From: Carl von Clausewitz and Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. On Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington, and the Campaign of 1815. Ed./trans. Christopher Bassford, Daniel Moran, and Gregory W. Pedlow. Clausewitz.com, 2010. ISBN-10: 1453701508. ISBN-13: 9781453701508. 318pp. List price: $18.00.
STRATEGIC OVERVIEW OF THE CAMPAIGN
by Carl von Clausewitz
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Bonaparte's Plan of Attack
Bonaparte, as he give us to understand, allowed his corps to leave their bivouacs rather late only in order to give the rain-soaked ground some time to dry out a bit. He then lost several hours forming them up in front of Belle Alliance, about 2,500 paces from the English position and parallel to it, in two lines of infantry and a third and fourth of cavalry. It was not until 11 a.m. that all this was accomplished.
There was something strange about this parade formation, the image of which seems to be one of Bonaparte’s most pleasing memories. It was extremely uncharacteristic, and nothing like it happens in any of Bonaparte's other battles. It was also completely unnecessary, for afterwards the corps had to form into columns again in order to attack. Instead of concealing his forces from the enemy as much as possible, as is usually done in order to approach undetected, he had them deploy as broadly and systematically as possible, as if all that was required was a show of force. We can only think of three reasons for this: either he wished to bolster the courage of his own soldiers, or he wanted to awe his opponents, or it was an extravagant piece of folly by a mind that was no longer completely balanced.
Whether Bonaparte was intending to attack all along the line, break through in the center, or push in one of the wings, is something that cannot be clearly discerned, either from the measures that were actually taken or from the direction that the fighting took, and even less from what Bonaparte himself says regarding his plan.
Judging by the distribution of forces and the initial advance, it was purely an attack all along the line; judging by the main efforts made during the course of the action, the intent was to break through the center. But the latter seems to have been inspired more by the needs of the moment than by a clear plan, so as far as the preparations for the attack go we have only the following atypical aspects to offer:
The 2nd Corps (Reille), supported by Kellerman's cavalry corps and Guyot's Guard cavalry division—in all, three infantry divisions and four of cavalry—attacked the enemy's right wing. Two divisions of the 1st Corps (d’Erlon), supported by the 6th (Lobau), which had only two divisions present, plus two divisions of cavalry, Milhaud's cavalry corps, and a division of the Guard cavalry—in all, four divisions of infantry and five divisions of cavalry—were directed against the center. Two infantry divisions of the 1st Corps and a cavalry division were intended for the attack on the enemy's left wing. The infantry of the Guard remained in reserve in the rear of the center.
No other systematic concept for this attack can be found, at least none that makes any sense, for what Bonaparte says himself about his intention to attack Wellington's left wing is self-contradictory, and does not correspond to the actual course of events in the battle, as we shall see later.
The dispositions that Bonaparte made demonstrate that the thought that Blücher would arrive and participate in the battle had never crossed his mind. Instead, as at Ligny, he was counting to some degree on assistance from his own detached wing. He had given Grouchy orders along those lines, as he had done with Ney, but in both cases the orders were too imprecise, too late, and too little in accord with the actual space, time, and circumstances. We will discuss this later, and note it here only because it is somewhat related to the battle plan. But truly only somewhat, because Bonaparte does not appear to have counted very much on such assistance.
Key Events of the Battle: Wellington's Defense
The battle appears to have been divided into two separate acts: Wellington's resistance and the attack of the Prussians on the French right flank. The battle—that is to say Wellington's resistance—began at noon; the participation of the Prussians began at half past four; and the battle ended with nightfall, thus between 8 and 9 p.m.
It seems to us that the French attack on Wellington's position can only be presented in the following manner.
1. At noon, Reille's corps attacks the farm of Hougoumont with its left flank division (Jerome's), while the other two remain in reserve. The French gain control of the small woods but not the buildings. This strong point is supported by the English guards from Cook's division of Wellington's right wing. Foy's division (the center one of the French 2nd Corps), is employed in supporting the attack, but the French never gain control of this place, and a steady firefight continues throughout the day. It almost seems as if this was only supposed to be a feint, as if Reille was conserving his forces. At any rate, the corps’ right wing division remained in reserve and was later utilized in the center.
This attack accomplished nothing except to absorb the right wing of both lines of the English army, as well as the Brunswickers, who were brought up in support.
2. It was not until two hours later, after Bonaparte had already become aware of Bülow's approach and had sent the 6th Corps and the two cavalry divisions of Subervie and Domon to advance against the Prussians, that d’Erlon's corps began its attack at around 2 p.m. The main thrust was made by three divisions against La-Haye-Sainte and that part of the Allied center that was to the right of the main road (from the French perspective) and had the sunken road in front of it. The 4th Division advanced to attack La-Haye, Papelotte, and Smohain. This last attack was of quite a different nature from that on the center; we will therefore separate it from the other and consider it first.
The villages [just mentioned] were occupied only by light infantry from Perponcher's 2nd [Netherlands] Brigade, which formed the extreme left wing of Wellington’s army. They lost this position at some point during the battle—there is no agreement precisely when—but it is certain that the French never advanced from there against the main Allied line and were content with a continuous firefight. They retained possession of these villages (which, however, they appear to have occupied only lightly) until Bülow advanced past Frischermont, detached troops from his right wing against them, and drove them out. However, since d’Erlon's right-wing division still had most of its strength intact, it regained possession of this point and held it for a couple of hours, that is, until between 6 and 7 p.m., when General Ziethen arrived at the left wing of the English army and advanced against that area.
Thus more or less the same situation occurred at this advanced post on the English left wing as on the right. What happened was more like a demonstration, or at most a supporting attack to cover the center's flank, rather than a serious attack.
3. As we have already said, in the center the attack was made by d’Erlon's three remaining divisions. Because the 6th Corps and Subervie's and Domon's cavalry divisions had already been deployed against Bülow, the infantry in the French center consisted solely of those three divisions, and there was nothing left in reserve but the cavalry corps and the Guard.
By all accounts, d’Erlon's first attack was very violent and precipitous. Thus the second column, which fell upon the 1st Brigade of Perponcher's division, actually penetrated it but naturally had to fall back when confronted by the fire of the reserves and the charges of the English cavalry. Pursued by two English cavalry brigades under Lord Ponsonby and Vandeleur, this column suffered a rather severe defeat, which also extended to the third column. The French cavalry under Milhaut then forced the English cavalry back in turn and with some loss, as one may well imagine.
This first attack thus appears to have been almost a kind of skirmish, which on the whole degraded the French situation more than it advanced it. As the stage had not been set for this action, that is to say the forces opposed to each other were not yet exhausted, any success could not be decisive. D’Erlon's left-wing column, which advanced against La-Haye-Sainte, appears to have been fought to a standstill. This advanced post was reinforced by the English army and the action continued, with both the fortunes of war and possession of the post itself going back and forth.
D’Erlon assembled his forces again, and the engagement continued until between 5 and 6 p.m. without any overall success and without any noteworthy events. One must imagine it as a violent struggle of artillery and skirmishers, interspersed with individual attacks of battalion columns or battalions in line. From time to time the cavalry stepped in, cutting down individual battalions that sought to regain possession of La-Haye-Sainte. In this manner three Allied battalions were lost, and the French cavalry advanced up to the English positions but was always obliged to retire again with losses.
After the forces had worn each other down in this manner, during a struggle lasting three or four hours, the Prussians appeared on the field of battle and deployed out of the Paris woods. Ney now sought to gain victory against Wellington through the use of cavalry. Since a sunken way to the right of the Namur road prevented the employment of cavalry there, he tried to force his way through on the left of the road using Milhaud's cuirassiers and the Guard cavalry division commanded by Lefebvre-Desnouettes. More than once they reached the ridge that formed the position of the first English line but were obliged each time to retire to regroup in the valley. As these forces had not achieved their objectives, the cuirassier corps of Kellerman and the other cavalry division of the Guard, commanded by Guyot, were employed in the same way, that is, to support the others. Around this time Bachelu's division from the 2nd Corps must have also been drawn into the engagement. The more the action expanded into the French rear through Bülow's advance, the more Ney threw in everything he had in a last-ditch effort to break through the front. Now the whole mass of the French army was involved in the battle, except for the Guard infantry, and fighting continued another two hours without any real result, until around 7 p.m. In this action the opposing forces grew increasingly exhausted, and the consensus seems to be that Wellington could hardly have defended himself from further French efforts, and that he was about to lose control of the battlefield.
