The Battle of Waterloo: The Attack on the Center
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.
The Battle of Waterloo: The Assault on Hougamont
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.
The Battle of Waterloo: the Narrative
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.
The Battles of Quatre Bras and Ligny
“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.”
The Battle of Waterloo: The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball
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.
The Battle of Waterloo: The French Operational Commander, the Prussian Staff System, and Auftragstaktik
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 Battle of Waterloo: Prelude
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.
The Hundred Days
On 26 February 1815 Napoleon escaped from his captivity on Elba and began his return to power in France. On 13 March 1815, the victors of the Napoleonic Wars: Austria, Great Britain, Prussia, Sweden, and Russia, were attending the Congress of Vienna dividing up the spoils. Upon news of Napoleon’s return, they declared him an outlaw and formed the Seventh Coalition. On 19 March, King Louis XVIII fled Paris with his court to Belgium.
On 20 March 1815, Napoleon triumphantly entered Paris at the head of an army of 90,000.
So began The Hundred Days.
From March through July 1815, the fate of Europe, and dare I say Western Civilization, hung in the balance. At the bloody end of the Age of Enlightenment, would the 19th Century belong to the Constitutional Monarchists or the Enlightened Despots? Would it belong to Britain or France? The Rule of Law or the Rule of Whim?
The world would find out 111 days later outside of a tiny Belgian town called Waterloo.
The Battle of Auerstadt
During Napoleon’s invasion of Saxony and Prussia in October 1806, both the Grande Armee and the Prussian Army were moving north on opposite banks of the Saale river. On 13 October 1806, Lannes V Corps came into contact with Prussian troops at Jena. Napoleon correctly concluded that the Prussian Army under King Frederick Wilhelm III and the Duke of Brunswick was to the west of the Saale River and ordered his corps to cross the Saale. Napoleon wished to bring the Prussian Army to battle on the Landgreffenburg, the plateau west of the Jena. Most of the Grande Armee crossed the river at Jena, but two of Napoleon’s corps, Davout’s III and Bernadotte’s I Corps, were to cross downstream at Koessen. From there, they were to surprise and strike the Prussian Army from the north.
Boldy falling upon the flank of Napoleon’s adversaries in battle after a long forced march was a task in which Davout was not a stranger. He executed the exact same mission with aplomb the previous year and assured the destruction of the Austrian and Russian armies at Austerlitz. If there was anyone in the Grande Armee that Napoleon could trust with such a difficult mission, it was Davout.
Louis-Nicholas Davout was born of minor French nobility from Burgundy. Despite his noble heritage, he survived the French Revolution when most of his peers were sent to the guillotine. A trained cavalryman, he thrived in the ranks of the French Revolutionary Army through unimpeachable integrity, uncompromising discipline, unmatched military skill, and frankly just being a bit ‘arder than his contemporaries. Davout didn’t look the part: he was prematurely balding and disdained the foppery of French officers. Davout had no time for anything that didn’t directly affect military efficacy. Napoleon, like most French senior officers, despised him at first meeting, mistaking Davout’s self-confident competence for arrogance, aloofness for pride, and utilitarian uniform for shabbiness. However, Napoleon quickly recognized that Davout was not one for the salon, but for the battlefield. When the Revolutionary government forced Davout out of the army due to his noble family, Napoleon overrode them and promoted him to general of division. He arranged Davout’s marriage to his sister in law, just to get him into the family. For these acts, Napoleon gained Davout’s undying loyalty. When Napoleon became emperor in 1804, Davout was one the few generals raised to Marshal of the Empire despite being the younger (34) than his contemporaries and one of the least experienced. He was one of the few Napoleonic commanders who saw the difference between “looting” and “foraging”, punished the former with death, correctly surmising that looting just slowed the columns down. For his tough and exacting training standards, moral incorruptibility, and unrelenting discipline, Davout quickly became known as the “Iron Marshal”.
Napoleon’s confidence in Davout was not misplaced though it would be tested during the invasion of Prussia. Davout was already passed Jena and was 15 km to the north when Lannes made contact there with the Prussian Army. The Grande Armee’s turn west put Davout’s III Corps on the far right but in a position to turn the Duke of Brunswick’s flank, if possible. To do so, III Corps would have to march north to cross the Saale at Koessen then turn south and take the Prussians from the flank and rear. Davout’s men would have to march all night to complete the 50 kms route. Come dawn on 14 October 1806, II Corps was making good time on the road from Koessen toward Auerstadt and Apolda to decisively affect the Battle of Jena.
However, Davout would never make it there. He and his 27.000 strong corps were marching southwest on the same road that the 70,000 strong Prussian main army was marching on northeast towards Leipzig. In the same dense fog that affected every movement at the Battle of Jena, neither side was aware of the other, but a clash was inevitable.
