The Battle of Waterloo was fought two hundred years ago today, on June 18, 1815. It is perhaps the most famous battle in all of history. After one of the most dramatic military and political careers of all time, Napoleon Bonaparte was finally defeated by the allied forces commanded by the Duke of Wellington and General Gehhard von Blucher. Taken into British custody less than a month after the battle, Napoleon spent the few remaining years of his life as a prisoner on the desolate island of St. Helena. The battle itself has become such a part of our collective historical memory that we use the term "Waterloo" as a euphemism for anyone's final downfall.
But could Napoleon have won the Battle of Waterloo?
The so-called "Hundred Days" had begun in February, when Napoleon had escaped the island of Elba, to which he had been exiled following his defeat the previous year in the War of the Sixth Coalition. The Allies had placed the Bourbon King Louis XVIII on the throne of France and had proceeded to convene the Congress of Vienna to sort out the mess Napoleon had made of Europe during his fourteen years in power. Louis XVIII had proven a dismal failure as a ruler, however, and many feared that the rights and privileges won by the French Revolution were threatened by a return to Bourbon absolutism. Consequently, the French people enthusiastically embraced Napoleon when he returned from his exile.
When news had arrived at the Congress of Vienna that Napoleon had successfully seized power in France yet again, the allies had immediately declared that they would not tolerate the return of the Emperor and had ordered their armies to prepare for war. The British dispatched the Duke of Wellington to Belgium, where he had taken command of a combined army of British, German, and Dutch troops. A Prussian army under Blucher was rapidly approaching from the east, while the Austrians and Russians mobilized their immense forces and slowly set them in motion towards France's frontier.
In order to thwart the plans of his enemies, Napoleon characteristically struck first. He reasoned that if he could strike into Belgium before the allies were ready, he might be able to defeat Wellington and Blucher in detail before having to deal with the Austrian and Russian armies. Although heavily outnumbered, Napoleon had beaten long odds before and he was confident that he could do so again.
It was not to be. Although Napoleon defeated Blucher at the Battle of Ligny on June 16, he could not do the same to Wellington two days later at Waterloo. French infantry and cavalry repeatedly hurled themselves upon the allied lines, but the British, Dutch, and German troops stood firm at such legendary places as Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. On several occasions, the allied line was on the brink of collapse, but the French could never quite break through. After several hours of desperate and bloody fighting, the Prussian army finally arrived and shattered Napoleon's right flank, just after a final assault by Napoleon's famous Imperial Guard had failed. When Wellington ordered his men forward, the French army collapsed in a disastrous rout.
It has the air of inevitability about it, like the final act of a Greek tragedy. But nothing in history is inevitable. How might the outcome have been different?
When Napoleon embarked on the campaign in Belgium in 1815, he made some very curious decisions regarding his subordinate commanders. Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout, the most brilliant of Napoleon's generals and a man who had never been defeated in battle, was left behind in Paris as Minister of War and did not actively participate in the campaign. Marshal Nicolas Jean-de-Dieu Soult, another of Napoleon's most effective field commanders, was given the administration position of chief-of-staff during the Waterloo campaign, a role to which his talents were obviously unsuited. As it was, Napoleon's chief field commander at Waterloo was Marshal Michel Ney, a man whose bravery was unquestioned but who tactical abilities were mediocre at best. Had either Davout or Soult been in command of an infantry corps at the Battle of Waterloo, they might have succeeded where Ney failed and torn Wellington's line apart.
There is another tantalizing possibility regarding Napoleon's choice of commanders at Waterloo. His brother-in-law, Marshal Joachim Murat, was one of the great cavalry leaders in military history, who had earned his name on countless battlefields across Europe. A grateful Napoleon had made him King of Naples, but following Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, Murat had betrayed his Emperor and gone over to the enemies of Napoleon in an attempt to save his throne. Realizing that the allies would stab him in the back eventually, he had rallied to Napoleon's side yet again when the Emperor had returned from Elba and had offered him his services as a cavalry commander.
Napoleon had rejected Murat's offer, which is really not that surprising. Murat had proven himself disloyal in the past, so how could Napoleon trust him to remain faithful now? The Emperor blamed his defeat in 1814 as much on traitors within his own ranks as on his Allied enemies, so it was only natural that he focused as much on ensuring faithfulness among his own people as on defeating his enemies on the battlefield. Nevertheless, the thought of Murat leading a charge of heavy cavalry against Wellington's lines at Waterloo is a fascinating one, especially if it is combined with the idea of Davout and Soult being in their proper places as infantry corps commanders.
Although the foot soldiers and cavalry troopers Napoleon led at Waterloo were as good as any he had ever led, the same cannot be said for his generals. If Napoleon had had Davout, Soult, and Murat in their proper places, he might well have achieved a decisive victory over Wellington.
