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.
“Where was Ney?” That was the question on everyone’s mind at Ligny on the afternoon of 16 June 1815. Excellent staff work by the Prussians, and poor staff work by the French (massive traffic jam at Charleroi) allowed Blücher’s Prussians to outnumber Napoleon, 85,000 to 63,000. Nonetheless, Napoleon attacked and caused great damage to Blücher, particularly by his cannon which found the Prussian formations excellent targets. But he couldn’t destroy him without Ney. Ney had orders to seize Quatre Bras the night before, hold it with a minimum force and then march on Blücher’s right this morning. (Napoleon had no idea that the crossroads were not in French hands yet.) D’Erlon’s I Corps, closest to Napoleon, should have been there hours ago. Napoleon would send another order, this time directly to D’Erlon.
D’Erlon was still enroute to Quatre Bras, as per Ney’s orders. At those vital crossroads Ney was locked in a bitterly fought struggle where every time he thought he won, fresh British or Dutch units arrived. Ney had orders to take the crossroads the night before, and was in contact with Dutch units there since then, but for some reason lost to history, didn’t engage with his main force until the afternoon of the next day. Even though Ney started the battle much too late, the French could still destroy Wellington’s Anglo-Allied army if D’Erlon’s 20,000 men fell on Wellington’s left. When D’Erlon was about an hour from Quatre Bras and just about to move into his assault columns, Napoleon’s message arrived.
Napoleon’s plan was to defeat the British first, or at least fix them, then destroy the Prussians. So D’Erlon still marched to where he thought he was needed. Napoleon’s message changed that even though the British were not yet defeated. But Napoleon’s intent was to isolate and destroy one army and then the other. And that opportunity was there for the taking, just not in the same order as in the plan. To D’Erlon, it simply came down to a question of defying Ney or defying Napoleon. That wasn’t really a question.
Much to Ney’s astonishment, D’Erlon turned around and headed back the way he came… and missed both battles.
That night Blücher’s battered Prussians retreated from Ligny: thoroughly defeated, but not destroyed. It was close, though: over the night of 16-17 June, the Prussians suffered 28,000 desertions, mostly Saxons and Rhinelanders whom had previously fought for Napoleon. Nearly a third of Blucher’s army was gone. At Quatre Bras, Wellington, especially his Dutch, had a won a great victory, though it would go down in history as a defeat. The Anglo-Allied Army still held the field, but upon learning of Blucher’s retreat, Wellington fell back the next morning from the now untenable position. During these retreats, both armies were at their most vulnerable.
Napoleon allowed them to escape. He had just won his first victory since his abdication and indulged himself early on 17 June in those activities that endear commanders so much to their men: He visited the wounded, ensured their care, chatted with the troops, and toured the battlefield with his favorites. Although there is definitely a time and place for these things, the morning of 17 June was not it. By the time Napoleon got his army on the move, heavy rain began to fall, Wellington successfully parried any attempt by Ney to fix him in place, and Grouchy had lost contact with Blücher.
The Prussians disappeared because instead of retreating east towards their supplies as they were expected, his staff recommended they retreat north in order to maintain contact with Wellington, and the wily Blücher agreed. With no French contact, he had an entire day to reorganize his army. That evening Wellington sent a message that said he planned on defending the ridge near Mont St. Jean if he could be supported by one Prussian corps. If Blücher could not, Wellington planned on withdrawing further. He needn’t worry though.
Blücher replied, “My greatest friend Duke, I will not send just one corps: I will send my entire army.”
At dawn on 15 June 1815, Napoleon’s 135,000 man army began their march on Belgium, specifically to isolate and destroy both the Duke of Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch-German Army, and Field Marshal Gerhard Von Blucher’s Prussian Army.
Both Allied armies were spread out below Brussels so they could more easily procure supplies from the local population and cover the many avenues of advance Napoleon could take into the country. However, Napoleon’s sudden advance went completely unnoticed. It would be six hours before the first Prussian cavalry reported the French movement; and most of Ney’s wing, whom marched on the British, had escaped observation altogether. It would be 3 pm before the first of Blucher’s couriers reached Wellington with the news. By then he had received his first report from the Prince of Orange that a single Dutch Brigade was in contact with French cavalry and infantry at the vital crossroads of Quatre Bras.
