By Shannon Selin
TWO HUNDRED YEARS AGO ago this week, Napoleon was crushed at the Battle of Waterloo.
On June 18, 1815, Bonaparte’s 70,000-man army was decisively beaten by a coalition of British, German, Dutch-Belgian and Prussian forces led by the Duke of Wellington and the aging Prussian field marshal Gebhard von Blücher.
His imperial ambitions once again dashed, Napoleon gave himself up to the British in Rochefort on July 15. He spent the rest of his days in exile on the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena. There he had plenty of time to reflect on the last battle he ever fought.
But what did Napoleon actually say about his defeat at Waterloo? A great deal, as it turns out.
‘I should have won’
In September 1815, en route to his island exile, Napoleon lamented,
“Ah! If it [the Battle of Waterloo] were only to be done over again!”
Elizabeth Wormeley Latimer, Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena with General Baron Gourgaud (Chicago, 1903), p. 31.
Napoleon was amazed that he had lost. On Saint Helena in December 1815, he told the Count de Las Cases:
“[A]ll was fatal in that engagement; it even assumed the appearance of absurdity; yet, nevertheless [Napoleon] ought to have gained the victory. Never had any of his battles presented less doubt to his mind; and he was still at a loss to account for what had happened.”
Emmanuel-August-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena (London, 1823), Vol. I, Part 2, p. 6.
On June 18, 1816, the first anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, Las Cases recalled:
“[T]he circumstance was mentioned by some one present, and the recollection of it produced a visible impression on the Emperor. ‘Incomprehensible day,’ said he in a tone of sorrow.”
Mémorial de Sainte Hélène, Vol. II, Part 4, p. 252.
Napoleon once remarked to his aid-de-camp, Baron Gaspard Gourgaud:
“My regrets are not for myself but for unhappy France! With twenty thousand men less than I had we ought to have won the battle of Waterloo. But it was Fate that made me lose it.’ The Emperor then told why he did not thoroughly understand the battle.”
Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena with General Baron Gourgaud, p. 187.
‘Blame my generals’
The day before his final showdown with Wellington, Napoleon ordered one his commanders, Emmanuel de Grouchy, to take a third of the army (30,000 men) and pursue the Prussians to the north east. Despite hearing the rumble of cannon at Waterloo on June 18, the 48-year-old field marshal followed his orders to the letter, ignoring the battle that was clearly taking place. By the time Grouchy rejoined the main French army, the emperor had been beaten. Napoleon later remarked:
“Had it not been for the imbecility of Grouchy, I should have gained the day.”
Barry E. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1822), p. 249.
Count de Las Cases also recalled Bonaparte heaping scorn on the generals.
“Grouchy, [Napoleon] said, had lost himself; Ney appeared bewildered…D’Erlon was useless; in short, the generals were no longer themselves. If, in the evening, he had been aware of Grouchy’s position, and could have thrown himself upon it, he might, in the morning, with the help of that fine reserve, have repaired his ill success, and, perhaps, even have destroyed the allied forces by one of those miracles, those turns of fortune which were familiar to him, and which would have surprised no one. But he knew nothing of Grouchy.”
Mémorial de Sainte Hélène, Vol. I, Part 2, pp. 6-7.
Napoleon also maintained that his top commanders had grown soft with age.
“The men of 1815 were not the same as those of 1792. My generals were faint-hearted men…. I needed a good officer to command my guard. If I had had Bessières or Lannes at its head I should not have been defeated.”
Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena with General Baron Gourgaud, pp. 185-188.
Bonaparte once complained to Las Cases that his commanders abandoned him in his hour of need.
“Had it not been for the desertion of a traitor, I should have annihilated the enemy at the opening of the campaign. I should have destroyed him at Ligny, if my left had done its duty. I should have destroyed him again at Waterloo if my right had not failed me.”
Mémorial de Sainte Hélène, Vol. II, Part 4, pp. 252-253.
‘Hmmm… Maybe it was my fault too.’
Amidst such recriminations, Napoleon occasionally gave a nod to his own mistakes in the campaign.
“If I had remained with the battalion of my Guard on the left of the high road, I might have rallied the cavalry…. Perhaps when I became aware of the immense superiority of the Prussians at Ligny, I ought sooner to have ordered a retreat…. Perhaps I should have done better to have waited another month before opening the campaign in order to give more consistency to the army…. I ought to have had mounted grenadiers in reserve; their charge would have altered the state of affairs.”
Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena with General Baron Gourgaud, pp. 187-188.
