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.
This might seem appalling but it is worth baring in mind that politics was often seen as a zero sum game for much of history; for one nation to prosper, it was believed it had to be at the expense of another. The French sought control of Spain and the Low Countries to expand their own power and weaken the British. Up until the 1759, Prussia, Austria and France were realistically the premier European powers. The area that is now modern Italy was a profitable battle ground for many adventurers whether Austrian or French.
In the last 2 episodes, I’ve talked about the situation of 2 of the main combatants on the eve of the Waterloo campaign. I’ve put a map of the Waterloo campaign up on the website at http://www.ageofvictoriapodcast.com then go to Resources>Maps>Napoleonic>The 100 Day Campaign. I really strongly recommend that you have a look at it whilst we cover Waterloo campaign. Napoleonic campaigns are notoriously confusing with marches, counter marches, movements to the flank and rear. They are a world away from the slow plodding of the previous continental wars. I’ll be talking about armies concentrating a lot in this episode. Because of the size of the armies of the period and the poor supply structures and roads, they tend to move and camp in a spread out fashion. Not so far as to separate but far enough not to turn into a confused mess. One of the arts of Napoleonic warfare was for a commander to bring his forces together at the appropriate point; known as concentrating.
Now the Allies didn’t actually expect this invasion. In early March Wellington and Blucher had had some preliminary discussions about concentrating forces and making a co-ordinated defence, but as time passed the Allies generally expected Napoleon to fight a defensive campaign in France as he did in 1814. Wellington himself regarded the 1814 campaign as Napoleon’s finest. Napoleon had done everything he could to keep the invasion secret. He did so brilliantly. Moving over 100,000 men without the enemy noticing is an amazing achievement. His grand strategic goal seemed to be to march into Belgium and seize Brussels to secure his political position and fracture the alliance by dealing them a hefty defeat. His operational strategy seems to have been to prevent the British and Prussian forces linking up, then to defeat them in detail before pushing on to capture Brussels to secure Belgium. This splitting of an enemy was a favourite move of Napoleons. It was called taking the Central Position. Basically an army inserts itself between two enemy forces, masking one of them with a small force usually a corp, whilst the main army brings overwhelming force against the other enemy force. Depending on the circumstances one wing of the army holds one enemy force, whilst the other descends on the other enemy force pushing it back and breaking it. Then the army reserve force marches to re-enforce the attack. At the same time the other wing holds the other enemy off. Once the main attack succeeds, all the forces change direction and return to the other wing to support it and destroy the remaining enemy.
It is extremely unfortunate that Ney, Soult and Grouchy didn’t really seem to grasp this. Napoleon should have absolutely drummed that into them. They should have been made to understand it and commit to it. It was a fundamental of Napoleonic warfare. To use the modern military terminology Napoleon failed to ensure unity of command & simplicity.
It appears Napoleon felt that if the British field army was destroyed, then the British government would fall and be replaced by the Whig peace party. The subsequent loss of British subsidies would hamper the Russians and Austrians, and combined with the destruction of the best British and Prussian field armies, he would no longer have to fear a grand alliance. He would also gain Belgium, which he felt was sure to want to re-join France. This would make his shaky domestic political situation suddenly unassailable. As a bonus, the taking of Belgium would make an Austrian and Russian attack on France across the Rhine much more dangerous as French forces in Belgium could menace their flank and lines of communications, perhaps even cutting them off.
It is very hard to say whether this is actually what Napoleon really wanted. The amount of historical material on the hundred days is immense, and a lot of the sources are either distant, biased or myopically Anglo focused. Napoleon and his memoirs haven’t helped. Napoleon was notorious at not accepting blame himself, so his memoirs are always likely to pass responsibility off to other people. Also even the most accurate of memoirs suffers from self deception and having the memory play tricks. Over time, a half remembered conversation can morph into a “I definitely said that to him”
I’ve read some interesting pieces that hold that Napoleon was indeed acting primarily on political considerations. They argue that even before he left Elba he was planning the re-conquest of Belgium (although some French and Belgium’s of the period might have said the liberation of Belgium). Certainly it would have given him considerable political advantages, and it had strategic value in as much as it contained the nearest Allied armies and was a section of frontier that didn’t contain much in the way of natural defences. In his book “One Hundred Days” Philip Guedalla suggests that the Charleroi route was almost pre-determined as the only route into Belgium that didn’t have modern, well garrisoned, fortifications. In a sense once Napoleon set the Brussels objective, some of his movements were already pre-determined.
