I've been away with work and not had a chance to attend to the project, so by way of substitution I thought I would publish this essay, which I wrote last year.
In many ways Waterloo was an aberration, an unexpected coda to a war that had seemingly reached a decisive climax the year before. Napoleon had been defeated and dispatched to his exile on Elba. Europe was rid of the Corsican ogre. The Russian, Austrian and Prussian monarchs would put a stop to Jacobin excess. Britain would be free to reap the profits of its maritime and economic power, its strategy of limited continental liability vindicated. France would strive for a settlement between Royalists, Bonapartists, Republicans and Liberals.
The return of Napoleon threw all this in the air. Unlike the slower-burn events of 1789-1792, the 100 Days arose from nothing and demanded urgent answers, with armies mobilised and policy created on the hoof.
It is against this background that the relevance of Waterloo must be determined, for there is something different about the campaign of 1815 that marks it out from what went before.
This essay will examine Waterloo from various perspectives, each of which informs our understanding of how war developed in its aftermath. It will start with a consideration of political freedoms and constraints; it will turn to the determination of strategy; it will review the organisational challenges of the armies; it will examine the impact of technology; and it will then consider the part that the Napoleonic Wars played in the design of modern operational art.
There are many extraordinary things about Napoleon, but one of the most startling is that he is the only great man of history to have staged not just one, but two successful coups d’etat. His return from Egypt in 1799 and his subsequent seizure of power on 18 Brumaire were audacious in the extreme. While he was hardly unknown in 1799, he was viewed as something of a novelty: a young man who could be controlled by other, more experienced figures such as the Abbe Sieyes and Talleyrand. This proved to be a significant miscalculation on their part.
While his return in 1815 superficially bore resemblances, in one critical respect the Emperor Napoleon of 1815 was a long way from the General Bonaparte of 1799. Nine campaigns and a million casualties had left France scarred and suspicious of her former hero.
From 1799 to 1814 Napoleon had exercised increasing powers to tax, spend, mobilise and fight with the unconstrained resources of his empire. By contrast, his return in 1815 was met with unease by the Parisian elite. In consequence, Napoleon could not fight the Hundred Days through Clausewitzian absolute means: he could not properly conscript the class of 1815, nor recall previous classes, he could not mobilise the National Guard, and he could not guarantee enough money to equip his troops.
He could not even guarantee the reliability of the regular army, many parts of which were uncertain about what his return meant for France. Key figures such as Fouche doubted his ability to consolidate power and hedged their bets by maintaining avenues of communication to the Bourbons. And Napoleon was forced to dissipate the limited troops at his disposal dealing with a Royalist insurgency in the Vendee and guarding borders on secondary fronts.
Therefore, in many ways, the politics of France in 1815 meant Napoleon was doomed to failure from the outset. Once the campaign began, this conditional acceptance of his return quickly manifested itself. Napoleon had survived setbacks before: the Syrian fiasco, Eylau in 1807, Aspern-Essling in 1809, Russia in 1812, the Spanish Ulcer and Leipzig in 1813 were not enough to cause his political support to collapse. But in 1815, there was a brittle quality to Napoleonic power that could not survive a defeat like Waterloo, despite Napoleon’s initial hope in its aftermath that it could.
This, it would seem, is a profoundly modern problem. Increasingly in modern war it is the perception of defeat as much as its reality that determines the outcome of a given military venture. Whether or not Napoleon could have reconstituted an Army after Waterloo is beside the point: his position was, in political terms, untenable and his second exile the result.
Given this political vulnerability, Napoleon’s strategic choice in 1815 was either to sit on the defensive or seize the initiative; by first taking on Britain and Prussia in Belgium, Napoleon calculated that he could knock out, not only the Coalition paymaster, but also his most inveterate foe, Prussia. Some have characterised his decision as a gamble, but the alternative of fighting on the defensive in a repeat of 1814 would not only have had the same result, but been alien to his character as the high priest of offensive action.
