Bruges and Waterloo

Just back from guiding a group of seven around the medieval city of Bruges, and the Waterloo battlefield. My clients were elderly but had stamina for lunch, dinner, drinks and puddings, though they took their time getting up the Lion Mound, all 215 steps. But no one died, which was a plus.

Bruges is enchanting, even in the rain. The Groeninge Museum houses the finest collection of Flemish Primitives in the world, a cornucopia of Van Eyck, Memling, Bouts, Petrus Christus etc. The city, miraculously untouched by war, boasts spectacular architecture, and a Michelangelo. A canal tour is obligatory, if touristy. Some of us went up the 365 stairs of the Belfry. I had a hot chocolate instead.

Waterloo is an hour or so away. We discussed why Napoleon lost the battle. My father’s nanny said it was because he didn’t go to the lavatory that morning. Funnily enough, this silly woman was in the ballpark area. Napoleon had piles (and possibly cystitis) and could only sit on his horse for short periods, thus depriving himself of a view of the battle and its crises.

But he was too far back from the action, entrusting the tactical battle to the unstable Ney, who was probably unhinged by his experience in Russia. There were wider reasons for his defeat: in the end he was brought down by British dominance of the seas, by the failure of his Continental System (the attempt to stop British trade with the continent), by the successful British naval blockade, by an Allied coalition, by a war of attrition in Spain, and by his huge losses in Russia (half a million dead!).

He was also defeated by his own hubris, by his inability to see the limitations of his ‘genius’ and the limitations of his army. Fatally, he was unable to compromise. He underestimated his enemy. He said to Soult on the eve of battle – ‘You think Wellington is a good general because he beat you in Spain. I tell you he is a bad general and the English are bad troops and this is going to be a picnic.’ He also (unwisely) scoffed at the Prussian’s military prowess: ‘These same Prussians who are so boastful today were three to one at Jena, and six to one at Montmirail.’ Wellington, the steady English troops and the Prussians would be his nemesis.

At Waterloo, Bonaparte chose to fight like a WW1 chateau general. Wellington did not. John Keegan has written that Wellington ‘had been exposed to danger from the beginning of the battle to its end. Of his personal staff of 63, no less than 20 had been killed or wounded… he had consistently been within cannon range and frequently within musket range… he had always moved towards not away from fire… He spared nothing – thought, preparation, energy, personal safety – to make sure that his army put forth all it could. Napoleon made no attempt to go even the first mile with Wellington at Waterloo, and deservedly lost.’

D’Erlon’s corps missed both Ligny and Quatre Bras on June 16. Napoleon failed to give him concise orders to stay with him. Napoleon was careless of detail in both staff work and logistics. He failed to ensure his dictated orders were clear and properly dispatched. In contrast Wellington’s – even in the hurly-burly of battle – were beautifully constructed and unambiguous.

Napoleon procrastinated. He delayed ordering a vigorous pursuit of the defeated Prussians, on the night of 16 June and morning of 17 June; and dithered in attacking Wellington at Quatre Bras, and at Waterloo, losing precious time, which he did not have on his side. He assumed the Prussians were beaten and heading home. He thus sent Grouchy, with orders to follow and block the Prussians, too far to the east. Had he detached the smallest patrol, he would have discovered the direction of that retreat. At 13.00 on June 18, Napoleon spotted Prussians to the east, moving towards him. He sent an urgent signal to Grouchy to march with all haste to Waterloo. But, assuming the message would take a minimum of 4 hours to reach Grouchy, who would then have to disengage and turn his corps 90 degrees to the left, this was madness. Grouchy would have reached Waterloo around 10 pm! Too late.

Ney was a crazy choice of battlefield commander. [Bonaparte’s useless brother Jerome also failed by allowing the diversionary attack on Hougoumont on the British right (intended to draw troops from Wellington’s centre) to become the focus.] When, by luck, Ney got a foothold on the ridge (around 18.00) Napoleon refused him reserves, because he was out of touch with his front line. Boney’s ultimate mistake was his desperate gamble to launch the Imperial Guard against Wellington’s centre at 20.00. Even if this last reserve had broken through Napoleon would still have faced Prussians in his flank and rear. Napoleon hadn’t even bothered to hold the advancing Prussians in the woods and defiles to the east by placing small bodies of blocking troops.

If Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo would he have won the war? No, the Allies were determined to rid Europe of this pest; Wellington and Blűcher would have regrouped. Napoleon was doomed, he had overestimated his strength, overplayed his hand, and underestimated the resolve of his enemies. On St. Helena, Boney blamed everyone but himself for his comeuppance – Grouchy, Soult, d’Erlon… And he blamed Wellington for sending him to that inhospitable island (it was actually a civil servant’s idea). But he should have been grateful to the Iron Duke. The Prime Minister wanted Boney tried and hanged. The Prussians just wanted him hanged. Wellington put a stop to that. Napoleon was allowed a budget of £1m (in today’s money) to keep him in comfort, which included unlimited champagne, madeira, port and claret. Some say the old rogue died of cancer. Perhaps it was drink.

Picture: Napoleon never led his troops into battle at Waterloo. He mostly sat on a mound way to the rear. When he finally went up to order the Guard to attack – around 20.00 – he was dissuaded from leading his veterans by aides fearful for his safety. He was happy to watch the subsequent rout from La Belle Alliance. Clausewitz commented of Napoleon’s desertion of his army: ‘There was a huge difference between being overwhelmed by far superior numbers and making a brave, fighting withdrawal from the battlefield at the head of his indomitable band, or returning [as he did] as a virtual fugitive, burdened with the reproach of having ruined his entire army and then abandoned it. Bonaparte may have never made a greater mistake. In this case Bonaparte does not seem to be acting in the manner of a great man but rather in vulgar exasperation, like someone who has broken an instrument and in his anger smashes the parts to pieces on the ground.’