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. And I was saying the same thing every time one of the events happened that shouldn’t have, but did anyway. And 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.
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: 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).
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, and
- The Russians and Austrians would have had to defeat Napoleon (thereby gaining prestige which would have grave repercussions on the 19th Century). or
- 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, 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.
In May 1814, Napoleon had abdicated and was in captivity on the island of Elba. King Louis XVIII was on the French throne, and Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, the victor of the Peninsular War that did so much to sap Napoleon’s strength the previous six years, was appointed Great Britain’s ambassador to France.
On a trip from Paris to Brussels on 19 May 1814, the Duke and his staff stopped to water their horses, and maybe have a drink or two, at the small Belgian hamlet of La Haye. To the untrained eye, the fields to the west of La Haye were not dissimilar to any others in Belgium or northeastern France. But to Wellington, they formed a perfect killing ground, and at the expense of his trip, the Duke spent several hours surveying the beautiful defensive terrain.
As they approached from the south, those fields formed a shallow gently rolling valley that gradually rose northward to a small escarpment, not even high enough to be called a ridge. The road from Paris to Brussels passed right over it. To the right near a marshy creek, the ten stout stone buildings of La Haye and the walled farm of Papelotte marked the valley’s eastern edge. On the western edge of the valley about two miles away, was the imposing compound and chateau of Hougamont and another marshy creek. Any attacker from the south would not be able to go around either of these obstacles. They would have to go straight up the valley and over the escarpment. And just off the road directly in the center of the valley was the walled farm of La Haye Sainte. These obstructions stood like three great bastions of a fortress. If they were properly held, troops could poor fire into any body of men that tried to pass by. At least one would need to be taken, preferably two, before any attacker could confidently proceed north to attack a main defensive line just behind these three formidable obstacles.
That main defensive line would normally be just below the crest of the escarpment, but to Wellington’s delight the ground sloped down again to a quaint village whose chimney smoke could just barely be seen from La Haye. On this reverse slope, any defending troops would be shielded from the worst effects of an attacker’s artillery, and moreover, any movement of reserves would be unseen behind the escarpment. Those chimney’s belonged to the thirty or so buildings in the village of Mont-Saint-Jean. So if an army did seize two of the bastions, survive any counterattacks, crest the inter-visibility line, survive the grapeshot from the cannon, survive the point blank fusillade from the waiting troops, and after all that then finally break through the solid wall of bayonets, those nice stout houses of Mont-Saint-Jean would be there to cover the defender’s retreat. Truly magnificent ground.
Instead of continuing, Wellington and his staff decided to dine at the inn in the village and discuss the “wonderfully delightful” defensive terrain they were on. Even though they talked for several more hours, it was still all theoretical: Napoleon was on Elba, and King Louis XVIII would never invade Belgium. After the impromptu training exercise and dinner completed, Wellington realized he was late for his engagement in Brussels and they hastily galloped north.
Two miles up the road was a larger town where his chief of staff originally wanted to halt for a bit that afternoon. As the Duke passed through he noticed its sign; it read, “Waterloo”.
He would have to stop there again sometime.
When the officer in the General Staff has received a good education in times of peace, in times of war he will quickly become useful in many roles. But without a good education in times of peace, an officer in the General Staff will never achieve anything significant in war. For the latter requires judgement, which is developed through repeated study of military incidents, and a great amount of past facts that we have to keep in mind. These are necessary if we wish, in all cases that occur, thanks to resemblance in circumstances, to be able to judge to some degree the success of an enterprise and avoid the mistakes experience could discover––if we wish to consult all the special circumstances and among the numerous possibilities to choose the most beneficial ones. Nothing in this case is more dangerous than one’s own experience without the understanding with which military history provides us. The few instances of this personal experience now become the yardstick, and all similar occurrences are judged according to them, even if the circumstances and the results are marked by a greater diversity.
