoleon’s plan of hitting them exactly where cooperation between the British and the Prussians would be most crucial seemed to pay off. Wellington, who could by no means afford to be cut off from the Channel ports, was reluctant to believe that the Charleroi threat was the French main effort and hence was not too eager to concentrate his army in the direction of the Prussians. Crucial hours were lost as divisions were countermarched or received orders too late for them to be of use in the upcoming engagement. Without the initiative of two Dutch officers no Anglo-Allied troops may have been available to defend the Brussels road at all. Maj. Gen. Baron Jean-Victor Constant-Rebecque (Chief of Staff to the Prince of Orange, commanding Wellington’s I Corps) and Lt. Gen. Baron Henri-Georges Perponcher-Sedlnitzky jointly decided to move Perponcher’s 2nd Netherlands Division to Quatre Bras without orders.
army had started the campaign already better concentrated and was a trifle
quicker to move to oppose the Armée du Nord, but even so Bluecher managed
only to concentrate three of his four corps in the Ligny-Sombreffe area on
June 16, including the already badly mauled I Corps. General der Infanterie
Friedrich Wilhelm Graf Buelow von Dennewitz, commanding IV Corps, had only
received marching orders that failed to convey the urgency of the move. Consequently
his corps was still on the road from Liège when the army was engaged
by the French main body at Ligny.
For the continuation of the offensive on June 16, Napoleon reorganized his army into two permanent wings. The Left Wing, comprising I Corps, II Corps, III Cavalry Corps, and the light cavalry of the Imperial Guard, was given to Ney. Maréchal Emmanuel Marquis de Grouchy, the last Marshal of France ever appointed by Napoleon, received command of the Right Wing, with III Corps, IV Corps, I Cavalry Corps, and II Cavalry Corps. The emperor himself commanded the Reserve, at this time the Imperial Guard, VI Corps, and IV Cavalry Corps. (In the reality of the three battles of June 16-18, the wing assignments were handled flexibly, especially when Napoleon was present himself, as with the Right at Ligny and with the Left at Waterloo.)
The plan for June 16 was for Ney to fend off whatever Wellington would be able to throw at him at Quatre Bras from either Brussels (north) or Nivelles (west), while Grouchy and Napoleon would engage Bluecher at Ligny and hopefully finish him off. In any case, they hoped to push him back on his own communications—eastwards into Germany, and away from Wellington. The Duke and his assorted Anglo-Netherlands-German contingents would then be at the mercy of the re-united Armée du Nord.
Ligny and Quatre Bras:
Bluecher accepted battle at Ligny in spite of (at best) questionable odds,
remains a matter of conjecture until this very day. Facing over 70,000 good
French troops with about 90,000 average ones, including Zieten’s already
mauled corps, was a chancy proposition—unless Bluecher expected significant
support from Wellington. That, of course, is the German version of the story
until today: that, in a personal meeting with Bluecher near Brye, the Duke
promised to attack the French left in force in the early afternoon, but failed
to keep his word and let the Prussians bleed for him. The British tradition,
naturally, strongly rejects that notion or puts it down as a misunderstanding
due to language problems. Be that as it may, it is quite conceivable that
old “Marschall Vorwaerts” (Marshal Forward) had made up his mind
to engage the French no matter what the odds. In any case, a retreat from
the advancing French Right Wing could only have been towards the own lines
of communication, eastwards, away from the Anglo-Allied forces, thus playing
into Napoleon’s hands. Had Bluecher been routed at Ligny, he may afterwards
have been crucified for having fought at all. Yet as it turned out, he (barely)
managed to hold in the face of the French onslaught, and thus most likely
saved the campaign for the Coalition.
No less significant was the Prince of Orange and Wellington succeeding in holding Quatre Bras, on this 16th of June probably the single most important location in all Belgium. They did this against odds of almost six to one, with reinforcements arriving piecemeal over the course of the day. Had Ney managed to brush the Netherlanders aside, it is likely that the two armies of Wellington and Bluecher would have ended up completely separated from each other. As it were, they were able to fight united on June 18.