This opinion requires closer analysis, however. Around 5 or 6 p.m. Wellington probably felt so weakened that, when he thought of the Guard standing in reserve and making a decisive thrust against him, without being turned away by the Prussians, he may have considered himself too weak, and the whole situation in danger. But if you set aside the Guard and consider only the troops engaged with each other at six p.m., it would appear that the scales of victory were tipping more toward Lord Wellington than toward the French. Even if we concede that the Allied army was noticeably more weakened because it was not composed of such good troops as the French, we still must not forget that Wellington had 68,000 men, while the portion of the French army which was engaged with him numbered only about 45,000. Furthermore, it seems that the French had already employed all of their cavalry and that their infantry reserves were completely exhausted. If we recall the boundless confusion into which they [would all be] thrown a few hours later, there can be no doubt of this. On the other hand, Lord Wellington still appears to have had many troops that had either not been engaged at all, or only slightly, as for example Chassée's division, the 10th British Brigade (marked M on Map 2, below), Collaert's cavalry division, etc.
MAP 2. Detail from August Wagner's map of the Battle of Belle Alliance (i.e., Waterloo).
NOTE: In the web version of this book, see a full—and much larger—version of Wagner's map.)
We may therefore consider this violent struggle in the center to be a final, weary grappling of combatants who had been driven to such a state of exhaustion that a decisive blow would be all the more decisive, such that the defeated side would not be able to rally again. This decisive blow resulted from the attack of the Prussians.
But before we proceed to this subject, one last act of desperation in the center must be mentioned. Bülow was victorious, Plancenoit was lost, and the mass of Prussian troops on that side was constantly growing. Half of the Guard had already been employed against them and still there was no prospect of defeating them. At that moment, Bonaparte in desperation decided to play his last card in order to break through Wellington's center. He led the remainder of the Guard forward onto the main road towards La-Haye-Sainte and the enemy's position. Four battalions of the Guard made a bloody assault, but all in vain. Ziethen's advance had completely driven in the French right wing, the four Guard battalions were forced to retreat, and the other eight could not stem the tide of flight and confusion. Thus it happened that the whole army disintegrated to its very core, that it was destroyed as a fighting force, and that Bonaparte left the battlefield more or less alone.
The Attack of the Prussians
When Blücher saw that his corps were in no way being harassed or pursued during their retreat on the night of the 16th and on the 17th, he naturally assumed that Bonaparte had turned his whole force against Wellington. Blücher therefore decided to leave only a few battalions behind in Wavre and to hasten to help Wellington, who wanted to fight a battle [south] of the Soignies Forest. These arrangements between the two commanders were made on the 17th, and on the morning of the 18th Blücher was able to put his force in motion. The 4th Corps was to begin the march. It left its bivouac at seven o'clock in the morning, went through Wavre to Saint Lambert, which it reached at noon, and concentrated there. Apparently it was already noticed in this position by the French.
The 2nd Corps was to follow the 4th Corps, and both were ordered to advance against the French right flank, that is towards Plancenoit, which would greatly endanger the French line of retreat. The 1st Corps was to march via Ohain towards the Duke of Wellington's left wing, because the duke was concerned that this flank could be turned and had expressly requested this.
The 3rd Corps was to form the rear guard, occupy Wavre with several battalions and, if no substantial enemy force appeared, make its way towards Couture, thus also towards Plancenoit. Should the enemy appear in strength at Wavre, however, the 3rd Corps was to take up a position there to stop him.
In this manner about 20,000 men provided direct support to the English left wing and 70,000 appeared on the enemy’s right flank and rear. The whole affair could not have been arranged more simply, naturally, and practically. The only possible criticism is that the 1st Corps, which had bivouacked near Bierge, was sent towards Saint-Lambert, while on the other hand the 2nd Corps, which first had to cross the Dyle, was sent to Ohain. This caused the columns to cross and led to delay.
Various unforeseen circumstances meant that the overall march was so slow that the 4th Corps arrived at Frischermont only at 3 p.m., even though it had to go only about 9 miles. Several defiles, a fire at Wavre, repeated concentrations, and very poor roads fully explain this loss of time.
Because it followed the 4th Corps, the 2nd Corps naturally arrived on the field of battle several hours later. Due to other unforeseen circumstances, however, the 1st Corps arrived on the duke's left wing later still, in fact only around 6 p.m.
One could say that Blücher arrived too late, not because of the way things actually turned out, but rather in view of the mission. If Bonaparte had attacked in the morning, the battle would probably have been decided by the time the Prussians arrived. In that case an attack by Blücher—while not impossible or useless—would certainly have been much less certain of success. But we must not forget that if Bonaparte had attacked earlier, everything on Blücher’s side would have been speeded up. Most of the missed opportunities that may have occurred took place before noon, before a single cannon shot had been fired at Wellington. If Wellington had already been under heavy fire at 8 or 9 a.m., Blücher's first troops would possibly have reached the field by noon or 1 p.m.
The 3rd Corps was likewise in the process of starting its march when its rear guard, which was still on the other side of the Dyle, came under pressure from a formidable enemy force, and considerable masses of cavalry showed themselves. For the time being, therefore, this corps occupied a position behind the Dyle to await further events.
The French claim that they had already observed Bülow's approach and his first position around Saint-Lambert at midday. At this time—which was before d’Erlon's attack—Bonaparte ordered the 6th Corps and Subervie's and Domon's cavalry divisions, which had stood in reserve behind the center, to march in the direction of Saint-Lambert and take up a hook-shaped position approximately in line with his right wing. There is no explanation of whether or not this position had any tactical advantages, and map study alone cannot be conclusive. But if we do rely on this, then it would have been more advantageous if these troops had been placed farther forward, between Frischermont and Pajeau, anchoring their flanks in these villages.
Bülow had reached the woods of Frischermont with his first two brigades, the 15th and 16th, around 3 p.m. and had taken up a covered position which, however, could not and in fact did not conceal his presence from the French. He waited there for the arrival of his remaining brigades. But when Field Marshal Blücher saw that the French were pressing very strongly against the English center, and feared that they might penetrate it, he ordered General Bülow to attack the enemy’s 6th Corps with his two brigades and the reserve cavalry. This happened at half past four; the two other brigades followed soon after as reserves for the 15th and 16th. The enemy's initial resistance was not great, on account of Bülow's numerical superiority and the minimal advantages offered by the terrain, and the 12,000 men under Lobau were obliged to make a fighting withdrawal in the direction of Belle Alliance. General Bülow then received the order to incline his attack further to the left, in order to reach the village of Plancenoit and make it the objective of his attack. But Bülow's right wing had already become engaged with the enemy near the village of Smohain, so the 4th Corps' position became rather overextended, robbing the attack on Plancenoit of the strength which it otherwise could have had.
For his part, Bonaparte sent the division of the Young Guard to reinforce General Lobau as soon as he saw that Lobau was being forced to retreat towards the main road. The action now became a standoff because General Bülow could not advance further until he gained possession of Plancenoit. A long contest for the possession of this village ensued, with success going back and forth. Since the other two divisions of the French Guard stood close behind the village and gradually supported it with four battalions, it is easy to understand the protracted uncertainty about the results at this place, with the tide not turning in our favor until the 2nd Corps moved up and directed part of its strength against the village, whereby it fell into our hands for good. This must have been between 7 and 8 p.m.
During this struggle for Plancenoit, the French cavalry masses made their efforts against the English center, and from the other side General Ziethen arrived and advanced against the French right wing. Finally, towards 8 p.m. came the desperate gamble by the last twelve battalions of the Guard, attempting to decide the battle against Wellington. It would be very interesting to know if the Prussians were already firmly in possession of Plancenoit when Bonaparte marched off with these last reserves, throwing them into the very jaws of destruction. If that was the case, his conduct would appear even more to be that of a desperate gambler indifferent to all rational calculation.
