200 years ago, almost to the hour, the battle of Waterloo commenced. The dramatic final showdown of 22 years of war, Waterloo had all the makings of a swashbuckling drama. It was the only occasion when Wellington and Napoleon encountered each other. Having escaped from the tiny Mediterranean island of Elba in March, Napoleon gambled everything to restore himself to the glory he had lost when abdicated the year before. Wellington, as the allied commander, represented a union of the Great Powers that had sworn to remain in the field until Napoleon was permanently exiled.
This great battle has been feted by history as one of Britain’s greatest military victories. Napoleon’s attack on Wellington’s line on the ridge of Mont St Jean near the village of Waterloo on 18 June 1815 was indeed a close run thing. On several occasions, the ‘thin red line’ nearly buckled. But Wellington, commanding a melange of veterans and raw recruits drawn from armies across Europe, held firm until Blücher’s Prussian Army arrived on Napoleon’s right flank. Outnumbered and outflanked, a final assault by the Imperial Guard failed for a final time to break Wellington’s line, and the French Army, once the conquerer of Europe, collapsed.
But for all that, to a dispassionate (and believe me it is hard to be dispassionate) military historian, Waterloo is something of an anticlimax. Wellington himself commented shortly after the battle that ‘Napoleon did not manoeuvre at all. He just moved forward in the old style, in columns, and was driven off in the old style.’
Indeed, Napoleon’s tactical decisions at Waterloo are highly questionable. Why commit so many troops (some 13,000 throughout the day) to capturing the farmhouse of Hougoumont on Wellington’s right flank? Napoleon’s original plan was to force Wellington to reinforce his right flank and so weaken his centre. Napoleon would then launch a major assault on this weakened part of the British line. Wellington, though, saw through the deception, did not reinforce Hougoumont and instead Napoleon pumped more and more men into the Hougoumont vicinity in an effort to take the farm.
Similarly, later in the day, why did the French launch repeated cavalry charges without infantry or artillery support? The initial charge is understandable. Marshal Ney mistook a reorientation of Wellington’s position to be a sign of retreat. Believing he was on the brink of destroying Wellington’s army, Ney launched a cavalry attack. Instead, the French cavalry met some 36 well-disciplined infantry squares which successfully repulsed the French charge. But why follow this up with a further 12 charges, and waste the cavalry in such a fashion. Napoleon had previously illustrated his prowess for combined arms battle, but Waterloo represents the failure of combined arms, at least on the French part.
Finally, why, when he ordered the final attack by the Imperial Guard, did Napoleon distribute the attack en echelon, thereby dissipating its lethal power along the British line? Why not concentrate the attack in one place, the weakest point of Wellington’s position after the fall of the central farmhouse of La Haye Sainte? As it was, each battalion of the Imperial Guard encountered a strongly defended position, and were repulsed.
Waterloo, then, is a story of Wellington holding firm with a sub-optimal army, and Napoleon blundering badly on at least three occasions. And yet it is this battle that we collectively remember as Britain’s greatest military triumph. Of course, the odds were long, and the stakes high, but in reality, even if Napoleon had beat Wellington at Waterloo, he would have eventually faced a Austro-Russian army numbering in the region of 400,000, when he himself would have had by that stage fewer than 100,000 troops.
Wellington himself did not view Waterloo as his greatest victory. In later life, he referred to his first battle in command of an army in India – the battle of Assaye – and the battle of the Nivelle – a Peninsular War battle in the foothills of the Pyrenees – as his greatest battles. And it is easy to see why. Assaye was a fraught battle, fought in extreme conditions, in which the young Arthur Wellesley, a newly promoted General, demonstrated extraordinary courage and tactical skill. The Nivelle, meanwhile, is an illustration of a great practitioner of operational art at the height of his powers. Waterloo was neither of these. You can read more about these battles in an article published today in the British Journal of Military History, along with several other great pieces of historical research on the Peninsular War, Wellington, Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo.
Why, then, was Waterloo important? It was important because it secured the peace the allies had fought so hard for the previous year. The map of Europe had been re-drawn and Waterloo prevented another war that would tear it up. On 20 November 1815, Louis XVIII of France signed the second peace of Paris, which reaffirmed the accords decided on in Vienna, and added in a new concept – the Concert of Europe, which would hold the peace of Europe for the next century. All of these things were possible because Napoleon was stopped at Waterloo.