Napoleon’s orders to his wing commanders for June 16 initially assumed that the Prussians the Right Wing was facing at Ligny were only Zieten’s I Corps, having been drawn up for yet another rearguard action. Accordingly, Grouchy received orders to brush the Prussians aside and advance as far as Gembloux, thereby preventing any juncture between the Coalition forces. Ney was to overrun the weak Anglo-Dutch detachments around Quatre Bras and thus open the Brussels road. Having accomplished this, Napoleon would join Ney with his reserves and both would be in Brussels in the morning of June 17, taking the later day Belgian capital with a coup de main and thus ending a brief victorious campaign.
It was early afternoon on June 16 before Napoleon realized that not only was he facing considerably more Prussians than just one battered corps, but also those Prussians showed every intention of holding their position rather than disperse before Grouchy’s onslaught. Centered on the hilltop village of Brye, where Bluecher had his headquarters, the Prussian position stretched along Ligne Creek from near Wagnelée in the west to beyond Sombreffe in the east. The small villages and isolated farmhouses along the creek were occupied, and the creek itself, though neither wide nor deep, was marshy and had steep banks, so that it made a significant obstacle when being defended. From the gentle slopes leading up to Brye, Prussian artillery dominated the far bank. Even for forces as skilled as the Right Wing and Reserve of the Armée du Nord it would be difficult to dislodge almost 90,000 men—more than their own number—from such a favorable position.
On the other hand, there was also a considerable opportunity here: to envelop and destroy the bulk of the Prussian army, thus taking it out of the campaign for good. Accordingly, Napoleon now ordered Ney to just clear Quatre Bras of the enemy, then advance east to fall upon the Prussian right flank that was in air. The III Corps under Lieutenant-Général Dominique Joseph René Vandamme, Comte d’Unsebourg, and the IV Corps under Lieutenant-Général Comte Maurice Etienne Gérard were to assail the Prussian position directly at St. Amand and Ligny. A breakthrough there would split Bluecher’s army apart. Grouchy would advance on the right towards the Namur road with the I and III Cavalry Corps, pinning the Prussian left in place and fending off any reinforcements arriving from this direction. The Guard and IV Cavalry Corps remained in reserve.
The plan was only a moderate success. For one thing, the Prussians showed considerable more tenacity in holding their creek line position than anyone expected. For another, Ney never even managed to take and hold the crossroads at Quatre Bras, let alone support Napoleon at Ligny. As a result, what had been planned as a decisive envelopment turned into a seesaw battle of attrition that lasted until nightfall, and in which the French barely prevailed.
opened at 2:30 p.m. Vandamme’s corps needed several tries and almost
an hour and a half to clear the Prussian outposts out of St. Amand and St.
Amand La Haye. They then could advance no further against the heavy fire of
the Prussian artillery coming from the heights beyond the creek. A counterattack
by elements of Prussian II Corps succeeded in temporarily re-capturing St.
Amand, but on the open ground beyond Wagnelée a Prussian column trying
to outflank the French left was repelled and almost routed. Both sides reinforced
the confused streetfighting in the villages with more and more forces, and
St. Amand changed hand several times. Even a division of the Young Guard,
supported by some Old Guard battalions, failed to permanently eject the Prussians
who only withdrew from St. Amand once the battle had long been decided further
Gérard’s assault on Ligny initially very much resembled Vandamme’s on the St. Amands. In Ligny’s streets, too, a desperate seesaw battle developed in which quarter was rarely asked or given. Both sides fed in reinforcements as they came up, and Ligny changed hands several times as well. Nevertheless, as afternoon turned into early evening, it became increasingly clear that finally the French would prevail. At 8:30 Napoleon launched the Old Guard and the heavy cavalry against Ligny’s battered defenders and now the village finally fell. Advancing out of the village and onwards, threatening to cut the Prussian army in half, the assault column was charged by Prussian cavalry led by Marshal Bluecher himself. The charge was seen off with heavy losses for the Prussian troopers. Bluecher himself had his horse shot out from under him. He was injured when being trapped by the body of the horse, and two French charges passed over him before he could be rescued by his Aide-de-camp.
More Prussian counterattacks failed to stop the French thrust out of Ligny that increasingly forced the wings of Bluecher’s army apart. With the center broken, the Prussian position had become untenable, even though the Right had held (just barely) and the Left had only seen inconclusive fighting. At nightfall, the Prussian army started the retreat. However, when the blue columns marched off the field they were not headed east, for Gembloux, Namur, and the Rhine, but north—to Tilly and Wavre, to link up with Wellington’s army. Napoleon had pushed the Prussians out of their position and mauled them baldy, but he had failed to achieve the operational objective—to prevent a juncture between Bluecher and Wellington.