At the village of Hassenhausen, Davout sent his aide-de-camp Colonel Jean-Raymond-Charles Bourke with a detachment of light cavalry to assess the road ahead. They spotted Brunswick’s advanced guard, General-Lieutenant Gerhard von Blucher’s division of cavalry with the King of Prussia Frederick Wilhelm III at its head as if he were a Roman Consul riding in a triumph. About the same time, Prussian cavalry, considered at the time the best in the world, spotted Davout’s 3rd Division, under Gen Charles Gudin advancing on Hassenhausen. Blucher convinced Brunswick that he should immediately attack. The fog would allow his cavalry squadrons to surprise the French and defeat them before they could form squares. Blucher advanced with ten squadrons and brushed aside the Gudin’s screening light cavalry
Unfortunately for the Prussians, Bourke’s reconnaissance and Gudin’s retreating cavalry gave just enough warning for the veteran French infantry to form squares. In less than a minute, Gudin’s exposed columns were a patchwork of immobile bayonet tipped squares, and a minute after that surrounded by Prussian cavalry. A horse, no matter how well trained, won’t charge a wall of bayonets. The Prussians were reduced to riding past firing their pistols or attempting to slash their way through with sabers, all the while receiving volleys from the back ranks and canister from the guns at the corners. One square was broken up by dismounted dragoons and horse artillery but most of its inhabitants managed to withdraw to another square. The sole Prussian success of the engagement was the exception that proved the rule that mounted cavalry couldn’t break an established infantry square. Every time the cavalry reformed amidst the squares, they were hammered by French volleys. Blucher’s cavalry was forced to fall back. The massive casualties among the Prussian cavalry neutralized them for the rest of the battle.
The defeat of the feared Prussian cavalry skyrocketed the morale up and down Davout columns.
Brunswick orders his infantry forward to engage the French and closed with Gudin’s men. However, Gudin was in a strong position. His men occupied Hassesnhausen and turned it into a stronghold with defensive lines to the north of the village. More Prussian troops followed behind, but since Brunswick rode up and down the Prussian line inspiring his men, their officers couldn’t find him in the confusion of the battle. So they stopped and waited for instructions as to where to place their men in the line. Brunswick was forced to place them himself while the French filled in the line as needed. Furthermore, Gudin’s men in Hassenhausen had a better line of sight over the battlefield and could observe Prussian movement. The Prussians could not do the same.
Anchored on Hassenhausen, Gudin took on all comers but, even disorganized, the Prussian numbers began to be felt. Gudin had no troops to the south of the town and the Prussians were slowly enveloping the French left. Davout’s 2nd Division, under Gen Louis Friant formed his men to the right of Gudin and caused a panic among the Prussians as Brunswick was pushing the French left. However, the sight of French troops to the north of Gudin and French cavalry even further northwest, threatened his own left flank. Brunswick sent his highly capable chief of staff, Gehard von Scharnhorst, to sort out the north while he continued to individually place regiments in the south. Though the Prussians vastly outnumbered the French, Davout’s commanders were simply quicker to get into the line. Two thirds of Davout’s corps were fighting the Prussians while barely one third of Brunswick’s army was in the fight.
At 9:30 am, disaster struck the Prussians. The Duke of Brunswick was shot in the head and taken from the battlefield. The king took personal command. There was a reason Brunswick was in tactical and operational control of the army, King Frederick Wilhelm III was not an able military mind. He knew his limits, but with Brunswick mortally wounded he felt honor bound to take command. With Scharnhorst out of contact to the north, and the Brunswick’s subordinate commanders unwilling to step up and assist the king, paralysis wracked the Prussian Army.
Brunswick’s last commands were carried out and a massive Prussian force attempted to bypass the town to the south, but it was spotted from Hassenhausen and Davout diverted troops to block it. Nonetheless, by 11 am Davout’s two divisions were hard pressed. Morand’s division was still enroute and Bernadotte’s corps was nowhere to be seen. Because of his control of the commanding views from Hassenhausen, Davout knew he was facing the Prussian main army and accurate numbers of what he faced. He sent a report to Napoleon at Jena, who curtly told the Colonel Falcon, Davout’s aide and messenger, that “Your marshal is seeing double!”
The arrival of Morand’s 1st Division to the south of Hassenhausen around noon provided much needed relief for the Gudin in the town, then fighting on three sides.. The Prussians on the right were expecting to be reinforced from the Prussian reserve, 15,000 men under Count von Kalkreuth. However, one of Friant’s brigades along with Davout’s corps cavalry turned the Prussian right and seized the town of Poppeln, far behind the Prussian lines. In an army with outstanding division commanders, Davout trained his hardest, and Friant was by far his best. The Prussian line bent dangerously backwards under Friant’s relentless assault. Kalkreuth, with two fresh divisions at Auerstadt, but without orders, recognized the danger and decided to retake Poppeln instead of reinforcing the line. With the Prussian reserves occupied elsewhere, the sight of the fresh French troops of Morand’s division broke the Prussians opposite Hassesnhausen who had been fighting for nearly four straight hours without reprieve. Like Napoleon, the Prussian king thought he faced his adversary’s main army, so he ordered a withdrawal to reorganize his own army, identify a new commander, and fight at a better location.
