Napoleon Bonaparte bestrode his world like a colossus. Rising amidst the bloody chaos of the French Revolution, he established a new order; and left France a mythic hero to surpass Charlemagne.
Napoleon began his career as a young officer of artillery. He first made his mark in 1794 during the Siege of Toulon, and in the following year he saved the Republican government (The Directory) from a Parisian mob, unleashing canister fire into the crowd (the “whiff of grapeshot”). He was rewarded with command of the French Army operating against the Austrians in northern Italy. All this by the age of 27.
Once in command of his own army the young Bonaparte went from victory-to-amazing-victory, never looking back.
After defeating the Austrians in Italy (1796) and conquering Mameluke Egypt (1798), he returned to France to take over the reigns of government as First Consul of the Republic. After defeating the Austrians in Italy again in 1800 at the Battle of Marengo, his popularity and political dominance over France were assured. In 1804 he crowned himself Emperor of the French (L’Empereur des Français).
At the head of a well trained and drilled “Grande Armee“, he went on in the next eight years to conquer an empire surpassing that of Charlemagne. At its peak, the Napoleonic Empire spanned Europe from the Tagus to the Nieman; from Straits of Messina to the Skagerrak.
But after the disastrous Russian Campaign of 1812, which resulted in the destruction of the Grande Armee, Napoleon faced a determined coalition of hostile nations financed by the wealth of the British Empire and determined upon his overthrow. In the battles of 1813-1814, he was continually worn down and forced to retreat; ultimately to the very outskirts of Paris. Despite a brilliant defensive campaign defending France by the now-aging Emperor, the will amongst his Marshals to continue the struggle eroded away. One-by-one they surrendered to the Allied armies invading France.
Napoleon was forced to abdicate. In 1814, according to the terms of the Treaty of Fontainebleau, he was granted a genteel exile upon the Island of Elba, near Corsica, the place of his birth. After his departure, the Bourbon monarchy was restored, backed by allied armies that ringed the country.
In February of 1815, in response to growing national disaffection with the Bourbon government and the arrogance of the returning expatriate aristocracy, as well as a belief that the Allies were planning to violate the treaty and exile him to a small island in the South Atlantic; Napoleon returned from exile. Marshal of France Michel Ney was dispatched with forces to arrest the exile. Ney promised the King he would bring “the Ogre” back to Paris in a cage. Instead, he and the veterans he commanded rallied around their former master with cries of “Vive L’Empereur“! The Bourbon’s were once again forced to flee from France. and Napoleon again assumed the diadem of Emperor of the French.
Immediately the Allied Powers surrounding the country prepared to invade France. For the next 100 days, Napoleon’s fortunes and the map of Europe lay in the balance, as events hastened toward the climatic battle of the Napoleonic Wars. Though Napoleon attempted in a flurry of diplomatic correspondence to assure the Allies of his peaceful intentions; the allied armies were massed along the border, preparing to invade France and drag the “Ogre” from his throne.
Showing a level of energy and organizational genius reminiscent of his earlier years, Napoleon quickly raised an army of veterans (many of which had spent the latter part of his campaigns as POWs in England, or stuck in isolated garrisons, and had returned to France remembering still the glorious triumphs of the past). When his peace overtures were spurned, the Emperor decided to strike first, before the Allied armies could move in concert against France.
He targeted first those nearest to Paris, the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies in Belgium. He knew that the British and Prussians were widely dispersed, and could be defeated in detail. Further, that the British and their Dutch allies were of dubious quality. Much of Wellington’s Peninsular War veterans had been sent to America for the (disastrous) New Orleans Campaign; while many of the Dutch-Belgians had once been a loyal part of his own army, and their willingness to fight for their new masters was questionable.
OPPOSING FORCES AND COMMANDERS
The combined British, Dutch-Belgian and Hanoverian forces in Belgium numbered some 93,000, scattered in bivouacs across the southern part of the country. They were of mixed quality, but most were inexperienced and unreliable (particularly the Dutch troops, under the Prince of Orange). They were commanded by the redoubtable “Iron Duke”, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.
Wellington had been enormously successful in defeating some of Napoleon’s best Marshals in Spain. But he had never crossed swords on the battlefield with the master himself. Napoleon had scant respect for Wellington, who he disparagingly called “the Sepoy General”, a reference to Wellington’s early career commanding British forces in India. Wellington for his part had the utmost respect for Napoleon as a commander: “His presence on the (battle) field made the difference of forty thousand men.”
