INS: Journal Of Napoleonic Scholarship 1998



Wellington: The Genesis of his Waterloo Myths

Peter Hofschröer

In his headquarters at Waterloo, on the morning after the battle, the Duke of Wellington started to write his official report on the events of the previous days to Earl Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, in London. This letter, dated 19 June 1815, was the first communication the Duke had sent to London since the outbreak of hostilities in the Netherlands on 15 June. In it, he gave his version of those dramatic events that are generally regarded as a turning point in European history. As with all accounts given by the leading figures of this campaign, there is a certain amount self-praise and justification, and glossing over one's own errors. In view of the high regard in which the Great Duke is held by many he later became one of Britain's great national heroes few have looked at this report in any detail, let alone compared its claims with the documented record. This essay will examine certain of the claims made by the Duke when still flush with victory, and before other records of the campaign became available. This document was published in Volume XII of the Dispatches. [1]

"I did not hear of these events till the evening of the 15th"

The first two paragraphs of the report read as follows:

Buonaparte, having collected the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 6th corps of the French army, and the Imperial Guards, and nearly all the cavalry, on the Sambre, and between that river and the Meuse, between the 10th and 14th of the month, advanced on the 15th and attacked the Prussian posts at Thuin and Lobbes, on the Sambre, at day-light in the morning.

I did not hear of these events till in the evening of the 15th; and I immediately ordered the troops the troops to prepare to march, and afterwards to march to their left, as soon as I had intelligence from other quarters to prove that the enemy's movement upon Charleroi was the real attack.


Wellington
The Duke of Wellington

While the first paragraph gives a clear and accurate outline of the events leading up to the outbreak of hostilities, the second paragraph contains questionable statements. Firstly, to the Duke's apparent claim that he was unaware of the French concentration on the Franco-Netherlands border. In fact, substantial and detailed information had come into his headquarters over previous days. The outpost at Mons, run by Major-General von Dörnberg, a veteran of the Peninsula, had been a major source of information. This information had come from travelers, informants and deserters from the French army and was passed on the Brussels most days. [2] Zieten had regularly forwarded information to both Wellington and Blücher. [3] The latter forwarded his information to Brussels, and Wellington had close contacts with the French court-in-exile in Ghent. [4] In all, a substantial body of information was available to the Duke of Wellington, he was aware of Napoleon's moves, the likelihood of a French invasion of the Netherlands was perceived to grow day by day that June, and Wellington even went as far as having orders prepared for such an event on the night of 12/13 June. [5] The record shows quite clearly that Wellington was very much aware of what was happening the other side of the Franco-Netherlands border, and that he had been receiving regular information for days, if not weeks, before the outbreak of hostilities.


Blücher
Marshal Prince Blücher

Secondly, the Duke's claim that he first heard of the outbreak of hostilities that evening is not supported by other sources, including certain of Wellington's own papers. As Wellington pointed out above, the French assault on the Prussian outposts began at daylight, that is about 4 a.m. A little later, the noise of artillery fire woke Lieut.-General von Zieten, commander of the Prussian I Army Corps, whose men had been attacked. [6] Writing from his headquarters in Charleroi, Zieten sent the news to both Field Marshal Prince Blücher, commander of the Prussian Army of the Lower Rhine, in Namur, and to Wellington, in Brussels. [7] The distances these two mounted messengers needed to ride, about 35 and 50 km respectively, could be covered in roughly three to four hours. The message to Blücher arrived by 8.30 a.m. [8] As the distance to Brussels was a little further, the dispatch would have taken a little longer to arrive. Indeed, in a letter to the Duc de Feltre, a minister in the French King Louis XVIII's court-in-exile in Ghent, written at 10 p.m. on 15 June, Wellington mentioned that: I received the news that the enemy attacked the Prussian posts this morning at Thuin on the Sambre, and he would appear to be menacing Charleroi. I have received no news since nine o'clock this morning from Charleroi. [9] The Duke's implication that by 9 a.m., he had received Zieten's message is supported by the account of Lieut. Jackson, one of his staff officers, who wrote: Early on the 15th June, we learned that the French were crossing the frontier at Charleroi. [10] In fact, the messages Wellington received on 15 June in fact only confirmed the information that had come into his headquarters over previous days.