I have often seen how deficient, in terms of providing advice, those perform who apply only the facts they have personally experienced. How uncertain and fearful they are in undertaking something the circumstances require, but they have never encountered in the span of their life. These people do not know what one should dare in war. Through reminiscences of a hundred possible but unlikely disasters, they make the general they support anxious. They would, perhaps, never dare an audacious thought because no similar case from history, crowned with success, gives them the necessary confidence. — GERHARD VON SCHARNHORST
La Grande Armée was no more. The victors of a hundred battles lay dead in the snows of Russia and fields of Germany. It seemed as if Napoleon had lost his tactical brilliance after the catastrophic meat grinding battlefield losses in 1812 and 1813 against the nations of the Sixth Coalition. By early 1814, Napoleon was forced to fall back on Paris with a 70,000 man shell of his Grande Armée. Four Allied armies numbering more than 600,000 men followed closely behind.
Napoleon was defeated or so the world thought.
Unexpectedly, Napoleon turned to the defense of France with a verve not seen since his campaigns in 1805 and 1806, almost a decade earlier. First, his negotiations with Austria caused significant hesitation in Austria’s Prince Schwarzenburg’s Army of Bohemia (Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise, was an Archduchess of Austria and Schwarzenburg’s niece). The second Allied Army, the primarily Swedish and German Northern Army under Napoleon’s former subordinate and now Swedish Crown Prince Jean Bernadotte experienced supply difficulties in the winter weather while slowly moving through the Netherlands. The third Allied Army, the Duke of Wellington’s Peninsular Army, was still crossing the Pyrenees far to the south. With the Austrians, Swedes and British too far away to help, Napoleon turned on Field Marshal Prince von Blücher’s Prussian Army of Silesia on 29 January 1814. Napoleon fixed Blucher in place at the Battles of Brienne and the desperate defense of La Rothiere. He used the respite to gather fresh conscripts and collect garrisons to reinforce his army.
In the freezing weather, with green troops and few supplies, Napoleon struck back.
Using his advantage of interior lines of communication to great effect, Napoleon turned on Blucher on 10 February 1814. Over the next six days Napoleon, with an army of just 30,000, won four major victories over Blucher, at the Battles of Champaubert, Montmirail, Château-Thierry, and Vauchamps. He then crushed Blucher’s Russian and Prussian reinforcements on 17 February at the Battle of Mormans. Schwarzenburg paid for his indecisiveness on the 18th when Napoleon defeated him at the Battle of Montereau. In a period of just 20 days, Napoleon and his marshals with a combined force of just 45,000 won ten separate major battles against 400,000 Allied troops. The Austrians and Prussians streamed back east.
The Six Days’ Campaign, and the battles in the days before and after, was a masterpiece of tactical maneuver warfare, a tribute to the courage of the French character, and a testament to the inspired leadership that coaxed the new French conscripts to victory over an overwhelming number of Allied veterans. Unfortunately for Napoleon, the problem with relying on interior lines is that it rarely, if ever, leads to the complete destruction of one’s enemy. Napoleon couldn’t finish the job and still cover Paris.
Napoleon’s inability to pursue allowed the Allies to recover by the end of month. When Blucher and Schwarzenberg returned in March, Napoleon was not be able to repeat the brilliance of the Six Days’ Campaign the month before, despite severing the Allies’ supply lines to the east at the beginning of the month. Blucher and Schwarzenburg just ignored the maneuver and drove on the French capital. On 30 March, the Allies triumphantly entered Paris. Napoleon abdicated the French throne five days later after his marshals mutinied, thus ending the War of the Sixth Coalition. He was sent into exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba, where he would spend the rest of his days.
Or so the world thought…
The Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon undid any social and political reforms in Europe brought about by the American, Polish and French Revolutions, and even Napoleon’s reforms such as the Napoleonic Code. The Council of Vienna cemented political and social control in the absolutist regimes of Europe in the name of stability and “Balance of Power”. It was as if the revolutions of the Enlightenment and the Napoleonic Eras had never happened.
But no matter how hard someone tries, you can’t kill an idea with centralized power. The autocracies of the Hapsburgs in Austria, the Hohenzollerns of Prussia, the Bourbons of France, and the Romanovs of Russia held iron grips on their people. But the shining examples of America which was founded on Enlightenment principles and Britain whose constitutional monarchy enacted sweeping political and social reforms caused by its early embrace of the Industrial Revolution could not be kept from increasingly literate populations of the Ancien Regimes. The world shrank with rapidly expanding communications technologies such as steam power and the telegraph. Thirty years after the Congress of Vienna, Liberalism and Nationalism, with a heavy dash of Romanticism, swept Europe.
