NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGN (PART SEVEN): MID-BATTLE MUSINGS

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Looking over the valley below from his position at Le Belle Alliance, Napoleon surveyed a strangely quite scene. It was 3:00 pm, and the tide of battle had temporarily receded. The ground between the two opposing armies was littered with the debris of battle.

(To read Part 6 go here. To start from the beginning, go here)

In the previous two hours, Napoleon’s plan of battle had come unraveled. The attack by d’Erlon’s Corp, his one fresh strike force, had made great progress, decimating Wellington’s center-left before being in turn shattered by the devastating charge of two British heavy cavalry brigades (see Part Six).

At this point his staff presented a messenger from Field Marshal Grouchy, the officer commanding the detached force of some 33,000 men tasked with pursuing Blücher‘s Prussians and preventing them joining Wellington at Waterloo. Grouchy’s man had been delayed for over an hour, as the Emperor’s attention was fixed upon the repulse of d’Erlon and organizing the bloody counter-attack against the British cavalry. Now he read the man’s dispatch, sent 4 hours earlier. It outlined Grouchy’s failure to stay apace and stop Blücher from intervening in the present battle. Three Prussian Corps were on their way, and the closest, Von Bülow‘s IV Corps would soon be threatening the French right-rear near Plancenoit.

1390362.jpgNapoleon was not unaware of this threat. Earlier in the morning he had detached the 7th Hussars under the gallant Marcellin Marbot to scout the woods towards Wavre, to the right of the French Army. His men had captured and sent to the Emperor a Prussian officer, who had bragged that Blücher had concentrated at Wavre and was pledged to march to Wellington’s aid that afternoon. In response, Napoleon had deployed the 10,000 men and 28 guns of Lobau‘s VI Corps earlier in the day to his right, facing at right angle to the main French line and prepared to fend off Prussian attacks from the east.

Orders had already been sent earlier in the day to Grouchy, ordering him to march with all haste to link-up with the right of the French mainbody fighting before Mont-Saint-Jean. The somnambulant Gouchy had been marching at a snail’s pace, a plodding one-mile per hour. However, the Emperor still had high-hopes of victory, and told his staff that if Grouchy were to march west Von Bülow’s Corps could be caught between his force and Lobau’s, and crushed along with Wellington.

1390387.jpgThe problem was that while he had begun the day with an advantage over Wellington of 4,000 men and 90 guns, that advantage was now gone. Nearly twice this amount had been lost with d’Erlon’s reverse: killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Now, of Napoleon’s four infantry Corps on the battlefield, Reille’s was tied up in fierce struggle over Hougoumont on his left; Lobau’s was now facing east, awaiting the Prussians; and d’Erlon’s survivors (some 13,000) were demoralized and reassembling to the east of La Belle Alliance, and would not be ready for battle for some hours. If Wellington were to attack at this point, Napoleon had only 13,000 infantry uncommitted and ready to fight: the 10,000 men of the Imperial Guard and three reserve brigades.

With the Prussians coming the Emperor could not afford to stand on the defensive. He had no choice but to continue to attack and break Wellington before Blücher could arrive in force. While putting together a new plan of attack, he covered his weakness by renewing the intense barrage by his Grande Batterie upon Wellington’s position.

1390371.jpgFortunately for Napoleon, Wellington was in no position to attack, nor had he planned to do so. His right was tied-up defending Hougoumont; and though he still had considerable reserves behind this very strong position Wellington was determined to leave these in place. Throughout the long day, he was alert to a potential French turning movement on this flank, which could cut his line of retreat to the northwest. His left-wing, composed largely of his dark-uniformed Belgic, German and Dutch allies, leavened with red-and-green coated British regiments, had been thoroughly savaged. Huge holes exited in what had been a solid line. Officers were conspicuously absent, and in some regiments sergeants were left to command whole battalions.[1] The senior leadership had not been spared: General Thomas Picton was dead and General Bylandt of the 1st Brigade, 2nd Netherlands Division so wounded he had to turn over his command to a subordinate (Lt. Colonel de Jongh, who, in turn, was so wounded he had to be tied with rope into his saddle). Wellington filled the gaps in Picton’s division with the 10th Brigade, veterans of the Peninsula War commanded by Major General Sir John Lambert. Lambert was only recently returned to Europe from America, where he had commanded troops at the bloody reserve at the Battle of New Orleans. One of his two veteran regiments was the 27th Inniskillings, who within hours would earn the dubious honor of taking the highest casualties of any British regiment on the field that day.

The constant bombardment from Napoleon’s Grand Batterie was taking its toll of the Allied regiments waiting in reserve beyond the ridge. Though they could not be targeted directly, the thousands of French cannon balls fired had skimmed over the ridge and landed among the formations massed beyond; inflicting terrible casualties. Lt. General Sir Charles Alten, commander of the British 3rd Division, said, “Never had the most veteran soldiers heard such a cannonade“. In response, Wellington ordered the line to withdraw 100 paces.

