Wednesday, 26 October 2011

A curious question, but irrelevant. Or perhaps not?

It may not be a burning issue of our times, but I’ve often wondered who won the Battle of Waterloo. 

Now, don’t get me wrong: I subscribe to the consensus view that Napoleon lost it. The question is whether it was won by the Duke of Wellington’s British and Allied army, a view much favoured in this country, or by Marshal Blücher and his Prussians, a view which is of course merely vile, self-serving propaganda.

Meeting of the victors: but which of them clinched it?
Putting it another way, ‘could Wellington have won without Blücher or did the Prussians make all the difference?’

It’s been interesting to read Andrew Roberts’ book Napoleon and Wellington and get a new insight on the question.

Here’s the sequence of events.

On 16 June 1815 the French fought Wellington’s forces at Quatre Bras (indecisive) and the Prussians at Ligny (French victory on points). 

Funnily enough, at Ligny Napoleon revealed the problem that was to beset him throughout this, his last, campaign: a series of monumental errors of judgement. In this instance he sent one of his generals, d’Erlon, marching with his infantry between Quatre Bras and Ligny and then back again, with the result that in the end those forces took no part in either battle. The presence of d’Erlon at Ligny might have made Napoleon’s victory decisive, knocking Blücher’s army right out of the campaign; as it was the Prussians were able to retreat and regroup.

In the course of the battle, Blücher himself was unhorsed and then ridden down by French cavalry, leaving him concussed. This was crucial: Blücher, who was a little mad, was a staunch Anglophile and committed to supporting Wellington, but while he was out of action, command devolved onto his number 2, Gneisenau, who was an Anglophobe and, oddly enough, not mad at all. Gneisenau regarded the British – strictly the English – as disloyal schemers, a view it’s hard to believe anyone could hold of my fine people.

Now what surprises me is that Gneisenau didn’t take the opportunity to get well out of the way, retreating eastward towards Prussia. Instead, he went North which meant he could stay in contact with Wellington. When Blücher came round he fully endorsed Gneisenau’s line of retreat and again assured Wellington that he could count on Prussian support. 

Wellington, in the meantime, had pulled back to an area known as Mont St Jean. Later, after it had taken place, he gave the battle he fought there the name of the nearby village of Waterloo. 

He’d already reconnoitred the place and decided that if he was going to have to fight, he'd want to fight there. There are dips in the ground where he could adopt his favourite tactic, of having the bulk of his men lie down on the ‘reverse slope’, i.e. behind the ridge of a hill, where they were relatively safe from cannon fire. They would suddenly emerge just as attacking enemy troops were approaching the top. This meant that having spent an unbearably tense time charging uphill at an apparently empty line, they would find themselves faced at the last moment by a lot of men with guns. I imagine that must have been dispiriting.

Wellington had also obeyed his other ruling principle: he’d made sure that he had clear lines of retreat towards the coast. That had always been his style: he would sometimes retreat even after victories, preferring to protect his men than expose them unnecessarily, not out of any particular love of them (he often called them the scum of the Earth) but because he knew Britain would be parsimonious about sending him many more.

The fact that he took such care over his lines of retreat was one of the reasons Gneisenau trusted him so little. He expected him to decamp for the Channel ports and England if ever things turned bad, and he was probably right, though Wellington was probably not being disloyal so much as judicious. 

So when the 17th of June dawned, Wellington was in position on Mont Saint Jean, with his retreat to the coast fully planned and ready to go at a moment’s notice. But he didn’t retreat. He stayed in place all day and didn’t budge. That in turn meant that on the 18th, he was ready for Napoleon. 

The battle started at 11:30 and by 1:30 the Prussians were already arriving on the field, drawing away Napoleon’s reserves to the point that, though he could give Wellington a very bad time for four hours, he was never able to land a decisive blow. At 5:30, the battle swung against the French. At 7:00 the British-Allied forces began their advance; already being squeezed by the Prussians, the French Army broke and fled. The rest, as they say, is history.

Now the interesting point is that Wellington stayed put on the 17th when he could have gone. Roberts argues, and I’m sure he’s right, that he did that precisely because he knew that the Prussians would turn up. Had they cleared off, so would he. But because he knew they were coming, he stayed put, ready to fight the battle. 

In other words, the question ‘could he have won without the Prussians’ is irrelevant. Because he wouldn’t have fought the battle at all without the Prussians. A prudent general, it was only the absolute certainty of being able to count on them that made him take on Napoleon at all. 

Interesting if, like me, you’ve been irked at not knowing who won the battle. Of course, you might say that's hardly a key question for today, and I admitted as much myself at the start.  

But then again, is it really so completely irrelevant? We Europeans do after all face another burning issue today, the saving of the Euro. The French and the British seem to be at each other’s throats again. And, once more, it all turns on whether the Germans are going to throw their considerable weight into the fray on time.

No comments: