The phrase, ‘he met his Waterloo’ has entered the English language and almost everyone knows it means that someone, probably powerful, has fallen; contextually the words have most often been applied to those guilty of hubris in no small measure and therefore by implication it has been a ruin deserved. It is, perhaps, not unfair that the vanquishing of Napoleon, Emperor of the French, should have been the phrase’s origin. He was a ‘chancer’ on a grand scale, much given to vanity and his last bid for power, which propelled him from exile on a small Mediterranean island to commander once again of a French Army ready to take on the imperial powers of Europe, may not have paid dividends—irrespective of the outcome of the battle in Belgium in 1815. Yet there has always been an issue about Napoleon’s defeat on the muddy slopes outside Waterloo on 18th June, because it is, in the minds of many, impossible to reconcile such a crushing defeat—which included so many blunders—with the military genius that had, until then, so demonstrably defined Napoleon. Indeed, some would argue, how could it have been his fault? Surely the blame should be laid at the feet of someone else. Some have pointed the finger of suspicion at Ney, ‘bravest of the brave’ for repeatedly leading the massed, but unsupported, cavalry charges against the squares of the allied army on their stubbornly held ridge. Most, however, have looked towards Marshal Grouchy as the culprit. Was Grouchy responsible for the downfall of the Napoleonic epoch? Did he, in command of sufficient forces, in a position to turn defeat into victory, fail his master? Or was he merely faithfully following orders as he closely pursued the retreating Prussians? Was he chosen by Napoleon because he would follow orders religiously? Was Grouchy a timid laggard or a scapegoat? This debate has continued since the battle itself, without a definitive conclusion. In this book Frederick Llewellyn gathers together several crucial, contemporary takes on the events, including Grouchy’s own, which, for reasons of individual length, may not have found their way into print again in the modern age. The text draws few conclusions, but it does at least enable readers to judge for themselves.
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It would appear that Pajol did not send this report to Grouchy for a considerable time, but Grouchy, like Napoleon, had been made aware that the Prussians were around Gembloux ‘in great force,’ and that Excelmans was on his way to reach them, and Gembloux was the point Grouchy was himself to attain.<br>
This intelligence ought to have made the Marshal reflect that, in all probability, the Prussian army was abandoning the direction of Namur and Liege, and was not falling back on its base at all; it certainly ought to have induced him to advance on Gembloux and to find out the enemy without the loss of an instant; and it is fair to remark that Grouchy seems at first to have had the latter object distinctly in view. He had assembled his forces with praiseworthy haste, but the march to Gembloux was made extraordinarily slow, and was retarded by a series of delays, largely to be ascribed to Grouchy himself. The corps of Gérard around Ligny was the nearest to Gembloux, and should have been the first to move; but Grouchy, afraid to annoy Vandamme, whose corps was at St. Amand, some distance to the left, placed Vandamme and his troops at the head of the columns on their march; nearly two hours were thus unnecessarily lost. In addition Gembloux might have been reached by at least two roads; but Grouchy crowded his army into one column on a single road, and this again greatly retarded his march.<br>
The result was that Vandamme did not reach Gembloux until seven o’clock, and Gérard not until nine in the evening; and yet Gembloux is only eight miles from Ligny, and not more than ten from St. Amand. Unquestionably the storm and bad roads had impeded the march; but these obstacles had been overcome by the Prussians, who had moved at a very different rate of speed; and Napoleon had made a march of twenty miles at least, and that in the presence of an enemy in his front, even if he had the advantage of the great main-road from Charleroy to Brussels. Meanwhile Thielmann, whose corps had been reached by Excelmans, and who, we have seen, had halted at Gembloux a great deal too long, had been allowed to escape almost unobserved; and Excelmans, who on this eventful day seems to have been as over- confident and careless as most of his fellows, had advanced only to Sauvenière, a village two or three miles beyond Gembloux, and did not hang with his horsemen on the retreat of the enemy.<br>
