Tagged: NapoleonicWars

The Battle of Arcola

In 1796, the War of the First Coalition raged in Italy and pitted the aristocracies of Europe against Revolutionary France. The French had bottled up a large Austrian army in the fortress town of Mantua, but another large Austrian army of 28,000 marched to relieve the siege, and together they would throw the French out of Italy. The French commander, a young up and coming Napoleon Bonaparte, needed to stop the relief force. He left small fixing forces for the garrison and other Austrians in the area, and concentrated on the large relief force. But even his tactical genius couldn’t make up for the numbers and terrain, and he was defeated in three attempts. The Austrians closed in on Mantua.

Napoleon, now badly outnumbered and with no terrain available that could make up for the troops lost in his previous three defeats, decided to attack. He would march around the flank of the Austrians and crush them. But first he needed to cross the Arpon River at the town of Arcola. On 15 November 1796, Napoleon’s small army found it strongly defended by a large Austrian detachment. Nonetheless Napoleon ordered his men to force the crossing over the narrow bridge. There was no other choice, it was his last chance to prevent the siege from being lifted.

The Austrian position was strong and the French took hundreds of casualties in the first failed attempt. When he saw the next faltering, Napoleon himself grabbed the fallen colors and charged across the bridge, with dozens of men dying to his left and right. But by now the bodies were stacking up, and his friend Gen Augereau dragged him back lest Napoleon also get shot. However, as the attacks continued, he stayed with the colors near the bridge for the rest of the day. Napoleon had his horse shot out from under him, and his aide de camp and several of his staff killed and wounded. When dusk fell, the Austrians still held the other end of the bridge.

The next day, boats were found and a marshy ford was discovered, and Napoleon crossed in several places. But the Austrians also had reinforced the town, and attacked the crossings. The battle raged all along the river. At one point as Napoleon was rallying a broken battalion, his horse was shot and he fell into the marsh. Only a gallant rescue by Gen Marmont and his staff prevented Napoleon’s capture. The day ended with the bridge still in Austrian hands.

The battle resumed on 17 November, but by now most of the Austrian relief force had arrived. Napoleon had to reduce the Austrian numbers facing him, so he came up with a bold ruse. He took all of his trumpeters and drummers and sent them around the Austrians where they began to play marching tunes. The Austrians redeployed to face this new “threat” which weakened the force defending the bridge. Napoleon struck with a massive column across the bridge that had orders not to stop. The column literally climbed over dead and dying Frenchmen and trampled the Austrian blocking force. He then struck the Austrians in the town and those facing the ruse in the rear, and routed them completely.

Despite heavy losses, momentum was on his side, and Napoleon continued to attack over the next few days. Within a week, the Austrians themselves were thrown out of Italy. On 23 November 1796, Napoleon occupied Venice, ending its 1000 years of self-rule. In the harbor he captured a 44 gun frigate, which he named the Muiron, in honor of his aide that was killed at his side. Napoleon returned to Paris a legend in his own time and a fearless Hero of the Revolution.

The Battle of Austerlitz: The Battle of the Three Emperors

Around midnight prior to the battle on 2 December 1805, French Marshal Davout arrived at Emperor Napoleon’s headquarters ahead of his corps. His advance guard was four hours behind him. His corps would cut it close, by minutes in some cases, but they had made it to the battle in time. Napoleon had just returned from visiting the campfires of his men and was elated to see him. Without Davout, the upcoming Battle of Austerlitz was a gamble; with Davout victory was all but assured. The Holy Roman Emperor Francis of Austria and Tsar Alexander of Russia were convinced Napoleon’s army was understrength, disorganized, and out maneuvered. All day, cavalry skirmished in order to identify enemy dispositions and they found that the French right was held by but a single division. That was exactly what Napoleon wanted them to see. He had no doubt the Allied emperors would force Marshal Kutuzov, the capable commander of the Allied armies, to attack the supposedly weakened French right.

Once the Allies attacked, the hard part was over. The French plan for the rest of the battle was simplicity itself: Davout would delay then block the Allies on the right, Lannes and Bernadotte would fix the Russians on the left, and Soult with the main effort would attack the weakened center and break the line. The Imperial Guard, in reserve, would handle any unexpected difficulties. After that, Murat with the cavalry would rout the Allies.

And that’s exactly what happened.