The evident inconsistency between Wellington's account and his records deserves closer examination and explanation. The first possibility is that in the four days since the outbreak of hostilities and the writing of this report, the Duke had simply forgotten the time at which he first heard of these events. For a man of Wellington's intellect and with his reputation for attention to detail, that seems unlikely. Moreover, as it took the Duke several hours to complete writing this report, he had every opportunity of considering how to phrase his points. Thus, it would seem more probable that Wellington had another reason for making such a claim.

"I immediately ordered the troops to prepare to march"

According to various eyewitnesses, the Duke of Wellington issued his first set of orders for his troops between 6 and 7 p.m. that day. [11] While that is consistent with the Duke's claim to have issued orders in the evening, in view of the fact that he had heard of the outbreak of the hostilities by 9 a.m., there is little justification in his use of the word immediate. In fact, Wellington had waited nine hours before issuing any orders to his troops, and even those orders were not orders for any movement, but merely for his men to concentrate at their assembly points. The first movement orders were issued at 10 p.m. [12] The commanders of the Reserve were given various verbal orders at the Duchess of Richmondıs ball about midnight, [13] more movement orders were issued during the morning and afternoon of 16 June.[14]Thus, there is no justification whatsoever for Wellington's use of the word immediate in this context.

Accounts published later indicate that reports of events at the front continued to arrive at Wellington's headquarters in Brussels on 15 June, particularly from 3 p.m. onwards. At that time, a message arrived in Brussels, sent by Major-General Behr, commandant of the fortress of Mons, to the Prince of Orange, commander of Wellington's I Corps, informing the Dutchman of the outbreak of hostilities. [15] At the same time, a message from Zieten for Major-General von Müffling, the Prussian representative in Wellington's headquarters, arrived. [16] This contained the news that Charleroi had fallen to the French. As Lieut.-Colonel Sir George Scovell, head of Wellingtonıs Department of Military Communications, noted: On the 15th, about 3 o'clock p.m. there no longer remained any doubt on the subject. [17] Wellington still did not issue any orders, not even the ones he had had prepared for such an event.

About 5 p.m., confirmation of Zieten's first message to Wellington arrived in Brussels after having been held up at Braine-le-Comte for two hours by Lieut.-Colonel Sir George Berkeley, Wellington's representative in the Netherlands headquarters. [18] About the same time, the news arrived that Blücher had issued movement orders to his army, and was, as agreed at the meeting at Tirlemont on 3 May 1815, concentrating his forces in the Sombreffe position (close to where the battle of Ligny was fought on 16 June). [19] It would seem that, only after having heard that Blücher was reacting to the news from the front according to their agreed plan, did Wellington finally start to issue his first orders of the day.

Thus, Wellington was tardy in reacting to the situation. Mulling over the events of the previous days, the Duke, thinking about what to put in his report of 19 June 1815 to his superior, Bathurst, was no doubt aware, with the benefit of hindsight, that on hearing the news of the outbreak of hostilities by 9 a.m. on 15 June, he should have at least ordered his troops to concentrate in their assembly points. That done, reacting to the various reports that came into his headquarters at 3 p.m., he could have ordered at least part of his forces to the front, and his Reserve in Brussels could have marched several hours that day, closing the gap between Wellingtonıs and Blücher's forces that Napoleon was intent on penetrating. The Dukeıs delays lost him an irreplaceable day. He had made a serious error of judgement that, had Lady Luck not smiled upon him so much, could have led to the two wings of the allied forces being separated, and defeated individually by Napoleon. Was a man as proud and ambitious as the First Duke of Wellington going to admit freely his error, particularly to the politician Bathurst? All that was on record on 19 June 1815 was the time at which Wellington issued his orders, 6 to 7 p.m., so what was Wellington going to say? I did not hear of these events till in the evening of the 15th; and I immediately ordered the troops to prepare to march. That statement would save face with his superiors, and was unlikely to be challenged in the near future.

Thus, it would seem more likely, as he could not simply have forgotten those momentous events of the previous days, that an embarrassed Wellington glossed over his error with a likely sounding story.

