Why did Napoleon lose the Battle of Waterloo? Essay Sample

Why did Napoleon lose the Battle of Waterloo? Pages
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The Battle of Waterloo, in June of 1815,was an important battle for Napoleon that would either make or break his career and would have a major affect on the state of France. If victorious it would have consolidated his popularity in France and secured his position as Emperor. It proved however to be the final and decisive action of the Napoleonic wars, ending his domination of Europe. After his escape from Elba, the major allied powers declared war against Napoleon. Fortunately for Napoleon he was able to act quickly enough to prevent Russian and Austria from entering the war, and only had to deal with Prussia and the Anglo-Dutch armies. By using the strategy of the central position, Napoleon initially had control in the battle.

However as the campaign continued, it was a series of small yet significant mistakes that cost Napoleon the Battle of Waterloo. Before the battle had even begun, Napoleon made perhaps his greatest mistake with the choice of his staff. Choosing such men as Marshal Ney and Marshal Grouchy who where unfit for leading troops into battle and leaving others with greater experience like Davout in Paris, was a choice that cost Napoleon greatly. With the overconfidence in himself and his army, the choice of staff did not seem to be a key point in winning the battle. Napoleon believed that the greater dangers were the possible attacks on Paris,1 not on the battle field with Wellington and Blucher. Napoleon’s actions during the course of the days at war, were also not as strategic as they had been in the past. His physical condition and arrogance changed his view on the battles rendering him in poor condition to be planning a battle.

In 1814 Napoleon was defeated by a coalition of major powers, Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia, and was exiled to the island of Elba off the Italian coast. On February 26, 1815 Napoleon escaped from Elba and along with eleven hundred men including the Imperial Guard and grenadiers, boarded the “Inconstant” heading towards the Southern coast of France. He was resolved to gain Paris without firing a shot.2 As Napoleon advanced to Paris he was confronted by the Fifth Division of the Army at Grenoble. The news of Napoleon’s escape had reached Paris and these five hundred men were sent to capture him and stop the approaching rebellion. Upon meeting his old battle troops Napoleon put down his arms saying “If there is among you a soldier who has the heart to kill this Emperor here I am, [me voila]”.3 None did, but rather cried “Vive l’empereur!” and joined him on this trek to Paris, picking up support along the way. Back in Paris, Louis XVIII heard of the overwhelming support towards Napoleon and fled to Belgium where he would be under British protection. On March 20, 1815 Napoleon and his followers entered Paris ending the journey of 720 miles. But every end is a beginning and on that day Napoleon Bonaparte began his Hundred Days.

Almost immediately after he resumed the throne, Napoleon found himself ringed by guns. The Congress of Vienna had acted quickly when they heard of Napoleon’s escape and all the major powers had contributed 150 000 troops to an invasion force to assemble in Belgium near the French border. In Paris Napoleon had a lot to think about. The campaign, although being the most important, was not the only problem that needed to be addressed. There was thousands of royalists uprising in the south of France and in the west the deeply Catholic Vendee had again risen in arms. In May 1815 Napoleon ordered twenty thousand troops to quell the insurrection. The men assigned to that task, where not present in the battle of Waterloo and Napoleon later mourned that these added troops may have been enough to have won.4 Another problem was with the number of troops in the army. Louis XVIII had abolished conscription feeling that it was not necessary for the well being of the nation. Because of this when Napoleon first arrived he had a military of 160 000 men. Napoleon restored conscription but many of the recruited youths were still not mobilized when Waterloo ended. Eventually an army of 300 000 was created. Allied spies reported [the army’s] almost frenzied enthusiasm for the Emperor.5

Napoleon was unable to use many of his former marshals, for some of them had committed themselves to Louis XVIII. However Ney, Grouchy, Soult and Davout where among those who returned to Napoleon when he regained power. Although there was not a great deal of men to choose from, Napoleon’s choice of staff officers was not done wisely. Marshal Ney, once known as “the bravest of the brave”, was in no condition to lead the left wing, which he was assigned. Suffering from battle-shock and being weary of war, Ney followed his own policy of caution, on June 16, that badly disrupted Napoleon’s plans of attack. Grouchy was another poor choice for commander of the right wing. Being a cavalry officer he had little experience in leading troops and was by no means a strategic genius. These two marshals also healed no sense of independence.

