On Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington, and the Campaign of 1815

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Here he withstood repeated attacks by the French throughout the afternoon of the 18th, aided by the progressively arriving Prussians. In the evening, Napoleon committed his last reserves, the senior battalions of the French Imperial Guard infantry. The desperate final attack of the Guard was narrowly beaten back. With the Prussians breaking through on the French right flank, Wellington's Anglo-allied army counter-attacked in the centre, and the French army was routed. Waterloo was the decisive engagement of the Waterloo Campaign and Napoleon's last.

According to Wellington, the battle was "the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life". The defeat at Waterloo ended Napoleon's rule as Emperor of the French and marked the end of his Hundred Days return from exile. This ended the First French Empire and set a chronological milestone between serial European wars and decades of relative peace. The battlefield is located in the municipalities of Braine-l'Alleud and Lasne , [11] about 15 kilometres 9.

The site of the battlefield today is dominated by the monument of the Lion's Mound , constructed from earth taken from the battlefield itself; the topography of the battlefield near the mound has not been preserved. On 13 March , six days before Napoleon reached Paris, the powers at the Congress of Vienna declared him an outlaw. Had Napoleon succeeded in destroying the existing coalition forces south of Brussels before they were reinforced, he might have been able to drive the British back to the sea and knock the Prussians out of the war.

Crucially, this would have bought him time to recruit and train more men before turning his armies against the Austrians and Russians. An additional consideration for Napoleon was that a French victory might cause French-speaking sympathisers in Belgium to launch a friendly revolution. Also, coalition troops in Belgium were largely second-line, as many units were of dubious quality and loyalty, and most of the British veterans of the Peninsular War had been sent to North America to fight in the War of The initial dispositions of British commander Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington , were intended to counter the threat of Napoleon enveloping the Coalition armies by moving through Mons to the south-west of Brussels.

In order to delay Wellington's deployment, Napoleon spread false intelligence which suggested that Wellington's supply chain from the channel ports would be cut.

Waterloo: The Campaign of Volume I

By June, Napoleon had raised a total army strength of about , men. The force at his disposal at Waterloo was less than one third that size, but the rank and file were nearly all loyal and experienced soldiers. He hoped this would prevent them from combining, and he would be able to destroy first the Prussian's army, then Wellington's. Only very late on the night of 15 June was Wellington certain that the Charleroi attack was the main French thrust. In the early hours of 16 June, at the Duchess of Richmond's ball in Brussels, he received a dispatch from the Prince of Orange and was shocked by the speed of Napoleon's advance.

He hastily ordered his army to concentrate on Quatre Bras , where the Prince of Orange, with the brigade of Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar , was holding a tenuous position against the soldiers of Ney's left wing. Ney's orders were to secure the crossroads of Quatre Bras, so that he could later swing east and reinforce Napoleon if necessary.

Ney found the crossroads of Quatre Bras lightly held by the Prince of Orange, who repelled Ney's initial attacks but was gradually driven back by overwhelming numbers of French troops. First reinforcements, and then Wellington arrived. He took command and drove Ney back, securing the crossroads by early evening, too late to send help to the Prussians, who had already been defeated.

The Prussian centre gave way under heavy French assaults, but the flanks held their ground. The Prussian retreat from Ligny went uninterrupted and seemingly unnoticed by the French. The bulk of their rearguard units held their positions until about midnight, and some elements did not move out until the following morning, ignored by the French.

Crucially, the Prussians did not retreat to the east, along their own lines of communication. Instead, they, too, fell back northwards—parallel to Wellington's line of march, still within supporting distance and in communication with him throughout.

Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Waterloo 1815

The next day he withdrew northwards, to a defensive position he had reconnoitred the previous year—the low ridge of Mont-Saint-Jean, south of the village of Waterloo and the Sonian Forest. Napoleon, with the reserves, made a late start on 17 June and joined Ney at Quatre Bras at to attack Wellington's army but found the position empty. The French pursued Wellington's retreating army to Waterloo; however, due to bad weather, mud and the head start that Napoleon's tardy advance had allowed Wellington, apart from a cavalry action at Genappe , there was no substantial engagement.

Before leaving Ligny, Napoleon had ordered Grouchy, who commanded the right wing, to follow up the retreating Prussians with 33, men. A late start, uncertainty about the direction the Prussians had taken, and the vagueness of the orders given to him, meant that Grouchy was too late to prevent the Prussian army reaching Wavre, from where it could march to support Wellington.

More importantly, the heavily outnumbered Prussian rear-guard was able to use the River Dyle to enable a savage and prolonged action to delay Grouchy. As 17 June drew to a close, Wellington's army had arrived at its position at Waterloo, with the main body of Napoleon's army following. He decided to hold his ground and give battle.

The French army of around 69, consisted of 48, infantry, 14, cavalry, and 7, artillery with guns. His troops were mainly veterans with considerable experience and a fierce devotion to their Emperor. However as the army took shape, French officers were allocated to units as they presented themselves for duty, so that many units were commanded by officers the soldiers didn't know, and often didn't trust.