Davout sensed the Prussian weakness and ordered all of his units to immediately attack. What began as a small trickle of Prussian troops fleeing to the rear became a flood. Any semblance of Prussian order dissolved in the narrow streets of Auerstadt. The Prussian retreat tuned into a rout as the king’s army encountered the remains of Hohelohe’s army fleeing west and north after being defeated by Napoleon at Jena. Only French exhaustion prevented Davout’s men from pursuing the Prussians. Not that it really mattered, even Prussian formations who had no contact with the French broke and fled for their lives.
That Davout did not show up to the Battle of Jena was one of the final indicators that Napoleon was not fighting Prussia’s main army. Bernadotte made the same mistake and instead of supporting Davout, turned around and headed toward Jena, missing both battles. It was rumored that Bernadotte deliberately chose not to support Davout who was clearly Napoleon’s favorite after the Battle of Austerlitz. A defeat for Davout at Austerlitz would have brought him down a notch and not affect Napoleon at Jena since Bernadotte could block any Prussian advance south. Whatever the case, Davout won a great victory against the odds, while Bernadotte got an ass chewing that many believe began his road to betrayal.
Davout didn’t need Bernadotte, but his casualties would have been lighter had the future King of Sweden followed and supported. Davout’s III Corps endured 7500 casualties, about one quarter of his corps, but he defeated over 70,000 Prussians, almost twice what Napoleon faced at Jena. Napoleon, ever the narcissist, attempted to downplay Davout’s victory at Auerstadt in favor of his at Jena in official dispatches back to Paris. But Davout’s victory was so overwhelming and against such great odds that even Napoleon couldn’t deny it. He awarded Davout the title of “Duke of Auerstadt”. When the Grande Armee triumphantly marched into Berlin ten days later, it was Davout’s III Corps that marched in the van.
It was said later that “Napoleon won a victory that he could not lose and Davout won a victory that he could not win.” The quote overly simplified a series of complicated engagements. The Battle of Jena was far closer than it seemed with the fog limiting Napoleon’s understanding of the battle. It was Napoleon’s corps system and his subordinates’ proclivity to concentrate and march to the sound of the guns and the Prussian hesitation to do the same that won Jena. The Battle of Auerstadt was far closer than the numbers suggest. Whereas Davout and superstar subordinates efficiently and effectively got the most out their men, Prussian disorganization and paralysis negated their superior numbers.
The French pursued the surviving elements of the Prussian Army across the country, isolating them and never giving them a chance to reorganize. Hohenlohe surrendered after the Berlin fell, Ney captured Magdeburg after a short siege of its garrison reinforced with Jena/Auerstadt refugees, and Blucher was pushed out of Lubeck in a last desperate stand by the remains of the Prussian Army. The Battle of Lubeck was a taste of what the Prussian Army was capable of in competent hands.
The French victories at the battles of Jena and Auerstadt thoroughly humiliated the Prussians and laid to rest once and for all who was the true heir of Frederick the Great. The defeats shattered the idea of Prussian invincibility and directly led to a series of reforms and retirement of the elder Prussian officers. The mass exodus of Prussian officers that came of age in the mid-18th century gave way to a new generation of dynamic reformers. Led by Scharnhorst and Blucher, and consisting of great military minds such as Neidhardt von Gneisenau and Carl von Clausewitz, among many others, the reformers identified the reasons for the Prussian losses and French victories. They remade the Prussian Army into one that defeated Napoleon in the battles from 1813 to 1815. Their contributions to military theory are still felt today.
“Here I Am”
Napoleon landed in France on 1 March 1815 after escaping from his exile on Elba. He and his 1000 strong staff and honor guard took a circuitous route north through the French Alps to avoid the royalist sympathizers in the Riviera.
On 5 March 1815, the small army approached the pass at Laffra, just outside of the city of Grenoble. Directly to its front was the veteran 5th Infantry Regiment, six ranks deep, led by royalist officers, completely blocking the pass.
For five tense minutes, the regiment silently faced off against Napoleon’s troops. Then the ranks of the lancers and guards parted as Napoleon himself approached the 5th. One royalist officer gave the order to fire but none did. Napoleon moved closer. At 50 meters he stopped and said,
“Soldiers, I am your emperor. Know me! If there is one of you who would kill his Emperor, here I am”.
He then threw open his great greycoat and invited them to shoot.
The solders of the 5th abandoned their weapons and rushed Napoleon shouting ‘”Vive l’Empereur!”. They deserted the recently restored Bourbon monarchy en masse.
The event was stage managed to a degree. Staff officers and soldiers went forward the night before to let the 5th Infantry Regiment know what would happen if Napoleon was shot. It was an offer they neither could nor would refuse.
Two days later the 7th Regiment went over and soon Marshal Ney, Napoleon’s “Bravest of the Brave”, joined with an army of 6000. Thousands more flocked to the march every day. Though many were new recruits, many tens of thousands were former prisoners of war captured by Napoleon’s enemies over the past 20 years and recently repatriated back to France. King Louis XVIII and his court fled the country and Napoleon entered Paris on 20 March at the head of an army 100,000 strong.
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