This is a mistake on Napoleon’s part that started from the beginning of his command in battles. Whenever in battle Napoleon was the nerve centre of the operation sending his command out from the Empirical headquarters. It was he that gave out all the orders and bestowed in his marshals no skills of leadership or opportunity to take initiative and lead the troops with confidence. Soult, Napoleon’s chief of staff was also a weary decision. Soult was a selfish character that did not follow instructions or communicate well with the Emperor or the rest of the army. Soult’s lack of skills was one of the reasons for Napoleon’s loss. Davout was Napoleon’s most capable marshal. He had fought along with Napoleon in Egypt and Austerlitz and was thought to be almost Napoleon’s equal in military strategies and capabilities on the field.6 Despite Davout military genius, he was replaced by the less than equal, marshal Ney, and was left in Paris with some of the army to guard against treachery. Napoleon felt that Davout was needed in Paris as a strong figure to replace him while he was at battle with Europe. If Davout had been in Waterloo with Napoleon, it is definite that Napoleon would have been victorious.

Early June, the English and Prussian began to amass. On June 14, Napoleon left Paris at three o’clock in the morning hoping to make a swift advance before the Russians and Austrians could reach the scene and before the English and Prussian armies could unite. He had 126 000 in his Armee du Nord going up against 213 000 men led by Blucher and Wellington. On June 15, the French army moved across the Belgium border. Napoleon divided his army into right wing under marshal Grouchy and left wing under marshal Ney, as well as a reserve force under Drouet d’Erlon, who would go to the aid of either Ney or Grouchy. Ney was to head towards Quatre-Bras and take on the Anglo-Dutch army, while Napoleon, expecting Prussia to give a more aggressive fight, traveled to Ligny with Grouchy and a force of 71 000. Napoleon’s plan was to coordinate the decisive attacks at Ligny, with the offensive battle at Quatre-Bras. The reserve force would be able to swing to the left or the right depending on how the situation dictated. Finally the reserve and, or the troops at Ligny would head north to join Ney.

Despite the brilliant opening to the war, the battle did not go as smoothly as planned. Napoleon could have very well won the campaign on the first day, (June 16) but mistakes in communication as well as other areas, prevented the campaign from ending and Napoleon being victorious. Early in the afternoon on June 16, 1815, Napoleon heard the sound of Ney’s artillery at the cross roads. He immediately began his attack on Blucher and the Prussian army. Being an inconclusive and gruesome battle, Napoleon dispatched an urgent message through Soult to Marshal Ney ordering him to send his first corps with 30 000 men to Ligny to help him defeat the Prussians.

“…the intention of his Majesty is that you should attack whatever [enemy] is before you, and that after having vigorously pressed them back you should turn towards us and join us in surrounding the enemy.”

Soult however did not deliver the message as Napoleon had directed but took it directly to Drouet d’Erlon who left the battle at Quatre-Bras and marched to Ligny to assist Napoleon. When Ney discovered that the First Corps had left the battle at Quatre-Bras, he dispatched a message ordering the troops to return to aid him in defeating Wellington. Drouet, who was so close to Ligny that Napoleon could see him, obeyed the new order and turned the troops around to return to Quatre-Bras. As a result 30 000 men participated in neither battle but rather marched back and forth in the country side. When arriving at the battle in Ligny, Drouet was marching on France’s left flank throwing Napoleon off guard, for he was expecting Ney’s force on the Prussian right flank.

Napoleon sent out troops to identify the unknown force, providing Blucher with enough time to reform his line. After nearly six hours of slaughter, Napoleon sent in Grouchy’s cavalry and his Old Guard to attack the Prussian centre, which easily gave away leaving twelve thousand dead or wounded. It was twilight and the rain started to fall. Napoleon won the Battle at Ligny but was not able to destroy the main body of Blucher’s army. 70 000 Prussians retreated North to Wavre where they were able to regroup. Without the aid of reinforcement troops, the Ligny Battle took up a large amount of Napoleon’s resources. If Wellington had been able to reach Ligny at the end of the battle he would have crushed the French army and there would have been no Waterloo.

At Quatre-Bras, Ney fearing Wellington’s much larger force, sent a cavalry detachment ahead to inspect the situation. They reported that the town was free of enemy so Ney sent in 3000 men to capture the town. Upon encountering a small section of the British army, Ney turned back to Gosselies expecting the rest of the Anglo-Dutch army to be hidden behind building, in the forest or in fields. In Gosselies he waited for further instructions. By delaying his attack on the Anglo-Dutch position by several hours, Wellington had time to reinforce Quatre-Bras with cavalry and infantry. When Ney finally attacked at 2pm the French army was sharply repulsed. Napoleon did not know this because communications had fallen apart in Soult’s hands, and sent the message of help. Being severely handicapped by the absence of Drouet (who returned two hours after the battle had ended), Ney lost 4300 troops.

