Napoleon’s hundred days and Battle of Waterloo

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© Bob Denton 2014

Napoleon’s 100 days and the Battle of Waterloo, 1815

On the 1st March 1815 Napoleon had escaped from Elba and landed near Cannes with a small force of 1,000 troops. Louis thought this a minor irritation and sent a force to go south and deal with it. But much of the army, still staffed with Bonaparte veterans, deserted to join Napoleon. Significantly the army stationed outside Paris had joined him by the middle of the month, the capital was not defended.

Before Napoleon had reached Paris the British, Austrian, Prussians and Russians representatives at the Congress of Vienna declared him as an outlaw and had mobilized as a Seventh Coalition to face him militarily.

Characteristically Napoleon assessed that his best chance of success was attack. The Coalition forces gathering in Belgium consisted of a British force depleted of many of its Peninsular War veterans; they had gone to north America for the 1812 War. Napoleon hoped to exploit this moment and push the British off the continent. Then he judged that he could defeat the Prussians and take them out of the Coalition.

He had his forces cross the border at Charleroi and caught Wellington concerned that he might be cut off from his lines of supply to Ostend. In hedging his bets Wellington allowed Napoleon to get between him and Blücher’s Prussian troops.

Wellington and his senior officers were being entertained at a ball in Brussels when he learned that the Charleroi incursion was in fact Napoleon’s main force. Marshal Ney achieved his first objective and seized the strategic crossroads at Quatre Bois.

Marshal Grouchy led his wing to attack the Prussians in the Battle of Ligny. Grouchy broke through Blücher’s centre, though their flanks held strong. The Prussians then withdrew overnight leaving rearguards in place until the morning so that the French did not notice their departure. Blücher did not retreat along his lines of supply but instead moved northward parallel to Wellington’s advance. Had Blucher withdrawn along his line of supply then Wellington would have had little choice but to withdraw to the coast.

Wellington’s southward reaction had driven Ney away from the crossroads but this meant he was too late to assist the Prussians.

Napoleon in charge of his reserve joined up with Ney to retake the Quatre Bois crossroads but arrived to find it unoccupied. They followed Wellington’s route and did succeed in a cavalry engagement but then heavy rain stopped further progress. Wellington’s force had arrived at Waterloo by the end of that day, Blücher had marched his force to join with his reserves at Wavre.

The next day the French would engage its 48,000 infantry and 14,000 cavalry men supported by 7,000 artillery men and some 250 cannon.  This was not a conscripted force like his armies towards the end of his previous reign these were all veterans and enthusiastic Bonapartists.

Wellington had 50,000 infantry but most were inexperienced. Only half of them were British (the others were Belgian and Dutch), and just 7,000 were Peninsular War veterans. Bizarrely many of them had previously served in or supported Napoleon’s armies. The Prussian forces were heavily in to a period of rationalization and reorganization.

Wellington had chosen the battleground very well, where he could conceal his real numbers with much of his force over a long ridge on the reverse slope. The terrain allowed his forces to be arrayed in a relatively small front of around four kilometres width which therefore permitted good depth along its length.

Both flanks were able to be protected. Before the ridge on the extreme right lay the château of Hougoumont which Wellington fortified, it had a sunken lane behind it that ran to the ridge providing a secure line of supply.  On the extreme left before the ridge was the hameau of Papelotte which was again fortified. Papelotte also protected the road to Wavre and the Prussians. At the centre before the ridge was the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte which was heavily garrisoned.

His objective was to hold the French until the Prussians arrived. The overnight rain had made the fields sodden which delayed the start of the battle which should have been to Wellington’s advantage but it had also made the Prussian’s advance from Wavre slow and ponderous.

Napoleon drew up on another ridge and organised himself in to three groups of almost equivalent size and structure.

Napoleon kicked off proceeding at 11am by having his leftward force advance on the village of Mont-Saint-Jean that was over the far ridge, he had misjudged Wellington’s location.

He also ordered a bombardment and then a diversionary attack on Hougoumont to draw in Wellington’s reserves. He also planned to attack the British left to sever contact with the Prussians.

