This article is an edited transcript of The Battle of Waterloo with Peter Snow on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 24 January 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
On 18 June 1815, the day of the Battle of Waterloo, Britain’s Duke of Wellington woke up at 3am. The first thing he did was write to his mistress, saying, “I’m feeling fairly confident about the battle, but you may wish to head to the Channel, get on a ship and head back to Britain, just in case”.
At 6am he mounted his horse, Copenhagen. He would spend the next 16 hours in the saddle.
At the end of the battle, when Wellington finally dismounted, Copenhagen gave him a kick. By then the duke had managed to get just nine hours’ sleep during the previous 72 hours, and spent 57 of those in the saddle. It was an extraordinary physical performance. Far more impressive, it must be said, than Napoleon Bonaparte’s.
Though the two adversaries were the same age, 46 (Wellington was three months older), there’s no question that, by Waterloo, Napoleon was past his best.
He’d been defeated in Russia and in the Battle of Leipzig and had lost some of the shine and flair that had characterised his career.
In fact, Napoleon would spend most of the Battle of Waterloo behind the front line, sitting in a big chair and watching what was going on.
He left a lot of the decision making to two relatively second-rate generals, Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult and Marshal Michel Ney. Ney was a notoriously reckless, hot-headed character and yet Napoleon left him to manage most of the command and arrangement of the Battle of Waterloo. That was perhaps Napoleon’s biggest mistake.
Nonetheless, despite his declining physical capacity, not least his piles, which made sitting on a horse rather unpleasant, Napoleon was seen riding up and down the front line and remained enormously popular with his troops.
Wellington’s final deployments
Having risen and mounted his horse, Wellington started making his final deployments.
Interestingly, his second-in-command, the Earl of Uxbridge, who was in charge of his cavalry, asked him if he had a plan. Wellington replied:
“Well, Bonaparte has not given me any idea of his projects. As my plans depend on his, how can you expect me to tell you what mine are?”
The plan, it seems, was simply to fight a defensive battle and respond to situations as they arose.
Wellington had 70,000 men; about 50,000 infantries, just under 15,000 cavalry and about 150 guns – roughly half the number of guns that Napoleon had.
Napoleon was a gunner, had trained as a gunner. He once said that “it is with guns that one makes war”. He was going to blast a big hole in Wellington’s lines, and Wellington knew it.
Wellington placed most of his infantry behind the crest of Mont-Saint-Jean, a ridge near Waterloo, so they were hidden from the French.
Thirty per cent of his army were British and only 7,000 of them were Peninsular war veterans. So only one in 10 of Wellington’s troops were his trusted veterans, who had followed him across the Peninsula.
He made sure that experienced units were mixed in with inexperienced units and that foreign units were mixed in with British units, so there was less chance of collective panic taking hold and ripping through his army.
The front line was only about 3,000 metres long, so Wellington, in the saddle all day, could be everywhere – wherever the action was hottest. Waterloo was one of the last great battles in which the action was compressed into such a tiny bit of land.
Nothing more than eating breakfast
After dreadful rain all night, Napoleon awoke to a mercifully sunny morning, had breakfast, then summoned his generals together. He expressed his confidence in no uncertain terms, telling them that Wellington was a bad general and that the English were bad troops. “This affair”, he said, “is nothing more than eating breakfast”.
Napoleon declared that they would go straight at Wellington. No mucking about, no manoeuvres, no clever tactics. He decided that they would start off with his grande batterie.
Eighty of Napoleon’s guns were lined up facing the Mont-Saint-Jean ridge, behind which Wellington’s men were positioned. At 11.50am the grande batterie opened fire and the Battle of Waterloo commenced.