1. June 15, 1815: Belgium

Napoleon’s plan of campaign was based upon his information about the amount, division, leadership, location, and prospective strategy of the Allied forces. Their westward movement had been postponed to give the Russians time to arrive and share in the campaign; but Napoleon’s swift advance brought the decision before the Russians could reach the Rhine.

By June 1 a Prussian army of 120,000 had assembled near Namur in Belgium, under the seventy-three-year-old Marshal Blücher. Farther north, around Brussels, the Duke of Wellington (his mission in Portugal and Spain having been triumphantly completed) had been given command of what he called an “infamous army” of 93,000 British, Dutch, Belgian, and German recruits, most of whom knew only one language, and were a problem for an English commander. Wellington had to supply their lack of training by his own resolution and experience. A moment’s contemplation of Lawrence’s portrait of him—proud pose, fine features, calm steady vision—suggests what the tired and ailing Napoleon, physically older than their equal age, was to encounter on June 18.

Napoleon had left some of his army to guard Paris and his line of communications. To challenge the 213,000 men led by Blücher and Wellington, he had 126,000 in his Armée du Nord. His hope, of course, was to meet and defeat one of the two armies before they could unite, and then, after rest and reorganization, to dispose of the other. The main route between the Allied armies ran from Namur through Sombreffe to Quatre-Bras (Four Arms), and thence west by a wider road from the Franco-Belgian frontier at Charleroi north by Waterloo to Brussels. Napoleon’s first objective was to capture Quatre-Bras and thereby close the route between the two Allied armies.

He had instructed the three columns of his Army of the North to converge on June 14 at the River Sambre opposite Charleroi. He joined one of the columns, and ordered all three of them to begin crossing the river into Belgium about 3 A.M. of June 15. They did, and easily captured Charleroi from its small Prussian garrison. About the same time, however, General Louis de Bourmont defected to the Allies, and revealed Napoleon’s plans to Blücher’s officers. The alert “Vorwärts” had guessed them, and had sent part of his army west to Sombreffe, and joined it about 4 A.M. on the 15th.

Napoleon now divided his army into a right wing under Grouchy, a left wing under Ney, and a reserve force, stationed near Charleroi under Drouet d’Erlon, to go to the aid of Grouchy or Ney as need should call. Grouchy was to advance northeast toward Sombreffe to challenge Blücher; Ney was to march north and capture Quatre-Bras and in any case prevent Wellington from coming to join Blücher. Napoleon himself, expecting a major clash with Blücher, rode with Grouchy.

Ney, heretofore “the bravest of the brave,” followed, on June 15 and 16, a policy of caution that badly disrupted Napoleon’s plans. Moving north from Charleroi, he drove the Prussians out of Gosselies, and then halted, fearing to encounter Wellington’s much larger force. He sent a cavalry detachment ahead to check the situation at Quatre-Bras; it returned with the report that that town was free of enemy troops. He led 3,000 men to take it, thinking that these would suffice; but by the time he sighted Quatre-Bras it had been occupied by Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar with 4,000 troops and eight guns; Ney turned back to Gosselies and awaited further instructions. Bernhard sent a message to Wellington to bring his main army down to Quatre-Bras, lest Ney’s main force should soon besiege it.

At 3 P.M. on June 15, Wellington, at Brussels, received news that Napoleon’s army had crossed into Belgium. Believing that Napoleon would follow his custom of making an end run for a flank attack, he held his forces in readiness near the Belgian capital. That evening he and many of his officers—”brave men” with a fondness for “fair women”—attended a ball given by the Duchess of Richmond.34 There, about midnight, he received a message that Quatre-Bras was in danger. He quietly gave orders to his officers to prepare to march early that morning. He himself, not to disturb the elegant affair, stayed and danced till 3 A.M.35

2. June 16: Ligny

About 2 P.M. of June 16 Marshal Soult, Napoleon’s chief of staff, sent final orders to Ney:

The Emperor charges me to notify you that the enemy has assembled a body of troops between Sombreffe and Brye, and that at 2:30 P.M. Marshal Grouchy, with the Third and Fourth Corps, will attack him. The intention of his Majesty is that you should attack whatever [enemy] is before you, and that after having vigorously pressed them back you should turn toward us and join us in surrounding the enemy.36

Blücher brought up all his 83,000 men to resist the French. The battle began about 3 P.M. near the town of Ligny, with simultaneous attacks by Grouchy’s right under Vandamme, his center under Gérard, and his left—the cavalry—under Grouchy himself, with Napoleon directing the triple operation of 78,000 men. It soon became evident that the redoubtable Blücher was not to be easily disposed of; and if the French should be defeated here their entire campaign would collapse. At 3:15 Napoleon sent an appeal to Ney: “The Prussian army is lost if you will act vigorously. The fate of France is in your hands. Therefore do not delay for an instant to execute the movement which has been proposed to you, and turn toward St.-Amand and Brye to join in a victory that may decide all.”37

But Ney too was in difficulties. By 3 P.M. Wellington had brought down most of his army to Quatre-Bras. Not knowing this (for communications had fallen apart in Soult’s hands), Napoleon sent orders to Drouet d’Erlon at Charleroi to hurry north with his reserve force and attack Blücher’s right flank. Drouet had advanced almost to Ligny when a courier brought him an urgent command from Ney to rush to his support against Wellington’s superior numbers at Quatre-Bras. Drouet thought Ney’s need the more urgent, and marched his corps to Quatre-Bras, only to find that Ney, after desperate efforts and having two horses killed under him, had given up the attempt to dislodge Wellington.