Admiral Pulteney Malcolm commanded the North Sea squadron that cooperated with Wellington’s army during the Waterloo campaign. He later met with Napoleon on Saint Helena and recalled the following:
“Bonaparte said two causes lost him the battle – Grouchy failing in checking the Prussians, and his great charge of cavalry being made half an hour too soon.”
Clementina E. Malcolm, A Diary of St. Helena (1816, 1817): the Journal of Lady Malcolm,
edited by Sir Arthur Wilson (London, 1899), p. 31.
‘Wellington should have lost!’
In July 1816 Napoleon also told Admiral Malcolm:
“Wellington ought to have retreated, and not fought that battle, for had he lost it, I should have established myself in France. Wellington risked too much, for by the rules of war I should have gained the battle.”
A Diary of St. Helena (1816, 1817): the Journal of Lady Malcolm
The following March he told Dr. Barry O’Meara:
“The plan of the battle will not in the eyes of the historian reflect any credit on Lord Wellington as a general. In the first place, he ought not to have given battle with the armies divided…. In the next, the choice of ground was bad; because if he had been beaten he could not have retreated, as there was only one road leading to the forest in the rear. He allowed himself to be surprised. On the 15th, I was at Charleroi, and had beaten the Prussians without his knowing any thing about it.
“[Wellington] certainly displayed great courage and obstinacy; but a little must be taken away even from that, when you consider that he had no means of retreat, and that, had he made the attempt, not a man of his army would have escaped. First, to the firmness and bravery of his troops, for the English fought with the greatest obstinacy and courage, he is principally indebted for the victory, and not to his own conduct as a general; and, next, to the arrival of Blucher, to whom the victory is more to be attributed than to Wellington, and more credit due as a general; because he, though beaten the day before, assembled his troops, and brought them into action in the evening. I believe, however, that Wellington is a man of great firmness. The glory of such a victory is a great thing; but in the eye of the historian, his military reputation will gain nothing by it.”
Barry E. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1822), pp. 299-301.
‘Alas, it was fate’
By November 1816, Napoleon was no longer expressing astonishment at his defeat. Indeed, he now claimed to have had a premonition of failure. He said to Las Cases:
“It is very certain that during the events of 1815, I relinquished the anticipation of ultimate success: I lost my first confidence. Perhaps I found, that I was wearing beyond the time of life at which fortune usually proves favourable; or, perhaps, in my own eyes…the spell that had hung over my miraculous career was broken. Kind fortune no longer followed my footsteps… It is a remarkable fact, that every advantage I obtained at this period, was immediately succeeded by a reverse…. I gained the brilliant victory of Ligny: but my lieutenant robbed me of its fruits. Finally, I triumphed even at Waterloo, and was immediately hurled into the abyss.”
Mémorial de Sainte Hélène, Vol. IV, Part 7, pp. 143-45.
Fate, or destiny, became Napoleon’s official explanation. Baron Gourgaud left Saint Helena in 1818. Shortly thereafter he published a book called The Campaign of 1815, an account of the Waterloo based in large part on notes dictated by Napoleon. Gourgaud billed it as a “simple but faithful recital of facts,” noting that “the Emperor Napoleon [had] been pleased to communicate to me his opinion on the principal events of the Campaign.”
“Napoleon, with an army alarmingly inferior in numbers, met his enemy, in this fatal campaign, with almost equal forces on every point of contest. By his ability alone he everywhere established an equilibrium: the enemy, surprised in his cantonments, with his troops scattered over a circuit of twenty leagues, was compelled to engage before his forces were united; and finally, to fight the last battle in a position in which his total ruin was inevitable had he been beaten.
“All the probabilities of victory were in favour of the French. The combinations were excellent, and every event appeared to have been provided for: but what can the greatest genius perform against destiny? Napoleon was conquered.”
Gaspard Gourgaud, The Campaign of 1815; or,
A Narrative of the Military Operations which took place in France & Belgium during the Hundred Days
(London, 1818), p. vi.
You can read Gourgaud’s book, which includes Napoleon’s detailed observations on the campaign, for free on Google Books.
For more about the Battle of Waterloo, see the National Army Museum’s Waterloo 200 online exhibit and the excellent series of posts on Adventures in Historyland.
If you want a quick summary, the Royal Engineers Museum has produced a handy infographic. For perspectives on the French loss, see “Waterloo – Bias, Assumptions, and Perspectives” by Allan Douglas on Napoleon.org.
And if you wonder what might have happened if Napoleon had gone on to fight another battle, read Napoleon in America.
Shannon Selin is the Canadian-based author of Napoleon in America, which imagines what might have happened if Bonaparte had escaped from Saint Helena in 1821 and wound up in the United States. She blogs about Napoleonic and 19th century history at shannonselin.com. Follow her on Twitter @ShannonSelin.