The Battle of Waterloo
By Alfons Libert, FINS
On the morning of 18 June 1815, Napoleon's French Army of the North faced the Duke of Wellington's Anglo-Allied forces and later also Blücher's Prussian forces in the vicinity of a small Belgian place called Mont-St-Jean. Here a last, great battle would be fought, the one that ended the Napoleonic era; the battle of Waterloo.
The Waterloo battlefield was very small in area even for the standards of those days. The opposing armies occupied two ridges separated by a gentle valley. In the centre of the battlefield running from south to north was the Charleroi-Brussels road. Following the line of the Mont-St-Jean crest was the Ohain road: a narrow road running between high banks. East of the Brussels road was the Wavre road, a sunken road some 5 to 7 feet (1.5 to 2 meters) deep with thick hedges alongside making it a natural trench. See the map for more details on the ground.
Waterloo battlefield, 18 June 1815
Napoleon had approximately 74,000 troops and 256 guns. The left flank of his first line was formed by the 3 divisions of Reille's II Corps covered by Piré's cavalry. Four divisions of d'Erlons I Corps formed the right flank with Jacquinot's cavalry on the extreme right flank.
In the second line stood the French cavalry; Kellerman's Cuirassier and Guyot's Heavy Cavalry of the Guard behind II Corps and Milhaud's Cuirassier and the Light Cavalry of the Guard under Lefebvre-Desnoëttes behind I Corps.
Behind this mass of infantry and cavalry stood Lobau's VI Corps and the cavalry divisions of Domon and Subervie in reserve. In the rear, near the hamlet of Le Caillou, stood the final reserve: the Imperial Guard.
Wellington had about 68,000 men and 156 guns. His position was carefully examined by the Duke during a reconnaissance the year before and was a strong one. From Smohain and Papelotte on the left trough La-Haie-Sainte and Hougomont it stretched to Braine-L'Alleud on the right. Wellington had massed the bulk of his army on his right flank leaving the left flank lightly held. This clearly shows that he expected Blücher to show up to reinforce the Allied left flank.
As was his usual custom the "Iron Duke" drew up most of his troops to the north of the Ohain road on the reverse slope, out of sight and protected against the fire of the French artillery. Only one brigade was fully exposed. The village of Braine-L'Alleud on the right flank was held by General Chassé's division while units of Lord Hill's II Corps occupied the rest of the Allied right flank. Five brigades of the Prince of Orange's I Corps occupied the centre of the Allied line. The left flank was occupied by the Saxe-Weimar troops under Prince Bernard of Saxe-Weimar and the cavalry brigades of Vivian and Vandeleur.
East of the Brussels road behind the first line stood Picton's division with two more brigades of the 6th division. The mass of the Allied cavalry stood behind the right center west of the Brussels road with the exception of the cavalry brigades of Ghigny and Ponsonby which stood near the Mont-St-Jean farm on the east side of the road.
To the south of the Ohain road the Allies occupied some strong points, designed to break the momentum of the French attacks. On the right flank a contingent of Nassauers and Hanoverians occupied the Chateau de Goumont (usually called Hougoumont). In the centre of the Allied line, just next to the Brussels road, the King's German Legion occupied the La-Haie-Sainte farm. A little further on the east side of the Brussels road was the sand pit, occupied by a detachment of the 95th Regiment. A little further to the east stood Bylandt's brigade. It is not determined if they stood there by error or deliberately but unlike the rest of the Allied troops they were left in full view of the French gunners. On the Allied left flank Papelotte, Frichermont and La Haie were occupied by the Saxe-Weimar troops.
In time Blücher would arrive on the field with three corps, being some 70.000 men.
The approximate positions
On 17 June 1815, Napoleon had two choices: to follow Blücher or to turn against Wellington. His biggest problem was the lack of information. The direction of the Prussian retreat was unclear because the roads were filled with deserters and stragglers so it was almost impossible to follow the tracks of the formed Prussian units. Napoleon knew almost nothing about the situation around Quatre-Bras since Ney didn't send any detailed reports.
The Emperor ordered Ney to occupy Quatre-Bras without delay. If Ney was unable to do so he had to inform the Emperor immediately. Napoleon would then come to his aid. Information from cavalry reconnaissance gradually accumulated and Napoleon learned that Wellington was still at Quatre-Bras. A message from Ney confirmed this.
