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The Myths of Waterloo

by Wilbur Gray

Excerpted from Strategy & Tactics #172, Jan/Feb 1995.

Waterloo—the battle where the British army under the Duke of Wellington outfought and thoroughly defeated a the French army under the declining generalship of an ailing Napoleon. It was a battle which saw as its climax the repulse of the famed Old Guard at the hands of the British Foot Guards. Well, then again, maybe not.

The mythology of the 1815 campaign can best be seen in the fact that most people are quite unaware that anything was going on outside the French offensive into southern Belgium. Even within the confines of this singular part of what was actually a huge undertaking, there exists a plethora of magnificent, though inaccurate, traditions and tales. The reason for this may be found in the old academic complaint when 'the winners write the history books.' This problem is especially acute for Americans. Most simply do not have a working knowledge of any language other than English, and this relegates their information on the battle of Waterloo to British works. If French or German sources on the battle were also consulted, one might actually believe that the authors were describing three different battles!

In this light, we present several of the more popular misconceptions about history's greatest battle, along with what most modern historians think really happened. Those who know a lot, as well as those who know even just a little, about Waterloo will apt be quite surprised:

The British Army at Waterloo:

There was none. In reality Wellington's army of 74,000 plus effectives was only 38% British. A little over 28% were Dutch-Belgians with the rest being a dizzying array of Germans (Hanoverians, Brunswickers and the like).

The Third Army of Waterloo:

Wellington and Napoleon were not the only ones who slugged it out at Waterloo. Marshal Blucher and his Prussian Army of the Lower Rhine rolled in with not less than 51,000 troops and 126 cannon, most of these from the IV Corps (32,609 men). Arriving in the early afternoon, they threatened to collapse the French right flank, forcing Napoleon to divert troops away from Wellington. One entire French Corps-the VI-had to be detached to cover the Prussian attack. This, obviously, put Napoleon in an untenable position, with his front engaged and his reserves committed. For this reason, many historians proclaim 'old Blucher' the true victor of Waterloo. [ Wargamers can test this out by playing any of the Waterloo battle games and leaving out the Prussian reinforcements.]

De'Erlon's Attack:

The initial attack by Count D'Erlon's French I Corps has often been held up as the prime example of declining French military expertise due to its use of clumsy division-sized columns. However, the units of this corps were originally deployed in much more maneuverable battalion battle lines. An off the cuff remark by Napoleon indicated that he hoped the battalions would deploy in divisional columns, Colonne de battalion par divisions (in 19th century terms, on a frontage two companies wide). This would give the battalions the flexibility of moving in column, but being able to swing into line for the attack. Going down the chain of command, this suggestion became a 'do-it-or-else' order which mandated Colonne de division par battalion (notice difference from above)-in effect, unmaneuverable battalion-wide columns. This misinterpretation caused the I Corps to march against Wellington presenting some of the largest targets ever seen on a battlefield. Even then, the French proved capable of fighting an extensive action, forcing the Allies back initially, until charged in the flank.

Another criticism of D'Erlon, that he attacked unsupported by cavalry, simply is not borne out by the facts. Two French cavalry brigades accompanied the advance. In the confused melee at the British line both brigades were pushed back by British cavalry, leaving the French flanks open and vulnerable to the famous charge of the Guards and Union Cavalry Brigades. Even then, both the French 1st and 13th Cavalry Divisions were close enough for Napoleon to launch them in a countercharge.

The Charge of the Royal Scots Greys:

The charge of the bearskin clad Scots Greys, along with the rest of the Union cavalry brigade, has been immortalized in several paintings. In reality, however, while the charge stopped D'Erlon's advance, it wrecked only two companies (10th of the 6th Foot Artillery Regiment and 19th of the 6th Foot Artillery Regiment) of the French massed artillery battery. The exhausted British troopers were then cut to pieces by a countercharge of French lancers and cuirassiers, while the massed battery was soon reinforced by not less than five horse artillery batteries. The cost to Wellington was the loss of nearly 40% of his cavalry, including nearly all of his heavy horse.

Napoleon was evidently told that these charging British horsemen were 'the noblest cavalry in Europe.' In seeing them pursue out of control into the waiting French ambush, he replied that they were 'also the most poorly led.'

La Haye Sainte:

While the 'Rock of Hougoumont' has been held up as the epitome of desperate courage in the face of overwhelming odds, the little farm of La Haye Sainte was actually of far greater importance in deciding the battle. This small piece of Belgian turf sat right on the main road to Brussels and was physically the geographic center of Wellington's battle line. Its capture early in the day would have actually split the Anglo-Dutch army in two, inviting a roll up of either flank. The fight for the place was especially vicious, with the Allied troops giving up only when their ammunition was exhausted. Only 42 of the original 400 defenders made it out alive. As it was, the French did overrun the farmhouse in the afternoon, thereby giving Ney the opening to launch his ill-fated final assault on Wellington's line.