He had however initially misjudged the proximity of the Prussians having assumed they would take two days to recover from Ligny. When he learned of his error he despatched Grouchy with a force to flank the Prussians and then harry hem forward in to the battle.

Hougoumont saw fierce fighting and artillery bombardments throughout the day and the battle. In fact its severity drew in the French reserves, not at all what Napoleon had intended.

AT 13:00 the first Prussians were seen to be arriving and Napoleon sent a message to Grouchy to engage them, but his previous orders had placed him too far away to respond.

Napoleon’s attack of the British left had fared well against the forces on the up-slope but when the reserves behind the ridge stood and fired it faltered, but they regrouped and started to advance.

The British heavy cavalry led by the Earl of Uxbridge came over the ridge, 2,000 strong, they were heavily assisted by the sunken road which constrained the French as they fell back. The cavalry dispersed the assault but pressed on too far and came up against the French squares.

Their headlong assault did capture two French eagles but they became disorganised and took heavy losses when Napoleon counterattacked with his cuirassiers. But the failure of this assault had committed a third of his forces without progress. Perhaps as importantly both this and the protracted Hougoumont engagement had used up valuable time, time for the Prussians to arrive.

Henry Paget – the 2nd Earl of Uxbridge who led the British heavy cavalry attack is credited with one of the most iconic of British sang-froid quotes. After his charge, one of the last cannon shot on that day hit him. He was close to Wellington and commented, ‘By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg!’ Wellington replied, ‘By God, sir, so you have!’ His leg had to be amputated above the knee.

At 16:00 Marshal Ney misjudged that the removal of casualties at the British centre was the beginnings of a retreat and despatched 4,800 cuirassiers and light cavalry to pursue the ‘retreat’. His infantry was either engaged at Hougoumont or defending the army’s right flank so he could only use cavalry at this phase of the battle. They were repulsed, so he added a further 4,000 heavy cavalry to join with them.

Wellington’s force had formed in to squares and this proved secure as the French did not coordinate this first cavalry attack with its artillery. A square was not a good approach when artillery was involved. But the cavalry alone was not at all effective incurring huge losses themselves without really dealing much damage to the British squares.

The Prussian presence started to be felt from around 16:30 as they began to arrive at Waterloo. They reinforced Wellington’s centre while the cavalry attack was still under way. They also opened up new threats for the French so that Napoleon had to make a number of movements of his forces.

Ney belatedly arranged a new attack on the squares with cavalry, infantry and artillery; the cannon used canister and wreaked havoc on the squares. Wellington’s centre was crumbling but further Prussian troops allowed it to hold.

At 19:30 Napoleon committed his as-yet undefeated Imperial Guard against Wellington’s centre. They were heavily outnumbered and had to advance through a withering cannon and rifle fire. They met with initial success in two areas but eventually the numbers came in to play.

A lightly used Dutch brigade came in to play.  It was led by General Chassé who had previously fought in the French Army against the British in Spain and against the Austrians and French. Through the morning his unit had been in a nearby village being given hospitality. Called forward by Wellington his force advanced behind the ridge and then turned to cross it and arrive on the flank of the Guard Grenadiers, his cannon using grape shot wreaked havoc through the French. He then led a bayonet charge earning him the sobriquet ‘General Bayonet’.

To their left a further wing of the Guard’s attack, consisting of two battalions of Chasseurs, was advancing unaware that 1,500 British Foot Guards were lying on the ground to avoid the French artillery. When they drew near, the British stood and hit them with volleys at point-blank and then a bayonet charge. They broke too.

The Guard breaking and running destroyed the morale of the rest of Napoleon’s troops when they saw this invincible unit in full retreat. The cry went up ‘La garde recule! Sauve qui peut!’ (The Guard retreats! Save yourself if you can!)

This was the trigger for Wellington to order a general advance. The Guard set up one rearguard action but again were overwhelmed by sheer numbers. The retreat turned in to a rout.

Napoleon and his coterie was gathered at his farmhouse headquarters, Le Caillou, which came under direct attack by the Prussians. They convinced him that all was lost and that he should leave the field. Overrunning the farmhouse Major Keller of the Prussian 15th Infantry jubilantly discovered and confiscated Napoleon’s sword, medals, hat and a purse of diamonds. The allied commanders decided to have the Prussians pursue him back through France.

