Waterloo, a British Victory?

Peter Kingdon Booker June 2015

It has always been accepted in Britain that the Battle of Waterloo, on Sunday, 18 June 1815 was the battle at which British troops led by the Duke of Wellington defeated the French led by Napoleon Bonaparte. As Wellington had attended Eton for four years of his boyhood, it is further said that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. No one denies that Wellington´s generalship was outstanding, and that his determination to hold the position of the allied army at Waterloo was crucial in Bonaparte´s defeat. But it is far from the whole story.

When Bonaparte had been forced to abdicate in April 1814, he had been exiled to Elba, a small island off the northwestern coast of Italy. In the meantime, the great powers (Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia) had convened the Congress of Vienna. It was the job of the Congress to resolve the international problems raised by more than 20 years of European warfare. Britain insisted that France should be represented and the delegates of many smaller nations (eg Spain and Portugal) were also present.

Bonaparte of course escaped from Elba on 26 February, 1815 to begin what historians call the Hundred Days (it was actually 111 days), between the date when Bonaparte arrived in Paris and the date when Louis XVIII was proclaimed king for the second time (8 July, 1815). The Allies pledged to fight on until Bonaparte was defeated, and it was significant that it was Bonaparte the outlaw who was the enemy, and not the French nation. This tiresome interruption happened well before the Congress had finished its work.

One of the resolutions which the Congress had already made was that the Kingdom of the Netherlands should be formed of the old Netherlands, together with what we now call Belgium and Luxembourg. And so, emerging into the Hundred Days was a very big United Kingdom of the Netherlands. This fact had influence on the conduct of the Waterloo Campaign. The amalgamation took place because Britain declined to allow France to control the port of Antwerp, which would therefore come under the control of the Dutch, and many of the French speakers of Belgium, and particularly Brussels, were unhappy with this solution. It became a point of military importance that Bonaparte´s troops should not enter Brussels and so upset these arrangements. This one fact determined that Wellington should make his military stand in front of the city of Brussels.

Another international issue which bore on Wellington´s conduct was the general British distrust of Prussia and its plans for expansion. Prussia saw itself as the leading German state, and aimed to acquire territories in the old Holy Roman Empire (Westphalia, the Rhineland, East Frisia, Altmark Saxony and Posen). Prussia even had designs on the personal Kingdom of George III, Hannover. Britain´s position was that she was not prepared to reduce one continental power, France, at the cost of raising another, Prussia. This issue lay behind the general ill feeling between the two allied armies involved in this campaign. Prussia naturally assumed that all German troops would fight under Prussian colours. Britain, on the other hand, insisted on having some German troops under Wellington´s command, mainly because his army was not big enough. At all events, Britain was the paymaster, and had some power to insist on this matter. Some 14 000 Saxon troops were not prepared to fight under Prussian command, and mutinied before the battle and were therefore unavailable. This event perhaps should have indicated to the Prussians that not everyone was delighted at the prospect of becoming Prussian. The general British desire to diminish the importance of their allies may be responsible for Wellington´s attitude after the battle and subsequently.

Contemporary British cartoons from the early summer of 1815 portray a bloodthirsty Bonaparte allied with Death and the Devil. In one of them, he potshots the dove of peace, saying, Away from my sight, Peace. Thou art hateful to me. In another, the Paris mob carries severed heads on pikes, which was the traditional British view of the French Revolution, while Bonaparte looks on from a balcony marked More Horrors; Death and Destruction. Bonaparte had hinted that he would return to France with the violets, and another cartoon shows Bonaparte´s life in cartoon allegory. It is based on Bonaparte growing up on the dunghill, then changing to the imperial sunflower, becoming the Elba fungus, and lastly transforming into Corporal Violet.

ABBA in their hit song Waterloo! told us that At Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender, but this is of course wrong. Bonaparte was defeated and left the battlefield to return directly to Paris. The campaign could not finish until the outlaw had been apprehended, and so the Waterloo campaign lasted until after the allied armies had entered Paris, and Bonaparte had given himself up to Captain Maitland of HMS Bellerophon at Rochefort on 15 July, 1815. Indeed, Bonapartist resistance did not finish until September and the Treaty of Paris was not signed until 20 November, 1815, well after Bonaparte himself had arrived at his island prison of St Helena.

For the Battle of Waterloo itself, Wellington commanded 70 000 troops and had another 23 000 available in other locations. Of the 70 000, 35% were British, 20% Dutch and Belgian and 45% were German. The only sense therefore in which this victory could be described a British victory was that Wellington himself was British (in fact Anglo-Irish). Even so, if the Prussian Army under Blücher had not arrived in the afternoon of the battle, it is highly probable that Wellington´s force would have been swept away. In total, the allied armies were 210 890 men, of which 73% were either Prussian or German. If we apply a national label, it was therefore a German campaign even though one of its commanders was British.