Convinced that Blücher could not reorganize his army any sooner than in three days and that he had him on the run, Napoleon ordered Grouchy with an army of about 30,000 men (III and IV Corps, I and II Reserve Cavalry Corps) to pursue the Prussians. Grouchy's orders were to detect and prohibit any Prussian attempt to join Wellington and cover Napoleon's right flank. Grouchy marched a little before noon on 17 June in the direction of Gembloux. Battered by heavy rains, he did not put great speed in his march.
Wellington only learned of Blüchers defeat at Ligny at about 0730 on the 17th. He immediately ordered to prepare to retreat. At 0900 a Prussian officer reported to Wellington that Blücher would concentrate around Wavre and that he wanted to know Wellington's intentions. Wellington told him that he would withdraw to Mont-St-Jean and that if he could be certain of the support of at least two Prussians corps he would do battle there, otherwise he would retreat to Brussels.
The Duke of Wellington
The Allied withdrawal began at about 1000. Wellington, still fearing for his right flank, posted about one fifth of his force at Hal and then forgot about it for the remainder of the next days. Ney did not hinder the Allies during their withdrawal, ignoring Napoleon's orders to occupy Quatre-Bras.
When Napoleon arrived at Quatre-Bras, it became apparent that only Uxbridge's cavalry still occupied the area. Napoleon, furious by this new mischance, charged forward with all the cavalry and horse artillery he could find in order to get to Wellington's retreating infantry. The rest of the Army of the North followed at a much slower pace. Uxbridge tried to make a stand at Genappe but was soon outflanked and forced to retreat. During the entire pursuit a wild thunderstorm raged over the area, saturating the soil.
Napoleon's vanguard approached Mont-St-Jean at about 1830, they saw considerable numbers of Allied troops on the plateau before them. To determine if he had Wellington's army before him or only a rear guard Napoleon sent forward some horse artillery and deployed Milhaud's cuirassier. They were received by the fire of at least sixty guns. Napoleon was convinced now and set out to make a thorough reconnaissance of the enemy position. It was still raining and would not stop before 0600 the next morning.
Grouchy reached Gembloux at about 1900 and halted for the night. At 2000 he reported to Napoleon that the Prussians had split into two columns, one moving to Wavre, the other one probably to Liège. He would follow the major Prussian force to Wavre and cut it of if it attempted to join Wellington.
Napoleon inspected his entire outpost at 0100 after a short nap and then returned to his headquarters at le Caillou. Here he found Grouchy's message that strengthened his misconception that the Prussians were out of action for some time to come. He was convinced that Grouchy knew his orders and would effectively keep the Prussians from joining Wellington.
The water-saturated soil would make the effective use of artillery impossible, so at 0500 Napoleon set the hour of attack at 0900 in order to let the ground dry out a bit.
Meanwhile Blücher and his chief of staff, Gneisenau, planned on seizing the initiative from Napoleon. They would send their undefeated IV Corps under their best corps commander, General Bülow to St-Lambert. Bülow marched at 0400. His orders were to hold his corps under cover at St-Lambert if Wellington was not engaged at the time. If he was engaged Bülow was to attack Napoleon's right flank. Pirch's corps would follow him and Zieten and Thielmann were told to get their corps ready.
At 0900, the hour Napoleon wanted to start his attack, some of the French units were stil not in place and the ground was still too soft to use the artillery. Napoleon was confident, he believed he was slightly outnumbered (he did not know that one-fifth of Wellington's army was sitting useless at Hal) but the morale of his troops was good. He figured he had a 90% chance of winning the battle and postponed the attack to 1300. That proved to be a fatal mistake since it allowed the Prussians to arrive on the battlefield in time.
According to a local farmer named Decoster who was serving as a guide for Napoleon, the Emperor was impressed by the sight of the Allied troops but told him that he would cut them to pieces some time later.
At about 1000 Napoleon received a message from Grouchy which stated that the marshal was marching on Wavre and that most of the Prussians seemed to be attempting to join Wellingon by way of Brussels. Napoleon ordered the 7th Hussar Regiment to reconnoitrer in the direction of Grouchy in order to establish contact.
