The Waterloo Campaign by the British army’s foremost historian
Among British Army historians the reputation of Sir John Fortescue stands virtually without equal. His comprehensive fourteen volume history is a work of unparalleled achievement in its field. Fortescue combines thorough source material research with insightful academic observation of the conduct of the campaigns he describes and of the decisions, errors and strategic and tactical options of their principal protagonists. The Leonaur editors have carefully selected passages from Fortescue’s magnum opus to create a series of books, each focusing on a specific war or campaign.
This book deals with the activities of the British army from the time Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba to begin his desperate bid to regain the throne of France. It discusses, from a British perspective, the campaign of 1815 in its entirety—the battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo and the pursuit of the defeated French army to its final capitulation. For the first time Fortescue’s incisive history of the Waterloo campaign and its aftermath is available in a stand-alone volume and no Napoleonic library will be complete without his direct analysis and critically observed view of the events and personalities of this landmark period in European military history. This Leonaur exclusive volume has never been available before, and Fortescue’s original text has here been enhanced by the inclusion of maps and diagrams not present in the original text.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket; our hardbacks are cloth bound and feature gold foil lettering on their spines and fabric head and tail bands.
At the beginning of June the five corps of the Army of the North were posted about Lille, Valenciennes, Mezières, Thionville and Soissons, with the Imperial Guard at Paris, and the Reserve Cavalry between the Aisne and the Sambre. Screened by the fortresses on the frontier and by the belt of forest that extends from Thuin almost to Namur on the south of the Sambre, the concentration of these forces was to such a master of the art no difficult matter, and was rendered the easier by the unwillingness of the Allies to send even the smallest military bodies across the frontier. The Imperial Guard were the first to move, marching in detachments between the 5th and the 8th of June upon Avesnes by way of Soissons; Gérard with the 4th Corps was the next, leaving Metz on the 6th for Philippeville; d’Erlon quitted Lille on the 9th for Valenciennes, from which Reille moved out at his approach, and the two marched eastward upon Maubeuge.
Vandamme shifted from Mezières to Philippeville, and the rest of the troops were directed to Beaumont. Napoleon himself left Paris early on the 12th, breakfasted at Soissons, slept at Laon, and arrived at Avesnes on the 13th. By the night of the 14th the whole were assembled on a line of about sixteen miles between Solre-sur-Sambre and Philippeville. The entire manoeuvre was conducted with the strictest secrecy; all communication with Belgium and the Rhine provinces was closed; an embargo was laid on all ships even to the very fishing-boats; and at every point from which regular troops had been withdrawn, National Guards were pushed up to take their place. Only one small detail went amiss. Soult omitted to send the requisite orders to Grouchy for the march of the cavalry, and it was only upon Napoleon’s arrival at Laon, where were Grouchy’s headquarters, that the mistake was corrected. Even so the whole of the horse arrived at Avesnes on the night of the 13th, though not without forced marches exhausting to both beasts and men.
Thus the information which had reached the Allied commanders on the 12th, 13th and 14th was in the main correct. The movements of the Guard, of d’Erlon and Reille were accurately given, and the progress of Soult, incognito, was truly reported. It must, however, be said for Wellington and Blücher that marches and counter-marches of French troops upon the northern frontier had for weeks been incessant, and that, until the very end, any attempt to piece them together as an indication of the enemy’s plans was hopeless. Both of the Allied Commanders have been reproached for not making greater use of their cavalry to penetrate Napoleon’s intentions; but it seems to be literally true that both of them, and not Wellington only, were embarrassed by uncertainty whether they were at war or at peace.
Bülow pleaded his ignorance of the fact, that there had been no declaration of war, in excuse for the slowness of his movements, shortly to be narrated, on the 15th of June. Napoleon himself on the 7th of June denounced the action of England in capturing a French frigate in the Mediterranean, as “bloodshed during peace”; and, as if conscious that the signal for opening the war lay with himself, he wrote definitely to Davoût on the 11th of June that hostilities would begin on the 14th. This peculiarity of the situation has, as it seems to me, escaped the notice of most of the later writers upon the campaign of 1815.
It is urged by at least one of them that the manifesto of the Allied Powers of the 13th of March was in itself a declaration of war; but it was rather a decree of outlawry against an individual whose authority as ruler of France was expressly set aside. The document certainly implied that those who followed Napoleon’s banner would do so at their peril; but beyond question, if the Allies had invaded France before Napoleon attacked them, they would have issued a proclamation calling upon all Frenchmen to dissociate themselves from him and promising them good treatment if they should do so.
The Powers of Europe were dealing, as they well knew, with a military revolt, not with a national movement; and it would have been impolitic as well as contrary to their professions to treat the French nation as if it were the French Army. On the other hand, it may justly be argued that, given such a state of uncertainty and the presence of a French host under Napoleon, the utmost care should have been taken that everything should be ready against a sudden attack. On the contrary, both Blücher and Wellington were so confident of their superiority that they took less instead of more than the ordinary precautions, feeling sure that Napoleon would not venture upon an offensive movement. They were wrong in their divination of his intentions; but their trust in their own strength was justified by the result.
On the 14th, the anniversary of Marengo and Friedland, Napoleon issued the last of those stirring appeals which had so often stimulated his armies to victory, and in the evening dictated his justly famous orders for the movements of the morrow. The army was to advance upon Charleroi in three principal columns; Reille’s and d’Erlon’s corps on the left by Thuin and Marchienne; Vandamme’s and Lobau’s corps, the Imperial Guard and Grouchy’s reserve of cavalry in the centre by Ham-sur-Heure and Marcinelle; Gérard’s corps by Florennes and Gerpinnes. The whole were to be covered by a screen of cavalry from the centre column and headed by Domont’s three regiments of mounted chasseurs, with Pajol’s corps of six more regiments of light horse and two battalions of horse-artillery in support. Domont was to start at half-past two in the morning, Pajol and the heads of the infantry at three o’clock; the foot taking the main roads and the horse the by-roads.
Reille, Vandamme, Pajol and Gérard were to keep themselves in constant communication with each other so as to arrive in one united mass before Charleroi. In the centre column the 3rd Corps was to take the lead, to be followed by the 6th Corps at four o’clock and by the various sections of the Guard at half-hourly intervals between five and six. The pontoon-train was to provide three sections to throw as many bridges over the Sambre, which the Emperor intended to cross with his whole army before noon, he himself accompanying the advanced guard of the centre column. For the general purposes of the campaign he designed to divide his army into two wings and a reserve, the left wing under Ney, who was on the point of joining him, the right under Grouchy, and the reserve, which would be strengthened from one wing or the other, according to circumstances, under his personal command.
At half-past three in the morning of the 15th the French vanguards crossed the Netherlandish frontier at Leers, Cour-sur-Heure and Thy-le-Chateau; but whether from neglect on the part of the staff or indolence on the part of the generals, there was delay in the march of the rear of the columns. D’Erlon did not set the 1st Corps in motion until half-past four, instead of at three, as he had been bidden. The officer who was carrying the orders to Vandamme was disabled through a fall from his horse; and, as Soult sent no second messenger, Vandamme had no knowledge of the intended movement until Lobau’s corps came up to his bivouac. The 4th Corps, which should have marched from Philippeville at three, did not reach Florennes—a distance of not more than five miles—until seven o’clock, and was there bewildered and dismayed by the desertion to the Allies of one of its divisional generals, Bourmont, together with the whole of his staff.
However, the advanced parties on the French centre and left in due time came into collision with the outposts of Pirch I.’s brigade, and pressed them slowly back from position to position until between nine and ten o’clock they reached the Sambre at Marchienne and Charleroi, and found the bridges barricaded and defended by infantry and guns. General Bachelu, whose division led Reille’s column, threw away two hours before he finally cleared the passage at Marchienne. Even then, the bridge being narrow, it took four hours for Reille’s corps to defile over the river; and d’Erlon’s corps in consequence did not even begin to cross until half-past four.
Pajol having failed to carry the bridge of Charleroi by a charge of hussars, waited till eleven o’clock for the arrival of Vandamme’s infantry, which, having started late, was still far away; when up came Napoleon himself with a portion of the Young Guard, which, on learning of Vandamme’s mishap, he had brought forward by cross-roads. Under the emperor’s direction, the barricade was soon broken down; the Prussians retired, and Pajol detaching one regiment—the 1st Hussars—due north towards Gosselies and Quatre-Bras to clear the front of the left column, led his main body north-east upon Fleurus on the track of the retreating Prussians.