Bonaparte´s efforts were frustrated by subordinates. His most effective and indispensable support as Chief of Staff had been Marshal Alexandre Berthier, Prince of Neufchatel and Wagram. Hopelessly compromised between the Bonapartist and Bourbon regimes, however, Berthier had lost his mind, and on 1 June, 1815 had thrown himself from an upstairs window and was killed. As a replacement, Bonaparte appointed Marshal Soult who was to make more than one blunder in the new campaign. Marshal Ney played his part in losing the battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo through impetuosity and lack of resolution; and the newest Marshal, Grouchy, failed to use his military sense during the Battle of Waterloo, when the presence on the battlefield of his contingent of 30 000 men would have swayed the result in favour of the French.

The beginning of the campaign saw Bonaparte storm up to the Belgian frontier with the aim of defeating the Prussians and the British separately, before addressing the problems posed by the Austrians and the Russians. His force of about 100 000 was adequate to deal with each of the four allies separately, but inadequate if any two should combine. Bonaparte detailed Ney to push back the Anglo-Dutch-German army under Wellington, and to occupy Quatre Bras on Friday 16 June, while Bonaparte himself with the main French army attacked the Prussians under Blücher at Ligny, just to the east of the eventual battlefield at Waterloo, although out of direct sight from it.

Ney was late in his assignment, and intelligent disobedience by the Dutch Colonel Rebeque allowed the allied army to continue to reinforce the crossroads piecemeal; this resistance was crucial to allied success, and could have been overcome by more aggression on the part of Marshal Ney. At the same time, Ney summoned a force of 30 000 men under d´Erlon to his aid; Bonaparte called d´Erlon back again, and the upshot was that d´Erlon´s 30 000 men spent the whole day marching to and fro without engaging the enemy. This poor performance on Ney´s part was compounded by poor staff work by Soult, who should have left no doubt in d´Erlon´s mind of his orders. At the end of the day, the French under Ney should have pushed forward, and certainly on Saturday 17 June Ney should have made an earlier effort to press the retreating allies; but Ney did not move until the afternoon, and allowed the allies to assume their positions at the battlefield of Waterloo in relative peace. Bonaparte too was guilty of not pushing the Prussians hard enough after they had been defeated at Ligny. He delegated the job to Marshal Grouchy, who was to push northeastwards, to keep the whole Prussian army away from the field of Waterloo. With obedience to orders which were in effect nonsensical, Grouchy pushed northwards and attacked one Prussian corps (Thielemann) while the bulk of the Prussian army marched unhindered towards the battlefield at Waterloo. His orders, translated, were: Head for Wavre in order to draw near to us and then push the Prussians before you to arrive at Waterloo. Bonaparte himself must bear the ultimate responsibility for Grouchy´s failure to understand and act on clear orders, but Chief of Staff Marshal Soult does not escape blame on this issue.

It is nowadays generally accepted that if the Prussians had not intervened midway through the afternoon, then Wellington´s allied force would have been swept away and defeated. Wellington himself always maintained that the Prussians turned up in force only by about 19h00 in the evening. Eyewitness accounts suggest that they were attacking in force in the half hour after 16:00. This time difference became an issue of importance in Wellington´s effort to diminish the importance of Prussian intervention in the battle.

The front of the allied position was protected by Hougoumont manor house on the allied right, La Haye Sainte in the centre and Papelotte on the left. Each of these strongpoints was held by German troops. Wellington deployed his front on the reverse slope behind a crest. Bonaparte planned to attack the allied right in force, so that Wellington would commit his reserves to the defence of Hougoumont, after which the French would attack Papelotte in force, and roll up the allied army towards the sea. At one point, the north gate of Hougoumont was pushed open and about 30 French infantry rushed in. The gate was forced shut, and the invaders were eliminated. Wellington later declared that the success of the battle turned on the closing of the gates at Hougoumont.

At around 13:00, Bonaparte saw in the distance the approach of the Prussians. They were about three hours away from the allied left wing, and for the French, decisive action became urgent. Following the bombardment of the allied line, the French infantry charged Wellington´s line and nearly broke through. The French were sent flying by the enthusiastic but undisciplined British heavy cavalry, who in turn found themselves in the French lines on exhausted horses. It was the turn of the French cavalry to attack, and they mopped up the British cavalry and then charged the allied infantry squares up to twelve times. At about this time, La Haye Sainte fell to the French because the King´s German Legion defenders had run out of ammunition; French artillery batteries advanced to La Haye Sainte and from this close position, caused immense damage to the allied line.

This point was a true crisis in the battle. It is alleged that Wellington said something like: Night or the Prussians must come. And in fact Bülow´s corps was pushing the French out of Frischermont and Plancenoit soon after 16h00, and were directly behind the French right wing. Bonaparte had to devote considerable numbers of troops to holding their advance. There was a struggle at Plancenoit involving the Imperial Guard, and at the same time, Zieten´s corps reinforced the allied left wing, allowing Wellington to reinforce his centre. Bonaparte sent forward the Middle Guard to pierce the allied line. Attacking in column, the Middle Guard was cut down by Dutch and British musketry volleys. The shout went up from the French La Garde recule, something which had never happened before. French morale broke, and the allied line advanced and swept the French back into Genappe, where Prussian cavalry took possession of Bonaparte´s carriage, as he escaped on horseback. He did well to flee. It is true that the Russians in 1945 would have executed Hitler if they had captured him. Similarly, if the Prussians had caught Bonaparte, they would have executed him. Wellington and Blücher met at Belle Alliance Farm, which would be a good name for the battle, thought Blücher. But Wellington would have Waterloo.