Britain, too, faced a strategic problem in 1815 that informs our understanding of the modern world. She had fought the Napoleonic Wars through three traditional means: the establishment of a maritime stranglehold on the continent; the funding of her allies’ continental armies; and the conduct of peripheral campaigns such as the Peninsular War.
The speed with which the crisis of 1815 developed partially invalidated this approach. The shock of Napoleon’s return, coupled with war weariness, meant Britain had to involve itself directly in the rapid termination of the problem on the Continent, rather than allowing the usual indirect strategy to take its slow course.
Under Wellington, Britain therefore committed to command a continental army that would be as central to the outcome as Marlborough a century before and Haig a century later. But with many of her best troops still in America, or worse, simply demobilised, Britain was not militarily balanced to meet the challenge. Again, this seems to be a very modern phenomenon, and one with which today’s strategists must again wrestle: should a modern country have an army preparing for ‘the’ continental war, deterring war in Europe, or an army scanning multiple horizons in the Middle East, North, West and East Africa, or elsewhere, for ‘a’ war?
I shall not dwell at length on Prussian objectives in 1815, except to stress that the trauma of 1806 informed at a profound level her national psyche from 1813 to ‘15. If unconstrained, Prussia would have fought a war of revenge and of annihilation, which would not have stopped simply with the execution of Ney, without the moderating influence of England. How many other times in the modern age has Britain found itself with an ally with different and potentially alarming strategic objectives? Managing the expectations of allies is a critical part of any coalition.
In contrast, the Allied coalition of 1815 was cobbled together at short notice, had no dominant power, and was unable to agree effective command and control arrangements. More profoundly, Wellington and Blucher made different risk calculations, based on their own national interest. If defeated, the Prussian instinct would be to withdraw back along her lines of communication eastwards. Wellington, by contrast, feared being turned from the West and cut off from the Channel Ports, so kept a significant number of troops out of the fight to deal with such an eventuality.
The two armies were therefore destined by instinct and policy to diverge rather than concentrate. The fact that they continued to cooperate resulted as much from character as intellect. Certainly, some Prussians distrusted British motives, but Wellington’s willingness to stand and fight, Gneinenau’s decision to put his head before his heart, and Blucher’s stout determination to effect a link-up despite his battered condition after Ligny, ultimately determined the outcome of Waterloo. Recent Coalitions abound with examples of technical solutions to inter-operability, but mutual trust and mutual interest are the true guarantees of success.
The question of Coalition politics does, however, go deeper than the Anglo-Prussian relationship, or indeed the macro combination with the other Great Powers, Russia and Austria. Much as he had in the Peninsula, Wellington found himself commanding a micro-coalition, a polyglot Army of smaller partners, one of which, the Netherlands, was also host to the coming denouement. Wellington presided over this complex weave of Dutch, Belgian, Hanoverian, Brunswick and Nassau troops, few of whom he knew well and some of whom had fought previously for Napoleon.
He called it an infamous army, but in truth, this has been more the norm than not for the British way in war. In 2015, the British army has every expectation of going to war under Allied command, and with allies under command. In Helmand the British fought not only in a macro coalition under US command, but in a micro-coalition of Danes, Estonians and French troops, as well as Afghans.
y way of example, in 1815, the 3rd Division was commanded not by Sir Thomas Picton (who had led it through the Peninsula), but by Sir Charles Alten, (or to give him his proper name, Karl von Alten, the only German to have commanded this Division). Within its order of battle sat only one British formation alongside KGL and Hanoverian brigades. Infamous or not, Wellington’s army at Waterloo proved remarkably resilient and there is no reason to believe that a future coalition, properly prepared, with commanders who trust each other, and with unity of purpose, could not achieve a similar end.