The Prussians in eastern Belgium were commanded by crusty old Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, an old foe who Napoleon had faced during the campaigns of 1813-1814. He was a dogged, aggressive, and determined (if unimaginative) commander. Blücher had a deep and abiding hatred for Napoleon and the French, due to the perceived humiliation Napoleon had inflicted upon his nation in 1806. On the approach to Waterloo, he commanded his men to take “No prisoners! Show no pity! I will shoot any man I see with pity in him.” His forces in Belgium numbered 116,000, and were headquartered about Namur.
Napoleon’s Armee du Nord, numbering 128,000 men, was qualitatively the best army he had commanded since the debacle in Russia in 1812. Many of them were veterans of the victorious campaigns of Marengo, Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena and Auerstedt; some perhaps even remembered battling at the foot of the Pyramids! Thousands of these had spent the last few years in garrisons throughout the empire, in Spain, or as prisoners of the Allies. Having missed the bloody defeats of recent years, they remembered only Napoleon’s invincible days of old. They were well rested, and ready to reclaim the lost glories of their youth. The cavalry, in particular, had benefited from the brief peace since 1814, and were more numerous and better mounted than any Napoleon had at his disposal in the terrible campaigns of 1813-1814.
But though his troops were first-rate, and the Emperor seemed at the start of the campaign to have regained the vigor of his youth, many of the advantages once enjoyed by French forces were no more.
For one thing, the wildly successful methods of warfare employed by the French armies of the Revolution and the early Napoleonic campaigns had been studied and learned by the enemies of France. Now Prussian infantry lines were as well screened by swarms of loose-ordered skirmishers as were the French, and they were even better at it now than their French teachers. All European armies by 1815 employed heavy cavalry in the shock-role once again (something that had declined in Europe prior to Napoleon). And Wellington at least had learned to avoid concentrated French cannonade by deploying his main force on the reverse slopes of a ridge line. (Wellington would say of Waterloo that the French, who practiced attacking in columns screened by skirmishers, ” came on in the same old fashion; and we defeated them in the same old fashion!”)
Another factor weighing against Napoleon was the quality of his lieutenants. Many of his best Marshals were not present with the Armee du Nord. Masséna was retired; Lannes dead; Davout remained behind in Paris, organizing the rebuilding of Napoleon’s future armies; and Suchet was posted at Lyons, in command of the troops guarding the Alpine frontier.
Murat, his legendary cavalry commander and former King of Naples, had offered his services and been refused (Napoleon was furious with him for his mishandling of the Neapolitan War and the loss of his Kingdom). His skill and boldness (particularly in the pursuit of a broken enemy) would be distinctly lacking in his replacement, Grouchy, whose tentative and plodding pursuit of Blucher following Ligny would never have occurred had Murat, instead, been in his customary place as commander of the Reserve Cavalry Corps.
The greatest loss was that of Marshal Berthier, Napoleon’s amazingly able Chief of Staff. He was the man who, throughout all of Napoleon’s campaigns, had turned the Emperor’s often disjointed and nearly incomprehensible exclamations into coherent written orders and directives to Corps and Division commanders. He was the man who ensured that the various Corps of the Grande Armée operated on a wide front in well-coordinated fashion.
Following Napoleon’s abdication in 1814, Berthier had retired to private life, making his peace with the Bourbons and concentrating on his hobbies of falconry and sculpture. Just weeks before the Waterloo Campaign, he had fallen from an upstairs window in Bamberg and died. His death was proclaimed a suicide, but many to this day suspect foul play. Whether Berthier was the victim of suicide or murder (by the extreme monarchists) is unknown. But his presence would be sorely missed in the coming campaign.
He was replaced as Chief of Staff by Marshal Nicolas Soult. Though an able commander, Soult had nothing of Berthier’s genius for staff work. Much of the confusion and mistakes made in the coming campaign can be laid at Soult’s feet. (In The Fall of Napoleon: The Final Betrayal author David Hamilton-Williams postulates that Soult was part of a conspiracy to undermine Napoleon in the 1815 campaign and ensure his downfall. Thus his “mistakes” in staff work were, according to Hamilton-Williams, actually deliberate sabotage of Napoleon’s plans.)
Marshal Nicolas Soult, Duke of Dalmatia, mockingly called “the Duke of Damnation” by his British opponents in Spain
Whether or not there was a secret plot to betray Napoleon amongst those in his inner circle can never be known with certainty, short of new and convincing documentation coming to light. However, by choosing the likes of Ney, Soult, and Grouchy as his top subordinates in place of Murat, Davout, and Suchet (the latter two, in particular, intrepid and capable commanders in their own right) shows that at the least the Emperor was not interested in men who could exercise independent judgment. It was a decision that would come back to bite him in the coming campaign.
But the most marked disadvantage facing the French on this, Napoleon’s last campaign, was the failing health of the Emperor himself. Though not quite 46, he had gained weight during his forced retirement to Elba, and was showing other signs of aging.
