Here's a fun question to kick off the discussion for #WaterlooRemembered. Was Waterloo actually a battle Napoleon could have won? As we deliberately have to indulge in counterfactuals here, we have to be careful, but it might be interesting for people to share their thoughts on what would have had to have been different for Napoleon to win the battle. I'll keep quiet with my thoughts initially, but remember to tune in to the Napoleonicist each day, as the turning points of the campaign is one of many topics I am discussing with experts over the course of the Waterloo Remembered series.
top of page
To see this working, head to your live site.
Could Napoleon have won at Waterloo?
Could Napoleon have won at Waterloo?
In my view, the performance of the Guard was pretty mixed at Waterloo: the Young Guard did very well at Plancenoit while the last attack was clearly pressed home with enormous courage. However, the last stand of the Old Guard was a non-event: the three battalions concerned stood firm for only a short time before retiring from the field.
David: your points are interesting and could provoke hours of discussion; there is also the prospect that we are moving away from the question.
I have been taking a more detailed look at Wellington’s allies recently; a fascinating subject. After Waterloo many British eye-witnesses damned them as cowards; the Belgians came in for more than their share of abuse. More recently, attitudes seem to have swung to the other extreme and many are extolling their virtues. The truth probably falls somewhere in between.
As you point out, many of the cadres were good and experienced, but the soldiers were young and very inexperienced. I read somewhere that most of the Nassau soldiers had only been in uniform for five weeks; the 1st Regiment were unable to deploy into line or square and stood most of the day in closed column and were shot down by French artillery. They stood against the French cavalry charges in closed column. Their attempt to advance to silence some French guns resulted in two companies being slaughtered by cuirassiers. As far as the fighting was concerned, they contributed virtually nothing.
There is a difference between courage and military effectiveness as I know you are aware; I’m sure every unit on the battlefield saw examples of individual bravery, but that does not reflect the effectiveness of the unit.
That the French army was brittle was proven on the day, but don’t forget their performance at Ligny against a much larger Prussian army if you doubt their fighting ability. I think Paul Dawson has pretty much concluded that three quarters of the infantry had only been in the army since 1813, but at least they had fought in that campaign and through the terrible conditions of 1814.
I’m surprised at your dismissal of élite troops; the Guard of 1815 was not the Guard of many previous years and its performance at Waterloo reflected this. However, there are too many examples when the Guard of previous years performed marvels against very experienced troops, even in 1814. The brittleness of the 3rd and 4th Regiments at Waterloo merely reflected the problems of the whole army and the most senior regiments generally held well as the army collapsed around them and they faced a wall of advancing victorious infantry and cavalry.
Hans-Karl: I agree with much you say, and your previous point about Napoleon, and hence Lobau, not expecting the arrival of the Prussians is an important one. You are also right that Napoleon’s halo and laurels had certainly slipped!! Without going back to re-read Clinton, my impression was that he said the Hanoverians were ‘fine looking men’, but they lacked instruction and important equipment. He was also unimpressed (I believe) with some of the commanding officers and one brigade commander in particular, so it is difficult to be able to measure their potential performance on the battlefield. Not many of the Hanoverian landwehr were involved in the heavy, close fight, so we will never know. And of course, the performance of Wellington’s allies is a different subject and could be discussed for many hours!
