This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
Napoleon gives Marshal Davout a desk job
6 June 1815 – All commanders need a good chief of staff to ensure that their intentions are translated into clear orders. Unfortunately for Napoleon – as what is arguably one of the most decisive battles in European history loomed – his trusted chief of staff, Marshal Berthier, was no longer available. Berthier had sworn an oath of loyalty to Louis XVIII – and then fallen to his death from a window – so the job was given to Marshal Soult.
Soult was an experienced field commander but he was certainly no Berthier. Napoleon’s two main field commanders were also far from ideal. Emmanuel Grouchy had little experience of independent command. Michel Ney’s heroic command of the French rear-guard during the retreat from Moscow led Napoleon to dub him “the bravest of the brave”, but by 1815 he was clearly burnt out.
Worse still, when on 6 June Napoleon ordered his generals to assemble with their troops on the Belgian border he chose to leave behind Louis-Nicolas Davout, his ‘Iron Marshal’, as minister of war. The emperor needed someone loyal to oversee affairs at home but the decision not to take with him the ablest general at his disposal would deprive him of the one commander who might have made a difference.
Constant Rebecque ignores orders
15 June – In June 1815 Napoleon assembled 120,000 men on the Belgian border. Opposing him were 115,000 Prussians under Field Marshal Blücher and an allied force of about 93,000 men under Wellington. Faced with such odds, Napoleon’s best chance of victory was to get his army between his two enemies and defeat one before turning on the other. On 15 June his army crossed the frontier at Charleroi and headed straight for the gap between the two allied armies.
Wellington was taken completely by surprise: “Napoleon has humbugged me” he said. Uncertain what Napoleon’s intentions were, he ordered his army to concentrate around Nivelles, over 12 miles away from the Prussian position at Ligny. This would have left the two allied armies dangerously separated but fortunately for Wellington, a staff officer in the Dutch army, Baron Constant Rebecque, understood what was actually needed. He disregarded Wellington’s order and instead sent a force to occupy the key crossroads of Quatre Bras, much nearer to the Prussians.
D’Erlon misses the show
16 June – Two battles were fought on 16 June. While Marshal Ney took on Wellington’s army as it hurriedly tried to concentrate around Quatre Bras, Napoleon led the main French force against the Prussians at Ligny. Blücher’s inexperienced Prussians were given a severe mauling but despite this they managed to fall back in relatively good order.
This was partly due to a disastrous mix-up on the part of the French. Confusion over orders saw General D’Erlon’s corps instructed to leave Ney’s army at Quatre Bras and join the fighting at Ligny only to be recalled as soon as they got there. The result was that 16,000 Frenchmen who could have intervened decisively actually took part in neither battle.
Blücher stays in touch
17 June – Wellington succeeded in beating back Ney at Quatre Bras but Blücher’s defeat left the British general with a large French army on his eastern flank. He was forced to fall back northwards towards Brussels. The Prussians were retreating as well. Normally a retreating army tries to withdraw along its lines of communication (ie the route back to its base). Had the Prussians done this they would have headed eastwards. The two allied armies would then have been even further apart and Wellington would have been overwhelmed. But instead of doing that, the Prussians retreated northwards towards Wavre. It was to be a crucial move. The two allied armies stayed in contact and on 17 June Wellington was able to fall back to the ridge at Mont St Jean, and prepare to make a stand there until Blücher’s Prussians could come to his aid.
The weather takes a hand
17 June – The night before the battle was marked by a thunderstorm of biblical proportions. Rain lashed down, turning roads into quagmires and trampled fields into seas of mud. Private Wheeler of the 51st Regiment later wrote: “The ground was too wet to lie down… the water ran in streams from the cuffs of our Jackets… We had one consolation, we knew that the enemy were in the same plight.” Wheeler was right of course – the rain would inconvenience all three armies, not least the Prussians as they struggled along narrow country lanes to link up with Wellington.
It’s often said that Napoleon delayed starting the battle in order to allow the ground to dry out but the chief cause of the delay was probably the need to allow his units, many of whom had bivouacked some distance away, to take up their allotted places. Napoleon enjoyed a considerable advantage in artillery at Waterloo but this was lessened by the fact that the mud made it difficult to move his guns around and that cannonballs, normally designed to bounce along until they hit something, or someone, often disappeared harmlessly into the soggy ground.