The blame for the failure to do so fell, almost naturally, on Maréchal Ney, who not only had not supported Napoleon at Ligny, but had even failed in his first assignment of taking Quatre Bras. There, too, a seesaw fight had ensued after Ney had first pushed back a brigade of Perponcher’s 2nd Netherlands Division under Major-General Duke Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar. Reinforced by Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton’s 5th Division from Wellington’s army reserve and the Brunswick contingent under the personal command of the Duke of Brunswick, the Netherlanders managed to hold a line just south of Quatre-Bras. Repeated assaults by several divisions of Lieutenant-Général Comte Honore Charles Michel Reille’s II Corps failed to budge them. Ney then tried to break the Allied line with a heavy artillery bombardment, but around 5 p.m. Wellington, who now commanded in person on the crossroads, was further reinforced by Lieutenant-General Charles Alten’s 3rd British Division. Now 24,000 strong, the Anglo-Dutch began to outnumber the French, and even more troops arrived piecemeal over the rest of the day. The Battle of Quatre Bras turned into a stalemate.
reason why Ney was not able to take the crossroads, however, was probably
the blunder committed by Lieutenant-Général Jean Baptiste Drouet,
Comte d’Erlon, commanding French I Corps. 18,000 more or less fresh
troops were missing from both battles, Ligny and Quatre Bras, because d’Erlon
had started north from Gosselies towards Quatre Bras, in Reille’s wake,
but then, for reasons never fully explained, turned east towards Napoleon’s
Left near Wagnelée, where a full corps would certainly have routed
the Prussian right immediately. However, instead of engaging, d’Erlon
countermarched, arriving at Quatre Bras around 9 p.m., too late to do any
good in either battle.
By nightfall, the operational situation in Belgium was quite undecided. Bluecher had suffered 20,000 casualties and a tactical defeat, but had succeeded in holding the French Right for almost the entire day. More significantly, he avoided being pushed out of Belgium and the campaign. Wellington had held Quatre Bras and thus had managed to recover from his earlier failure to concentrate quickly towards the Prussians. A juncture between the two armies was still possible. And thus, in spite of a tactical success that badly mauled one of his adversaries, Napoleon had not achieved his operational goal of pushing one enemy army aside, then crushing the other. There would have to be a second round.
On to Wavre and Waterloo:
opportunity was left though. On the morning of June 17, Wellington still held
Quatre Bras in considerable force. If Ney’s wing, now with its two infantry
corps re-united, would pin the Anglo-Allied army in place, Napoleon, unimpeded
by the Prussians still reforming after the retreat from Ligny, could fall
upon Wellington’s left and destroy most of his army for good. The road
to Brussels would be open. Yet Napoleon failed to grasp his chance before
it was too late, and Ney just let Wellington slip away.
In fact, for most of the day Napoleon was unaware of the position of either of the enemy armies, except for the Anglo-Allied forces still holding Quatre Bras. He also overestimated the decisiveness of his victory at Ligny. Thus he took his time. Only around noon on June 17 did he order Grouchy to pursue the withdrawing Prussians with III and IV Corps and I and II Cavalry Corps, and then he sent him east towards Namur rather than north towards Wavre. Even though he mentioned the possibility of the enemy armies re-joining, the emperor clearly expected the defeated Prussians to withdraw to the Rhine.
of this, Napoleon turned against Wellington. He rejoined Ney with his Reserve
and the united forces set out to pursue the British as they started retreating
north on the Brussels road. Wellington stated as his intention to offer battle
in an already selected position at Mont St. Jean, halfway to Brussels—provided
the Prussians could support him with at least two corps. Otherwise he would
have to withdraw further. The governor of Antwerp was warned to prepare the
fortress against an assault. A detachment under Prince Frederick of the Netherlands,
17,000 strong, was stationed at Hal to act as a flank guard in case Napoleon
should try to outflank the British position on the Brussels road.
Bluecher, ably assisted by his chief of staff, Generalleutnant August Graf Neidhardt von Gneisenau, meanwhile managed to reform at Wavre his battered and partially routed army. This was no mean feat, especially considering that the Prussians were essentially retiring forward, away from home, so to keep in contact with their allies. He was also finally being joined by Buelow, whose IV Corps brought the grand total of the army to over 100,000 men.