It is worth examining the organisational characteristics of the three armies and their relevance today. The rank and file of all Napoleonic continental armies was founded on the principle of mass conscription. Indeed, the dominance of the French Army in the period 1792 to 1813 owed much to France’s large population (increased substantially as the Empire grew). Carnot’s levee en masse was the initial means of exploitation, and developed into the Napoleonic annual class conscription. Austria, Prussia and Russia followed suit and, by 1813, were using mass armies not only as military instruments, but as expressions of nationalism. Britain’s approach was the exception to this rule and mirrored its policy of limited liability.
The armies of developed nations in the 21st Century have all reverted to 18th Century small professional forces, in which manpower is at a premium. Does this mean that the large conscripted armies that dominated Europe from 1789 to 1989 are now a thing of the past? It is interesting to note that we are now at the same remove from the destruction of the Berlin Wall as the armies at Waterloo were from the storming of the Bastille.
Napoleon’s system of war grew out of access to an extraordinary reserve of manpower. The traditional view is that he saw manpower as a commodity he could spend freely. Without the need for expensive support, he could unshackle his troops from the inhibitions of the logistic chain and move them faster than his opponents. In consequence, he could concentrate mass on the battlefield to overwhelm his enemies. Certainly, there is no smoke without fire to this point of view: while Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena and Friedland were all enabled by manoeuvre, Eylau, Aspern, Wagram, Borodino, Lutzen, Bautzen, Dresden and Leipzig all showed Napoleon’s willingness to expend the lives of his men.
This trend followed its disturbing course through the 19th Century to the Clausewitzian schlacten of the Great War. But in an age in which the value placed on human life has risen substantially, such profligacy seems deeply alien to Western practitioners of war in the 21st Century, even if the leaders of ISIS, AQ and the Taliban think otherwise.
A nuanced study of the Napoleonic Wars does however show a more variegated picture. We have twice mentioned Britain’s strategy of limited liability, which led to Wellington’s careful husbandry of his manpower. There is nothing very different in this to Montgomery’s ‘teeing up’ of battles to preserve Britain’s diminishing manpower in the Second Word War, or to the country’s reaction to casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And even Napoleon himself was not deaf or blind to the consequences of excessive bloodshed. Much work has gone into studying Napoleon’s various physical illnesses, but perhaps not enough attention has been paid to the possibility that he suffered from that very modern, (or is it timeless?) phenomenon, PTSD. What else explains his increasingly erratic behaviour in the late Empire, his bouts of energy and lethargy, anger and optimism? Setting aside the cumulative psychological effect that the deaths of friends and commanders such as Desaix, Lannes, Lasalle, St Hilaire, Bessieres and Duroc had on him, the frequent exposure to the shock of battle and mass casualties, must have taken its toll. Napoleon’s apparent paralysis on the morning of the 17th June after Ligny, touring the wounded when he should have been pursuing his enemies, seems deeply human.
Napoleon went to significant effort to improve the logistical services of his Army. Baron Larrey’s medical innovations took the French Army beyond the primitive first aid that had previously prevailed. Extraordinary logistical efforts were made for the invasion of Russia. Napoleon’s voluminous correspondence show that not even the smallest aspect of administration went unnoticed.
COMMAND AND CONTROL
It is this professional cohort that marks out the Napoleonic Army as a modern institution and upon which we will now concentrate. Central to the idea of a professional officer corps, is the concept of a General Staff. The British Army has re-established its General Staff as the driver of professional standards. The present G1-9 staff system is often described as ‘Napoleonic’. In fact, the arrangement is a 1917 American derivation of the French 3rd Republic’s Bureau system and owes nothing to Napoleon.
Soult’s staffing mistakes during the Waterloo campaign are well documented:
the lack of command and control clarity regarding D’Erlon’s Corps on the day of Ligny and Quatre Bras led to D’Erlon shuttling pointlessly between the two battlefields, failing to intervene decisively in either.
On the day of Waterloo, the failure to give Reille clear orders not to allow his Corps to be fixed needlessly at Hougoumont;
the failure to grip Ney, whose erratic tactical decisions led the entire Reserve Cavalry into the attack against unbroken Infantry;
and, of course, the vague nature of the late instruction to Grouchy, which failed to energise the latter, leading to his non-appearance at Waterloo.
These are lessons that continue to resonate with commanders and staff in the 21st Century: timeless reminders of the consequences of staff imprecision.
But whatever its imperfections, first and foremost, the French Army was a meritocracy, formed of battle-hardened commanders who had fought throughout the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. It was also a surprisingly broad church in which talent was the common denominator. Milhaud had been a Jacobin, Grouchy was an aristocrat; Foy a liberal; Kellerman had made his name at Marengo; Mouton at Aspern, Vandamme at Austerlitz; D’Erlon and Reille in the Peninsula.
But like any large institution Napoleon’s army had to deal with its own internal politics. Many of the Marshals owed promotion to their Republican power base: Augerau, Bernadotte, Brune, Jourdan, Victor and others were brought into the tent, others such as Moreau were left out. Napoleon extended that same tent towards reconciled Royalists, such as Caulaincourt. The best example in 1815 was General Bourmont, who had fought as a Bourbon insurgent in the Vendee, was reconciled with Napoleon, but whose Royalist instincts got the better of him: he defected to the Allies in the opening stages of the campaign.
And while meritocratic principles generally prevailed, Napoleon could never quite avoid the temptation to employ his family: Jerome Bonaparte’s appointment to command a division owed nothing much to talent.
What is interesting about Napoleon’s Army in 1815 is just how difficult it was to reconstitute the best of what had been available before: Desaix, Lannes, Bessieres, Berthier and Poniatowski were dead; many such as Marmont had changed sides; many more were retired or ambivalent. Murat fought his own quixotic war to secure Naples.
Those who did rally came with their own baggage: Ney was damaged by the years of campaigning; Soult too proud to roll his sleeves up; the cavalry officer, Grouchy, inexperienced as a combined arms commander.
At first sight, it seems odd that highly competent and loyal commanders such as Davout and Suchet were used in other roles, but their work serves to highlight the sheer breadth of problems Napoleon faced in June 1815 outside the campaign theatre. This is much the same for a modern Army, which cannot afford simply to concentrate on operational activity, but must cover all lines of development.
The question of technology plays a surprisingly peripheral part in most studies of the Napoleonic Wars. Despite the turmoil of the Revolution, it was in technological terms, a conservative period. Napoleon himself was partly responsible: as a gunner he took a keen interest in Marmont’s modernisation of the Gribeauval artillery system, but beyond this, he embraced little by way of genuine innovation: he showed no interest in Britain’s development of spherical case-shot, or of rockets. He failed to see the potential of rifled technology, despite his mass use of skirmishers. The use of balloon technology, begun before the Revolution, never developed momentum. Part of the problem was that France was not as industrialised as Britain and even Britain was still some years away from the wholesale introduction of railways.
There are also practical reasons why new technology failed to make its mark. Despite the impressive use of shrapnel, it was the massed employment at Waterloo of French artillery firing solid round-shot that caused the most casualties. Wellington viewed his rocket troop as a nuisance that would scare his horses more than it would harm his enemies. And La Haye Sainte fell because of logistic friction when its defenders ran out of their specialist rifled ammunition.
It is, however, in the analysis of the gaps that we gain the best insights into the conduct of modern war. Perhaps the most interesting gap was the lack of means to communicate. Fifty years before wire telegraphy and 100 years before wireless telegraphy, Napoleon’s ability to command and control his army was remarkable. The explanation of his success is, of course, not technological, but procedural, and is his principal contribution to the conduct of modern war.
The central organising principle around which Napoleon’s army was created was its separation into divisions and corps. Napoleon did not invent the division, but he recognised its tactical value, enshrining it as the primary unit of tactical action.
While Napoleon never used the term, the invention of the operational level of war, as the critical layer between the tactical and strategic, was his defining contribution to the art of war. Central to the Napoleonic model was the Corps system. The corps d’armee, a combined arms force of two or more infantry divisions, a cavalry division, guns, engineers and other formation troops, was able to operate independently of other corps and flexible enough to exploit different, often parallel avenues of advance. Once engaged, each corps was powerful enough to hold the ring until other corps could concentrate.
