A Very Near Run THing

Modern Interpretations of the Battle of Waterloo

by Paul Comben     17-Jun-2015

Waterloo: A Very Near Run Thing - title image
(Graphic image from "Waterloo 200" by VentoNuovo Games)


Some months ago I wrote an article, Waterloo: An Utter Waste of Time, which looked at how Napoleon’s Operational Plan for the campaign in Belgium unraveled through a persistent lack of urgency in its implementation. In this essay I will be looking at Napoleon’s plan for the battle of June 18th 1815 itself, to what extent it was effected (and was effective); and to that end, I will be looking at modern interpretations of key events of the day, as presented in the works of Alessandro Barbero, Tim Clayton and Robert Kershaw.

Perhaps the first thing to understand about events of that Sunday two hundred years ago, is that it was all happening a day late, and in entirely the wrong place. Had the issue been pressed as it could and should have been, there would have been no battle a little to the south of the village of Waterloo – somewhere south or just north of Genappe maybe, but not along the crest of Mont Saint Jean. Ney’s tardiness in doing anything whilst Wellington was still at Quatre Bras, and Napoleon initially placing scant credence on Ney’s reports on how much army was in front of him, left the Duke able to retreat to a known position whilst the French struggled to catch up. As a consequence, near all the contingents of the Anglo Allied army were in their allocated Waterloo positions come Sunday morning, whilst the French were strung out for miles.

The Plan

Napoleon was taking breakfast with his senior commanders as his soldiers continued to file by. Conjecture as to whether he could have started the battle earlier than close to midday is not soundly based, as it tends to presume that the delay was largely about waiting for the ground to dry after the torrential downpours of the previous hours. In fact, it made no military sense to attempt battle with very little in place. What sort of plan the emperor could have devised for an army that was still over the hills and far away is anyone’s guess – a missing army being of about as much good as a dead one.

What Napoleon said that morning has long been quoted as evidence of misplaced confidence in regard to the situation facing him. The apparently abrupt dismissal of remarks about the tenacious fighting qualities of the British and their commander, coupled with what has been presented as an unsubtle battle plan born out of bombast certainly appears to bear this out - there was going to be a pounding with the Emperor’s numerous artillery; an escalating assault by the cavalry; and then the fracture and collapse of the opposing line at the hands of the Old Guard.

What you can take from this, if you look at it from a somewhat different perspective, is that Napoleon had a pretty clear idea what he was going to do and how he was going to do it. Whatever was colouring his mood that morning, that vast aptitude for reading a field and devising a relevant plan had not entirely abandoned him. Reconnaissance had revealed the want of any field works along the Duke’s line, and that the commander of the Anglo-Allied army was clearly favouring his right. By contrast, the French deployment, still progressing until late in the morning, was close to a perfect symmetry. The seven infantry divisions of the I and II corps filled the French front line, with each corps having its integral cavalry deployed on their respective open flanks. A little behind both these two frontline formations was a corps of heavy cavalry (Milhaud behind I Corps, Kellerman behind II Corps); while close to the Brussels road, which more or less bisected the French army, was the VI Corps of Lobau, with two divisions of infantry, its artillery, and two “borrowed” divisions of cavalry – those of Domon and Subervie. Finally, behind VI Corps, and lining the Brussels road for some considerable distance, was the infantry and artillery of the Imperial Guard – the heavy cavalry of the Guard was close to Kellerman’s corps, and the light cavalry close to Milhaud’s.

However, there were two things that Napoleon got wrong that morning – the first was the size of the army he was facing, which was markedly short of the 90,000 - 100,000 he believed it to have deployed; and the other was his assertion that, contrary to rumours seeping through to “The Palace,” the Prussians were simply not capable of recovering sufficiently this soon after Ligny to make any sort of arrival on the forthcoming battlefield. In the case of the size of Wellington’s army, the Emperor was clearly assuming that Wellington had everything with him, when in fact, he had placed 17,000 men at Hal, several miles to the west, to guard against the very flanking move Napoleon had no intention of making. As for the recovery of the Prussians, Napoleon must have been placing some faith in Grouchy to act as became a Marshal of France as opposed to a military dolt. This in turn feeds into the reasons why Napoleon was unwilling to contemplate a shift around Wellington’s right – Grouchy was supposed to be bridging the gap between the two wings of L’Armée du Nord with at least some form of force, and be proactive in preventing any Prussian contingent seeping towards Mont Saint Jean. Orders would be sent to this effect, just to emphasize the point; but although events would prove that it was really too late for these orders to have much effect given where Grouchy actually was (miles behind the Prussians and too far to the east), the Emperor clearly expected throughout the day that the sound of the guns alone would be enough to get Grouchy going in the right direction…but it was not.