Wellington had lost 15,000 men dead or wounded and Blücher 7,000, Napoleon lost 25,000 dead or wounded and 8,000 imprisoned. Grouchy did reach and take Wavre but getting the news from Waterloo he withdrew, vitally his 33,000 troops had thus been unavailable to Napoleon in Waterloo.

The battle marked the end of a generation of European conflicts and the end of the First French Empire. Napoleon was chased back to France, there was a Prussian order to arrest him dead or alive.  He arrived in Rochefort looking for a way to escape to America.  Eventually it was there that he gave himself up to Captain Frederick Maitland aboard HMS Bellerophon on 15 July. This time the Coalition exiled him to a remote and barren Atlantic island, Saint Helena, where he would die six years later.

Manfred Stolpe – I can’t stop myself mentioning a personal experience at the British House of Commons. I had been invited by the Future of Europe Trust to a meeting where Stolpe, the President of Brandenburg, had been invited to speak to this group of young cross-party politicians.

This was the time that the Iron Curtain was being drawn back and his DDR was unifying with West Germany. He said the most remarkable thing I had ever heard. He proposed that the people of Brandenburg and Britain had always been friends. He pointed out that if Blücher had not turned up at Waterloo when he did then Europe would have been a very different place.

Then his coup de grace was to say that it was only two people who had kept us apart – Hitler and Stalin – simply dismissing most of the 20th century at a stroke! Remarkable!

The French return

Back in 1815 the Congress of Vienna was assembled to resolve an approach for resolving the issues that had been thrown up at the end of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and its dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire.

This led to the subsequent formation of the Quadruple Alliance between Austria, Great Britain, Prussia and Russia, essentially the members of the Sixth Alliance who set out their goals following the defeat of Napoleon. They were also there to enforce the terms of the Congress of Vienna settlement. It became a Quintuple Alliance in 1818 when France was admitted too.

Ferdinand appealed to the Quintuple Alliance to come to his aid against his liberal rebels. They met at the end of 1822 and were clearly concerned about the impact of a Republican Spain on the overall European balance of power. They decided that France should despatch a force to restore the absolute monarchy. As a result a French force of 100,000 troops entered Spain in 1823 with their blessing.

[No 1 London – The Duke of Wellington]

Ferdinand triumphs

It was Riego that led the Third Army to face the invading French forces. The French were supported by a number of Spanish groups that were in favour of absolute monarchy – or simply frustrated by the continuing Spanish economic chaos. Ballasteros also confronted the French in Aragón and Navarra. But the French prevailed at the battle of Trocadero and the fall of Cádiz reinstated Ferdinand’s command over the Cortes.

Ferdinand had offered an amnesty but again changed his mind once he was restored to power. He soon set about having the liberals executed; Riego was arrested, found guilty of treason and hanged in 1823. A further anti-Republican initiative by Ferdinand VII drove many liberal army officers out of Spain, including Ballasteros; he died ten years later in exile in Paris.

Ferdinand now set about restoring his absolute control of the country. But his ministers were ultraconservative and preferred that the control of government be in their own hands. They also talked of reinstating the Inquisition. When Ferdinand bridled against them, they too inspired a number of military revolts using their Royalist Volunteers; this force had been introduced to replace the army.

Maria Christina therefore urged him to change the Spanish laws of succession and in 1830 he introduced the ‘Pragmatic Sanction’ so that a female could be named as his heir. When he fell ill in 1832 those supporting his brother Charles’ right to succeed (the Carlists) managed to get it revoked, but when he recovered he had it reinstated and exiled his brother to Portugal.

Ferdinand’s death in 1833 did see the crown transfer to his daughter; Isabella was just three years old. This soon led to a virtual civil war when various regions supported the Carlist cause. Aragón, the Basque region and Navarre were the main centres, but there was support right across Spain. From 1833 to 1840 this rebellion became known as the First Carlist War (more later).

Forward to 9 – Second Republic…  – Back to Return of the Bourbons
Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014