Napoleon over the course of his career, from the young firebrand of the Italian campaigns who dazzled Europe with his furious energy, to the bloated and tired-looking Napoleon in 1815
Historians are in disagreement as to whether or not Napoleon was suffering from a debilitating illness at this point of his life; and, if he was, what it could have been. Everything from hemorrhoids to dropsy has been suggested. He certainly was erratic in his energy levels, at times as sharp and lively as when he was the young General Bonaparte, the man who dazzled Europe with the rapidity and decisiveness of his maneuvers. But at other, crucial moments his energy and powers of decision flagged, most notably in the late afternoon at Waterloo when he had to turn over command to Ney while he took a nap. Napoleon was aging prematurely, and was no longer the wizard of the battlefield who had defeated foes from the Pyrenees to the Pyramids.
This said, Napoleon began the Waterloo Campaign displaying all of the brilliance of old. Moving rapidly north, he captured the river crossing of Charleroi. From here he was in good position to split the allies and to engage and destroy each separately.
A BOLD PLAN
Napoleon’s operational plan was both simple and audacious: to divide the Allies by maneuvering between their forces, driving the Prussians northeast and the Anglo-Dutch northwest. His strategic goal was to capture Brussels, the newly-acquired second capital of the Netherlands.
By separating the Allies and driving a wedge between them he was certain he would set in motion a positive chain of strategic events.
First, as neither the Anglo-Dutch nor the Prussians were strong enough to fight his whole force alone, they would retreat before him if unable to link up. Thus by threatening each with defeat-in-detail they would give ground: Blücher’s Prussians falling back on their supply depots to the east, Wellington retreating towards the ports of Ostend and Antwerp, vital if he needed to evacuate his forces by sea.
To achieve this, Napoleon organized his army into two wings and a strong reserve. He himself would command the latter, composed of his powerful Imperial Guards Corps and the Reserve Cavalry Corps. The Left (western-most) Wing was placed under the command Marshal Ney. His orders were to march directly north in stages; threating Brussels and preventing Wellington from using the east-west roads to link-up with or support Blücher. The Right Wing, commanded by Marshal Grouchy, was to maneuver from Charleroi towards Fleurus and Gembloux beyond; cutting the Namur-Brussels road and preventing Blücher from marching west to join Wellington in defending Brussels (where Napoleon expected Wellington to attempt to stand).
Either wing might meet strong resistance, and neither by themselves were strong enough to crush the Anglo-Dutch or Prussian armies. However, from his reserve position, Napoleon could rapidly reinforce and take command of either wing with his strong reserve, if battle was imminent. It should be emphasized that Napoleon fully expected no such battle to present itself early-on; that both Allied forces would instead retreat before him and present him an opportunity to take Brussels without first having to fight a major battle. However, if the Allies did decide to stand and fight he was confident he would be able to defeat each separately, in detail, and capture Brussels in any case.
The fall of Brussels promised to pay immediate political dividends.
First, the wavering elements in the newly-created Dutch kingdom (which had been part of the French Empire until 1813) would return to their French allegiance. Secondly, from Brussels he would be in position to turn on Wellington if he was still undefeated, driving upon him toward his vital supply ports. Wellington would be forced to either fight at a numeric disadvantage or evacuate his forces by sea. Meanwhile, if Blücher attempted to interfere or counter-attack from the east, one of his wings could fight a delaying battle till Wellington was defeated, after which point Napoleon would be in position to turn and fall upon the Prussians with all his forces.
With the Allies defeated or driven out of Belgium, Napoleon could present King William with the same option he’d presented the Elector of Saxony in 1806: join me as an ally and keep your throne, or lose it when I annex your country. He was certain how the Dutch monarch would decide, especially as loyalty to Napoleon was still strong throughout the Dutch army (much of which had only recently been a part of the Emperor’s army, and some units even serving in his Imperial Guard). With the addition of 30,000 Dutch-Belgian troops, he would then cross the Rhine into Hannover. There he would be in good position to both threaten the right flank of the Allied armies massed along the French frontier and to menace Berlin, the Prussian capital.
This rapid and (for the Allies) catastrophic chain of events, he believed, would cause the Coalition to reconsider his proposals of peace.
It has become cliché that “no plan survives contact with the enemy”. This maxim is, of course, one of those penned by Napoleon himself late in life, while reflecting from exile on St. Helena. Perhaps he had this, his final campaign in mind when he wrote those sagacious words; as the Allied commanders stubbornly refused to react as he anticipated, and his own subordinates proved unable to perform to his expectations.