"In the mean time, I had directed the whole army to march on Quatre Bras"

Wellington's report continued:

The enemy drove the Prussian posts from the Sambre on that day; and General Ziethen, who commanded the corps which had been at Charleroi, retired upon Fleurus; and Marshal Prince Blücher concentrated the Prussian army upon Sombref[fe], holding the villages in front of his position of St. Amand and Ligny.

The above is an accurate outline of the events.

The enemy continued his march along the road from Charleroi towards Bruxelles; and, on the same evening, the 15th, attacked a brigade of the army of the Netherlands, under the Prince de Weimar, posted at Frasne[s], and forced it back to the farm house, on the same road, called Les Quatre Bras.

While the above is factually correct, it is not the whole story. Weimar's troops were part of the 2nd Netherlands Division that Wellington, in his orders issued between 6 and 7 p.m. that day, had ordered to collect at Nivelles. [20] With this order, the Duke had effectively abandoned the vital crossroads at Quatre Bras, allowing the point of the wedge Napoleon was driving between him and Blücher, to separate their armies. This was another major error of judgement made by Wellington that day. Fortunately, Weimar had used his initiative and held his position. However, it would seem that rather than mention this episode to his superiors, the Duke glossed over the issue in his report.

The next paragraph read: The Prince of Orange immediately reinforced this brigade of the same division, under General Perponcher, and, in the morning early, regained part of the ground which had been lost, so as to have command of the communication leading from Nivelles and Bruxelles with Marshal Blücher's position.

This is not entirely accurate. It was the Prince of Orange's chief-of-staff, Constant Rebeque, who had used his initiative in making efforts to hold Quatre Bras. As mentioned above, this was in direct violation of Wellington's orders, but in the circumstances, the right thing to do, as the Duke had clearly made an error of judgement. Wellington did not mention that either.

The report continued: In the mean time, I had directed the whole army to march upon Les Quatre Bras; and the 5th division, under Lieut. General Sir Thomas Picton, arrived about half past two in the day, followed by the corps of troops under the Duke of Brunswick, and afterwards by the contingent of Nassau.


Müffling
The Major General von Müffling. The Prussian representative in Wellington's headquarters

Although this paragraph is accurate in so far as the information given on the troop movements to Quatre Bras, the opening statement, In the mean time, I had directed the whole army to march upon Les Quatre Bras, deserves further comment. From the context of this sentence in the report, the implication is that between the Netherlands position at Quatre Bras being reinforced by the Prince of Orange, this being on the evening of 15 June, and the arrival of the 5th Division at that place at 2.30 p.m. on 16 June, Wellington had ordered his entire army there. Certainly, there are several indications that Wellington had told various people at the time that this is what he had done. Take, for instance, the letter Müffling wrote to Blücher at 7 p.m. on 15 June, just after Wellington had sent out his orders. It contained the words: As soon as the moon comes out, the Reserve will march off, and, if the enemy does not attack at Nivelles immediately, then the Duke will be at Nivelles with his entire forces tomorrow to support Your Highness, or, in the event of the enemy having already attacked, after consultations with you, will move on either his flank or his rear. [21] This letter was written on paper with a British watermark, was marked with a British, not Prussian, wax seal, bore three crosses and was marked immediate. All this indicates that Müffling wrote it when in Wellington's headquarters, and that a British courier carried it, indications of Wellington's knowledge and approval of its contents. However, by 7 p.m., Wellington had not ordered his men to move anywhere, let alone to Nivelles that night. Nivelles is only 10 km from Quatre Bras, two to three hour's march. About midnight, once Wellington's movement orders of 10 p.m. had been issued, Müffling sent a further report to Blücher indicating that Wellington would have 20,000 men at Quatre Bras by 10 a.m. on 16 June. [22] Clearly, Wellington had told Müffling he had ordered his army to Quatre Bras for the coming morning. The Duke would appear to have told the Prince of Orange the same. At 6 a.m. on 16 June, the Prince, having just arrived from Brussels where he had met with Wellington, had a conference with Major von Brünneck, an officer on Blücher's staff. He had been sent to Quatre Bras to establish contact with the Netherlands troops there. At 6.30 a.m., Brünneck sent a report to Blücher that contained the following sentence: The Prince of Orange believes that within the next three hours the entire Belgian army and the bulk of the English army can be concentrated at Nivelles. [23] Thus, the larger part of Wellington's army was expected to be at Quatre Bras by early the coming afternoon.

