Tag: Napoleonic Wars




Today’s episode is a full episode and a return to the narrative where we left it in February at the end of the battle of Waterloo. Since then we’ve done a special episode on battlefield surgery and then we did an episode on the amazing Annie Besant and the Matchstick Girls strike, which was the Easter Special. 

They say that the mark of a man is how he copes with getting knocked down. Personally, I think that phrase just perpetuates some unhealthy stereotypes, but let’s run with it for this episode. When we left the last show it was the night after Waterloo. Napoleon had suffered a catastrophic defeat. Most people honestly either fall to pieces after relatively small set backs, or they are too afraid to take risks that might end in failure. Napoleon though was now suffering massive defeat. He had been beaten before in his career, and exiled, but there was a different air to this. This was the wreck of his entire army in what had seemed an even contest. He was on the verge of triumph. It was really his last great throw of the dice.

Can you imagine the stress he would have been under. He was the Emperor of France. The country and the lives of its people were his responsibility. His beloved army was scattered and in retreat. He had political enemies at home. It seems to me that he suffered some kind of mental breakdown as his behaviour over the next few days indicated. Perhaps the closest I can describe it is imagine your business goes bankrupt and your partner leaves you on the same day. That’s sort of the stress Napoleon was under. Except far worse. Whatever his many faults, Napoleon loved France and he must have known that this would have dire consequences for his beloved homeland.

As the 19 June arrived, Marshal Grouchy actually won the last real French victory against the Prussians. It was for nothing. News of the disaster of Waterloo reached him early on 19 June. The messengers were so overwrought that at first Grouchy could barely understand them. When he did, his blood must have run cold. Not only was this absolute defeat, but he knew instantly that when he had refused the advice of General Girad the previous day to march his men toward the sound of the gunfire at Waterloo, he had contributed to that defeat. If he had listened to his subordinates advice, perhaps he would have been able to help at Waterloo.

Immediately Marshal Grouchy began his excuses, and he would continue to give them for the rest of his life.

The main French army was in dire straights. Almost all of it was a confused mass of men, wagons and horses. Many had thrown away their weapons and were helpless against the vengeful Prussians. Some sources state that the Prussians were killing wounded and prisoners. Some French troops committed suicide rather than fall into Prussian hands. If even a quarter of the French army could have got organised, they could have held up the Prussians at the critical choke point provided by the town of Genappe where the bridge crossed the river Dyle. It would have provided critical hours for the main of the army to reform and get to safety. It wasn’t to be. Only a few regiments of the Old Guard retained the iron discipline and weapons for an ordered retreat.

There would have been a big difference in a post Napoleonic French political order if the army had been able to stage a fighting retreat from Waterloo rather than being swept away in a rout. The army could have been a nucleus for new recruits, acted as a counter balance to the chamber of deputies and made an Allied invasion a much tougher prospect. It was the chaos, not the actual causalities that made recovery impossible.

Marshal Grouchy was retreating too. He was doing it in good order, not just because he hadn’t been involved in the catastrophe at Waterloo, but because he actually seemed to up his game considerably. He performed a masterful fighting retreat. He managed to recapture some lost cannon, fend off Prussian cavalry and take up fortified positions in Namur. He got plentiful support from the Napoleon loving locals. He beat off a Prussian attack, and even managed to kill the future Chancellor Otto Von Bismarks uncle, then another retreat, blowing up bridges as he went. Again the intangibles of psychology are at work here. Why did he only start performing when it was critical and yet unimportant. Was it that he needed the shock to his system. Had he been too inexperienced and complacent before Waterloo, only to be galvanised by news of the defeat? Or is it just that a fighting retreat needed less initiative from him. We might never know those reasons.

For the Allies too, the night after battle was as much about mourning as it was about celebrating. Wellington was physically and mentally exhausted. He had had an incredibly stressful day, almost always under fire and watching as the fate of Europe itself hung in the balance. He visited his friend and Aide De Camp Sir Alexander Gordon as soon as he left the battlefield. Sir Alexander had to have his leg amputated at the groin and if you listened to my battlefield surgery episode you will know just how incredibly dangerous that was. After visiting his Wellington sent news to Loius XVIII in Ghent before having dinner. He spoke very little, but kept glancing up anxiously in the hope that some of his missing staff officers and friends might arrive. Eventually he collapsed into bed exhausted.

At 02:30 he was woken by a surgeon, David Hume who told him that his close friend and comrade Sir Alexander had died. Hume began listing the casualties of the day and Wellington burst into tears, before saying

[QUOTE] “thank God I don’t know what it is to lose a battle, but certainly nothing can be more painful than to gain one with the loss of so many of one’s friends.” [END QUOTE]

This is true as Wellington had never lost a major battle he commanded and he actually had a close circle of aristocratic friends in the staff, a good number of whom died. As a commander he cultivated the mask of icy indifferent emotionless bravery, but underneath he was still a deeply feeling man. How far this extended to the common soldier is open to debate, but he was careful with his men’s lives and welfare to a degree that Napoleon wasn’t.

I think it is certain that a lot of men were feeling similar emotions in the British, Dutch and Hanoverian ranks. The Prussians seem to have been more interested in chasing the French and killing them. Blucher especially wanted to push on to Paris, skipping sleep, resupply or food for his men if it meant he could take the city. It is entirely possible he would have sacked it thoroughly or even burned it to the ground. Wellington wouldn’t be rushed though, as he later said to the Prussian liaison officer

[QUOTE] Do not press me on this point, for I tell you, it will not do. If you were better acquainted with the English army, its composition and its habits you would say the same. I cannot separate it from my tents and my supplies. My troops must be kept well supplied in camp, if order and discipline are to be maintained. It is better that I should arrive 2 days later in Paris than that discipline should be relaxed. [END QUOTE]

After receiving the news of the death of his friend and the casualty list, Wellington got up and began writing reports. His terse dispatch to London could almost sound like he lost the battle. He singled out a few officers for praise, including Sir Alexander. He was a bit less generous to the Earl of Uxbridge, Lord Henry Paget, than the man deserved given the amazing performance of the heavy cavalry, and the fact that he had his leg blown off by a cannon ball. Whether this is because of the lack of general discipline in the cavalry and the loss of control of the charge, or perhaps just Wellingtons personal style, or perhaps because the Earl had previously had an affair with Wellingtons sister in law, but we don’t know the exact reason. Still an initially furious Lady Uxbridge, was eventually consoled when the Pagets were elevated to the rank of Marquess of Anglesey. The name Paget will come up again and again in the Victorian era, so this is a family name to remember. I really wish I had time to do an episode on the Earl because he is a really, really interesting guy and he will appear in the podcast again and of course Wellington could be very sparse with his praise. The artillery were particularly badly served in terms of receiving laurels and praise. Many gunners felt extremely hard done by and overlooked after their hard service of the day. 

As the Allies left the battlefield of Waterloo, its fame spread. Displaying typically ugly human behaviour, tourists descended on the battle field, eager to see the spot where Wellington triumphed and Napoleon the Corsican Ogre was defeated as they saw it. The field was not cleared in the way we would today. Aristocratic ladies and gentlemen took musket balls, clothes and badges, and even bone fragments as keepsakes to say they had been at Waterloo. Unearned privilege was on full display. John Croker bought a Legion D’Honour that had been looted from a dead French officer. Walter Scott himself obtained a cuirass riddled with holes. Lady Wailde took some ashes from the remains of dead guardsman at Hougoumont home with her in an envelope whilst a visiting reverend collected some skull fragments.

Still, for locals it was an opportunity.

[QUOTE] A mile beyond Waterloo, most tourists would leave their carriage at the village of Mont Saint Jean and perhaps engage a battlefield guide. A local man, whose house had been filled with wounded after the battle, found regular employment as such and professed a deep hatred of Napoleon “And all for one man” he would say. “Ce coquin!” He would tell his English clients of the sufferings he had witnessed, “nothing but sawing off legs and sawing off arms” Then he would repeat his refrain “Oh mon dieu! And all for one man” and, following Bonapartes capture and exile, he would add “Why did you not put him to death?” [END QUOTE]

“The Aftermath – O’Keeffe”

Why indeed? It was a common sentiment. The Prussians wanted to, and poetry was written about it.

The poet laureate Robert Southey of the period wrote

“For him alone had all this blood been shed,

Why had not vengeance struck the guilty head?

One man was cause of all this world of woe,

Ye had him and ye did not strike the blow”

This was wholly unfair of course, and even worse it is terrible poetry. As always the reality was much more complex. Napoleon alone was not responsible for all the bloodshed. The causes of any war are usually complex and multifaceted. Still, in the popular mind of the time, Napoleon was a tyrant and he started the war.

News gradually reached the courts of Europe. Naturally the British were amongst the first to get the news. Major Henry Percy carried Wellington’s famous dispatch. Carrying a dispatch was considered a mark of high honour. He also carried the captured Eagles. Remember Sergeant Ewart and his revenge for the death of his beloved commanding officer? He had taken the eagle in desperate fighting, cutting and killing in a frantic melee. Well now the Eagle would be paraded and displayed and cheered as a symbol of Britain chaining the Eagle. Ewart would naturally be given the full hero’s legend treatment, but he and the other unsightly veterans would not be coming home to a land fit for hero’s as the saying goes.

Soon the whole UK was soon abuzz with the news. The great war was finally over. Peace, freedom, and the natural order could return to Europe. Yet the problem with Freedom is that its definition is in the eye of the beholder. Freedom meant a very different thing to a conservative British philosopher than it did to an American founding father. Both would argue that they were representing the true strands of freedom, liberty and justice. But both might arrive at very different conclusions about what those terms really represented.

In France, and in the courts of Europe, decisions had to be made. To capture Napoelon? To kill him? To banish him? Should he be exiled again or be allowed to go to America? Would he somehow cling on and scrape an army together to defend France? If not, who would rule France now? Napoleon’s son? The Duc D’Orlean? Louis XVIII. Or would the country be broken up, with its territory gobble up by Prussia, Austria, Britain and Spain. To Minister Joseph Foche, the ruthless, self obsessed traitor who was chief of the secret police, it was clear that it had to be King Loius XVIII. France had to be a monarchy again and he, Foche, was the only man suited to well advise the king. Foche’s treason had been a big contributor to so many of the disasters in recent French history. Foche was a master manipulator and was confident that naïve republican patriots like the famous La Fayette would be easy to manage. He was already scheming to exercise total control over the chamber of deputies and then puppet master of France.

The equally treacherous and self obsessed Foreign Minister Talleyrand was also for a French monarchy. The various European powers though would need to be persuaded. After all, it was entirely possible they could sweep into France, break it up and share it between themselves. Blucher was talking wildly of horrific acts of revenge, burning Paris, and acts that might border on genocide. The British were less committed. Britain was already being swept by a wave of sentimentality. They had beaten Napoleon by themselves at Waterloo they felt. Surely such an act of near mythic triumph required them to be gracious victors. It would stain their honour to engage in reprisals or the execution of Napoleon or the destruction of Frane. Many were uncomfortable with the idea that they could just impose government on the French, and besides how would it look to history if they killed Napoleon? That would cheapen the victory. Many more far sighted British statesmen were deeply concerned with the idea of France being broken up. They didn’t want to hand ultimate power over the continent from France to Prussia or Russia.

The painter, Benjamin Haydon, probably expressed the sentiment that a lot of the British were feeling. Quoting again from “The Aftermath by O’Keeffe” where he is quoting Haydon.

[QUOTE] the Duke of Wellington had saved for this age the intellect of the world while had Napoleon triumphed we would have been brought back to barbarianism. [END QUOTE]

Still, the feeling was not universal in Britain. Many British had been pro-revolution and pro-Napoleon. Some had suffered under the British aristocracy. Others were enlightenment liberals or were general admirers of Napoleon.

Whether sympathetic, happy, or just anxious for news about relatives and friends who were in the conflict, Britain was swept up in a mania at the news. Full overblown sentiments were let free. Artwork and prosed tended to the fantastical. Good taste was forgotten. This will be very familiar when we move into the Victorian period. It was no longed a victory thanks to god and our soldiers. It became in my words, admittedly made up, but I think this is the right style of it “ a most marvellous event comparable only to Caesars triumph over the Gaul’s. Now as then, our troops did display such fortitude and vigour that notwithstanding the enemies utmost assertions and great excitement, they were turned back as the waves breaking against rock. Such was the courage on display that Mars himself must surely have graced our arms and added greater lustre to the already illustrious achievements of our noble banners.

Yes I made that up, but it is really in keeping with how the style is going to develop. A good example is the Opera House in Covent Garden, who produce a piece of commemorative art and said [QUOTE] “A grand transparency, representing Britain succouring France, personified by an interesting female figure in a supplicant posture, attired in a robe covered in flour de lis; on her side stands the British Lion. A group of attributes, and above, with expanded wings, appears a figure of fame sounding the trumpet.” [END QUOTE] 

IIf it sounds odd when we say Britain succouring France that’s not suckering like a sucker punch, it is succouring as in to give aid to France. The image being created here is that Britain came to France and helped her in her hour of need to free her from Napoleon, rather than being at war with France. This was positively restrained compared to the language that was used by the Morning Post Newspaper to celebrate its collection for the veterans reaching £100,000. Remember when listening to this quote that Plumb was slang for £100,000 and this was a colossal sum of money.


Hail Britain! Thy bounty, beyond all dispute,

Must with wonder strike other lands dumb;

When they see that thy heroes, as victory’s fruit,

Receive from thy kindness a plumb

A plumb for those who fought and bled,

Already they declare;

But some have confidently said

We’ll make that plumb a pair.


Ok, somethings to think about here. The first is that I hope you like this kind of overblown hyperbole because this is just going get more and more common as we go through the Victorian age. Language, ornate, over complicated and verbose is a Victorian trade mark. It can be delightful, baffling or tedious, but I do love it. So get used to it.

The second thing that perhaps leaps out at me is to wonder how much of that sum of money reached the genuine working class veterans, and how much was used effectively. I suspect it went through the filter of aristocratic monument building, then middle class worthy charities well before any trickled down to actually reach the veterans themselves. It is also worth noting that you have to say that piece of humour is not as funny and clever as the author wanted.

British feelings weren’t something that Foche would be able to simply ignore. If the British let the Prussians off the leash then France faced destruction. It wasn’t as if the British were historically friendly to France either. Centuries of continental war against the French made the two nations natural enemies and this would be an ideal opportunity to repay France for what Britain considered to be French aggression and unwarranted interference during the American War of Independence, when French help was instrumental in turning the tide of war in the Americans favour. This could be payback time. At the very least Foche and Talleyrand knew that Britain would be seeking to take advantage and territory from the defeated France surely. Wellington was now supreme commander in Europe and the new political order was in many ways up to him. As a natural conservative aristocrat he would look favourably on Louis XVIII being given power, but equally he was known to want to see a government that was acceptable to the French people, perhaps the Duc D’Orlean and it is unlikely that Wellington had a particularly high opinion of Louis XVIII in person. That wouldn’t remotely suit Foche. So playing up this British myth of a solo British triumph might actually be useful to Foche and Talleyrand. Greatness and generosity in victory would be quite helpful to them at this point.

Paris was in gossipy uproar. Whatever the press had been saying recently, their was a buzz in the air. Rumours circulated. The chambers went into emergency session. More rumours. That Prince Jerome had made a panicked return to Paris, liquidated his government stocks and fled, that there were only 200 Imperial Guard left and Napoleon had been killed. Everywhere the cry “The Prussians were coming.”

Regardless of the future, Napoleon remained technically emperor. He was in full flight to France, ahead of his army. This wasn’t to abandon them through cowardice. Napoleon was never a coward. He just had a bigger picture to focus on. Who would rule France and could France organise a defence. Staying with a chaotic mob would not help save the nation, and need saving it did. Sadly for the Emperor his personal baggage and then later his treasury wagon were looted by lucky Prussian troops, losing him a fortune. Worse, the loot included a list of French spies and many plans.

Nor was Napoleon the only considerable figure involved. There were a lot of Napoleonic loyalists who would still rally to the Emperor or his son. There were many revolutionaries like La Fayette who thought the overthrow of Napoleon would restore the republic. They were as deluded as the original assassins of Caesar at the fall of the Roman republic, but they still had a powerful voice in the French government. If Napoleon could rally them, perhaps a Republican resistance movement would threaten Foche’s plans for restoring the Monarchy. There were other powerful figures to consider. There was Grouchy with his retreating force almost untouched by battle. There were the brilliant Marshals Soult and Clausel, as well as Napoleon’s loyal brother in law Lucien. 

Above all else though there was Marshal Davout. What would that icy, disciplined ,and ruthless man do? His loyalty to Napoleon had been beyond that of any other Marshal. He was Minister of War, and if he gathered an army to him, he could put anyone he wanted on the throne, or make Napoleon a unchallenged dictator. He would be an immensely dangerous enemy to the allied forces. He was arguably better than Napoleon at a tactical level and at least as good at the strategic and possibly even theatre levels. He had an enormous list of victories, some better than some of Napoleon’s. He had always drilled his men to maintain iron discipline no matter what. This was not a man to overlook or underestimate. Especially as he had a bitter hatred of Foche.

Finally on 21 June, after many twists and turns, the Emperor reached Paris. He refused the offer of a better carriage on arrival, sticking to a less noticeable one lent to him on the journey. By a less well know route, he entered the city.

I have previously said that it is unusual for a breakfast to make the history books, but Napoleon’s pre-Waterloo breakfast did. Well today, even more usually a bath is going to be crucial to Napoleon’s downfall.

It is sometimes on these strange curiosities that fate can hinge. The day before Napoleon entered Paris, it had been agreed by his generals that the Emperor had to go straight to the Chamber of Representatives, to inform them of everything, to make it clear that France as a nation was in danger, and that they should put aside any petty bad feeling and think only of helping Napoleon preserve the nation itself from utter ruin. This stirring address should come from Napoleon whilst still dressed in his army uniform, smeared with blood, his face blackened with smoke and dirt. He should tell them he was going to return to Belgium at the head of Grouchy’s men and they had to rally the nation and support him. Surely it would be impossible for them to say no to a man clearly fresh from battling for the existence of the French republic?