Getting sources from the French perspective isn’t easy. Marshal Soult was not especially furnished with literary gifts, and his subsequent roll with the restored Bourbons made any of his writing necessarily constrained. Marshal Ney was executed after a show trial. That deprives us of two real high level French accounts. Many French officers were writing in hindsight, seeking to excuse the defeat or their own actions. Napoleon has always been a divisive figure, and French histories of the period are quite often a reply or rebuttal of an earlier work. Also I don’t speak or read French (I’m sure you are all shocked) so that really limits our source material to the English speaking world or translations. Some of the English materials are also quite blinkered or constrained. Sibourne is one of the great primary sources on the campaign and he created the famous model of the battlefield of Waterloo. Still he was writing about members of the British aristocracy in their own life times so he would have been sensitive to how he referred to them and their conduct in the Waterloo campaign.
Certainly it does seem there were genuine strategic and political benefits to seizing Belgium and from what we know of Napoleon, it is likely he planned this and other potential strategies through as he spent time on Elba. It is highly unlikely he was moving simply to destroy Wellington or to start a war for the sake of glory. The language of the denouncement by the Allies at the Congress of Vienna, placing him beyond the law should have at least warned him that the Allies were not likely to negotiate but he might have felt that this was part hyperbole and that in event a series of significant victories would compel them to the negotiating table. All in all I think Napoleon was executing a realistic grand strategy for political goals but it could be argued that he was simply attacking the nearest enemy as quickly as possible. My own view is that this is unlikely. Napoleon rarely did things without a good reason.
The real genius of the attack on Belgium was the speed and audacity of it. The defensive campaign was a viable option, whilst the Belgium option required him to move quickly enough to prevent the junction of the British and Prussian forces. Everything depended on speed, and secrecy. The lack of the formal declaration of war meant that the Allies had not sent long range scouts across the French frontier. This aided Napoleon. His troops had been instructed not to light fires the night before the invasion was launched. Customs posts were closed. The Allies were simply not expecting him to go on the offensive at this stage and were working on concentrating their forces for a combined move against France. They expected to invade France in July 1815. Wellington genuinely seemed to believe that Napoleon would either fight a fully defensive campaign, or that he would not launch an attack so soon and that any French attack would come through Mons to cut the British forces off from their coastal lines of operation.
Now remember when I said to look at the maps of the campaign that I posted on the website. They are a fabulous set from the United States Military Academy, who have kindly given me permission to post them. Have a look at the one titled “Situation of the armies – start” It will really help. If you can’t because you are on the treadmill or jogging….what’s wrong with you. Knock that off you dingbat and get a whiskey and a copy of the map. Ok, ok I’ll paint a picture. Imagine at the top of the map is Brussels. At the bottom is France. In the middle of the map runs a roughly straight road from the bottom in France up to Brussels. Half way up that road you make a little dot called Quatre Bras. Then draw a little sloping line going to the right. That’s the Numar road going to a place called Ligny. It is critical to the entire campaign. Quatre Bras and Ligny are the top points of the Triangle. Now draw a line down to the bottom of the road near France and call it Charleroi. Everyone with me on this. Triangle. Bottom point near France is Charleroi, Top right point is Ligny, and top left point is Quatre Bras. As a bonus if you walk up the road from Quatre Bras towards Brussels you bump into a little place called Mont Saint Jean, or Waterloo as most British and Americans strangely insist on calling it.
Napoleon planned on hammering his way up the road from Charleroi to Brussels. Wellington would eventually come to decide to fight at Quatre Bras as he concentrated his army ready to fight, but only after completely misreading the situation and nearly getting parts of his army destroyed. Some subordinates disobeying his orders, and an appalling performance by Marshal Ney at Quarte Bras, got Wellington off the hook entirely. Blucher and the Prussians were moving along the Namur road towards Ligny. That put them at the top right point of the triangle. Wellington and Blucher would ideally have been looking to combine their forces along that top edge of the triangle to form a line between Brussels and Napoleon. Napoleon really wanted to get onto the Namur road between Wellington and Blucher before they could join forces.