In an age without the technical means of direct communication over distance except by semaphore, the corps system stressed the doctrinal need for initiative, offensive spirit and mutual support. The system relied on competent corps commanders, but it also necessitated strong command and control from the centre: when Napoleon allowed his commanders genuinely independent command or tried to group corps in, to use another anachronism, armies or army groups, it invariably failed.
At Waterloo, Napoleon used a far more coherent corps system than Wellington, who was forced to mix up his formations to underwrite the risk of the highly inexperienced Prince of Orange, whose presence was as unhelpful to Wellington as Jerome’s to Napoleon, but necessitated by Coalition expediency. Napoleon wasted this advantage by allowing Grouchy and Ney to act as subordinate commanders of groups of corps, without giving them the staff or time to bed in, frequently changing their responsibilities, and either reaching over their heads, or leaving them for too long to their own devices.
Slim’s famous comment in the opening paragraph of Defeat into Victory that: ‘A division is the smallest formation that is a complete orchestra of war’ isn’t really true in 1815. The Napoleonic division was not a fully combined arms formation in the British, French or Prussian armies. The British 3rd Division at Waterloo contained three infantry brigades, some artillery and no cavalry. By the Great War, the 3rd Division had evolved into a more complex structure, but again without cavalry. On D Day, the 3rd Division contained an Armoured brigade, but the British still shied away from genuine combined arms cooperation, until the expense of Goodwood and the other Bocage operations forced change. It was only at this stage of the war that Slim’s dictum was realised.
While the French and British, to varying degrees, corrupted the purist Corps and divisional system during the Waterloo campaign, the Prussians had quietly copied the best of the Napoleonic system and made it their own: the resilience of the Prussian army after Ligny owed much to the quality of their formations, quality that would endure throughout the rest of the 19th and half the 20th Centuries.
Stalin’s famous joke: “The Pope? never mind the Pope! How many divisions does he have?” illustrates his definition of military power – the Soviet Union had 491 divisions by April 1945. In the Great War, the British Army created ninety divisions, but manpower shortages and other priorities in the Second World War meant the Army raised only 46 divisions between 1939 and 1945.
The received wisdom of the decade of campaigning in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya is that success or failure can be attributed to the value placed upon influence as the engine of change. Well directed violence can support the achievement of influence, but violence alone has ceased to be the primary activity around which military planning should coalesce. In effect, the ‘vital ground’ is now in people’s minds. Therefore, modern operations at both the Corps and Divisional levels are not just a binary contest between friendly and enemy forces, but about getting multiple actors and audiences to alter their behaviour in support of political objectives.
To some extent Napoleon, a great communicator in so many ways, failed to understand the consequences of war among the people: his emphasis on physical manoeuvre in the Peninsula from 1808 to the end, in Russia in 1812 and in the German campaign of 1813, ignored the consequences of popular opinion. These wars presaged the true age of modern war. The Waterloo campaign, played out among a francophone people in Belgium, never lasted long enough to test these extra dimensions.
In the final analysis, Napoleon was a profoundly contradictory figure: cultivated, highly intelligent and well read, he personified the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and yet his belief in his destiny was highly romantic and at odds with the modern world. His ruthlessness was matched by his humanity, his egoism by his sense of the common good. His contribution to the conduct of war was enormous, with commanders striving for the next 150 years to recreate the manoeuvrist magic that underpinned his approach to operational art.
Waterloo campaign may have ended in disaster for Napoleon, but in its opening stages he displayed all of his old manoeuvrist skills. How many commanders today could, in a matter of days, concentrate an army of 120,000 men almost without detection, advance at speed along parallel but supporting routes, hint at envelopment, but deliver a rapier thrust to divide two opponents from a central position? There is much, therefore, still to be learnt from the master of manoeuvre.