Chapter One of The News From Waterloo sets the scene of European politics in 1815 and describes how the battle was won – not by dashing manoeuvres but by what Wellington called ‘hard pounding’.
In the early weeks of 1815 Europe was savouring an unfamiliar experience: peace. Napoleon Bonaparte, soldier and strategist of almost superhuman genius, had at long last been vanquished by a grand coalition of powers, bringing to an end, or so it seemed, a quarter of a century of bloodshed and turmoil. The defeated emperor was now in exile on the little island of Elba, off the coast of Italy, and the old order had been restored in France with the installation as king of Louis XVIII, brother to the monarch guillotined in the Revolution.
As the victorious allied armies slowly made their way home, Europe’s diplomats assembled at the Congress of Vienna, a marathon of dining, dancing, gambling and philandering punctuated here and there by haggling over plans for a grand new international order. The thoughts of an exhausted continent, in short, were slowly turning to life without war and revolution. Then, suddenly and astonishingly, the great nemesis resurfaced, his charisma and brilliance apparently undimmed. And, no less astonishingly, his country, or at least the mighty army that still dominated it, welcomed him back. Gone in an instant was that mood of relief and hope.
Bonaparte landed on the French Riviera on the first day of March with a thousand men. Three weeks later, with not a single shot fired, he was back in Paris and restored as emperor, the hapless Louis having fled in terror. The European powers, aghast at these developments, proclaimed Napoleon an outlaw and formed themselves into what would be called, with weary predictability, the Seventh Coalition. The Russian and Austrian empires, the kingdoms of Britain and Prussia and a handful of lesser states and statelets scrambled to reassemble the vast forces that had been required to overcome the French leader a year earlier. Great columns of soldiers still trudging homeward were turned on their heels and directed back towards France.
Logic suggested that an alliance on such a scale must triumph again, but history showed that Bonaparte had a knack of unstitching grand coalitions. Europe’s greatest general since Alexander the Great was also a devilishly clever politician: as skilfully as he could outmanoeuvre his enemies on the battlefield he could also prey on their mutual jealousies, bewitching their leaders into trusting his promises and following his wishes. Who could tell whether the Seventh Coalition would endure like the sixth, or fail like the fifth, the fourth and the third?
In Britain, which had itself once been induced to sign a peace treaty with the French emperor, there were doubts about a new war. Shedding British blood to force an unwanted Bourbon on to the throne of France for a second time was an unattractive prospect. The brief interlude of peace, moreover, had exposed alarming social divisions and economic difficulties at home, and these were weak foundations for struggle abroad. Another long war could barely be contemplated.
Napoleon, knowing it would be fatal to wait for his enemies to come to him, swiftly assembled an army in the north with a view to fighting the Prussians, British, Dutch and other lesser allies who were already gathering in Belgium. If he could win early victories there, before the Russians and Austrians could bring their far greater forces into the field, then he could sow doubt and fear among his adversaries. And if that happened, if there were any hesitation, any crack in the grand alliance, then everything might be possible.
On 15 June 1815, therefore, he threw his forces across the frontier with Belgium and the next day, with characteristic bravado, fought two battles at once. The greater part of his army, under his own direction, confronted the Prussians at Ligny and sent them reeling northward. A smaller force, under Marshal Ney, took on the British, Dutch and assorted Germans just a few miles away at the crossroads of Quatre Bras. Ney came close to victory against enemies arriving late on the battlefield, but the Duke of Wellington rallied his men and the encounter ended with honours even.
By Saturday 17 June, therefore, with the Prussians apparently hors de combat, a confident Napoleon was preparing to turn almost his whole force against Wellington. The duke, meanwhile, was falling back to a defensive position along a ridge straddling the road to Brussels, just south of the village of Waterloo.
Battle was joined there late next morning, and if the prologue had been theatrical – the escape in darkness from Elba, the triumphal advance on Paris, the humiliating flight of Louis XVIII, the furious denunciations of the allies, the about-face of the armies – then the climax was simply brutal. Wellington had a word for it: ‘pounding’. Never having faced Napoleon across a battlefield before, he was on the alert for tactical brilliance, but when he saw his adversary at work his verdict was sharp: ‘Damn the fellow. He is a mere pounder after all.’
For hour after hour the French, numbering in all about 77,000 men, mounted frontal assault after frontal assault. There was little subtlety or science to it. Artillery blasted away at the closely bunched allied lines, pausing periodically to allow great masses of French soldiers to swarm up the muddy slope and assail their adversaries with musket and bayonet. Occasionally, heavy cavalry – the ultimate land weapon of the day – would charge thunderously, sabres slashing. And all the time Wellington’s army of 73,000 men clung to their position on the ridge. The carnage was relentless and terrible. ‘Hard pounding this, gentlemen,’ remarked the duke as he watched his men fall, adding grimly: ‘Let’s see who will pound the longest.’