Napoleon's plan of attack was simple because he needed a fast, complete victory. He wanted to annihilate Wellington's forces with straightforward frontal blows. At 1300 he would give overall command to Marshal Ney. Reille would launch a diversionary attack on Goumont in order to attract some Allied reserves from the centre. A great battery of some 80 guns was formed in front of d'Erlons I Corps. This battery would lay down a heavy artillery bombardment on the Allied centre and left to soften the defences. D'Erlon then would attack towards Mont-St-Jean.
At about 1130 Reille's artillery reinforced with Kellerman's horse artillery opened up on Goumont. The purpose of the coming attack on Goumont was diversionary but Napoleon's brother Prince Jerôme obviously felt differently about it. He was determined to capture Goumont no matter at what cost.
He led a brigade of his division in the woods surrounding the Chateau and cleared them by 1230. Jerôme then tried to charge the high walls of the Chateau and was repulsed. He then committed a second brigade. Some French under the command of Lieutenant Legros managed to break through the north gate but were wiped out. Wellington send in some reinforcements. At some time the whole of Jerôme's division and a brigade of Foy's division were committed to this hopeless battle that should only have been a diversion.
Michel Ney - battlefield commander at
Around 1300 Ney requested permission to launch the main attack. At that time Napoleon's attention was drawn to a large body of troops massing in the St-Lambert area (direction Bois the Paris on the map). Jacquinot's hussars brought back some Prussian prisoners and an intercepted message from Bülow to Wellington revealing to Napoleon that Bülow was at St-Lambert and the other Prussian corps at Wavre.
Napoleon now needed to make a quick decision since he now had the Allied army and a Prussian corps before him. The French army was deployed but not committed and could withdraw without a problem but if he did that he would find himself badly outnumbered by the combined Prussian-Allied armies later. He figured he still had a 60% chance of winning the battle so he choose the bolder course of action. He sent Lobau's VI Corps and Domon's and Subervie's cavalry to cover his right flank against the Prussians and a message to Grouchy ordering him to join him immediately. This message was already too late as you will understand later.
At Walhain, at about 1130, Grouchy heard the sound of the guns at Waterloo. General Gérard urged him to march to the sound of the guns but Grouchy refused, saying he had his orders to pursue the Prussians. Gérard then requested permission to march with only his corps to the Emperor but Grouchy refused that too. He told Gérard that it would be a bad decision to split up his forces.
At about 1300 the Grand Battery opened fire. After about 30 minutes of heavy artillery fire, the French main attack started. The Allied infantry, except for Bylandt's exposed brigade had suffered practically no casualties from the bombardment since hardly a soldier was visible and the softness of the ground prevented ricochet fire.
For some unclear reason, three of the four divisions of d'Erlons corps advanced in the outdated and massive "Colonnes de bataillons par division" instead of the more appropriate "Colonnes de Division par Bataillon." This formation meant that each division advanced on a deployed battalion frontage with about 200 men in the front rank and about 24 to 27 ranks deep making a formidable target for the Allied troops. Only one French divisional commander, General Durutte had the good sense to use the right formation. As you will read later, his division had the greatest degree of success. As if this tactical blunder was not enough, only one cavalry brigade under Travers was sent to accompany the Infantry. Yet it was the custom in those days to precede infantry attacks with cavalry attacks to force the enemy to go into square formations.
Decimated by Allied artillery, d'Erlons divisions continued forward. The French infantry captured the sand pit, Papelotte and the enclosures around La-Haie-Sainte but could not break into the main buildings. Bylandt's brigade ran away. One of Ompteda's KGL (Kings German Legion) battalions sent by Wellington to reinforce La-Haie-Sainte was cut to pieces by Traver's cuirassiers. Had enough cavalry been allotted to this attack, Wellington's line of defence could have very well been broken in this initial attack.
At that time Picton's division counterattacked. The French wavered under the British volleys, short range artillery fire and devastating bayonet charges. In the furious fight that ensued, General Picton was killed. He was still wearing his civilian clothes since his luggage had not arrived in time.
Lord Uxbridge seized this moment and ordered his British cavalry to advance. The cavalry brigades of Somerset and Ponsonby charged down on the French. Somerset's Household Brigade routed Traver's cuirassiers, then plunged into the mass of the French infantry while Ponsonby's Union Brigade charged on Marcognet's columns. Completely surprised, the French panicked and ran after a fierce struggle, losing some 3,000 men, the eagles of the 45th and 105th Regiments and two companies of horse artillery.