All this is consistent with Wellington's claim to Bathurst that In the mean time, I had directed the whole army to march on Quatre Bras. It is, however, questionable whether at this stage, Wellington had decided to move any, let alone all his forces to Quatre Bras. Indeed, his records show that before leaving Brussels for the front on the morning of 16 June, he had yet to order a single unit to Quatre Bras. Indeed, those units in and nearest to Brussels, the 5th and 6th Divisions, Brunswickers and Nassauers had at 10 p.m. been ordered: ...to march, when assembled, from Bruxelles by the road of Namur to the point where the road to Nivelles separates... [24] That was at the point where the Brussels chaussée divided into two roads, one leading to Quatre Bras, and one to Nivelles. From Nivelles, Wellington could have used his troops to counter any French move via Mons.

Although Picton was with the Duke at the Duchess of Richmond's ball the previous night, his orders to march so far towards the Prussian positions were only issued well into the morning of 16 June. As an officer of Picton's Division wrote: ...no farther change was made in the chief's arrangements as concerned us, than altering the hour of departure in the morning from four to two o'clock. [25] During the course of that morning, Wellington rode to the front. Wellingtonıs reserve had been ordered to halt once beyond the Soignies Forest, just to the north of the village of Waterloo. Reference to accounts of members of this corps will help illuminate the point. The officer of Picton's Division recorded: ...after two long halts, [it] reached Quatre Bras about two o'clock. [26] Leach, then a captain in the 95th Rifles, wrote: Our division and the Brunswick troops, after a halt of an hour or two near Waterloo, were directed to advance; and we arrived at Quatre Bras about two hours after mid-day. [27] Costello, also in the 95th Rifles, is a little more specific in his account which read: We halted at the verge of the wood, on the left of the road, behind the village of Waterloo, where we remained for some hours...About nine o'clock the Duke of Wellington with his staff came riding from Brussels and passed us to the front... [28] Kincaid, then a subaltern of the 95th, added: The whole of the division having...advanced to the village of Waterloo, where, forming in a field adjoining the road, our men were allowed to prepare their breakfasts...Lord Wellington joined us about nine o'clock; and, from his very particular orders, to see that the roads were kept clear of baggage,...About twelve o'clock an order arrived for the troops to advance. [29] Although the writer of this article has been unable to find direct evidence of an order issued by Wellington to the 5th Division to halt south of the Forest of Soignies, the above indicates that Wellington was aware this division was halted at this point, that the Duke did not order it to move on immediately, and that in fact, the order to do so arrived some three hours after the Duke had passed this point. Thus, Wellington left his Reserve at Waterloo, preparing its breakfast, only sending it an order to move to Quatre Bras until later, probably about 11 a.m. This indicates that Wellington first decided to move only certain of his troops, namely the 5th Division, to Quatre Bras later in the morning of 16 June, and not before.

An examination of various records shows that the 1st Division was ordered to Braine-le-Comte at 10 p.m. on 15 June. Arriving there at 9 a.m. the next day, it awaited orders, which either did not arrive, or were not sent. Later, it marched to Nivelles on its own initiative, where, at 3 p.m., it at last received orders to march to Quatre Bras.30 The 3rd Division was ordered to march only to Nivelles, [31] but marched on Quatre Bras once it had reached this destination, so one assumes that such orders were only issued once it got there. Thus, other than the 5th Division, no other unit appears to have been ordered to Quatre Bras until the afternoon of 16 June, that is, after the fighting had started. The Prince of Orange's statement that, about midnight on 15/16 June, Wellington had decided to move all his forces to Quatre Bras is thus questionable. That may indeed have been what Wellington told the Prince and Müffling, but this statement conflicts with the Duke's actions. It would seem that the Duke made a firm commitment to bring most of his forces to Quatre Bras only after fighting began there on the afternoon of 16 June.