At this junction, Napoleon ordered Ney to begin an assault on La Haye Sainte farmhouse, forward of Wellington’s center; preparatory to a larger assault. One of Quiot’s Brigades was tasked with the mission, and the fighting around the farmhouse was soon bloody and ferocious. Once again, the farmhouse would hold out.

Waterloo Haye-SainteMeanwhile, the Prussians were coming.

BLÜCHER’S PLANS

True to his pledge to Wellington, Blücher’s Prussians were moving as rapidly as they could to join their British allies. In contrast to the moribund Grouchy, Blücher had set his army in motion at daybreak, three hours before the now distant Grouchy had broken camp. However, the terrain and roads were atrocious even by the pitiful standards of the day, and frustrated every effort to hasten the pace. In some places the tracks through the Bois de Paris woods were so narrow that the Prussian columns had to pass along in single file.

Blücher and his Chief of Staff, the methodical and cerebral August Wilhelm von Gneisenau had scouted ahead of their spearheads and assessed the ongoing battle at Waterloo. They immediately comprehended that Wellington could hold his position, fixing Napoleon’s attention. Gneisenau argued for making the main Prussian effort towards Plancenoit with the purpose of cutting the Charleroi Road and trapping Napoleon’s army. When Blücher suggested this threat might bring the whole wrath of Napoleon’s main force down upon their isolated spearheads and destroy them piecemeal before they could be supported, Gneisenau keenly (and accurately) deduced that on the contrary, Napoleon would reply by attempting even more vigorously to pierce the British position, only throwing against the Prussians enough forces to delay them till this was achieved. [2]

Gneisenau knew his enemy: Napoleon reacted in exactly this manner.

Blücher was convinced. Von Bülow’s IV Corps, followed by Pirch’s II Corps were ordered to attack toward Plancenoit. Only Zieten’s I Corps was to take the northern route along the Wavre Road, and link-up directly with Wellington’s left flank north of Papelotte.

1390390.jpgThe vanguard of Von Bülow’s Corps began arriving around 4:30 in the afternoon, where they immediately engaged with Lobau’s troops over the hamlet of Plancenoit. It was good timing for the Allies, as they arrived at precisely the moment Napoleon was attempting to break Wellington’s line elsewhere.

THE EMPEROR’S GAMBLE

At 3 pm, June 18th, as the lull before the storm gave him time to consider his next move, Napoleon had two options: Withdraw or continue to fight. The first was the better military decision (and not just retrospectively, as he knew at the time the Prussians were threatening his flank and line of retreat); the second the better political decision.

Napoleon was not just a general, he was also the political leader of France. Upon his return from Elba on a wave of Republican sentiment against the returned Monarchists, he was forced to make political concessions to regain the throne. Unlike his previous tenure as Emperor of the French, this time he was constrained by a constitutional system in which he shared power with a Parliament (the Chambers). As within any such system, he had political supporters and he had (sometimes bitter) opponents. Even now, as the battle raged in Belgium, his enemies back in Paris worked against him. To maintain his authority as Emperor it was vital to continue to maintain an aura of invincibility. He must appear to still be the world-conqueror he had been before 1812.

Faced with d’Erlon’s defeat, and the blood-bath at Hougoumont, with Grouchy’s 30,000 troops effectively out of the battle and with the Prussians soon to join it, his plan was in shambles. To fall back now, his battered infantry covered by the still-intact mass of his cavalry, was undoubtedly the prudent plan. Lobau’s unengaged Corps had yet to fight that day, and could form a rearguard with the cavalry; Grouchy could fall back and join the mainbody further south. This would preserve the army intact to fight again another day, on more favorable terms.

But to retreat back into France and repeat the situation of 1814 would be a political disaster. The sense of déjà vu created by such a retreat would bolster his enemies in Paris and demoralize his allies (and perhaps the army as well). He could well face the same outcome, his political enemies and even some of his Marshals treating with the Allies behind his back. Retreat risked political disaster every bit as much as fighting on, here at Waterloo, risked military disaster.

On that afternoon, on the field of Waterloo, Napoleon the politician overruled Napoleon the great captain. Ever the gambler, he now decided to risk all and play on.

1390383.jpgMilitarily, he had been in a similar situation before, at Eylau in 1807. There by mid-day he had lost one Corps, Augereau’s, leaving his center was stripped bare with nothing to plug the gap but the Imperial Guard (which he dared not commit). His response then had been to throw in Murat and the massive cavalry reserve against the advancing Russians. In one of history’s greatest charges, they had shattered the first and second Russian line. Then, covered by the Imperial Guard Horse, withdrawn back to safety, the situation restored.

Here perhaps he saw himself in similar circumstances and resorted to the same response.

He ordered Ney to mass Milhaud’s IV Cavalry Corps (Cuirassiers), to be covered and supported by Lefèbvre-Desnoëttes’ Guard Light Cavalry Division: in all some 5,100 men and horses, in the space before La Belle Alliance, between and south of Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte.