After some initial success on the French right, the Allies were surprised to find Davout’s III Corps steadily reinforcing the fortified village of Tellnitz and the stout walls of Sokowitz Castle. The Allies would go no further. When Soult’s 16,000 men stepped out of the late autumn Bohemian morning mist and advanced up the Pratzen Heights, the battle was essentially over. The Allied center was too weak, and their command and control too cumbersome to react.

It would just take some hard fighting, and about five hours, for the Allied emperors to realize it. The Russian Imperial Guard made a valiant counterattack in order to try and stop Soult, but it was in vain. By 4pm, the Allied army was routed. As the Allies routed in all directions, thousands of troops drowned when a French bombardment broke the ice on the Satschan ponds.

The Battle of Austerlitz is probably the only time in history a commander could legitimately say, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

The Battle of Austerlitz: The March of III Corps

On the night of 29 November 1805, Louis Davout, Marshal of France, commander of the La Grade Armee III Corps, and current occupier of Vienna, received a dispatch from Napoleon that he was abandoning the Pratzen Heights and Davout should prepare to hand over the city to the Austrians. But Davout knew it was bullshit, the letter was only in the event the courier was captured. It was just a week before when Napoleon chose the Pratzen Heights as the place where he was going to destroy the Austrian and Russian armies.

The Prince of Burgundy once said, “When a d’Avout is born, a sabre is unsheathed.” This was never so true as for Louis Nicholas Davout, who was the son of a minor aristocrat but survived the French Revolution despite his upbringing. He was almost universally disliked by everyone whom he worked with: his officers for his cold and aloof demeanor, his soldiers because of his uncompromising stance on readiness, training and discipline, and his peers because he was the youngest and most active of Napoleon’s marshals. Nevertheless, the “Iron Marshal” was respected by all for his reasoned tenacity, undisputed competence, and most importantly, Davout earned the absolute unquestioned trust of Napoleon.

That trust was not misplaced. It was not a question of whether III Corps would show up to the battle but when. Austerlitz was 80 miles away (eighty, eight – zero) and Napoleon planned to attack in two days. The planning factor for a march was 20 miles a day, and a forced march was 25 miles a day. Davout planned to do 40 miles a day for the next two days.

On the night of the 29th, he bade his officers to mingle with the crème of Viennese society so as to not rouse Austrian suspicions but stipulated that they needed to return by 0300 the next morning. At 0330 on 30 NOV 1805, the III Corps struck camp and, at dawn, began their march. With 68lb packs they marched for 32 hours over the next 48.

And then they immediately fought a battle in which they bore the brunt of the Allied attack.

The Battle of Austerlitz: Prelude

On the afternoon of 29 November 1805, a visibly distraught Emperor Napoleon I met the personal aide of Tsar Alexander I of Russia to hammer out the conditions of an armistice between the French, and the Allied Russian and Austrian armies. The day before Napoleon enthusiastically accepted the Russian offer for an armistice and pulled his armies off of the commanding Pratzen Heights. The aide reported Napoleon’s demeanor, and the Allied scouts reported the chaotic French withdrawal from the heights. These were seen as signs of French disorganization and weakness, so Tsar Alexander and Emperor Francis II of Austria decided to finish Napoleon off once and for all, especially since he had just 43,000 troops in the area and they had 86,000.

But Napoleon didn’t desperately need peace – he desperately needed a battle.

Napoleon’s actions were a ruse. He needed the Allies to attack. The biggest problem with his corps system was that they had to live off of the land. Foraging left a barren wasteland in the wake of the march and the only option was to move forward or starve. Unfortunately for Napoleon, the retreating Austrians stripped Vienna bare and Marshal Kutuzov was doing the same with his Russian armies to the north. If Kutuzov retreated further, which he planned to do, then Napoleon would have to abandon Vienna and return to friendly Bavaria. But Tsar Alexander smelled weakness, and overruled his commander. The combined Austrian and Russian armies would occupy the Pratzen Heights the next day and attack Napoleon the day after.

But Napoleon didn’t have 43,000 troops outside of the village of Austerlitz, he had 67,000.

It was enough.

The Battle of Trafalgar

The weather took a turn for the worse in late summer of 1805, and the French Navy could not out maneuver the Royal Navy in order to allow the Napoleon’s invasion of England. When the War of the Third Coalition expanded, Napoleon’s Grande Armée marched east to defeat Russia and Austria. Nonetheless, the French fleet, under Admiral Pierre Charles Silvestre de Villeneuve, still needed to break Britain’s control of the seas. After Napoleon departed, Villeneuve sailed south to Cadiz, where his fleet combined with the Spanish ships of the line, then France’s ally. With the Franco/Spanish fleet, Villeneuve finally had the numbers to challenge the British who, pursuing Villeneuve, were conveniently awaiting them just over the horizon.