Wellington was left in a dilemma. If Napoleon was attempting to split the Allied armies and defeat them in detail (he was), the crossroads at Quatre Bras was key terrain: any attempt by Blucher to reinforce Wellington or Wellington to march to Blucher must pass through Quatre Bras. A French force there would isolate both Allied armies, even though that French force would be isolated and open to its own destruction. Nevertheless, the capture of Quatrain Bra was the obvious French course of action because it would sacrifice that force for the eventual destruction of both allied armies. However, Napoleon rarely did the obvious, and a French advance on Mons would be disastrous for Wellington because it would cut him off from the sea and his supplies. To Wellington, the French at Quatre Bras still might be a feint (It wasn’t, Wellington just overthought it like the Sicilian in the Princess Bride).
Nonetheless, increasingly desperate messages arrived from the Prince of Orange whom was convinced 320,000 French troops were opposite him (it was actually 33,000). At 4 pm, Wellington realized the magnitude of the impending disaster and said, “Napoleon has humbugged me, by God; he has gained twenty-four hours’ march on me!” By 6 pm, he had the initial orders written for much of his army to concentrate on Quatre Bras the next day. But he didn’t send them.
On the evening of 15 June 1815, Wellington and his senior officers were attending a ball in Brussels. The ball, hosted by Charlotte, the Duchess of Richmond, promised to be the gala event of the year. The who’s who of Dutch and Belgian society were in attendance. A flurry of horsemen galloping desperately from the estate were sure to be seen by the guests. Wellington’s Anglo-Allied Army in the Netherlands required Dutch and Belgian civic stability and cooperation. A sizeable portion of his army was Dutch, and he required the support of the Dutch population for recruits and replacements. Their support kept provision prices down, which lessened the burden on the Royal Navy, and precluded foraging. The majority of his troops were British, German, and Indian, and Dutch goodwill was required to smooth over “cultural misunderstandings.” Wellington was further dependent on his hosts for information to monitor the precarious political situation and wage the undeclared war against French leaning subversives, many of whom were in attendance. Wellington wanted to portray that all was in order and taken care. Spooking the most important Belgian and Dutch civilian influencers in the two countries, even for a seemingly good reason such as a French invasion, would do him no good. In any case, the riders probably wouldn’t find Wellington’s subordinates: they were all assuredly on the road to the ball themselves.
Wellington was already late for the dinner portion and if he did not show soon, panic would inevitably take hold of the guests, especially once they learned that Napoleon had crossed the Sambre River and was engaged with their champion, the Prince of Orange. For the next five hours, between the toasts and dances with the crème of Belgian and Dutch society, Wellington issued his orders to his commanders. He would fight Napoleon at Quatra Bras in order to maintain contact with the Prussians at Ligny, and if either Allied army faltered, Wellington would fall back to a low ridge south of the Belgian town of Mont St Jean, where he and his staff had spent an enjoyable afternoon the year before. Contact with the Prussians must be maintained at all costs, lest Napoleon destroy them in detail. Wellington was under no illusion that he could defeat Napoleon by himself, he needed Blucher and his Prussians.
Wellington’s subordinates’ aides raced back to their units to prepare for battle the next day, while the senior officers continued to dance and drink as if nothing was amiss, much to the delight of the British, Belgian, and Dutch ladies. Around 1 am on 16 June 1815, Wellington locked himself in a backroom with his corps and division commanders, and with a borrowed map, confirmed his orders, ensured his commanders understood his intent, and worked through a short map rehearsal.
As rumors began to make their way into the ball of Napoleon’s invasion, tearful goodbyes replaced merrymaking, but by that point Wellington had achieved his desired effect. At 2 am, on the morning of the inevitable showdown with Napoleon, Wellington and his men emerged from the room. He took his leave from the Duchess of Richmond, while his staff and subordinates said farewell to the remaining guests. Once off the estate, Wellington, his staff, and his commanders raced back to their headquarters.
The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball was the most famous, and no doubt enjoyable, orders group in history.
Many officers rode into battle still wearing the finery in which they attended the ball. Eleven of the Duchess’ of Richmond invited guests would be dead in the next few days, and many more wounded.