Romanticism was a direct reaction to the Industrial Revolution, as romantics pined for long lost good old days, the glories of the past, its upswelling of emotion, and the beauty of nature’s perfect moment. Romanticism’s devotion to the emotions of the individual dovetailed nicely with the Liberalism of the Enlightenment, part of those supposedly long lost good old days. Liberalism in the 19th Century has nothing to do with contemporary or postmodern Liberalism. “Big L” Liberalism of today focuses on collectivism and Greater Good at any cost, whereas Liberalism of the 19th Century, known as “Classical Liberalism” today, concerns the expansion of individual rights and protections from the tyranny of the majority. Similarly, the concept of Nationalism evolved, though not to such an extreme as the term Liberalism. Unlike today, Enlightenment Nationalism has little to do with shared race and ethnicity, and everything to do with shared culture, though on occasion they were one and the same. Like Bushido in Japan, the word “Nationalism” in the 20th century was perverted by National Socialist Germany and Fascist Italy, and today is used to invoke Godwin’s Law without actually saying “Hitler”. But in the early and mid-19th century (and to most academics today), Nationalism was, and is, a concept linked to shared culture, history, and geography. For example in 19th cent France, Normans, Bretons, Gascons, and Burgundians were ethnically different, but culturally “French”, same as “British” with the Welsh, English and Scots of the British Isles. America was founded on that very principle: taking the best of each ethnicity and subsuming it in American culture, we just know it today as “the Melting Pot”. As nationalist feelings swept Europe in the 1830s and 1840s, it was no surprise that the first revolutions of 1848 began in Italy, then under the domination of the Austrian Hapsburgs.
But no Roman shopkeeper, Venetian sailor, Neapolitan factory worker or Sicilian farmer just woke up and said, “I am going to revolt against my Hapsburg or Bourbon overseers because of Liberalism, Nationalism, and Romanticism”. Catalysts were needed, and 1848 saw the culmination of several. In 1845, a series of catastrophic famines began across Europe, the Great Irish Potato Famine being the most famous. Also, across Europe the effects of the Industrial Revolution exacerbated the political and social issues of absolutism and autocracy. The blights and mechanization in the fields pushed the peasants to the cities to find work in the factories which replaced the guilded artisans. Populations grew, urbanization increased (Berlin’s population tripled in 30 years) and unemployment skyrocketed as societal systems attempted, and failed, to adapt to the pressures. The poor were hungry, the middle class unemployed, and the upper classes disenfranchised with the ruling elite. The nobles of the conquered territories were first to look at their situations and determine that they could do a better job than their foreign overlords, especially those that had states prior to Congress of Vienna in 1815.
The first revolution based on these ideals and conditions actually occurred in Prussian occupied Greater Poland in 1846 where the Polish population opposed the Germanification of their lands. The revolt was swiftly crushed and the trial for the ringleaders ended in December of 1847 with eight sentenced to death and over a hundred to prison. The news spread across Europe and inflamed the passions of many who saw themselves in the same predicament as the stateless Poles. The winter was cold in most of Europe, which made revolutionizing not particularly attractive, but not in the temperate Mediterranean clime of Sicily. The first actual Revolution in 1848 occurred in Palermo, then in the Bourbon controlled Kingdom of Two Sicilies.
With winter foodstocks nearly depleted and the harvest a long ways off, on 12 January 1848 the people of Palermo overthrew the Bourbons, revived the Constitution of 1812 and established the Republic of Sicily, conquering the entire island except the town of Messina. Revolution quickly spread throughout Italy, most notably to Milan, Rome and Venice, and the news electrified the continent. And as the weather warmed, the Italian revolutions against the Hapsburgs and Bourbons spread to the center of the 19th century European universe – Paris.
