The Battle of Waterloo
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
After the abdication of Napoleon the Powers proceeded to settle the affairs of Europe. The Bourbon monarchy was restored in France, though modified by constitutional limitations. The Tsar, and Castlereagh for the British insisted upon generous treatment for France on the principle that it was not monarchical France but the Republic and Napoleon that had been responsible for the twenty years of war. Both also insisted on the limitation of the powers of the restored monarchy; Castlereagh because of the pressure of British public opinion, the Tsar because he was at this time an ardent believer in theoretical doctrines of liberty.. It was the honest wish of the British nation and of the British Government to set aside selfish considerations, and to strive for a general settlement whose permanence would be guaranteed by its fairness and justice.
For herself Britain claimed little, and was willing to surrender much that she might legitimately have claimed; it is noteworthy that her most persistent demand was for a humanitarian agreement for the suppression of the slave trade. But European affairs could not be settled merely upon broad principles of justice when pledges had to be taken into consideration which had nothing to do with broad principles but only with particular interests. After a preliminary settlement a Congress of the Powers was appointed to meet at Vienna in the winter, to arrange outstanding questions which were far too complicated and involved too many antagonistic interests to be settled in haste.
The Vienna Congress
We need not here follow the intricacies of diplomacy at the Vienna Congress during the winter of 1814-15. Suspicions and jealousies made it no easy matter to rearrange the distribution of European territories in a manner satisfactory to the great Powers, to say nothing of the minor states; and at one time, in January 1815, matters had gone so far that France, Austria, and Britain made a secret treaty for united action in case the obstinacy of Russia and Prussia should rekindle a European conflagration. Still compromises were being achieved, and a general agreement seemed to be approaching, when all bickerings and quarrels were silenced by the startling news that Napoleon had slipped away from Elba, landed at Cannes on March 1st, and was appealing once more to the French nation to rally to his standard.
Napoleon returns from Elba
The Bourbon restoration was not popular in France, since the attitude of the royahsts on their return from exile showed that they had learnt nothing from the Revolution. Napoleon proclaimed that he was coming to restore not a despotism but a constitutional system; not to embroil Europe but to preserve the principles of the Revolution. The French troops in the south which were marched out against him answered his appeal and hailed him emperor. Most of the marshals had accepted the Bourbon restoration; those who were true to the monarchy had to take flight precipitately. Napoleon's progress towards Paris became a triumphal march; Ney, who advanced against him with loud and probably sincere protestations of loyalty to the Bourbons, fell under the spell and joined his old master. On March 13th the Powers at Vienna proclaimed Napoleon the public enemy of Europe; on the 19th King Louis fled from Paris to Ghent; on the 20th Napoleon himself was in Paris: On the 25th the four great Powers bound themselves to place a hundred and fifty thousand men apiece in the field. They were unanimous in the conviction that to make terms with Napoleon would be futile; that his promises were insincere, and that in any case Napoleon, once more at the head of the French Empire, could not, even if he would, resist the temptation to resume agression.
During the following weeks the Powers were engaged in a somewhat feverish endeavour to bring their armies into the field. Austria and Russia, remote and slow-moving, could not hope to hurry their forces to the front; Napoleon had the enormous advantage enjoyed by a dictator who holds all the strings in his own hands. At the beginning of June Wellington, created a duke in 1814, was in command of the allied forces in the Netherlands, numbering ninety thousand men; a heterogenous force, of which some thirty thousand were British - mostly raw recruits, since the Peninsula veterans were not yet back from America. Some twenty thousand Brunswickers and Hanoverians and the troops of the king's German legion, which had distinguished itself in the Peninsula, were also thoroughly to be relied upon; the rest, chiefly Belgians and Dutch, did not inspire confidence.
The Prussian forces under Blucher, numbering a hundred and twenty thousand, were extended a little to the eastward between Liege and Charleroi. Meanwhile, behind the French border Napoleon's energy was concentrating a force of a hundred and twenty-five thou-sand men, a large proportion of them veterans, at Valenciennes. Incidentally a diversion in Napoleon's favour by Joachim Murat, King of Naples, collapsed completely; Murat had to fly to France, and the Bourbon Ferdinand was once more proclaimed king of the Two Sicilies.
