An extract from Scotland Forever by Iain Gale
Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from exile on the island of Elba on the 26th of February, 1815. He had with him only 1,000 men. Landing on the south coast of France at Golfe-Juan near Antibes, the man who as the Emperor of France had once ruled most of Europe led his tiny army north.
At Besançon on the 10th of March he was confronted by Marshal Michel Ney, one of his most trusted generals, and a regiment of foot. Ney had promised the French King, the Bourbon Louis XVIII, to return with Napoleon ‘in an iron cage’. But such was his former master’s magnetism that Ney’s troops went over to Napoleon, and Ney himself joined them.
Following a triumphant march through France, the Emperor arrived in Paris on the 20th of March at the head of two Divisions comprising some ten thousand men.
News of his escape was laughed at by the allied generals and politicians attending the peace negotiations in Vienna; until they realised that it was not in fact a joke. Then panic gripped Europe, as people wondered if this man would plunge them into another twenty years of world war.
In fact Napoleon wanted peace, and tried his best to obtain it. He wrote letters to the Prince Regent of Britain and the Russian Emperor, proposing a peaceful resolution of the conflict. But the Allies steadfastedly refused his entreaties and declared war not on the French nation, but on Napoleon himself.
His response was swift and effective. Within two months Napoleon had assembled an army of half a million men, with some 200,000 in the field along with 360 cannon. They were mostly veterans and loyal to the man who for two decades had led them to glory.
It was a remarkable feat and it almost bankrupted France. It cost 5 million francs a month to supply the Armée du Nord, and they also needed new weapons and horses. Across France the munitions factories turned out 40,000 muskets a month, although bayonets were more of a problem.
Uniforms too were a mess. Regiments broke the Royalist fleurs de lys off their shakos, and some managed to find brass eagles with which to replace them. In particular there was not enough body armour to supply Napoleon’s legendary cuirassiers, his elite heavy cavalry, and one regiment went into battle without it.
Horses too were in short supply. The Emperor’s disastrous campaign in Russia had cost no less than 180,000 horses and there just weren’t enough of them. Nevertheless, by June 1815 Napoleon was able to field an impressive army which to any observer would have had at least the appearance of the Grand Armée of 1805.
His opponents had three times as many men on which to call. 200,000 Russians under Barclay de Tolley were marching to the French border along with the same number of Austrians under Schwarzenberg.
The Duke of Wellington, victor of the Peninsula, had managed to scrape together 112,000 men at his headthe veteran Marshal Blücher had marched to join him from Germany. But importantly the armies were split, and Napoleon knew this. He had 123,000 men in the north of France with another 100,000 across the nation.
The only way to tackle his enemies was piecemeal, dividing Wellington and Blücher and dealing with each army in turn. To Napoleon’s advantage he was fighting in his own territory on interior lines and thus needed fewer men. He also had other considerable advantages.
Wellington’s army was not what he would have wished for. After six years of campaigning in Spain and Portugal, it was run down. Britain had also just fought and lost a war in America during which, famously, British troops had burned down the White House.
Most of the Peninsular veterans had been sent home, to fight in America or to suppress rioting in Ireland. The last thing that Britain wanted was a European war.
Wellington’s British army, a total of just 15,000 men, comprised 25 battalions of infantry and six regiments of horse, but many were at half strength. In addition to this, many of them were untried in battle and some were very young.
Apart from these troops he had an army of allies: Hanoverians, Nassauers, Brunswickers, Dutch and Belgians, making up the grand total of 112,000. A month before the battle of Waterloo, he called it ‘an infamous army, very weak and ill equipped and a very inexperienced staff.’
Of course, using his experience, Wellington did everything he could to strengthen this force. He brigaded green regiments with veterans. In each army corps he placed Dutch-Belgian divisions alongside British. The reserve was made up of British, Dutch and Germans. The historian J. W. Fortescue describes how this filtered down to the brigades:
In every British Division except the First, foreigners were blended with redcoats. Altens and Clinton’s had each one brigade of British, one of the German Legion and one of Hanoverians. Picton’s and Colville’s had each two brigades of British and one of Hanoverians . . . In Cooke’s division of British footguards, the three young battalions were stiffened by one old one from the Peninsula.