At Ligny the battle raged through six hours of slaughter, in which no quarter was given by either side; a Prussian officer later recalled that “the men massacred one another as if they had been animated with a personal hatred.”38 Once quiet villages like St.-Amand and La Haye passed from side to side in desperate man-to-man combat. Ligny itself went up in flames. As night and rain fell Napoleon ordered his Old Guard to attack the Prussian center. The rain became a thunderstorm; the Prussian center gave way; Blücher, still resisting, fell from his horse, and had to be carried away. The French were too exhausted to turn the defeat into a rout. The Prussians retreated north toward Wavre, leaving twelve thousand dead or wounded behind them. Napoleon himself had used almost the last resources of his nervous strength. If Wellington had been able to come up at that moment from Quatre-Bras there might have been no Waterloo.

3. June 17: Rain

It was just as well for Napoleon that the downpour made a major battle impossible on the 17th. The ground was mud; how could artillery be drawn or stationed in that sodden and fluctuating earth? Those adjectives might have been applied to the imperial mind when, at 7 A.M., a message from Ney told Napoleon that Wellington was holding Quatre-Bras, and implying that only the full French army could dislodge him. Napoleon’s answer—or its obscure phrasing—must have left Ney more bewildered than ever: “Take up your position at Quatre-Bras…. But if this is impossible… send information immediately, and the Emperor will act then. If… there is only a rear guard, attack it and seize the position.”39 There was more than a rear guard, and Ney refused to renew the attack. Wellington, having heard of Blücher’s defeat, withdrew his army north to a defensible plateau called Mont St.-Jean, and retired to his headquarters at nearby Waterloo.

Napoleon directed Grouchy, with 30,000 men, to pursue the Prussians throughout June 17, and in any case prevent them from joining Wellington. He himself, with 40,000 survivors from the battle of Ligny, marched to join Ney at Quatre-Bras. When he arrived, about 2 P.M., he was disheartened to learn that Wellington was not there. “On a perdu la France!” he cried; “we have lost France!”40 He ordered pursuit, and himself led it, with Ney and Drouet d’Erlon; but a heavy shower decided him to end the pursuit. At 9P.M., wet to the skin, he rode back a mile or two to sleep in bed at Caillou; and his exhausted army—the rain having ceased—bivouacked upon the wet ground for the night.

4. Sunday, June 18: Waterloo

At 2 A.M. Blücher sent a message to Wellington promising him that a Prussian corps under General Friedrich Wilhelm von Bülow would leave Wavre at daybreak to join him against the French, and that two other Prussian corps would follow soon thereafter. At 10 A.M. Napoleon, not knowing of these courtesies, sent instructions to Grouchy to continue pursuing Blücher to Wavre.

He had planned to begin action at 9 A.M., but his artillery captains persuaded him to delay until the soil had begun to dry. Meanwhile Wellington had stationed his forces on raised land south of Mont St.-Jean. He had 70,000 men and 184 guns; Napoleon had 74,000 men and 266 guns. Each leader had generals who had earned—or would here earn—a place in history: Prince Friedrich of Brunswick (son of the Duke who had lost at Valmy and had been mortally wounded at Auerstedt), Dörnberg, Alten, Kempt, Somerset, Uxbridge, Hill, Ponsonby, Picton, all under a Wellington as tough as his language and as proud as a duke. Add Bülow, Zieten, and Pirch under Blücher; and, for the French, Ney, Grouchy, Vandamme, Gérard, Cambronne, Kellermann, Reille, Lobau, and Napoleon.

He had begun to pay for crowding years into every month, eating and mating hastily, living at high tension on throne and battlefield, and, lately, solacing his sorrows with food. Six years later the post-mortem examination of his organs would show half a dozen ailments and abnormalities. Now, at Waterloo, he had to spend hours on horseback while suffering from hemorrhoids;41 he had stones in the bladder, and his dysuria required frequent and often untimely urination; and perhaps the cancer that killed him and his father was already consuming him.42 These disorders wore him down in vigor, courage, patience, and confidence. “I no longer had in me the sentiment of final success…. I felt fortune abandon me.”43 Nevertheless, presumably to give them confidence, he assured his worried generals, “If my orders are well executed we shall sleep tonight in Brussels.”44

His generals saw the situation more clearly. Soult advised him to bid Grouchy bring his 30,000 men west, as soon as possible, and join in the attack; instead Napoleon allowed them to spend time and themselves in chasing Blücher north to Wavre; presumably he hoped that if the Prussians turned west to help Wellington, Grouchy would attack their rear. Wellington made, according to aftersight, an equally serious error in leaving 17,000 of his men near Brussels to guard against a French flank attack upon his vital approaches to the sea.