@Andrew Field but there wasn’t such a great disparity as it might appear on paper. Yes, the British were not all peninsular hands, and the Brunswick contingent was young and they had just lost their beloved Duke. Many of the Armée du Nord ‘veterans’ though had more years service on paper, but many of them had been in British hulks or holed up in besieged garrisons. Many of the Dutch-Belgian, Nassau and Brunswick officers had considerable experience. Many express concern that this was serving Napoleon, so was less valid in some way. I contend the opposite, they had served in the French army, and they knew that it’s invincibility was a myth. Most memoirs betray a great trust and affection between officers and men. It is worth noting the lack of any notable defections, they all came the other way. I think we underestimate the moral and morale components. Both in the Armée du Nord were fragile. I don’t think we should get too suckered in by the wargamer’s romanticism and dice modifiers. An elite veteran Guard unit (+4) in the presence of a General Officer (+2) was seen off, a company effectively captured en mass as well as said General. This feat was achieved by a fatigued (-2) Landwehr (-4) unit, namely the Osnabrückers. That’s why re-fights almost always end up in a French victory. I remember at the height of the Cold War how the professionals mocked the TA. Later, I also had an MC winner work with me, who was a bus driver from Glasgow. I don’t think the ambushers who ran in to him faired any better because he was “militia’. I really believe this elite/veteran guff is just that, peddled to bolster morale but marginal in effect. If it wasn’t, Isandlwana wouldn’t have been a massacre, Caen would have fallen on 6th June, Saigon would still be the capital of an independent South Vietnam and Operation Eagle Claw would have been a resounding success. They were all conducted by forces who were by most measures superior and extremely confident. I believe Wellington was right when he said most of Napoleon’s enemies were defeated before a shot was fired. Napoleon agreed, the moral is to the physical as three is to one. Hence the fragility when “La Garde recule!”. They got a rather nasty shock when they ran into an enemy that did not flee at the sound of “la Carousel” or the sight of some blue greatcoats and bearskins. I think ultimately the allies won because they thought they could. In an age where the entry level was marching shoulder to shoulder, loading and firing a musket and threatening the enemy with the pointy thing on the end, that counts for a lot. From the playground on up, my experience is that the winner is not necessarily the best fighter, but the one who believes that he can be.
Hans-Karl; Lobau, and the Young Guard, and Domon, and Subervie. If they had all been available to attack Wellington the result might well have been very different (and this from a Brit!) .
The French army certainly wasn't the Grande Armee of 1805-6, but I am still not sure that the Nassau, Brunswick or many of the Hanoverian, landwehr had the training or experience to stop the armee du nord. Given how long many of them had been in uniform, I do not mean any disrespect, but that is my belief.
Hans-Karl; I agree that Wellington was a flexible commander, but his army did not have sufficient dependable troops to have won if Napoleon hadn't been forced to detach so many to confront the Prussians.
Hans-Karl, I believe he could not start before he did because his whole army was not in position. But as we are speaking hypothetically I feel that if he had been ready to attack at 9am he had the time and the troops to beat Wellington before the Prussians arrived. No doubt the Prussians would have beaten Grouchy if he was alone, but with a victorious, if exhausted, French army in front and Grouchy coming up behind, they would have been in a tricky situation.
But Boney couldn't start the battle at 09:00 because he did not reckon that Wellington did accept battle, he had no plan, nothing, he had to pull it out of his sleeve, therefore the delay.
The Prussians would have crushed Grouchy 😉 - maybe.
As long as the Prussians were going to appear on the battlefield, I believe Napoleon had no chance of winning. But if he had been able to begin the battle at 9am as he had originally wanted, I believe he would have had a reasonable chance of beating Wellington before the Prussians arrived. We cannot speculate what the Prussians would have done when they knew Napoleon had won, and what might have happened the next day, but we must also remember Grouchy's force was in their rear.
For me, there are two "truisms" that come into play. The first is that no plan survives contact with the enemy and Wellington and Blucher were formidable enemies. So it not as simple as doing things a bit differently, the abilities of both the commanders and the armies need to be taken into account. What should also be accounted for is their commitment and resolution to cooperate, rather than act in their self interest, something that Napoleon seems to have been counting on.
The second is that you cannot make bricks without clay. Evidenced by the desertions and then the complete collapse and rout of the large bulk of his army, it was neither as loyal nor as resilient as some historians would have us believe. Whilst on the surface, the old Imperial 'magic' and adoration seemed to still be there, the bonds of trust and familiarity vital to unit cohesion appear not to have been. It was something of a glass hammer therefore.
When one starts to stack all the probabilities and handicaps up, a Napoleonic victory is starting to look remarkably dodgy. The inveterate gambler, I think he may just have wagered on a many-fold accumulator once too often. In my humble opinion, the campaign was probably lost before his carriage left Paris.
I’ve always found the Lobau argument is unlikely. That Corps wasn’t even deployed at the time I Corps went into the attack. The Prussians attacked prematurely because had they waited for full concentration they’d not have been able to enter the fray before 6 or 7.