This was an inauspicious beginning of a pursuit which ought to have been pressed with all the more celerity because it had been undertaken very late. By the night of the 17th the whole Prussian army was being gathered together around Wavre—that is, ten or eleven miles from Waterloo—while Grouchy’s army, scarcely more than a third in numbers, was at or near Gembloux—that is, at least sixteen miles from Napoleon’s camp. These distances were already not of happy omen. Nevertheless, whatever has been said, there was still no reason that Grouchy should not be able successfully to perform his task, should not be able to reach and to attack the enemy—above all, should not hold Blücher fast, and keep him away from Wellington, fulfilling the true part of a restraining wing, if he had the capacity of anything like a real chief.<br>
In the course of the night Grouchy received numerous reports, all indicating that the Prussians were in retreat northwards; had abandoned their communications with Namur and Liége; and were either making for Wavre, as the fact was, or for Perwez, in the direction of Louvain, the evidence preponderating that Wavre was the object of their march. Excelmans pushed forward some squadrons to Nil St. Vincent and Sart les Walhain, villages only seven or eight miles from Wavre, and heard that the enemy was on his way to that place; a detachment sent to Perwez gave the same intelligence. The inhabitants of Gembloux and the peasantry of the adjoining tract—in sympathy with the French, and hating the Prussians—spoke of Prussian movements on Perwez or Wavre; there was even a rumour that Blücher was trying to join Wellington—that is, was near Wavre—with the intention of reaching Waterloo.<br>
Upon this information, surely significant enough, Grouchy wrote to Napoleon at ten at night. This despatch should also be studied with care. In this communication the Marshal tells his master that he is at Gembloux and his cavalry at Sauvenière; that the enemy, ‘35,000 strong,’ is retreating; that the Prussians were divided into two main columns, one moving on Wavre, the other on Perwez; that a third column was falling back on Namur; that a part of these forces, ‘it might be inferred,’ was ‘on the way’ to join hands with Wellington, and that another part was perhaps making ultimately for Liége. The Marshal adds that he was sending his cavalry forward, and that, according to the intelligence it should bring in, he would march either on Wavre or Perwez. The despatch ends with these most important words, showing plainly that Grouchy understood his mission: ‘If the great body of the Prussians is retiring upon Wavre, I will follow them in that direction, so that they shall not be able to reach Brussels, and that I may separate them from Wellington.’<br>
The information Grouchy had already obtained should have led him to conclude that the Prussian army was, for the most part, at least, assembling at Wavre. But considering it even from his own point of view, the course he ought to adopt should have been plain to his mind. He might disregard any hostile force on its way to Perwez—that is, to Louvain—for this was in far eccentric retreat, and could neither molest Napoleon nor assist Wellington. But he was bound to follow without delay, and carefully to attack and hold in check, any hostile force making for Wavre; for this obviously was drawing near Wellington—nay, might be seeking to come to his aid; and this was the more necessary because the Emperor had told Grouchy that it was his intention to attack the English in front of the Forest of Soignies, distant only ten or eleven miles from Wavre.<br>
The means of securing the Marshal’s object and of enabling him to fulfil his duty were not difficult, and ought to have been apparent. He ought to advance on Wavre as quickly as possible, and so to direct his march as to have the power to strike Blücher in flank were he trying to join Wellington; and this operation was possible—nay, quite feasible. Gembloux is some fifteen miles from Wavre, and from the roads on which the Prussians would march in case they were on their way to Waterloo; it is about ten miles from the Dyle at Moustier and Ottignies, whence there were roads to Wavre, to the line of the enemy’s possible movement, and to the positions now held by Napoleon.<br>
The course for Grouchy to take was, therefore, as it were, marked out; he should make for Wavre by daybreak on June 18; but he should direct his movement to the Dyle at Moustier and Ottignies, crossing the river at these points by the bridges, which, like those on the Sambre, remained intact; it would be then within his power either to advance on Wavre, should the Prussians be remaining at that place, or to attack Blücher, to hold him in check for a space of time, sufficiently long, at least, to prevent him giving support to his colleague—and the attack, we must bear in mind, would be on Blücher’s flank, and about as perilous as could be conceived—and especially to co-operate with the main French army should the Emperor be in need of his aid. Had Grouchy formed this resolution on the night of June 17, and carried it out intelligently on the following morning, he would have atoned for the faults even now to be laid to his charge; Blücher, humanly speaking, could never have joined Wellington; Waterloo could never have been a victory for the allies.