If Drouet had had enough military sense to realize that obeying Ney’s orders would waste valuable time, he would have had stayed at Ligny. By assisting Napoleon in wiping out Prussia, it would have prevented them from being able to regroup, solidifying Napoleon’s victory at Mont-Saint-Jean. Although Drouet thought that Ney needed him more urgently8, his presence would have been valuable at either battle. Soult’s ability to follow orders and communicate between the two divisions of the army may have also cost Napoleon the battle. Soult’s promptness and clarity in the messages would have made the course of events that day happen more fluently. By not acting quickly enough, Ney allowed the Anglo-Dutch army time to regroup and be more prepared for the French. If he had began the attack when he first arrived rather than worrying so much about where the army was hiding, he would have had a greater chance of capturing the cross roads and weakening the army for the large battle to come. A victory at Quatre-Bras and a skilful pursuit of the Anglo-Dutch army would have sent Allies running to Brussels giving them no chance to reform at Mont-Saint-Jean.

On the 17th of June, Wellington hearing of Blucher’s defeat, withdrew his army and retired to his headquarters south of Waterloo leaving behind a brigade of cavalry as a decoy to mislead Ney. The order was send to Ney telling him to engage the enemy immediately. However Ney, who was unaware of Wellington’s retreat due to the decoy, failed to obey these orders. When Napoleon arrived to assume command of Ney’s forced he found them leisurely resting on the grass. Immediately Napoleon regrouped the army and set off in pursuit of Wellington. That evening he found them along a high plan south of Mont-Saint-Jean. Because of the torrential rain, the use of artillery or cavalry was out of the question and luckily for Napoleon, a major battle would have been impossible for that day.

Before leaving Ligny, Napoleon directed Grouchy to take 30 000 troops to pursue Blucher preventing him from reaching Wellington. Believing that the Prussian army was quite badly damaged, Napoleon sent Grouchy east towards the Prussian border. In reality the Prussians heading east were the wounded, returning home. The main core of the Prussian army had retreated to Wavre. This pursuit did not begin until 11am, after Napoleon had wandered the battle field tending to the wounded French and Prussian soldiers. This had given Prussia sufficient time to escape. With the confusion of the direction, the horrific weather and the lethargic manner of the pursuit, Grouchy was unable to gain any ground on Blucher and was unable to locate the enemy.

On the morning of June 18, the major part of the French army and the Anglo-Dutch army were in battle positions. Wellington had received a message from Blucher promising that the Prussian corps would leave Wavre at daybreak and strong reinforcement from his army would arrive later that day. Napoleon had initially planned the battle for 9am but due to the saturated soil he postponed the invasion by two hours. This was a fatal mistake because it allowed Prussia to arrive on time for the battle and join Wellington against the French. At 11am Napoleon ordered his army to begin the attack.

Ney renewed with bravery send in a cavalry attack but the British held firm. After a massive shower of bombs on the enemy, that did little damage, The French army left the cannons in front of line. No one thought to spike the cannons or even drag them away leaving them open and available to the enemy. By 1pm Napoleon could see in the distance a cloud of troops moving swiftly towards the battle. Soult advised him to bid Grouchy to bring his men west as soon as possible to assist in the battle, however Napoleon dispatched a message appraising Grouchy of the situation and ordering him to overtake and engage the Prussians, preventing them from uniting with Wellington. Grouchy could hear the cannon fire as early as 11:30 am yet continued to march north to Wavre. General Gerard urged him to abandon pursuit of Blucher and strike cross-country to add his

30 000 men to Napoleon’s. Grouchy was however a stickler to the rules and continued to follow Blucher. Napoleon’s message only confirmed his belief that he was making the appropriate choice. Grouchy did catch up with part of Blucher’s force, defeated it, entered Wavre, found Blucher gone, and the army well rested and half way to the battle.9

Back at the battle, France was being pushed further and further back and had suffered numerous casualties. Toward 6pm Ney received an order from Napoleon to seize La Haye Sainte. He was successful and created an opening to Wellington’s last line. Believing this was France’s chance to gain control in the battle, he sent an appeal to Napoleon for additional infantry and pushed ahead into the enemy line. Napoleon unwillingly sent support of 3000 cuirassiers, feeling that “the wretch” (Marshal Ney) could not be allowed to perish.10 Meanwhile Prussia was rapidly nearing the main action and Napoleon saw that he had one last chance at victory before Prussia could intervene. He called upon his Old Guards to follow him to a decisive attack. Then, when the French thought themselves victorious, the Prussians attacked throwing the entire Napoleonic army into disorder and chaos. The remaining Englishmen, Scots, Belgians, and Germans changed from defence to offence, and swept forward, careless of life.11 The Prussian brigades pursued the beaten French driving them back across the Sambre River. The French motto became, “Sauve qui peut!” as the shattered army retreated no longer soldiers but men.12