That fleet was led by one armed one eyed Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, already a household name in the British Empire for his victories against the French, Spanish, and Danes over the past 25 years. In the morning of 21 October 1805, Villeneuve sailed out of the Cadiz harbor with a favorable wind (relatively) to engage the British off of Cape Trafalgar. Upon sighting the 44 ships of the combined French and Spanish navies, Nelson sent off one last message to his fleet, “England expects that every man will do his duty” and then immediately attacked. His 33 ships sailed straight at the French and Spanish line in two columns, with his own ship, the 100 gun HMS Victory, leading the charge.

Villeneuve couldn’t believe what he saw and vowed to make Nelson pay for his audacity. The Holy Grail of fleet actions in the Age of Sail was to “cross the T” of an enemy fleet, i.e. to maneuver to a position where your ships could fire broadsides at a closing enemy who could only fire their bow, or forward, guns. The discrepancy in firepower inevitably led to the defeat of the fleet whose “T” was crossed. Moreover, a cannonball that penetrates the side of the ship usually only affects a few crew or guns, depending on the width of the ship. A cannonball that penetrates the bow (or stern) of a ship, causes great destruction along the entire length of the ship, affecting many more crew and guns in the process. The understrength British, outnumbered by a third, were exposing themselves to just such punishment by sailing directly at the broadsides of the combined Franco/Spanish fleet. The British were effectively crossing their own “T” against a numerically superior force. It was madness.

But crossing his own T was Nelson’s plan. He was gambling that the training and seamanship of the British sailors were superior to the gunnery of the French and Spanish sailors. Nelson believed his ships would not be exposed for too long before his men could bring their own broadsides to bear, and close with and board the French.

He was right.

As Villeneuve sailed north, Nelson’s ships sailed through the French fire, and though they took some damage without being able to reply in kind, they bisected and then isolated the southern half of the French fleet. Despite the French broadsides, he effectively crossed the French “T” but in this instance a lowercase “t”. Once the British were among the French and Spanish line, the British broadsides fell upon the sterns of the northern half of the combined fleet and the bows of the southern half. Furthermore, with this one bold stroke, the northern half was effectively taken out of the battle, as they had to fight the wind to turn around, and the southern half sailed directly into the teeth of the British cannon. This also effectively forced the southern half of Villeneuve’s fleet to sail directly into the British line where they could to be boarded by the British once they closed the distance.

As the northern half of the Franco/Spanish fleet sailed out of range, the British savaged the southern half. It took three hours of hard fighting but the issue was never in doubt. However, Nelson, being Nelson, was at the forefront of the battle. Around noon, his Victory was locked in a mortal struggle with the French ship Redoubtable. At 1:15pm while walking on the quarterdeck directing fire, he was shot by a French marine in Redoubtable’s rigging. He would live just long enough to learn of the confirmation of his decisive victory.

The British Isles were safe from invasion and the Royal Navy would be the undisputed master of the world’s oceans for the next one hundred years.

Les Corps d’Armee est Victorieux: The Ulm Campaign

In 1805 the recently crowned Emperor Napoleon ended the Peace of Amiens and began the War of the Third Coalition against Great Britain and Sweden. He had amassed his army at Boulogne for an invasion but the French Navy couldn’t guarantee a safe crossing of the English Channel and the weather was turning steadily worse (sounds familiar). In September, Austria and Russia entered the Coalition, and this would lead to a serious and overwhelming threat from the east if the Austrian and Russian armies ever linked up. So Napoleon struck first. He secured an alliance with Bavaria and then moved to invade Austria before Russian troops could arrive. Austria mobilized and invaded Bavaria, but Napoleon’s La Grande Armee moved much quicker, due to its use of the highly effective Corps System.

Napoleon’s corps were just larger versions of the combined arms divisions he pioneered in his earlier Italian campaigns. He found his flexible combined arms infantry divisions, consisting of infantry battalions supported by two cavalry squadrons and four or five artillery batteries under the direct command of the division commander, routinely outfought Austrian and Italian pure infantry formations that lacked supporting arms. Napoleon’s corps were the next logical step.