But what did banging away with the “numerous artillery” and all of the rest mean in practice? As a plan, what Napoleon devised did not have much wrong with it; the problems came later, with the implementation, which was largely left to others. In essence, what Napoleon intended to do was cave in Wellington’s left with an assault from the entire I Corps under D’Erlon, supported by way of a second wave by the VI Corps. Furthermore, in addition to the cavalry of the two assaulting army corps, Milhaud’s cuirassiers would compel that targeted portion of the Duke’s forces to “stick or bust,” and if they stuck, the numerous artillery and the advancing infantry and artillery would make mincemeat of a gaggle of quivering Allied units now formed in square.

So far, so good; but in addition to this brute assault, there was meant to be a preparatory attack on Wellington’s outpost of Hougoumont, the chateau with extensive gardens and woods close to the Nivelles road. I use “preparatory” rather than the oft-used “diversionary,” as certainly some recent accounts have stressed that capturing the Hougoumont’s substantial woods was important to the second phase of the battle assuming the main French attack folded Wellington’s centre and left beyond Mont Saint Jean. Effecting this maneuver with the greatest security meant clearing any potential threat emerging from the area of the chateau as well as compromising that portion of Wellington’s forces located behind the place.

The Beginning

The battle which then ensued (starting somewhere close to noon), and which saw Jerome’s (Napoleon’s brother) large division, and then troops from Foy’s division also, embroiled in a to and fro struggle for possession of the chateau has often been portrayed as a French diversionary attack that was allowed to get out of hand. In fact, for as long as Napoleon was intending to win the battle by breaking Wellington’s forces from the Brussels road to the region of Papelotte, and then pivoting westwards, neutralizing Hougoumont by possession of its woods and approaches was pretty much deemed as essential. That Napoleon himself thought so can be supported by the fact that his later orders regarding the struggle raging there involved the deployment of howitzers with incendiary ammunition rather than any insistence that his forces actually withdraw.

Meanwhile, preparations continued for the main attack. By dint of the order written by Marshal Soult at the behest of Napoleon, a little after 1pm the artillery of I Corps, supported by the 12pdr batteries of II and VI Corps, began an intense bombardment of the centre and left of Wellington’s line. However, both this bombardment and certain other events pertaining to it have been subject to some fascinating modern re-evaluations by Alessandro Barbero and Tim Clayton – authors, respectively, of The Battle and Waterloo – Four Days That Shaped Europe’s Destiny. Barbero was the first author I encountered to dismiss the notion that this bombardment commenced from what has commonly been called the “intermediary” ridge, situated about six hundred yards from the Allied line and touching the Brussels road only two hundred yards or so from La Haie Sainte. Simply trundling the guns up to this position, with no support whatsoever, would have been to invite catastrophe. This is also supported by Clayton, who cites Ruty, the overall artillery commander, and his order to Desales, responsible for I Corps cannon, to choose a more forward position for his batteries once D’Erlon’s infantry was into the deciding stages of its initial attack. Desales chose the forward “intermediary” ridge, but did not begin moving batteries there until D’Erlon’s divisions were close to the final dip before the relatively modest climb towards the hedge lined Ohain road. Thus, the initial bombardment commenced from a gun line deployed in a relatively mild arc stretching east-northeast from the inn of La Belle Alliance.

The Numerous Artillery

Other issues pertain to the size of this Grand Battery as it opened up – maybe some fifty-six guns rather than the eighty-plus oft quoted in earlier accounts, and alongside that, the route of march of D’Erlon’s force. Clayton cites eyewitness accounts which strongly suggest that three of the divisions swerved around the guns rather than picking their way through the impedimenta of wagons, caissons, horses and, of course, the cannon themselves. Quiot’s division, again, according to Clayton’s sources, swerved around the guns by moving west, and at least initially, across the Brussels road; Donzelot’s and Marcognet’s infantry moved some considerable distance to the east to clear the same obstacle; whilst Durutte’s division was probably clear enough the guns, it being the easternmost of the four units now advancing.

