18 June 1815 – What If Part I

To be killed at Waterloo would have been a good death.

NAPOLEON AT ST HELENA

The historian Jac Weller is said to have complained that the Ifs of Waterloo made him wince. I fear we must make him wince again. No doubt these Ifs are countless, but for our purposes here, we will choose five chances which contributed to Napoleon’s defeat and examine the consequences had chance taken another course. First, Napoleon’s chance meeting with Ney as he moved forward on the Charleroi road and his capricious and fatal appointment of Ney as field commander; second, even given this mistake, the interference by Ney in countermanding Napoleon’s order to d’Erlon to join him at Ligny when Ney himself was dithering at Quatre Bras; third, the thunderstorm on the night of 17/18 June which delayed Napoleon’s attack; fourth, the gates of Hougoumont, the closing of which Wellington somewhat arbitrarily claimed was the decisive element of the battle; and fifth, the Emperor’s imprecise orders to Grouchy, together with Grouchy’s own incomprehensible error of judgement, which led to his 33,000 men taking no part in the decisive encounter. We will look at what effect on the battle there might have been if any of these five occurrences had been different. Such speculation will lead us to two further questions: what if Napoleon had won? What if he had been killed?

Napoleon’s choice of subordinate commanders for his last campaign must strike us as capricious, to say the least. Of course, the field was somewhat limited. There were few of the old hands who supported the Emperor on his triumphant return from Elba. Marmont, St-Cyr, Victor and Macdonald stuck to their new Bourbon loyalties. Augereau and Berthier had gone to ground. Soult, on the other hand, despite his former allegiance to Louis XVIII, had rejoined the Emperor. So had Mortier and Suchet. Masséna, perhaps wisely, chose to be unwell. Murat, King of Naples – who would never have allowed the cavalry to be handled as Ney did – impetuous as ever, on hearing of his brother-in-law’s resumption of power, committed the egregious folly of turning on his Austrian friends and attacking them with Neapolitan soldiers, who of course ran away, leaving Murat to fly ignominiously to Toulon. Napoleon had created one more Marshal – Grouchy – who might have turned the scales at Waterloo had he acted as a Marshal of France should. The Emperor had one other worthy supporter, the iron, uncompromising Davout, who accepted the Ministry of War. If instead he had been with Napoleon in the field, either as Chief of Staff or as the Emperor’s immediate lieutenant, what a world of difference he might have made. The Ministry could have been left to Soult, for however devious Talleyrand and Fouché might have been, they would never have risked a coup against Napoleon while he was in command of the army. But all in all it must be conceded that the Emperor would not be fielding the first eleven for the battle to come.