All began well enough for Napoleon, as his plan was set in motion by a thrust across the Sambre into Belgium at Charleroi. Here his advance guards met a blocking force of Prussians. But these were brushed aside and the French captured the strategic crossing point.
Even so, the crossing was slower than should have been expected. Pontoon bridges were left behind or late to arrive. Advancing divisions found their way blocked by units ahead of them that had failed to receive their marching orders, and the roads became unnecessarily congested. Marshal Soult was finding Berthier’s boots hard to fill. That, or he was a deliberately inept Chief of Staff.
The Emperor’s carefully concealed plans had, however, deceived Wellington. Due to demonstrations and feigned preparations nearer the coast, Wellington expected the French to cross the frontier further west at Mons, from where they could threaten his communication and supply line to the ports of Ostend and Antwerp. The “Iron Duke” had deployed his forces to cover such a move by the French, with the bulk between Nivelles and the Scheldt. Nor were the French expected before July.
At 3 pm on June 15, a Prussian courier informed the Duke of Wellington that Napoleon’s army had crossed the border at Charleroi. The Duke was at first suspicious that this was but a feint. When later that night it was confirmed that there was no French activity across the border further west near Mons, and he realized his mistake, Wellington exclaimed: “He (Napoleon) has humbugged me, by God! He has gained 24 hours on me!“
Examining the map Wellington ordered his army to break camp and move that night, and to concentrate the next day at the crossroads of Quatre Bras. He added, “But we shall not stop him there; and if so, I must fight him here“.
He taped a place on the map north of Quatre Bras: Waterloo.
On the morning, 16 June, Grouchy informed Napoleon that the Prussians were concentrating much further forward than had been expected, around the village of Sombreffe. At breakfast that morning at Charleroi with Ney, Napoleon informed the Marshal that he intended to join Grouchy’s wing and see what Blücher was up to. Napoleon gave Ney his initial action orders for the day: move north with his wing of the army to the crossroads at Quatre Bras.
There, Ney was to brush aside what few troops were then screening the position (that morning only about 8,000 Dutch-Belgian troops and a few guns held the crossroads). The Emperor specified that Ney was to secure the crossroads with six divisions; and to probe as far north along the Brussels Road as Genappe. His mission was to prevent Wellington’s army from linking-up with the Prussians to the east. Meanwhile, he, Napoleon, would see to and drive away whatever pickets the Prussians might have around Sombreffe; and then, if Wellington appeared in force, turn west and attack his flank in support of Ney.
This initial order left Ney expecting a minor role, in which Napoleon would support him should a battle arise, something neither man expected. That this view would run contrary to the reality soon to be thrust upon them led to a fundamental misunderstanding of expectations that would sabotage the French coordination throughout the day.
CONFERENCE AT BRYE
Wellington arrived at Quatre Bras at 10 am, and was surprised to find the crossroads held by a small advance force of 8,000 Dutch and Hanoverian troops, supported by 16 guns, under the Prince of Orange. With great forethought, the Prince’s Chief of Staff, Baron Jean de Constant-Rebecque, had dispatched troops to Quatre Bras the previous afternoon. Rebecque’s decision may have prevented Napoleon from reaching Brussels that day. For without the presence of these early defenders the crossroads would have been overrun and Wellington’s army destroyed piecemeal on the road before it could unite. Rebecque is one of the unsung heroes of that day, and of the campaign.
Wellington was also relieved to find the French had yet to attack, beyond an initial probe by the light cavalry of the Guard, scouting ahead of the Ney’s wing. These had been sent packing by the Dutch-Belgian defenders. Seeing that all was for the time being tranquil Wellington and his staff rode on, down the Namur Road towards Ligny, seven miles away. At the village of Brye he met with Blücher and the Prussian commander’s Chief of Staff and second-in-command, the estimable General August Neidhardt von Gneisenau.
Wellington, as yet unaware of what Napoleon had in store for him at Quatre Bras, nor how scattered and slow to assemble his forces were going to be that day, promised to come to the Prussian’s aid. He added the proviso, “unless he himself were attacked at Quatre Bras“. This was a promise he would find impossible to fulfill. However, the Prussian commanders made their arrangements accordingly, and all day fought with the expectation of his coming.
Before departing, Wellington and the Prussian staff surveyed the deployment of Blücher’s army around Ligny. Across the valley they could see Napoleon’s forces moving into position. Gazing on the Prussian positions, the Duke noted with concern their deployment on the forward slopes behind Ligny. He told Blücher how he had learned in Spain the prudence of deploying on the reverse slopes, to spare his men the pounding of French cannonade. The crusty old Prussian replied, “My men prefer to see the enemy!” Wellington left the conference at Brye, remarking to his staff, “If they fight here, they will be damnably mauled.”
In this observation he was correct.