Napoleon’s corps were standardized, self-sufficient, combined arms formations about the same size as an army in Frederick the Great’s time, fifty years before. Revolutionary zeal and increased conscription brought about by Imperial France’s “nation in arms” allowed Napoleon to field several corps at the same time. In October 1805, Napoleon had eight corps committed against Austria in the War of the Third Coalition: seven infantry and one cavalry. The cavalry corps was tasked specifically for reconnaissance, security, pursuit, and exploitation. Each infantry corps was comprised of about 25,000 men consisting of the aforementioned infantry divisions, and cavalry and artillery pure brigades, with supporting specialists such as engineers, pontoon bridges, and supply trains, all under a trusted subordinate capable of independent command.

These corps’ commanders were Napoleon’s chosen ones: the Marshals of France, and they were promoted strictly on merit and military efficacy. Generals could be political appointees or promoted because of birth, such as Napoleon’s brother Jerome, but never a marshal. The 26 men chosen over the years by Napoleon to be Marshals of France came from all walks of life, and were a collection of talent and ability rarely seen in history. Only the Diadochi, Jesus’ Apostles, the Genghis Khan’s generals, the viziers of Suleiman, the Sun King’s advisors, and America’s Founding Fathers occupy the same historical pedestal. Napoleon trusted his marshals implicitly to carry out his mission orders and did not micromanage them with directives. With the self-sufficiency and inherent initiative of the corps system, and without the burden of a supply tail due to the French Army’s liberal use of foraging, the Marshals and their corps maneuvered much more quickly and with greater agility than France’s enemies.

Austria, like the rest of Europe, still maintained the army-level unit, an unwieldy formation of about 100,000 men, as the lowest level of synchronization and integration between combined arms. Furthermore, the Austrian commander, General Mack, had no equivalent to Napoleon’s Marshals. Unlike Napoleon whom issued orders just to his corps (eight in the Ulm campaign), Mack’s headquarters had to issue orders to each and every regiment, which was more than a hundred, with each order handwritten and delivered beforehand. Finally, the Austrians were still tied to fixed supply lines, according to the rules of European limited warfare of the eighteenth century which sought to shield civilians from the effects of war. Needless to say, the Austrians simply couldn’t respond to the speed and agility of Napoleon’s corps.

Napoleon’s La Grande Armee marched 500 miles in 40 days. In the first weeks October 1805, Mack managed to only make it to Ulm, on the Danube in the Black Forest just northwest of Munich before he was surrounded by Napoleon’s marshals. He was out maneuvered to the north and to the south, and anytime he attempted to riposte, his detachments were thoroughly beaten by the brilliantly led use of synchronized combined arms inherent in the individual French corps. On 14 October 1805, French Marshal Michel Ney routed the Austrians at the Battle of Elchingen, which completed the trap. After a few small battles against the disorganized Austrians, Mack surrendered his remaining troops on 20 October. Only Prince Schwarzenberg, Napoleon’s future brother in law, managed to break out of the encirclement and join the Russians. The Austrians lost more than 60,000 men, Napoleon, but 2,000.

Napoleon said of Ulm, “I have destroyed the Austrian army by simply marching.”

The road to Vienna was open. The heart of Central Europe, the Austrian Empire, the German Confederation, and the Holy Roman Empire, created by Charlemagne a thousand years before, lay within Napoleon’s grasp.

The First Oktoberfest

In the last decade of the eighteenth century and first decade of the nineteenth, the German state of Bavaria had prospered in its alliance with first Revolutionary, and then Napoleonic France, while being one of the few states of the Confederation of the Rhine to maintain its effective independence. In 1808, constitutional reforms were introduced which freed the serfs and swept away the last vestiges of the medieval Holy Roman Empire. In this happy and prosperous time, during which the internal inconsistencies of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Eras had yet to manifest themselves, Bavaria acquired some smaller German states as part of peace negotiations with Austria. At the Treaty of Schönbrunn after Napoleon’s victory in the War of the Fifth Coaltion, Bavaria was required to cement an alliance with the least reliable of Napoleon’s Confederation allies, Saxony.

On 10 October, 1810, Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria (the grandfather of the future “Mad King Ludwig”) wedded Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen, in Bavaria’s largest city, Munich. The Crown Prince invited the citizens of the city to the wedding festivities held in the fields in front of the city’s gate. Thousands showed up and the citizens named them “Therese’s Fields”. With beer and wine tastings, 40,000 spectators watched horse races from the side of a hill leading to the city, and by the end of the day the festival was recognized as a celebration of all things Bavarian.