Those who have suggested, as Andrew Roberts in his recent book has reminded us, along with that eminent Napoleonic expert, David Chandler, that Napoleon deliberately appointed a second eleven in order to enjoy the greater share of glory himself after a victorious campaign, are surely wide of the mark. Napoleon’s whole future, and that of France, was at stake. Not to have taken every step to promote success would have contradicted Napoleon’s entire creed. He may have been a gambler, but he was not in the habit of throwing away aces in the middle of a game. This is what makes it all the more extraordinary that he should have chosen Ney to be his field commander before the battle got under way. Ever since the battle of Borodino, when the fiery, red-headed Marshal had launched his tirade against his Commander-in-Chief for not being right up at the front and for refusing to release the Imperial Guard, Ney, despite his heroic rearguard action in the Russian campaign and unfailing courage at Leipzig, had been unbalanced, at times hysterical. Although temporarily in disgrace because of his promise to Louis XVIII to bring the usurper back to Paris in an iron cage, Ney was to be entrusted by Napoleon with absolutely crucial responsibility in the forthcoming battle, a responsibility which Ney was temperamentally and psychologically incapable of fulfilling. Not once, but twice, he made decisions, or was guilty of indecision, which robbed the Emperor of almost certain victory. And then his actual appointment had been such a chance, so thoughtlessly haphazard. On 12 June 1815, when Napoleon set out for the Northern Front, the army consisted of five corps, commanded by d’Erlon, Vandamme, Gérard, Reille and Lobau. The only Marshals with the army were Soult, Chief of Staff, Grouchy, commanding the Reserve Cavalry, and Mortier, who was taken ill and fell out at Beaumont. Ney, dressed in mufti, had accompanied the army, bitter and aggrieved at being left out; he acquired two of Mortier’s horses and hung about near Napoleon’s staff. By chance, while looking at a map outside a tavern by the Sambre, the Emperor happened to glance up, caught sight of Ney, and at once asked him to take command of two army corps and the regiments of cavalry, some 50,000 men in all, together with over seventy guns. ‘It was,’ observed A. G. Macdonnell, ‘a strange and casual appointment.’ Apart from anything else, why did Napoleon not choose to command in person? He had in the past overseen the operations of more than two corps in a series of successful encounters with the Austrians, Russians and Prussians. Had he wished to outshine all those in subordinate positions, what more certain way of doing so? But the whole idea of his not wishing to share the credit for success may be dismissed by remembering his former instant and generous recognition of his corps and divisional commanders. His praise for Augereau at Castiglioni, for Lannes at Arcola, Masséna at Rivoli, when Napoleon greeted him as l’enfant chéri de la victoire, is enough to give the lie to such calumny. When we add the Emperor’s acknowledgement of Davout’s saving the day at Auerstädt, of his creating Macdonald a Marshal on the field of Wagram, of his unstinting commendation of Ney’s rearguard action during the retreat from Moscow – Bravest of the Brave, Prince of the Moscowa – no more evidence is needed. But to have chosen Ney, who was suffering from what we would now call battle fatigue, and whose ability coolly to weigh the tactical odds, however unquestionable his courage, was sadly deficient, constituted the first of a series of blunders that Napoleon would never have made in his heyday.

Given that Ney was appointed, however, we now come face to face with perhaps the biggest If of all, for when Napoleon was engaging the Prussians at Ligny on 16 June, Ney, with a most unfortunate coalition of indecisive manoeuvring and petulant action, was undermining the Emperor’s strategy – with the gravest consequences. Had Ney carried out Napoleon’s orders promptly, that is, to seize Quatre Bras, he would have been in a position to threaten the Prussians’ right flank and so enable Napoleon to finish Blücher’s part in the affair. Because he had been slow and indecisive, Ney received orders from the Emperor to despatch d’Erlon’s Reserve Corps to complete the business at Ligny. Again, had this been done, Blücher’s army would have been so knocked about that it would not have been able to come to the aid of Wellington two days later. As it was, Ney, finding the fight for Quatre Bras becoming ever more severe because his own delay had allowed Wellington to bring up reinforcements, countermanded the Emperor’s order and brought d’Erlon back towards Quatre Bras. In the event, d’Erlon took no part in either battle, so that the great If here is this: had Ney allowed d’Erlon to help finish off the Prussians at Ligny, there would have been no need to detach Grouchy with his 33,000 men, who would then have been available for Napoleon in his confrontation with Wellington at Waterloo. We will look further at Grouchy later on, but there is a further aspect of Quatre Bras to consider first.

