Tonight marks the 204th anniversary of the allied victory at Waterloo. Wellington later called his triumph a close and uncertain thing, something unbelievable had one not been there, and you will read some histories that so depict it. Yet in truth Wellington chose to fight where he did and when did, for he knew that while he had fewer men than Napoleon, he had the defensive position he wished, and most notably, he knew that a Prussian army was but several miles away (something Napoleon did not know). The Prussians were commanded by Field Marshal Eberhard von Blücher, the only man who had ever bested Napoleon in a pitched battle, the 1813 Battle of Nations that ultimately led to Napoleon’s abdication and first exile, though the emperor actually bested Blücher several times after that battle before his abdication.
Napoleon would later write that his field marshal that day, Ney, lost him the battle. In truth, Ney had the nerve that Napoleon had lost, evident even in the emperor’s defeat of the Russians at Borodino (Ney had eight horses shot out from under him at Waterloo, and afterward was hung, as he was the man who was supposed to arrest Napoleon when he first came back from Elba). At Borodino the Russian general, Kutuzov, who had born the brunt of Napoleon’s great victory at Austerlitz in 1805, played a stalling game, essentially holding up Napoleon while Moscow was being evacuated. At Borodino, 7 September 1812, Napoleon refused to throw his Imperial Guard at Kutuzov to crush the Russian army. Kutuzov escaped, and on 14 September Napoleon entered Moscow where its criminal element, released from prison by order of the Czar on condition that they set fire to the city, were effectively destroying any winter quarters that Napoleon could have hoped to have. Had Napoleon crushed Kutuzov, he perhaps could have saved a good bit of Moscow in the act. Napoleon’s great trump card, going back to Austerlitz, had been his Imperial Guard, who had never shown their backs to any enemy, and his hesitation to use them allowed Kutuzov’s escape, and by that time Kutuzov’s strategy of delay had succeeded (Kutuzov was probably outnumbered four to one by Napoleon’s Grande Armee),
At Waterloo, Napoleon outnumbered Wellington by about fifteen thousand men (70,000 to 55,000), yet had more cavalry, and far more canon. Wellington had more troops, but broken off some of his army to cover other routes of retreat or else he would have had nearly as many men as the French, but he knew that Blücher was near. Blücher and the Prussians had suffered defeat at the hands of Napoleon but two days previously at Ligny. Blücher’s chief of staff had wanted him to retreat eastward (which Napoleon had thought he had done), but Blücher instead ordered his troops north, to retreat toward Brussels, parallel to Wellington’s march. Blücher himself had been wounded at Ligny, his horse had been shot and pinned the field marshal under him for several hours. It was Blücher’s valet that saved him by covering him with a nondescript gray coat to hide his rank from the French as they passed by. Fortified with schnapps, Blücher resumed command on the 18th, bringing his 48,000 troops upon the French right late in the afternoon of the contest.
As at Borodino when Napoleon refused to use the Guard till late in the day, so at Waterloo Napoleon failed to act. Ney had implored Napoleon to throw the Guard into the fight. It was not till late in the day when Napoleon finally acted, but by then Blücher’s forward units were already engaging Napoleon’s right. The advance of the guard was broken with the arrival to the battlefield of some fresh Dutch battalions under the command of General David Chassé. The Allied counter attack broke the Guard’s advance, and the cry went up “La Garde recule. Sauve qui peut (The Guard retreats, each man for himself).” Ney contradicted that this had happened, but that the guard had instead covered much of the French retreat. Yet the Guard’s retreat, however it happened, was the prelude to a great route, the Prussian cavalry, far fresher than the British and their allies, pursuing the French till almost 11 that night.
As the sun set on the battlefield, Wellington and Blücher met at La Belle Alliance, the inn from which Napoleon had directed his last campaign. Ironically, when Wellington and Blücher met there they addressed each other in French, Blücher exclaiming “Quelle affaire!” Or, “Wow!”
Napoleon’s defeat brought an end to almost twenty-five years of war and unrest in Europe, and it would seem that the old order under the duke of Wellington and Prince Blücher (made a prince for his defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Nations) had crushed the revolutionary fervor of 1789. But few victories, even ones so decisive as Waterloo, can be looked at ever as final or absolutely decisive. I think perhaps Otto the Saxon’s triumph at Lechfeld in 955 may be the exception that proves the rule. Throughout history victors seldom obtain the domination that seems to come with such spectacular triumphs. Hannibal’s great victory at Cannae, the single bloodiest day in history till World War I, ultimately gained him nothing. The Roman Republic’s victory over Hannibal’s Carthage led in the end certainly to Roman hegemony in the Mediterranean, but as well to the corrupting influences of empire, and ultimately the end of the Republic. The list could go on. We can certainly see that the victors at Waterloo obtained peace for almost 100 years (the Crimean War and the short wars of German unification excepted), but the liberal and nationalist ideas of 1789 remained, and in the midst of the nineteenth century thrived. Indeed these things and their implications haunt the west still. But that is another entry.
This entry is to sum up my own belief that the pen is mightier than the sword, which to me puts the lie that the victors write the histories. Certainly victors do, but seldom have the vanquished lacked for apologists, even if for years their voices are drowned out. Certainly the forces unleashed by 1789 prevailed over Wellington, Castlereagh, de Maistre, and Metternich, though not in the short term. Thus, we should not ever shrink from pursuing what we believe true, just, good, and beautiful, even in the face of defeat, for no victory, save that of God, is ever final.