Yet despite agreeing to this plan, when he arrived, Napoleon decided to take a bath. His circle of ministers and generals gathered outside and had time to worry. Crucial time slipped away again as it did at Quatre Bras and early at Waterloo. Finally Napoleon emerged. Minister Carnot recommended a defence of Paris to give the for the consolidation of all French military forces from other areas, and then a mass counter attack. Others were less confident and asserted that only if Napoleon gained the confidence and support of the chamber of deputies could he continue. Marshal Davout was having none of this. He effectively urged Napoleon to become supreme military dictator for a short period, and move the government out of Paris. Foche immediately disagreed, saying he was sure, sure the government would give Napoleon everything he wanted during such an emergency, if the Emperor would only put himself in their hands. This was a breath taking piece of Chutzpa considering that Foche was busy secretly warning the chambers that Napoleon was planning on becoming a military dictator, and he had also secretly been priming La Fayette to bring matters to a head in the chambers. The Marquis De La Fayette had done wonderful things in support of the American revolution and is justly celebrated for those achievements, but in the arena of French politics he was utterly hopeless in comparison. He believed that Foche was working to save the republic from the military dictatorship of Napoleon. It is baffling why he would trust Foche, but it is also baffling how he could think that deposing Napoleon and effectively neutering the French army would be a good idea in the middle of an invasion.

Still, with the ideals of both revolutions in heart, La Fayette seemed to truly believe he was destined to lead France into a new age of Enlightenment. He rose to his feet in the chamber of deputies and gave a genuinely stirring speech. Graceful yet passionate and compelling. He also made a strong proposal of 5 articles. Art 2 was to have the Chambers in permanent session with any attempt to dissolve them being treason. The choice was now out of Napoleon’s hands. The government would neither dissolve nor leave Paris.

When he heard the news, Napoleon knew what it meant, saying

[QUOTE] I expected this. I should have dissolved those men before I left. It is finished. They will ruin France. [END QUOTE]

Foche’s secret plans had borne fruit. Marshal Davout now flatly refused to proceed with any military coup. He was unwilling to have his troops storm the Chamber, with the attendant loss of life. Before the articles were passed, he would have done, but the moment had passed. The time for Napoleon to seize power had drained away whilst he was in his bath.

Debate raged in the chambers, but it was now clear that they wanted Napoleon gone. Lucien gave a passionate defence of his brother, but La Fayette skilful rebuffed it.

Now the only real options left to Napoleon were to either rally the army and the mobs of Paris to him and kill the politicians in the chambers or to abdicate.

More than the Chamber of Deputies Napoleon understood the real situation

[QUOTE] It concerns me not. It concerns France. They want me to abdicate! Have they considered the inevitable consequences of my abdication? It is around me, around my name, that the army is gathered. Take me away and the army will dissolve. If I abdicate today, in 2 days time there will be no army. This army does not understand your subtleties. Do you think that metaphysical axioms, declarations of rights, parliamentary speeches will stop it from disbanding? [END QUOTE]

This seems to have been a constant failing of many revolutions and governments facing invasions; a constant obsession with speeches, declarations, proclamations and all the trappings without dealing with the often grim reality outside their bubble.

As Napoleon went on to say

[QUOTE] when the enemy is 25 leagues away, you do not overthrow your government with impunity. Do they think they can turn aside the foreigners with phrases. [END QUOTE]

That really cleaves to the heart of the problem. The politicians thought that the Allies were only interested in Napoleon and if he went, well then France could be left alone to form a peaceful republican government. Napoleon understood this to be delusional fantasy land thinking. The enemy wanted to conquer France. The real question was could they be stopped or if not, what kind of deal could France strike with them? If France kept a meaningful army in the field and showed determined resistance, then at least her post war bargaining position might be started from a firmer footing. Some of Napoleon’s Marshal’s like Suchet were already beginning to gain victories in other area’s.

The next day, after some wrangling and bitterness, Napoleon wrote his abdication in favour of his son Napoleon II. With it came Marshal Davouts calm situational report to the Chamber of Deputies on the armed forces. He noted that Marshal Grouchy was returning in good order with his 2 corp. Marshal Soult had gathered together 3,000 Imperial Guard and other line infantry. In all Marshal Davout felt he could put together a disciplined core force of around 60,000 men. As he said

[QUOTE] A strong barrier will be opposed to foreign invasion, and you will have an army sufficiently respectable to support your negotiations with an enemy who has proved that he does not always keep his promises with fidelity. [END QUOTE]

Foche must have had kittens at the mere thought of Marshal Davout as sole commander of French forces. After all, Davout was right. A strong army meant a strong negotiating hand for France and therefore less chance for Foche to get Louis XVIII not only back on the throne, but under his thumb. The Anglo Allied army had been badly battered at Waterloo, so its effective fighting strength was actually surprisingly low. I’ve seen figures of Wellington only have an effective strength of 50,000 at this stage. Worse for Foche, some of the politicians looked thoughtful. Perhaps the abdication had been premature. Maybe they should try Davout’s option. It must have gone almost without saying that Davout would immediately have Foche shot.

Luckily for Foche, but disastrously for France, Marshal Ney was about to intervene again. He had, in the words of Napoleon, ruined France at Quatre Bras and Waterloo. He was about to do it again. He leapt to gave a passionate rant about how the army was destroyed and further resistance was folly. He claimed he had seen its total destruction.

This simply wasn’t true. Ney had basically snapped under the intense pressure. He had betrayed Napoleon, then he had betrayed the King, then failed Napoleon, and had failed to find the hero’s death he wanted at Waterloo. Now he was close to raving.

Whatever his beliefs, reasons, or state of mind, the die was now firmly cast. The military resistance that Napoleon and the Marshals hoped for was no longer an option. Marshal Soult was relieved of his command, which was given to the less talented Grouchy, who would in turn report to Davout. Whilst Davout was given supreme military command , there was no prospect of further resistance. Paris was surrendered under the Convention of St Cloud. On 07 July 1815 the allies occupied Paris. The next day Loius XVIII was made king again.

Napoleon fell into lethargy. He had initially refused to leave the capital, trying to get himself appointed a general of the republic. He had spotted a vulnerability in the allied positions that he could counter attack. The government rebuffed him. There was no way in hell they would allow a reinvented Napoleon the Republican General to sweep in and save the day. So he loitered. His power ebbed away. He eventually left the capital and travelled south. His few friends were desperately urging him to make a run for it, to flee to the United States or to South America or even to the Ottoman Empire. Anywhere out of reach of the French government or the Allies. Napoleon seemed to change his mind constantly, even reaching out to Foche for all people for passports and permission to leave. Quite why he decided this was necessary was baffling. He could have used his loyalist troops and loyalists in the navy to force an escape. Needless to say Foche provided a lot of warm and encouraging words to Napoleon but no real passports or permission to leave.

Eventually on 15 July 1815 he decided to give himself up to Captain Maitland on the HMS Bellerophon and the Royal Navy and throw himself on England’s mercy. Captain Maitland and the Royal Navy were naturally delighted, and Napoleon became a celebrated figure on board ship. The British government was firm that Napoleon was not to be allowed to land in England. They worried that he would charm his way into the aristocracy and become a unexploded bomb. They might have been right. Instead, after much wrangling, and a good deal of pleading on his part, he was exiled to St Helena. This was a far cry from his much more comfortable exile on Elba, and his British jailers treated him appallingly. Whether he merited it or escaped a well deserved hanging depends very greatly on your view of the causes of the Napoleonic Wars. I’ve tried hard to explain that reality is always a lot more complicated than the easy answers of popular culture.

Now though the first true world war was over. It had been fought across the continents of Europe, in the deserts of North Africa, on the high seas, and colonies of the great powers involving India, Africa, South and North America

This left France now, as it had been before the revolution, with the prospect of a useless monarchy that couldn’t address the challenges of the C19th. It would be a long time until France reclaimed her pre-eminence on the continent. For now the Allied Great Powers would settle the balance of power in Europe.

In the next episode or two we will discover how the great and the good would play with the lives of men as bubbles to suit their own visions. For a lot of brave Marshals, a day of reckoning was ahead as vengeful kings, princes and nobles sought payback for the constant humiliations, where men born to poverty rise to the top through sheer merit thereby exposing as false the claims of Kings and Aristocrats as being hollow. Marshal Ney would be executed after a show trial, Murat would meet a similar fate, whilst others went to more ugly deaths.

For now though we also say goodbye to what has been called the finest army that the British ever fielded. It isn’t quite accurate because the army of the Peninsular that Wellington commanded, was actually not in the main present at Waterloo. But when we look at the Napoleonic Wars in total, the British and allied army had performed incredibly under Wellington. Rough, tough, uncultured and largely uneducated. They looked shambolic and seemed to be officered by dandies, with a besetting alcohol problem. But to everyone’s surprise they had fought the French to standstill in Portugal, worked with the brilliant Spanish partisans to turn Spain in a graveyard for the French, expelled Napoleon from France. They had stood with allied troops and finally held off the last great Napoleonic army and the invincible Imperial Guard. It had been a long, hard war. Now though the army was about to march into history. They would be scattered in garrisons around the world, or sent home to see if there really was to be a land fit for heroes.

This is a crucial moment in British history because it really functions as a kind of creation myth for the nation in much the way that WW2 would go on to do for another generation. A British army of English, Irish, Scots and Welsh had fought together. A generation before it was touch and go if the English and Scots would be at war with each other. There was also the military disaster of the American War of Independence, a nadir in British military history, where the British displayed a level of ineptness that nearly broke their military reputation, with only some bright spots in the navy. The Napoleonic Wars changed everything. The Navy had seized control of basically the entire oceans on the planet. The British army had gone from a small, often defeat rabble to a pinnacle of triumph. They had gone toe to toe with the absolute best in Europe, which at that time probably meant the world. They might not have been better at strategy or clever manoeuvres but they had displayed a tough discipline that no one could believe. This meant that for the next century it became almost unthinkable that the British redcoat could suffer defeat as far as the British were concerned.  For the Scots, the Highlanders had been newcomers to the British army. Distrusted and distrustful. Still loyal to their clan chiefs and with memories of the rising of 1745 under Bonnie Prince Charlie against the English crown. Yet now, they were admired. The fierce cries of “Scotland forever” had rung out during the desperate bayonet charges. The war cries of the Scots and the terrible, mighty, powerful sound of the pipes would now ring out across the world as the Highlanders and Lowlanders become a key part of the growing empire, and fierce warriors in the Victorian army. The Welsh also came out of Waterloo with a glowing reputation, as did the Irish, especially for the heroics of the 27th Inniskillen.

Fittingly a bronze solider of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a Irish Dragoon, a English Grenadier and a Scottish Highlander stands next to the statue of the Duke of Wellington in Hyde Park. All forged from captured French cannons. This was the birth of the united Victorian army

Britain would not see their like again. The soldiers of the future would be very different. Starting to be drawn from factories. Less well fed and with rickets and deformaties. Yet better educated with drink on the decline. With the birth of intense religion amongst the ranks. But for years to come many a soldier and sergeant in a desperate spot somewhere overseas would say “huh, this is nothin’ I ain’t running from this rabble; I was at Waterloo against Bonney and that was a proper fight.”




If you’ve been listening to recent episodes you will know that we have just covered the 100 campaign and the absolute hell that was the Battle of Waterloo. As I said at the end of the last episode, I’ve tried to give you the human cost without national gloss at least as far as possible. You might have noticed a curious omission. Despite all the detail I’ve gone into, I’ve barely mentioned the care of the wounded or the doctors. The reason is that I wanted to do a deep dive on what would have been called “the butchers bill” I am doing this, partly for completeness, because it is fascinating and it is a sharp contrast with some of the immense advances of the Victorian era, but also because it is often barely touched on in films & books on Waterloo in any kind of detail. There is a notable anniversary  book on Waterloo that relegates the medical issue to basically a page, gives the tiniest summary, gets the causes of an amputation wrong, then skips on to an anecdote. Medical care is a crucial part of war. It isn’t separate from it, or an after thought. How troops and generals viewed and provided medical care was a major dimension of warfare. 

The Napoleonic Wars created a mass of wounded and sick men in need of care. They also maimed thousands of horses that required veterinary attention. I’ve had a lot of great feed back from everyone on how much they’ve enjoyed the Waterloo episodes and the personal perspectives I try to give to history, but some have said they found the descriptions a bit traumatic. So I need to give you a fair warning that this medical episode is going to have come fairly graphic content. There will be descriptions of amputations and other painful injuries so if you are particularly squeamish about medical issues, you should probably skip this and wait for the next minisode.

Still with me? Good, because the C19th is not for the faint of heart. There were significant casualties to treat after Waterloo. How were the armies going to respond? Would they respond? Remember it is a modern ideal that all life is precious and sacred. Through much of human history, a lot of human lives have been considered disposable. Some armies in history would have perhaps abandoned their wounded to whatever ad hoc care that they could beg for themselves. Others might have regarded medical care as useful only if the soldier in question could be quickly returned to the fight. Of course some armies prided themselves on medical care, notably the Ancient Greeks and Roman Legions. 

Even armies that adopt a harsh attitude, perhaps like the Spartans, or the medieval English, are not immune to the feelings of the soldiers themselves. Soldiers liked to know that they would be helped if they were injured. They didn’t like watching comrades die if they could be saved. They often fought better if they could have confidence that there was going to be some kind of medical provision.

By 1815, not only was this being recognised, but other factors were coming into play. Enlightenment ideals about medicine as a science were becoming established. The early nation states began to realise that soldiers were a valuable asset and perhaps treating them was better in the long run than letting them die and having to train new ones. Many amateur medical staff began to view themselves as serious professionals, and took pride in their craft. 

In a rough total there were around 45,000 dead and wounded to deal with after Waterloo. It is crucial to remember that there are an almost infinite number of ways to injury a human in battle. Simplistically we could say soldiers suffered gunshot wounds, cannon wounds, cuts, breaks, sword blows both slashes and thrusts, and burns. That list is of course an almost meaningless summary. A man might be grazed across the side of his jaw by a spent bullet and therefore be described as having a gunshot wound, but then he receives a sword cut from a French cavalrymen that lands on his upper arm cleaving the bicep muscle down to the bone. Of the two it is actually the sword cut that is much more serious, but the problem is that to a modern person it is easy to mentally assume gunshot is more serious just because we are more used to hearing about them.

Also I want you to remember as we discuss wounds, treatment and general medicine today that you need to leave a lot of modern baggage at the door. First, don’t make the mistake of thinking of these weapons as primitive. They are less technically complicated than today’s weapons and sometimes less lethal, but they were still all highly effective implements of war. Easily capable of killing or inflicting the most horrific wounds. Swords were well designed and deadly. Cannon were absolutely murderous, and muskets have killed hundreds of thousands of people since they were introduced.  

Secondly, modern assumptions about pain and people’s expectations of treatment are very different. In fact it is almost impossible to quantify the difference in mind set. The C19th was an age were many jobs and professions left people horrifically maimed. Disease was rampant in civilian as well as military life. Don’t assume that just because someone was deemed treated effectively, in a way that sounds shocking today, that they would have been unhappy with the result. 

Thirdly, expectations about pain control were very, very different. If you’ve worked in the medical field you will be familiar with the idea that pain is actually a relative concept. People experience pain differently. One persons mild bump can be another’s crippling agony. A stubbed toe is nasty to a child, but can perhaps be a hospital trip for a 90 year old. I would like you to also remember that there is no right or wrong way to react to pain. It is a subjective experience. That’s why people are asked to rate their own pain on a scale of 1-10 relative only to their own feelings. Some people have a higher tolerance and some people have a lower one and will be unable to carry out day to day functions. The mistake is to think that either approach can be objectively wrong. In fact I bet a lot of people listening have the idea that somehow pain control is a bit wrong. That people should endure as much as possible and avoid drugs. This is very much a cultural value judgement. Pain is just your bodies way of signalling that something is wrong. It doesn’t have a moral dimension. It just tells you “Hey you rammed your toe against a hard object, damaged it and you really need to refrain from walking or running for a while whilst the bodies damage control systems repair things” You however have a cultural expectation. Your boss doesn’t care that you are in agony, or that getting to work is now extremely hard. She doesn’t care you have trouble carrying stuff out from the stock room. All she cares about is that you are making annoying noises that distract her, and that you need to move at your usual speed to keep productivity high instead of nearly crying at each step. She applies the standard management remedy of threatening you with loss of pay or the job, certain that you just require better motivation to heal more quickly. Again this is entirely a social response. Modern society views most claims of sickness as some kind of attempt to rob a company of productivity, and that if people toughened up they wouldn’t get injured or sick so this is their moral failure. Arguments like this have raged in one way or another throughout history. 

In the aftermath of Waterloo, there were a lot of badly injured people. By any standards, this was a huge medical disaster to cope with. A modern example of how difficult this can be is people responding to the tragic mass shooting in Las Vegas recently. Hundreds of people were in need of help. Think about how difficult it was to get that help to the right people. How were they located and identified as needing help? Hospitals and ambulances had well drilled routines. The modern medical system has an ocean of resources just waiting for these kind of events. Even with all this. Even with the heroic efforts of first responders, brave police, modern roads and structures, it was still a huge undertaking. Above all there is a knowledge and recognition of a “golden hour” after treatment, when medical treatment makes the greatest impact. The idea’s for that would actually be based on knowledge that was being gathered during the Napoleonic wars.

At Waterloo this massive system of support was entirely absent. If a modern doctor walked onto the field of Waterloo straight out of a time machine, and was told “well go on, help people” he or she might have a panic attack. Where to start? Even all the modern knowledge he or she has about infection, pain control and anatomy and genetics, these would be of limited help without the mass of complex resources and systems that enable modern medicine. 

Now I’m going to focus on the British medical services in the main. The British did indeed treat medicine seriously in the main. They considered themselves a modern nation with highly educated gentlemen, who had the tools, skills and knowledge to perform incredible feats of medicine and science. As always though, the reality was a lot more complicated. Attitudes varied up and down the social class structure. There was immense local variation in what treatment was available or desired. A small village might be reliant on an apothecary of some sort, plus local treatments and folk memory. Injuries were often farming or drink related and disease was common, probably various forms of fever. In a large city like London, a wide variety of disease and injury were available to the local population, including the diseases of cramped cities as well as increased levels of STD’s. Balanced against this, it was possible to find more varied medical treatment. Apothecaries vied with early pharmacists and barber surgeons. 

At the top of the social & medical pecking order though sat the physician. A physician was university educated and usually a wealthy gentlemen. He would have read the classics, including the ancient medical texts of Galen and the various Arab physicians. He would almost certainly read and written in English and Latin, plus perhaps Greek. Whilst he would have obsessions that might seem strange today, such as a focus on bleeding, he would have probably known a lot of more up to date medical literature. If he was especially forward thinking he might even keep case notes, and pass his experience on. Many, probably most, considered themselves serious professionals who were invested in keeping patients alive and healthy and not just for the income. Men like the famous Dr Larrey of the French Imperial Guard were internationally regarded for their medical brilliance. Notice that I am saying he. Women would not really have become physicians at this time, with one or two extremely exceptional cases such as disguising themselves as men. This, plus the high cost of university effectively limited the profession to the sons of rich gentlemen, which severely limited the pool of talent to draw on.