An eagle is ascendant in spirit, swift in flight, sudden in decision and ruthless in deed. It was Napoleon’s unique marshalling of these characteristics that made the eagle so aptly his symbol. His whirlwind tactics of rapid marching and vital concentration of force, which he employed in the Italian campaign of 1796/97, were what shook the European armies to their foundations. The astonishing way in which he redeployed the Grande Armée from the coastal areas near Boulogne to surround Mack’s army at Ulm was a classic example of deception and rapid concentration, leading to the triumph of Austerlitz. It was the speed and violence of his pursuit of the Prussian army after Jena and Auerstädt which utterly confounded what was left of Frederick the Great’s legacy. And when the Emperor learned that Sir John Moore was threatening his communications with France by chasing Soult with his English leopards in Old Castile, he at once abandoned his idea of advancing into Portugal and hurled his force of 80,000 men northwards to entrap Moore’s small army. Vitesse was always the watchword. Napoleon himself had once conceded that he might lose ground, but would never lose a minute. This great sense of urgency seems to have deserted him in the Waterloo affair. Not only did he lose countless minutes on 17 June, he threw away the best chance of winning the campaign. For a kind of lethargy seemed to overcome him. In spite of ordering Ney to take Quatre Bras that morning and, when surprised by Ney’s wavering reluctance to act decisively, sending him a second order, couched in uncompromising terms – ‘There is no time to lose. Attack with the greatest impetuosity everything in front of you’ – Napoleon did not ensure that his orders were obeyed. Indeed, as Andrew Roberts has emphasized, if instead of wasting his time waiting for information as to Wellington’s movements and hanging about near Ligny, Napoleon had joined Ney in a joint attack on Wellington, who had only some 50,000 troops at Quatre Bras, he would have won the campaign there and then. ‘This loss of the initiative,’ wrote Roberts,

was disastrous, and still worse was his decision at around 11 a.m. to split his forces by sending Marshal Grouchy off with 33,000 men and no fewer than ninety-six cannon to follow the Prussians in what at least initially turned out to be the wrong direction.

Concentration had been a cardinal principle of Napoleon’s conduct of war, yet here he was breaking his own rules.

Now let us look at another aspect of chance – the intervention of fate and fortune.

‘Can such things be,’ demanded Macbeth, ‘And overcome us like a summer’s cloud, Without our special wonder?’ It was the breaking of a summer’s cloud, we might say, that overcame Napoleon on that night of 17/18 June 1815. Listen to Victor Hugo on the point:

It had rained all night, the ground was saturated, the water had accumulated here and there in the hollows of the plain as if in tubs; at some points the gear of the artillery carriages was buried up to the axles, the circingles of the horses were dripping with liquid mud. If the wheat and rye trampled down by this cohort of transports on the march had not filled in the ruts and strewn a litter beneath the wheels, all movement, particularly in the valleys, in the direction of Papelotte would have been impossible.

The battle began late. Napoleon was in the habit of keeping all his artillery well in hand, like a pistol, aiming it now at one point, now at another, of the battle; and it had been his wish to wait until the horse batteries could move and gallop freely. In order to do that it was necessary that the sun should come out and dry the soil. But the sun did not make its appearance. It was no longer the rendezvous of Austerlitz. When the first cannon was fired, the English general, Colville, looked at his watch, and saw that it was twenty-five minutes to twelve.

Victor Hugo’s conclusion is that if it had not rained in the night of 17/18 June 1815, Europe’s fate would have been different. His reason? The battle of Waterloo could not be started until half past eleven and this gave Blücher time to come up. In support of this view we may note that Napoleon had set up his headquarters at Le Caillou and breakfasted there with his generals at eight o’clock on the morning of 18 June. Had the ground been completely dry, that is had there been no thunderstorm the previous night, his attack could have started at least four hours earlier than it did. We must note too that even when the French artillery did begin its bombardment at half past eleven, the ground was still wet, causing round shot to bury itself rather than ricocheting for many hundreds of yards with deadly effect. Moreover, shells were also robbed of their effectiveness by the sodden ground. But leaving this aside, it was time that would have been the crucial factor.

‘Ask me for anything but time,’ declared Napoleon. Had there been no thunderstorm, some precious hours would have been available to him. It was not until the climax of the battle, the evening of 18 June, that the Prussians intervened. This climax would have been reached well before that. Moreover there are subsidiary Ifs. An earlier start to the battle might have brought Grouchy on the scene; it might have revealed to Napoleon and Ney – and to Jérôme Bonaparte leading the attack on it – that the Château of Hougoumont had either to be taken, or screened and outflanked, if the principal assault on Wellington’s position was to be successfully made.