Overexcited by this success, Ponsonby's brigade continued and charged the Grand Battery in the valley. Although they reached the guns and killed many artillerymen their charge was doomed. Napoleon sent in one of Milhaud's cuirassier brigades and Jacquinot's lancers to counterattack. Ponsonby was killed and his brigade was cut to pieces by this counterattack, some 1,000 officers and troopers of the Union Brigade were killed and the brigade ceased to exist as a unit. Somerset's brigade, which had pursued Traver's cuirassiers for a while, escaped with lighter casualties.
The only French division that steadily advanced was Durutte's division until the defeat of the other French divisions forced him to retreat too. Though attacked by Vandeleur's cavalry he withdrew in good order. D'Erlons shaken corps had taken a beating and would not be reformed and ready to fight again before 1600.
Wellington used the time won by his heavy cavalry to reinforce La-Haie-Sainte, reoccupy the sand pit and bring up a reserve brigade into the line. On the left flank Prince Bernhardt retook Papelotte.
Meanwhile the pointless fighting at Goumont continued. Napoleon ordered to use howitzers against the Chateau. These howitzers soon set the place on fire but it's defenders still held out.
At 1530 Napoleon decided that the Allied center must be smashed. He ordered Ney to take La-Haie-Sainte no matter at what cost. Ney again occupied the grounds but can not break through to the buildings. By 1600 the artillery duel reached a climax, the more numerous French guns gained the upper hand and pounded the Allied centre. Wellington ordered his line to retreat behind the crest of the plateau. He summoned units from his right and left to rebuild his battered center. Long columns of wounded soldiers started marching toward Brussels.
Ney, seeing these movements through the thick curtain of smoke that must have been over the battlefield by then, concluded that Wellington was retreating. He orders Milhaud's cuirassier corps forward. For some unknown reason the Light Cavalry Division of the Guard, under Lefebvre-Desnoëttes, followed. Ney sent this cavalry against the least damaged part of the Allied line, the right center, but without infantry or artillery support.
Again "le rougard" makes another grave tactical error. Without infantry and artillery support a cavalry charge cannot succeed, even worse, by choosing this direction of attack Ney forces the Grand Battery to cease their supporting fire.
Fired upon by the British artillery until the last possible moment, hindered by the soft, wet ground and the passage over the sunken Ohain road, at 1600 about 5,000 sabres charged up the plateau to find the Allied infantry formed in 20 squares. Without enough room and speed, the momentum of the charge was broken. The horsemen swept around the squares, trying to penetrate them. Uxbridge's cavalry counterattacked and sent the French back down the slope. The cuirassier and Guard cavalry rallied and renewed their charge several times.
Napoleon was furious when he saw Ney's premature action but knowing that the attack must be supported, ordered Kellerman and Guyot to join the charge. At 1700, the whole French cavalry was committed, some 10,000 sabres in all. The British claimed that no squares were broken but it seems that some of them were severely cut up. After perhaps as much as twelve unsuccessful charges the remainder of the French cavalry retired, badly shaken up. The British Colonel Frazer said the following about the charge of the French cavalry: "Never did cavalry behave so nobly, or was received by infantry so firmly."
French Cuirassier charge a British
Except for the two brigades on the left flank, Wellington's cavalry was used up and most of his artillery was in a bad shape. The French had not spiked the guns or destroyed the rammers and sponge-staves when they had them in their possession but many gunners simply disappeared!
At that time Ney remembered that he still has Bachelu's division and a brigade from Foy's division and he threw them unsupported against the Allied line. This attack fails under heavy fire and within in ten minutes 1,500 men are killed or wounded.
Meanwhile, Lobau managed to keep Bülow from emerging from the bois de Paris with a bold series of attacks, but the Prussians with their superior numbers fought their way to Plancenoit.