Despite the somewhat extended range, there is more than adequate testimony that the French cannon did a great deal of hurt in the prolonged intervals where their own infantry was out of the line of fire. Nearly all the hills and rises on the most contested parts of the field were (and are) rather mild, and while they were certainly employable for the partial shelter of troops, the sheer volume of fire and the elevation of the guns meant that the ground could not protect the Allied troops from everything coming their way. And so, with the French artillery doing its job, it was now up to the assaulting force to carry the attack deep into Wellington’s position; but it was a this point that several things went awry.

First, there was the formation the French divisions deployed into prior to their advance. D’Erlon had avoided what might be called a dose of the “Wellington jitters” by totally avoiding the Quatre Bras battlefield two days earlier. But now, in trying to be clever in the face of his Peninsular adversary, he merely managed to be militarily daft on the grand scale. Two of his divisions (Durutte appears to have kept things on a simpler, saner level, and Quiot progressed, albeit clumsily, in separate brigades), advanced looking like large planks of wood, with each battalion in an elongated series of ranks, and each battalion of each division stacked one behind the other. Just why D’Erlon did this has been the subject of conjecture over the ensuing years, with it being suggested, to be kind, that he adopted this unwieldy formation because of its intimidatory look and the notion that it retained some fire and shock abilities through its hybrid nature.

The truth is probably rather less complicated than looking at the issue all ways around might suggest. For me, D’Erlon simply outguessed himself in trying to compensate for the fact that he had never once bested Wellington in battle. Instead of keeping it simple, and letting the attack be delivered in a more orthodox fashion, he contrived something hopelessly clumsy from out of the last pages of the French tactical manual, and thus robbed this portion of the attack of any real flexibility.

The Less Numerous Cavalry

All of this might have been less of an issue had the French cavalry been better employed. Potentially available to the attack that early afternoon was the I Corps cavalry division, the IV Corps cavalry under Milhaud, the light cavalry of the Imperial Guard, and the two cavalry divisions of the VI Corps. Clearly, the whole lot was not going to press forward at the same time, but in reality, very little of it went forward at all. A portion of Milhaud’s cuirassiers did put in a very forceful charge close to the Brussels Road, but elsewhere, there was no French cavalry force able to support the attack with any sense of immediacy. Arguments that the ground further east was unsuitable for a cavalry attack because of the hedges along the Ohain Road are hardly tenable given that the British Union brigade launched a devastating attack over that same ground just a little later. At the very least, some further cavalry should have been in the intervals between the French infantry to cover contingencies; but as it was, the bulk of the French cavalry that did eventually become involved did so purely reactively – i.e. it countercharged the Union and Household brigades only after they had done their damage to D’Erlon’s infantry and had got among the guns of the Grand Battery. These French counterattacks were very effective, and wrecked both British brigades; but by then, I Corps was going in reverse and the first clear chance to win the battle had been compromised.

Finally, VI Corps never got involved in the fight. Its two infantry divisions could have added extra weight to the attack, and the two extra cavalry divisions, if sent forward, could have made a serious difference. But having moved to D’Erlon’s original jump-off position, the entire formation was then caught between contesting priorities – support D’Erlon or face east to face the first intimation of a threat from Prussian forces now seen some four miles away? In truth, this quandary should never have arisen. That it did was entirely due to the utter failure of Grouchy to do anything to assist the decisive battle of the campaign. As a result, Lobau was to have no other viable option but to deploy east and leave I Corps to its own devices.

Who Was Really Winning?

In looking at what then ensued up to the point that the French cavalry began its massed attacks from about four o’clock onwards, one needs carefully to assess what the real situation was a half hour or so earlier. By 3:30pm, D’Erlon had been repulsed, but totally routed is probably putting it too strongly. Attacks were ongoing against La Haie Sainte, the Grand Battery had been augmented and shifted somewhat westwards, and much of D’Erlon’s infantry was still forward of its original line, with skirmishers buzzing around the weakened elements of the Anglo-Allied left. Certain eyewitnesses from the Allied army have been quoted in many accounts with regard to the looks of victory on the faces of many of the foreign dignitaries accompanying the Duke; and yet, just after 4pm, we have Napoleon lamenting the sudden advance of major cavalry elements led by Ney, opining that it was all “an hour too early” and that Ney was hazarding a battle “that was almost won.”

How could the Emperor say such a thing after the apparent wreck of I Corps’ attack; and what, furthermore, was supposed to fill the hour Napoleon now thought was being misused?