Crucially, some of these officers had little experience in working together as a unified force, so that support for other units was often not given. The French army was forced to march through rain and black coal-dust mud to reach Waterloo, and then to contend with mud and rain as it slept in the open.

Little food was available for the soldiers, but nevertheless the veteran French soldiers were fiercely loyal to Napoleon. Wellington later said that he had "an infamous army, very weak and ill-equipped, and a very inexperienced Staff ". All of the British Army troops were regular soldiers, but only 7, of them were Peninsular War veterans. Many of the troops in the Coalition armies were inexperienced.


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With the exception of the British and some from Hanover and Brunswick who had fought with the British army in Spain, many of the professional soldiers in the Coalition armies had spent some of their time in the French army or in armies allied to the Napoleonic regime. The historian Barbero states that in this heterogeneous army the difference between British and foreign troops did not prove significant under fire.

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Waterloo: The Campaign of 1815. Volume I

Wellington was also acutely short of heavy cavalry, having only seven British and three Dutch regiments. The Duke of York imposed many of his staff officers on Wellington, including his second-in-command the Earl of Uxbridge. Uxbridge commanded the cavalry and had carte blanche from Wellington to commit these forces at his discretion.


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  • They were mostly composed of Dutch troops under Prince of Orange's younger brother Prince Frederick of the Netherlands. They were placed as a guard against any possible wide flanking movement by the French forces, and also to act as a rearguard if Wellington was forced to retreat towards Antwerp and the coast.

    The Prussian army was in the throes of reorganisation. In , the former Reserve regiments, Legions, and Freikorps volunteer formations from the wars of — were in the process of being absorbed into the line, along with many Landwehr militia regiments. The Landwehr were mostly untrained and unequipped when they arrived in Belgium. The Prussian cavalry were in a similar state. Offsetting these handicaps, the Prussian Army had excellent and professional leadership in its General Staff organisation. These officers came from four schools developed for this purpose and thus worked to a common standard of training.

    This system was in marked contrast to the conflicting, vague orders issued by the French army. This staff system ensured that before Ligny, three-quarters of the Prussian army concentrated for battle with 24 hours notice.

    On Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington, and the Campaign of by Carl von Clausewitz

    After Ligny, the Prussian army, although defeated, was able to realign its supply train, reorganise itself, and intervene decisively on the Waterloo battlefield within 48 hours. The Waterloo position was a strong one. It consisted of a long ridge running east-west, perpendicular to, and bisected by, the main road to Brussels.

    Along the crest of the ridge ran the Ohain road, a deep sunken lane. Near the crossroads with the Brussels road was a large elm tree that was roughly in the centre of Wellington's position and served as his command post for much of the day. Wellington deployed his infantry in a line just behind the crest of the ridge following the Ohain road. Using the reverse slope , as he had many times previously, Wellington concealed his strength from the French, with the exception of his skirmishers and artillery.

    This allowed Wellington to draw up his forces in depth, which he did in the centre and on the right, all the way towards the village of Braine-l'Alleud , in the expectation that the Prussians would reinforce his left during the day. In front of the ridge, there were three positions that could be fortified. This was a large and well-built country house, initially hidden in trees. The house faced north along a sunken, covered lane usually described by the British as "the hollow-way" along which it could be supplied.

    On the extreme left was the hamlet of Papelotte. Both Hougoumont and Papelotte were fortified and garrisoned, and thus anchored Wellington's flanks securely.

    On Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington, and the Campaign of 1815

    Papelotte also commanded the road to Wavre that the Prussians would use to send reinforcements to Wellington's position. On the western side of the main road, and in front of the rest of Wellington's line, was the farmhouse and orchard of La Haye Sainte , which was garrisoned with light infantry of the King's German Legion. Wellington's forces positioning presented a formidable challenge to any attacking force. Any attempt to turn Wellington's right would entail taking the entrenched Hougoumont position. Any attack on his right centre would mean the attackers would have to march between enfilading fire from Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte.

    On the left, any attack would also be enfiladed by fire from La Haye Sainte and its adjoining sandpit, and any attempt at turning the left flank would entail fighting through the lanes and hedgerows surrounding Papelotte and the other garrisoned buildings on that flank, and some very wet ground in the Smohain defile.

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    The French army formed on the slopes of another ridge to the south. Napoleon could not see Wellington's positions, so he drew his forces up symmetrically about the Brussels road. On the right was I Corps under d'Erlon with 16, infantry and 1, cavalry, plus a cavalry reserve of 4, On the left was II Corps under Reille with 13, infantry, and 1, cavalry, and a cavalry reserve of 4, In the centre about the road south of the inn La Belle Alliance were a reserve including Lobau's VI Corps with 6, men, the 13, infantry of the Imperial Guard , and a cavalry reserve of 2, In the right rear of the French position was the substantial village of Plancenoit , and at the extreme right, the Bois de Paris wood.

    Napoleon initially commanded the battle from Rossomme farm, where he could see the entire battlefield, but moved to a position near La Belle Alliance early in the afternoon.