Don’t forget as we go along, that the most advance medicine of any time, will always appear primitive in hindsight. In the 1950s, people thought they were in a golden age of medicine, yet those same techniques look so backwards today.

The social attitudes carried over into the army and navy. The actual profession of medicine was steeped in snobbery. As a result of their education, the physicians felt themselves superior to others in the medical field. They could command high wages, unlike many of the army surgeons, although they weren’t always viewed as completely respectable. Much depended on who the physician was treating. Clearly the Royal Physician would have considerable social standing. 

The high cost of becoming a physician deterred many. Qualified physicians were sometimes hesitant to actually practice hands on medicine, leaning more towards some esoteric theory. Even fewer physicians were actually willing to join the army. The army simply didn’t have a high enough social standing before Waterloo. Joining the army took them away from lucrative civilian practices. Worse was the risk of ending up in what was considered an “unhealthy station” like the Caribbean or somewhere on the African coast. Death from Yellow Fever was as much of a risk for a highly educated physician as it was for a regular soldier. A lot of these military postings were in countries that were known during the Victorian period as “the white man’s graveyard” due to the enormous mortality rates caused by various diseases.

 The consequence of this was that the fully qualified physician was a rarity and not commonly encountered by regular troops. Social snobbery meant that experienced army surgeons were barred from being promoted to physician so there was an acute lack of practical experience with military disease amongst the physicians, until the old ruling was abolished in 1811. The back bone of the army medical profession was to be the army surgeon. Social snobbery meant that progression was difficult for army surgeons, but many made real strides even if the profession evolved haphazardly. You’ve probably all heard that barbers and surgeons were interchangeable in the middle ages. Well by the Napoleonic Wars changes were sweeping through the ranks of the surgeons. No longer were they associated with barbers. Surgeons could often by committed, professional men, seeking advancement in the military and helping patients. They were assisted by surgeons mates, who varied in quality from aspiring surgeons to drunken incompetents, sometimes regarded by the army as ranking below the horses. 

Treatment depended very much on who you were, where you were, what provisions the armies senior officers had decided to provide, and crucially if your mates were around to help you. If you suffered an incapacitating wound, you became reliant on your immediate friends to move you if possible or get help. If your battalion had been forced to retreat, and you got left behind, well things could turn very nasty for you. You could be left unnoticed to die of blood loss, dehydration and infection. Or a miracle might happen and an enemy might decide to care for you. Social standing played a large part. Ideally you were a officer who had been spotted performing something heroic, and a romantic enemy officer might decide to get you recovered in an act of chivalry. This was more common if an enemy general was captured. If you struck gold, perhaps Napoleon heard of your case, and your high rank meant you might get attention from Dr Larrey himself. Since he was probably one of the finest doctors in the world, a forward thinking professional, you might actually get better care than you would have got in your own army. For most though, this would have been like winning the lottery twice. The reality for most was that they would be looted by passing enemy soldiers, and probably just bayoneted or left to die. If the battlefield looting was survived, it was essential for the injured soldier to drag himself to somewhere off the battlefield and get help. 

Injured soliders who remained on the field if the army had moved on were now in terrible danger. Local peasants and other civilians would flood the battlefield to ruthlessly loot the fallen. Many soldiers were stripped naked, and a knife quickly drawn across the throat. In the pre-modern age, everything had value from boots to buttons to teeth. If the injured soldier was alive, the looter might be in a hurry and not kill them. Sometimes a solider might be wearing a ring that was hard to take off. Alive or dead, a looter could very well chop the fingers off. Teeth were also valuable and if the looter didn’t want to get blood on the clothes from stabbing a wounded man, then they might rip the teeth out of a living injured soldier. 

For this reason civilian looters were regarded as scum by soldiers throughout the Napoleonic and Victorian periods. A soldier might regard himself as entitled to loot because he had risked his life in battle, but a civilian had no such entitlement as far as a soldier was concerned. Looters were often chased off, or run down by cavalry, or stung up from a tree, or given a good beating as a warning. Wellington had very strong views on looting and maintained a strict system of Provost Marshals to keep order.

There was another slim hope for the incapacitated soldiers. Sometimes the army remained in place. Musicians were often employed during battle as primitive stretcher bearers and would often search the battlefield for injured who might still be alive.

As you can see though, for the injured getting off the battlefield and getting treated was vital. It could often a case of looking out for yourself. Men performed feats of endurance that sound shocking to us today.

That first big problem of getting off the field was complicated just by the logistics of it. Men performed feats of endurance that sound shocking to us today. Men with lost limbs would force themselves up, and to travel to get help must have been agonising. Most regiments had some form of band and would employ bandsmen as stretcher barriers. These were not the modern, lightweight easily portable versions we know today. Some were canvass with long heavy poles. They were hard to handle and very heavy. They were an encumbrance. Some regiments used a simply canvass sling under a light weight pole. This was more comfortable and quicker, but it swayed and compressed the injured body.  Neither method was waterproof, nor did it keep the injured warm and stop them going into shock.

For Scottish regiments, the long sashed kilt might be a very useful alternative. An officers kilt could be used as a soft carrying blanket. A popular senior officer supported in his kilt by four strong Scotsmen could be moved fairly quickly off the field and in some comfort. Of course an unpopular officer might find it difficult to attract attention and end up dying a lonely death. Carts were common off the battlefield, but not on it. The forward thinking French experimented with ambulances.

Treatment naturally depended on the nature of the injury. As this was the age before the discovery of infection or antibiotics or anaesthesia, treatment tending to be more based on surgery and home remedy than what we would consider appropriate today. Surgeons should have had a personal kit containing their favoured surgical implements although difficulties on campaign sometimes left them without their kit. These kits were usually boxes or rolled hand bags or grips, usually contained a knife or scalpel of some kind, a saw, various hooks and retractors, and the only really effective pain killer of the day an opiate called Laudanum (containing approximately 10% powdered opium by weight, equivalent to 1% morphine). This was an opiate, but nothing like as effective as modern morphines, or ethers, or even cocaine or chloroform. When and how to intervene was very much based on the judgement of the individual surgeon; there were no standard clinical guidelines. Some surgeons, particularly very clever ones with good analytical data to back it up (like Dr Gutherie) were convinced immediate intervention was essential, as quickly as possible with only a small pause to stabilise the patient. Others preferred to wait longer to allow the patient to recover more before surgery, especially in the case of amputations. This was risky either way. Lacking saline, the patient was at risk of immense fluid loss, and delays could exacerbate the problem. Besides waiting increased the risk of infection. Of course, the surgeon was unlikely to sterilise his implements or even wash his hands between operations, so infection during surgery was frighteningly common. It was a common prayer across the various armies “god save me from the surgeons knife.”

None of this should mislead you into thinking that surgery was mere butchery. It most certainly wasn’t. Circulation was well understood, and there would be no recourse to magic, or horoscopes or balancing of humours as might have been the case until fairly close to the period. Bones could be set with skill, and even fractured skulls could be repaired. If you have seen the film “Master and Commander” or read any of the excellent Jack Aubrey books, there is an excellent scene where Dr Maturin replaces a fragment of skull in a comatose patient with a piece of coin. This is based on historical accounts and was a surprisingly complicated operation.

One of the other big tools missing from the surgeons arsenal was his ever present companion of the future – the Anaesthetist. The anaesthetist does far, far more than put a patient to sleep. They perform many essential functions; keeping a patient deeply asleep, with muscles chemically relaxed to the point where unaided breathing would be impossible. This state of muscled relaxed unconsciousness, along with antibiotics & pain control is one of the great foundations stones of sophisticated modern medicine. Without it, surgery is extremely difficult. 

Still, the surgeon did have some other tools at his disposal. There was the trusty wooden spoon and gag to ensure that a patient didn’t bite their tongue off during the operation. Alcohol was eagerly sought by patients. A bottle of rum or pint of brandy or even both would be considered as good for the pain as anything else. Some surgeons still used tar or hot iron for cauterisation but it was dying out. Fine silk stitches were used to close arteries and even hold falls of skin over the exposed ends of the stump of an amputation. Various poultices were used, some of which were honey based and could be surprisingly effective as honey is anti-bacterial. Leeches were dying out, but that’s actually a pity as they and maggots could be used to remove dead tissue or reduce bleeding. Drums were sometimes beaten during surgery as the noise and distraction could help. If all else failed, surgeons often exhorted soldiers not to show weakness in front of captured enemy soldiers, and to be quiet so they didn’t let their country down.

False teeth could be crafted to help with primitive dental surgery, and of course wooden legs or fake hands were created for patients. The richer the patient, the more elaborate the finished product might be. 

The later you reached the surgeon of course, the more tired he was likely to be. This meant more mistakes, with knives and saws getting more and more blunt, and all the implements getting increasingly dirty. Some surgeons after Waterloo were awake and operating for days in a row, often by lamp light. Patient mortality rates were enormous. Busy surgeons were known to hold their surgical knives between their teeth to free up hands to tie off arteries. 

Whether intentional or not, triage systems were adopted by almost all surgeons. No surgeon could afford to spend hours of time trying to save a hopeless case. In the time wasted on a patient that couldn’t be helped no matter what, he might lose other patients that could have been helped. Whilst sensible, it was hard on the doctors to have to leave soldiers to die, often alone in agony. 

Walking wounded would sometimes be dispatched back to full hospitals in cities like Brussels. Typically in a battle, a regiment would set up a dressing station close to where the battalion was deployed. There would be large field style regimental or army hospitals behind the main lines. The bulk of the casualties would be aiming to be dealt with either at the dressing station or the regimental field hospital. Going to a main army hospital was not necessarily a good idea. They were sometimes well equipped but some were little better than death traps. Unsanitary and often made up of buildings like monasteries occupied for the purpose, infection and disease ran rampant in them. The quality of medical staff varied wildly, ranging from competent to unqualified drunken orderlies who had somehow got themselves appointed “surgeons assistants” or “surgeons mates.” These men would be an eclectic mix of ambitious, but poor soldiers without the money, education and influence to become regimental surgeons, or they were sometimes the purest dregs who preyed on the helpless to rob or rape.

Rich officers would sometimes prefer to get comfortable private lodgings and a personal physician to attend them. This greatly increased their odds of survival. Rank did interfere with the triage system as well. Some surgeons would instinctively leave wounded troops to treat senior officers. Often this was because they recognised that the senior officer was more important to the overall war at that moment. No one could sensibly argue that if Wellington or other vital officers were injured then they shouldn’t take priority. The loss of Wellington would have meant the destruction of the Allied army. What was considered less appropriate was surgeons leaving off treatment of NCO’s and officers to treat lightly injured generals – usually to secure professional advancement or a lucrative source of income. 

Like all men under fire, some surgeons or assistants would not be willing to move forward to treat injured men. This is understandable. Humans in battle get flooded with adrenaline. They often suffer from a kind of tunnel vision. Creative thought becomes more difficult and the mind defaults to the practiced and well known. It isn’t a case of cowardice. These were soldiers under fire; they were simply facing the immense stress of battle. In some cases it would be clear that moving to help would be suicide anyway. Cannon fire couldn’t distinguish between medical staff and active combatants, so the exposed forward slopes were a risky proposition for anyone at Waterloo. Even if cannon fire wasn’t a problem, it was accepted that pretty much anyone on the battle field was a legitimate target for the enemy, so riding down a group of soldiers treating the injured would be considered good sport by many cavalry. 

Dreaded nearly above all was the amputation, especially of the leg. An arm could be surprisingly easy to lop off. Especially below the elbow. Some men declined the offer and preferred to live with a shattered hand or arm, and take their chances on gangerine developing later. Surgeons didn’t immediately jump to amputation. Arm wounds especially were managed without amputation if at all possible, since they had a better chance of positive recovery, although opinions were mixed. Dr Larrey said 

[QUOTE] If it should be said that the amputation of a limb is a cruel and dangerous operation, and one always fraught with grave consequences for the patient who is left in a mutilated condition, and that for these reasons there is more honour to be gained by preserving the limb than by amputating it, however skilfully and successfully done, the reply which admits of no denial is that amputation is an operation which offers a chance of recovery to an unfortunate individual, whose death appears certain by any other method of treatment.[END QUOTE]

A good example was Wellingtons staff aide Fitzroy Somerset, who lost his arm at Waterloo, but carried on a military career. He would eventually become Lord Raglan and his incompetent command in the Crimean War would lead to thousands of unnecessary casualties. 

Cases where there were extensive joint injuries, complex compound fractures near joints, or where there lacerated vessels and nerves, were all high priorities for amputation. Leaving the limb intact would guarantee infection and death. You can see that the doctors in the profession were acutely aware of the risks of various outcomes and genuinely wanted to do the best they could for their patients. Some debated whether to amputate immediately on the battlefield, or wait till the patient was stabilised and then operate a few days later. 

Cavalry swords and cannon shot sometimes did such a neat job of taking off an arm, that the surgeons main job was just tidying up, and monitoring for signs of fever or infection. Men like Nelson lost arms and eyes and continued to have distinguished military careers. The Royal Navy almost certainly never sent out a warship where at least some officers hadn’t lost body parts. 

But many injuries were far worse. These were the terrible leg wounds that could require an amputation well up the limb, or worse at near the hip. The leg has the great femoral artery in it. A high amputation required that artery to be cut. Bleeding would be massive and the operation itself could be hugely traumatic.  There’s a harrowing quote from Sgt Thomas Jackson in Spain.

[QUOTE] They had got me fixed upon the end of a large barrack room table, sitting upright, with my legs having down. A basin was brought for me to drink out of it. I said, Sir let me have a good draught. He poured me out nearly a pint of rum which I eagerly drank off. In an instant, it raised my spirits to an invincible courage. The sergeant was preparing to blindfold me. Oh no I said, I shall sit still and see as well as the rest. One of the surgeons sat on a stool to hold the leg steady, the second ripped up my trousers and took down the stocking low enough, then he waited on the head surgeon. The tourniquet being placed painfully tight above the knee, he put his hand under the calf of the leg and setting the edge of the knife on the shin bone, at one heavy, quick stroke, drew it around till it met the shin one again…. the blood quickly following the knife spread around and formed like a beautiful red fan, downwards. Next the surgeon with his hand forced the flesh up towards the knee to make way for the saw. When the saw was applied, I found it extremely painful; it was worn out. It stuck as a bad saw would when sawing a green stick. I said Oh Sir have you not a better saw? He said he was sorry he had not, as they were all worn out. The bone got through, the next thing to be done was still more painful. That of tying up the ligatures. Then followed the drawing down of the flesh to cover the end of the bone, and tightly strapped there with strips of sticking plaster. After this strongly bandaged. And thus ended the operation which lasted about half an hour. [END QUOTE]

 The Sgt was lucky. The higher up the leg the amputation, the more likely was death. It should come as no surprise that a leg amputation had an extremely high mortality rate. 40-50% was not unknown. Phantom pain was a problem, infection was almost certain, and complications and ultimately mortification was highly likely. Still, both Dr Larrey and the British surgeon David Brownrigg managed to perform an operation at the hip with a patient surviving. An almost unheard of event. The agony would leave the individual with immense mental trauma. Life long suffering was the result. And all of that, was being done by a doctor trying his best to save your life and help you live in the best condition you could. Today we would regard this as brutal torture, but in 1815 this was state of the art battlefield medicine. Still doctors like Dr Gutherie were using these experiences and collecting statistics on outcomes to make huge advances. Understanding about infection was boosted, as Gutherie demonstrated that mortality rates for early amputation were far lower than in patients who were moved to larger hospitals first. Soldiers were better off having their limbs amputated on the field of Waterloo, rather than being evacuated to a hospital in Brussels where mortality rates climbed sharply. Guthrie was keen on splinting where possible to avoid amputation. If possible wounds were probed with forceps and foreign objects removed, including not just bullets but also coins, clothing and teeth driven into wounds by blast damage. It was exceptionally painful, but if it could spare a man an amputation, deep probing was preferred.

 In any case of damage to the torso or head, amputation wasn’t an option anyway so probing, surgical excision and stitching were the main viable treatment paths. Whilst injuries to the torso, especially lungs were viewed as fatal, surgeons still made valiant efforts with surprising success. Fractured skulls were difficult to treat, but it was done with care and sometimes positive results. Even brain surgery could be attempted, especially in cases where death was otherwise certain. 

Much depended on the skill and ambition of the surgeon, plus how much time he had available. Guthrie and Lowrey both performed complex bowel and abdominal surgery, and Lowrey managed to extract musket balls from men’s lungs, sometimes removing ribs to gain access. In circumstances like this, we can see why soldiers were terrified of the fate that might await them. 

Of course infection was incredibly common. I won’t go into all the types and effects, but this was all before Joseph Lister did his pioneering work on antiseptics and infection control in the mid Victoria era. Dirty instruments and poor dressings were the norm. Surgeons and assistants rarely washed hands between patients, sharing the same instruments used between operations. Face masks and sterile gloves were simply unknown. Often honey based herbal poultices were the best anti infection treatments around. 

So that gives you the picture of what was suffered after Waterloo. Surgeons worked for days on improvised tables under lamp light. They worked till they were dropping with exhaustion. Clothes became stiff with blood and some could hardly move fingers. For every brilliant Dr Guthrie there were hundreds of other competent unsung surgical heroes and hundreds more inept butchers, or complete novices learning surgeon on wounded men under pressure.  

Such was the price to be paid. Mars had wrecked havoc on the men in battle, now they were in the hands of Apollo and Dr Guthrie. Looking at this in reflection, it nearly beggars belief anyone would be a soldier. You can see why Napoleon’s glory was seen as having too high a price in the views of many of the time. 

Fortunately for soldiers of the Victorian age, some immense changes were coming. Books would be written setting out the lessons in surgery and treatment learned at such high a cost. Many surgeons had died with their men in battle like Sir William De Lancey. Others like Dr Lowrey were captured by the Prussians, although fortunately he was released. Guthrie would go on to have a brilliant career, become a fellow of the Royal Society and President of the Royal College of Surgeons. He was offered a knighthood, but pleaded poverty to turn it down. 

The surgeons would see an increasing climb in the respect and influence of the profession, whilst the physicians had to scramble to mend their out of touch, hands off reputation. The field of Waterloo would not be cleared of dead and wounded for 12 days. Many wounded simply died of dehydration. Civilian sightseers were often shocked but I can’t imagine how the surgeons coped and went on to live with themselves in the aftermath of battle. Every doctor wants to preserve his patients life as best as possible but battlefields do not allow that guarantee. Even in modern medicine we cannot guarantee that people will live, but for the surgeons of the time at Waterloo, they had to watch probably hundreds men who were desperate, die. And they couldn’t help them, no matter how good they were with the knife. It must have lived with them for the rest of their lives. I don’t know what impact that might have had on them. Still many many fortunate men like Sgt Lawrence walked towards Paris, doubtless glad that their prayer “God save me from the surgeons knife” was answered. 