The festival was such a rockin good time that it naturally occurred again the next year, and annually thereafter. We know it today as Oktoberfest.

The Battle of Waterloo: The Final Assault by the Imperial Guard

Napoleon’s Imperial Guard was comprised of three groups and at the time of Waterloo, nearly 22,000 strong counting the Guard Cavalry (with Ney) and Guard Artillery (in the Grand Battery). They were the Young Guard, the Middle (Aged) Guard and the Old Guard. (The Old Guard are who most people are familiar with). The Young Guard were the pick of the litter of the 1810-1815 campaigns and draft classes, and those not good enough for the Middle Guard. The Middle Guard were the best veterans from Napoleon’s 1805 to 1809 campaigns. The Old Guard consisted of the best soldiers in Europe, and were veterans of most of Napoleon’s campaigns, from as far back as the Italian campaign in 1790s. The Imperial Guard, particularly the Old Guard, had better pay, better rations, and the most senior were permitted to fight in their dress uniforms (back when awards actually meant something). They never retreated and they never surrendered. Napoleon knew each guardsman by name. They were the only soldiers outside of the Marshals permitted to disagree with or even complain in front of Napoleon, thus earning them the nickname “Les Grognards”, “The Grumblers.”

Thirty minutes after Ney’s request for the Guard, and a personal inspection by Napoleon himself, the remainder of the Imperial Guard, the last uncommitted French troops, stepped off into the attack at 1930. But that thirty minutes proved fatal. In that time, Wellington was able to reorganize his lines and bring over troops from the now inconsequential fight at Hougamont, or units pinched out of the fight by the Prussian advance near Pappelote. Nonetheless, the Old Guard had never been committed unless victory was assured. When the other French troops saw them in the attack, a great hurrah echoed across the battlefield, and any troops not engaged at Hougamont or Plancenoit, surged forward. Stragglers, wounded, staff, the lost, and the remnants of shattered formations joined in the attack. Everyone wanted to be a part of the last glorious charge of the battle; the Old Guard was in the van.

The final assault by the Imperial Guard was not enough. The Guard were too few, and the reorganized Allied firepower and numbers too great. One Middle Guard battalion took 20% casualties from a single volley from a British line that popped up 25 feet in front of them. The second volley caused even more damage. The same resulted wherever the Guard met the line, but still they came on or engaged in furious point blank musketry exchanges.

In a curious historical irony, it wasn’t the renowned disciplined firepower of the British that first broke the Guard, but a Dutch brigade led by Gen David Henrik Chasse. Chasse had fought against Wellington at Talavera in 1809 as a subordinate of D’Erlon. Chasse’s troops did not exchange fire with the Guard like the British but crashed into them with their bayonets, and overwhelmed the Imperial Guard with superior numbers. Chasse’s target was the unit whom a French soldier said of, “La garde recule ! Sauve qui peut!” or “The Guard retreats, save yourself!” Within minutes the rest of the Middle Guard broke. Other French units watched in horror as the unthinkable happened: the Guard fell back. With the Guard and consequently the French morale broken, individual British, Belgian, Dutch and German units advanced, just as the Prussians emerged from Planceoit. Wellington, sensing the battle won and ever the politician, raised his hat and signaled the general attack, lest Blucher get the credit for the victory.

By 2050, the only French units not destroyed or in full rout were the two of the four most senior Old Guard regiments, the 1st and 2nd Chasseurs. They escorted Napoleon from the field and when he was safely on a carriage to Paris, they turned and fought. First in a line, and when they were out-flanked, a square. When casualties were so high they couldn’t maintain a square, they formed a triangle. Finally the Allies brought up cannon and threatened to finish them with a bayonet charge. Before they fired, a young German Osnabrucker, Sgt Conrad Fuerhing, asked their commander, Gen Pierre Cambronne, if he wanted to surrender. Victor Hugo wrote that he replied, “La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas!” or “The Guard dies, it does not surrender!” But what the hard drinking, hard fighting, tough as nails, soldiers’ general actually said was,


In literal English, “s**t”. In the figurative,

“F**k off.”

The reply was an apt end to the Napoleonic Era.

The Battle of Waterloo: The Prussian Attack and the Fall of La Haye Sainte

Wellington got his wish, though while he was stuck in a square fending off Ney’s cavalry, he didn’t know it. Blucher kept his promise from the night before. Von Bulow’s IV Corps slammed into Lobau’s understrength corps at Plancenoit and D’Erlon was forced to commit much needed units to keep Zeiten’s I Corps from rolling up his flank. Furthermore, Napoleon had to commit part of his reserve just to stabilize the situation, the least senior battalions of his Imperial Guard, the Young Guard.