Thus, it would seem that Wellington had misinformed his Prussian allies as to his movements and intentions, that he repeated this false information to the Prince of Orange and that he also misled Bathurst as to his true actions that day.

"I was not able to assist them as I wished"


Blücher
Marshal Prince Blücher

The report continued:

At this time, the enemy commenced an attack upon Prince Blücher with his whole force, excepting the 1st and 2nd corps, and a corps of cavalry under General Kellermann, and with which he attacked our post at Les Quatre Bras.

The Prussian army maintained their position with their usual gallantry and perseverance against a great disparity of numbers, as the 4th corps of their army, under General Bülow, had not joined; and I was not able to assist them as I wished, as I was attacked myself, and the troops, the cavalry in particular, which had a long distance to march, had not arrived.

While these two paragraphs are largely accurate, they do not tell the whole story. In fact, Wellington had done more than express a desire to support the Prussians directly that day, he had made a firm commitment to do so, a commitment that due to his errors of judgement on 15 June, he was unable to keep. As early as 3 May 1815, at the allied strategy conference held in Tirlemont, Wellington and Blücher had agreed to move rapidly and in force to support each other in the event of one of their armies being attacked by Bonaparte. In case of a French assault via Charleroi, the Prussians planned to fall back to the Sombreffe position to fight a major rearguard action where they would be supported by Wellingtonıs forces. [32] Furthermore, from 14 to 16 June, the Duke, directly or indirectly, gave the Prussians several indications of his intentions to meet this commitment. These included:

  1. A promise to Zieten, commanding the Prussian outposts around Charleroi, made on 14 June, that in case of a French assault on the Prussian positions, Wellington would move his forces to Nivelles. [33]
  2. A report sent by Müffling from Brussels on the morning of 15 June passing on the following information from Wellington: The Anglo-Batavian Army is, according to the enclosed order-of-battle, with the two flank corps under Lord Hill and the Prince of Orange deployed from Enghien via Braine-le-Comte to Nivelle[s] in such a way that they can be concentrated at very short notice. [34]
  3. The letter from Müffling of 7 p.m. on 15 June mentioned above.
  4. Müffling's supplementary report sent to Blücher about midnight on 15 June, as mentioned above.
  5. The report from Major von Brünneck also mentioned above.
  6. 6)The latter written by the Duke of Wellington from Frasnes at 10.30 a.m. on 16 June, indicating that Wellington's concentration was well enough advanced for the Prussians to expect substantial support from the Duke at Ligny that day. [35] The information Wellington gave the Prussians conflicted in places with the Duke's knowledge of the actual positions of his troops, and the orders he had given them.
  7. Various promises made by Wellington in his meeting with the Prussian staff at Blücher's headquarters at Brye in the early afternoon of 16 June. [36]

Thus, Wellington had in fact expressed a very firm commitment to support the Prussians at Ligny, and not merely a wish to do so, and did so in the knowledge that it was unlikely he would be able to do more than meet part, if any of this commitment. However, that is not what he had told the Prussians, and that is not what he told Bathurst.

Conclusions

Before accepting primary source material and eyewitness statements at face value, the historian should cross-reference such accounts with the record and other such material to establish its accuracy and veracity. The parts of Wellington's report examined above make it clear that the Great Duke was just as circumspect with the truth as others of his contemporaries were. As such, his report cannot be taken as an accurate account of the events of the days in question. Wellington misled his superiors as to certain of the events and his actions, as much as he misled his allies.