EP011 Congress of Vienna pt 1 “A Brave old world”

Every European school child should have learnt about the Congress of Vienna. Seriously. It is actually possibly the most important series of events in modern history that no one has ever heard of. 

Honestly, how many of us have heard of it, or know what it was, or what happened? We should and not just because it is important or worthy. It is a fascinating tail in its own right. Who would rule France? Would there be a Poland? What about the Pope or the Prussians? Who would control the Baltic or the Mediterranean? Who would end up in power, and who would end up dead? Politicians and kings squared off. Devious spies, and clever diplomats faced imperial generals or experienced statesmen. Flattery, bribery and corruption vied with high minded principle. Hypocrisy warred with genuine optimism. Had they disposed a tyrant only to create new tyrannies? Clever, ruthless men like Talleyrand destroyed incriminating archives, attempting to shape history itself.

This is part one of the story of how the modern nations of Europe were born, who shaped them and why.

Join me and find out about the brave old world that the old elite of Europe were attempting to build.

TRANSCRIPT: Episode 007 Waterloo pt2 “Into the cannon’s mouth”

  1. How scared have you ever been in your life. For most people fear is something that is happening to us in circumstances that make us uncomfortable. For most of us we haven’t ever had the gut wrenching fear that goes with a threat to our lives. But for those who have it is an experience unlike any other. For the men about to fight in Waterloo they were knowing the full blast of that icy, gut wrenching fear. The only way I can describe it is knowing that you have to do something. You don’t want to do it perhaps. You know it might be dangerous. But there’s not avoiding it. It’s that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you are about to perhaps sit an exam, or propose to someone, or go to court. Well I can’t even imagine those feelings amount to anything like the feeling of standing in line as a Napoleonic Infantryman hearing the drums begin to beat. Seeing the Eagles or the banners raised high and the shouts of the officers “advance” Sergeants counting time. Drums beating the tempo. But for the thousands of men at Waterloo, that was exactly what happened. No one quite knows the exact time of the first attack the French made at Waterloo. But whatever happened. Whatever time it actually was, we do know that it was at Hougoumont.
  2. On the right was I Corps under d’Erlon with 16,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry, plus a cavalry reserve of 4,700. On the left was II Corps under Reille with 13,000 infantry, and 1,300 cavalry, and a cavalry reserve of 4,600 men. In the centre about the road south of the inn La Belle Alliance were a reserve including Lobau’s VI Corps with 6,000 men, and the 13,000 infantry of the crack Imperial Guard, and a cavalry reserve of 2,000. If you’ve listened to my previous episodes you will know why I said precise timings in battle are hard to judge.
  3. Whatever the precise time, the first proper French attack was to be against Hougemont. The plan was for it  to be led by Prince Jeromes division. It was to be a faint attack that would draw off Wellingtons reserves. Then a grand battery pounding would weaken Wellingtons centre, followed by a massive attack by Reille on the left of La Hay Sainte and General d’Erlon on the right. d’Erlon would therefore be attacking Wellingtons left as Wellingtons centre collapsed, and the British flank and centre would be broken, pushing them into retreat to the sea and probably destruction.
  4. Things started badly for the French. If you had to pick a bad spot to be during the battle of Waterloo, then attacking Hougemont was probably high on the list for the French. I’ve called it a farm in the last episode or a fortified position  which implies it was a small house perhaps with some fortifications. It was actually much more. It was turned into a miniature fortress.
  5. I’ve put a plan of the Hougemont complex on the website. That gives you an excellent outline of how the buildings stood. It is basically a square shaped series of buildings. All solidly stone built made up of a Great Barn, a 3 storey main house, a chapel and formidable wooden gates in stone arches. If this was all, it would be a horrible place to attack with just a musket and no armour. But it was far, far tougher. To one side was a surrounding 6ft high wall that created an enclosed garden. This was on the right hand side of the farm from the French point of view. Then around this was an orchard that was surrounded by a large thick  hedge with gates in it. This was then surrounded by a wood. The attackers couldn’t see much through the smoke of battle, which meant they were stunned by finding the heavy defensive wall. 
  6. Defending Hougemont were the 1st Battalion, 2nd Nassau Regiment, with additional detachments of jägers and landwehr from von Kielmansegge’s 1st (Hanoverian) Brigade. The light company of the 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards under the command of Lt-Colonel Henry Wyndham, was also stationed in the farm and chateaux, and the light company of the 2nd Battalion, Third Guards, under Lt-Colonel Charles Dashwood in the garden and grounds. The two light companies of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions, First Guards were initially positioned in the orchard, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Saltoun. Lieutenant-Colonel James Macdonnell, Coldstream Guards, had overall command of 1,500 men at Hougoumont. He was ordered to hold it to the last.
  7. So to capture Hougemont, the French had to cross a wood, push through a thick hedge, then get through the Orchard, break through the outer walls or breech one of the great gates, all the while under heavy fire from the defenders, who included expert riflemen and some of the Elite British Guards Regiments. At the rear of the farm was a hidden sunken lane that could be used to move re-enforcements and ammunition to the defenders.
  8. If this is sounding like one of those horrific WW1 style attacks, then that is a little like what it was. The fighting in Hougemont was to be a brutal affair, hard fought on both sides with moments of intense heroism.
  9. The initial French units had no idea what they were in for though, and began the assault with vigour. They were soon shattered. Despite great bravery the first French assault was broken up by rifle, musket and artillery fire, with the French General Bauduin dying.  Vicious fighting developed as the French attempted to clamber up the walls, sometimes standing on each others shoulders. Finally as the French were pushed back, Allied re-enforcements were sent in. The French had lost 1,500 men in around 30 minutes. Still, in some ways they had been successful. They had pulled some of Wellingtons reserves into Hougemont and diverted some Allied attention from the centre and left wing.
  1. Now comes a moment of controversy. It seems that General Reille, who was Jerome’s superior, advised him that he had done enough at Hougemont. Yet Jerome certainly didn’t stop the attacks. He intensified them. Years later Prince Jerome is supposed to have claimed to have received orders directly from Napoleon during the battle to capture Hougemont no matter what. According to Prince Jerome Napoleon said
  2. [QUOTE] If Grouchy does not come up or if you do not carry Hougoumont, the battle is decidedly lost – so go – go and carry Hougoumont – coûte que coûte.’ [END QUOTE]
  3. If that is actually true, then Jerome was bound to carry on with attacking Hougoumont. Not just attacking. If the order was as Jerome described, then he was being told that his role of capturing the farm was mission critical to winning the battle. It was perhaps phrased with the “at all costs” tag that signified casualties and difficulties were irrelevant. Of course it might be that Prince Jerome was seeking to justify making repeated futile attacks that might have killed thousands pointlessly and even ruined Napoleon’s chances of winning. Equally it is wholly possible that Napoleon did view Hougemont as just that vital. He directed other attacks at it during the day and seems to have had his eyes on it. Napoleon could spot a pivotal point easily and was known to be willing to spend troops lives carelessly if it would give him a victory. Hougemont falling into French hands would have opened Wellington’s right flank to serious fire and attacks just as he would have been struggling against attacks on his centre and left. Heavy guns could have been moved up to batter the British and allied positions.
  4. On Napoleons orders or not more attacks would go in.  Especially between between 12:30 and 15:00. The French attacked from multiple directions, through trees and hedges. Desperately trying to get shots at hard to see Allied soldiers who were in hard cover. The French didn’t waver. Under heavy fire, a group of brave beyond reason Frenchmen charged the north gate. At their head was Lieutenant Legros of the 2nd Light Infantry, a giant of a man nicknamed “the smasher” and wielding an axe . He battered his way in with 40 men. A bitter fight began in the courtyard. The French weren’t supported by re-enforcements and the British defenders were desperately trying to get the gates closed before more French troops could arrive. The French fought frantically as the gates were closed and were finally killed to almost the last man; only a 9 year old drummer boy was spared. Wellington certainly regard this as a critical moment. If Hougoumont fell early, he would be exposed
  5. Whilst the troops at Hougoumont had their battle reduced to the hell of trying to climb walls under fire, or batter down gates, or for the defenders, hold off hordes of desperate enemy assaults, elsewhere the “Great men” of the day decided that they were ready to start things off for real. At 13:00 General Desalles the Commander of the French Grand Artillery, opened up a massive fire that shock the heavens in one massive similtaneous shot.
  6. The French had delayed starting the battle to let the ground dry out. This was to make the guns easier to move and more effective when they fired. Even so, artillery could weigh a couple of tons or more. Even on dry roads, they were hard to move. Here the French had to drag them through mud. Gunners were exhausted before the battle even started. The Allies had watched some French Gunners struggling into position since at least 11:00. Not that being in position would bring the gunners much rest. The cannon didn’t have any recoil control mechanism so when they fired, they rolled backwards and then had to be dragged back into position with ropes. Guns could require 8 man teams to position, load, aim, fire, clean, re-position, clean again, then repeat the process. There was no ear protection, so gunners became progressively deafened during their careers. Some wrapped cloth around their ears or stuffed them with cheese. The cannon were unreliable, and a miscut fuse could cause a gun to fire early. A man who didn’t keep well clear of a cannon as it fired could be crushed as 2 tons of metal were propelled backwards by the recoil. Defects in the cannon barrel could be lethal. Constant firing could cause the defect to become a disaster as barrels burst in use, killing gun crews.
  7. Still the guns were the key to Napoleon’s plan for the day. That his great guns would shatter key points of the Allied line. Cannon shot would kill whole ranks of men. Imagine that for a moment. Soldiers could take years to train yet be swept away in 10’s by a single cannon shot. All their hopes and dreams snuffed out. Families lost brothers, sons, uncles in seconds. But it wasn’t remarked. “Close the ranks” the sergeants would call. Stoic British soldiers would move to close the gaps. The newer allied regiments would shuffle more nervously together. This was what Napoleon’s success rested on. Being able to shake and shatter the perfectly chosen spots in an enemies lines, then batter the weak point with infantry, and then turn loose his cavalry to break the remains and ride them down.
  1. The Grand Battery pumped out 2,700 rounds in 30 mins at around 700 yards. This was murderous for exposed troops. Napoleon viewed his great guns as the real winners of battles, saying
  2. [QUOTE] “it is with artillery that one makes war.” [END QUOTE]
  3. I’m going to quote from 24 Hours at Waterloo by Robert Kershaw, describing the opening of the French Bombardment.
  4. [QUOTE] Lieutenant Emanuel Biedermann, with the same battalion, was also gravely reflecting on his survival chances ‘I was confronted with the question: will you see your homeland and loved ones again, or will your restless life be cut short by an enemy’s sword?’ Soldiers often dwelled on the trauma of an anonymous death, craving reassurance that their loved ones would at least remember them. Biedermann philosophically reflected that a ‘man is always at the threshold of eternity; it is only that the world around does not always remind him of it in all its earnestness.’ He was re-acquainted with the fickle nature of his own mortality when the Grande Batterie suddenly opened fire. ‘Soon the balls from the artillery on both sides were flying over and beyond us’ There was activity both to their right at Hougoumont and to their left. For the moment their sector remained quiet except for the ‘the incessant buzz of the cannon balls which only caused broken branches to shower on our heads.’ [END QUOTE]
  1. Thoughts like this were common on both sides. It is probably a common feeling for most soldiers throughout history I would imagine. It isn’t possible to say with certainty. Warfare has changed over time, and also warfare is often a continuation of the culture. Did a Christian Knight reflect with fear the night before battle? Or was his world view different enough that he only saw the blessing of God if he died in battle? Did a Mongel archer even view what he did as war under Genghis Khan, or was it just another form of hunting from the saddle, no different form hunting a dangerous beast? Was it the lack of autonomy that created particular fear for Napoleonic troops? Having to stand motionless in ranks as cannons blasted your friends to either side away and you couldn’t take cover unless given orders. 
  2. Worse, unlike modern artillery or the shells that cannons could fire, which were invisible, men could see the slow moving cannon balls lazily flying through the air towards them. They looked slow and clumsy the more distance they covered, heavy balls of metal slowly bouncing a few times across the ground. This might no sound too bad, but they were still fast moving hunks of heavy metal. If they touched a man they would tear off limbs, heads, break bones and rupture organs. Even spent ones could lop off a foot with terrifying ease. Raw recruits had to be sternly warned not to put a foot out to stop a ball that was lazily coming towards them like a slow moving bowling ball as it would easily take off the lower half of the legs. Men and horses would be chopped in half by these cannon balls, arms or legs disappeared, and a hit to the torso was invariably fatal. These bowling balls of death would carry on to finish men behind as well. They didn’t even have to hit. The immense force and change in air pressure could fatally change the pressure of body fluids in a person as it passed, causing heads to explode without even touching the victim. Some soldiers remembered being a mass of bruises and turning almost black from cannon balls coming close but missing.
  3. If you are still struggling to visualise the damage a cannon ball can do, remember those pirate films you watched, where the ships fire broadsides at each other, smashing great chunks of timber away. Those were the larger versions of the battle field cannons. Frankly, if the descriptions of cannon fire from the grand battery at Waterloo sound awful, spare a thought for those poor sailors at Trafalgar where the ships guns would fire the equivalent in a few broadsides.
  4. Survivors of Waterloo left vivid accounts of the opening fire of the Grand Battery.
  1. Sergeant William Lawrence of the 40th Foot described a direct hit
  2. [QUOTE] A shell from the enemy cut our deputy Sergeant-Major in two, and having passed on to take the head off one of my company of grenadiers named William Hooper, exploded in the rear more than one yard from me, hurling me at least two yards into the air. [END QUOTE]
  3. He was left with the skin on the left side of his face scorched off, his sash burnt and his sword handle blacked.
  4. A few things strike me about that quote. First is you can see that cannon balls and shells really would cut things in half and keep going. Second is that survival was just a matter of luck. Sergeant Lawrence was only missed by a yard. Third though is that Sergeant Lawrence knows one of the dead soldiers. These weren’t just people in red coats, dying namelessly in the background to him. They weren’t like they are for us, unidentified figures in the background of history. These were his fellow soldiers, his brothers in arms. We can’t know what the Sergeants relationship was with Pvt Hooper. Was it just that he knew the face and name? Or had they shared a bottle and a laugh on guard duty? Had the Sergeant taught Pvt Hooper the ins and outs of campaign life when he joined the regiment?
  5. I’m emphasising this so that it brings home that any battle we talk about on the podcast is a human affair. Fought by humans, for humans reasons. We can’t just zoom out and say “ah the blue ranks of the French moved in mass columns as Napoleon directed them against the neat red ranks of the British line” We have to go deeper than that to move beyond the superficial presentation we get in art or computer games.
  1. It was too much for some men. Sergeant Lawrence was greatly annoyed at a new recruit to the 40th Foot. A Private Bartram, who was in his first battle. He couldn’t take the artillery fire and begged to be allowed to fall out as he was ill. The Sergeant wasn’t going to allow that, and shoved Bartram back into line. Bartram then fell to the ground and refused to move. Lawrence latter recalled that
  2. [QUOTE] He ought to have been shot [END QUOTE]
  3. That sounds harsh, but the Sergeants job was to keep the men fighting under fire. He was there risking his life with them, and he was seeing his friends and comrades die. He probably had little sympathy for those who didn’t do what he felt was needed.
  1. Sergeant Lawrence wasn’t the only person under artillery fire. Ensign Wheatley who was stationed with the Kings German Legion, described the effects too.
  2. [QUOTE] The first man who fell was five files on my left. With the utmost distortion of feature he lay on his side shrivelling up every muscle of his body, he twirled his elbow round and round in acute agony, then dropped lifeless. [END QUOTE]
  3. Sergeant Tuittmeyer of the Kings German Legion had his arm removed at the shoulder by a round. Only a tiny stump of bone was left. This was a horrific injury, but his men pushed him up on a horse and he had to ride off to Brussels miles away to try to get medical help. He was certainly alive a month later, but after that it is unclear. Did he succumb to his wounds, or infection? Or did he return home to be supported by family, or was he left to starve and die of unemployment and drink like many unwanted soldiers after the war was over? It didn’t matter to the chroniclers of history, but it mattered to him and those who knew him perhaps? I think that means it should matter to the podcast.
  4. Albrecht Heifer also in the Kings German Legion was hit in the chest by fire. He had suffered a glancing blow from a cannonball. He lost the skin and muscle down to the bone. It was miraculous that he survived. Few soldiers survived a direct hit to the torso. Captain Adair 1st Guards, who were stationed near Sergeant Lawrence, was hit in the hip. It shatter his hip bone and ripped all the flesh and muscle from his thigh. This was fatal.
  5. Invisible shells mixed with the more easily spotted cannon balls hammered the Allied army up and down the line. Men took cover in the mud if they could. This was not glorious, it was dirty and unpleasant. Fine uniforms became mud covered, and men under fire couldn’t move to drink water or relieve themselves. They had to piss themselves in the mud rather than risk exposure. Still it was better for those that could take cover to do so.
  6. Don’t forget that this is the opening music to raise the curtain for the opera. Napoleon has teased Wellington at Hougoument and treated him a powerful opening salvo to show him what is coming. Other armies facing Napoleon have been shaken and wavering at this stage from the early diversionary attacks and the heavy cannon fire. Nicely softened for the main assault, they would be easy to break. Often Napoleon wouldn’t even have to use his Imperial Guard reserves. He guarded them preciously. His “Grumblers” as he called them. Today would be different. Despite the noise and fury of the grand battery, most of the allied army was carefully hidden behind the reserve slope of Wellingtons ridge. Officers familiar with Wellingtons tactics in Spain would order their men to lie down to give them further protection from fire. For all its sound and fury, the fire from the grand battery wasn’t as effective as Napoleon would have believed. Worse for him, the ground was still muddy, so cannon balls would often stick in the mud rather than bouncing round killing. The angle of shot meant some French guns fired only to see their shots bounce up off the top of the Allied ridge and sail harmlessly over the enemies heads. Allied troops were dying, but not enough of them and not quickly enough.
  7. For reasons I’ve understood, but not fully agreed with, during his career Napoleon had thrown away an immense technological advantage. France had a hot air ballon corp at one stage. The balloons were heavy, hard to move, weather dependent and slow to inflate so Napoleon had no patience for them. But imagine at Waterloo if they had been present. They could have been inflated overnight and done an aerial reconnaissance of the Allied position. Imagine the advantage this would have given Napoleon. Accurate information about the hidden Allied deployment. Now take it a step further. The French had the technology to use mortars, not just cannon. A mortar is basically a short barrelled cannon that can fire up over walls instead of a straight line. The British used them in the defence of Hougoumont. They were common in siege warfare too. Again though, Napoleon’s focus on speed meant he was unimpressed with the slow moving mortars and didn’t bring many to Waterloo. 
  8. How history might have changed if he had balloons and mortars available is an interesting question. The balloons were very unreliable and weather dependent, but the weather during the day of Waterloo was ideal for them. The balloons could have dropped notes to the ground to help direct mortar fire. Primative and slow, but given the extremely small size of the battlefield, the limited view needed, and the slow reaction times, this might have worked.
  9. Still, idol speculation aside, the fact was that the French opening fire hadn’t been very effective, and Hougoumont was turning into a bloody meat grinder for the French. Napoleon was deferring most battlefield control to Marshal Ney. This was fairly standard practice for Napoleon especially as the battles grew larger. Napoleon would set the overall approach, moves, and goals for the battle, then he would leave the precise implementation to his Marshals. It was highly empowering in some ways, meaning that the men on the spot got to take the decisions, but it required highly performing Marshals and experienced, motivated, disciplined troops. 
  10. Marshal Ney was planning to send D’Erlon and his fresh troops in as the main assault on the British & Dutch section of the line to the right of the main road from the French point of view and was to the right of La Hay Sainte. This was therefore against the British left of centre. It required crossing the valley and ascending the light ridge, crossing it and shattering the British regiments. Now this was a tricky prospect. An uphill assault is never ideal in warfare. Men get tired, it is harder to hit shooting uphill than down. If you can’t see all the enemies at the top, it is especially risky. Marshal Ney had suffered defeats against Wellington in Spain in just this situation. It would require particular care and it needed the fiery, leading from the front Marshal to hang back and carefully control his generals and men, bringing infantry, cavalry and close artillery support together with clockwork precision but retaining the flexibility to adapt and overcome the enemies response. At the same time, Marshal Ney had to keep an eye on Hougoumont, and manage his reserves carefully to prevent counterattacks or exploit any opportunities. It would have been asking a lot of any commander, and even at his very best this would have been a tall ask for Marshal Ney. Of course if you’ve listened to my previous episode about Quatre Bras, you will know that not only was this basically well out of Marshal Ney’s character and abilities even at his best, but that he was almost certainly psychologically damaged by now. Perhaps suffering PTSD, certainly erratic and perhaps with a death wish. This was absolutely not a man to give an intricate and difficult battlefield command. Marshal Devout was in Paris as Minister of War. He certainly would have been the right man for this job, but it was too late. Ney had command of the field and Ney it would have to be.
  11. And it wasn’t as if the French generals hadn’t been planning for this. They had experience of the devastating fire of the British. It is interesting to note that it was the British that were the main consideration. Other nationalities besides the British didn’t really feature in their worries. They knew it was the British regiments that provided the solid foundation of the Allied army, and if those could be broken, the rest would crumple quickly.
  12. In many ways things were going well for Napoleon. The weather and late start had done him no favours. The assault on Hougoumont was nicely occupying Wellington, and despite not being at its most effective, the artillery fire was ferocious and causing immense damage. With care and good management an assault against Wellington’s left would break him. Wellington had deployed the bulk of his forces on the other side of the Brussels road. On his centre and right. Napoleon probably felt that he had yet again wrong footed Wellington. In a way this was correct, but as always the difficulty was in the execution rather than the idea.
  13. D’Erlon had also thought carefully about this attack. His men had missed the battles of Quatre Bras and Ligny so crucially they were fresh and eager to get into battle. General Drout d’ergon was committed, calling out to his men “Today it is necessary to vanquish or die.” The troops roar “Vive l’Empereur” British and Hanoverian officers and men watched in awe as the mass of French infantry began to move forward, whilst the cannonade intensified. Captain John Kincaid 1/95th near La Hay Sainte recalled
  14. [QUOTE] Countless columns began to advance under the cover of it. The scene at that moment was very grand and imposing, and we had a few minutes to spare for observation. A smaller body of infantry and one of cavalry moved on their right and on their left, another column of infantry and a formidable body of cuirassiers. [END QUOTE]
  15. Other officers recalled seeing 16 eagles and 33 battalions. Masses of French forming up in columns, white cross belts gleaming in the sun, tall shakos crowned with shining badges.
  16. In all General D’Erlon was about to advance in a narrow area of 1000 yards wide with 17,00 supported by 800 cavalry just to the West of the Brussels road. That’s the Allied left wing from Wellingtons point of view – his slightly weaker side. All seemed in the French favour. Here was the great attack of the day. An irresistible mass of fresh, almost fanatical troops directed by the fighting Marshal Ney. Yet even as the French began, the next great setback of the day was about to occur. At 13:35 Napoleon was surveying the ridge with his telescope one last time before it was obscured by smoke during the battle. He spotted something in the tree line to the far left of the Allied line from Wellingtons point of view. Could it be mist and trees, or a dark cloud? Or men moving? Staff officers hurried trained their telescopes on the spot. Some swore it was trees in the mist, but some said they were troops. But if they were troops, whose? Was it the Prussians or was it Grouchy. Whoever they were, they were only five miles away. Napoleon dispatched 3,000 of his precious cavalry to investigate. If it was Grouchy, then the cavalry would link up with this, and Wellington would probably face utter catastrophe.
  17. 15 minutes later, the cavalry sent a captured Prussian Black Hussar to the Emperor, who confirmed that Bulow’s IV corp of 30,000 men was arriving. Like D’Erlon these troops were fresh. IF you listened to earlier episodes you will know that they had been subject to muddled orders and were late to learn that the war had started, so they missed the thrashing at Ligny. This must have been grim news for Napoleon. They would change the odds. Stilll, the situation was not a disaster. If Grouchy arrived hot on the heels in pursuit of the Prussians as he’d been odered, well then Napoleon would not only have Wellington in the net, but a whole isolated Prussian corp too. If this happened, well then he’d have knocked his two enemies out of the war in a day.
  18. Oddly enough, the Prussians were suffering a fit of reluctance. That came from one man. General Gneisenau. He was regarded as the brains of the Prussian army, and was openly referred to as such by Blucher. Unlike Blucher, he wasn’t very good on the battlefield. He also mistrusted Wellington and the British. He was hesitant to cross the Lasne defile and join the battle. He deliberately held up the order of march to slow the Prussians down. It took Blucher to over come his concerns and push the Prussians to march to aid Wellington. Still, that would take time to organise and would require co-ordination with Wellington. Napoleon didn’t delay though, he knew what the arrival of the Prussians meant. Wellington had to beaten, quickly before the Prussians could tip the scale. He had launched D’Erlon in attack. He sent two cavalry divisions and two infantry divisions of 8,000 badly needed men under General Lobau as well as 32 guns to hold up the Prussians. With these gone, Hougoumont sucking in more and more men, and now D’Erlon committed to the main attack Napoleon was stretched thin. He still had the magnificent Imperial Guard and the cavalry reserve, but there was nothing else available to him. D’Erlon must break Wellington. The reserves were there only to guarantee a victory by exploiting a win or to stave off absolute defeat by covering a retreat.
  19. By 14:00 the Prussians had begun to cross the Lasne gap with Bulow’s IV corp in the lead, but it was in marching order. Long thin lines of men to thread their way through narrow forest roads. They would take hours to get to Wellington. Von Zeithens I Corp was even further away. For now Wellington and the Allies would fight alone. This was the crucial period for Napoleon. Did Napoleon silently kick himself for not starting the battle at day break. Imagine if the main attack had started at 09:30 instead of 13:30. Imagine that Ney hadn’t delayed at Quatre Bras. Imagine that Napoleon hadn’t delayed after Ligny. It is interesting to note that some of Wellington’s men Lambts Brigade had arrived by ship from America, unloaded from the ships, force marched to Waterloo and arrived at the battlefield at 10:30. If Napoleon had started at 09:30 Wellington would have been short a brigade and the Prussians would have been basically a whole day away from being able to help. Although this would have meant that the gallant Sergeant Lawrence would have missed the battle as his regiment was part of Lambts Brigade. I don’t know if the sergeant fought the Americans in the war of 1812, but the 4tth Battalion had and had lost a lot of its officers at the battle of New Orleans.
  20. Why am I telling you that? Well apart from it being mostly relevant, have a think about what it means. British troops could be deployed anywhere in the world. The government thought nothing of redeploying a regiment from combat theatre to combat theatre as needed. Some of these regiments would become fearsome veterans. More than that though, it meant that soldiers who survived major battles like Waterloo would shape the spirit of their regiment for years to come. Regiments carried the memory of these actions into future wars. Some of the troops who fought in the brutal action of Waterloo would be sent to fight in colonies of the British Empire, on the Frontiers or in more major actions. They would have been tough men, who came from a life of poverty, where death and violence were commonplace. Then then join the army, only to be forged to a new hardness by Wellington and Napoleon at Waterloo. They took these attitudes, experiences and life views with them around the world as they started the major period of British expansion. They and their officers would train and mould new recruits to the army. In times of major crisis some officers would remind troops that the regiment had fought at Waterloo. In the same way that WW2 or 9/11 shaped generations, well Waterloo was shaping the British army and giving it almost a creation myth.
  21. Time lost can’t even be regained. Especially in war, time is the most precious resource available. All rested on General D’Erlon and Marshal Ney. They had to succeed and do it quickly. Unfortunately, the problems began for D’Erlon and his men almost immediately. They marched through the French guns and down the slopes. Drums pounded and cheers went up, but they were soon in the mud of the valley bottom. Men couldn’t march, just struggle through the mud as best they could. Some men had their shoes sucked off in the deep mud. The fire of the Grand Battery roared overhead, but it had to stop as the French climbed the slope.
  22. Dubois and his cavalry went up the Brussels road towards La Hay Sainte and moved off round to the left of the road making for the centre. General Quiot was close by with two Brigades, in a more open formation than the dense battalion columns used by Generals Donzelot and Marcognet. He was supposed to attack La Hay Sainte and the cross roads, supported by Dubois and his heavy cavalry. Then to his right were Donzelot and Marcognet with the massed formations. General Durette and his division were to protect the right side of the attack and perhaps link with Grouchy if he arrived.
  23. The men on both sides knew that this was about to be the moment where they really earned their pay as soldiers. Either the French attack would succeed, in which case it was likely the French cavalry would sweep in to butcher thousands, or the Allies would kill enough French to stop the attack and beat it off.
  24. We have vivid descriptions of the attack from both sides. British guns ranked the approaching French with vicious fire. Gun fire and dum beats and shouted orders and cheers filled the air. Smoke hung across area’s and mouths went dry from fear and the constant biting off of gunpower charges. It was hellish confusion. Up till now, apart from the fight at Hougoumont, much of the battlefield had been relatively peaceful. There had even been some civilians wandering around chatting and sight seeing.
  1. Now though the French were closing. A French account gives us a powerful feeling of what it was like. 
  2. [QUOTE] We were met by a hail of balls from above the road at the left. Two batteries now swept our ranks, and shot from hedges distant distant pierced us through and through. [END QUOTE]
  3. That’s interesting to note there. Some of the British position was hidden by a hedge in front of the concealed sunken lane. The French didn’t know about the lane, and it was a serious obstacle for them. The British had taken the opportunity to carefully hide cannon in the hedge to add to the impressive firestorm that the French had to face. The British 95th Rifles added to the French pain by pouring in accurate, long range rifle fire from their position in a sand pit near La Hay Sainte.
  4. The French pressed on hard. The noise must have reached a horrific pitch. This is not something we can understand just from the static and highly stylised artwork and prints of the period.
  5. Now though the pressure on the Allied line also intensified. The French were forcing the top of the ridge, pushing through hedges. The British gunners acted on Wellington’s standing orders to leave their guns and take shelter from a main assault, to return to their guns later if the attack was beaten off. This lessened the Allied fire considerably. Bijlandt’s 7 Infantry Battalion from the Netherlands began to waver. They began to break. The French were seriously hampered by the sunken lane. This was more like a ravine according to some eye witnesses, and forced the French to slow down and struggle across. As the Netherlanders broke and ran, it looked like the French had done it. They were on the cusp of breaking the Allied centre, splitting Wellington’s army in half and smashing it. The French were showing why they were considered one of the toughest, bravest fighting powers in the C19th. Still French formations were disordered and confused by the hedge, and the sheer number of men crammed into a small area. Smoke hung heavily over everyone. The French just needed time to carry the assault and reform then push on to victory. They were only yards and minutes away from victory.
  1. There were still some British units left to try to check the French attack. This might be one of the numerically weakest parts of Wellingtons line, but it was held by some very dangerous men. Sir Thomas Picton was the well known commander, experienced and tough. In his younger days in the Caribbean he had tortured slaves to an extent that he was actually put on trial. He secured a dubious acquittal on appeal on the grounds that Spanish colonial law allowed the torture. Despite this Francisco De Miranda had recommended him to Wellington and he had distinguished himself in Spain. He was still in his civilian clothes, but he was committed. He had two brigades to use, and he sent them forward. One, commanded by General Pack was made of fearsome Highlanders. 1st, 42nd and 92nd. It is never nice to be on the receiving end of an attack by the Highlanders, and at Waterloo they would give the French a lesson. They were the tough men of the glens and the rough towns and cities of Scotland. They were fiercely proud and ready. They might be only 1800 against 8000 but they would fight. They moved forward the 50 yards to fill the gap left by the fleeing Netherlanders and poured three brutal volleys into the French. Then they stood to hold the line.
  2. At the critical point of La Hay Sainte, the fighting was brutal and intense. The Germans holding the position wanted revenge on the French after years of war. La Hay Sainte was not well fortified, and fighting raged fiercely. British General Alten spotted the danger of losing La Hay Sainte. He sent more German troops to steady the situation. They set off across the open ground to re-enforce their belligered comrades. Unfortunately, the ground was gently rolling in the area, and the French cavalry under General Dubois was hidden in a fold. A disaster was about to unfold for the Germans. The German re-enforcements were marching in column as fast as they could, but they were spotted by the French cavalry. The high discipline of the French was about to pay off. The ground was too wait for a full on charge, but they could manage a fast well ordered trot against the exposed Germans. It was too late to form square. Imagine the horror the Germans must have felt. To know you are doomed, and not be able to do anything, but still having to wait for death to hit home. Hit home it did though. The Lundberg Battalion was effective wiped out. Three officers were killed, the standard capture, half the men were killed, another 180 more were left missing in action.
  3. Then the cavalry pushed on past La Hay Sainte, towards the British centre. They even captured two British guns. Now the battle hung in the balance. What could turn the tide for the Allies?


