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How the French won the battle of Waterloo (or think they did)

Two centuries after the battle of Waterloo, the French are still in denial, says writer Stephen Clarke. As soon as the cannons stopped firing in June 1815, French historians began rewriting history, diminishing the Anglo-Prussian victory and naming Napoleon the moral victor…

French cuirassiers charging a British infantry square at the battle of Waterloo, 1815 (1906). From Cassell's Illustrated History of England, Vol. V. (Cassell and Company Limited, London, Paris, New York, Melbourne). Artist P Jazet. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)
Published: June 18, 2021 at 7:05 am
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It can come as something of a shock to read Napoleon Bonaparte’s official account of Waterloo, written on 20 June 1815, two days after the battle. A key phrase reads: “After eight hours of firing and infantry and cavalry charges, the whole [French] army was able to look with satisfaction upon a battle won and the battlefield in our possession.”


Given that the first cannon shots were fired at about 11am, this would mean that as night fell, Napoleon was victorious. And yet almost every historian since 1815 has stated unequivocally that the battle was won by the armies of the Duke of Wellington and his Prussian ally General Gebhard Blücher, and that France’s defeat at Waterloo effectively put an end to Napoleon’s reign as emperor. So how could he possibly “look with satisfaction upon a battle won”?

To find the answer, it is necessary to read a little further into the report, where Napoleon concedes that “at about 8:30pm” some French troops mistakenly thought that his invincible Old Guard were fleeing the battlefield, and panicked. He explains that “the confusion of the night made it impossible to rally the troops and show them that they were mistaken”. It sounds here less like a lost battle than an abandoned football match.

And it wasn’t only the soon-to-be-deposed emperor of France who rewrote accepted historical fact about Waterloo. A French veteran of the battle, Captain Marie Jean Baptise Lemonnier-Delafosse, claimed in his memoirs: “It wasn’t Wellington who won; his defence was stubborn and admirably energetic, but he was pushed back and beaten.”

Crucially, though, Captain Lemonnier-Delafosse goes on to add that Waterloo was an “extraordinary battle, the only one in which there were two losers: first the English, then the French”. So he admits defeat, albeit in a confusing way.

What Lemonnier-Delafosse means is that Napoleon beat Wellington, and then lost to Blücher when the Prussians arrived on the battlefield after dark. This is a key argument, because it suggests that Napoleon emerged from 18 June with one victory and one defeat. We’re back to a football analogy: at Waterloo, Napoleon won a score draw. In other words, he wasn’t a total loser. And for Napoleon’s admirers, past and present, this has always been the essential point.

Napoleon Bonaparte tries to lead the final assault by his Imperial Guard at the battle of Waterloo. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Napoleon Bonaparte tries to lead the final assault by his Imperial Guard at the battle of Waterloo. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Even today, there is a sub-species of historian (mostly French, unsurprisingly) dedicated to preserving this notion of ‘Napoleon Bonaparte, the winner’. They present him as a great general who may have suffered setbacks in Russia in 1812 (when he lost about half a million soldiers and was forced to abandon all his territorial gains) and Belgium in 1815 (though don’t forget Waterloo was a draw), but who, when all the battles are totted up, was a winner – France’s greatest-ever hero, who expanded the nation’s boundaries until French-dominated Europe stretched from Portugal to Poland, and from the Baltic to the southern tip of Italy. Almost the only piece missing from his empire-building puzzle was Britain.

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This is why Waterloo is so important, and why controversy is still raging about it (in French minds, at least) – it was fought against France’s ancient enemy, the English, with whom it had been at war practically non-stop since 1337. Britain was almost the only European country that Napoleon never managed to invade. It was already a black mark on his map of Europe before Waterloo, so British attempts to glorify it as a French defeat threaten to deliver the coup de grâce to Napoleon’s memory.

All of which explains the perversely twisted arguments that Bonapartist historians have given to diminish the Anglo-Prussian victory of June 1815, ever since Napoleon did so in his post-battle report.

One of their classic arguments is that Wellington cheated. A year earlier, he had predicted that the open farmland south of Brussels might be the site of a standoff between British and French forces in the region, and had found the ridge where he would align his soldiers on 17 June 1815. Some might argue that reconnoitering for higher ground in a strategic location was intelligent military planning – to Bonapartists, though, it was cheating.

The Duke of Wellington commanding his troops at the battle of Waterloo. Original artwork engraved by T Fielding after a drawing by R Westall. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The Duke of Wellington commanding his troops at the battle of Waterloo. Original artwork engraved by T Fielding after a drawing by R Westall. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Once the battlefield was chosen, many French historians argue that any hope of victory for Napoleon’s men was dashed by the incompetence of his generals. They cite a long list of mistakes made by Napoleon’s brother Jérôme, who lost 5,000 lives in a pointless attack when he had been ordered to create a simple diversion at the start of the battle; by Marshal Michel Ney, who led several ill-timed cavalry charges; and by Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy, who was sent to scout for Prussians and simply disappeared for the day, stopping at one point to enjoy some fresh strawberries. That fruity picnic has haunted his family name ever since.