This is a being said with the benefit of hindsight and a birds eye view. The reality on the ground was more confused. None of the leaders would have known exactly where the enemy was. Scouting was difficult and the roads would jammed with men, horses and guns.
On 15th June 1815 the Armee Du Nord under the command of Emperor Napoleon I marched across the border for what would be the last campaign of the Napoleonic Wars. If he won, then the reforms sparked by the French Revolution might stand a chance of taking root across Europe. France might stabilise herself at her natural geographic borders and perhaps force a peace that would last. The die was cast. Napoleon had to push fast and hard. He quickly found that the Allies weren’t ready for him. He confidently expected them to fall along their lines of operation and planned on splitting and destroying them as he did so. His army advanced in three main columns a left, central and right. It was correctly called the Armee Du Nord, not the Grande Armee.
Wellington had been given command of the Allied forces in Belgium. This was obviously a extremely sensible choice. His military record spoke for itself, but he also had formidable diplomatic skills. He would work with Prince Blucher who command the Prussians. Once the allies received news of the French crossing into Belgium, Wellington become concerned that Napoleon would execute a wide flanking attack through Mons and cut him off from the coastal ports. Wellington was deeply worried that the early movement was a faint. Worse for him, he hadn’t got his peninsular veteran army. He had a mixed allied force which he considered [QUOTE] “an infamous army, very weak and ill-equipped, and a very inexperienced Staff” [END QUOTE]. It contained only 7,000 peninsular veterans, and included elements from Hanover, Brunswick & Nassau. Most of Wellingtons forces were from allied nations, not Britain itself. So concerned was Wellington that he planned to concentrate his forces further back from the frontier. He and Field Marshal Blucher had already had preliminary discussions about mutual support but were far from ready for war. Attitudes between the commands were radically different. Wellington was an utter aristocrat. Cold, ruthless and imperious, but intelligent, physically brave and highly professional. He had learned to soldier first in a disaster in Flanders, then he mastered his trade in India. It was there he learned the crucial lessons in supply and logistics. His experiences in Spain showed him to be a careful commander who had a masterful eye for terrain, a brilliant ability to keep his forces supplied and deal with political aspects of war. He was also excellent in defense and using the reverse slope tactic, concealing his forces and sudden well timed attacks and counter attacks. He instilled an inferiority complex in the French Marshallate of no mean order. His men utterly trusted him. It is clear his men would never love him like some generals, but there was no doubt that if they had to choose, they would choose him 1st as the man who would almost guarantee food, ammo and victory.
Field Marshall Blucher was almost the flip side of the coin. He was renowned as a soldiers general. Brave, tough and called Papa Blucher by his soldiers, he had dash, bravery and was a stubborn all round fighter with little in the way of strategic or tactical skills. He knew his short comings though and relied heavily on his excellent chief of staff Gneisenau. Unfortunately Gneisenau distrusted the British and was a bit of an Anglophobe, but luckily the Prussian liason officer Muffling was able to keep the British and Prussians working effectively together.
On 14 June 1815 reports began arriving to Prussia’s I Corp under General Zieten from various units and civilians that French forces were in the vicinity. Zieten took only local precautions the day and night before the attack. He wasn’t sure if this was the main French force concentrating or not, but he dutifully sent reports to Blucher and Wellington. Other forward commanders also sent reports to the Allied commanders warning of French movements. Blucher ordered some concentration of the Prussian forces. Blucher and Wellington were becoming aware that the French seemed to be moving and concentrating in the area of Charleroi, but weren’t sure where the attack would fall. A turning attack through Mons remained at the front of Wellington’s mind and seemed to obsess him through the entire campaign. After discussion the commanders decided not to alter their current positions yet. By 21:00 the commanders received firm reports from Zeiten that he was facing combined French forces of horse, foot and guns. In response Blucher ordered Zeiten and his corp to take position on the Sambre river to try to delay the French advance. Other Prussian corp commanders were ordered to begin concentrating their forces along the Namur Road route near Sombreffe and Namur. Blucher himself went to Namur whilst Wellington was based in Brussels.