Here end the Napoleonic Wars. The revolution is over. France is beaten and it seems Britain is set to take over power in Europe, and perhaps the world. Learn how France fell, how the political battles ousted Napoleon & doomed the Marshals, and the final triumph of the great British Napoleonic Army.

Email any questions to ageofvictoriapodcast@gmail.com

TRANSCRIPT: Episode 006 Waterloo Pt1: Destiny dawns

So began the morning of Waterloo. After the night of brutal weather, one of the greatest battles of Europe history was about to be fought. It was also to be one of the last of its kind. Never again would Europe see the massed ranks of finely dressed, superbly drilled troops fighting in a tiny field of battle, barely 6 square miles. Until the outbreak of the Franco Prussian war, the continent would be free of large scale conflict, and when it did burst into war the battles were on a vast scale that would be a precursor to the type seen in world war one. 

The men probably were wondering if they had been wise to sign up. The life of a 19th century civilian could be brutal and the army at least offered regularish meals. Still those who had enlisted for a meal might be about to pay a high price. Imagine the desperation you had to feel to have joined to march into the cannon’s mouth. To be forced to stand in line motionless until commanded to move or act. Men being blasted to pieces around you by cannon shot. Black smoke burning your eyes, and drying your mouth like sand. At any moment enemy infantry could emerge from the smoke, or worse the cavalry could catch you by surprise. Riding you down or splitting your skull before you could form square. But these were the risks of the day. Hunger was a powerful motive, well captured in a ballard written by Joseph Lees in 1805, called Jone o Grinfilt 

The ballard was originally in the Oldham dialect but I’m going to read out the modern English standard version. 

Says John to his wife on a hot summer’s day,

“I’ve resolved in Greenfield no longer to stay;

For I’ll go to Oldham as fast as I can,

So farewell Greenfield, and farewell to Nan;

For a soldier I’ll be, and brave Oldham I’ll see,

And I’ll have a battle with the French.”

“Dear John,” then said Nan, and she bitterly cried,

“Will you be one of the Foot, or you means for to ride?”

“Zounds! woman I’ll ride either an ass or a mule,

Before I’ll cower in Greenfield as black as th’ old devil

Both hungry and starving, and never a farthing,

It would really drive any man mad.”

“Yes, John, since we came to Greenfield to dwell,

We’ve had many poor meals, I can very well tell.”

“Poor meal, begad! Yes, that I very well know,

There’s been two days this week we’ve had nothing at all;

I’m almost decided, before I’ll put up with it,

I’ll fight either Spanish or French.”

Then says my Aunt Margaret, “Ah! John, you’re so rash,

I’d never go to Oldham, but in England I’d stop.”

“It matters not, Madge, for to Oldham I’ll go,

I’m nearly starved to death, somebody shall know:

First Frenchman I find, I’ll tell him my mind,

And if he’ll not fight, he shall run.”

Then down the brow I came, for we lived at the top,

I thought I’d reach Oldham before I would stop;

Begad! How they stared when I got to the Mumps,

My old hat in my hand, and my clogs full of stamps;

But I soon told them, I’m going to Oldham

And I’d have a battle with the French.

I kept straight on through the lane, and to Oldham I went,

I asked a recruit if they’d made up their count?

“Now, now, honest lad” (for he talked like a king),

“Go with me through the street, and to you I will bring

Where, if you’re willing, you may have a shilling.”

Begad! I thought this was remarkable news.

He brought me to the place, where they measure their height,

And if they are the height they are nothing about weight;

I reached myself and stretched, and never did flinch:

Says the man, “I believe you’re my lad to an inch.”

I thought this will do; I shall have guineas enough.

Begad! Oldham, brave Oldham for me.

So farewell, Greenfield, a soldier I’m made:

I’ve got new shoes, and a very nice cockade;

I’ll fight for Old England as hard as I can,

Either French, Dutch, or Spanish, to me it’s all one;

I’ll make them stare, like a new started hare,

And I’ll tell them from Oldham I’ve come.