Heavy rain impeded the movement of all three armies on this day. This may have contributed as much as Napoleon’s false assumption about the enemy intentions to Grouchy’s failure to find a Prussian army that, after all, occupied a considerable stretch of countryside. At the end of June 17th, Bluecher’s four corps were still unmolested by any French pursuers, and by 2 a.m. he promised Wellington that he would support him on the next day. Grouchy was advancing away from Napoleon, whose army was now spread out along a ridgeline facing the British position that blocked the Brussels road at Mont St. Jean. The crucial fact of the operational situation was that Grouchy was already further from Napoleon than Bluecher was from Wellington. The day before, the French had had the interior lines. Now the situation was reversed. The sole advantage that Grouchy still held on this day—that he had a good road connecting him with Napoleon, while Bluecher had no road worth mentioning at all to link up with Wellington—was lost once Grouchy actually started following the Prussians to Wavre. Only an immediate flank march could have brought him on the field where the battle of June 18 was fought. Grouchy, in literal obedience to his orders to follow Bluecher, did not attempt this flank march. The cards were dealt for the final showdown at Mont St. Jean, or as the Prussians would call the battle, Belle-Alliance. The British, of course, ever after named it for the small hamlet of Waterloo.
position at Mont St. Jean was of considerable natural strength. Situated squarely
astride the Brussels road, it ran for the most part along a low ridgeline
that could be used to hide lateral movement. The castle-like county seat of
Hougomont on the right (west), and the farm houses of La Haie Sainte in the
center and of Papelotte, La Haye, and Smohain on the left (east) provided
ready-made strong points to break a French advance. Hedgerows and generally
the tall field crops further worked for the defenders by impeding a coherent
assault. There was every chance that Wellington would be able to hold until
help from the Prussians arrived—even though his army was slightly outnumbered
by the French (ca. 70,000 vs. 75,000) and, on average, of lower quality.
Napoleon was well aware of the strength of the position, but he had no time to lose in flanking maneuvers. He he learned from personal observation, at 1 p.m., that at least one Prussian corps was en route to Waterloo. He also probably had little respect for the staying power and coherence of Wellington’s assorted Anglo-Dutch-German contingents. Hence the assault would be frontally, relying on mass and shock to break the Allies’ lines along with their will to resist. Accordingly, unlike Wellington’s army that was spread out in a relatively thin line along its ridge, the Armée du Nord was arrayed for this final battle in a deep formation. I and II Corps were in the first line, with Reille left of the Brussels road and d’Erlon right of it. Behind that was the VI Corps under Lieutenant-Général George Mouton, Comte de Lobau, and finally the Imperial Guard under Général de Division Comte Antoine Drouot. The cavalry was deployed on both flanks. Napoleon’s orders provided for a massive artillery bombardment of the Allied center and a diversionary attack against Hougomont by Reille before d’Erlon would go in and split Wellington’s army apart like the Guard had done with Bluecher’s at Ligny.
of Wellington’s army certainly reflected his determination to fight
a defensive battle of attrition. His infantry battalions were spread out along
the frontline in an almost random fashion, with the divisions all mixed up,
not to mention the corps, whose organization was largely on paper anyway.
Wellington hoped his British infantry would provide a sort of skeleton for
the lower quality troops of his Dutch and German allies when interspersed
with them. In contradiction to usual practice, the Duke also had most of his
cavalry behind the center rather than on the flanks, so to bolster up the
infantry and provide a counterattack force. Still fearing for his line of
retreat, he also made his line strongest on the right, instead of the left,
where he expected the Prussians to link up with him.
It was not so much the muddy condition of the ground as the time it took to assemble the troops that had spread out to find food and shelter that delayed the French attack until near noon, thus wasting valuable time. At 11:30 a.m. Reille opened the battle with his attack on Hougomont. Intended only as a diversion so to draw Wellington’s reserves away from the point of d’Erlon’s attack, the fight for the chateau turned into a battle within the battle that sucked up almost a quarter of Napoleon’s infantry. Defended by only a handful of Nassauers and British Guards, Hougomont held out until the end of the battle against a total of 24 battalions of French infantry.
At 1 p.m.
Ney requested permission to send d’Erlon forward now, just as Napoleon
personally detected the Prussian advance from St. Lambert. The situation was
considerably changed now, but the need for a quick success was in fact reinforced.