Much has been written and debated as to the circumstances of this cavalry assault on Wellington’s center. Often it is blamed on Ney alone, acting on his own initiative while Napoleon was distracted (or, due to illness, taking an untimely nap). It is often cited that Ney, seeing Wellington’s forces withdraw 100 paces (to lessen the effect of the French artillery bombardment) as noted above , interpreted this move as the start of a general withdrawal. That, masked by the ridgeline, Ney could not see the British forming squares on the reverse slopes around Mont-St-Jean. However, many facts weigh heavily against these interpretations of events.

First, Wellington’s lines had been beyond observation on the reverse slopes all day. Only the artillery and skirmishers exposed on the forward slopes, along with the strongholds of Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte, were in plain sight to the French. How, then, could Napoleon (or Ney, acting on his own) have based his decision to launch what is sometimes described as a cavalry pursuit if he couldn’t see the British retrograde movement in the first place? Besides, the hours of cannon and musket fire had shrouded the battlefield in a fog-like smoke, so thick that at times one could not see a regiment of cavalry until it was thundering down upon you. So it is doubtful if Wellington’s retrograde movement was observed at the time.

1390385Secondly, and most compellingly, only Napoleon could order the movement of a cavalry Corps on the battlefield, and especially so elements of the Imperial Guard. As he clarified in his orders of June 16, when he divided the army into two wings, one commanded by Ney, the other by Grouchy:

“General Officers commanding Corps will take their orders directly from me (Napoleon) when I am present.”

That Napoleon had not relinquished his command to Ney when Milhaud’s Corps was ordered to move is illustrated by this incident: When the order to move was given, General Delort commanding the 14th Cavalry Division refused to budge. When confronted by Ney, he responded that no order had come from the Emperor, “but (only) from Count Milhaud” (his Corps commander). Delort could not be persuaded to move till a messenger was sent and returned bearing Marshal Soult’s (Napoleon’s Chief of Staff) signature; confirming that the Corps was placed under Ney’s command for the following operation. Only then did Delort order his cuirassiers to move to the assembly area.[3]

If Napoleon had turned over command to Ney, and was taking a nap, it was unknown to his subordinates.

Finally, it took at least 30 minutes to move and marshal 5,100 cavalry into a tight formation. The suggestion that Napoleon might somehow have missed the thundering of 24,000 hooves, the sound of countless trumpets sounding various and sundry calls and commands, and this all going on directly north of his command post at La Belle Alliance is absurd. Had he wished to countermand Ney’s orders and stop this assault he had ample opportunity to do so.

There has been an attempt by Napoleon’s admirers to shift the blame for his misconduct of the battle to Ney; much as admirers of Lee sometimes attempt to blame Longstreet for Lee’s failure at Gettysburg. This shifting of blame began very soon after the battle, and started perhaps with Napoleon himself.

As early as 23 June 1815, five days after the event, Napoleon was already muddying the water in an effort to shift blame to Ney. In his “Bulletin to the Army of June 21”, published in Paris on the 23rd Napoleon wrote:

“The Reserve Cavalry… charged the English infantry, having noticed a retrograde movement, to shelter themselves from our batteries; which had already caused them serious loss. This maneuver (the charge of the French cavalry) made at the correct time and supported by the Reserves, must have decided the day. But made in an isolated fashion and before affairs on the right were satisfactorily settled, it was fatal.”

This is clearly Napoleon already blaming Ney by implying that the Marshal’s attack was delivered prematurely and without proper support.

As stated above, if he felt the attack should be delayed Napoleon had ample time to cancel it. Instead, with the Prussian threat not yet apparent, and Lobau’s men already in position to deal with it; and with no reserves available, as d’Erlon’s troops would not be fit for battle till 5:30 pm; and given that he was unwilling to commit his Imperial Guard, Napoleon ordered Ney to commit his cavalry reserve to a massive but unsupported attack at or around 4 pm.

NEXT: EYLAU REDUX

1390386[1] D. Robertson, “Journal of Sergeant D. Robertson, Late of the 92nd Foot“; Perth, 1842; p. 157

[2] Von Reiche, “The French Campaigns Against Russia, Prussia, and Austria in the Years 1812-1815“; Duisberg and Essen, 1815; p.261

[3] Hamilton-Williams, David, “Waterloo: New Perspectives, the Great Battle Reappraised“; Wiley & Sons, 1993; p. 320

[4] ibid, p. 389-390, Note 19

 

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4 Responses to NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGN (PART SEVEN): MID-BATTLE MUSINGS

  1. Pingback: NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGN (PART SIX): UXBRIDGE SAVES THE DAY! | The Deadliest Blogger: Military History Page

  2. Rajiv Vasudevan says:

    Super!! Well written and easy to trace the battle through its course.If at all I could tour these battle fields I will take these blogs as my reference as they are easy to understand !!

  3. Pingback: NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGN (PART EIGHT): NEY’S CHARGE – EYLAU REDUX! | The Deadliest Blogger: Military History Page

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