The smoke of 400 cannons darkened an already cloudy sky until a summer’s afternoon was like foggy twilight. The few buildings on the battlefield became the scenes of desperate struggles, bodies piling up in every door and gateway. Sunken lanes ran with blood while out in the open the lines of men bludgeoned, bayoneted and shot each other, the living trampling over the dying in the effort to lock arms again. It began after 11 a.m., and as evening drew near the French were still pressing forward in great waves, forging uphill to cries of ‘Vive l’Empereur! ’, only to be repulsed at the top with further slaughter. Wellington used the same term again in a later reflection: ‘Never did I see such a pounding match. Both were what boxers call gluttons.’
Napoleon had roused his soldiers that morning with the promise that they would be in Brussels by nightfall, but as evening came on he could see that time was against him. His men were tiring and his artillery was running short of ammunition, and night would bring more respite to his adversaries, with their shorter lines of supply, than it would to him. Worse, he knew that he could not hold off the Prussians, for Blücher had managed to gather his forces and direct them west across country towards Waterloo. As the hours passed, Prussian men and guns in ever greater numbers engaged the French on their right flank and it was plain to Napoleon that he must break through very soon or his army would be squeezed in a vice.
So at about 7.30 p.m. he gambled all. Riding his white Arab stallion Marengo and with his military band playing patriotic tunes, he personally led the Imperial Guard to the start line for a new assault. Held in reserve thus far, these were the finest fighting men in Europe: everyone knew that when they fought they won. And as they drew level and then passed their emperor on the way towards the allied guns, the rest of the battered French army, its pride and confidence refreshed, girded and followed. Wellington, seeing them coming, re-ordered his line.
One last time, the armies collided. For perhaps half an hour more there was carnage and confusion. The cannon fire on both sides was merciless. The advancing French line shuddered and in places gave way, but so too did the allied line. Still the gluttons went at each other, but now there were flashes of something more than mere attrition. French infantry nearing the crest of what seemed a thinly defended part of the ridge suddenly found lines of British guardsmen leaping to their feet and pouring volley after volley on them at short range. Near by, a British commander took the unorthodox step of wheeling his whole force side-on to the French and raining fire from the flank. Witnesses spoke of ranks of soldiers falling like corn to a scythe. And all the time, on the other side of the battlefield, more Prussians were joining in. A British officer recalled:
the field was so enveloped in smoke that nothing was discernible. The firing ceased on both sides, and we on the left knew that one party or the other was beaten. This was the most anxious moment of my life. In a few seconds we saw the redcoats in the centre, as stiff as rocks, and the French columns retiring rapidly, and there was such a British shout as rent the air.
Even the Imperial Guard were recoiling. All day Wellington had shepherded and manoeuvred his motley army with one objective in mind: to cling on to the ridge. No longer. ‘Go on! Go on!’ he cried, waving his men down the slope and into the attack. ‘Now!’ he called to an officer. ‘Now is your time!’ Catching sight of soldiers celebrating, he told them: ‘No cheering my lads, but forward and complete your victory!’5 Napoleon, watching through a telescope from the other side of the valley, declared to his staff: ‘It’s over now. We must go.’
Within minutes the French retreat was a rout. Not only were Wellington’s men rushing forward, but the Prussians had also broken through on the French right. The chase was on, first to the village of Genappe and after that southward in the darkness towards Charleroi on the River Sambre, beyond which lay the French frontier. Most of Wellington’s army, however, soon slowed and halted, leaving the Prussians to lead the pursuit. Exhausted and hungry, they made camp for the night, counted their losses and picked over fields littered with the minor spoils of war. Before long Wellington himself, having ridden out to assure himself of the enemy’s complete disorder and to see the many captured French cannon, turned back towards his headquarters. By chance, some time after 9 p.m. he met Blücher on the road. ‘Mein lieber Kamarad! ’ exclaimed the Prussian after an awkward embrace. ‘Quelle affaire! ’
Military historians will argue forever over which moment, which order, which manoeuvre and which set of soldiers were decisive at Waterloo, but as a symbolic conclusion to the day’s action the encounter between Wellington and Blücher has no rival. It was there, in a few words, that the two commanders acknowledged their victory to each other. The most ardent hopes of the morning had been realised and they must have glimpsed, even if they did not fully grasp, the implications of what had been achieved. This was not merely the end of a hundred anxious days since the escape from Elba, but it was the end for Napoleon Bonaparte, whose mystique was shattered and whose army was broken. It was the end, too, of the historic cycle of upheaval that had begun with the storming of the Bastille in 1789. The great gamble that was the emperor’s second coming had failed; swords could soon be sheathed; trade and travel could resume; bloodshed and uncertainty could end. Though Wellington and Blücher knew they must march all the way to Paris to secure their advantage, both surely realised that on the field of Waterloo that day a long chapter of history had closed. What they had achieved would be a matter of importance and astonishment to a whole continent, and indeed to many people even farther afield. In other words, it would be news; indeed, there has rarely been news like it.