Not that the Emperor was passing a cold wet night, followed by a scramble for food like most combatants on either side. He spent the night in a comfortable farm house called La Caillou, 3 km south of the battlefield. Whether he himself was comfortable is debatable. Some historians have stated that the Emperor was in agony from serious piles. Napoleons brother Jerome states that Napoleon was suffering from acute piles and was in considerable pain. We know from the famous French Physician, Dr Larrey that Napoleon had to be treated for piles using hot clothes just after the Battle of Ligny. However his night passed, he rose early around 04:30 and began issuing orders.La Cillou is still there and if you have a chance to visit you can see Napoleons camp bed and some other bits and pieces of interest.


At 08:00 he had breakfast and a conference with his generals. His beloved personal crockery had turned up. After breakfast, the table was cleared and maps spread out. These maps would have been difficult to read for a modern person. They were small, drawn in inks or pencils and without the clear colour coding we are used to from modern ordnance survey maps. Often they were ad hoc and prone to significant errors. Whilst contour lines technically existed, they weren’t used in the same way as today. Wellington’s map is good, but very hard to read. The French original is terrible. Indeed it has been recently claimed to be error filled and caused much confusion.

I’m going to quote from a Telegraph article about a French documentary on the topic

[QUOTE]Napoleon was relying on a false map for his strategy in his last battle, said Franck Ferrand, the maker of a documentary broadcast on French television. This explains why he mistook the lie of the land and was disoriented on the battlefield. It is certainly one of the factors that led to his defeat. The strategic farm of Mont-Saint-Jean was shown a kilometre from its real location. One kilometre was the range of his cannons so you can see what a difference it must have made, he added.

The false map, used by one of his officers and identical to Napoleons own, was discovered by Bernard Coppens, a Belgian illustrator and historian, still stained with blood, at a Brussels military museum.

We compared the printed map used on the battlefield with the original handdrawn one it was copied from,Mr Ferrand said. We realised it was a printing error. Not only was the farm in the wrong place, but the map showed a bend in the road that did not exist. He added: We also found a letter from his younger brother, Jerome Bonaparte, which described him as looking completely lost on the battlefield of Waterloo. [END QUOTE]

Pre-battle talks have to be moral boosting. No matter how grim the situation, the supreme commander cannot convey defeatism without courting disaster. In his book Vienna 1814, David King gave the following account of the post breakfast discussion

[QUOTE] We have ninety chances in our favour, and not ten against us, Napoleon said, calculating the odds of success that day. Marshal Ney, however, was troubled, fearing that Wellington would sneak away in a retreat and the French would miss the opportunity for a decisive victory. Napoleon rejected the possibility outright. Britain could no longer leave the scene, he said. Wellington has rolled the dice, and they are in our favor. Marshal Soult, the recently appointed chief of staff, was also concerned, though for a different reason. Soult had fought Wellington in Spain several times, without success “the British infantry was the devil himself”, as he had once put it. Perhaps Napoleon should recall Marshall Grouchy and the thirty-three thousand men whom he had dispatched the previous day to pursue the Prussians. Napoleon bluntly dismissed the suggestion: Because you have been beaten by Wellington, you consider him a great general.†“Wellington is a bad general, Napoleon continued, the English are bad troops, and this will be like eating breakfast. I earnestly hope so, Soult replied. [END QUOTE]

There was of course the usual mass grumbling of men marching into position. Gunners set up their pieces, and muskets had been cleared and loaded. Surgeons laid out tools ready to take care of the injured. Still his generals at breakfast were downright gloomy. Napoleon didn’t normally like to eat breakfast with others, he was noted as a somewhat indifferent eater with poor manners and bad taste in wine. Probably he felt that he needed his commanders together and to plan. The breakfast has become justly famous, which you can’t often say about a breakfast as a rule. 

I cannot emphasise enough the importance for military commanders of keeping a positive mindset. Of course this shouldn’t blind a commander to reality, but it is worryingly easy for a commander to talk himself and his army into defeat. Also Napoleon actually had fairly good reason not to highly rate Wellington so far; the Duke had already been caught flat footed by the invasion, then made dangerous mistakes in his response to the attacks at Quatre Bras. Balanced against that, the French Marshals had been repeatedly beaten by Wellington in Spain. They were convinced a frontal attack against British infantry was hopeless, and only flanking moves would work. General Reille said [QUOTE] I consider the English infantry to be impregnable [END QUOTE] and went on to say flanking attacks were required to beat them. This was not the answer Napoleon was looking for as he was planning direct frontal assaults for the day. It appeared clear to him that the weather and mud would stop quick movement. He also dismissed suggestions that he summon Marshal Grouchy back with his men. Fatally though, he accepted suggestions to delay the start of the battle to allow the ground to dry out more for the artillery. 

Napoleon’s orderly Jardin  gave the following account

[QUOTE] On the 18th Napoleon having left the bivouac, that is to say the village Caillou on horseback, at half-past nine in the morning came to take up his stand half a league in advance upon a hill where he could discern the movements of the British army.

There he dismounted, and with his field glass endeavoured to discover all the movements in the enemy’s line. The chief of the staff suggested that they should begin the attack; he replied that they must wait, but the enemy commenced his attack at eleven o’clock and the cannonading began on all sides [END QUOTE]

Now, the Emperor was ready. Now was the time to start in earnest. The displays, the careful moves, the clever plans. The time for that was past. Napoleon had to beat the Allied army. I am repeating the word allied here, not British army. That is seriously important. We must get past the historical airbrushing. Wellington’s army was an international mix from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Hanover, the Netherlands, the Indies, Brunswick and Nassau. It was a truly international force. Only 36% of it was actually British. Even that 36% was neither entirely English or entirely white.  

I want to tell you about Pvt George Rose. He was born as a slave in Jamaica but escaped in 1809. He somehow made it to London. He joined the 73rd Foot. He served in Ireland where he became a Methodist, then later in German and the Netherlands in 1813-1814. He was known to have been in the thick of combat at Quatre Bras, but today would be a new level of hell for the former slave turned soldier – all of his hopes and ambitions rested on surviving the day without being maimed or otherwise incapacited from service.

Prt Rose certainly wasn’t the only black soldier fight for the allies. What I find really fascinating though is that it wasn’t the black soldiers that were the target of the disdain of most English & Scottish soldiers. The real vitriol seemed aimed at the Irish, who had a very complex relationship with the Scottish and English. As you will see in later episodes there was immense social tension involving the Irish and they were accused of stealing English jobs during the Victorian period. My speculation is that black soldiers were not common, and were often driven to prove themselves as being as good or better than their white comrades. That probably made the relationship easier, and since they weren’t in direct competition with the English for large scale employment, they were viewed more as a novelty than a threat. This isn’t to say that racism didn’t exist, just that it was a good deal more complicated than might be assumed. By being posted to elite regiments to serve as trumpeters they gained respect, yet at the same time were victims of racism since the fashion for black musicians was linked to aristocrats displaying their wealth by having servants and this filtered through to the more elite Guards regiments. Still service in the West Indies and India accustomed a lot of British white regiments to non-white soldiers and civilians, creating a more open racial relationship in the early part of the C19th than would be seen in the mid to late c19th. It was of course still racist, and promotion was exceptionally hard for black soldiers, who encountered serious prejudice being regarded as less disciplined and morally inferior. I’m just mentioning this, because I’ve yet to see any real art work that shows black troops at Waterloo, despite their contribution. There is a piece of art called “The Recruiting Officer” which shows a black soldier as a trumpeter in a recruiting party. Most people who are only vaguely familiar with Waterloo seem to think of it as a triumph of white English soldiers helped by some Scots, beating the French. As you’ve already  seen in reality things were much more complicated. 

Wellington displayed little trust in his foreign allies. He broke them up in the main, scattering them around the army by including foreign brigades into British Division, thereby mixing British officers in with the foreign formations. This caused a lot of resentment. Many senior officers felt slighted, and it was hard for foreign troops to accept strange British officers appearing to take over. Some worried that the British were using them as cannon fodder. Wellingtons near open disdain for some of his allies didn’t help. He was scathing about his allied contingents. Early in the battle a few hundred Nassu troops from their skirmish companies were desperately holding the woods around Hougoumont against odds of 10:1. They were driven off after an hour of heavy fighting, and retired to the main farm buildings under intense pressure, having inflicted heavy casualties on the French. Wellington was annoyed and remarked to a Russian attache [QUOTE] it is with these scoundrels that a battle must be won [END QUOTE]

Now to be fair to Wellington, a lot of the nations under his command were either newly created, had patchy military records or in the Belgium case had recently fought for Napoleon. Some Belgiums uniforms were Napoleonic but with the cap badges changed. Still Wellington had extensive experience operating in coalition armies. Even if his British officers or troops displayed their usual sense of superiority (justified or not), Wellington knew that success depend on the Prussians. Wellington was only willing to fight at Waterloo because he was convinced that at least one Prussian corp would reach him to help.

Indeed Wellington had not been idle. He had been up since at least 03:00 hours writing orders and letters. At 06:00 he began the serious work of the day.

[QUOTE] About six O’clock that chilly and damp morning, the duke put on his blue coat, his blue cloak, and his boots, high up on the leg. With his hat in hand, which he typically wore front-back as opposed to Napoleon, who wore it side to side, Wellington walked over to his small charger, the chestnut Copenhagen, stepped into the iron stirrup, and vaulted into the stiff hussar saddle with the high pommel in front. He rode off to be everywhere at once. [END QUOTE]

Wellington, much like Napoleon was physically extremely brave and would routinely be under fire during battles.

Yet curiously, no one is actually quite sure when exactly the battle of Waterloo began. Wellington said 10:00, others 11:30, Marshal Ney thought 13:30. 

We do need to discuss time and time keeping. I’ve given you the precise time of sunrise as that can be verified by astronomy. You can work out times for sunrise and sunsets, lunar phases and eclipses over centuries. Other times in this battle will be given precisely where a source mentions them, but that is misleading. Time was not standardised in 1815. Local times varied widely. The reason Navy chronometers were set to Greenwich Mean Time as a standard was to make sure that ship navigators keep their time from a standard point so they could work out a ships longitude. The armies at Waterloo would have recorded time differently. Watch quality varied, and time pieces became damaged during the campaign. Watches were usually set by solar time at noon and had to be kept carefully wound. A British captain might swear blind that a French cavalry regiment charged him at 14:00 as part of a large charge, but his watch might be badly off, and he might be mistaking a small action for part of a wide movement that wasn’t happening. 

Battles are not like computer games, with set turns where a unit moves then another unit, then the player turn ends and the computer takes a turn. Battles have an ebb and flow to them. More like a game of football that moves with teams generally attacking or defending depending on whether they have possession, but with individuals in the team moving forward or backwards against the flow. Even in the most vicious battles, there were moments of slack as men paused to reload, reform, spit, piss, look for bits of kit, swallow some spirits or wait for orders. 

Piecing together a coherent timeline of Waterloo means relying on the mass of letters, memories, diaries, accounts, official dispatches, reports and interviews. Added on top of this are layers and layers of later books, articles, studies and research. This leads to a narrative. What narrative is told, and what lessons are drawn from it, is often down to the perceptions and biases of the individual historian. We can known some facts as definitive, others are more of a speculation or reasonable conclusion. For example, we know there were a series of great massed cavalry charges against British position. We can be confident that Marshal Ney ordered it. We can be confident that Napoleon carried on with it once it had been launched. We can reasonably conclude that Napoleon carried on because he felt once it was launched, then it had to carry on. We can know that it had limited artillery support. We can speculate that if it had been supported by horse artillery and had spiked British guns, then Napoleon would have broken the British position. We can then construct a narrative like this

Ney foolishly ordered a mass cavalry charge against the British, either in the mistaken belief that they were retreating, or that they were so shaken that the massed heavy cavalry would break them. As Marshal Ney was somewhat aggressive, and not a good planner, he failed to bring up artillery to give close support to break any resistance. Had he done that he would have broken the British squares. His men had also missed the opportunity to spike the British guns. His lack of clear thinking, and failure to exercise close control, resulted in the slaughter of the elite French cavalry. This was an inexcusable blunder. Not only was the charge the wrong decision, and he allowed it to carry on too long, but in wasting the cavalry he exposed the entire French army to disaster as without cavalry the French army was horrifically vulnerable when moving and had nothing to cover their retreat.

I’ll be honest and say that is a fairly conventional narrative. It seems plausible on the evidence, and the assessment of many professional military observers and commentators.

Still there is a completely different historical narrative that can be constructed 

Marshal Ney had commanded a number of assaults against the British during the afternoon. The action at La Haye Sainte had been vicious and Hougemont had turned into a meat grinder. The battle was heavy with smoke, and the great guns of the grand battery had been pounding the British for hours. They had already mauled the British yesterday at Quatre Bras. There was only a thin line of infantry left, and they had barely repulsed the great French assault by General D’Erlon. Certainly D’Erlons men had been shattered by the British cavalry, but up to that point, the British and Dutch were crumbling. The British cavalry was in tatters and now there was movement. Some British gunners appeared to be retiring. The British must be on the last gasp. Only the British line regiments held the allied regiments in place. After Quatre Bras, Hougemont, D’Erlon’s massed attack, the loss of their heavy cavalry, now must be the time as they wavered to push them over the edge. No army could take the pounding they had. Now was the time for the heavy cavalry. They just had to get over the crest of the hill, and onto the Brussels road and then it was over. He was on horse back with only telescopes, messengers and his own eyes to gather information. Who knows what Ney thought, but perhaps the memory of Marshal Murat’s grand charges, always launched with exquisite timing came into his mind. Surely Murat would have charged? Now perhaps was his moment too. Marshal Ney had always lead from the front, always pushed the assault. Just scatter the British gunners, and run down the unsteady enemy. Then even the most disciplined troops would break as they saw their friends run.”

This second narrative is also plausible and might well be what Ney actually did think and experience. In hindsight, the massed cavalry charge without infantry or artillery support was the wrong decision, but perhaps Ney really did make a reasonable decision on the information he had. 

Waterloo is very much made up of these narratives; some helpful, some pedestrian, some misleading. No one can ever truly know what Napoleon, Wellington or Ney was really thinking and understanding; all we can do is draw reasonable inferences based on what we know of what they did and the circumstances they were in, trying hard to filter it through their personalities. Just rememberer this as we cover the battle in detail. 

Whatever their background, and whatever their alligance, the time had come. One of the great battles of European history was about to be fought. It would change the politics and shape the nations of the continent for nearly the next century. It is worth setting aside those pop culture images of Waterloo. That it was neat lines, puffs of smoke, and splendid epic warfare. It was a truly vicious battle that resulted in many men being horrifically wounded, or killed, or left with crippling psychological injuries that would leave them changed for life. But what was especially unusual about Waterloo is that it was such a tiny battle field for such a huge number of men.

Let’s get some perspective on the battlefield and the scale. Remember the figures I’m about to give are very much approximations when it comes to ancient battles.

Alexander the Greats great victory at Issus was probably fought between 40,000 Greeks and 100,000 Persians including their allies

The battle of Cannae was a key battle in the wars between Rome and Carthage. It is remembered as being a supreme example of tactical brilliance by General Hannibal Barca against Rome. It was fought between around 50,000 Carthaginians and 84,000 Romans. 

The battle of Adrianople could have had around 25,000 Eastern Romans against maybe 80,000 Visigoths and Alans. 

After the fall of Rome and the transition to the Byzantine Empires, the size of battles in Europe dropped drastically. 

The pivotal battle in European history of the middle ages happened at Tours where the Muslim conquests of Europe were finally checked. This involved probably around 15,000-25,000 on either side. 

The battle of Hastings – you know 1066 and all that – was down to probably around 8,000-12000 a side.

The battle of Yorktown had perhaps around 28,000 men involved, mostly on the American side.

By contrast at Waterloo, the Allied army was 68,000 strong, and the French 72,000. They would fight crammed into an area no more than 3 miles wide.Marshal Grouchy was marching nearby with 33,000 men and the Prussians had around 50,000 men in the combat area. That means around 223,000 men were involved in the around Waterloo and Wavre on 18 June 1815. That’s slightly more than at Gettysburg. 

The rain and Napoleon’s decision to batter the enemy rather than manoeuvre meant that this would be a meat grinder of a battle. Slogging and pounding were going to be the defining features of the battle. More men than were present at Issus were going to fight to the death in a tiny area between two ridges, in the mud, horse shit, blood and smoke.

Now think about the numbers involved here. The French I Corp under General D’Erlon was around 22,000 strong. That is nearly the size of the army that the Eastern Roman Empire could muster at Adrianople. Despite all the advances in technology, gunpowder and command structures, the way the army was actually controlled wasn’t that much more technically advanced than the Romans. Orders were shouted, trumpeted, drummed, and sent by messenger. Men moved by marching or riding. But the size of the army being commanded was now huge, the weapons more deadly, and the consequences for mistakes more punishing than ever. A Roman cohort ordered to march and mistakenly expose itself could usually rely on fighting its way out or stubbornly holding on till other cohorts rectified the problem. A miss deployed British regiment could be wiped out be French artillery in minutes. In the last episode I mentioned a British regiment that mistook enemy French cavalry for friendly Brunswick cavalry. They didn’t form square, and were shattered, losing 287 men in minutes. Now just at the time when army commanders could make fewer and fewer mistakes, they were having to command more and more men in more intricate ways that made the chances of a blunder even greater. Just to get a Napoleonic army onto a battle field, pointed in the right direction and fighting was a major achievement. By the end of the day at Waterloo, Napoleon was trying to do the impossible by fighting two battles at the same time. One against the Allied army of Wellington, and one against the approaching Prussians. The fact that he still nearly won is astonishing. 

What was the battlefield of Waterloo itself like? Why was it here that the retreating Wellington had chosen to stand? Above all else, Wellington was a master at identifying and using terrain. For Napoleon the terrain was often incidental to the battle. It was speed, aggression, clever moves and great timing that won his battles. For Wellington, battles were avoided unless the odds favoured him. Terrain was always used to offset the weaknesses of his force and play to its strengths. 

To understand the battlefield , we need to zoom out a bit to get a birds eye view, then zoom in to the level of the individuals at standing height. Waterloo on Wellington’s side was a really strong position. It was a high, long ride that was at right angles to the road to Brussels. It had a light wood behind it, and at the very top of the ridge was a sunken road, hidden from view. The cross roads of the road to Brussels and the sunken lane was a nice summit with a large Elm tree, where Wellington made his HQ for most of the day. 