France’s King Louis Phillipe outlawed the right to peacefully assemble, so as usual the people of Paris just figured out another way. In this case, the Parisians held “banquets” when they wanted to discuss politics. These banquets were just hours’ long assemblies where food was served, many involving hundreds of people. Speeches were given during the meal, and if you were important, between courses. On 22 February 1848, the banquets were outlawed. The barricades went up the next day. French soldiers accidentally, then intentionally, fired on protesters and revolution quickly spread throughout France. King Louis Phillipe abdicated on the 24th and France’s reformers created the Second French Republic.
Austria’s chancellor, Prince Klemens von Metternich, once said, “When France sneezes, all of Europe gets a cold.” Metternich was Europe’s arch diplomat, the architect of the Council of Vienna and the personification of the neo-Ancien Regimes of the early 19th century. And so it was with the Revolutions of 1848, soon to be known as the “Spring of Nations”. News of France and Italy’s revolutions spread like wildfire along Europe’s roads, rails, and telegraph lines. By March, Belgium, the Netherlands, the German states, Prussia, Austria, Hungary, Denmark, Serbia, Sweden, Poland, Switzerland, Moldavia, Wallachia, and Ireland were all in the midst of their own revolutions. Only Britain, whose previous reforms hamstrung support for revolution, and Russia which had no middle class to speak of, were spared.
However, by the end of the year, every revolution had failed.
The Springtime of Nations was not meant to be in 1848. One of the many rights people in 1848 were fighting for was the right to bear arms and form citizen militias to oppose the national armies of the ruling elite. The ruling authorities of each country had a monopoly on force and used their armies and police to bloodily put down each revolt. Furthermore, the regimes controlled the press, and the ability to assemble. Thus the revolts were neither organized nor coordinated, even among themselves. The revolutionaries were fighting for different things and they soon descended into class warfare. No faction could unite with another and the regimes took advantage. They soon divided the lower classes from the middle classes, the workers from the peasants, and isolated and suppressed each in turn. Millions fled the violence and famine, particularly to the Americas. By early next year, the Spring of Nations was over.
But like I mentioned before, it’s easy to kill a person, it is much harder to kill an idea. The people of Europe got a taste of freedom and they could no longer be ignored. The rulers of Europe noted that they couldn’t effectively govern without some consent of the people. The public and private spheres were inextricably linked. Many reforms were put into place in 1848 that would lead to great changes in the coming years. Austria and Prussia banned feudalism. Serfdom and slavery were banned across Europe, leaving Russia and the United States as the only countries with official systems of slavery. In many cases, absolute monarchy was replaced with constitutional monarchy. The petty states of central and southern Europe would gain a new national consciousness of shared sacrifice, and would lack only a unifying leader. Just a decade or so later Italy would get its leader in Giuseppe Garibaldi, and in Germany Otto von Bismarck.
In France, the Second French Republic elected Louis Napoleon the first President of France in December of 1848. Louis Napoleon was the nephew of Emperor Napoleon I, and dreamt of following in his namesake’s grandiose footsteps. In 1851, Louis Napoleon castigated the new constitution and proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III. His ascension to the throne of the Second French Empire would lead directly to the Crimean War, the reunification of Italy, the reunification of Germany, and the First World War.
“A cold” indeed.
After the capture, and subsequent destruction, of Moscow by Russian patriots, Napoleon realized that Czar Alexander I was not going to sue for peace. Reluctantly, Napoleon began his retreat on 8 October 1912 before his army starved to death during the Russian Winter. He planned on retreating just to his depots at Smolensk but that position proved to be untenable and he had to continue on to Poland. His Grande Armee disintegrated further every step of the way.
On 15 November at the Battle of Krasny in Western Russia, Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov surprised Napoleon’s strung out columns on the road to Smolensk. Of the French Corps engaged over the next 3 days, Poniatowski’s Advanced Guard and Junot’s Corps managed to escape the trap, Eugene’s Corps was destroyed, Davout’s Corps was wrecked nearly beyond repair, tens of thousands of French stragglers were captured or butchered by Cossacks, and the baggage train and what was left of the artillery were overrun. The Grande Armee was only saved from complete destruction by an audacious feint by the Imperial Guard led by Napoleon himself. The maneuver threw the Russian command into panic and indecision, and Kutuzov held back his final attack which would have most assuredly destroyed the French. The bold maneuver allowed what was left of the Grande Armee to escape west.