The role played by Hougoumont will always arouse admiration and invite controversy. Victor Hugo went so far as to say that its conquest was one of Napoleon’s dreams and that, had he seized it, it would have given him the world. Extravagant language, but perhaps not to be rejected out of hand. Hougoumont had two doors to its court, one to the château itself on the southern side, one belonging to the farm on the north. It was this latter door that was smashed open by a huge French officer who, followed by some of his jubilant men, rushed into the courtyard. They were instantly set upon by soldiers of the Coldstream Guards, who then succeeded in closing the doors and barring them with a vast wooden beam. Wellington was later to observe that his success at Waterloo had depended on closing these doors. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that a successful defence of Hougoumont was a crucial part of Wellington’s strategy. It was because he appreciated its significance and had seen the scale of the French attack on it that he reinforced the garrison with four companies of the Coldstream Guards, thereby doubling its complement of Foot Guardsmen. Their remarkable achievement may be judged when we consider that, as Victor Hugo put it, they held out for seven hours against the assaults of vastly superior numbers.

After the initial failure of Napoleon’s brother, Prince Jérôme, to take Hougoumont, neither he nor Napoleon himself took the decision to bypass this stubborn centre of resistance and get on with the main business of attacking Wellington’s main line. Jérôme, in short, allowed what was a diversionary, albeit important, objective to take his eye off the main tactical purpose which was to pierce Wellington’s centre. Instead of getting this principal attack under way, Jérôme poured more and more troops into the desperate struggle for Hougoumont. The divisions of Foy, Guilleminot and Bachelu hurled themselves against it; nearly all Reille’s corps took their turn and failed; Bauduin’s brigade was not strong enough to force Hougoumont from the north, while Soye’s brigade, although making the beginning of a breach in the south, could not exploit it. Jérôme had been making one of the classic errors of war – reinforcing failure – and on such a scale that he was robbing the French army of the strength to sweep Wellington aside before the Prussians came up to support him. Wellington, on the other hand, had reinforced success. Thus the contribution which Hougoumont’s defenders made to victory at Waterloo was incalculable.

What would have happened if the gates had not been closed? For the purposes of speculation, we must assume that the French would have taken Hougoumont, for if, even though the gates were not closed, the British had still defied the French attacks and held on to the château, and if Napoleon had also permitted the same continued attempts to persevere, there would have been no change of circumstance. So we must ask ourselves what Napoleon would have done after capturing Hougoumont, had this happened; and in answering the question let us assume further that this capture was effected early on, in other words before Jérôme had dissipated his main forces against it. Napoleon then has two possible courses of action: to persist in the frontal assault on Wellington’s centre, which in the event is what he did do, or try to outflank the Allied right and so roll up Wellington’s position. This would have been the sure touch of Napoleon at his tactical best, as in former days when he instantly saw that the key to taking Toulon was to capture the Le Caire peninsula and so bring artillery fire to bear direct on the Royal Navy’s ships; or when at Austerlitz he seized the fleeting opportunity to strike at and destroy the Austro-Russian centre, roll up their left wing and finish the thing off. In short, if the chance of closing the Hougoumont gates had not befallen, and the château had fallen early on into French hands, Napoleon’s attack would not have been delayed or impeded. He would have been presented with great freedom of tactical choice, and provided he had taken a proper grip of the battle there and then, he must surely have prevailed. We will see shortly what might have come about had Napoleon defeated Wellington, but for the time being we may concede that the latter’s comment about the closing of Hougoumont’s gates, while an over-simplification as to what brought about success, does at least deserve serious consideration. Yet even given Hougoumont’s retention in British hands, and the fact that Napoleon exerted himself far too late to rescue his army from the tactical blunders made by his subordinates, there was still one more chance, one more If which will always persist in the minds of those who ponder great battles.

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