The 26 men chosen over the years by Napoleon to be Marshals of France were a collection of talent and ability rarely seen in history. Only the Diadochi, the Apostles, Genghis Khan’s generals, the viziers of Suleiman, the Sun King’s advisors, and the Founding Fathers occupy the same historical pedestal. But of those first 25 marshals, only seven still stood with Napoleon in 1815. On 3 June, 1815, Napoleon needed one more, so he promoted Emmanuel, Count de Grouchy, to the highest rank in the French Empire. Grouchy was an outstanding, aggressive, and very experienced cavalry commander of over thirty years who was more than equal to the other members of France’s most exclusive club.
The Marshals of France were Napoleon’s handpicked “go-to” men to get the job done. And unlike preceding generations, their promotion was strictly due to merit and military efficacy: Someone might be a general based on political considerations or birth, such as Napoleon’s little brother Jerome, but never a Marshal. Napoleon’s Marshals of France included sons of cobblers, barrel makers, priests, and nobles; and most were former privates, NCOs and junior officers who meteorically rose through the ranks. In 1815, although he only had eight, three of his best stood with him and they were given his most important tasks:
Louis Nicolas Davout, the “Iron Marshal” and the greatest of Napoleon’s commanders, had never lost a battle and seemed to intuitively know Napoleon’s intent. In 1815, Napoleon desperately wanted him in the field, but looked to the future and appointed him Minister of War. Davout would oversee the precarious political situation in Paris, command the National Guard, and raise the armies necessary to restore the French Empire.
Louis Gabriel Suchet, Napoleon’s master of counter insurgency and his most successful commander in Spain, was a relatively new Marshal. However, Suchet was one of Napoleon’s most dependable subordinates, and at his best with an independent command. In 1815, Suchet was given responsibility for all of southern France, in particular subduing the Royalist uprisings in the Riviera and preventing an Austrian invasion through the Alps.
Michel Ney, the “Bravest of the Brave” was Napoleon’s operational commander and was responsible for the left wing of the French Army.
Louis-Alexandre Berthier was Napoleon’s Chief of Staff and Right Hand Man. For almost twenty years, Berthier was responsible for translating Napoleon’s vision into practical written orders to units. Napoleon considered him indispensable… But in 1815, he was tired of the endless wars and sided with Louis XVIII. Napoleon was devastated, and needed a replacement.
Nicolas Soult would attempt to fill Berthier’s shoes. Soult was a brilliant administrator, capable tactician, and was Wellington’s nemesis in Spain. He was the natural pick to replace Berthier, if he could be replaced. Nonetheless, for a man accustomed to independent command Soult seamlessly took control of the essential position of chief of Napoleon’s staff. Soult’s staff was the nerve center of the 120,000 strong French army.
On 14 June 1815, the army sat just on the border of Belgium, and was split between only two other Marshals, Ney and Grouchy, with the Imperial Guard under Napoleon’s direct control. That night, Soult issued the orders for the French Army to unexpectedly strike at the seam between Wellington’s British-German-Belgian-Dutch Army and Blucher’s Prussian Army. Napoleon wanted to use his advantage of the center position to force the British to retreat toward the coast where they were supplied by the Navy, and the Prussians to retreat toward their base of supply in Germany. After which they would be isolated and destroyed.
Despite the lack of Berthier, Davout, and Suchet, it nearly worked.