Blücher’s army was similarly unimpressive. Prussia too was impoverished by war, but the King of Prussia ordered mobilisation and managed to get 130,000 men in the field. The staff was split between Blücher leading from the front and von Gniesenau, the mastermind who formed the strategy.
Napoleon took the initiative and on 15 June split his own army. The left wing of 50,000 men and 100 guns was to be commanded by Ney; the right, of the same strength, by Marshal Grouchy. Napoleon himself would have the reserve with the Imperial Guard infantry, an infantry corps and a reserve cavalry corps, 30,000 men with 150 guns. He would be able to detach units from each of these three wings as required.
His staff were vital. Soult was his chief of staff, with by the Minister of War, Davout. But some key men from his early campaigns were missing. There was no Lasnes, no Massena and no Murat. Worse than this, the staff were plagued by mistrust and jealousy.
And another key figure was missing. His chief of staff Berthier, who had been with him through his campaigns, had died in strange circumstances after falling from a window in Bamberg, Bavaria, on 1 June. So Napoleon had to make do with Soult, who had been beaten by Wellington in Spain. He was best known as a plunderer of fine art, and after Napoleon’s first abdication in 1814 had been Louis XVIII’s Minister of War. Soult was not what Berthier had been, an efficient military secretary. He was a battlefield general and was miscast by Napoleon.
From the start, though, whatever the Emperor’s deficiencies, the Allies were on the back foot. They knew that they needed to attack, but they would have to wait for the Russians and Austrians for this to be possible. Wellington prayed that Napoleon would not attack before this. The only thing they could do was post pickets to try to ensure they knew where the French were.
Wellington was increasingly paranoid that Napoleon might try a feint and believed that his adversary would try to cut his lines of communication to the sea at Ostend. But Blücher’s lines of communication were on the east, into Germany, and the old Feld-Marschal had to protect these. So even though they had already agreed that if one were attacked the other would help, the Allied commanders had their own conflicting demands.
The moment of truth came on 15 June, when at 3.30 am the Prussians were attacked at Thuin, south of Charleroi across the Belgian border.
The French had been on the move since 3 am, with light cavalry scouts in front and an endless train of marching men and wagons. Soon there was a bottleneck, and other things began to go wrong. General Vandamme did not receive his movement orders as the messenger fell off his horse and broke a leg. A general deserted to the allies. But battle had been joined. Jerome Bonaparte’s 6th Division of the 2nd Corps opened fire on a unit of Prussian Landwehr in Ziethen’s I Corps, and as the pressure was applied, the Prussians began to pull back.
By morning the French were in Charleroi fighting what remained of the Prussian resistance and Napoleon sat down beside a local inn and watched the columns march past on their way to the front. By nightfall on the 15th, the French had broken through and divided the armies of Wellington and Blücher, just as Napoleon had planned.
Wellington received the news of first contact at a ball that evening held in Brussels by the Duchess of Richmond. His response is well known: ‘Napoleon has humbugged me, by God; he has gained twenty-four hours’ march on me.’
His reaction was to mobilise immediately and move towards Quatre Bras, a strategic crossroads south of the capital. Then he went to bed. He was woken at 1.45 am by his Quartermaster General Sir William de Lancey, with the news that it was worse than they had thought and that Napoleon was actually beyond Charleroi.
Napoleon, who himself had hardly slept, was informed at 6 am on the morning of the 16th that the Prussians had grouped at Sombreffe. He was pleased. This was far too far south. Too far from Wellington.
Napoleon rode to the village of Fleurus, and finding his intelligence to be correct, positioned his army to do battle with the Prussians and sent a message to Ney’s left wing, which was advancing towards Wellington at Quatre Bras, to send d’Erlon’s army corps across to help him defeat Blücher.
Wellington meanwhile was concentrating on the crossroads and rode there, arriving at 10 am. He asked De Lancey for troop dispositions and was assured that the Reserve would be with him at midday and the rest of the army soon after.
In fact De Lancey was being somewhat being economical with the truth, and even as Wellington wrote a message to Blücher assuring him of his support, it must have been evident to his subordinate that such support would be impossible in the given time-frame. Unaware of this, Wellington rode across to a windmill near the village of Ligny to meet Blücher and assure him again in person of his support. Then he rode back to what there was of his own army, but not before commenting that Blücher was placing his men on a forward slope where they would be exposed to French gunfire and blown to pieces.
The stage was set for potential disaster.