Macdonnell closes the gates
11:30am, 18 June – On 18 June the two armies prepared to do battle. Most of Wellington’s troops were sheltered from enemy fire on the reverse slope of the Mont St Jean ridge. The position was protected by three important outposts: a group of farms to the left, the farm of La Haye Sainte in front and the farmhouse of Hougoumont to the right. At about 11.30am the French launched their first attack – an assault on Hougoumont. This soon developed into a battle within a battle as the French threw in ever more men in a bid to capture the vital chateau. They nearly succeeded: led by a giant officer nicknamed ‘the Smasher’, a group of French soldiers worked their way round to the rear of the chateau, forced open its north gate and burst inside.
James Macdonnell, the garrison commander, acted quickly. He gathered a group of men and they heaved the gate shut again. The French inside the chateau were then hunted down and killed. Only a young drummer boy was spared. Hougoumont was to remain in allied hands all day and Wellington later commented that the entire result of the battle depended on the closing of those gates.
Ney loses his head after his cavalry founders
1.30pm – The infantry of D’Erlon’s corps finally saw action as they attacked the left wing of Wellington’s army. As they reached the crest of the ridge they were met by the infantry of Sir Thomas Picton’s division. Picton, a foul-mouthed Welshman who rode into battle in a civilian coat and round-brimmed hat, was shot dead but his men stopped the French, who were then driven back by Wellington’s cavalry.
The next major French attack was very different. Ney unleashed his cavalry in a mass frontal attack, and thousands of Napoleon’s famous cuirassiers – big men in steel breastplates riding big horses – thundered up the hill. But Wellington’s infantry stayed calm. Forming squares, they presented in all directions a hedge of bayonets that no horse could be made to charge.
Ney needed to call the cavalry off or support them with infantry but he lost his head and threw more horsemen into the fray. When he abandoned these fruitless attacks, Wellington’s line was still unbroken, two hours had been wasted, and the Prussians were arriving in force.
The Prussians arrive
4.30pm – Blücher had promised to come to Wellington’s aid, and kept his word. Napoleon had detached nearly a third of his army under Grouchy to prevent the Prussians joining up with Wellington but Grouchy failed to do this and, by mid-afternoon, the first Prussian units were in action on the battlefield.
At about 4.30pm they launched their first attack upon the key village of Plancenoit near the rear of Napoleon’s main position. This savage battle would rage for over three hours. Faced with this, Napoleon was forced to send many of his remaining reserves to shore up his position – leaving him with precious few troops to exploit any success his troops might enjoy against Wellington.
Napoleon says no, and von Zeithen turns back
6.30pm – At about 6.30pm the French captured La Haye Sainte. Posting artillery and skirmishers around the farm, they unleashed a storm of shot, shell and musketry into Wellington’s exposed centre. The regiments there suffered horrendous casualties, but Wellington’s line held – just.
Ney asked for reinforcements to press home his advantage but Napoleon refused. Instead he sent troops to recapture Plancenoit which had just fallen to the Prussians. Von Zeiten’s Prussian I Corps arrived on the scene. These much-needed reinforcements were set to join Wellington when a Prussian aide de camp rode up with an order from Blücher instructing them to head south and support his troops at Plancenoit. Von Zeiten obeyed. Realising that Von Zeiten’s troops were desperately needed on the ridge, Baron von Müffling, Wellington’s Prussian liaison officer, galloped after Von Zeiten and pleaded with him to ignore this new order and stick to the original plan. The Prussian general turned back and took his place on Wellington’s left, enabling the duke to shift troops over to reinforce his crumbling centre. The crisis had passed.
Napoleon’s last roll of the dice ends in panic
7.30pm – With Plancenoit back in French hands the stage was set for the final act in the drama. At about 7.30pm Napoleon unleashed his elite imperial guard in a last desperate bid for victory. But it was too late – they were hopelessly outnumbered and Wellington was ready for them. His own troops had been sheltering from the French fire by lying down but when the two large columns of French guardsmen reached the crest of the ridge Wellington ordered his own guards to stand up. One British guardsman describes the scene: “Whether it was (our) sudden appearance so near to them, or the tremendously heavy fire we threw into them but La Garde, who had never previously failed in an attack, suddenly stopped.”
Meanwhile Sir John Colborne of the 52nd Light Infantry wheeled his regiment round to attack the flank of the first French column while General Chasse ordered his Dutch and Belgian troops forward against the other. Soon both French columns had withered away under the deadly fire. Their defeat led to widespread panic in the French army: amid cries of “La Garde recule” (“the Guard is retreating”) it dissolved into a disorderly retreat mercilessly harried by the Prussians. “The nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life,” as Wellington described the battle, was over.
Julian Humphrys worked at the National Army Museum and is development officer for the Battlefields Trust.