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 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.
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.
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.
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,
The reply was an apt end to the Napoleonic Era.
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.
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.”
At 1300, Napoleon’s artillery was finally in position, and the 80 guns of the “Grand Battery” opened on Wellington’s line. Napoleon, a former artillery officer (imagine that), had made a career of smashing a portion of an adversary’s line with cannon and then following the through the rupture with dense columns of infantry acting as a human battering ram. Wellington knew this and placed the majority of his troops on the reverse slope of the Mont St Jean ridge, which protected them from the worst, but not all, of the cannon fire. The casualties began to mount.
At 1320, D’Erlon’s I Corps stepped off on the long march through the wet wheat fields, and finally Wellington’s artillery returned fire. For the next 30 minutes, the Allied troops stoically stood in formation and took it, while the French slowly marched forward and took it. On both sides, whenever holes appeared in the line, men from the rear ranks stepped into them. About 1345 pm, Wellington, fully within range of Napoleon’s guns (most of his staff would be casualties by the end of the day), commented,
“Hard pounding, gentlemen. Let’s see who pounds the longest.”
D’Erlon’s Corps first encountered the walled farm at La Haye Sainte and detached 7000 troops to assault it, as the rest continued on. The farm was held by 700 line infantry of the King’s German Legion. King George III of Britain (yes, that one) was not actually English, but German; his other title was King George of Hannover. The King’s German Legion were soldiers who fled Hannover to Britain when Napoleon conquered it in 1803 and they formed some of Wellington’s best troops. Major Georg Baring and his battalion proved a thorn in D’Erlon’s side for the next six hours.
Weathering round shot, canister shot, double canister, rifle fire, and finally the renowned disciplined musket fusillade from British infantry, D’Erlon’s 17,000 strong columns struck the British lines at 1400. D’Erlon knew his enemy though, and he concentrated his heaviest attacks on the least reliable of Wellington’s troops, the Belgians and Dutch. Wellington acknowledged this weakness and interspersed British and German units to stiffen their lines (just as he had done on the peninsula with the Portuguese and Spanish). However, the Dutch were hastily mobilized for this campaign and many of the Belgians fought for Napoleon previously, some for over ten years. After just 15 minutes, their lines cracked and then broke.
The rout of Wellington’s Belgians and Dutch in the center was Napoleon’s high watermark of the battle. Had D’Erlon had more troops, from any source, to secure the breach and prepare for the inevitable counterattack, the battle would almost certainly have been over. But after the long march under fire and the furious fight on the ridge, D’Erlon’s men by themselves couldn’t withstand a determined counter attack. Around 1430, the top hat and great coat clad Sir Thomas Picton led the 5th Division in a counterattack. Soon after, the British heavy cavalry moved forward to exploit the highlanders’ assault. Just after Picton unleashed his highlanders, the Earl of Uxbridge released the Household Brigade and the Union Brigade against the French. With La Haye Saint Sainte still under Allied control, the French had nowhere to rally, and the British cavalry swept the D’Erlon’s men from the field. The British cavalry was only stopped by French lancers and cuirassiers in a countercharge. Some of the British horsemen made it all the way to the Grand Battery.
D’Erlon was furious. His first attack nearly successful, and he inquired Ney as to why he wasn’t supported. His men would be forced to make the same attack again. Their ordeal was for nothing. Where was the cavalry? Bad staff work had them too far from the breakthrough. Where was the Imperial Guard? Napoleon jealously guarded their use. Where was Lobau and VI Corps? They were investigating a body of troops spotted six miles to the east.
The east? Blucher had arrived.
On 18 June, 1815 Emperor Napoleon I of the French faced Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and his Anglo-Dutch-Belgian-German Army just south of the town of Mont St. Jean. Napoleon planned on attacking the Duke at 9 am, but heavy rains the night before prevented his artillery from getting into position in time and, in any case, the soggy ground would greatly reduce their effectiveness. So Napoleon issued his orders and waited for the ground to dry. As he waited, the very sick Napoleon took a nap. At 1130, Marshal Michel Ney, Napoleon’s commander on the ground, wanted to make up for his failure to be aggressive at Quatra Bras and grew impatient. He gave the order for General Reille’s II Corps to begin their attack on the walled chateaux of Hougamont in order to draw away some of Wellington’s reserves in preparation for the main attack on the center of the British line.
