The Battle of Waterloo 200 years ago: The French Defeat That Did Not Have To Be

Today is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, won by an Anglo-Dutch-German coalition against Napoleonic France. Although this is hailed by many Francophobes to this day as a military masterpiece by Field Marshal Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, this battle could’ve been won by the French if they only hadn’t made a number of mistakes that proved fatal.

The first was made by Marshal Michel Ney at the Battle of Quatre-Bras. On June 16th, he attacked the avant-garde of Wellington’s Coalition army. Wellington suffered losses and was forced to retreat to Waterloo hills; he was unable to defeat Ney alone. But he was nonetheless able to withdraw his army to Waterloo safely, and Ney made a fatal mistake during that battle.

It was being waged at the same time that the main part of Napoleon’s army was fighting the Prussians at Ligny. At one point, Napoleon sent a messenger to General D’Enlon, ordering him to bring corps as a reinforcement to Ligny. D’Enlon set out immediately for Ligny, but Ney, upon hearing of this, fell into anger and ordered D’Enlon to return to Quatre-Bras. As a result, D’Enlon’s corps wasted all day without firing a shot. His corps would’ve been used to crush either Wellington (at Quatre-Bras) or von Bluecher’s Prussians (at Ligny). As a result of Ney’s insubordination to Napoleon, it was not used at either battlesite.

The second mistake was made personally by Napoleon himself. At Waterloo, 200 years ago, he attacked Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch army frontally, headfirst, trying to break its rectangular formation. But although French troops assaulted Anglo-Dutch troops with admirable bravery, without the slightest fear of death, they couldn’t break the Coalition army’s formation. British and Dutch rectangles – placed on the Waterloo hills – withstood every single assault the French launched at them, even though Coalition troops were tired, exhausted after the march from Quatre-Bras (conducted in heavy rain), and hungry. In addition, every French attack was met with heavy artillery fire and ferocious counterattacks by the Anglo-Dutch cavalry. At one point, at a place called La Haye Sainte, some British formations did break down for a moment, but Wellington – always carefully monitoring the events and reacting to them quickly – plugged the gap with reserve troops.

At Waterloo, Napoleon made the same fatal mistake that defeated generals throughout history had made: he attacked the enemy frontally, headfirst, instead of trying to swing at his flank or strike his rear – which is how Napoleon won all of his great victories, by the way, from Rivoli in 1797 to Jena in 1806.

The French army’s third mistake – and a well-known one – was not to spike the Coalition army’s guns upon taking its artillery positions. As a result, after the French were driven back from British lines, the Coalition army was able to use its guns again.

Finally, the fourth fatal mistake was the one made by Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy: he let Prussian Field Marshal von Bluecher fool him by fighting only one corps of the Prussian army at Wavre – which von Bluecher used as a bait – while the other three corps marched under the Prussian Field Marshal’s command to Waterloo. They arrived there at about 9PM, striking the French army’s right flank and routing it completely.

Wellington’s entire operational plan for the battle of Waterloo was simple: to resist all French onslaughts until the Prussians would arrive – and he believed the Prussians WOULD eventually come to his aid. He was proven right.

The Waterloo campaign needs to be studied carefully in military academies throughout the world as an example of what not to do.


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