Napoleon's strength lay in the extraordinary rapidity with which his organisation worked. The longer the time allowed to the allies, the greater would be the forces massed against him; and his great aim was to be able to strike at them in detail and destroy them separately instead of allowing them, to be massed together at all. The first object, therefore, was to strike between Blucher and Wellington before they could concentrate for united action. Napoleon delivered his first blow before his enemies' preparations were completed On June 12th he left Paris to join the army. On June 15th he was over the frontier and swept the Prussian advanced corps: out of Charleroi driving it back on the main body. This was the famous night of the Duchess of Richmond's ball at Brussels, The concentration had not yet begun; it appears still to have been Wellington's conviction that Napoleon's intention was to turn his left and cut him off from the sea. Blucher hurried up his forces to Ligny; Wellington promised him support if he were not himself attacked. Napoleon, however, despatched Ney to seize the cross-roads at Quatre Bras, while ho himself flung his main attack upon Bliicher at Ligny. Ney would thus be able to hold a British advance in check and to turn Blucher's left flank.
The plan miscarried, but only in part. Some of the allies under the Duke of Saxe-Weimar occupied Quatre Bras before Key's arrival. Ney did not attack at once, British regiments were hurried to the front one after another Ney's attacks were beaten off, and before the end of the day the British were in superior force. A corps under D'Erlon wavered all day between Ligny and Quatre Bras, and failed to render any help in either engagement. The result was that although the Prussians suffered very heavy losses and were driven from the field, they were not routed but made good an orderly retreat under cover at night; and Blucher, instead of falling back upon his own base at Namur as the French expected, wheeled north to Wavre in order if possible to effect a junction with Wellington.
Now, if Ney and D'Erlon had carried out their task without a hitch, Blucher, at Ligny, would have been not only defeated but routed; the Prussian army would have ceased to count. As it was, Napoleon was perfectly satisfied that Blucher had fallen back in accordance with all orthodox rules of war upon Namur. He anticipated no difficulty in preventing his reappearance on the Geld, and to this end he despatched a containing force under Grouchy on the 17th, while he prepared with his main army to annihilate Wellington.
The Duke, who was informed of Blucher's movements, drew in the forces from Quatre Bras and established himself on the ridge of Mont St. Jean covering the way to Brussels. Blucher had promised to give his support - if he could; and it was Wellington's business - if he could - to hold on to the position he had chosen until Blucher arrived. The event of the battle depended upon the Prussian's ability to carry out his provisional promise; that is, Wellington was bound to fight with a view to winning a decisive victory if Blucher arrived, although there was an exceedingly strong presumption that if Blucher did not arrive at all he would find the task of holding his ground extremely difficult, especially in view of the character of his troops. As a matter of fact, both Wellington and Blucher succeeded in carrying out the roles appropriated to them respectively. If Blucher had failed, Wellington would probably have been forced to retreat. If Wellington had failed, a worse disaster than Ligny would probably have awaited Blucher. Neither of them failed, and the result was that the French army was shattered to pieces. It was Wellington's battle because, unbeaten, he bore the burden and heat of the day. It was the Prussians' battle, because they weakened the attack upon Wellington, and, having first ensured the defeat, turned it into an overwhelming rout.
Two facts combined to bring about Napoleon's overthrow by making possible the concerted action of British and Prussians. The cause of both was in part at least Napoleon's misleading information as to the line of Blucher's retreat. The first regiments falling back from Ligny had made for Namur. Grouchy followed on a wrong trail, and therefore on the 18th he failed to contain the Prussian army. Napoleon was satisfied that the Prussians could not arrive, and therefore waited till the 18th before attacking Wellington. It is conceivable that if Napoleon had opened his attack even three or four hours sooner than he did the Prussians would not have arrived in time to prevent him from carrying Wellington's position. But it is by no means clear that he would in any case have carried it. He relied upon tactics which had proved successful against every army in Europe except a British army; but the peculiar British method had been employed with success against one after another of his best marshals.