Combat at Wavre on the 18th and 19th: Grouchy's March
We have already seen that Grouchy did not arrive in Gembloux with his two corps until late in the evening, and Pajol's cavalry corps and Teste's division even spent the night at Mazy. A heavy rainstorm had soaked the roads traversing the rich farm land and thus greatly impeded the march. It also hindered an early start. Although Marshal Grouchy says in his defense that he started the march at sunrise, Maréchal de Camp Berton, who was with the corps, states quite definitely that Exelmans' [cavalry] corps did not set off before 8 a.m. and the infantry corps began to march only between 9 and 10 a.m. The truth must lie somewhere in between. The 3rd Corps, which led the way, arrived in front of the Prussian rear guard at Wavre around 2 p.m.; since it had marched fourteen miles from Gembloux to Wavre, it must have left around 6 or 7 a.m. The 4th Corps' [13th] division, under Vichery, arrived a few hours later, but the remaining two did not arrive until close to evening. All used a single road, which easily explains the late arrival, especially if one recalls all that these two corps had done during the past four days.
General Pajol was sent with his column from Mazy to Saint-Denis, Grand-Leez, and then Tourinnes, thus to the right of the main column, where he was to await further orders. From there he had to be pulled back to Wavre and did not arrive at Limale until 8 p.m., having been ordered there by Grouchy after he saw that he would not be able to break through at Wavre.
There can be no doubt that in the morning Grouchy had no clear idea of the direction that Blücher had taken with his army. Grouchy himself says this, and when he departed Gembloux, his march was directed only toward Sart-les-Walhain, not yet toward Wavre. This explains the sideward move of Pajol and the way the French were tapping blindly around, which slowed the march. It was only the encounter with the rear guard of the Prussian 2nd and 3rd Corps in front of Wavre that drew Grouchy toward that place.
This failure to recognize the true line of retreat of the Prussian army borders on the incomprehensible, because it requires an assumption of the highest degree of clumsiness and negligence on the part of the French generals, which is not at all easy to make.
On the other hand, we do not find the slowness of Grouchy's movement toward Wavre as astonishing as most others do. In recent wars we have become accustomed to rapid movements and marches of 20, 25, or 30 miles in a single day and therefore feel justified in demanding them, since great speed may be very valuable. But such speed results more from favorable march conditions than from the urgency of the requirement. This is all too clear to anyone who has had to deal with such matters and has had to struggle with all of the difficulties that can arise. Weather and the state of the roads, lack of rations and quarters, fatigue of the troops, lack of information, and so forth, may—despite the best intentions—reduce a march to one-half or even one-third of what was thought possible on paper. Let us take the example of the French after the battles of Jena and Auerstädt, when they were completely victorious and had the greatest reason to hasten their movements. Although they were at that time at the peak of their military efficiency, they did not exceed an average of 10 miles per day during their pursuit.
If we assume that Grouchy's corps did not leave the field of battle at Ligny before 2 or 3 p.m. [on 17 June], then it is not surprising that these corps did not reach the neighborhood of Wavre before 2 or 3 p.m. [on 18 June], that is to say, 24 hours later, since Wavre is 25 miles from the Ligny battlefield on the road that Grouchy took, [which passed] through a range of hills; plus the conditions were very unfavorable, as we have already seen. The cavalry might certainly have begun the pursuit much sooner, but while this would not have been completely useless, it still would not have achieved the results that some commentators argue could have achieved by Grouchy with respect to the battle of Belle Alliance. The only reproach that can clearly be made against General Grouchy is that he sent his whole force down a single road, which naturally resulted in the last divisions of the 4th Corps arriving only around evening.
General Thielmann's Dispositions
The Prussian 3rd Corps arrived at Wavre on the evening of the 17th, where it was rejoined by the previously detached 1st Brigade of the Reserve Cavalry. Three brigades, the 10th, 11th, and 12th, as well as the Reserve Cavalry, went through Wavre and then encamped at La Bavette. The 9th Brigade remained on the far side of the river because it had arrived too late. Together with the 8th Brigade of the 2nd Corps it now formed the advanced guard against Grouchy. On the morning of the 18th, as the 4th Corps marched towards Saint-Lambert, General Thielmann received orders to form the rear guard for the other three corps. If no significant enemy force showed itself, he was to follow the others by taking the road via Couture, while leaving several battalions behind in Wavre to prevent any French patrols from causing problems on the road to Brussels while the armies fought at Waterloo. But if a considerable enemy force showed up in front of Wavre, General Thielmann was to occupy the strong position on the Dyle there and cover the rear of the army.
The departure of the 2nd and 1st Corps from the position at Wavre took until around 2 p.m. Since nothing at all had been seen of the enemy up to that time, the Prussians were even more convinced that Bonaparte had turned his whole force against Wellington. General Thielmann therefore formed his corps into columns and was about to lead it down the Brussels road when a lively engagement began against the 9th and 8th Brigades, which were still on the left bank of the Dyle. General Thielmann therefore halted his troops until the situation became clearer. In the meantime, the 8th Brigade of the 2nd Corps left altogether. The 1st [Corps], which had stopped for a while, recommenced its march but left behind a detachment of three battalions and three squadrons under the command of Major Stengel at the village of Limale.
General Thielmann now occupied the Wavre position as follows: the 12th Brigade was placed behind the crossing at Bierge, the 10th to the right behind Wavre, the 11th to the left behind Wavre on the main road. Wavre itself was occupied by three battalions of the 9th Brigade, and the remainder of this brigade as well as the Reserve Cavalry were designated as the reserve and placed in the vicinity of Bavette.
The three forward brigades kept as well concealed as possible in brigade assembly areas, with the greater proportion of their force in columns, and employed only individual battalions or half companies of skirmishers for the defense of the bridges and the river itself. Meanwhile, all of the artillery—with the exception of one battery (totaling 27 guns) kept in reserve—was spread along one side of the valley and immediately went into action against the enemy coming down the other side.
The position of the 3rd Corps extended 2,000 paces from Bierge to Lower Wavre, so it was not too extensive for a corps of 20,000 men. There were four bridges across the river—one near Lower Wavre, two at Wavre, and one at the mill of Bièrge. The Dyle itself was fordable if necessary. On the other hand, the left bank of the river valley was rather high, perhaps 50 to 60 feet, and so steep that it could be considered a significant obstacle to any approach, while still offering full fields of fire. Since the countryside in the vicinity of the right and left wings was open, and some strong points presented themselves farther to the rear, the position could certainly be considered among the strongest that could be occupied immediately without much preparation.
General Thielmann's directions were designed to expose as few troops as possible, to maintain the firefight with the smallest possible numbers of infantry, and to rely mainly on artillery, so that if the enemy troops attempted to break out of the valley by storm, he would be able to send a mass of fresh men against them. The actual reserve was to be used to attack the flank of any enemy that attempted to envelope one of our flanks.
Misfortune caused one of these arrangements to fail.
The 9th Brigade, which had withdrawn via Lower Wavre after the enemy had deployed in strength, had occupied Wavre with two battalions and placed a third behind it. Owing to some unexplainable misunderstanding, the brigade then failed to keep its remaining six battalions, two cavalry squadrons, and eight guns in reserve near La Bavette, and instead followed the other corps going via Neuf Cabaret to Couture, which had been the original destination for the whole corps. No one noticed this mistake because at the moment when General Borcke withdrew through the lines at Lower Wavre, everyone's attention was focused on the deployment of the enemy's force in front of the lines. It was not until about 7 p.m., when it was realized that the reserve might be needed, and a preparatory order was sent, that it was discovered that General Borcke had marched away instead of remaining with the Reserve Cavalry. Officers were sent out to see whether he had taken up some other position in the area, but when they returned without having found out anything, General Thielmann let the matter rest, because, as he said, the place where the heavy cannonade of a great battle could be heard was the place where the whole affair would be decided, and whatever might happen at Wavre would have no effect on that; so perhaps it was even better that another [brigade] would be there.
Thus it was that on June 18th and 19th General Thielmann had only 24 battalions of infantry, 21 squadrons of cavalry, and 35 guns, for a total of about 15,000 men, to oppose Marshal Grouchy, whose total strength could not be seen because of the woods, although about 10-12,000 men were visible by around 3 p.m.
Grouchy's Attack on 18 and 19 June
The Battle of Wavre can be divided quite naturally into two different acts, namely the engagement along the Dyle from 3 p.m. until nightfall on the 18th, and then the engagement on the left bank of the Dyle, between that river and the Rixansart Woods, from daybreak until about 9 a.m. on the 19th.
On the 18th Grouchy had wanted to take Wavre with the 3rd Corps and force a passage over the Dyle there. The 3rd Corps, which was leading the way, attacked Wavre with most of its forces between 2 and 3 p.m., while somewhat later a detachment attacked the mill of Bierge. But two Prussian battalions commanded by Colonel Zepelin, which were subsequently supported by two more, maintained possession of the town and both bridges. Equally unsuccessful was the attack on the bridge at the mill of Bierge, where the 12th Brigade was defending the river crossing with only light infantry and artillery posted on the left bank. When the French 4th Corps (Gérard) arrived, a part of the [14th] Division (Hulot) was also sent to Bierge. After having been repulsed at Wavre, the French generals placed great hopes on the attack at the Bierge mill and were therefore present in person, but they were not able to gain control of this crossing. Hulot’s division later—that is to say between 8 and 9 p.m.—moved to Limale, where it was joined by the other two divisions, which arrived considerably later after having been directed there from La Baraque. Pajol also proceeded in that direction with his cavalry corps and Teste's division of the 6th Corps.
All these troops reached Limale just as darkness fell. They found the town and the river crossing undefended, probably because Colonel Stengel was already withdrawing to follow the 1st Corps. The French therefore crossed over the Dyle in the dark and pushed forward in thick masses up to Delburg on the rim of the Dyle valley, facing the right flank of General Thielmann.
It was not until around 10 p.m. that the 12th Brigade reported that the enemy had crossed the river at Limale. General Thielmann thought that it was a detached column, consisting perhaps of just one division, and ordered Colonel Stülpnagel to go there with all the forces he could collect and drive the enemy back over the river. A brigade of the Reserve Cavalry was sent at the same time. General Thielmann hurried over to the threatened point himself. The attack took place in the dark, but it was not successful, in part because the attacking battalions were thrown into disorder by a sunken road, and in part because the enemy was already too strong.
Colonel Stülpnagel was therefore forced to take up a position very close to the enemy in order to tie them down and prevent them from spreading out. The first cannon shots began at dawn, at a distance of 500 paces. A violent struggle now commenced, during which the French methodically pushed their four divisions forward under the protection of a large line of skirmishers. The 3rd Corps resisted in three different positions. The first was in the low ground near the small wood, with the 12th Brigade and Colonel Stengel, who was still nearby. The next position was between Bierge and the Rixansart Woods, with fourteen battalions of the 12th, 10th, and 11th Brigades and the Reserve Cavalry, while six battalions remained behind Bierge and Wavre, and four remained in Wavre.
The resistance in this second position lasted the longest, and it was here that General Thielmann learned that the battle [Waterloo] had been won and that the Prussian 2nd Corps had been ordered to take his opponent in the rear by advancing via Glabaix and La Hutte.
These places were so far from the field of battle that General Thielmann could expect no assistance, so he could only hope that his opponent had also heard of the outcome of the great battle and would quickly begin to retreat out of fear of being cut off. General Thielmann therefore had his troops shout loud hurrahs and show signs of rejoicing. But this hope was in vain. The enemy continued to press forward, and General Thielmann was forced to retire further, and finally to begin a general retreat in which he also ordered Colonel Zepelin to withdraw from Wavre.
General Thielmann withdrew in the direction of Louvain as far as Saint-Achtenrode, three hours’ march from the battlefield, and lost only a few thousand killed and wounded. The 3rd Corps’ 9th Brigade had continued its march towards Saint-Lambert, spent the night of the 18th in the woods there, marched back towards the cannon fire of Wavre early on the 19th, and finally reunited with the rest of the 3rd Corps at Gembloux on the 20th after passing through Limale.
Combat at Namur
Grouchy actually seems to have received the news of the loss of the Battle of Belle Alliance on the morning of the 19th, just about the time that Thielmann began his retreat. This made his opponent's withdrawal easier, since Grouchy lost any desire to continue seeking small advantages at a time when he had to be greatly concerned about his own retreat. He realized that he could no longer head for Charleroi and thus resolved to go to Namur. At midday he sent Exelmans' cavalry corps ahead, which is supposed to have arrived at 4 p.m., though this seems doubtful since the battlefield of Wavre is almost thirty miles from Namur. The infantry followed at nightfall in two columns, one via Gembloux, the other by the most direct route. The cavalry divisions of Maurin and Soult formed the rear guard.
The French infantry reached Namur between 8 and 9 a.m. [on the 20th].
General Thielmann reached the area of Achtenrode around noon [on the 19th]. He had decided that under no circumstances would he send his utterly exhausted troops to pursue the enemy that day, as they were greatly in need of rest and it could be foreseen that the enemy's rear guard would not withdraw before nightfall, making it impossible for an advance to be decisive. He therefore preferred to have his troops rendezvous at daybreak near Ottenbourg, where his advance guard was placed, in order to advance in good time in pursuit of the enemy. Assembling the force was delayed for about an hour, and at around 5 a.m. the cavalry set forth via Gembloux on the road to Namur, with the infantry following.
The cavalry first encountered enemy cavalry at Gembloux, but these immediately withdrew. The pursuit proceeded as quickly as possible on the most direct route to Namur, but the Prussians did not find the enemy again until they were about 45 minutes from town.
General Thielmann's cavalry thus covered the distance to Namur in five or six hours, while the infantry remained at Gembloux.
Several enemy battalions along with some cavalry and artillery were encountered in front of Namur. They were attacked, lost three guns, and withdrew closer to the town.
Some masses of enemy troops stood on the Brussels-Namur highway, apparently to cover a retreat. While they were being observed, an enemy division, marching in column, was discovered on the road itself. As soon as they spotted General Thielmann's cavalry, they formed squares, placed artillery and skirmishers out on the left, and under this cover continued their march into the city. It was the last division of the 4th Corps, which arrived at Namur a little later than the 3rd. Almost immediately afterward came General Pirch with the Prussian 2nd Corps.
After the battle [of Waterloo] this general had received orders to proceed toward Gembloux and fall on Grouchy’s rear. He had marched all night, passing through Maransart and Bousval, and reached Mellery on the morning of the 19th. Here he bivouacked and sent out patrols. However, as these brought no news of either General Thielmann or the enemy, he remained there through the night and set out for Gembloux only after receiving a report, at five in the morning on the 20th, that the enemy was retreating through that place. Thus it was that he ended up hanging on to the tail of the column of the French left wing. When this column withdrew into the town, General Pirch tried to gain possession of the Brussels gate. But because the gate and the remaining pieces of the ramparts connected to it were strongly held by enemy infantry, a very sharp infantry action took place, which lasted several hours and is supposed to have cost the 2nd Corps 1100 men killed and wounded, without achieving anything. The effort had to be abandoned, and the enemy did not leave the town until 6 p.m., heading towards Dinant, where it was followed, on Blücher’s orders, only by Colonel Sohr's brigade of cavalry.
If General Pirch had continued his march toward Namur and gotten there before Grouchy's infantry, as he well might have, Grouchy would have had no way to cross the Meuse, and would have had to turn towards Charleroi. This would have happened on the 20th. On that day the Prussian 1st Corps, having followed the defeated main French army through Charleroi, had already passed through there and was near Beaumont. On hearing the news of Grouchy's move, it would probably have given up its advance towards Avesnes and turned towards Philippeville. But it is very unlikely that it could have cut off the retreat of Grouchy's corps, since Grouchy would have reached Philippeville first, and in the worst case could have gone to Givet. Nevertheless, Grouchy might have suffered greater losses, as individual units would have been cut off, etc. Things would have turned out quite differently if the Prussian 1st Corps had been ordered to remain on the Sambre on the 19th and 20th in order to block Grouchy. In that case 50,000 men would have been united against this marshal on the morning of the 21st, and it is hard to believe that he could have avoided capitulating, penned in as he would have been by this superior force and two rivers. Bonaparte himself said in a letter written at Philippeville to his brother Joseph, "I have heard nothing from Grouchy at all. If he has not been taken, as I fear, I can have 50,000 men in three days." But of course early on the 19th—when these dispositions would have had to have been made—Blücher's headquarters knew far too little about Grouchy's situation to make cutting him off a major objective of immediate operations.
In any case the attack on Namur is hard to justify, since little would have been gained by forcing a way into the town and just beyond the town was the bridge over the Sambre, [whose destruction by the French] could have put an end to all further pursuit. On the other hand, another passage over the Sambre could probably have been found; and because the Namur-Dinant road runs on the left bank of the Meuse, that is to say in a deep and steep valley between the two rivers (in effect a continuous defile), then if the Prussians had gained control of the heights they could have greatly impeded the French retreat, inflicting heavy losses upon Marshal Grouchy, and above all delaying his retreat, thus preventing him from reaching Laon before the Allies. But in war it is seldom the case that everything is done that can be done. The mission that was here assigned to General Pirch was in no sense routine; rather it required an exceptional degree of energy.
Reflections on the Battle: Bonaparte
If we take a probing look at the outcome of the great drama which took place on the 17th and 18th of June, we must focus our attention on the following subjects:
1. First we must ask: Could and should Bonaparte have attacked in the morning instead of at midday on the 18th? His entire offensive against the Allied field armies had to be conducted with the greatest speed if it was to succeed, since he wanted to defeat them one at a time, if possible even before they had completely assembled. We might even criticize him for having already lost a few too many hours on the 16th. However, his troops' need for rest, coupled with various measures and preparations required for strategic and practical reasons, are sufficient to explain why the attack on the 16th did not take place earlier, and on the whole critics far away in place and time are rarely in a position to argue over a couple of hours. But on the 18th there really does not seem to be sufficient justification for delaying half a day. Bonaparte arrived in front of Wellington's position on the evening of the 17th and even regrets in his memoirs that he did not have a few more hours of daylight so that he could have started the battle on the 17th. There was thus no reason why he could not have set his columns in motion at daybreak on the 18th, which would have allowed the battle to start at around 6 or 7 a.m. Under such pressing circumstances, 4 or 5 hours of rest would have to suffice for the troops. Bonaparte had two things to fear: first, the complete concentration of Wellington’s army, and second, Blücher's participation in the battle. A rapid attack was the only means of dealing with either. But Bonaparte did not believe
1. that Wellington would accept battle if he was waiting for more troops to arrive, or, which he thought even less likely,
2. that Blücher would be able to come quickly to Wellington's aid.
Bonaparte therefore thought that a few hours more or less were not significant. We personally do not believe that an attack early that morning would have guaranteed victory, because we know that Wellington did not receive any more reinforcements in the course of the day. Furthermore, if the battle had begun at 6 or 7 a.m., Blücher would probably have arrived 3 to 4 hours earlier, thus still in good time. But what we know now was hidden from the French commander at that time, and neither of his assumptions concerning Wellington and Blücher proved to be well founded.
In looking at the unnecessary assembling and parading of his army, through which Bonaparte lost several hours of time, one might almost suspect that his aim was not a battle but an English retreat, which he hoped to achieve with this bombastic display. But such a wish would have been so contrary to his interests under the circumstances, and also so far removed from his previous methods, that it could only be seen as the result of an inner crippling and dimming of his spark of genius. All of this would only be a fleeting thought, an unproved suspicion, a mere premonition of the truth, and it would scarcely be permissible to include it in the list of observations were it not for the fact that another consideration, of which we shall speak in a moment, also leads to the same conclusion.
2. The second issue to consider is the role that Bonaparte wanted his right wing to play in the battle. We regard his entire account of this as completely dishonest, a scheme conceived only after the fact. Grouchy's situation—and the way Bonaparte uses it in self-justification—is very similar to Ney’s situation on the 16th. On that occasion the left wing originally was only supposed to stop the British, or perhaps force their leading divisions to move back somewhat. Only later, when it was obviously too late, did it receive the completely unrealistic order to take part in the main battle itself. Similarly, on the 17th the right wing under Grouchy was supposed only to pursue the defeated Blücher, to prevent his forces from assembling, recovering, or even turning back. It was only later—and once again too late and contrary to the true nature of the situation—that Grouchy received the order to participate in the main battle. According to Grouchy's account in his own defense, there is no order listed in the order book of the chief of staff, Marshal Soult, as having been sent to Grouchy on the 17th. The instructions that he received concerning the pursuit of the Prussians consisted solely of those given to him verbally by Bonaparte on the battlefield of Ligny, in the presence of General Girard.
On the other hand, we find two letters from Marshal Soult to Grouchy on the 18th, which read as follows:
To Marshal Grouchy
(carried by the aide, Major Lenovich)
In front of the farm of Caillou,
18 June, 10 a.m.
Marshal, the Emperor has received your last report dated from Gembloux. You speak to his Majesty of only two Prussian columns that have passed at Sauvenières and Sart à Walhain. However, other reports say that a third column has passed at Gery and Gentinnes, heading toward Wavre.
The Emperor directs me to tell you that at this moment his Majesty is going to attack the English army, which has taken position at Waterloo near the Soignies Forest. Thus his Majesty desires that you direct your movements on Wavre in order to draw near to us, place yourself in touch with our operations, and link up your communications with us, driving before you those portions of the Prussian army that have taken this direction and may have stopped at Wavre, where you should arrive as soon as possible. You will follow the enemy's columns on your right, using some light troops to observe their movements and gather up their stragglers.
Inform me immediately about your dispositions and your march, also about any news of the enemy, and do not neglect to link up your communications with us. The Emperor desires to have news from you very often.
Duke of Dalmatia
From the battlefield of Waterloo
the 18th at 1 p.m.
Marshal, you wrote to the emperor at 2 o'clock this morning that you will march on Sart à Walhain, thus your plan is to proceed to Corbaix or to Wavre. This movement conforms to his Majesty's arrangements which have been communicated to you.
Nevertheless, the Emperor directs me to tell you that you should always maneuver in our direction. It is up to you to see where we are located in order to regulate your movements accordingly, and to link up your communications with us so as to be always ready to fall upon and wipe out any enemy troops that may attempt to annoy our right flank. At this moment the battle is in progress on the line of Waterloo. The enemy's center is at Mont-Saint-Jean, so you should maneuver to join our right.
Signed: Duke of Dalmatia
P.S. A letter that has just been intercepted says that General Bülow is about to attack our flank. We believe we can see this corps on the heights of Saint-Lambert, so do not lose an instant in drawing near and joining with us in order to crush Bülow, whom you will catch en flagrant délit.
In contrast, Bonaparte maintains that at 10 p.m. on the evening of the 17th he sent an officer to Grouchy
to inform him that he had the intention of fighting a great battle on the morrow, and that the Anglo-Belgian army was in position in front of the Soignies Forest, anchored on its left in the village of La Haye, and that Marshal Blücher would certainly operate in one of the following three directions:
1. retreat toward Liége;
2. advance toward Brussels; [or]
3. remain in position at Wavre.
In all three cases he would have to maneuver via Saint-Lambert in order to overrun the left wing of the English army and join with the right of the French army. In the first two cases, however, he would have to execute his movement with the bulk of his forces combined, and in the third it would only be necessary to leave a detachment, whose strength would depend upon the nature of the position, in order to occupy the front of the Prussian army.
Furthermore, Bonaparte asserts that he repeated this order in a duplicate sent early on the morning of the 18th. Bonaparte immediately adds, however, that Marshal Grouchy never received these two orders. The marshal, on the other hand, declares his conviction that they were never even sent, and in reality a closer examination of the issue seems to support this view because:
1. The orders are not contained in the chief of staff's order book.
2. The two letters by Soult on the 18th do not mention them and are not even consistent with them.
3. It is unlikely that two separate letters carried by officers would both be lost. One must ask if the officers also were lost.
4. Bonaparte should have named the officers who were supposed to have carried these orders.
5. It is revealing that the statement that Grouchy did not receive these orders comes from Bonaparte.
6. It is curious, and most suspicious, that on the 16th a similar order failed to reach Marshal Ney.
At any rate, Marshal Grouchy is correct when he states that he cannot have been expected to carry out orders that even Bonaparte says did not reach him, and that he could therefore only act on the basis of the verbal instructions that Bonaparte gave him around midday on the 17th. Bonaparte had told Grouchy on the evening of the 16th, when the latter asked for more instructions, that they would come on the following morning. Grouchy then states:
I was at his headquarters the next morning before sunrise, waiting for orders. Around 7:30 he sent word through the chief of staff that he was going to visit the battlefield and I should accompany him.
Meanwhile, General Pajol, who had been ordered to pursue the Prussians with his light cavalry and a division of infantry, was just then sending back several cannon captured on the road to Namur. This circumstance may have led to the belief that Blücher was retiring toward that town.
Between 8 and 9 a.m., Napoleon left Fleurus in his carriage to go to the battlefield. The difficult condition of the roads, across fields cut by ditches and deep furrows, delayed him so much that he decided to mount his horse. Arriving at Saint-Amand, he had himself guided around the diverse avenues by which this village had been attacked the evening before. Then he walked on the battlefield, stopping to care for and question several wounded officers who were still there, and passing in front of the regiments who formed up without arms on the fields or who were bivouacked there, saluted them and received their acclamations. He spoke to almost all of the corps with interest, expressing satisfaction at their conduct the evening before. He then dismounted and spoke for a long time with General Gérard and myself about the state of opinion in the Parisian assembly, the Jacobins, and diverse other subjects; all of which were extraneous to that which seemingly should have occupied his thoughts exclusively at such a moment.
I am entering into such minute details because they serve to reveal how that morning was spent, the loss of which was to have such disastrous results. It was not until midday, after having received the report from a patrol that had been sent to Quatre-Bras, that Napoleon began to issue orders relating to the dispositions he intended to adopt. He then put into movement the corps of infantry and cavalry that he wanted to take with him and directed them toward the route to Quatre-Bras, and afterward gave me the verbal order to take command of the corps of generals Vandamme and Gérard and the cavalry of generals Pajol and Exelmans and to pursue Marshal Blücher.
I then commented to him that the Prussians had commenced their retreat at 10 p.m. on the night before, and that considerable time would be needed before the troops could be put into motion, for they were scattered across the plain and had disassembled their arms for cleaning and were making their soup and were not expecting to march that day; also that the enemy were 17 to 18 hours ahead of the corps that were being sent after them; that although the reports of the cavalry did not give any more precise details on the direction taken by the mass of the Prussian army, it seemed that Marshal Blücher’s retreat was in the direction of Namur, and that in pursuing him, I would therefore find myself isolated, separated from [the emperor], and outside the radius of his operations.
These remarks were not well received. He repeated the order that he had given, adding that it was up to me to discover the route taken by Marshal Blücher, that he was going to battle the English, that I was to complete the defeat of the Prussians by attacking them as soon as I had reached them, and that I was to communicate with him via the paved road which led from a point not far away from that on which we found ourselves at Quatre-Bras. The brief conversation that I then had with the chief of staff [Marshal Soult] concerned only the extraction, from the corps under my command, of the troops to be sent toward Quatre-Bras. These are word for word the only directions that were given to me, and the only orders I received.
On the basis of Marshal Grouchy's recounting of what occurred with Napoleon on the morning of the 17th, we see:
1. that in all probability this marshal truly received no instructions for his actions on the 17th other than a very general one to pursue the Prussians;
2. that Bonaparte had no idea that the Prussians were withdrawing toward the Dyle and even saw some merit in the view that they were heading toward Namur; therefore he did not direct the marshal toward Wavre;
3. that at 10 a.m. on the 18th Bonaparte did have a report that one Prussian column had gone to Wavre, but that he still believed the main portion had gone toward Liège and therefore that General Grouchy would undoubtedly be able to drive the Prussians from Wavre and place himself between Bonaparte and the Prussians;
4. that Bonaparte truly demonstrated a kind of lethargy and carelessness that corresponded neither with the position he was in nor with his previous methods. This is the second sign that causes us to think that something had changed within him.
If he had wanted his cavalry to take up the pursuit that evening, why not have them mount up at daylight on the 17th to look for the missing Blücher, so as to at least be clear about the direction he had taken and thus about the best direction to send the force directed against him? Why does he drag the general who is supposed to lead the pursuit around with him for 3 or 4 hours without sending him off on his mission, and how could his thoughts be so occupied with things occurring in Paris that he lost sight of the most essential elements of the conduct of war?
In any case, the whole story leaves the impression that Bonaparte had undoubtedly written off the Prussians and no longer thought that any further fighting against them would matter in relation to the battle that he was now about to fight with Wellington. Thus there was no thought that either Blücher or Grouchy would participate in the battle that was about to take place on the road to Brussels. Bonaparte's assertion that he viewed the separation of the opposing forces on the 17th as two columns heading toward Brussels, one consisting of Blücher and Grouchy via Wavre, the other of Wellington and himself via Mont St. Jean, is just a view he patched together afterwards, and would not be worth mentioning if it had not been taken up by other writers.
Now that we have shown that, in all probability, the participation of the right wing in whatever was going to happen on the left did not occur to the French commander at all on the 17th, which is to say, in time to matter, we must look more closely at the nature of the assistance that was ordered on the 18th, much too late.
If on the 17th Bonaparte had ordered Marshal Grouchy not to pursue and press Prince Blücher on all of his avenues of retreat, but merely to observe him while always staying between the main [French] army and Blücher, then Grouchy could have played a role on the 18th, either by placing himself in front of the advancing Blücher or, if Blücher did not advance, by detaching forces toward Mont-Saint-Jean. This role is clearly completely different from one of pursuing and pressing. Such an order would naturally have led Grouchy to the Dyle, because this river was a key terrain feature separating the two Allied armies; but the route would not have been by way of Gembloux, but rather by way of Tilly in order to reach the left bank as quickly as possible. If the Prussians remained on the right bank of the Dyle, then Limale and Wavre would have been the natural assembly points for Grouchy. If, however, he heard that the Prussians had headed for Wavre, then the area around Neuf-Cabaret, or anywhere else [that kept] his right wing on the Dyle and his front parallel to the road from Wavre to Brussels, would have been a good position from which to hold Blücher in check, get in front of him, or remain on his flank.
In this position Grouchy would have been only around 4 or 5 miles from Bonaparte and could have kept in direct contact through the usual flank patrols. It would thus not have been impossible for Grouchy to have been under Bonaparte’s direct orders, even on the day of the battle.
In contrast, following Blücher via Gembloux, without any intervening forces [between himself and Bonaparte], was a huge divergence that not only placed Grouchy's force even farther away from the main army but also made communications with it very difficult, even uncertain, because of the circuitous path that was required. Thus we see that an order written at 1 p.m. on the 18th did not reach Grouchy's hands until 7 p.m. This is not surprising, because the chief of staff had found it necessary to send the officer carrying this order via Quatre-Bras and Gembloux; he therefore had to travel about 30 miles. How can a corps that cannot receive orders in less than 6 hours be considered part of one and the same battle? How can a commander claim to be able to lead such a corps from the battlefield, based on constantly changing information on that very day? But that is how it looks when we read the end of the second letter:
At present the battle is in progress on the line of Waterloo. The enemy's center is at Mont-Saint-Jean, so you should maneuver to join our right.
and even the postscript:
A letter that has just been intercepted says that General Bülow is about to attack our flank. We believe we can see this corps on the heights of Saint-Lambert, so do not lose an instant in drawing near and joining with us in order to crush Bülow, whom you will catch en flagrant délit.
If Grouchy had received this order at 4 in the afternoon, which in this case would have been quite unlikely, and if the marshal had been able to start his march right away, he still would not have made it from the Wavre area to the vicinity of the [Waterloo] battlefield before 9 p.m., for one does not march with 40,000 men through rough terrain in the presence of the enemy at the same speed as one man alone, and the distance that Grouchy had to cover was more than 9 miles. If we consider the many instances of lost time that are a constant occurrence in warfare and must always be taken into account, then the order to Grouchy cannot be taken seriously. And what does that order presuppose? That Grouchy was not occupied with the enemy and was ready to march at a moment's notice. But Grouchy had in fact been ordered to pursue Blücher, and Bonaparte therefore had to expect that Grouchy's forces would either be engaged in close combat, or spread out over a number of roads in the course of the pursuit. Either way it would be quite unreasonable to expect that he would be ready to march off at once to the battle of Waterloo.
The truth is that when Bonaparte heard on the [morning of the] 18th that part of the Prussians had gone to Wavre, he began to be concerned that they could support Wellington, but he considered this column to be only a small fraction of the Prussian army, which Grouchy could easily drive away. Only [later in the day] did Bonaparte begin to realize the importance of having Grouchy between himself and the Prussians, and only then did his directives begin to have the tone that they would have had from the very beginning if, on the 17th, he had given Grouchy an order like that we have shown above, which is to say, if his arrogance had not led him to count Blücher out. As his position worsened in the battle, he transformed the idea of having Grouchy between himself and the Prussians into a different one: that Grouchy was nothing more than the right wing of his own line of battle and could be called over to fall upon the rear of the Prussian corps that had arrived alongside the English. But armies do not move like thoughts, and if one starts off with false assumptions, one must generally bear the consequences.
Bonaparte has always spoken only of Bülow, as if the rest of the Prussians were incapable of further action after the battle of Ligny. But this was a foolish assumption that was in no way justified by the outcome of that battle and the small number of trophies taken. In assuming that what was visible at Saint-Lambert could only be Bülow, not Blücher, Bonaparte had even less reason to believe that Grouchy would thereby be drawn toward him as well, because Grouchy had been sent out against Blücher, not Bülow, and had to be considered as engaged with the former, not the latter.
From our perspective the result of these considerations is:
1. that on the 17th Bonaparte did not expect Blücher and Grouchy to participate in the battle on the 18th, that he had not even considered it, and that—when the overall arrangements are considered—he was completely surprised by Blücher's appearance on the 18th.
2. that the orders on the 18th calling for Grouchy to participate [in the battle of Waterloo] seem to have been last-minute expedients issued in desperation and could not possibly have been carried out.
So much for Bonaparte's characterization of his right wing's relationship to the battle [of Waterloo]. We will look at Grouchy's actions later.
Now let us look at the battle itself, which leads us to the following observations.
3. We can discern nothing about an actual plan of attack. The deployment and advance of the French army take place parallel to the enemy front and the distribution of forces is practically uniform along the entire line. At the same time it seems that the attacks on the advanced post of Hougoumont and the village of La Haye had so little energy, and the attack on the center was so large, that Bonaparte's intention must have been to break through the Allied army in the center, while merely keeping it occupied on the flanks. Since the main avenue of retreat was directly behind the center and it is generally assumed that the other entrances into the Soignies Forest were not suitable for all arms, such a breakthrough in the center would indeed have had decisive results, and there was certainly no other way to bring about a total defeat of the Allied army so quickly. Considering that Bonaparte had the 6th Corps following in the center, and also that the Guard was behind the center, one can well imagine such a plan being successful. Namely, if the 3 divisions of the 1st Corps, which formed the attack on the center, could substantially weaken and drain the strength of the Allies through several hours of fighting, then the 6th Corps could move forward for the moment of decision and make the actual breakthrough, with the Guard in reserve in case Wellington's flank forces attempted to improvise an attack on the French flanks. Such a spur-of-the-moment reaction is seldom very sustained or strong, so the French Guard would probably have been able to withstand this thrust, and victory in the center would have continued to develop and become more dangerous for Wellington.
Thus one can imagine Bonaparte’s attack being crowned with a spectacular triumph; but the essential factors should not be mixed up or placed in false relationships to each other.
Against forces in extended positions in hilly country, where everything seems to be nailed in place and a counteroffensive is not realistic for several reasons, a breakthrough in the center is the simplest, most decisive and least dangerous form of attack.
But this is not the case for a position with great depth, owing to concentrated forces or the presence of large reserves. In that case breaking through in the center—if successful—may still be the most decisive course of action, but it is also the most unnatural and dangerous one, because:
1. The attacker does not have the extended space in which to mass far superior forces at the decisive point.
2. It is much harder for him to hide his intentions and dispositions.
3. If the opponent goes over to an attack on the flanks, this leads to the most disadvantageous form of battle.
If battles still consisted solely of an instantaneous blow, and if armies were like brittle objects whose crystalline structure could be smashed by such a blow, then there would be little reason to consider the third of these disadvantages. But our battles last for half or even a whole day; for the most part they are a slow grinding and consumption of the two armies, whose fronts touch each other like two hostile elements that destroy each other wherever they meet. Thus the battle burns slowly and with limited intensity, like wet powder, and only when most of the opposing forces have already been burned out into useless cinders is a decision achieved by what is left. In this kind of warfare, a thrust by a reinforced center, like a battering ram against the enemy front, is actually a very unrealistic form of attack.
We often hear it said that breaking through in the center was Bonaparte's favorite maneuver. Bold, ruthless, overpowering and arrogant as he was, and always thirsting for the greatest triumphs, one could well believe that he must have preferred this form of attack. However, if we look at all the important battles in which he was the attacker, we see that such an assertion is completely unfounded.
Perhaps more than anything else, this proves just how unnatural a thrust at the enemy center is, and how strongly the attacker is always drawn to the flanks.
If we nevertheless regard a French victory at Mont-Saint-Jean as possible, it is only because we believe that 70,000 Frenchmen led by Bonaparte and Ney were more than a match for 70,000 Allies, of whom a third consisted of Hanoverian militia and new units, and a third of Belgian units that had just been formed and whose officers and men could not be trusted. These units melted away in the battle much faster than the French, as is confirmed by all eyewitness accounts. The fact that Wellington's position was so precarious at around 5 p.m., despite the fact that not a single man from the 6th Corps or Guard had fought against him, clearly shows the superiority of the French troops.
If we therefore believe that the thrust against Wellington's center could have succeeded, it is only because:
1. we think the quality of the troops was so disparate, and
2. Wellington does not seem to have considered or prepared for a counterattack.
Under these circumstances, it is difficult to consider the wedge-shaped thrust against Mont-Saint-Jean as a mistake for a commander like Bonaparte, who must always have his eye on the boldest strokes in order to achieve spectacular results.
But this is only correct if the 6th Corps and the Imperial Guard are included. Once Blücher appears, and the entire 6th Corps as well as half of the Guard must be used against him, then this thrust at the center truly becomes no more than a melée, a wild attempt at overrunning the enemy. This is also a fair characterization of the premature and wasteful employment of the cavalry. From this point onward nothing is in its proper relationship: the forces on the flanks are just as strong as those in the center, so there is no superiority in numbers, and therefore no basis for success. The fact is, no matter how much Wellington's army had melted away, or how threatening the position of the French cavalry confronting Wellington's line may have been, Wellington's reserves were not yet exhausted, and if no large masses of fresh troops followed the French attack, then these tremendous endeavors were just wasted effort. Thus because Bonaparte lacked the forces to prepare the attack on the enemy center properly, as one must nowadays prepare every attack, and because he lacked time and therefore had to do everything too hastily, he was no longer carrying out a carefully planned and properly executed plan, but basically acting in sheer desperation.
We can therefore see that Blücher’s arrival did not just snatch victory out of Bonaparte’s hands, which would have also been the case had Turenne, Frederick the Great, or any other great commander placed in the same situation. It also provoked the emperor into hurling his forces in helpless rage against Wellington’s rocklike stand, shattering them, and thereby placing them in a state of complete disintegration as this remarkable day ended.
4. Most critics have claimed that Bonaparte should have attacked Wellington's left wing and enveloped it.
Wellington's left wing was weak in and of itself, and if one completely ignores the possibility of Blücher's assistance, then such an attack would seem to be much easier—although less decisive—than one against the center. If Bonaparte considered Blücher’s appearance to be more or less impossible, then there would have been much to say for this course of action. However, if one does consider the possibility that the Prussians could advance via Lasne and Saint-Lambert, then it is clear that an attack on the left flank would have been just about impossible.
The right wing of Wellington's army was stronger than the left due to the terrain, because near Braine-l'Alleud and Merbe-Braine there are a considerable number of depressions that greatly hinder an attack. Also, an attack on this side, that is to say against the right wing and on the right flank, would have taken several hours longer, which in Bonaparte's position was a particularly weighty consideration. Furthermore, he would have completely given up his natural line of retreat, and if defeated he would have had to fall back through Mons toward Maubeuge or Valenciennes. Finally, such an attack would obviously have been the least decisive of all, because even if successful it would have neither split Wellington's army nor separated him from Blücher. These considerations are so numerous and important that in most cases the idea of attacking from this direction would have to be set aside completely. However, if we accept that Blücher’s arrival with a significant force (c. 50,000 men) was sufficiently possible that it had to be taken into consideration for planning purposes, and that [if he were to appear] neither an attack on the center nor on the left wing offered any possibility of victory, then we must return to the attack on the right wing, because having at least some chance of success must be the highest priority.
If Bonaparte had marched his army to the left and had advanced against Wellington's right flank via Braine-l'Alleud, Wellington would have been forced to form a new front toward the west. In that case Wellington would have had a front that was perhaps even stronger, but there would have two important advantages for the French. First of all, in this position Blücher would most likely not have been able to fall upon the French right flank, but would have supported his ally from the rear; the battle would thus not have taken on such a disadvantageous form for the French. Second, the Soignies Forest would have been on Wellington’s right flank, and as he had always shown great sensitivity and concern about the road to Brussels, Bonaparte could have exploited the woods to cause Wellington to occupy it strongly, thus splintering his strength. Then the French would not have faced such a deep and dense position, and would have encountered less resistance.
A complete defeat of Wellington was unlikely in this case, but there could still have been a blow comparable to the one against Blücher at Ligny, which might have led to disunity and indecision between the two Allied leaders. Grouchy's appearance in Blücher's rear on the 19th could then have achieved all that for which there was not enough time left on the 18th. Both Allied commanders had already abandoned their natural lines of retreat, and this had to cause uneasiness with their situation and weaken their resolve. In short, it is quite possible that if [the two Allied commanders] were not able to wrench a victory out of their opponent's hands on the 18th, there could have been a parting of the ways that would have been the overture to much greater results.
Therefore we believe that an attack on Wellington’s left wing and in the left flank was the least feasible. One against the center was the shortest and most decisive, and it was feasible as long as there was reasonable assurance that it could be completed before Blücher arrived. But if an early and powerful appearance on the part of Blücher had to be taken into account, then an attack on the right wing and the right flank offered the only hope of victory.
5. Napoleon's failure to garrison the valley of Lasne and Saint Lambert immediately with some light troops may have been a mistake, but it would not have made much difference to the overall outcome of the battle. Deploying an entire corps like the 6th in that area would have required a completely different plan, a completely different point of view than that of Bonaparte. Admittedly Lobau['s corps] could have offered stronger and longer resistance at Lasne and Saint-Lambert than at Frischermont, but he would have been attacked much earlier, and if Blücher had advanced forces by way of Couture, then Lobau would have been in danger of being cut off completely. In that case, Bonaparte would have been forced to send more troops to this area and, in short, would have found himself fighting on a battlefield twice as large, which would not have been to his liking and which he would have had great difficulty controlling. On the other hand, it does seem that Lobau's corps would have been better positioned between Frischermont and Pajeau, making that its main line of resistance.
6. Finally, our last observation about the battle from Bonaparte's perspective concerns the previously mentioned use of the last reserves. A cautious commander like Turenne, Prince Eugene [of Savoy], Frederick the Great, who would not have found himself in such an extraordinary position, and who would have had either a greater sense of responsibility or more to lose, would not have fought the Battle of Belle Alliance. That is to say, at noon, when Bülow appeared, he would have broken off the engagement and withdrawn. If it were possible to confine the rules for the conduct of war merely to objective relationships, we would say in this case that it was against all the rules to try to carry on with the battle. Earlier critics would not have failed to point this out but would also have added that a genius cannot be bound by the rules. But we do not share this opinion. If the conduct of war should for the most part be based on fundamental principles, then these must encompass every situation in which a warring party can find itself, and in particular the greatest and most far-reaching situations.
Bonaparte was balancing on the tip of his sword not only the crown of France but a number of other crowns as well, and by relying solely on daring and bold defiance he had made his way through a world of fixed relationships and rules that constantly opposed him. How can he be measured on the same scale as a Turenne, who belonged to a comprehensive political order that defined him far less than he defined it, and who can merely be seen as one of its more prominent members? How can one criticize Bonaparte for not avoiding a battle, even though he saw on his flank the flash of the sword that Blücher had drawn—thirsty for revenge—and realized how little hope of victory remained? After all, this was the only path to his goal, the last hope remaining at a time when his fate was hanging from a slender thread. As he advanced toward Wellington, with victory almost certain, something like 10,000 men appeared on his right flank. The odds were 100-to-1 that another five to six times as many would follow them, and then the battle could not be won. But it was also possible that those troops were only a small detachment and that uncertainty and caution would prevent them from intervening effectively. Otherwise, all that lay ahead for him was inevitable ruin. Should he allow what was simply a dangerous situation to scare him into certain defeat? No, there are situations when the greatest prudence can only be sought in the greatest boldness, and Bonaparte's situation was one of them.
Thus we judge his perseverance in his decision to give battle, and it therefore remains for us to show, from [Bonaparte’s] point of view, that our disapproval of his sacrifice of the last reserves is not based on mere normal caution. As Blücher's forces grew to between 50 and 60 thousand men, as Lobau was overwhelmed and forced back to the main line of retreat, as new, dark-coated masses under Ziethen moved into the empty spaces in Wellington's line as night began to fall, ending any hope that Grouchy might come to his aid, there could no longer be any thought of victory. His duty as commander—as well as the wisest course of action—was to throw part of his reserve against Bülow to relieve the situation and gain room for a retreat, and then to begin withdrawing immediately, covered by the rest of the reserve. The battle was lost, perhaps a complete downfall no longer avoidable, but for Bonaparte's subsequent dealings there was still a huge difference between being overwhelmed by far superior numbers and making a brave, fighting withdrawal from the battlefield at the head of his indomitable band, or returning [as he did] as a virtual fugitive, burdened with the reproach of having ruined his entire army and then abandoned it.
Bonaparte may have never made a greater mistake. Clearly a commander will not win very many battles if he gingerly pulls out of the struggle whenever the scales tip slightly against him, and such a view of battle is incompatible with Bonaparte's art of war. Quite a few [of his] victories were achieved only through perseverance and the efforts of the last reserves of strength. But a critic can demand that a commander not seek to attain the impossible, and in so doing sacrifice forces that would better be employed otherwise. In this case Bonaparte does not seem to be acting in the manner of a great man but rather in vulgar exasperation, like someone who has broken an instrument and in his anger smashes the parts to pieces on the ground.
We have little to say about the conduct of the Allied commanders in the Battle of Belle Alliance.
Wellington's position was by all accounts very favorable. As for the alleged danger posed by the forest of Soignies Forest lying close to his rear, we must first look at the condition of the secondary roads before making any judgment. It has always seemed unlikely to us that in this cultivated area such a small forest would be difficult to pass through. If this was not the case, then having the forest nearby was advantageous.
One of the chief virtues in the duke’s dispositions is his numerous reserves, or in other words, the limited extent of his position in relationship to the size of his army, which allowed many troops to be left in reserve. However, more could have been done to prepare and fortify the three forward posts.
In deploying his divisions the duke sometimes split them apart completely. Very likely he did this in order to mix them up so as not to leave too many unreliable troops—namely the Belgians—next to each other. In actuality this measure showed itself to be effective when the battalions under General Perponcher fell back under the French attack. If the whole division had been together here, the gap would possibly have become too large.
Certainly the principle of mixing good and bad troops with each other is better than that of leaving the bad troops together and placing them at less important points.
That the duke gave no thought to a counterattack is quite natural, since he had to leave this to the Prussians.
As for Blücher's contribution to this victory, there is not much that needs to be said. It lies primarily in his decision to march. We have already spoken of this, as well as of the simplicity and expediency of the execution.
But one special and very great service lies in his tireless pursuit throughout the night. It cannot be calculated how much this contributed to an even greater dissolution of the enemy army, and to the number and splendor of the trophies that glorify this battle.