In truth, although I Corps had been damaged, so had the already weak left of Wellington’s line. Picton, the tenacious commander of the 5th Division, was dead, and his two British brigades, already depleted after Quatre Bras, were now in a markedly fragile state. Wellington’s best cavalry was also hors de combat, and his artillery was betraying the weaknesses of an arm that had been on the receiving end of some lackluster administration as well as now having no effective response to the bombardment of the massed batteries set against them. Much has been made over the years of how the battalions of Wellington’s army at Waterloo were protected by use of the reverse slopes, but they were hardly immune to the level of skill shown by many of the French gunners, and of course, the Allied artillery, placed forward, had no real protection at all from the French guns. Several batteries were already in a bad way thanks to the initial French bombardment, and the situation was further exacerbated by muddles in the Allied army’s ammunition supply. Entire convoys of ammunition had been left adrift of where they were most needed, and supplies on the field were alarmingly limited. Little wonder then, that as the day progressed, more and more of Wellington’s batteries fell silent.

Numerous Artillery and Precipitous Cavalry

So let us quote Napoleon again: “It is with artillery that one makes war.” In some older accounts of Waterloo, there is often plentiful reference to such matter as “the roar of the guns,” the “infernal hail,” the “hard pounding” etc. etc., as bit of extra narrative background whilst numerous pages are devoted to the cavalry charges and the fight for this or that farmhouse. And yet, it really was the French artillery that was damaging Wellington’s army far more than anything else – its job was demolition, both physical and in morale, and given enough time and shot to fire, it would demolish anything. Robert Kershaw’s recent Waterloo history contains plenty of graphic detail as to the effect of the massed guns.

There can be no doubt that Napoleon fully intended to launch at least some of his heavy cavalry forward (Clayton suggests a really narrow-front punch along the Brussels road) as a means to break his adversary’s line, and this, of course, would require achieving two things first: the capture of La Haie Sainte, and the sufficient degrading of the targeted area to enable the cavalry to finish the job.

This might then explain certain events surrounding the actual instigation of the cavalry attacks. First, Napoleon wanted one more hour of bombardment to complete what was already a work in progress – demolishing Wellington’s centre. This, in turn, explains why he felt the battle was still going his way, and that the Prussians would not be able to intervene significantly before Wellington’s time ran out. Additionally, he must still have hoped, in the misplaced belief that no one could be that incompetent, that Grouchy would either arrive on the field, or at the very least, hold most of the Prussians at bay further east.

But, of course, the cavalry did not first go forward at 5pm, it went forward just after 4pm. It is highly unlikely that Ney, leading the battle from the front with an odd mix of invocations and insistences, was looking at his watch; rather, at about 4pm, he must have seen what he mistakenly thought was the telltale sign to progress things, as a number of British and German/Nassau battalions and their baggage moved further back. He galloped over to Milhaud’s corps, and demanded that pretty much all of it follow him into an attack…on the wrong place and certainly at the wrong time. Napoleon, had the two really been talking, might have advised Ney to look again, but as it was, the most the Emperor could do was order more cavalry forward to support an attack that the originally intended force was inadequate for this early.

Not all the Allied squares stood totally firm during this prolonged phase of the battle, which lasted for around two hours. Attacking cavalry was an imposing sight at the best of times, and when the cavalry assaults were interspersed with fire from massed guns as well as from horse artillery perhaps as close as only two hundred yards, a few squares did falter and some portions of Alten’s division began to melt away. The irony was, that all the while the supposed battle-clinching cavalry assaults were taking place, and by dint of the patchy success, showing how premature it all was, the preparatory process of bombardment, the wearing effect of the skirmishers, and the capture of La Haie Sainte were all still works in progress – and frankly, the French cavalry was not only using itself up, it was actually getting in the way. And the clinching irony was that when the artillery had finally come close to doing its work (forced, in the main, to shoot in between the cavalry assaults), and with La Haie Sainte finally taken, Napoleon was completely out of fresh heavy cavalry to complete the breakthrough battle.

One other aspect of this phase of the battle that is worth consideration is the great and enduring mystery of Wellington’s unspiked guns. As many authors have commented, time and again the French cavalry swarmed around the abandoned British and Hanoverian batteries, and failed to disable as much as a single gun – by such means as hammering a nail into the touch hole, or actually towing the guns away.

There are, perhaps, only three plausible reasons for this apparently massive oversight:

  1. That the French, on each occasion they surged around the squares, were convinced that this time they were going to break the lot, and so saw no need to cripple the Duke’s artillery.
  2. No one of command consequence in the mounted ranks thought to do it (unlikely) or had facility to do it (much more likely). N.B. Kershaw refers to eyewitnesses from the French cavalry who, post-battle, admitted that they had been set off in such an unthinking fervor of élan and overconfidence that any planning was way behind the event itself.
  3. That after the initial assault or two, Wellington’s guns were in such a ramshackle mess through desertion, decimated crews, exploded caissons and the like, that for all intents and purposes the job seemed done anyway.