Bonaparte´s carriage was presented by Prince Blücher to the Prince Regent, who sold it. The entrepreneur who bought it made a fortune from displaying it all over Britain. There is a contemporary cartoon showing an excited British public clambering all over this vehicle, much to the distress of an observing Frenchman. The carriage was eventually destroyed in a fire at Madame Tussaud´s in 1925.

In his famous Waterloo Despatch, written on the day after the battle, Wellington hid the facts that he had been slow to react to news of the French advance; that he had not timely ordered reinforcements to Quatre Bras; and that he had not supported Blücher at Ligny as he had promised. He said that the advance of the Prussians had begun to take effect around 19h00 in the evening. This was the grand deception. In fact, the Prussians had been making their presence felt from about 16h00 onwards. Wellington would defend his view to the end of his life, and would accept no challenge to it. It was this false record that has led to the false historical view that the Battle of Waterloo was won by a British army. Bonaparte said on his prison island of St Helena: Ah! Wellington ought to light a fine candle to old Blücher. Without him, I don´t know where His Grace, as they call him, would be; but as for me, I certainly would not be here. Bonaparte himself was aware of the deception, and knew that the allies had been saved only by the Prussian intervention.

But even after the battle, allied troops had to invade France, occupy Paris and capture Bonaparte the outlaw. The allies had to reduce over twenty-five French fortresses across northern and northeastern France.

The total number of troops involved in the allied effort was 210 890, of which the 32 418 British comprised 15%; the Germans and Prussians together accounted for 73%; and the remainder were Dutch 12%.

The battle was subject to many displays and panoramas during the 19th century, but the longest-lived was created in model form by Lt William Siborne (1797 – 1849). His Large Model was commissioned by the United Service Museum. In order to be as accurate as possible, he consulted widely and his enquiry among eyewitnesses in the allied army was perhaps the first circular letter ever used. He asked where their formation was at 19h00 and what French formation was in front of them. He took immense pains to corroborate and cross-check. He even consulted the Prussian War Ministry, and so it cannot be said that he misrepresented the Prussian view. Siborne´s collection of eyewitness accounts is the best record that we have of the battle, and it is currently housed in the British Library. He spent eight months making an accurate survey of the ground and created over 80 000 lead soldiers to portray the battle at 19h00 in the evening of 18 June, 1815.

From his researches, Siborne constructed the Large Model, which showed how far the Prussians had advanced by 19h00 on the evening of the battle. Not only would Wellington not visit Siborne´s model, but he continued to deny that the Prussians had been as far forward; he refused all attempts on Siborne´s part to come to an agreement on this issue. The Model was completed by 1838, but despite having commissioned it, the United Service Museum would not pay for it, even when Siborne attempted to placate the Great Man by removing 40 000 Prussian soldiers in line with the story propagated by the Waterloo Despatch. Despite his impressive work, Siborne never received any recognition, and the lack of the promised financial support wrecked his personal finances and eventually his health. Peter Hofschröer in his book Wellington´s Smallest Victory acknowledges the fact that Siborne and his research were essentially rubbished by Wellington and the military establishment; that Siborne was cheated out of the profits that his historical research warranted; and that Siborne´s finances and health were ruined by the opposition of the military establishment. The way in which the truth was suppressed was indeed shameful.

In his afterlife as the Grand Old Man of British politics, Wellington lived on his reputation as the British General who had won the Battle of Waterloo while in command of the heroic British army. Nothing could be done in Britain without his agreement; he was a political and military colossus. The army itself, as the Crimean War laid bare, was kept in an unmodernised state, and it was essentially not fit for purpose, mostly because nothing could be done to it without Wellington´s permission. And because it was the army which had won the Battle of Waterloo, it was already in a state of perfection. The re-examination of the numbers and of the details of the Waterloo Campaign shows that it was not a British campaign at all, but principally a German one. In later life however, the Duke of Wellington would allow no one to challenge his view that Waterloo was a battle won by British troops led by a British commander.



Arthur Bryant (1954)

The age of Elegance

Tim Clayton + Sheila O´Connell (2015)

Bonaparte and the British (propaganda in the age of Napoleon)

Ian Fletcher (2007)

The Waterloo Campaign

Peter Hofschröer (1999)

1815 The Waterloo Campaign vols 1 + 2 

Peter Hofschröer (2004)

Wellington´s Smallest Victory

Elizabeth Longford (1971)

Wellington: The Years of the Sword 

Elizabeth Longford (1975)

Wellington: Pillar of State 
AG Macdonell (1934)

Napoleon and his Marshals