Unfortunately, the maneuver did nothing for Napoleon’s Rear Guard, Marshall Ney’s III Corps, which was then completely cut off from the rest of the army. On 18 Nov 1812, the Russians surrounded Ney and offered terms for surrender to which Ney promptly declined. Thinking Napoleon was still just ahead (and not fleeing west as he was), Ney attacked with his 8000 troops and 7000 stragglers, whom he hastily organized into units. The valiant but ultimately futile charges, many led by Ney himself, broke thru line after line of Russians but the rest of the Grande Armee was nowhere to be found.
Ney was forced to retreat into the forests with whatever he had left and march westward along woodsmen’s’ trails, fighting off Cossack attacks and Russian troops at every clearing and field. Throughout the ordeal, Ney often took up a musket and fought alongside his men on the line, and was later universally credited by them as the only reason they didn’t break. Three days and nights later, Ney with just a remnant of 800 troops, rejoined Napoleon in an emotional reunion, during which the Emperor proclaimed him to be “The Bravest of the Brave.”
When the French Army crossed the Nieman River and invaded Russia in June 1812, Emperor Napoleon I had 300,000 troops under his direct command. 3 months and 600 miles later, he had half that due to casualties, desertion, starvation, Cossack raids, and detachments to guard his overextended supply lines. General Kutuzov, the Russian commander opposite Napoleon used scorched earth tactics as he retreated and wouldn’t allow his army to be caught and destroyed by Napoleon’s superior numbers and skill. But after judging Napoleon’s strength in late summer 1812, Kutuzov decided it was time to make a stand with his 120,000 men. On 9 September, the Russians would make build a defensive position just outside the small village of Borodino: a bare 70 miles from Moscow. Napoleon was ecstatic that he could finally destroy the Russian Army. He launched his combined French, Polish, Italian and German Army in a series of bloody frontal assaults against the Russian redoubts. It was the largest battle of the Napoleonic era and by the end of the day, the bloodiest. The French had 35,000 casualties and the Russians had 45,000 men killed, wounded and missing but the Kutuzov managed to escape with the remains of his army when Napoleon wouldn’t commit his Imperial Guard to finish the job. Napoleon won the battle, but his hesitance would eventually cost him his empire.
On 14 September 1812, Emperor Napoleon I and his La Grande Armee triumphantly marched into Moscow… only to find it abandoned and deserted. The vast majority of the population took all of the food in the city and evacuated ahead of the French. Napoleon fully expected Tsar Alexander to surrender once Moscow was occupied but now he couldn’t find anyone to entreaty with. Two days later, on the night of 16 Sep, Russian patriots snuck in and set the city ablaze. For the next several days the French attempted to put out the fires but eventually ¾ of Moscow would be a smoldering ruin. Napoleon was now not only short of food for his army but also short of shelter for the coming Russian winter. He would wait around for the Tsar’s surrender for a month before he accepted that his troops must retreat or starve and freeze to death. On 19 October 1812, Napoleon and his Grande Armee began the long retreat back to Poland and East Prussia. Over the next several months, the Russian winter, Cossack raids, peasant guerrillas, and the scorched earth would contribute to Napoleon’s defeat in the campaign, but it was Kutuzov’s Army that escaped Borodino that would eventually throw Napoleon out of Russia and drive him back to Paris. Of the 690,000 troops Napoleon started the invasion of Russia with, only 63,000 would re-cross the Nieman River.
French Emperor Napoleon I and his La Grande Armee of over 600,000 French, Polish, Italian, German, Prussian, Austrian, Swiss and Spanish troops, crossed the Nieman River into Russia on 24 June 1812. Napoleon officially wanted to protect Polish lands from Russian invasion but actually wanted to incorporate Russia into his Continental System and prevent Russian trade with Great Britain. Napoleon would eventually capture Moscow, but in accordance with their scorched earth practices, the Russians would burn it to the ground. Without winter quarters and no way to supply himself, Napoleon retreated. Six months after the invasion began, horrific losses in attritional battles with the Czar’s armies, Cossack raiders, lack of supply, and winter weather reduced the La Grande Armee to a shadow of its former self. On 14 December 1812, only 27,000 French troops would recross the Nieman. It was the beginning of the end of the Napoleonic era.
