Each month BBC History Revealed asks a historical expert for their take on what might have happened if a key moment in the past had turned out differently. This time, Jonny Wilkes talks to Professor Alan Forrest about what might had happened had Napoleon Bonaparte emerged triumphant at the Battle of Waterloo

The Battle of Waterloo was over. A bloody battle. A dirty battle. A shifting battle, where both sides gained and lost momentum and the result could have gone either way. By the end of the day on 18 June 1815, thousands of men lay dead, and when the smoke cleared, it was Napoleon Bonaparte looking out across the battlefield as victor. His army had defeated the Duke of Wellington’s British-led forces on one side and Field Marshal von Blücher’s Prussians on the other, dealing the allies of the Seventh Coalition a severe blow...

From his abdication and exile a year earlier, Napoleon’s return to power in France had a winning start. Yet the war was far from over and he would have to decide where to head next. “If Napoleon had got rid of the British and Prussian armies at Waterloo, he might have marched on to Brussels,” says Professor Alan Forrest, historian of revolutionary and Napoleonic France. “That was where the road was most obviously leading.”

Had he returned to France to secure his domestic position and take a more defensive approach, Napoleon may have delayed the next battle. Decades of revolution, the Terror, and the rise and fall of his empire had left the country bitterly divided, though, and he could not rely on the citizenry for support, many of whom remained loyal to the republic or the monarchy. “In order to be a leader at all, Napoleon had to be a war leader.” says Forrest. “He was dependent on the army.”

Illustration of Alexander the Great marching to war (Illustration by Sue Gent_

That left Napoleon with major shortcomings both before and after Waterloo. As emperor of France up until 1814, he had been able to draw on the resources of Europe to build and sustain his army. Since returning from exile on Elba, he only had France. While many soldiers remained fiercely loyal to him, not everyone rushed to rally to the returned emperor. Napoleon had limited resources and his army suffered, notably in the quality of its commanders. “Michel Ney, in particular, was a brave man, but headstrong and liable to fling his troops into action without due consideration,” says Forrest.

The allied nations, meanwhile, were united against Napoleon. As he had launched a military campaign virtually right away, he only cemented beliefs among the likes of Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia that he posed a danger to the security and peace of Europe. There was no way they could tolerate his return. What’s more, the desire for revenge would have been strong – the other powers held Napoleon responsible for wars dragging on and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

Napoleon after Waterloo

Even following a victory at Waterloo, Napoleon could not have been as offensive as he once had. “Whereas previously he had been an emperor, in 1815 he wasn’t,” says Forrest. “He was an outlaw, with no legal status and, from that position, he had plunged Europe back into war.” The overwhelmingly larger forces commanded by the allies and the diplomatic determination of their leaders not to let Napoleon establish power once more, meant they were not going to make concessions. “The war would go on until Napoleon was defeated,” says Forrest.

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The beaten Duke of Wellington probably would have played no further part in the fight against Napoleon

The beaten Duke of Wellington probably would have played no further part in the ongoing fight against Napoleon. Instead of acting as a diplomatic representative of the allies – in Paris and at the Congress of Vienna – the mastermind of the Peninsular Campaign may have returned to Britain with his reputation tarnished. A promising political career that could have led all the way to him being prime minister would suffer without the upsurge of patriotic enthusiasm that followed a victory at Waterloo.

The prestige of Britain rested on the outcome of that battle, too. Defeat may have meant Britain was not taken as seriously as a military power on land in Europe – although, it would have remained the supreme naval power – and may have reduced its influence at future talks. “The four major allied powers had demobilised large parts of their army in 1814. Britain did this quite quickly,” says Forrest. “The country did not have a standing army in peacetime, was far more interested in the navy, and would have found it difficult to raise a large force again. Waterloo was Britain’s last fling.”

Even with Britain’s role diminished, Napoleon would have had no possibility of long-term success. While two armies may have been defeated at Waterloo, 150,000 Austrians and a larger force of Russians were, as Forrest puts it, “waiting their turn”. Napoleon would have faced battle after battle, with the other powers of the Seventh Coalition keeping on coming and closing in until he eventually lost. The peace may have taken a different form if Waterloo had gone differently, but Napoleon was always going to be on the losing side.

Napoleon’s fate would have depended on who eventually captured him, and if in 1815 he chose to surrender to Britain, it would have been because he believed that he would receive more lenient treatment. He would have had no reason to think that Prussia, Russia or Austria – where his wife and son were living at the imperial court – would treat him benignly. The worst outcome, however, would have been to surrender to the French themselves. “The monarchists wanted Napoleon’s blood. He was a usurper, a traitor to his king – many called for the death penalty.”

Instead of seeing out his days in exile on a remote island, Napoleon could have faced a firing squad.

The real rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte rose from a soldier in revolutionary France to commander of campaigns in Italy and Egypt, seizing power in a coup in 1799 and becoming the country’s leader at the age of 30. In 1804, he declared himself emperor.

A military mastermind, Napoleon seemed close to invincible on the battlefield until his disastrous Russian campaign in 1812, from which he never recovered. Forced to abdicate in 1814, Napoleon was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba.

In 1815, he staged a remarkable comeback, returning to France and taking power once more. A coalition of European powers – led by Austria, Prussia, Russia and Britain – formed against him as he prepared to go on campaign. His brief second rule, The Hundred Days, ended with defeat at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815.

Napoleon was forced into exile again, this time on the remote Atlantic island of St Helena.

Professor Alan Forrest is a historian of revolutionary and Napoleonic France, and author of Napoleon, Life, Legacy, and Image: A Biography. He was speaking to freelance writer Jonny Wilkes

This article was first published in the September 2020 edition of History Revealed


Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.