Napoleon's Lethargy:

Much has been made about the Emperor' slack of generalship at the battle of Waterloo, particularly his failure to control his subordinates. Here Marshal Ney's name comes up a lot. Many ask why Napoleon did not put a screeching halt to Ney's unsupported cavalry attacks. German historians, however, tend to point out that this was no fault of the Emperor's. Instead they note that he was preoccupied with the 51,000 Prussians on his eastern flank. In fact, Napoleon launched a successful attack with the Guard which threw the Prussians back at Placenoit, thereby giving Ney time to set up his own attacks. Given the danger that a flank attack presents to an army that is frontally engaged, Napoleon's attentions were best devoted to this part of the battle.

The Failure to Recall Grouchy:

Much has also been made about Napoleon's failure to recall Marshal Grouchy and the right wing of the French army to the battle. But Grouchy's mission was to keep the Prussians pinned down. This could only be done by keeping up the pressure at Wavre. Had he marched westwards to the 'sound of the guns' (as some of his subordinates recommended), he would have lost contact with the main Prussian army, thereby freeing more of it to march to Wellington's aid (and then what would the critics have said?).

Antoine Henri Jomim, one of the greatest military theoreticians of the 19th century, noted in his account of Waterloo that, given the poor ground conditions (due to the rain) and the presence of the Prussian rearguard, it would have been difficult if not impossible for Grouchy to have reached Napoleon in time to have done any good.

Grouchy was doing his duty by attacking the Prussians at Wavre, even if being somewhat unimaginative. This is verified when on 18 June at 0400 hours, Napoleon received a dispatch from the Marshal noting the Prussian concentration at Wavre and including the statement, 'I [Grouchy] shall follow them to prevent them from gaining Brussels and to separate them from Wellington.' Not less than the US Army War College journal Parameters has noted that 'Based upon the intentions Grouchy expressed in his message, Napoleon's belief that Grouchy's 33,000 would hold off the Prussians seems reasonable.' Consequently, Napoleon thought he had no reason to recall Grouchy-and when the Prussians did arrive it was too late, anyway.

The problem was that Grouchy did not press the attack at Wavre hard enough. He allowed a considerable portion of the Prussian army to escape and march to the Waterloo field. [This is a point wargamers might want to test by checking march rates between Wavre and Mont St. Jean in any of the Waterloo campaign games. ed.]

Ney's irrational Behavior:

Ney' s famous cavalry charges without artillery or infantry support are often pointed to as evidence of his failing mental prowess. However, it seems the Marshal was merely the victim of one of Lord Wellington's clever ruses. When the Iron Duke saw the French horse massing, he pulled his infantry back behind the slopes so that they might form square unseen. Ney took this to mean they were retreating and launched his troopers, thinking artillery and infantry support were unnecessary. He also probably figured that if he waited for such support to come, this golden opportunity would slip away. It wouldn't have mattered anyway. Except for the Guard, there was no infantry available. Horse artillery was scarce to boot. Most of it had been ordered to reinforce the massed battery by General Lallemand, commander of the Old Guard foot batteries. He had taken over in place of the Guard artillery commander, General Desvaux de Saint-Maurice, who had died early in the battle. In fact, massed but unsupported cavalry charges had frequently turned the tide, as Eylau had shown.

The Attack of the Old Guard:

Never happened. The final attack at Waterloo was made by the 3rd and 4th Regiments of Grenadiers and Chasseurs of the Imperial Guard. Both official and unofficial correspondence refer to these units as the 'Middle Guard.' This was because their ranks were filled with soldiers who, although exemplary, were not considered good enough for entry into the true Old Guard (1st and 2nd Regiments of Chasseurs and Grenadiers). In some cases entire line units had been admitted into their ranks because they had defected from the Bourbon army to accompany the Emperor on his triumphal return to Paris. The 39th and 59th Ligne Regiments are two examples.

The Middle Guard was very poorly equipped: musket slings were often made out of string. Very few of the soldiers wore the famous bearskins. Instead, a vast mixture of shako and forage caps were to be seen, one observer swearing that not more than 20 of the troops could be found dressed alike!

It would seem that the crack British guardsmen were hit by the Guard Chasseurs, whose repulse was actually caused by the devastating flanking fire of the British 52nd Light Infantry Regiment. The fire was even more deadly because of the formation the French guardsmen were in. Eyewitnesses indicated that they marched upon the enemy in a modified hollow square! Evidently the French Guard feared attack by nearby Allied cavalry.

The French Army Cracks:

Most interpretations indicate that the repulse of the French Guard caused the rest of the army to collapse. Again, this is probably over simplistic. Several retreats by the Young Guard from Plancenoit, for example, did not cause a similar reaction. The real culprit seems to be Napoleon himself. As the Guard went forward he deliberately circulated a rumor stating that the blue uniformed soldiers from the east constituted Marshal Grouchy's wing of the army. The Emperor knew they were Prussians (who wore blue coats), but he hoped to fool the rest of the army into holding on until the Guard did its job. The Guard failed, and to top it off, those arriving blue coaters began to shoot. The average French soldier figured that Grouchy had turned traitor and this was certainly reason enough to bug out.

The Body Count:

This was surprisingly close. For the entire campaign, there were 64,603 French casualties and 62,818 Allied. Of course, what counted was the psychological balance - Wellington and Blucher believed they had a great victory, and Napoleon's will to fight had been broken. So the Allies won in the end.

So there we have Waterloo. Many will still argue over what actually happened at history's most famous battle, but as the above anecdotes show, most will agree that the final word has yet to be written.

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