In 1815 there were two competing staff systems, the French and the Prussian. Until 1813, everyone used the French system. After their embarrassingly quick defeat in 1806, Prussian generals Gerhard: Von Blucher and Von Scharnhorst, reformed the army and in particular their staff processes. The Prussian General Staff system is roughly the same one we theoretically use today. In short, a commander has a staff of junior officers usually two ranks lower than himself, but sometimes three, who keeps the commander informed of the war fighting functions: operations, logistics, communications, intelligence, information ops etc. And this staff is supervised by an executive officer, chief of staff, 2iC etc who is the senior staff cat, but is still two ranks lower than the commander. Think of it as a wagon wheel: operations is the hub, the other staff sections are the spokes, the 2iC is the rim which keeps everything together, and the commander is the axle that keeps the cart upright and moving in the right direction. (And that’s as far as that analogy goes)
The relative seniority of the commander over the staff was deliberate: it allowed the specialists and star performers to rise to the top and be noticed (the epitome of this were August Gneisenau, Blucher’s Chief of Staff, and everyone’s favorite dead Prussian, Carl Von Clausewitz, the III Corps CoS at Waterloo). More importantly, the system prevented the staff officers that were the same rank as the commander from issuing orders, which was a feature of the French system.
The French system recognized that the largest force multiplier was a commander’s presence on the battlefield. The French system ensured the right decision maker was at the right place at the right time to make the right decision. In the French system, the overall commander, usually Napoleon, came up with the plan, the chief of staff translated it into orders, and an operational commander was assigned to execute it at the operational and tactical level. This freed up the overall commander to concentrate on strategery, influence the operational area through the use of the reserve, and be at the decisive point. (Stop me if this sounds familiar… cough IJC/ISAF… cough) This was very effective when combined with the French corps system: when each corps had a marshal of the same rank as the operational commander, this system provided an amazing amount of flexibility and allowed the subordinate commanders the ease to exercise initiative. In an era where a commander could only influence troops he could physically see and hear, or gallop to, and had trusted subordinates who understood intent, like Napoleon’s marshals, this worked out fine, brilliantly even.
In Prussian terms, the French operational commander was both a commander and operations staff officer (An equivalent today would be FSCOORD/DIVARTY Cdr, a command/staff concept that works for supporting troops, not so much for maneuver troops). The Operational Commander was the connection between the staff, and through the staff to the overall commander, and then the commanders in the field. The big benefit of this was that if a decision had to be made the Operational Commander could make it and he didn’t have to bother the staff or overall commander about it, unlike the Prussian system. He just had to keep them informed, not look for a decision and then wait for an order. This system was in place at the division, corps, and army level. But for this to work, the Napoleons of the world had/have to be hands off, which was increasingly hard to do as the battlefields became larger and subordinates not as talented or trusted. Finally, there are also at least three decision makers at any level: the overall commander, the chief of staff, and the operational commander. This is no problem if orders are clear and everyone understands the plan, and most importantly the intent.
In our Waterloo example, the French system made Ney, Soult, and Napoleon all primary decision makers. This became a problem when Ney attempted to seize key terrain – Quatre Bras, while Napoleon and Soult were at the decisive point – the destruction of Blucher’s Army at Ligny. They eventually “competed” for D’Erlon’s Corps whom were marching between them responding to contradictory orders from four different sources (including Grouchy who was just parroting Napoleon’s orders). Unfortunately for Napoleon, this inherent flaw in the French system was a feature, not a bug. When it worked, and it did most of time during the Napoleonic Wars, the French system worked brilliantly. But when it didn’t, which was rare for the French, it failed catastrophically.
The Prussian system took the personalities out of the system, and placed the responsibility of understanding the immediate situation on the staff, who could then inform their commander, instead of relying on the talent of the commander to intuitively understand everything happening around them. This permitted the primary decision making authority to fall on the commanders at all levels. It allowed commanders to make more informed decisions, but not nearly as fast. The Prussian system is more systems and processes driven than personality driven like the French and sacrifices flexibility for resilience. However, and this is a huge “however”, the Prussians mitigated the relative slowness and rigidity of their staff system compared to the French with a culture of “Auftragstaktik”. Auftragstaktik, roughly translated as “mission tactics” is a culture of trust based on professional competence, situational awareness, and understanding of the commanders’ intent. With Auftragstaktik, subordinate commanders are expected to take initiative and are required to alter their commander’s orders if they are irrelevant to the situation and the accomplishment of the mission warrants it. Auftragstaktik gave the Prussian staff system and its commanders the agility to act upon a situation, without the burden of competing personalities of the same rank, by placing the onus of situation understanding on the lowest level staff and the decision to act on the lowest level commander. Auftragstaktik demands commanders and staffs have “skin in the game”. This responsibility, which good commanders seek out, incentivizes subordinates to support their commander, and more importantly, commanders to support their subordinates. With the lowest level subordinate commander the immediate decision making authority, this also ensured that contradictory orders only happened rarely, as a subordinate commander would only change his own commander’s orders with good reason. At a time when commanders were no longer operating in sight of the armies they commanded, the Prussian system within the context of Auftragstaktik gave them a resilience and agility that the personality driven French armies lacked.