Napoleon’s greatest downfall on June 18 was that Grouchy was not present at the battle nor did he succeed in intercepting the Prussian force. If Prussia had not arrived as Napoleon sent in the Old Guards he may have won the campaign. By postponing the battle until 11am Prussia was able to arrive at the battle scene in time to deliver the last blow to Napoleon. If Grouchy had marched to the sound of the gun fire, he would have been able reach Napoleon in time to assist him in the battle. But like before Napoleon is responsible for Grouchy’s action or lack there of. If Napoleon had fostered any sense of independence in his marshals the outcome of The Battle of Waterloo would have been very different. Ney is also responsible for the loss by spending the French cavalry in a series of unsupported, pointless attacks as well as leading the Guards in the wrong direction, diminishing the chance for success. Napoleon had refused to commit the Old Guard earlier in the battle. It was not until the last desperate moment that Napoleon ordered them into battle but by that point it was too late and Wellington had taken the opportunity to reinforce his line.

Errors in commanding and strategy were made by the Napoleon of 1815 that would not have been done by the Napoleon of the late 1700s. He had become overconfident in his capabilities as Emperor and military leader.13 The authority gained in conquering Europe had gone to his head so that he no longer saw the reality of the battle field but was blinded by the power that he would gain with the victory. With his arrogance, Napoleon underestimated the abilities of his opponents.

As a result he left Davout, his most experienced marshal in Paris to guard the city from attack. He also placed troops in Paris and in other areas of the country as a safety precaution. The troops and Davout would have been put to better use at the Battle of Waterloo with the real danger. Towards the end of the Battle, Napoleon was not physically well. This may have contributed to his downfall. He lived in high tension and in the last few years was solacing his sorrows with food. At Waterloo his doctors implored him to take rest and exercise but he refused their advice. Everyday he would spend hours on horseback while suffering from haemorrhoids, and kidney stones as well as dysuria. It is also possible that the cancer that would eventually kill him had already began to produce negative side affects.

The Battle of Waterloo had not been a success for Napoleon, but once again Europe felt that it was safe from his tyrannical power. On June 22, Napoleon signed his second abdication and was exiled to Saint Helena. The Hundred days was over and on June 28, Louis XVIII returned to the throne. The outcome of this part of history could have been very different if Napoleon had realized the full potential of his enemies. If he had thought that the battle was to be a great challenge he probably would have hired different marshals with more qualifications and brought more troops with him to Belgium. Also if Napoleon had given more independence to his marshals they would have been able to analyse the battle without constantly having to communicate with Napoleon and could have drawn their own conclusions and plans of action. This small element could have won Napoleon the campaign on June 16 or stopped the entry of Prussia into the final battle. Time also played a factor in Napoleon’s loss of the battle. Napoleon, like all other leaders was merely in power until he reached a downfall and it was taken by someone else. On June 18, 1815 “Napoleon met his Waterloo”,14 bring fifteen years military dictatorship to an end.


Barnett, Correlli. Bonaparte. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.

Cronin, Vincent. Napoleon. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1971.

Durant, Will and Ariel Durant. The Age of Napoleon. New York: Simon and Schuster publications, 1975.

Haberman, Arthur. The Making of the Modern Age. Toronto: Gage Educational Publication Company, 1987

Microsoft Encarta, online Encyclopaedia 2001, Waterloo, Battle of. http://encarta.msn.com

Palmer, R.R. and Joel Colton. A History of the Modern World since 1815. United States of America: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1995.

Dr. Salmon, Lecture notes on Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo. McNally High School, Edmonton, Alberta, December 2001

1 Will and Ariel Durant, The Age of Napoleon, New York, 1975 p. 756

2 Vincent Croninm Napoleon, London, 1971 p.399

3 Will and Ariel Durant, op.cit p.736

4 ibid p.736

5 Correlli Barnett, Bonaparte. New York, 1978 p.68

6 Will and Ariel Durant, op.cit p.743

7 Will and Ariel Durant, op.cit p.745

8 Vincent Croninm op.cit pp. 402-403

9 Will and Ariel Durant, op.cit p.747

10 ibid p.748

11 ibid p.748

12 ibid p.736

13 Correlli Barnett, op.cit p.63

14 Microsoft Encarta online Encyclopaedia, Waterloo, Battle of

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