Waterloo: the historians’ verdict

Expert historians Jeremy Black, William Anthony Hay, Andrew Lambert and Alan Forrest reflect on some of the big questions relating to the famous 1815 battle

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, displayed remarkable leadership of the British army at the battle of Waterloo. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

This article first appeared in the September 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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As ruler of France, Napoleon Bonaparte had been at war with several European powers, including Britain, for most of the early 19th century. He scored a series of victories and conquered many territories but his progress was dramatically halted by France’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. His emboldened foes invaded France two years later and compelled Napoleon to abdicate, after which he went into exile on the island of Elba, off the coast of Italy.
However in March 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba and marched into Paris shortly afterwards. His former adversaries swiftly declared war on Napoleon, establishing a coalition between Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria. Napoleon led his forces into Belgium, where Prussian, British, Dutch and Belgian forces had already gathered under the command of the Prussian Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher and Britain’s Duke of Wellington.
After a series of  clashes, battle was joined between the two forces on 18 June at Waterloo. During a day of fierce fighting, the allies were able to repel French attacks, eventually forcing Napoleon to retreat. Defeated, Napoleon was soon afterwards ousted from power and exiled – this time for good – by the British on St Helena, where he died in 1821…

Following his return from Elba, what were Napoleon’s military aims?

Alan Forrest: Napoleon aimed to march on Paris and resume control of his empire, though the military and naval resources at his disposal on Elba were tiny and his dream of overthrowing the restoration monarchy [Louis XVIII had been made king during Napoleon’s exile] seemed absurdly unrealistic. He must have known that the other European powers would not stand idly by. But it very nearly came off, and his journey back to Paris, gathering support along the way, is surely one of the great romantic stories of the 19th century.
Andrew Lambert: Napoleon aimed to keep his throne, by diplomacy if possible, and by force if not. He tried to divide the allies by striking at the British first. The threat to the valuable naval base at Antwerp was guaranteed to get the attention of London at a time when (present day) Belgium was still occupied by British troops.

How did the European powers ranged against him seek to prevent Napoleon achieving his aims?

AF: A new coalition was formed against Napoleon almost immediately and the war was resumed. Despite the war-weariness of many of the European powers after more than 20 years of near-continuous fighting – Britain and Austria had been almost constantly at war with France since the early 1790s – there was little sign of dissent. Napoleon was a threat to global peace; he had to be stopped.

Why did Waterloo come to be chosen as the battle location? 

AL: Because Napoleon was marching on Antwerp, which was a matter of the first importance to his plans, and Wellington had to stop him before he got there.
Jeremy Black: Waterloo was a position that protected Brussels. Wellington chose to fight there because he was promised Prussian assistance.

Prior to the battle, which of the armies had the strongest chance of victory?

AL: The allies had the bigger force, but Napoleon should have been able to concentrate against one or other and overpower them.
AF: They were fairly evenly matched: Wellington commanded around 68,000 men to Napoleon’s 72,000. The British Army had improved enormously since 1793 [when war with France began] and gained invaluable battle experience in the Peninsula War [fought by France against British, Spanish and Portuguese forces in Iberia from 1808–14]. Although any army led by Napoleon commanded respect, this one was not as strong as those of his heyday. It was hastily assembled, with many who were raw recruits.

Wellington said that the battle of Waterloo was the “nearest run thing you ever saw in your life”. To what extent do you believe that is true?

AL: I believe it was true. Wellington’s remarkable leadership and the astonishing endurance of the British and allied infantry under heavy fire and repeated heavy attacks surpassed all other defensive performances against Napoleon, apart from Borodino [a bloody 1812 battle between France and Russia].
AF: It was certainly closely contested by two armies each of which had a realistic chance of victory, and the outcome remained in doubt during most of the fighting, so Wellington’s assessment does not seem unjustified. Many people, even in Britain, feared that Napoleon would win – right up to the moment when the news of the victory was brought to London – and public relief led to a huge outburst of joy and celebration.

Why did Napoleon lose the battle?

AF: Wellington’s defensive tactics worked well, pulling the French forward in attack after attack, and Napoleon made tactical errors on the day. The French badly needed extra manpower, yet a part of their army was not engaged in the action. Their tactics were inflexible, relying too much on dense attacks by massed columns. It is hard not to conclude that Grouchy and Ney lacked the tactical acumen of the marshals who had served Napoleon at his victories at Jena (1806) or Austerlitz (1805).
JB: Napoleon failed to keep his opponents apart, and seriously and consistently mishandled his battle with Wellington. The best French chance on 18 June was at the outset, but there was no real element of manoeuvre to add to brute strength. Arguably, the key mistakes were made by the French prior to the battle, in smaller clashes on 16 and 17 June. On the day itself, Napoleon failed to direct or control his subordinates, the original attack was botched, and, subsequently, direction of the flow of the battle was not regained.

How important was the individual contribution of Wellington to the victory at Waterloo?

AF: His appreciation of the terrain and his defensive approach to the battle were highly effective, using the ridge of Mont-Saint-Jean to advantage. Wellington planned operations carefully and intelligently, but we should be cautious about suggesting that his personal role was crucial, or that without him the allies could not have won. To do that would be to move into a counterfactual history of the battle, which is impossible to prove.
AL: Critical: only a highly experienced defensive tactician like Wellington could have held the field, using the reverse slope, laying his men down to minimise artillery fire, and keeping his counter-attacking options alive.
JB: Wellington was ‘hands on’ operationally and tactically in a way that Napoleon did not try to be. Wellington’s ‘forward command’ style, however, did expose him to considerable personal risk. Wellington showed a degree of resilience that was most impressive. His understanding of terrain was key and he displayed the fortitude and command of the moment that were so important to British success at Waterloo.

