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.
When he heard the news that France’s Napoleon Bonaparte had crossed the border into what is now Belgium, Britain’s Duke of Wellington was at a big party in Brussels, the most famous ball in history. Many of the finest dandies in the British army were dancing the night away with their girlfriends or wives at the the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball when Wellington received the news.
The Battle of Quatre Bras
Wellington ordered Picton, one of his best subordinate generals, to march south as fast as he could to try and hold the crossroads at Quatre Bras. Meanwhile, he would try and confirm the movements of the Prussians and attempt to join forces so that, together, they might overwhelm Napoleon.
But by the time Wellington’s men got to Quatre Bras in enough force, Napoleon was already giving the Prussians a good beating at Ligny, and there were elements of Napoleon’s army pressing up the roads of Brussels at Quatre Bras.
The British were unable to go and help the Prussians to the extent that they might otherwise have done, however, because they were by then involved in their own battle at Quatre Bras.
Napoleon’s plan was working. He had occupied the Prussians and his troops, led by the formidable Marshal Michel Ney, were confronting Wellington at Quatre Bras.
But then things began to go wrong. Napoleon sent General Charles Lefèbvre-Desnoëttes to reinforce Ney with 20,000 men. Lefèbvre-Desnoëttes, however, marched backwards and forwards, never joining Ney and never re-joining Napoleon to attack the Prussians. Consequently, Ney was desperately under-resourced when he faced Wellington at Quatre Bras.
Wellington was very distrustful of many of the elements of his army. He called it an infamous army, and considered it very weak and ill-equipped. Two-thirds were foreign troops and many of them had never fought under his command before.
Consequently, Wellington approached the Waterloo campaign with caution. Not only was he uncertain about the army under his command, but it was also the first time that he’d come up against Napoleon.
Napoleon’s critical error
On the night of 16 June, it was clear that the Prussians had been driven back. Therefore, though Wellington had held his own against Ney, he knew he couldn’t stay there because Napoleon could have swung around and smashed into his army’s flank.
So Wellington withdrew, a very hard thing to do in the face of the enemy. But he did it very effectively. Ney and Napoleon made a terrible mistake letting him withdraw so easily.
Wellington marched his men 10 miles north, through terrible weather, from Quatre Bras to Waterloo. He arrived at a ridge that he’d identified the year before while surveying the landscape for useful defensive features.
The ridge, which is just south of the village of Waterloo, is known as Mont-Saint-Jean. Wellington had decided to retreat to the ridge if he couldn’t hold the enemy at Quatre Bras. The plan was to hold them at Mont-Saint-Jean until the Prussians could come and help.
Napoleon had missed a trick by allowing Wellington to withdraw to Mont-Saint-Jean. It was foolish of him not to attack Wellington as soon as he’d destroyed the Prussian army.
The day after the Battle of Ligny, which saw Napoleon defeat the Prussians, was a wet and miserable one and Napoleon didn’t take the opportunity of hitting Wellington’s troops as they pulled back to Waterloo. It was a big mistake.
Nonetheless, as Napoleon’s men pulled their guns slowly across the muddy terrain towards Waterloo, he remained confident that he could hit Wellington. He was also confident that the Prussians were now eliminated from the battle.