But the sad fact was that after more than a decade of continuous war, a critical number of Napoleon’s most gifted and most faithful generals were dead. In the early 19th century, generals led their troops from the front, and stayed almost permanently in the firing line. Napoleon’s most faithful men had fallen in battle. Others had betrayed him during the political upheavals in France in 1814, when Napoleon was deposed for the first time. Many French troops later complained in their memoirs that their officers didn’t believe in Napoleon’s cause.

If uncommitted officers weren’t enough, Napoleon is also said to have been hampered by the weather. Rain poured out of the Belgian sky all night before the battle, forcing the French soldiers to sleep in puddles and preventing Napoleon from manoeuvring his cannons – his favourite weapon – into place. Of course the rain also fell on Wellington’s men, but that doesn’t matter in Bonapartist eyes. As the 19th-century French writer Victor Hugo put it: “If it hadn’t rained on the night of 17-18 June, the future of Europe would have been different. A few raindrops more or less felled Napoleon.”

Hugo implies that this rain didn’t come by chance – God himself had decided that Napoleon was just too great: “The excessive importance of this man in world destiny was unbalancing things… Waterloo wasn’t a battle. It was a change in the direction of the universe.” It was therefore impossible for Napoleon to win at Waterloo, Hugo concludes: “Because of Wellington? Because of Blücher? No, because of God.” With enemies like that, no friends could help.

Napoleon was also troubled by his health. According to various accounts he was suffering from piles, a urinary infection, a glandular condition and/or syphilis. One of Napoleon’s 20th-century French biographers, Max Gallo, describes what must be the worst case of hemorrhoids in literary history, with “thick, black blood, heavy and burning hot, flowing through [Napoleon’s] lower body, swelling the veins until they were fit to burst”. Riding a horse on the battlefield was bound to be agony. The implication of these health stories is of course that the great champion wasn’t entirely fit on the day he was forced to fight.

A portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte on 1 June 1815 in Paris, France. An engraving by Samuel Freeman from a painting by Paul Delaroche. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte on 1 June 1815 in Paris, France. An engraving by Samuel Freeman from a painting by Paul Delaroche. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It is because of all his sufferings that Napoleon’s supporters refuse to look upon him as the loser of Waterloo. On the contrary, these setbacks were the very reason that Victor Hugo and others claim that Napoleon’s men won the moral victory: outnumbered by two armies to one, led by second-string generals, frowned (and rained) upon by the creator of the universe, they still put up a glorious fight.

The Bonapartists point to a crucial moment towards the end of the battle. As the French retreated, one group of 550 men did so without breaking ranks – this was a battalion of the Garde, led by General Pierre Cambronne. However, they were quickly surrounded by Wellington’s infantrymen, backed up with cannons, who called on the Frenchmen to surrender. Cambronne famously replied “merde!” (“shit”). Some say he added: “The Garde dies but never surrenders,” although he later denied this, explaining: “I’m not dead and I surrendered.”

Hearing this insulting rebuff, the British artillery opened fire from point-blank range and wiped out almost all of the 550, who instantly became martyrs – and in some French eyes, victors. Victor Hugo went so far as to claim: “The man who won the battle of Waterloo was Cambronne. Unleashing deadly lightning with such a word counts as victory.” And a more modern Bonapartist, the former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin, went further, saying that this “merde” created “a new idea of Frenchness”, a defiant nation that believes in its own superiority despite any proof to the contrary.

It is true that, even as early as the 1820s, impoverished France almost relished the fact that it was being left behind by the (British-led) industrial revolution, and began to concentrate on its traditional industries such as the production of unique regional cheeses and wines, the distillation of perfumes from its native plants and hand-made high-quality clothes. Villepin suggests that the global importance of these French industries today are victories that sprung directly from Waterloo.

This is not to forget Napoleon’s personal victory. In July 1815, when he was briefly brought to England as a prisoner, a thousand boats filled Plymouth Sound harbour, with locals desperate to get a glimpse of the famous Frenchman, and, according to a British sailor, “blessing themselves that they had been so fortunate” if they succeeded. Until the order was given to exile Napoleon to Saint Helena, he seriously believed that he could retire as a celebrity in England.

A plan of the battle of Waterloo. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A plan of the battle of Waterloo. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Despite his exile in 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte’s fame has since spread throughout the world. His supporters point to the fact that his tomb in Paris is bigger, and more frequently visited by tourists, than that of any king of France. They rightly remind us that the legal system Napoleon founded, the Code Civil, is still used right across Europe. If further proof of Napoleon’s enduring fame is needed, one of his black hats sold at auction in 2015 for 1.8 million euros, to a Korean industrialist who planned to display it in the foyer of his head office to show that he too was a winner.

Indeed, while he was alive, Napoleon always dressed in his own unique style. On a recent visit to the new museum at Waterloo I counted the statuettes on sale in the souvenir shop, and the figurines of Napoleon in his trademark hat and greatcoat outnumbered Wellington and Blücher by at least five to one – clearly, the Bonaparte brand image lives on.

In short, Napoleon might have lost on 18 June 1815 (and the debate about that continues in France), but it is hard to deny that his highly vocal admirers are right – he has won the battle of history.

Stephen Clarke is the author of How the French Won Waterloo (Or Think They Did) (Century, 2015).


This article was first published by History Extra in August 2016


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