In 1812, the Peninsular War was going in Napoleon’s favor despite fierce resistance from Spanish guerrillas and the Duke of Wellington’s Anglo Portuguese Army. For his imminent invasion of Russia, Napoleon pulled out most of the French troops from Spain which breathed new life into Wellington’s campaign. In the beginning of March, Wellington besieged the strategically important and well fortified town of Badajoz. On 6 April 1812, he assaulted the town before the Army of French Marshall Nicolas de Soult could arrive and bottle up his army. In some of the most savage fighting of the Napoleonic era, Wellington’s redcoats managed to take the town but with extremely heavy casualties.
Although the British were victorious, the British troops suffered horribly and Wellington lost control of his soldiers. They began to loot, rape and terrorize the the Spanish citizens of Badajoz. Without the garrison of Badajoz and with most of his troops sent to Russia, Soult could not take advantage of the situation and attack Wellington in the confusion. Only on 9 April did Wellington manage to restore order. Although the Peninsular War would go on for three more years, Badajoz was the last chance the French had to win in Spain, a campaign Napoleon would refer to as his “Bleeding Ulcer.”
Most learned scholars would say the last invasion of Britain occurred in 1066 when William of Normandy kicked the living shit out of the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. This is not correct. The Norman attack was the last *successful* invasion of Britain. The *last* invasion of Britain was by the French, during the French revolutionary wars, and was led by an American (because after 700 years, only an American would look at the moat that is the English Channel and dismissively say, “Pshaw, I got this”.)
Col William Tate was an Irishman born in America, and had fought in the American Revolutionary War. An avowed Francophile, he fell out of favor with the United States when he was involved in a plot to seize New Orleans for France from one of America’s other allies in the American Revolution, Spain. In the 1790s, the Mississippi trade was booming and the new country did not want to lose the use of New Orleans’ docks and warehouses. Tate escaped to France, one step ahead of American G-Men (such as they were), before he could be made an example of for Spain. In France, he joined the revolutionary army, where he quickly rose to command a regiment because of his experience in the American Revolution. (French officers of the time were mostly aristocrats, and French aristocrats were only good for one thing: filling the baskets at the bottom of French guillotines.)
In 1796, blood soaked French revolutionary zeal hadn’t engulfed the rest of Europe only because Great Britain was the financier of France’s continental enemies. General Louis-Lazare Hoche knew the source of the bourgeois and royalist resistance had to be eliminated. He figured the best way to do that was through Britain’s nearby, and most troublesome, possession – Ireland. He eradicated Royalist opposition in Brittany, itself a Celtic nation, and then with Tate, devised a plan to export that Revolution to Ireland. He raised an army and his plan was for a large expedition to land and link up with the United Irishmen, then rebelling against British authority. Britain invaded the island 150 years ago, and was still smarting from Oliver Cromwell’s massacres of that time (among other things). It was believed the Irish proletariat (before Marx made the term sexy) would rise up against the British, and join them. Once Ireland was liberated, Franco-Irish revolution could be brought to Britain. But the British were sure to react to a French landing, so two smaller expeditions were planned to prevent them from interfering: one in Scotland, and one in Wales. It was hoped the oppressed Celtic proletarians of Wales and Scotland would also rise up to fight their hated British overlords.
In late 1796, the Royal Navy sailed south to blockade Spain (see the previous Battle of Cape St Vincent), and Houche launched the three expeditions across the Channel. Now there is a phenomenal (Ha!) reason why the English Channel is the most effective of moats: it basically has its own climate system, and the weather essentially pushes an invader back against the French coast. In the Age of Sail, this is a problem. (William of Normandy had to wait three long weeks just to cross the Channel at its narrowest part in 1066, and was still scattered and almost didn’t arrive.) The fickle Channel weather defeated the Irish and Scottish expeditions, but it didn’t defeat the Welsh one, which was led by Col William Tate. On 22 February 1797, Tate landed on the rocky headland at Carreg Wastad on the Welsh coast.