Notes

  1. Gurwood, John (ed), The Dispatches of Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington during his various campaigns from 1799 to 1815, XII: 478-484, (London, 1838). Henceforth 'WD.'
  2. Wellington, the Second Duke of, Supplementary Despatches, Correspondence, and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur Duke of Wellington, K.G., X: 52 ff. (London, 1863), contains copies of Dörnbergıs reports. Henceforth 'WSD.'
  3. See WSD, X: 280 ff.
  4. See, for instance, the letter written by the Duc de Feltre on 5 June 1815 in WSD, X: 417.
  5. Public Record Office, London (henceforth 'PRO'), WO 37/12 fol 1 mentions their writing. A copy of these orders can be found in the British Library, London, Add MS 20,192 fols 270-271.
  6. Militärisches, Heft I: Januar 1896, (Leipzig), 252.
  7. Ollech, Geschichte des Feldzuges von 1815, (Berlin, 1876), 96.
  8. Ollech, Geschichte des Feldzuges von 1815, (Berlin, 1876), 96.
  9. WD, XII: 473.
  10. Jackson, Notes and Reminiscences of a Staff Officer, (London, 1903), 12.
  11. Müffling, Aus Meinem Leben, (Berlin, 1851), 229. Anon, Operations of the Fifth or Picton's Division in the Campaign of Waterloo, United Service Journal, 1841, Part II, (London), 172.
  12. WD, XII: 474.
  13. See, for instance, the diary of Dr. Ferdinand Brude, surgeon-general of the Brunswick forces (Geheimes Staatsarchiv preuŝischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, [Henceforth 'GStA'] IV HA 658, fol 6).
  14. WD, XII: 474-475.
  15. WSD, Vol. X, 481, gives the text. De Bas & T'Serclaes de Wommersom, 'La campagne de 1815 aux pays-bas,' I: 388, (Brussels, 1908), gives the time of its dispatch. The message arrived in Braine-le-Comte about noon where Constant Rebeque forwarded it to Brussels. The time of its arrival is given in WSD, Vol. X, 524.
  16. Müffling, 'Aus meinem Leben,' 228.
  17. PRO, WO 37/12.
  18. WSD, Vol. X, 481 gives the text of the message and the time of its writing, 9.30 a.m. The Journal of Constant Rebeque, Algemeen Rijksarchief, The Hague, Coll 66, gives the time of its arrival in Braine-le-Comte as noon. WSD, Vol. X, 480, gives the time of its dispatch from the latter place as 2 p.m.
  19. Ollech, p 99-100 mentions its contents and dispatch. 'Operations of the Fifth ñ Division' 172 indicates the time of its arrival.
  20. WD, XII, 473.
  21. GStA, Rep 92, Gneisenau, A 48, fol 93.
  22. Nostitz, 'Das Tagebuch des Generals der Kavallerie Grafen von Nostitz,' II. Theil, (Berlin 1885), 22 fn.
  23. Lettow-Vorbeck, 'Napoleons Untergang 1815,' (Berlin, 1904), 298.
  24. WD, (1847 ed.), VIII, 142.
  25. United Service Journal, Part II, (London, 1841), 173.
  26. United Service Journal, Part II, (London, 1841), 174.
  27. Leach, Rough Sketches of the Life of an Old Soldier, (London, 1831), 374 f.
  28. Brett-James (ed), Edward Costello The Peninsular and Waterloo Campaigns, (London, 1967), 150-151.
  29. Kincaid, Adventures in the Rifle Brigade and Random Shots from a Rifleman, (no date), 154-155.
  30. Hamilton, The Origin and History of the First or Grenadier Guards, I, (London, 1874), 15-16.
  31. Lettow-Vorbeck, 522.
  32. To gain an outline of the contents of this meeting and the decisions made, see WD, XII, 345-346; Nostitz, 11; Ollech, 44; Thurn und Taxis, Aus drei Feldz¸gen 1812 bis 1815, (Leipzig, 1912).
  33. GStA, rep 92, Gneisenau, A 48, fol 32.
  34. Pflugk-Harttung, Vorgeschichte der Schlacht bei Belle-Alliance Wellington, (Berlin, 1903), 47.
  35. Ollech, 125.
  36. See the following accounts: Müffling, Aus meinem Leben, 233-237; Pflugk-Harttung, Vorgeschichte, 293; Weltzien, Memoiren des koniglich preuŝischen Generals der Infanterie Ludwig von Reiche Teil 2, 183-184; Clausewitz, Der Feldzug von 1815 in Frankreich, (Berlin, 1835), 67; Nostitz, p 23; Damitz, Geschichte des Feldzuges von 1815 (Berlin, Posen und Bromberg, 1837) I, 118; Thurn und Taxis, 322.




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