Zieten began preparing for battle. He was in a good position with a variety of troops. The Prussians had adopted the French Corp system, invented by Napoleon. I covered the concept of the army corp in episode two, so please have a listen if you missed it. The inital attack fell on Zeiten’s corp at 03:30 15 June 1815. French columns swiftly pushed Prussian pickets and cavalry outriders back. By 04:30 Zeiten was aware of heavy firing and just before 05:00 he dispatched messages to Wellington and Blucher to inform them that the war had begun. These were received around 09:00. Wellington satisfied himself that Blucher had taken up the right positions and decided to wait on further intelligence and events. Blucher began ordering his corps to move to positions after their night’s rest. Zeiten was ordered to perform a fighting retreat to buy time for the other Prussian Corp to concentrate in their positions.
By now the Prussian I Corp was heavily engaged. By 11:30 the French were in possession of the crucial bridge at Charleroi and crossing parts of the Sambre River. The Prussians fought with great bravery as they began to be forced back, suffering heavy losses. Napoleon scented an opportunity and turned a good portion of his cavalry loose. The Prussians inflicted some sharp losses on the French, especially against the French cavalry including killing Cavalry General Letort, Command of the Dragoons of the Imperial Guard. He was one of the best French Cavalry commanders and his loss was probably a significant blow to the French.
Zeiten and his corp had done well. They had fought hard and brought the scattered forces of the Corp from a line stretching 40 miles wide at some points and broken by the River Sombre to a position at Saint Armund nearly 20 miles back and covering a much smaller area. The II & III Corps of the Prussian Army moved to position and would meet at Sombreffe about 10:00 on 16 June. Orders to the IV Corp had gone astray and the IV Corp Commander General Bulow wasn’t actually aware that the war had started. He had acted on discretionary orders sent on 14 June that told him to have his corp move to a point within a days march of Hannut. He delayed leaving until after his troops had eaten and then began the huge task of moving the corp. A 2nd order was sent at 00:00 14 June ordering him to concentrate his corp Hannut. He only received this 2nd order at 12:00 15 June. Making the reasonable assumption that the Prussian army was going to concentrate at Hannut, and seeing no hurry in a routine peacetime deployment, he decided to delay moving the Corp until the 16 June as he wanted the supplies to be redirected to the Hannut destination. He duly sent a dispatch to what he thought was still the location of the Prussian HQ, unaware it had moved. The rider didn’t even get to the old HQ until 21:00. Further dispatches crossed each other and by evening of 15 June Blucher realised that IV Corp would not be in place to support him at Ligny, but was still 60 miles away. He would have to fight without its help.
This is really important. It shows how we have to get out of the modern way of thinking about communications and knowledge. We are looking at a circumstance where a war has started, one that is historically famous and yet one of the key generals and 30,000 troops hadn’t realised that a war had started. You can see how easily it happened. No incompetence was involved. Just men riding horses, with messages written on paper, trying to co-ordinate mass movements of men and equipment. Orders and information could take hours to travel and be badly out of date by the time they arrived. One of the key skills of a army commander was to be able to issue orders that predicted actions hours in advance. It was incredibly easy for things to go wrong, be misunderstood, or just not work out. Imagine playing chess and having to write down all your moves 5 in advance before they are made and not knowing what your opponent has written down for their moves either. Imagine the chaos of that. One of the big changes over the Victorian period is the sheer sophistication of army communications and organisation especially in the later period.
For Wellington things were going somewhat differently. It was only by 15:00 that he had sufficient confirmation that the hostilities had started, and not until 18:00 that he was aware of the heavy engagement of Zeiten’s corp and began drafting orders for the concentration of his forces. He remained pre-occupied about a French strike at Brussels through Mons. Even when he gave orders to concentrate, he blundered heavily. He told his forces to concentrate at Nivelles, which would be outside of the triangle I described earlier. Fortunately for him, his subordinate Chief of Staff to the Duke of Orange ignored his order and sent the Dutch Belgium troops he controlled to Quatre Bras. In any event the delay certainly meant that the British would not be able to support the Prussians at Ligny
Morale amongst the French junior ranks and soldiers was high, but more senior officers were somewhat more ambivalent about the conflict or were plain rusty. Marshal Ney was an inconsistent commander at the best of times, but during this campaign he displayed some of his worst qualities. He had only been summoned to join the campaign on 12 June 1815. Many of the rank and file felt uneasy about the loyalties of their own generals, not helped by the treason of a senior French General, Louis-Auguste-Victor, Count de Ghaisnes de Bourmont on 15 June 1815. Bourmont had been denounced by Marshel Davout already, who refused to employ Bourmont, writing to Napoleon, “I cannot sit idly and watch this officer wear the uniform of this country; his treasonous statements concerning the Emperor are well known to all; the brigade and regimental commanders of the 14th Infantry Division despise him. Who would trust such a man?” Nevertheless, Étienne Maurice Gérard, leader of the IV Corps vouched for him so he retained his position as command of the 14th Division and was placed in the vanguard of the advance. My military listeners will doubtless recognise that a division command in the lead of a Corp making an attack is a position of honour and trust. On the pretext of scouting ahead, the traitor rode to a Prussian Patrol and surrendered. He wrote back to his commander Gerard saying “They will not get any information from me which will injure the French army, composed of men I love.” He then turned over all the French Operational plans to a delighted Prussian staff. He had essentially handed over the keys to Napoleons campaign to the allies. Blucher remained shocked and rather disgusted, calling him a traitor to his face. Napoleon was informed of the defection and altered his dispositions slightly.