Tate unloaded his 1400 men, and sent a ship up the coast to reconnoiter the port of Fishguard, three miles away. But all it accomplished was to inform the Welsh of the invasion when the fort there fired a warning shot at the unknown ship. The ship quickly returned and surprise was lost. Soon thereafter, Tate’s squadron departed, because their captains didn’t want to be caught by the weather and stranded in Wales (There’s an omen…) This was disconcerting for many of Tate’s men, as this was their only means of escape should the expedition fail.
Tate’s army was a mixed bag. On one hand, 600 were from his own regiment, the professionals of the French 2nd Legion, known as the “Le Legion Noir”, or the Black Legion because they were clothed in captured British uniforms, whose original red would only take black dye (which turned them a sickly dark brown color, but “The Black Legion” sounds cooler). On the other were 800 Republican volunteers, mercenaries, pirates, former royalist prisoners, and convicts on parole, mostly under Irish officers who sure as shit didn’t want to be in Wales. Like all Revolutionary armies, Tate’s lacked any sort of effective logistics system and was expected to live off the land. He had unloaded a vast quantity of weapons and ammunition, much of it to arm the Welsh, but he had no rations. So that evening, he sent his men out on foraging parties to confiscate provisions for the expedition.
Now there are many famous military blunders, the most famous of which is “Never get involved in a land war in Asia”. Slightly less well-known is this: “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!” But only slightly less well-known than that is, “Never antagonize a Welshman in Wales” (I personally learned this the hard way in Bristol, which I have since been reliably informed is not really Wales, lines on a map be damned). Many of Tate’s foraging parties that weren’t of the Black Legion weren’t exactly disciplined. One group broke into St Nicholas Church, and in a drunken rage born of sacramental wine, burned Bibles and hymnals as secular revolutionaries are wont to do. Furthermore, many had just got out of prison, and were more interested in booze and women than they were in scavenging supplies. The combined effect on the population was not one that encouraged it to rise up in one’s favor.
Once the stories spread, the population literally turned out with their farming implements to repel the French. On the morning of 23 February, the formidable cobbler Jemima Nicholas, attacked one of the drunken parties, gave them a good “what for”, captured 19, and locked them in St. Mary’s Church. Hundreds more rallied and marched on the French with pitchforks and torches. Like Mrs. Nicholas, the women wore the traditional Welsh red skirts and tall black felt hats, and to the drunk Frenchmen, they were mistakenly reported as elite “Grenadier Guards” to Tate. However, pitchforks, sickles, garden hoe’s, and those funny little hedge clippers, a contemporary army does not make. The furious Welsh farmers and townsfolk were reinforced by their husbands, sons, brothers, and cousins in the unofficial and semiofficial militia of the area.
The last Under-Secretary of State for the American Colonies, William Knox, who after being tossed out of the Thirteen Colonies in 1783 learned that to oppose a revolutionary army you needed your own loyal, and local, militia, which he formed as a result of the French Revolution. His Newport Volunteers, and Fishguard and Pembroke Militias marched and assembled at the Fishguard Fort. They in turn were reinforced by sailors from the ships in Goodwick Bay, on which Fishguard sat. They were further aided by the energetic action of LtCol Colby of the Harfordshire militia, who mobilized his men at the first reports of the French and forced marched to Fishguard. Thirty miles away, Lord Cawdor, the Baron of Pembroke, received word of the invasion and immediately set off with his men from the “Castlemartin Troop of the Pembroke Yeomanry Cavalry” whom had been assembled by Cawdor for a funeral for one of their own on the 23rd. By that evening, a thousand Welsh and English militia and sailors, dragging cannon from the ships in the harbor, backed up by a swarm of Welsh civilians, confronted Tate on the high ground outside Goodwick, a mile away, which overlooked Tate’s HQ.
Tate’s officers took one look, and got drunk. On the morning of the 24th, Tate, thinking he was facing a superior force of angry militia backed by British regulars, walked into Carford’s headquarters at the Royal Oak pub, and surrendered his disorganized force.
The Last Invasion of Britain was defeated.