The other tantalizing opportunity for a Napoleonic victory at Waterloo involves the Prussians. Historically, their perfectly timed arrival on the French right flank is what secured the victory for the allies. But what if they had arrived on the battlefield late or had failed to arrive at all?
After being beaten by Napoleon at Ligny on June 16, the most obvious route of retreat for the Prussians was eastwards towards the town of Namur, a direction which would have allowed them to cover their lines of communication and supply. However, they actually fell back to the north towards the town of Wavre, which allowed them to maintain communication with Wellington and prepare to move to his support. Had the Prussians elected to retreat towards Namur, they would have been too far away to participate in the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, which might easily have allowed the French to achieve a victory.
During the Battle of Ligny, Blucher impetuously led a cavalry charge in person and had his horse shot out from under him. The 72-year-old Prussian commander was knocked senseless by the fall and command temporarily passed to August von Gneisenau, the Prussian second-in-command. Gneisenau, unlike Blucher, saw the preservation of the Prussian army as far more important than providing help to the British and was ready to order a retreat east of the Rhine. Blucher, recovering quickly, reasserted control over the Prussian army and ordered it to Wellington's assistance, thereby ensuring the allied victory at Waterloo.
Blucher might easily have been killed when thrown from his horse, in which case Gneisenau would have had permanent command of the Prussian army. This, in turn, could have led to a Prussian retreat eastward, out of the campaign altogether. Again, without the timely arrival of the Prussians, Wellington might well have lost the Battle of Waterloo.
During the battle itself, Marshal Ney made a number of tactical mistakes. Most disastrously, he launched heavy cavalry attacks that lacked infantry support. Because of this, even if the cavalry had pierced the allied line, the French would lack the ability the ability to properly exploit the breach. If Ney had coordinated his attacks in a more professional manner, the allied line might have broken under the strain.
Another factor which played into Wellington's hands at Waterloo was the weather. It had rained heavily during June 17, leaving the ground sodden and waterlogged. Napoleon delayed the attack on the morning of June 18, in order to allow the ground to dry sufficiently for him to properly deploy his artillery. Had it not rained, Napoleon might have attacked much earlier in the day, giving him several more hours to defeat Wellington before the arrival of the Prussians tipped the balance against the French.
Napoleon could have won the Battle of Waterloo if he had had Davout and Murat with him and kept Soult in his proper place as a corps commander. He could have won if a Prussians had retreated eastward rather than northward after the Battle of Ligny or had Blucher been killed during that engagement. And he could have won had Marshal Ney not made such a thorough mess of the battlefield tactics. But what effect might a Napoleonic vicory have had on the course of European history?
Many argue that a Napoleonic victory at Waterloo would not have made much difference. After all, there were enormous Austrian and Russian armies marching towards the French frontier from the east, greatly outnumbering whatever forces Napoleon himself might have been able to assemble. Even as the troops at Waterloo were fighting to the death, the Austrians were crossing the Rhine and the Russians were close behind them. The Austrians were also pushing over the Alps into France from Italy and the Spanish were even planning on invading France from across the Pyrenees. If the Prussians had retreated east after the Battle of Ligny, they would have soon recovered their strength and been ready to fight once again. So even if Napoleon had been successful in smashing Wellington at Waterloo, he might still have been defeated by overwhelming numbers before the end of 1815.
On the other hand, Napoleon had won campaigns against long odds before, so it is not inconceivable that he might have triumphed against even such a strong coalition of enemies as he faced in 1815. Besides, between Napoleon's exile to Elba in 1814 and his return a year later, the Allies had fallen to squabbling among themselves. Great Britain, Austria, and the Bourbon rulers of France had found themselves aligned against Russia and Prussia over the status of Poland and Saxony. If Napoleon had won at Waterloo, perhaps he might have found a way to exploit the emerging differences between the members of the coalition against him. Austria, in particular, might have been willing to deal with Napoleon, as his wife Marie Louise was a member of the Habsburg family and their son, Napoleon II, might have been expected to sit on the imperial throne of France one day.
But in retrospect, it seems extremely unlikely that the coalition against Napoleon would have fallen to fighting amongst themselves. Great Britain had waged war against Napoleon virtually without a break for more than a decade, while Austrians, Prussians, and Russians were burning with a desire for vengeance against Napoleon for what he had done to their countries. Distrustful of one another they might have been, but Napoleon's enemies were almost to set aside their differences in the face of the common enemy.
It therefore seems entirely possible that a French victory at the Battle of Waterloo would not have much changed the course of history. Most likely, Napoleon would have been defeated and overthrown anyway and he certainly would not have been able to resume his efforts to secure French hegemony over Europe. Those days were in the past. It may seem strangely unfair, but sometimes the most dramatic events in history are also the most irrelevant.