The emperor chose the bolder option. After a preparatory half-hour bombardment
by the grand battery of guns assembled behind his line, d’Erlon launched
all four of his infantry divisions against the Allied center, between La Haie
Sainte and Papelotte. Behind a heavy skirmish line and with Ney and d’Erlon
riding personally at their head, 25 battalions advanced in dense columns of
divisions against the weakest part of Wellington’s line, defended by
a mere 13 battalions. It was Napoleon’s best bet for winning the battle.
The assault was defeated by the heavy cavalry of which Wellington had, reportedly, a low opinion. While the frontline infantry retreated under the onslaught of d’Erlon’s unwieldy column, the Household Brigade under Maj. Gen. Lord Somerset (1st and 2nd Life Guards, Horse Guards, 1st Dragoon Guards) routed the heavy cavalry division that guarded the left flank of I Corps’ assault. Then the Union Brigade under Maj. Gen. Sir William Ponsonby (1st, 2nd, and 6th Dragoons) advanced through their own infantry and slammed into d’Erlon’s columns that had already been reduced by cannon and musket fire during their advance. 11,000 infantry recoiled under the impact of just 1,300 heavy cavalry. With d’Erlon’s assault broken, the Union Brigade tried to complete its success by overrunning the French gun line on the opposing ridge, only to be cut down badly by about 2,400 French cavalry. Both British cavalry brigades lost about 45% of their strength, but their charge was instrumental in turning back the most dangerous attack of the entire day.
Time was beginning to run out for Napoleon. It was probably Ney’s mistaking Wellington’s decision to retire his army a short distance (so to escape the worst effects of the ongoing artillery bombardment) for a general retreat that triggered the most dramatic phase of the battle—a series of massed cavalry charges with which Ney hoped to finish the battered Anglo-Allies. From 4 to 6 p.m. a total of 20 cavalry regiments, 8,500 sabers, representing three-fifth of all the French cavalry on the field this day, repeatedly charged the British lines just west of the Brussels road—unfortunately where, unlike further east, the line had hardly been weakened by the artillery. Unsupported by infantry or artillery, the French troopers accomplished little beyond a great spectacle of military splendor almost unparalleled in history. The Anglo-Allied infantry formed a checkerboard of squares in which they were virtually safe from the cavalry. They also outnumbered the attackers by almost three to one (but then d’Erlon’s infantry had outnumbered the Union brigade by nine to one). Nevertheless, they did suffer losses, and while no square actually broke, some were not far from it.
the struggle for the strong points on the field was continuing. While Hougomont
never fell, the farm house of La Haie Sainte did. It was defended by a detachment
of the King’s German Legion, British soldiers of mostly north German
origin, and was finally taken by the French around 6 p.m. This removed an
important protection for Wellington’s center that had hitherto had served
the purpose of splitting every French advance against the main line in two
disconnected parts. At this time, Wellington’s army had suffered badly
from the continuous artillery bombardment as well as the series of French
attacks and the Field Marshal had almost used up his infantry reserves for
plugging gaps in the line when they occurred. It was apparent that the Anglo-Allied
army would not be able to hold for much longer.
At the same time it was also becoming clear that the window of opportunity that Napoleon still enjoyed was rapidly closing. Creeping forward over undulating country roads that would have been an obstacle for an army with guns and wagons on a good day, but were now in addition covered knee-deep in mud, and further impeded by traffic jams and a fire on Wavre’s main road, the Prussian army (minus III Corps that acted as rearguard against Grouchy) had needed almost the entire day to cover the nine miles as the crow flies to the field of Waterloo. By 4:30 p.m. the lead elements of Buelow’s IV Corps were finally debouching from the Bois de Paris and assailing the village of Plancenoit in Napoleon’s right rear.
had already reacted to his earlier detection of the Prussian advance by sending
Lobau’s VI Corps off to the east as a flank guard, thus reducing his
reserve forces by half. Once the Prussian attack on Plancenoit began in earnest
after 6 p.m., he released the Young Guard and two battalions of the Old Guard
to reinforce Lobau—another drain on his reserves. A street fight in
the village ensued and it changed hands several times before the Prussians,
who now had all of Buelow’s corps and one brigade from Generalmajor
Georg von Pirch’s II Corps, a total of 31,000 men, finally drove the
outnumbered French out at 8 p.m. The fight for Plancenoit, so often almost
forgotten in British accounts, cost the Prussians 6,350 casualties, thus accounting
for over 90% of the Prussian losses at Waterloo.