Broadly speaking, Napoleon's method was to hurl heavy masses of troops in column against the weak point in the extended line of the enemy, and so to break it and roll it up. But Soult knew by experience that the thin extended British line would stand up against heavy masses hurled against it without flinching. The column against the line had broken the troops of every other nation, but it could not be employed with confidence against the troops of Britain. Napoleon, it must be observed, had never yet met the British in battle himself; and had not learnt by personal experience the lessons which had been brought home to some of his marshals.
The Battle of Waterloo
In the early morning, then, of Sunday June 18 Wellington knew that Blucher would move with the object of attacking Napoleon's right flank; Blucher knew that Wellington was going to give battle at Waterloo. Napoleon believed that there could be no dangerous movement on the part of the Prussians. Of Wellington's sixty-seven thousand men scarcely one-third were British troops, another third could be thoroughly depended upon, but the balance could not. Napoleon had seventy-four thousand men and was very much better provided with artillery and cavalry. The left of the allied army was difficult to attack. On the centre and right the slope was not sufficiently steep to be a serious obstacle. The centre, however, was covered by the farm of La Haye Sainte, the right by the Chateau of Hougoumont. A dip behind the crest of the ridge to a great extent concealed the disposition of Wellington's troops. The leading feature of Napoleon's plan was to clear the way by a storm of artillery fire for hurling cavalry charges on the centre and piercing it; but the capture of La Haye Sainte, occupied by a portion of the king's German legion, was of material importance to the execution of this design.
The two arms, then, upon which Napoleon chiefly relied were the artillery and the cavalry. He delayed opening the attack until noon in order that the surface of the ground might recover, as its soaked condition interfered with cavalry operations. The firing began, to cover an attack upon Hougoumont, with the object not so much of capturing the chateau itself as of securing a position in the surrounding wood which would prevent the movement of troops on Wellington's right. Jerome Bonaparte, however, wasted much blood and energy in a fruitless attempt to storm the chateau, which was held with invincible resolution by a detachment of Guards. This was the prelude to the main attack on the centre, which was opened about 1.30, just when it had been ascertained that a Prussian corps was approaching from Wavre.
D'Erlon's corps was launched against La Haye Sainte, where the Germans held on with the same stubborn valour which was displayed at Hougoumont. But the French columns rolled up the slope, and the Dutch regiments which held the ridge at that point broke and fled. As the French topped the ridge, it seemed for a moment that the day was won; but their columns were shattered and swept back down the slope by a furious charge of Ponsonby's Union Brigade - Royal Dragoons, Inniskillings, and Scots Greys. The brigade crashed up the slope on the other side of the valley, disabled a number of the French guns, and was then almost cut to pieces itself by a fresh force of French Lancers and Dragoons. But the attack had been repulsed, and the Germans still held La Haye Sainte.
The Final Charge
The time, however, had now come for Napoleon to launch the cavalry charges upon the British centre; but charge after charge was rolled back. The gunners on the front of the ridge worked their guns to the last moment possible, and then raced for shelter to the hollow squares into which the infantry were formed behind the ridge. Against the squares the cavalry broke in vain. The British and German horse charged upon the broken columns, and swept them back and down the hill again. The squares were repeatedly enveloped by cavalry, but were never pierced; and the French charges were not supported by infantry, in part at least because these were now being drawn off on Napoleon's right to hold back the approaching Prussians. It was not till seven o'clock that Napoleon struck his last blow, sending the masses of his Old Guard in the wake of the cavalry charges.
But the invincible veterans had met their match. The British centre was strengthened by regiments called in from the wings whose movements were concealed from the enemy. On their right the British line was wheeled forward so as to pour in a heavy flank fire upon the mass of the advancing columns. Nevertheless they surged over the ridge; then the word was given to the Guards who were lying under cover to stand up and fire. Even the Old Guard staggered before the withering volley, reeled and rolled down the slope again as the order was given for the whole British line to advance. The Prussians had swept the stubborn defenders out of Planchenoit on the French right, and were thundering in upon Napoleon's flank. The last desperate effort had failed, the defeat became a rout, and the rout a headlong sauve qui peut. The exhausted British halted, but far into the night the furious Prussian horse took their revenge for Jena. Three weeks later Napoleon surrendered himself to the captain of H.M.S. Bellerophon.