From the French perspective, the cards were going Napoleons way. The enemy was geographically divided and hadn’t properly concentrated their forces. Some of his troops had started late, and Charleroi could have been captured earlier if General Vandamme had received his orders and started his march on time, but all in all things were going well. Warfare is not like a computer game or running a shop. All plans suffer friction when they come into contact with reality.
The decisive moves of the campaign were about to come to a head, not at Waterloo but at Quatre Bra and Ligny. Still Napoleon had good reason to be pleased. He had caught his enemies flat footed. He had made a daring move to split them apart. He had managed to get his troops across the Sombre despite resistance and he had the Prussians pushed back. It seemed like the beginnings of another Napoleonic triumph. A sharp, surprise attack brilliantly succeeding. All that was left was to defeat the enemy in detail and then on to Brussels and victory.
French corp and divisional commanders especially expressed frustration that they couldn’t move because other French units were clogging up the roads ahead of them. As the campaign developed, Napoleon was reasonably happy with the speed of march. Despite problems with blocked roads, he was moving at a blistering pace for the period. Some units were scattered or straggling but on the whole the bulk of the Grand Armee was roughly where the Emperor expected it to be. He had to be a little careful not to smash the Prussians so hard that they retreated along with the British. He needed to be able to still get at them and defeat them.
Still, things were going slowly on the afternoon of 15 June 1815. The French centre column was engaged but confusion over the chain of command and Grouchy’s status meant opportunities were missed. The right column had to bypass Charleroi due to the log jam of men cramming across the bridge. Napoleon reached the Belle Vue Inn near Charleroi. He decided to impose tighter order on things, and split the army into two wings. He decided to give Marshal Ney command of the left wing to face Wellington, and Marshal Grouchy command of the right wing to face Blucher. Napoleon would command the army reserve including the Guard. With this decision made, Napoleon took a well earned nap.
According to Colonel Heymes at 19:00 Napoleon was joined by Marshal Ney to whom he gave command of the armies left wing. Ney had to find out who he was commanding, where they were and generally take a grip on his new command. He laboured hard but crucially he had one personal staff officer and no staff. Worse he still had no real staff. A Marshal commanding a wing of an army could normally expect a Lieutenant General as his Chief of Staff. It isn’t clear what verbal instructions he received from Napoleon. It is possible that Napoleon told him to push to Quatre Bras, and this is supported by Marshal Soult’s later message, but the evidence is inconclusive, witnesses are contradictory, and Napoleon’s account of the first meeting with Ney is tainted by being made in the hindsight of exile and defeat. Napoleon at St Helena states that he positively ordered Ney to move beyond Quatre Bras with a strong force. That doesn’t seem likely to me. Other accounts state that Napoleon was much less prescriptive and in any case Napoleon would probably not have been quite so aware of the vital importance of Quatre Bras at that point because plans were still fluid.
