So I was writing the Waterloo posts, and I found myself explaining the same concept over and over. And only because the narrative style, especially my amateurish campfire version of it, doesn’t accurately convey the story. Or for the purposes of this post, how close the story came to being significantly different, at all levels: tactically, operationally, and strategically. I was saying the same thing, over and over again, every time one of the events happened that shouldn’t have, but did anyway. It breaks up the story when I have to stop and explain every time that the world would be a different place when someone didn’t do something that they would normally do, and moreover, didn’t really have a good reason why they didn’t do it. It’s one of the many reasons the Battle of Waterloo is so interesting because it simply has so many WTF moments.
Bernard Cornwell, the author of the the Sharp’s series of Napoleonic historical fiction, said if the Waterloo campaign was written as historical fiction, it would be unbelievable, and critics and readers would have savaged the author for massive, implausible, and unexplained plot holes.
So I’m going to break with tradition and lay my thesis statement out now and build toward it later posts: The Waterloo Campaign, including the battles of Quatre-Bra and Ligny, was one of those inexplicable flukes of history, and only through uncharacteristic human error and poor command climate did it actually happen, and then happen in a way that is directly responsible for how Western Civilization evolved (for better or worse).
The Waterloo Campaign was Napoleon’s to lose. The Imperial French culture defeated Napoleon. All Wellington had to do was maintain contact with the Prussians and not interfere with the French making mistakes.
Anyway, just after the battle, Wellington said it was,”the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life”. That was more accurate than he actually knew at the time. The Battle of Waterloo is a massive case study for the effects of bad staff work, poor command climate, general indecisiveness, or not following commander’s intent, and almost all on the French side.
For context, In May, 1815, four Allied armies were sent to defeat Napoleon. In June two were in Belgium, the British and Prussian, and two were in Bavaria, Russian and Austrian. Napoleon’s army was large enough to defeat any single Allied army in battle, easily. 50/50 with two. It was just mathematically impossible for him to lose against any single one. Therefore he couldn’t let them consolidate, so his plan was divide and conquer. Napoleon launched a surprise invasion of Belgium on the night of 14 June to keep Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch-Belgian Army and Blucher’s Prussians separate. He had complete surprise and on 16 June fought the Battle of Quatre Bra against the British and won, and the Battle of Ligny against the Prussians and won. Unfortunately for him, they weren’t followed up and failed to isolate either army. This directly resulted in the Battle of Waterloo, which Napoleon lost on 18 June 1815.
During these critical four days, there were quite a few events that are simply inexplicable, but are also absolute necessities for Waterloo to occur and have had the effect that it had. Furthermore, they occurred and there was NOTHING Wellington or Blucher did to influence them: they simply benefitted. Most importantly, if any ONE was different, the world we live in would be a different place and two of these four outcomes would have been reality:
- The Battle of Waterloo would not have happened, or
- Wellington and Blucher would have lost the battle,
3. The Russians and Austrians would have had to defeat Napoleon (thereby gaining prestige which would have grave repercussions on the 19th Century). or
4. The Russians and Austrians do not continue the fight, since Blucher held the alliance together. (Wellington leaves the continent, and Napoleon resurrects the French Empire)
So as I go through the narrative over the next few days, these are the “anti-seminal” events of 15-18 June 1815 to look for. During that time, these are the critical and inexplicable French missed opportunities in chronological order:
-Ney fails to capture the crossroads at Quatre Bra on the night 15 June when it was held only by 4000 inexperienced Dutch troops. He had 55,000 veterans. (No clue why he didn’t and Ney was shot before he could explain. Capturing it would have inexorably separated the Allies. Prevailing theories are he was waiting for Wellington to attack or was intimidated by Wellington’s reputation. Both are uncharacteristic of Ney, the “Bravest of the Brave”. (See 1, 3 or 4 above)
-Ney fails capture the crossroads at Quatre Bra on the morning of 16 June when Wellington had less than 15,000 troops there. (Same as previous)
-D’Erlon’s Corps fails to outflank either the British at Quatre Bra, or the Prussians at Ligny on the afternoon of 16 June (bad staff work caused them to march and countermarch, missing both battles 1, 3 or 4).
-The French fail to attack anyone of 17 June. (The French took the day off. No good explanation. 1, 4)
-Grouchy fails to gain and maintain contact with the defeated Prussians on 16, 17, or even early 18 June. (No good explanation. 1, 2, 3, 4)
-Grouchy fails to march to the sound of the guns of the Battle at Waterloo on 18 June. (No good explanation. 2, 3)
-The French fail to take Hougamount on the morning 18 June. (Napoleon for some unknown reason left the attack to his notoriously fickle little brother Jerome, then took a nap. 2, 3)
-D’Erlon fails to consolidate and prepare for a counter attack after breaking the Allied center on the morning of 18 June. (Completely out of character for D’Erlon, no good explanation. 2, 3)
I just want to reiterate that any one of these would have completely changed history. Not “could” – “would”. Now, I also want point out that after these, the French could still have won but Wellington or Blucher would have needed to make some mistakes. Also, there were many little episodes which would have greatly improved the chances of French victory, or placed the possibility of a French victory in Wellington’s or Blucher’s hands, but I’ll cover those in the narrative. But these were “no-brainers” that in hindsight, should have happened, had every reason to happen, were expected to happen, but for some reason lost to history, didn’t.
Truly the “nearest run thing”.
Finally, many people and even some great historians have put a silly amount of time and ink into saying that Waterloo didn’t matter, that even if Wellington lost the Austrians or Russians would have finished the job. That’s an argument for the comments. But I will point out some undeniable facts: the two big winners of the 19th Century, and the two decision makers of the first forty years of the 20th Century, were Great Britain and Germany (Prussia).
Their ascendancy began on 18 June 1815.