Some senior officers and Napoleon criticised Wellington’s choice. But the position had been carefully chosen by Wellington and kept up his sleeve. Above almost all his other many talents, Wellington was a sheer genius at picking and using terrain. The position allowed Wellington to hide much of his force from French view. That gave him surprise in his movements. It also allowed him to shield much of his force from artillery fire, especially his precious line infantry, supply wagons and medical facilities. The Allied army would be kept sheltered and supplied. It also had a wood behind it. Whilst that seemed to many like a dangerous disadvantage, Wellington had studied it previously. He knew that actually it had little undergrowth and so his army could slip through it if retreat was necessary. He also knew that the battlefield position had two farms Hougemont and La Hay Saint that stood out in front of the allied ridge like bastions, with another farm . Rather than creating Grand Artillery batteries of cannons like the French, Wellington supplemented his line regiments with light guns to boost their already impressive fire power. At ground level there were good views of the valley and the French positions, whilst the Allied troops were carefully concealed. 

It is also worth noting that Wellington was only willing to fight at Waterloo because he expected the Prussians to arrive to help. He would not have chosen to make a stand here unless the Prussians were coming. He received messages indicating that they were so his left flank was left “in the air” precisely because he expected them to arrive from his left. His centre was carefully hidden behind the ridge and his right was anchored by Hougemont. Interestingly he sent 17,000 men further to his right, away from the main battle. These were to be his safety valve. They were to keep the routes to the sea open in case the Prussians didn’t come, and to prevent Napoleon swinging round to his right to cut him off or attack his flank. 

Wellington’s plan for the day was simple. Select highly defensible terrain, hide troops out of sight, and put small forces into his bastions to hamper French assaults. Be miserly with using reserves, cling to the ridge, wear the French and wait for the Prussians to swing the weight of numbers decisively against the French. In boxing terms, it was classic defensive fighting from a technical scientist of the ring. 

Napoleon also had a fairly simple plan. He wanted to keep the guard in reserve. He would pound the British with his artillery, use his cavalry to force them into squares, then send in his infantry to punish them before perhaps using the Guard to break the most stubborn points of resistance. He would smash the Allied army out of the way, crush it, and take Brussels, then swing round to rejoin Grouchy and pursue the retreating Prussians. Carrying on the boxing metaphor, Napoleon was abandoning boxing science in favour of hard punches in a close up match. 

Napoleon seemed to believe that the Prussians were a spent force after Ligny, and that Grouchy would be able to push them back to stop them joining Wellington. He also clearly seemed to feel that manoeuvre at Waterloo was counter productive. The ground was still a mud bath. Trying to get round Wellingtons right would simply force Wellington back towards the Prussians, not away from them. Moving to Wellington’s left would potentially just push Wellington back along his lines of supply and achieve very little beyond delaying the battle. 

There are a huge number of myths around Waterloo, about Wellington, Napoleon and the various forces. Historians and armchair generals have a lot of trouble remaining impartial on events and the actions of the armies. Revisions can range from Napoleon the incompetent to how Napoleon the brilliant was robbed of his triumph by the Prussians. Indeed if you read some accounts, you could believe that Napoleon actually won Waterloo. Most accounts in English refer to Waterloo as a British victory or even an English one over the French, where Wellington proved himself the better general than Napoleon. 

As always on the podcast, I have to say the reality is much more complicated. By the end of the day the French army was in a panicked rout. No amount of spin can change the end result; because spoilers, the French army was no longer a cohesive force in the field, and Napoleon was shortly to be out of power and in British captivity, but it was as a result of a multinational effort, and was much more than just Wellington beating Napoleon. 

How events got to that point though is truly fascinating. If you listened to my last episode, you will have heard me speculating on the role stress played in the battle, and people’s decisions. Every Napoleonic battle was stressful, but Waterloo was going to be on another level. I cannot imagine the mental strain on Wellington, Napoleon, Marshal Ney, Marshal Soult and the many others. Making good decisions under stress is very hard. When stressed humans often fall back on practised responses, whether or not they fit the circumstances. Napoleon’s physical condition was well below healthy after a difficult start to the campaign. Marhsal Ney seemed to be suffering from PSTD since Russia in 1812 and was clearly tormented by his decisions to betray first Napoleon then the restored Bourbon monarchy. Soult was a poor chief of staff and in any event hadn’t been in the role long enough to  get a real grip. Not that all of the Allied commanders were in great shape. Prince Blucher had been extremely badly injured two days before after the battle of Ligny. He nearly died when his horse rolled on him and was almost killed by the French as a result. Also he was not entire psychologically stable and was extremely bloodthirsty for revenge on the French. Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton GCB was a hard fighting Welsh officer. He had been recommended to Wellington by Francisco De Miranda and had served with distinction during the Peninsular war. (Oh and if you were following Mike Duncan’s excellent Revolutions Podcast, yes it was that Francisco De Miranda – he really did get everywhere). Picton was probably also suffering from PTSD by the time of the 100 Days Campaign, and had to be pressed by Wellington to accept command of the 5th Infantry Division. This was a fine division indeed, including as it did elements of Highlanders, old line regiments, rifles, a Hanoverian Brigade and horse artillery. It would see action in various forms in the Boer Wars and both World Wars until finally being disbanded in April 2012. Not only was Picton mentally unwell, but he had actually been shot through the hip at Quatre Bras, but he and his servant concealed the wound so he could continue to fight. He gained a glorious reputation after Waterloo, and was probably pretty crucial to the British so history tends to ignore his conviction for torturing slaves during his career – he was only acquitted because his lawyers successfully argued that torture without trial was legal under the colonies Spanish laws. The Prince of Orange was inexperienced and incompetent. 

It wasn’t just the senior officers who were under stress. Battalion and company officers faced the additional problem of giving orders in difficult circumstances and translating the high level directives from senior officers into battlefield directions.

I’m going play you a short clip now. It’s taken from a film I haven’t seen. It gives you a wonderful example of the noise and complexity you might hear in a Napoleonic battle. The film is actually a recreation of the Battle of New Orleans, so the period is in a few years of Waterloo, and the sounds are very authentic. It gives an idea of what people had to deal with. Now imagine you had to give orders in this cacophony of noise.

[Sounds of firing, cannon, shouting and bagpipes].

Now, the Emperor was ready. Now was the time to start in ernest. The displays, the careful moves, the clever plans. The time for that was past. Napoleon had to beat the Allied army. The Armee Du Nord performed its final grand review on the slopes in front of La Bell Alliance. This is the last time the great display of French Napoleonic finery was on display. Trumpets blaring, drums beating, flags flying in the wind. Eagles gleaming in the sun and shouts of Vive L’Emperor. Just the spectacle would have been awe inspiring. Knowing that great mass of disciplined, power men would soon be attacking would shake the resolve of some armies. 


After the bloody day of Waterloo, many soldiers found themselves in need of a doctor.

Learn how the wounded were recovered, treated and operated on in the aftermath of one of the great battles of European history. The pain and near butchery would be horrific, but the lessons learned would lead to ground breaking advances that would save many lives.

Join me to find out about how an amputation was carried out in the age before pain killers or infection control.

Episode 008 Waterloo Pt 3: The climax

The climax of the Battle of Waterloo. The fate of Napoleon, France and Europe hangs in the balance. The French seem poised for victory. Can a thin line of brave Scotsmen and the dashing British cavalry save the Allies from defeat?

This episode covers

The heroic Scots

The British Heavies and the Charge of the Greys by Lady Butler

The arrival of the Prussians

The massed French cavalry charges

The dire position of the brave 27 (Irish) Inniskillens

The last attack of the Imperial Guard

Total victory & total defeat.

A post script to a pair of brave soldiers.

Episode 007 Waterloo Pt 2: Into the cannon’s mouth

This episode covers the early stages of the battle, including the desperate struggle for Hougoumont which has been immortalised in art, film and British Army legend. It goes on to cover the huge opening roar of the cannons of the Grand Battery. Covers the great strain on the defenders, the preparations for the main French attack of the day, and the arrival of the Prussians.
Episode Outline
What was Hougoumont and why was it important?
Who were the defenders?
Who was attacking and how did it go?
Where was the Grand Battery?
What could it do?
How was it used?
Was it effective?
D’Erlon getting into formation.
D’Erlon moving forwards.
Prussians sighted.
The assault reaches the hedge
The fight for La Hay Sainte
Dubois and the French cavalry
Can the Scotts save the Allies?

Episode 006 Waterloo Pt1: Destiny dawns

The dawn of the day of Waterloo brings only fear, discomfort and suffering. This is the first in the Waterloo episodes series. It covers

  • The feelings of the men and a most important breakfast.
  • Why Napoleon felt he was onto a sure thing.
  • The weather and terrain.
  • The reasons why Waterloo was chosen, and how it compares to some other historical battles.
  • The mental state of senior commanders.
  • Deployment, tactics, plans and confusion.
  • The last grand review of the Armee Du Nord.

Waterloo can be a confusing battle, so maps are available on the website.

TRANSCRIPT: Episode 004 The Emperor marches to war

  1. Here we are then. The scene is set. It must be war. The politics, the philosophy and the cultures of the European great powers are now to be decided on the battlefields. In many ways this conflict was about far more than Napoleon, or even the ideals of the French revolution versus the Ancien Regime. This is the climax of a clash that defined Europe since the discovery of the New World. Would Europe be a land empire, ruled by the French, facing the mediterranean and projecting power to the old core of Western civilisation, into the Balkans and the middle east, or would the British Atlantic facing international empire triumph. That might sound outlandish, but some historians have certainly viewed it that way. Britain had financed Prussia and other nations to attack the French to conquer French oversea’s territories. William Pitt the Elder, a famous British politician had explicitly stated this aim “While we had France for an enemy, Germany was the scene to employ and baffle her arms.” meaning that Britain would arm and finance continental powers to weaken the French to seize French oversea’s colonies.


Episode 005 Quatre Bras – the chance to change history

Europe was at war. The fate of nations and armies hung in the balance. As people made hard choices, Napoleon began his attack. He planned to beat the Prussians, but that meant Marshal Ney had to face the British and their allies. Here was a chance for swift and decisive victory, but was Ney the man to seize it?

This episode covers

Implications of being in the war zone

Position of the armies

Why Ligny and Quatre Bras were key battles

Detailed analysis of pre-battle events and orders

The Battle of Quatre Bras and a background on Marshal Ney

Consequences and the missing day.

Speculation on psychology of Marshal Ney.

Episode 004 Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte marches to war!

In the trouble world of 1815, there can be no peace in Europe. Napoleon must go to war. Join me in discovering how the storm clouds of war that had gathered over Europe finally broke.

This episode covers

An introduction to the position of the forces on 14 June 1815

How the armies began their open moves and the views of the key players.

A description of how the chaos of war was both tamed and unleashed.

Why Napoleon was making the best moves of the war and Wellington was making the worst.

The start of the battles, and confusion in command

Finally the crucial meeting on the eve of 16 June 1815, and how French gold opportunities were lost.


Thanks for your listening. I hope you enjoyed it. If you want to get in touch, I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at ageofvictoriapodcast@gmail.com, follow me on twitter @ageofvictoria, visit the website at www.ageofvictoriapodcast.com. The show also has a facebook page and group. Just search for Age of Victoria. Don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes, it takes less time than making a coffee. If you want to support the show on patreon, just click here, or you can go to Patreon and search for age of victoria podcast or my name.