To what extent was this a coalition rather than a British victory?

AF: Waterloo was unquestionably a coalition victory, however important the part played by British troops. The victory owed much to Blücher’s timely arrival on the field; the part played by the Prussians was crucial. We should not forget, either, the presence of Dutch troops among the coalition forces, or the role of the King’s German Legion in the British Army.
William Anthony Hay: Wellington very cleverly presented it as a British victory, even though looking at the larger campaign reminds us that the Prussians fought actions before and after Waterloo. The way in which Wellington managed the politics brings to mind his tendency to claim credit and downplay the contribution of others.Beyond the personal, casting Waterloo as a British rather than Anglo-Dutch or allied victory with Prussian aid, bolstered British diplomatic prestige. Until then, the other powers had carried the main weight of the war with Napoleon in central Europe, with the British fighting at sea and in the Iberian peninsula.

How does Waterloo rank among the great battles in history? 

JB: It was a major battle and a great achievement, but a battle that I believe was most important in its consequences.
AF: It was the battle that ended a generation of European and global warfare. For that reason alone it has a rare significance. It was also a very savage and fierce conflict, with casualties high on both sides (around 24,000 killed and wounded on the allied side, over 30,000 on the French). And it was all concentrated into a short time and a limited physical space. All this contributed to its iconic status, at least in Britain.
AL: The last battle of a 22-year cycle of conflict was always going to be memorable, even if it had been a damp squib, but Waterloo had everything – a major engagement between experienced commanders that ended with a complete victory. However, eventually the Austrians and Russians would have finished off Napoleon even if he had won at the battle of Waterloo.

Can Waterloo be viewed as Napoleon’s worst defeat?

AL: No, the worst defeat would be at the battle of Leipzig [a decisive allied victory in Saxony in October 1813], which was far more significant. The battle of Waterloo ended a brief resurgence, but the battle of Leipzig ended his empire.
WAH: Yes, in so far as Waterloo shattered Napoleon’s hopes of sustaining a comeback. Leipzig was a pivotal earlier defeat, but Napoleon managed to recover slightly when the allies reached France and fought impressive defensive actions on his own soil. Napoleon never managed that after Waterloo.There may have been other battles where Napoleon’s errors made for a worse defeat from the perspective of the art of war, but the capacity to recover makes a difference. Waterloo compelled Napoleon to abandon his hopes and rendered his position untenable.
AF: To the extent that it finally ended his imperial dreams, I suppose it can. But Napoleon did not fight the battle badly. His tactics were logical and his troops conducted themselves well. He was perhaps unlucky that his planned reinforcements did not arrive when expected, whereas for the allies, Blücher’s Prussians did. Waterloo would be remembered in France without shame, as an honourable defeat.
JB: To my mind, Napoleon’s worst defeat was strategic – the invasion of Russia in 1812.

What do you see as the most important legacy of Waterloo?

AF: In the political sphere the battle ensured the defeat of Napoleon’s imperial dreams and assured the restoration of the monarchy in France. This left a power balance in Europe that greatly benefited Britain, making her the leading industrial and imperial power of the Victorian era. The battle of Waterloo also gave the British Army and its regiments a new confidence and pride: Britain was accustomed to command the seas, but had seldom enjoyed dominance in land battles.
WAH: Wellington’s decisive victory ended abruptly Napoleon’s Hundred Days [the period from his return from Elba to the second restoration of King Louis XVIII after Waterloo] while enabling the duke to manage the politics of the allied occupation that followed to bring a stable peace. The Earl of Liverpool, Britain’s prime minister, had privately remarked that any war at that time would be a revolutionary war and Europe needed time for things to return to their normal course so that wars would not risk such upheaval. Wellington won Europe that period of time.

How has our understanding of the battle changed in subsequent years?

AL: The focus on tactics has faded, but the meaning of the event has become more significant.
AF: In the immediate aftermath of the battle the British government claimed it as a specifically British victory; there were public celebrations and memorials to Wellington and the battle. The Waterloo Medal was issued to all the soldiers who had taken part. Wellington clearly manipulated public opinion on this issue, but with time it has been appreciated that the battle was a truly joint effort, as much a Prussian victory as a British one.

What is still yet to discover about the battle of Waterloo?

AF: The details of tactics and strategy have been dissected thoroughly over the years, but historians are now asking different questions about war and the battles that are its most dramatic moments. These are questions about soldiers’ morale and motives in war; issues of gender and military masculinity; the place of the battle in the national memory of the states represented on the battlefield and its contrasting roles in their national identities.
JB: The key element to be handled adequately is what happened afterwards in the campaign, for the British and Prussians, and why the French regime collapsed so rapidly.
Jeremy Black is professor of history at the University of Exeter. He is author of The Battle of Waterloo: A New History (2013)
William Anthony Hay is associate professor of history, Mississippi State University. He is the author of The Whig Revival, 1808-1830 (2004)
Andrew Lambert is professor of naval history at King’s College London. He is author of The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812 (2012)
Alan Forrest is professor of modern history at the University of York. He is author of Napoleon (2011)