Certainly Ney took command and went forward to try to find out the situation of his troops. He received a request from some advance French Cavalry to send infantry support to help them fight a few units at Quatre Bras, but Ney decided not to make a night attack against the British. Ironically if he had sent even three or four regiments of infantry forward to support the cavalry, he would have probably won the campaign for his Emperor at that moment. Unknown to Ney, there were only around 4,700 Allied troops at Quatre Bras, and they were confused, unsupported and exposed. His men had been marching and fighting since 03:30 that morning and needed rest. Ney returned to Charleroi at 00:00 to have supper with Napoleon and they discussed tactics until 02:00. The fateful decision was made. Ney was to take the left wing of the army against the British whilst Napoleon took the right against the Prussians. This meeting is subject to immense controversy. There is even debate about whether it happened. It appears Napoleon wanted Ney to move forward the next morning past Quatre Bras, thus cutting Wellington and Blucher off from each other.
What was said and what exact orders were given to Ney have been heavily scrutinised. I know it is hard to believe, as Napoleon and Ney were key figures and orders were written, and gallons of ink have been spilt to write mountains of papers about the events but we just don’t know exactly what happened. It comes back to some of the bias’s and misunderstandings I’ve warned about. Even the best witness, who has clearly written things down won’t give you the perfect version of events. Just the act of remembering something slightly colours and changes the memory itself. It’s why judges and juries should be so careful about how unreliable witness testimony really is.
Put simply, if Napoleon clearly ordered Ney to engage the British at Quatre Bras, destroying or breaking them and pushing them back, while he fought the main action against the Prussians on the 16th June, then Ney as a senior army commander, had everything he needed to know that he had to act in a decisive battle the next day. If that was the order and Ney understood it, then his utter laziness the next day is baffling. It is hard to see how the order to push on past Quarte Bras the next day and seize an objective beyond could be interpreted as anything other than a requirement to take Quatre Bras as a necessary first step. Ney should have know that the British would be moving from Brussels towards the Prussians so he would have to fight at some point.
If the discussion at midnight was more of a general discussion of tactics, Ney should have at least been ready the next day by getting all his troops into position early in the morning of the 16th June. That way if he was still waiting a formal order from the Emperor, his troops would be ready to move.
On the Allied side, roughly whilst Ney was scrambling round in the dark then meeting with Napoleon, Wellington was receiving messages indicating that a French force of unknown strength had crossed the Sambre, pushing the Prussians back. Still it wasn’t clear if this was the main French attack, a preliminary skirmish, or a holding force meant to distract Wellington whilst Napoleon swung round to the north through Mons to cut the British off from their supply lines. Wellington had to be careful not to jump too early. If he moved to confront the French at the Sambre and Napoleon was performing one of his famous flank or rear marches then there was a very strong possibility that the entire British field army would have been utterly annihilated. That would probably have ended the coalition. Only British gold paid for the armies fighting Napoleon.
At the Duchess of Richmonds Ball itself there was a riot of colour. Bold uniforms of the infantry and cavalry officers, dark green for rifle officers, black for Brunswickers, and of course plenty of tartan. Wellington took supper at around 01:00 but soon the bad news began to flow in. First of the crossing of the Sombre then various other messages. Slowly officers began to discretely drift off to their regiments. He order the Prince of Orange to depart for his command, but the Prince returned shortly after with the momentus news that the French had seized Charleroi and were menacing Quatre Bras with Brussels itself under threat.
Wellington ordered the Prince to return to his command, then gently excused himself. It was clear to observers that even the usually unflappable Wellington was concerned. He ask the Duke of Richmond if he had a good map. The Duke of Richmond said he had, and took Wellington into his dressing-room. Wellington shut the door and said, “Napoleon has humbugged me, by God; he has gained twenty-four hours’ march on me. … I have ordered the army to concentrate at Quatre Bras; but we shall not stop him there, and if so I must fight him there” (passing his thumb-nail over the position of Waterloo).
When the morning of 16 June arrived Napoleon’s final downfall began. The circumstances and Ney’s actions are somewhat baffling. Ney was supposed to push up past Quatre Bras, brushing any opposition aside. He had a formidable force to do it with, but critically he had not concentrated it and got it ready for moving or fighting. Instead he left large portions of his force scattered around the countryside. If he concentrated his forces, ready for action he would have been able to use around 42,000 men. That was plenty for the job in hand, and the force wasn’t any larger than the Marshal was used to commanding. Even if he was waiting for a positive order from the Emperor to actually attack, he should have got his troops ready. As time in the morning ticked by, Ney did nothing. A golden opportunity lay before him if he but reached out to grasp it.
Join me next time as we talk about the 16 June, one of the key days in European history.