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Notes on the Battle of Waterloo

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Notes on the Battle of Waterloo
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Author(s): James Shaw Kennedy
Date Published: 2010/10
Page Count: 140
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-335-9
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-336-6

Historian and expert witness to the great battle

The author of this concise book was well qualified to undertake the task of documenting the events he witnessed. During the Peninsular War he served with the famous Light Division as an officer of the 43rd—the same regiment as William Napier. Kennedy saw much action and his description of the storming of Badajoz is the principal inspiration for that section in Napier’s history. Despite his varied and interesting Peninsula War experiences Kennedy appears to have been a reluctant autobiographer and his brief account of his military services offers but a tantalising glimpse of what he might have left for posterity. Kennedy was present at Waterloo responsible—after the wounding of Alten—for much of the centre of the British line, the Third Division. In the original edition Kennedy’s memoir appears at the start of his book, the Leonaur Editors have however elected to move it to the end of their edition together with a small ‘stand alone’ essay on proposals for the defence of Canada. His memoir—written in one long section—has also been separated into chapters about different periods of his career to make it more relevant for modern readers. The principal object of Kennedy’s book is an analysis of the Battle of Waterloo. This is an excellent work, if idiosyncratically presented in numbered points and with little regard for literary nicety. Kennedy intends to convey the most information in the least possible words and his grasp of his subject is ultimately impressive. The Leonaur Editors have also re-presented this work unabridged in the interests of clarity. Available in softcover and hardcover with dust jacket.

The allegation is, that, when at noon Grouchy heard such a cannonade as to indicate that a general action was in progress, he ought to have marched directly to the field of battle. Now, even admitting this to be true, it implies that Napoleon committed the same error in a far stronger and more inexcusable degree. If Grouchy’s proper place was on the field of battle at Waterloo, then Napoleon should have sent for him at daylight on the morning of the 18th, when he saw the Anglo-Allied army in position, and determined to attack it.<br>
Napoleon knew with positive certainty that a general action was taking place: if then the principle was correct that Grouchy should take part in it, why did not Napoleon order him to march upon Planchenoit? Napoleon had positive and certain knowledge of the existence of a general action, and was free to give to Grouchy what orders he chose; Grouchy, on the contrary, only could guess as to the existence of a general action, and in acting upon a probable supposition would have done so contrary to his instructions.<br>
Now Napoleon not only failed to send any order to Grouchy to march upon Waterloo, when he knew positively that he was about to engage in a general action with the Anglo-Allied army; but even when the action was actually commencing, he caused Soult to write to him, approving of his marching upon Wavre. If then Grouchy violated a principle in not marching to the field of battle, Napoleon violated the same principle, and in an aggravated degree, by not ordering his march upon Waterloo early on the morning of the 18th; and in going the length of approving of his march upon Wavre when the battle of Waterloo was actually commencing.<br>
156. This error on the part of Napoleon may, at first sight, appear strange; but the correspondence and other documents make the cause sufficiently evident. It is clear that Napoleon did not at all foresee the movement of Blucher upon Waterloo, which is in fact proved positively by the report made by Grouchy to Napoleon, dated Gembloux, 17th June, ten o’clock p.m.; and by the order transmitted by Soult to Grouchy, from in front of the farm of Caillou, on the field of Waterloo, dated ten o’clock on the morning of the 18th June. <br>
By the former of these documents it is clearly shown that Grouchy considered that, by his advance upon Wavre, he would separate the Prussian force from Napoleon; and this opinion of Grouchy Napoleon distinctly approved of, and confirmed, in the communication from Soult, dated ten o’clock a.m., from Caillon, in which the receipt of Grouchy’s report, dated ten o’clock p.m. of the 17th, is acknowledged, and he is ordered to march direct upon Wavre, and drive before him any of the enemy he may find there; and he is desired, at the same time, to keep up his communication with Napoleon, which has been absurdly construed into an instruction to march towards Napoleon, while it simply and clearly meant that he should keep up his communication with Napoleon by patroles, as was evidently proper; and by no possible perversity of construction will it bear the other meaning, for the order is express and direct that Grouchy shall march to Wavre, and not only is this ordered, but that he should get there as rapidly as possible.<br>
One error Grouchy unquestionably did commit—that of not marching on the morning of the 18th till between eight and nine o’clock, in place of doing so at four a.m.; thus losing between four and five hours. But his having marched at four o’clock in the morning could not, by any possibility which I can see, have effected anything favourable to Napoleon on the field of Waterloo. Had Grouchy marched four or five hours earlier, his advance to Wavre, in place of being turned towards Waterloo, would have been much more certain.<br>
Bülow’s corps marched from Wavre at four o’clock on the morning of the 18th, and was followed by that of Pirch and that of Zieten; so that, had Grouchy marched at four o’clock, he could only have found Thielemann’s corps at Wavre, the result from which only could have been that of his pushing Thielemann further back towards Brussels or Waterloo, but without the possibility of affording any aid to Napoleon; and the more Grouchy advanced, the more he became compromised, if Napoleon did not succeed in defeating the Allied army.<br>
157. It is a matter of no doubt, therefore, but of certainty, that neither Napoleon nor Grouchy took at all into consideration the possibility of the march of the whole Prussian army on the morning of the 18th from Wavre to join Wellington on the field of Waterloo; and Soult’s communication to Grouchy, dated ten a.m. on the 18th, proves positively that Napoleon had at that hour come to exactly the same determination, as to the march to Wavre by Grouchy, which Grouchy came to at twelve o’clock. Napoleon having then a more positive knowledge than Grouchy had of the existence of a general action, and Napoleon not being fettered, as Grouchy was, by any contrary order.<br>
It is perfectly clear, therefore, that Napoleon in this matter acted under two erroneous impressions; for, first, he had no idea that the whole Prussian army was to be put in motion against him from Wavre on the morning of the 18th; and, second, he had the full and confident conviction that he was strong enough, with the army he had with him at Waterloo on the morning of the 18th, to defeat and destroy the army of Wellington. This is proved by the exultation which he expressed at the time at Wellington’s having committed the error of halting to be attacked, and by the opinion which he afterwards expressed, that, if Wellington had been defeated, he must have been destroyed by having the Forest of Soignies in his rear.<br>
As to this second alleged error, it may be said that it has not been proved that he was wrong in supposing that he would have defeated Wellington, had Wellington not been supported by the Prussians. But this does not materially affect the question, it having been clearly proved that, even had the result been ultimately favourable to Napoleon, the struggle would have been so desperate, and the loss on both sides so enormous, that Napoleon’s calculation was erroneous in not having brought against Wellington every man and horse that it was possible for him to collect.
158. The forest of Soignies, which Napoleon represents as a defile that would have caused the ruin of the Anglo-Allied army in the event of its defeat, is penetrated by several roads, and, not having under-wood, would have been a great protection to the Anglo-Allied army had it been defeated, and followed in its retreat by the magnificent force of cavalry which was with Napoleon.<br>
159. The order of battle in which Napoleon formed his army on the morning of the 18th of June, opposite to and with the view of attacking that of Wellington, was so excellent, that it will probably always be considered as a model for study in the consideration of such formations. Napoleon had the disadvantage of this formation being in some degree deranged, even early in the action, by the force detached from the centre to observe the Prussian advance; and later in the action this disadvantage became more and more serious. The mode in which Napoleon directed the progress of this great action must, of course, to military men, be a subject of the greatest interest as a military study.