Wellington knew the importance of Hougamont, and sent his best unit to hold it: the Brigade of Guards, backed by the best of the King’s German Legion: the Nassau and Hannoverian jaegers (German for “hunters”), light infantry whose accurate rifles made every tree precious. But Reille threw almost the entire veteran 6th Infantry Division, led by Gen Jerome Napoleon, the Emperor’s little brother, along with the 9th Infantry Div, at Hougamont. After fierce fighting on the approach, the French reached the gates and walls of the compound. But the chateaux and courtyard itself were held by the senior regiment in the British Army, the Coldstream Guards, led by the indefatigable Lieutenant Colonel James MacDonald, and there was an impasse. But make no mistake – the brawl for Hougamont was a still bitterly contested swirling maelstrom of a melee, in which no side had an advantage.
That is until 1230, when a monster-of-a-man, Sous-Lieutenant Legros, of the 1st Legre of the 6th Division, physically hacked through the northwest gate at Hougamont with an axe he found in the orchard. Thirty Frenchmen managed to storm through, and the entire battle hung in the balance. But LieutCol MacDonald personally led a counterattack during which Captain Henry Wyndam and Corporal James Graham managed to shut the gate. The thirty Frenchmen were all bayoneted, including Lieut Legros. The only survivor was a young unnamed drummer boy, whom was saved by Pvt Mathew Clay, and escorted to the chapel.
Though he didn’t know it, Wellington’s first crisis had passed.
Although the fighting around Hougamont raged all day, Jerome and Reille would get no closer to capturing it than they did at 1230. In an ironic twist, the fight for the chateaux and orchard would occupy almost a quarter of Napoleon’s Army. Like the campaign in Spain, the supposed feint at Hougamont, was a bleeding ulcer for Napoleon that consumed men and leadership, much needed elsewhere on the battlefield at Waterloo.
Today on the “bicentennial plus five” of one of the most famous battles in history, I am hoping to lay this one out for you like TA-50. Before we begin our journey, there is something you must understand first that is kind of a pet peeve of mine: the loss of context within the narrative. And the writers about the Battle of Waterloo are the worst at it.
The vast majority of non-scholarly work on the battle break it up into “The Five Great Acts of Waterloo”. They are:
-The Assault on Hougamont
-The French Attack in the Center
-Ney’s Cavalry Charge
-The Fall of La Haye Sainte and the Prussian Attack
-The Final Assault by the Imperial Guard
It is a readymade narrative that makes a great story. But it loses a bit of the scope of what was happening in those few square miles of fields, forests and buildings, between the Inn at LaBelle Alliance, Napoleon’s headquarters, and the “Butte du Lion”, “The Mound of the Lion”, the immortalized position where Wellington spent most of the battle. Many authors and film makers portray them sequentially, and I will be no different since I’m confined to my self-imposed limits of a blog post.
But they weren’t just sequential, they were sequential and then simultaneous. Think of a wave hitting a beach. The wave doesn’t actually hit the beach all at one time; it crests and rolls down the beach, as other waves follow behind it and strike where the first wave (and then second and then third…) had already subsided.
The Battle of Waterloo acts in the same way: Each act happened sequentially but each continued on throughout the day. The battle began with the assault on Hougamont, and after its initial failure the French began the attack on the center. But that doesn’t mean that the French gave up on Hougamont, the battle for the chateau and orchard continued all day, likewise with the attack in the center. This continued in a rising crescendo for more than eight hours until the climax of the battle, the final assault by the Napoleon’s Imperial Guard. It would be a disservice to everyone if you, gentle reader, thought that any single event was the only thing happening on the battlefield. Eight hours after the battle started, as Napoleon’s grenadiers were rockin their kickass bearskin caps forward, D’Erlon was still pushing from La Haye Sainte into Wellington’s center, Lobau was in the fight of his life against the Prussians at Plancenoit, Ney’s cavalry was still attempting to break squares, and poor Jerome was still feeding the meat grinder that was Hougamont.