At 11 A.M. Napoleon ordered his army to begin the attack—upon the enemy center, which was manned by tough Scots and Englishmen. Ney led with all his old dash and bravery, but the British held firm. From behind one hill after another hidden artillery spread death wholesale among the startled French. About 1 P.M., from his observation post considerably southwest of the action, Napoleon saw, far east, a cloud of troops moving toward the battle; a German prisoner told him that these were the van of Bülow’s Prussian corps, marching to help Wellington. Napoleon sent a battalion under General Lobau to intercept the Prussians, and dispatched a message to Grouchy to attack Bülow and then come to help the main French army against Wellington. About 11:30 A.M. Grouchy, marching north between Gembloux and Wavre, heard the noise of cannon fire in the west. General Gérard urged him to abandon pursuit of Blücher, and strike cross-country to add his 30,000 men to Napoleon’s. Grouchy caught up with part of Blücher’s forces, defeated it, entered Wavre, found Blücher gone, and rested.

By that time, 4 P.M., the battle of Waterloo was at its height: a vast melee of men killing or being killed, gaining or losing a strategic post, facing onrushing horses, dodging a dozen swords, falling and dying in the mud. Thousands deserted on either side; Wellington spent part of his time riding behind the lines and frightening deserters back to their posts. Ney led charge after charge; four horses were killed under him. Toward 6 P.M. he received an order from Napoleon to seize La Haye Sainte—the Holy Hedgerow. He succeeded, and thought he had found an opening to Wellington’s last line. He sent an appeal to Napoleon for additional infantry, and pushed ahead. Napoleon fumed at his reckless advance, for which no adequate support could be sent without weakening the general plan; but, feeling that “the wretch” could not be allowed perish, he ordered Kellermann to go to Ney’s support with 3,000 cuirassiers. When the leader of the last British line asked Wellington for reinforcements the Duke answered that he had none. The officer is said to have replied, “Very well, my lord; we’ll stand till the last man falls.”45 When the English line seemed to be breaking, a section of the French cavalry rushed forward to share in the victory. An English officer, Colonel Gould, concluded, “I’m afraid it’s all over.”46 A Hanoverian regiment at this point deserted and fled to Brussels, shouting to all, “The battle is lost, and the French are coming!”47

But it was the Prussians who were coming. Bülow had broken Lobau’s resistance, and was rapidly nearing the main action; and two more Prussian corps were approaching. Napoleon saw that his last chance was to crush the English before the Prussians could intervene. He called upon his Old Guard to follow him to the decisive attack. A French deserter found his way to Wellington and warned him, “The Guards will be on you in half an hour.” About this time a British marksman sighted Napoleon. “There’s Bonaparte, sir,” he said. “I think I can reach him. May I fire?” The Duke forbade him: “No, no, generals commanding armies have something else to do than to shoot one another.”48

Then, when the French thought they were victorious, the cry came to Napoleon, the Guards, and Ney that the Prussians, 30,000 of them,49 were attacking the French, and were spreading terror and disorder. When Ney charged again, the British line held fast, and Ney fell back. Wellington saw his chance. Riding the top of the slope to be more visible, he waved his hat in the air as the signal agreed upon for a general advance; drums and bugles carried the message; 40,000 Englishmen, Scots, Belgians, and Germans-right, center, and left—changed from defense to offense, and swept forward, careless of life. The morale of the French faltered and collapsed, and they fled; even the Old Guard began to turn their horses back. Napoleon shouted orders to stop; they were not heard in the tumult; and the smoke of battle helped the growing dusk to make him indistinguishable in the mass. Yielding to this sudden plebiscite, he commanded a retreat in the forms prescribed by the manual of order, but the French, attacked in front and flank by overwhelmingly superior numbers, had no time for disciplined formations; “Sauve qui peut! Let each save himself who can!” became the motto, spoken or not, of the shattered army, no longer soldiers but men. Amid the rout Marshal Ney, the faint of flesh and heart at Quatre-Bras, the hero of heroes at Waterloo, stood horseless and bewildered, his face blackened with powder, his uniform in rags, a broken sword in the hand that had almost grasped victory.50 Then he too—and Napoleon—joined the 40,000 men rushing down roads and fields to Genappe, to Quatre-Bras, to Charleroi, and then, by whatever means, over the River Sambre to France.

They left behind them 25,000 dead or wounded, and 8,000 prisoners. Wellington had lost 15,000, Blücher 7,000. The two victors met on the road near La Belle Alliance, and exchanged kisses. Wellington left the pursuit to the enthusiastic Prussians, and Blücher, too old for the chase, turned it over to Gneisenau at Genappe, and there he sent a message to his wife: “In concert with my friend Wellington, I have exterminated the army of Napoleon.” But also he wrote to his friend Knesebeck: “I tremble in all my members. The effort has been too great.”51 Wellington put the matter to Lord Uxbridge in his hearty way: “We have given Napoleon the coup de grâce. There is nothing left for him but to hang himself.”52

In the retreat Napoleon joined one of the more orderly regiments, dismounted, and walked with the others. He wept for his lost army,53 and mourned that he had not died.

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