At 1730 Napoleon ordered Ney again to take La-Haie-Sainte. The French had worked up close to the buildings by now and two Allied battalions sent to reinforce the farm were caught by cuirassiers. Uxbridge managed to extricate one, but only after it suffered heavy losses. The other battalion was destroyed. Ney, heavily supported by artillery and some cavalry, took personal command of an infantry regiment and a company of engineers and captured La-Haie-Sainte at 1800 in a furious assault. The survivors of the Kings German Legion that had occupied the farm had to run for their lives. Ney then brought up artillery against the crumbling Allied center and called on Napoleon for reinforcements. Napoleon answered something like; "troops, were do you want me to find them, do you want me to make some?" This was perhaps the moment of truth and had Napoleon sent in the Imperial Guard at this time the battle could have been won.
Nevertheless Napoleon had good reasons for refusing Ney's request. The Prussians had at last reached Plancenoit and their cannonballs started to reach his reserves on the Brussels-Charleroi road. The Emperor ordered General Dushesme to recapture Plancenoit with the Young Guard. Bülow counterattacked, was repulsed and counterattacked again. Dushesme was mortally wounded and the Young Guard was thrown out of Plancenoit. Napoleon then turned to his faithful Old Guard. Generals Morand and Pelet with two battalions of grenadiers and chasseurs of the Old Guard were send in with the bayonet. Two Guard battalions pitted against fourteen Prussian battalions, but in only 20 minutes the Guard cleaned out Plancenoit, leaving some 3,000 Prussian casualties. Lobau also had successfully counterattacked in the meantime and the Young Guard occupied Plancenoit again.
Meanwhile Ney pressed his attack on Wellington's left and center but he saw his chances of victory diminish with the minute. The presence of some cuirassiers forced the Allied infantry regiments to stay in squares while short range musket fire of French skirmishers and French guns at point blank range severely damaged them. The Allied infantry took a heavy beating. The remainder of the Allied cavalry tried to do what they could but they too were a spent force. Some cavalry regiments refused to charge and some even ran away. In the midst of this inferno Wellington rode along his line, urging his troops to fight back. Reinforcements were coming from the right wing and the Prussians kept coming so all was not lost yet.
Napoleon at his observation post
With Bülow repulsed Napoleon turned back to his original plan. Wellington's forces were so shattered that one decisive blow could finish them off. The Prussian reinforcements were very slow to arrive and the sound of guns coming from the general direction of Wavre told Napoleon that Grouchy had engaged the Prussians too.
Napoleon still had 9 battalions of his Old and Middle Guard in reserve. At 1900 the Guard was ordered forward. Napoleon himself marched at the head of the Guard with Generals Friant and Drouot before giving command to Ney some 600 yards before the enemy lines. By this time troops were appearing in the northeast. These were of course the Prussians but Napoleon had it circulated that they were Grouchy's troops. The French troops were excited and all shouted: "Vive l'Empéreur, en avant!" But this lasted only for a moment since it soon became apparent that the arriving troops were Prussian. The morale of the French evaporated and they hesitated.
Now all hope was with the Guard as they marched forward on the sounds of the "Pas de charge." But Wellington was ready, his center was reinforced and his troops were awaiting the French from concealed positions like the bank of the Ohain road.
Instead of taking the relative short route directly into Wellington's battered center, Ney led the Guard northwest along the same track he had previously led the cavalry. This way the Allied troops at Goumont were able to enfilade them during their advance. After leaving two battalions to face Goumont Ney led the other seven (some sources say four, five, six or eight) battalions in a single column to the enemy.
Soon the column split in two. Whether this was deliberate or by accident is not known; however, a column of grenadiers moved directly toward the position of the British Guard, leaving La-Haie-Sainte on their right while the chasseur column moved parallel on the left side of the grenadiers. The French attack near La-Haie-Sainte was halted by musket fire from General Chassé's division. Further west the grenadiers were suddenly fired upon by Maitland's British Guards, who rose up from behind their protective bank of the Ohain road. Surprised by this sudden apparition, the grenadiers stopped. The British poured volley after volley into the ranks of the Imperial Guard. The grenadiers hesitated, then turned and retreated. It was more than even they could withstand.
No more than ten minutes later the chasseur column was attacked by Adam's light brigade which had concealed itself in high standing corn and suddenly appeared on the chasseur's flank. The chasseurs stopped and turned to face this enemy. Wellington then ordered all troops in the vicinity to charge with the bayonet. The French were unable to form and after a bloody fight they retreated too.