TRANSCRIPT Episode 002 Napoleon and the French Army in 1815

  1. This is the remastered version of episode 2. When I started podcasting, I was very much still learning about sound quality and editing. Looking back, I slightly shudder at how the early shows sounded. I have rerecorded some of the early shows to give new listeners a better experience. Content wise, they are pretty much the same, with some tweaks for clarity. 
  2. What price is too high for ambition? It can be a difficult question. Ambition has driven us throughout history. It can be what makes a person strive for aN education or a job. It has built monuments and civilisations. But it has limits. How far is too ambitious? Does it depend on who you are? Or are the consequences more important? Is it ok to let your ambition kill people? After all just becoming a President or a Prime Minister or a Tsar means you will end up having people killed. Someone has to do those jobs though. If you exclude one person for being too ambitious, how do you know that the next person will be up to the job? Isn’t a certain amount of ruthlessness and ambition exactly what’s needed in a great leader? What should people with incredible talents and ambition do? If you are an Alexander or a Caesar, that ambition is going to kill people, but you know that you are cut from another cloth to most people. Because if people like Alexander or Caesar aren’t ambitious, then how does civilisation move and evolve? Without Caesar, maybe Rome stays a Mediterranean power, and there is no modern France or Spain or Britain. There’s no Constantinople; perhaps even no Crusades or contact with China – so maybe the world never moves past the technology, social structures and populations of 1st century AD. Imagine a world that doesn’t change from then and try to imaging what that’s like.
  3. The Victorians absolutely had to deal with this ambition problem though. It wasn’t an academic issue for them. Cecil Rhodes, Charles Napier, “Chinese” Gordon, Abraham Lincoln were all people who had to put a large dose of ambition and a willingness to see people dead to achieve what they thought were larger goals. Throughout our period, the British Victorians were building an Empire as were the French, Prussians, Russians and North Americans. That often leads to some very uncomfortable questions, about who is building it and why. That leads me to another trait that these great men often have, and that’s “they have a self confidence you could bend iron bars around.” That’s going to be a key to understanding the Age of the Victorians right there, the almost insane self confidence we’re going to see again and again. Searching for the source of the Nile, or the Northern Passage, journeying up the Amazon or taking a handful of soldiers and scraped together forces against enormous odds in far flung parts of the world.
  4. Think about what’s the biggest gamble you’ve ever taken? Have you ever staked it all on a risky throw of the dice? When most of us say we have taken a gamble, we usually mean something mundane like trying a new restaurant or seeing a film or going on a date. Even the big stuff is usually fairly small in the grand scheme of things. Quitting a job, starting a business or moving house is rarely going to kill you, and even if it does that is limited to you and your family. What I think we all have in common is a sense of fear of the unknown and that moment where the urge to jump on a chance becomes unbearable.
  5. In 1815, in what has to be one of the great gambles in world history, Napoleon left Elba with a handful of men to reconquer France. Now I can’t really imagine how Napoleon felt when he left Elba on 26 February 1815 and landed in France on 01 March 1815. I’m not going through the whole history of Napoleon. I’m going to assume that you know something about his rise from provincial nobody to revolutionary general to 1st Consul to Emperor of the French and master of Europe to exile on Elba. His return started what was known as the 100 days. With just 1,000 men, he invaded France. That has to be one of the most utterly self confident things anyone has ever done. Still, he was not leaping in the dark. The returned Monarchy had quickly wasted any goodwill it had, and it had treated the officers and men of the old Grand Armee disgracefully. The exiled aristocratic class had  been banished from France after the French revolution, but had returned and begun the usual aristocratic practice of extraction, rents and despotism. The old army and people of France were ready for help to fight the tyranny of monarchy, but people’s sentiments were mixed and many just feared the chaos of a new war.
  6. Napoleon was like a lot of the “great men” of history – he had a belief in fortune and some greater destiny. He felt he was marked out for greatness. And if you look at him, you can see why. He was unquestionably an intellectual genius who was one of the greatest military commanders in history. At his best he was nearly incomparable. He regularly appears in the top 5 military leaders in history. He also possessed a highly scientific mind, and a formidable legal brain. It is worth remembering as we evaluate him and Waterloo, that he was also the sole ruler of France at the time, responsible for all civil affairs in her borders and colonies. He also had to deal with all international diplomatic relations, re-order the constitution and economy, re-form and re-supply the military then at the same time fight a campaign against an international coalition determined to use the resources of their combined nations to destroy him. I think you will come to see that the surprise is not that Wellington with Prussian help beat Napoleon, but how amazing it is he came so close to actually winning.
  7. I’m going to quickly digress as I think we should put the issue of Napoleon’s height to rest. He was 5ft 4 inches in French Imperial measure, which was 5ft 7 inches in British Imperial measure. That made him of average height for France in the early 1800’s. A number of modern political leaders are also the same height. For comparison, the Duke of Wellington was probably around 5ft 10inches. A lot of the reason for the confusion was highly effective British propaganda that made him out to be small, physically weak, combined with the mistranslation over the height from French measure to British Imperial. Later on Tolstoy (who loathed Napoleon) called him [quote] “the undersized Napoleon” [end quote] as well as other unflattering descriptions. Dr Alfred Adler, a psychiatrist first proposed the Napoleon complex to describe short men over compensating with aggression, which has set the myth in stone.
  8. Now let’s have a look at France on the eve of Waterloo campaign in the year 1815. She was without a doubt the great power of the age. She had a large population and was agriculturally rich. Like Britain she was a predominantly agrarian society with the bulk of the population involved in farming or labour, but was behind in industrial terms. Unlike Britain, France was not a strong naval power. A focus on continental strategy, rather than blue water power projection combined with a series of naval defeats meant France was unable to challenge British naval dominance, which was absolute in 1815. This had a huge impact on French strategy. When naval historians and strategists talk about navies, they will try and define the role of the navy. Navies can be vital in securing trade routes, for costal defence, troop transport, commerce raiding and if capable of long campaigns far from the home base, they can be called Blue Water navies. That means they can project power whether military, commercial or diplomatic, a long way from the home country. That can make them tremendously powerful. The down side is that they are immensely expensive. Just putting a fleet to sea costs more than money; it requires materials to build the ship, often these are hard to obtain. The British had to import timber from the Baltic. It’s not just materials to build though, fleets need men and supplies. They need training, secure harbours, support vessels, and as Mahon noted in his immensely influential work “The Impact of Sea Power on History”, a huge merchant marine fleet to give depth. They also need an arms industry tailored to their specific needs that can keep replacement weapons and ammunition flowing. The upside of this is that if you have a powerful navy, you can do a lot of things that perhaps your opponent can’t. In 1815, Britain had that navy and Napoleon didn’t. Not only did Britain have that fleet, but it could do the lot. It was a blue water fleet and could strike anywhere, but it could also protect commerce, transport troops, raid enemy merchants and blockade enemy ports. Lack of a blue water navy had condemned France to a continental strategy, and they missed the opportunity to assume a dominant role in controlling the Mediterranean. The British fleet allowed a global network of trade, colonisation and slavery that brought immense wealth and power to Britain. This in turn meant the French couldn’t control trade routes or prevent British troop movements by sea. As soon as Napoleon returned, almost the first thing that happened was that the Royal Navy swept the sea’s around France clean of French shipping. Getting supplies and allies from overseas would be an immensely difficult task for the Emperor.
  9. Napoleon was in a difficult position politically when he returned to France. He instituted important reforms, and established a civilian government. He was the Emperor, but his position was precarious, so the civilian authorities had considerable power. Napoleon had to topple the monarchy and set up a new government, then fend off the various invasions. That was not the time for full on ballot box democracy. It is a mistake to view him as a dictator at this stage though. He actually had somewhat less power than he did before his previous exile, and would rely more heavily on the civilian government.
  10. Napoleon in 1815 was not the same Napoleon who had repeatedly thrashed the powers of Europe in 1800-1806. He was older, fatter, slower and less energetic but the Emperor was not to be taken lightly. He was still renowned as a master of war with a glittering list of victories that went from Spain to Russia, from Italy to the Baltic and from the Danube to the Nile. He was not invincible as the disasters in Spain and Russia had proved, but his final defence of France in 1814 had been brilliant. Napoleon in 1815 had a serious problem though. He needed one thing above all else and that was time. He needed it because the powers at the congress of Vienna had declared him an outlaw and would form the 7th Coalition. He had put out peace feelers and appeared to be genuinely willing to work within an international framework. The war was not the Old World of Europe against France, it was against Napoleon. He needed time to get his veteran soldiers to return to the colours. He needed time to levee new recruits. He needed time to re-write the constitution, and completely restructure the economy, he needed time to get his Marshals to return to him and he needed the former prisoners of war who had been returned to be re-enlisted. That was a real problem for Napoleon because he knew that time was a double edged sword. The longer he waited, the more troops and supplies his enemies could put in the field against him.
  11. In an unfortunate stroke of timing, Napoleon had returned to France during the international Congress of Vienna. The former combatants had gathered to create what they claimed would be a new European order of peace and security. It would also just happen to re-establish the old aristocracies, especially in France because hey we’ve seen what happens when you put the people in charge, they actually want to try to run things and distribute land fairly, have an even handed legal system, abolish privilege and all kinds of non-sense. Luckily we can fix all that and oh crap Napoleon is back. Didn’t we just get rid of him?
  12. So the representatives of the European powers assembled at the Congress of Vienna issued a declaration outlawing Napoleon and agreed to place armies of at least 150,000 each in the field to oppose him.
  13. The Coalition Powers agreed on a coordinated invasion of France to start on 1 July 1815.
  14. Britain and Prussia would assemble their armies in Belgium (a territory recently acquired by United Kingdom of the Netherlands)
  15. The Russians would assemble an army and advance through Germany towards the French frontier
  16. The Austrians would assemble two armies and advance on the French frontiers
  17. The troops of Bavaria, Baden, Wurtemberg, and Hesse, would assemble their troops on the upper Rhine under the command of the Prince of Württemberg.
  18. Now try to imagine that you suddenly have to arrange to defend an entire country after you’ve just overthrown the government. You have to cover the frontiers, plan a strategy and set the victory conditions you want to achieve, create an organisational structure, move troops by horse, cart and foot, and work using only hand drawn maps. If you lose, it might cost you your life and your country could be conquered or broken up. A lot of us struggle to organise a routine office move, so try to conceive of the scale of the task that Napoleon has here. When he took over government on 19 March 1815 from the debased and despised Louise XVIII he inherited the standing army of just 46,000 combat ready troops. By the end of May Napoleon had managed to raise this to 198,000. Think about how difficult some companies find it to recruit even a handful of low level staff and now scale it up to the massive numbers Napoleon needed. He needed boots, uniforms, horses, reserves, gun limbers, carriages, bandages, food, muskets, ammunition, maps and a huge array of other supplies. To give you another idea of the scale of the challenge, remember that Napoleon didn’t just have to defeat the British & Prussians in Belgium. He had to prepare for an expected Spanish invasion, an expected British naval landing in Southern France, guard the Swiss and Italian borders and the frontiers of the Prussian/German states. The Allies could potentially field 989,000 men against him. 
  19. I think you are beginning to see that far from some of the Victorian myths of Wellington “The Iron Duke” thrashing Napoleon at Waterloo and stopping the tyrant, in fact it was highly unlikely that Napoleon would succeed.
  20. Napoleon acted with characteristic brilliance. He carefully formed armies and smaller corps to cover the various trouble spots. He had a choice between a protracted defence of France, or to go on the offensive and try to defeat his enemies in detail before they could join up against him. By taking the fight to them he hoped that significant military victories would force them to the peace table. It is important to understand that everything Napoleon now did was to try to turn military advantages into diplomatic victories. It was a huge gamble though. It had failed utterly in Russia where he won battle after battle but his enemy simply refused to negotiate. Now he was fighting an enemy that wanted to destroy him personally. Some of the Coalition, such as Blucher, hated him and wanted him dead. They would no more negotiate with him than the Allies in WW2 would have negotiated with Hitler. It was all or nothing for most of them.
  21. Napoleon made things more difficult by making some fateful decisions. Ones that would perhaps doom him. He appointed one of best Marshals, Louis-Nicolas Davout, as his Minister of War. He was perfect for the role, both talented and loyal. His upright character and stern discipline meant he was utterly reliable. He was the right man for the job, but his presence as a marshal in the Waterloo campaign could very well have changed the course of history. Davout was a supreme military commander, arguably as good as Napoleon at the tactical, operational and theatre levels. His army corp was always the most disciplined and well supplied of the French forces.
  22. Had Davout commanded the field at Waterloo instead of Ney, there would have been no blunders with unsupported cavalry charges, nor would the infantry have been allowed to plod in so many of their attacks. If he had commanded at Quatre Bras instead of Ney, he would have understood why the battle was so important and the need for decisive action – something seemingly absent from Ney’s rather slow actions of the day. It is one of the great might have been’s that Napoleonic history buffs have discussed since then.
  23. The other killer mistake for Napoleon was appointing Joseph Fouché as his Police Minister and de facto spymaster, and Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord to Foreign Minister. Both were ruthless, brilliant and utterly self centred with no scruples. Both had betrayed masters before with promises that they were acting in the best interest of France. Both were only absolutely loyal to themselves. Fouche quickly made himself indispensible, but Napoleon both mistrusted and somewhat feared him.
  24. On the upside Napoleon had many of his veterans. He had some capable marshals, who if not of the calibre of Massena, Lannes or Berthier his much missed Chief of Staff, at least included the Bravest of the Brave Marshal Ney and the formidable Marshal Soult. The Marshals are a fascinating group. Some of them had amazing careers. Indeed if not for Napoleon, some of them would be historical super stars but with the Emperor present they were always outshone. Soult’s position was especially interesting because rather than being given a corp or army command, he was appointed to the role of Chief of Staff. It was a role he was highly unsuited to, despite his strong performance in the Peninsular Wars. He was not tactically brilliant in the field like Napoleon or Massena but he was disciplined, courageous, a capable field commander, and a great organiser of armies. He had won a number of notable victories and had been instrumental in some of the Emperor’s successes. He had even had experience as a Chief of Staff in Spain. As an army commander he was highly respected by no lesser general than Wellington himself. In 1838 he represented King Louis-Philippe at the coronation of Queen Victoria. By then he was Duke of Dalmatia, and was pleased to hear cries of Vive Soult from the London crowd. He met his old adversary Wellington, who is said to have seized his arms and said “I have you at last”, a tribute to his difficulties fighting the wily Marshal in Spain. The evidence for this is a little slim, and might be from a fanciful painting, where the words are uttered by General Hill, not Wellington. Sadly, unlike Breathier, Soult struggled to translate Napoleon’s high level instructions into concrete detailed orders. Poor staff work dogged the campaign. Where Berthier ran a disciplined, efficient staff at a cracking pace, Soult was more leisurely. Berthier would send 3 messengers with the same order to ensure it reached the intended recipient, whereas Soult would only send one. It was also remarked that Soult used low quality horses and officers for the staff. It is unlikely that Berthier would have allowed the debacles of Grouchy or D’Erlon wandering aimlessly at crucial moments.
  25. Marshal Ney was another interesting choice. In his prime before 1812 he had been a fierce fighter and an exceptional winner of battles. After 1812 and the epic retreat from Moscow where he earned the title “Bravest of the Brave” he was not quite the same fiery genius. Napoleon writing with some hindsight said of him [QUOTE] “Admirable for his bravery and stubbornness in retreats, he was good when it came to leading 10,000 men, but with a larger force he was a real fool. Always first under fire, he forgot about troops who were not under his immediate command” [END QUOTE]
  26. When Napoleon marched north to confront the Coalition on 12th June, Marshal Ney went as a civilian and in disgrace having betrayed his Emperor then the Bourbons. He had been enticed by the Emperor to defect, and the troops cheered the decision of the beloved marshal to join the Emperor. Certainly it is likely that Napoleon had one eye on public opinion when he recalled Ney. Still he never really brought Ney back into the inner circle. Napoleon probably never forgave Ney for leading the marshals revolt that originally deposed the him.
  27. Ney was eventually summoned to join the Emperor on campaign. It was at short notice and Ney departed France with only 1 staff officer. Finally at a meeting with the Emperor on the road to Charleroi on the 15 June 1815, he was suddenly appointed to command of the 1st & 2nd Army Corp with 2 regiments of light cavalry of the Imperial Guard and 8 regiments of Kellerman’s heavy cavalry. This gave him a command of 50,000 men and 72 guns. These figures would not stay constant as brigades and divisions were abruptly shifted to command area’s as necessity dictated. It was a curiously spur of the moment appointment at a crucial moment in the campaign. Ney did not distinguish himself in terms of tactical or strategic ability on during the Waterloo campaign but his bravery was all that could be asked of a hero of France. Sadly, we will see it was an order of Ney’s to D’Erlon that probably doomed Napoleon before Waterloo was even fought. In fairness to Ney, being given command of an army on the march on the eve of a critical battle is a hellish task. He would have had to find out where, on the confused roads of Belgium, his troops, officers and supplies were, meet his officers, take control of them and begin his planning. He had to do this with horse messengers and hand written notes. I think for all his faults, history is often unkind to Ney. He was placed in a very difficult situation and the sight of Ney at the end of Waterloo is a display of courage almost unequalled on either side.
  28. The last of the Marshals was Grouchy. He was a brave cavalry leader who had impressed Napoleon at Wagram but had remained an overlooked general. His unexpected elevation to Marshal caused immense jealousy from his subordinates. Grouchy had never been good at getting the best from his officers and this appointment inflamed the hatred that Vandamme already had for his superior. Worse he had no experience of leading infantry or combined forces and his main achievements had always been under the command of the more capable Marshals like Davout or Lannes or when he was directly under the control of the Emperor.
  29. The whole myth of the disciplined British against the brave, dashing but undisciplined French became a Victorian myth but one that perhaps contained a good deal of truth. Certainly there are accounts that suggest that most troops and junior officers were fanatically loyal to the Emperor. A good number were veterans or former POW’s who were thirsty for revenge, many the victims of torture in captivity. The senior officers were more conflicted and many feared that the Emperors return meant France was destined for yet more wars. I’m not sure if they considered that actually committing wholeheartedly to Napoleon was the best chance for the French Republic to not just survive but thrive. The senior generals and marshals were in some ways disliked. They were seen as old and disloyal. Men who had owed everything to Napoleon yet had betrayed him. The return of Ney and Soult to the cause was welcome, but the army was not exactly a cohesive force. It has been described by many historians as being like a fine but brittle sword. It was the best army Napoleon had commanded for years and was filled with veterans, but at the same time it didn’t have the deep discipline and trust. It hadn’t had much time to practise together to develop real bonds of trust between the men, and the essential small unit cohesion that helps troops know what their fellows are going to do without having to be told.
  31. The French troops were mainly line infantry. The typical French Infantryman was armed with a smoothbore, muzzle loading musket and carrying a knapsack.
  32. Muskets are accurate at up to around 50 yards, but could still kill at up to 300 yards. A good shooter with a musket could reliably hit a man sized target at 50 yards, but at 300 yards aiming was pointless. Soldiers simply fired into the mass of enemy on the principle it would hit something. Crucially, the musket was reliable, relatively quick firing, easy to produce in large numbers, and study enough to use in hand to hand. A blow from the butt of a musket could crush a man’s skull. Muskets were primitive compared to the highly accurate rifles and machine guns of later armies, but as historian John Elting wrote: [QUOTE] “In their own time they made and broke empires; they won, and nailed down, the independence of the USA. Together with the Roman short sword and the Mongol composite bow, they rank as the greatest man-killers of all-history.” [QUOTE] 
  33. Most French infantry carried the ‘Charleville’ musket (fusil d’infanterie) model 1777 (AN IX), with overall length 151.5 cm, (barrel length 114 cm), and a triangular bayonet. It fired a French musket ball of .69 calibre using a flint lock. It was so popular that it was widely copied. The French version 1766 was so highly regarded it was the basis of the iconic American Springfield Musket 1795. Ammunition was cast to an approximate size, and there were no interchangable machine parts so standardise replacement parts weren’t typically available, so repairs needed an experienced gun smith. The quality of gun powder was variable and Napoleon would refuse to release gun powder producers for active service as their work was too valuable.
  34. The flintlock musket revolutionised warfare. They were powerful, large calibre weapons, and getting hit by one was almost certain to put a man down, even if he later recovered. They easily shattered bones, and shredded organs as the soft lead balls deformed on impact.
  35. To increase accuracy, mass volleys were used on the principle that quantity of fire would make up for low quality accuracy. This created a lethal kill zone at around the 50-150 yard mark and a danger zone at up to 300 yards, but it required intense discipline. Debates ranged in military circles about the best formations. Napoleon and the French adapted many of the best practices from other nations and perfected them. 
  36.  Lack of production facilities for muskets and ammunition limited the supplies. Training was also of increasingly low quality. In contrast inBritain, the industrial revolution and imperial trade networks meant plenty of ammunition was available. British troops trained for far long. 
  37. There is a misconception that the French fought in large columns, but this is not true. The French used the 2 ranks formation at a tactical level at close range. At a larger level the various lines would combined to form the Attack Column. The attack column is not the same as the long deep marching column. It was more a rectangle formed by the individual companies of soldiers not a solid mass of men marching in a deep mass like you see on a parade ground or on the road. 
  38. The columns were supported by screens of skirmishing troops that picked off enemy officers and covered the advance. A small volley might be fired on the way in and attacks were usually supported by heavy artillery fire and cavalry wherever possible, with columns trying to cross the lethal fire zones created by the lines of enemy troops.
  39. The precise formations varied throughout the Napoleonic wars. The highly trained French army of 1805 was able to adopt various formations that were beyond the abilities of the army of 1815, which didn’t. the training to adopt complex formations. Losses of high quality officers and NCO only exacerbated the problem. As the French infantry abilities decayed, the army relied more heavily on artillery and cavalry.
  40. Napoleon especially loved the heavy cavalry. Big men, on big horses with full cuirasses and heavy straight swords. A well timed charge by the Cuirassiers could smash enemy lines or shatter enemy counter attacks. He was careful that his Marshals and Generals ensured that the Heavy Cavalry didn’t charge unsupported by infantry or artillery. Napoleon developed the concentrated heavy cavalry doctrine and their use as a breakthrough force throughout his career, but they were supposed to be integrated rather than charging unsupported.
  41. The French also used various light cavalry, dragoons and lancers. Lancers were especially feared as they could under the right conditions reach past the bayonet wall of an infantry square and spear the men, especially if it was too wet to fire muskets. The British military were so impressed with the lancers that they adopted them for cavalry, although later reports on combat effectiveness in India were mixed. Dragoons would sometimes find themselves burdened with carbines and bayonets, whilst some light infantry officers and dragoons would be given rifle carbines. 
  42. The artillery, referred to as guns, were the key to French tactics, as Napoleon said [QUOTE]Great battles are won with artillery. [END QUOTE] Yet a persistent issue for the French was lack of quality artillery pieces with plenty of ammunition.
  43. The French often requisitioned older guns for costal defence and Napoleon focused obsessively on his artillery. He and senior officers had done a vast amount of work to standardise and improve the artillery to make it world class. It suffered dreadfully in Russia and never truly recovered. It seems clear on reflection that British Artillery was of a consistently higher manufacturing quality, but sometime less effective.
  44. Uniforms varied widely depending on the time period, the whims of the local colonel, the vagaries of supplies and the interference of various re-organisations. Campaign clothing was often tattered and dirty, a world away from the formal regulation clothing worn on parade. The organisation of the Imperial Guard was kept separate and it acted in some ways as an independent army which drew higher and pay and was fed the best rations.
  45. The combined discipline of the French army, the battlefield brilliance of the fighting marshals, and the genius of Napoleon in bringing the maximum force against a limited point of his enemies’ lines and shattering them had allowed the French to become in 1805 the finest army in the world. The Emperor focused on fast movement, pinning attacks to the front whilst attacking the flanks and the rear and the ability to move his army corps in a dispersed fashion only to quickly converge at key points. Above all the Emperor was adaptable, expertly selecting the right tools and formations for whatever challenge was presented. He preferred an offensive campaign to allow him to deal early knockout blows against his enemies, overcoming the logistical shortcomings of the French field armies by winning the war before supplies became an issue. Too often the French army relied on the brilliant leadership insane bravery to make up for serious organisational difficulties.
  46.  Whatever the short comings, Napoleon had to fight. He would teach the coalition how the Master waged war. He had achieved the impossible by seizing the throne and assembling the armies. Now he moved so fast that the coalition still believed he was in France, when he was actually marching to divide the British and Prussians. His goal was to destroy the Prussians, then the British before they had time to react. He nearly succeeded.
  47. Before I go though, I hope you are getting a sense of how tough and brave and powerful the French Army under Napoleon really was. The French have been the butt of some appalling jokes, and US President Bush referred to them as “Cheese eating surrender monkeys” This is a gross slur on an extremely brave and hard fighting nation. The French under Napoleon routinely displayed incredible courage under fire, and conquered most of Europe. The repeated charges of the British squares by the French Heavy Cavalry alone was valour of the highest order, and the British respected them immensely for it. Throughout much of her history France was regarded as the pre-eminent military and social power in Europe. Join me next time to find out about the famous British army of 1815 under the legendary Duke of Wellington.

Episode 002 Napoleon and the French Army in 1815

In this episode I indulge my passion for Napoleonic history, and explore my fascination with Napoleon. I cover the great gamble of his return from exile, his struggles, the options available to him, and that magnificent instrument of war…..the French Army.

This show covers

  • The benefits and cost of ambition.

  • Napoleon’s gamble to retake the French throne.

  • The position of France, and the role of navies. 

  • Rebuilding the French army, and what strategy to use?

  • Davout, Ney, Soult and Grouchy – the Marhals.

  • The musket; the infantryman’s best friend, and killer.

  • How to form up to die.

  • The cavalry – The Big Boots

  • The artillery – Napoleon’s daughters

  • The Emperor’s first moves.

Thanks for your listening. I hope you enjoyed the show. If you want to get in touch, I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at ageofvictoriapodcast@gmail.com, follow me on twitter @ageofvictoria, visit the website at www.ageofvictoriapodcast.com. The show also has a facebook page and group. Just search for Age of Victoria. Don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes, it takes less time than making a coffee. If you want to support the show on patreon, just click here, or you can go to Patreon and search for age of victoria podcast or my name.

The transcript for this episode can be found at