As Rocky pointed out, “It’s not how hard you hit, it’s how hard you can get hit and still keep going that matters”. And that’s exactly what happened when the French failed to destroy the Prussian Army at Ligny. The Prussians bounced back from their defeat, while French dithered about on 17 June, thus setting the conditions necessary for the French defeat at Waterloo.
The 26 men chosen over the years by Napoleon to be Marshals of France were a collection of talent and ability rarely seen in history. Only the Diadochi, the Apostles, Genghis Khan’s generals, the viziers of Suleiman, the Sun King’s advisors, and the Founding Fathers occupy the same historical pedestal. But of those first 25 marshals, only seven still stood with Napoleon in 1815. On 3 June, 1815, Napoleon needed one more, so he promoted Emmanuel, Count de Grouchy, to the highest rank in the French Empire. Grouchy was an outstanding, aggressive, and very experienced cavalry commander of over thirty years who was more than equal to the other members of France’s most exclusive club.
The Marshals of France were Napoleon’s handpicked “go-to” men to get the job done. And unlike preceding generations, their promotion was strictly due to merit and military efficacy: Someone might be a general based on political considerations or birth, such as Napoleon’s little brother Jerome, but never a Marshal. Napoleon’s Marshals of France included sons of cobblers, barrel makers, priests, and nobles; and most were former privates, NCOs and junior officers who meteorically rose through the ranks. In 1815, although he only had eight, three of his best stood with him and they were given his most important tasks:
Louis Nicolas Davout, the “Iron Marshal” and the greatest of Napoleon’s commanders, had never lost a battle and seemed to intuitively know Napoleon’s intent. In 1815, Napoleon desperately wanted him in the field, but looked to the future and appointed him Minister of War. Davout would oversee the precarious political situation in Paris, command the National Guard, and raise the armies necessary to restore the French Empire.
Louis Gabriel Suchet, Napoleon’s master of counter insurgency and his most successful commander in Spain, was a relatively new Marshal. However, Suchet was one of Napoleon’s most dependable subordinates, and at his best with an independent command. In 1815, Suchet was given responsibility for all of southern France, in particular subduing the Royalist uprisings in the Riviera and preventing an Austrian invasion through the Alps.
Michel Ney, the “Bravest of the Brave” was Napoleon’s operational commander and was responsible for the left wing of the French Army.
Louis-Alexandre Berthier was Napoleon’s Chief of Staff and Right Hand Man. For almost twenty years, Berthier was responsible for translating Napoleon’s vision into practical written orders to units. Napoleon considered him indispensable… But in 1815, he was tired of the endless wars and sided with Louis XVIII. Napoleon was devastated, and needed a replacement.
Nicolas Soult would attempt to fill Berthier’s shoes. Soult was a brilliant administrator, capable tactician, and was Wellington’s nemesis in Spain. He was the natural pick to replace Berthier, if he could be replaced. Nonetheless, for a man accustomed to independent command Soult seamlessly took control of the essential position of chief of Napoleon’s staff. Soult’s staff was the nerve center of the 120,000 strong French army.
On 14 June 1815, the army sat just on the border of Belgium, and was split between only two other Marshals, Ney and Grouchy, with the Imperial Guard under Napoleon’s direct control. That night, Soult issued the orders for the French Army to unexpectedly strike at the seam between Wellington’s British-German-Belgian-Dutch Army and Blucher’s Prussian Army. Napoleon wanted to use his advantage of the center position to force the British to retreat toward the coast where they were supplied by the Navy, and the Prussians to retreat toward their base of supply in Germany. After which they would be isolated and destroyed.
Despite the lack of Berthier, Davout, and Suchet, it nearly worked.