It also made clear beyond a doubt that the French were in the process of losing the battle, now with a strong Prussian corps almost on their line of communications, and another one (I Corps) joining the Allied left at Smohain around 7:30 p.m. At this time, Napoleon decided to make a final attempt at turning the battle around. Against the Allied center he now launched what remained of his reserve—what was left of the Imperial Guard after Plancenoit had taken its toll.
Five battalions of the Middle Guard and three of the Old Guard, supported by artillery and on the flanks by whatever infantry Reille and d’Erlon could still supply, advanced up the same slope that the heavy cavalry had ridden up so many times before on that bloody day. They marched in squares so to protect themselves against enemy cavalry. It was a hopeless endeavor, a beau geste of an empire facing its final sunset. Eight battalions, barely 3,000 men, even though composed of the best soldiers of Europe, simply stood no chance of breaking through three times their number of the enemy (in the area actually assaulted). Launched as the spearhead of a corps-strength advance earlier, these veterans of so many battles would have made a difference. Now, with just 6,600 other infantry in support, and no cavalry, they merely added to the butcher’s bill. The Old Guard marched into the history books and the collective memory of generations to come, but they never reached the crest. The British front line shook under the impact, but it held. Cannon fire and concentrated musketry by the British Guards shredded the forward ranks to pieces, and the 3rd British Brigade wheeled forward to pour fire into the flank of the advance.
The Guard did not break, but it was checked and the squares started retreating from the slope. Wellington immediately ordered a general advance of all the army. The rest of the French army had pitted its last hope for victory on the Old Guard assault and now the reverse and the counterattack broke its morale. What remained of I and II Corps flooded back to the south in increasing disorder. Some squares of the Old Guard, most notably the two battalions of the 1st Grenadiers, formed solid rocks in this southbound current, steadying the retreat and protecting the emperor and his valuables. Lobau’s corps managed to keep Prussian IV Corps away from the vital main road south just long enough for most of the army to make it to Genappe. A Prussian pursuit undertaken by Gneisenau was not too successful. Some French units, particularly from Reille’s corps (which was furthest from the road to the rear) dissolved in panic. Most of the army retreated in a more or less coherent fashion over Genappe to Charleroi. It was far from being an organized fighting force, however, and a more vigorous pursuit would have probably routed it for good.
Losses at Waterloo were 17,000 Anglo-Allied, or 23% of those engaged, and 7,000 Prussians (14%). French losses on June 18 itself are hard to determine, as the first strength figures available are for a much later date and include losses in the retreat. It seems certain, however, that the Armée du Nord lost well over 30,000 men killed, wounded, and missing —maybe as much as 46,000.
The only undefeated French forces left in the field on June 19 were the two corps under Grouchy. They had fought an indecisive battle against Generalleutnant Johann Adolf Freiherr von Thielemann’s III Prussian Corps along the Dyle river from Limal to Wavre. Grouchy engaged Thielemann again in the morning of June 19 and remained in possession of the field when the latter decided to withdraw, seeing himself outnumbered by more than two to one. Unpursued, Grouchy marched south and by June 26 rejoined the Armée du Nord at Laon, taking command of the whole, still 55,000 strong, en lieu of Maréchal Nicolas Jean de Dieu Soult, Duc de Dalmatia, Napoleon’s chief of staff. Staging a skillful fighting retreat, Grouchy reached Paris on June 29, with Bluecher on his heels. However, Bluecher dared not assault the fortified city with the troops he had at hand, as Wellington’s battered army was not even there yet, and anyway in no shape to storm Paris. Meanwhile, the other Coalition armies, encouraged by Waterloo, finally invaded France from the east.
France had had enough of the fight. Napoleon resigned in favor of his son and left Paris on June 29. An armistice was concluded on July 4, and Louis XVIII returned to the throne of France for the second time, there to start a war of terror against his own countrymen in order to stamp out Bonapartism once and for all. Napoleon surrendered himself to the British on July 15 and was exiled to the South Atlantic island of Elba where he died in on May 5, 1821, at the age of 51.
D.S. Walter – Hamburg, Germany – August 2004
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