The Young Guard was part of Napoleon’s personal command, the Imperial Guard, and could only be committed by his own words. Despite their lack of seniority, the Young Guard were some of the best troops in Europe and temporarily checked the Prussians, but the fighting in Plancenoit was fierce. It was the reverse of Hougamont and La Haye Sainte with the French barricaded in the buildings and courtyards and is considered by most historians as the worst urban fighting of the Napoleonic Era. Just after 1800, Blucher paused his attack and began to reorganize for a final push.

At 1830, Maj Baring could no longer defend La Haye Sainte: his troops were out of ammunition. They had fired everything they brought, everything they were given, and everything they could scrounge. D’Erlon finally threw them out. At 1850, the nimble horse artillery batteries began to pound Wellington’s vulnerable squares from near point blank range and soon they were joined by the big guns from the Grand Battery. It was at this point the mounted Earl of Uxbridge approached the Duke of Wellington and just that moment a cannon ball took his leg. Completely unperturbed, he said,

“By God, Sir, I’ve lost my leg.”

The Duke coolly replied, “By God, sir, so you have.”

Despite the pounding the Allies were receiving, the Prussian attack, Baring’s defense, and six hours of near constant fighting severely depleted D’Erlon’s Corps. Moreover, a reformed Dutch brigade attempted to retake La Haye Sainte. Even worse Wellington reformed most of his men back into lines. D’Erlon would need more men to even attempt to break through. And he needed them ricky tick: the Prussians renewed their attack on Plancenoit at 1900 with the near assurance of quick victory, and the French artillery was almost out of ammunition.

After a personal inspection by Napoleon himself, the remainder of the Imperial Guard, the last uncommitted French troops, stepped off into the attack at 1930, 18 June, 1815.

The Battle of Waterloo: Ney’s Cavalry Charge.

By 1500, Lobau confirmed that the Prussians were only five miles away and would be in a position to attack in less than two hours. Napoleon was now on the clock. A Prussian appearance would destroy morale, so he quietly started the rumor that the troops to the east were Grouchy’s. This bit of “command disinformation” had to hold up until Grouchy did show up, or Ney broke Wellington’s weak point, his center, and La Haye Sainte was its key.

Around 1530, D’Erlon threw the full weight of his reformed corps at the tiny farm compound, but the French numbers worked against them and Major Baring’s troops held out. Again trying to make up for his previous failure, Ney had assembled 12,000 (one, two, plus three zeroes) French cavalry to support him once he struck the ridge. Ney was expecting D’Erlon to steamroll the farm. Meanwhile, the Grand Battery continued to pound the remainder of Wellington’s line, then completely exposed on the forward slope after the counterattack.

By 1600, the Grand Battery was inflicting serious damage on the Allied troops, so Wellington pulled everyone not engaged around La Haye Sainte back to the reverse slope. Cavalrymen in the best of times are an impatient lot, and the fiery Ney with thousands of his brothers were no exception. To the great mass of cavalrymen, it looked as if the Allies were retreating. A great cry went up, and unwilling to wait any further on D’Erlon, Ney ordered the charge. Napoleon was furious but could do nothing to stop the impetuous Ney. The cavalry surged forward and easily overran Wellington’s cannon. But as they crested the ridge they ran not into retreating columns, but dozens of hollow infantry squares.

The infantry square is a formation that provided all around protection against a cavalry attack and relies on simple animal instinct: a horse will not throw itself against a wall of sharp objects, in this case bayonets. All the cavalrymen could do was ride up or around and whack the bayonets with their sabres, or shoot the Allies with their carbines and pistols. The square is horribly vulnerable to cannon shot and infantry attack, but with D’Erlon occupied with the fight on the reverse slope, no square would be broken that day.

But that didn’t stop Ney from trying and he personally led many of the attacks. While rallying a group of cuirassiers, he yelled, “Come and see how a Marshal of France can die!” He had five horses shot out from underneath him but he survived. Still, Ney wouldn’t stop and the Allies were hard pressed. If La Haye Sainte or Hougamont fell, and that infantry came to Ney’s aid, the game was over.

Around 1730, Wellington, stuck in a square and oblivious to anything beyond it, kept looking at his watch and saying, “Give me night, or give me Blucher.”