The Imperial Guard's retreat around 2010 staggered the French line. The cry "La Garde recule, sauve qui peut" spread through the French ranks. Zieten's arriving Prussians had driven a wedge between Lobau and Durutte and Bülow renewed his attacks on Plancenoit. Wellington waved his hat, thereby ordering his whole line forward.
Four (some say three) uncommitted Guard battalions formed squares just south of La-Haie-Sainte and the two reserve Guard battalions did the same thing at La- Belle-Alliance. Although these battalions were able to hold off the advancing Allied and Prussian cavalry, they gradually disintegrated under the constant pressure of fugitives seeking refuge in them and the continuing Allied attacks. Legend says that General Cambronne shouted "merde" in the spirit of the Guard dies but never surrenders to the British when they asked him to surrender.
The battalions of the Young Guard still at Plancenoit retreated in good order as did the two remaining squares at La Belle Alliance. Napoleon remained in one of them for some time but then he rode ahead to Genappe. Covered by the remainder of the Guard, fragments of other commands retreated towards Genappe.
Wellington and Blücher met at La-Belle-Alliance at about 2100. The pursuit of the French was left to the "fresh" Prussian cavalry while the Allied army remained on the battlefield for the night. Although Gneisenau himself took command of the pursuit all contact with the routed French was lost by daybreak. But you can read more about this in the next chapters.
The Battle of Waterloo was over, Napoleon had fought his
last battle. Blücher wanted to call it the battle of
La-Belle-Alliance but Wellington won the discussion: he
called it the battle of Waterloo because that sounded more
English and his headquarters was at Waterloo during the
Anglo-Dutch casualties were approximately 15,000 killed and wounded and several thousand more missing. About 7,000 Prussians killed or wounded. The French lost about 26,000 killed and wounded, 9,000 missing, and 9,000 prisoners.
Why did Napoleon lose this battle? Many mistakes were made, not only by the Emperor himself but also by his subordinates.
The first mistake made was the postponement of the attack until 1300. This gave the Prussians the time to arrive on the battlefield in time. As you read before the effect of the artillery during the initial attack was minimal anyway so he shouldn't have waited for the ground to dry.
Napoleon made a second mistake by giving overall command of the attack to Ney. As commander in chief, nobody expected Napoleon to lead the assault himself but leaving such an important attack at the discretion of the unreliable Marshal Ney, after all the errors he made in the previous three days, was at least very unwise and most certainly dangerous. Although Ney really was "the bravest of the bravest" he was incapable of leading this big a battle. He fought like a grenadier, not like a Marshal of France.
As stated above, Ney was among other things responsible for spending the French cavalry in a series of unsupported, pointless attacks and in a way for diminishing the chances for success of the Imperial Guard by leading them in a wrong direction.
Another big mistake was allowing Jerôme to escalate the diversionary attack on Goumont into a major struggle that kept large parts of II Corps occupied when they were urgently needed elsewhere. Jerôme himself should have known better.
Another costly mistake was the adaption of a inappropriate formation by three of the four divisions in d'Erlon's initial attack. If they had used a better formation, as Durutte had, there would have been far less casualties and a much greater chance for success.
Grouchy can be criticised for not marching to the sound of the guns or for not using some more initiative like you would expect from a Marshal of France. He was under orders to follow the Prussians and to keep them from joining Wellington. He followed them alright but he didn't keep them from joining the Anglo-Dutch as we all know.
Soult's staff work was far from good and he too is responsible for some of the things that went wrong.
But the responsibility for this disaster laid with the Emperor himself. He was probably already very sick by then and there were some undeniable signs of deterioration in his overall ability. He had become arrogant and overconfident in his own abilities. The Napoleon of before 1815 would not have lost this battle. He underestimated his opponents and appointed second rate commanders when better men like Davout and Suchet were available. In my personal opinion, his greatest mistake was his lack of personal control over the battle. He was at Waterloo, but he wasn't worth 40,000 men anymore.
Tribute must go to Wellington, Blücher, and their soldiers. The Anglo-Dutch army was nothing more then a collection of multilingual units, many of them militia and depot units that never saw action before, yet they have beaten a formidable opponent. Blücher's loyalty and the staying power of his soldiers after Ligny saved Wellington's army since without them the Anglo-Dutch would have been beaten.
Read in the next chapter how Grouchy fought the Prussians at Wavre.
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