This last point is worth going a little further with. Owing to the supply muddle referred to a little earlier, the Anglo-Allied batteries were not abundantly provided with ammunition, and many were right out even before the battle had progressed to this stage. And so, if it is felt important to ask why the French never spiked the guns as the obvious thing to do, doubtless it is equally important to admit the possibility that at least some of those guns were not working anyway, being either damaged, out of position, crew gone and/or out of rounds, and so any further steps were to be readily considered a complete waste of time.

Too Late The Guard

But if Napoleon was now bereft of the sort of modest cavalry force that could have progressed the battle to a victorious conclusion, and that in accordance with his breakfast “boast” of the cavalry then the Guard, he still had the Guard…or at least most of it. Furthermore, with La Haie Sainte in French possession, and cannon from the French horse artillery now established on the Duke’s original line, Wellington was losing the integrity of his entire defensive position. To put it in plain language, this was as good as it was going to get, was indeed pretty much what Napoleon had planned for, and he should have recognized it as such and acted accordingly – only he did not. This may have been due to not trusting Ney’s judgment after all the prior slips; or it may have had more to do with the critical pressure building on the French right as more and more Prussians came into the attack. But whatever the reason, his answer to Ney’s request for support along the Brussels/Ohain Road has long been part of Waterloo’s legend:

“Troops? Where do you expect me to get them? Do you expect me to make some?”

The Emperor may well have feared that Ney would squander the Guard to the ruin of all their fortunes, but in truth the Guard, at that moment, with the time between 6:30pm and 7pm, would have found next to no Allied opposition along the intended line of advance. Clayton cites sources which suggest that what was left of Wellington’s forces in the area had been pushed back close to the farm of Mont Saint Jean, and in that light, a brigade of heavy cavalry, or several Guard infantry battalions would have sufficed to fracture and disperse the remaining resistance of the Duke’s army, and leave the Prussians in a very bad place, caught strung out and with dubious supply between the two wings of the French army.

But the Guard was not sent in until well past 7pm, by which time Wellington had been able to shore up his centre to a limited degree. Even so, this was still the best place for the Guard to go in – only they did not. Behaving somewhat like a quantum particle, in that every time you looked at him he was disappearing completely or going off in another direction, Ney took command of about 5,000 – 6,000 Guard infantry between La Belle Alliance and La Haie Sainte, and then proceeded to change the axis of advance to a point further to the west. That he did this is utterly baffling, as his initial request for the support of these veterans had been based on the palpable wreck of Wellington’s position directly north of La Haie Sainte.

Much has been written regarding the final attack and repulse of the Guard, but in the Robert Kershaw book, the unfolding disaster is particularly well presented in terms of portraying the “all or nothing” mood of the Emperor, and the recurring theme of tactical failure as the attack went in. As Kershaw tellingly recounts, not only was the Guard outnumbered all the more because of where it was going in, to make matters worse, it was also fed in piecemeal rather than going in with the immediate impact of an attack by all the battalions together. To put it another way, instead of trying to kick in the door to Wellington’s position, there were a series of taps…and then the door got slammed and bolted in the Guard’s face.

Could it have gone differently? There is no doubt that Wellington’s army had been in a mess after the fall of La Haye Sainte, and that that had been the moment to send the Guard forward, along with whatever cavalry was still viable. But Napoleon, in a state of disaffection with Ney’s previous efforts; and with the Prussians threatening, and with his own sense of battle timing less than it had been at Austerlitz or Friedland, he delayed for a fatal period, and lost his chance forever. With a force too small and a time too late in the day, the only real option had been to withdraw from the field and reunite the army. But even this was risky, and for reasons beyond the “normal” difficulties in extricating an army from close action. As I said in my recent article on the excellent Finnish game W1815, Napoleon’s last army was weak at the joints – volatile in its morale, suspicious of its commanders, and not quite as good as it looked. There was really no guarantee that trying to extricate the army from between Wellington and Blücher would not have prompted the same rout as the breaking of the Guard on the slopes between La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont. The truth is the battle should have been won much earlier, and was close to being so…the “numerous artillery” nearly did it; the numerous tactical mistakes finally ensured that they did not.

Books specifically referred to: