Andrew Roberts: Why Did Napoleon Lose the Battle of Waterloo? Finally, an Answer!

Roundup: Talking About History

Andrew Roberts, in the London Sunday Telegraph (1-30-05):

Why did Napoleon lose the battle of Waterloo? It is a question that has intrigued the keenest historians for the past 190 years. He had a larger army than the Anglo-Allied one that faced him across the undulating slopes of Mont St Jean on the morning of Sunday June 18, 1815. His troops were the hardened veterans of many campaigns, unlike the untried soldiers under his opponent, the Duke of Wellington. Napoleon had far more cannon, he had been victorious against the Prussians only two days before at the battle of Ligny , and he was supremely confident on the day. So what went wrong?

More than 300 books have been written about Waterloo since 1815, putting forward scores of different theories. But on one thing they are all agreed: the climactic cavalry charge undertaken by Marshal Ney 's 43 squadrons of French cuirassiers and lancers, which smashed itself against 14 mainly British squares in the centre of the battlefield, was one of the crucial moments of the battle.

Ney's great cavalry charge of about 10,000 horsemen, though brave and magnificent, was doomed because horses will not charge directly at a square bristling with naked bayonets. Had Ney followed the standard military tactics of the Napoleonic Wars, and brought up infantry and artillery to pound the trapped squares, Wellington's centre might have been broken and the battle won.

The British officer Captain James Shaw Kennedy never forgot the sight of Ney's charge, writing years later: "The formation and advance of that magnificent and highly disciplined cavalry had, as a spectacle, a very grand effect. These splendid horsemen were enthusiastic in the cause of Napoleon - full of confidence in him and in themselves - thirsting to revenge the reverses which had been suffered by the French armies - led by most experienced and able cavalry commanders - and they submitted to a rigid discipline."

Yet why did the charge take place far too early, without crucial infantry and artillery support? How could a soldier as experienced as Ney have made such a basic error? His nickname was "The Bravest of the Brave", but this attack was little short of suicidal. In the absence of any written order from the Emperor, or even from Ney himself, many explanations have been proffered over the years. Bad staff-work, say some historians, or perhaps Ney was shell-shocked after the terrors of the retreat from Moscow three years earlier. Since Ney was court-martialled and shot by the new French government in December 1815, we cannot be certain, but a newly discovered letter suggests an altogether different reason - the charge happened by accident.

Captain Fortune de Brack - hitherto entirely unknown to history - was a 26-year-old officer in the elite 2nd Guard Lancers, part of the cavalry section of Napoleon's Imperial Guard, and an aide-de-camp during the Moscow retreat. Fortune was, perhaps, an unfortunate name for a man who haplessly compromised France's military might. Writing to a friend in 1835, 20 years after the battle, he admitted setting off the charge entirely by mistake. His letter superbly captures the febrile atmosphere of a cavalry regiment awaiting the order to charge.

It seems that de Brack had mistaken a movement in the Anglo-Allied lines for a retreat, and loudly called for an attack. Officers around de Brack then pushed forward to see for themselves, whereupon, as he put it: "The right-hand file of our regimental line followed them." This movement was automatically copied along the regiment, merely "to restore the alignment". Adjacent regiments followed suit, so that further along the line the Dragoons and the Grenadiers-a-Cheval - impatient for the command to charge from Ney - believed that the order had been given. As de Brack explained: "They set off - and we followed!"...

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John Reed Tarver - 2/5/2005

This is nonsense. The British and the Germans defeated the French at Waterloo because Wellington and Blucher proved better soldiers than the French. Anyone who has listened to old soldiers talk of their exploits in a distant time will discount the memories of Captain Fortune.