Saturday, June 18, 2011

Decisive Battles: Why NOT Waterloo, 1815?

196 years ago some 190,000 men; British, French, Prussian, Dutch, Belgian, Saxon, Bavarian, Polish, along with probably a smattering of every other nationality in central Europe outside the Austrian Empire had a very long and tiring afternoon in a patch of farmland along the edge of the Forêt de Soignes, near the village of Mt. St. Jean on the dusty road from Charleroi to Brussels.At the end of the day as any as 15,000 of them were dead and the twenty-six years of warfare between the forces of the government of France and much of the remainder of Europe were over; a peace that lasted, at least in western Europe, for another 75 years.

This day, the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, may also, perhaps, be the birthdate of the entire concept of the "decisive battle". In 1851, one Edward Shepherd Creasy published "The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World" which picked up with Marathon and ended with Waterloo. Creasy, a true Victorian, believed that Waterloo spelled the end of the intermittent bloodbath that had been western European history until 1815; the "end of history" as a later historian might have said. His approach has persisted among Western historians, and Waterloo is always cited when the decisive battles of the world are listed.

But I have not, and will not, write about it. This month's "decisive battle" is not one at all, but a famous engagement and one with an impact on the history of the time, the fight along the Little Bighorn River in Montana. I have several reasons for this, and the least significant is the most reasonable; that the Battle of Waterloo has already been written to death.If I had anything to add to the mountain of paper and pixels already dedicated to Waterloo I would. But it's not really that. In my honest opinion, as much as it was the end of the fighting of what we call the "Napoleonic Wars", the decision had been made more than two years earlier. Waterloo was simply the encore, the epilogue, to the long, sorry tale of monarchical Europe's effort to beat the French Revolution to death. The great battle was just the period at the end of the last sentence.

To consider it a stand-alone even is to not just misinterpret it but to distort the entire notion of a "decisive battle". The winter of 1812 was part of the decisive end of Napoleonic France, as was Leipzig, and the 1814 Campaign in France. Waterloo was just the shot in the head that put the dead man out of his misery.Why?

First, and the lesser reason of the two, was that Spain and Russia had already destroyed the old French Army, and what turned up at Waterloo was not the same organization. If the former artillery captain from the Brienne school had had his old army from Austerlitz, Wagram, Jena, or even Friedland things might have gone differently. But as much as the old master had lost - and his campaigns of 1814 were masterful, as good as anything in Italy or Austria - the former Grande Armee had lost more. What hadn't been frittered away in Spain had perished on the long, frigid roads back from Moscow.

The sword that Napoleon I drew to hack across the Dutch-Belgian frontier in June, 1815 was a brittle instrument, one that lacked many of the strengths of the French armies prior to the Hundred Days but that perpetuated many of the weaknesses. The highest commanders, the Marshalate in particular, were if anything, worse than ever, showing the worst effects of the Napoleonic Cult of Personality. While Napoleon did not do what he might have to win the day, his bobos Ney and Grouchy certainly worked hard to lose it. Special mention to General Reille, who allowed his corps to become entirely sucking into the subsidiary "Battle of Hougoumont", pulling more than 10,000 French soldiers away from the rest of the engagement in order to destroy a fortified outpost held by a couple of battlion's-worth of troopers.But the main reason is that in over twelve years Napoleon I had never found a military solution to the Allied Coalitions, he had no better plan in 1815, and a victory at Waterloo would not have worked, either. The French Army was possibly the most sophisticated technical and tactical instrument in Europe between 1803 and 1811. But without naval power the French military could no conquer Great Britain, whilst Britain remained active no permanent conclusion could be had to the continental wars, and between his personality, British gold, the political loathing of the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian autocrats for the French regicides, and the economic problems caused by the rapacious French indemnities (and the Continental System) Napoleon could not negotiate or buy himself lasting peace with Austria or Russia. He never figured out that fighting victories without a workable strategic plan were meaningless, and he couldn't figure out a plan to make the monarchies make peace with him.The grand tactical plan for the Belgian Campaign of 1815 was fairly sound; drive a wedge straight between the Allies, throw the Prussian back on the Rhine and the Briton into the Channel. But that was really the extent of Napoleon's thinking, so far as we can tell. There was no larger plan, no means of dealing with the inevitable eastern European forces that would be arriving soon, no attainable political solution to the Alliance. With the alliance unshaken, and with the massive Allied Army arriving, a repeat of the Battle of the Nations was almost a foregone conclusion.So even if he had won at Waterloo, the Russians and Prussians were already marching, the Prussians would simply have sent more armies, and the British would have refused to capitulate. The Russians and Austrians would not have allowed a separate peace, and although Waterloo made the end emphatic, the end would have come later rather than sooner in any case.

So; is Waterloo a "great battle"? Yes. Was it decisive in ending a phase or a campaign? Yes. But was it "decisive" in being the single blow that ended the Napoleonic Wars?

No; that end had already come, in the bitter snows of December, 1812 and in the waters of the Elster in October, 1813. The Army that sustained it destroyed twice over, in 1815 the First Empire was dead.

It just took until the morning of the 19th of June for the corpse to finally lay still.Interestingly, for a battle as celebrated as it is, Waterloo has produced very little in the way of reflection in art. The Victorians produced any number of vivid battle paintings, almost all of the full of the most vivid and melodramatic nonsense.

There are no songs I know of, and but two works of literature of any note; one the segment of Byron's poem "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" which, like all things Byronic, has not fared well in this bare-steel-and-glass age. The other is an immense portion of Victor Hugo's novel of revenge and justice, Les Miserables. The workmanlike prose of Hugo is much more to my taste, and so it is with a portion of this I leave you; from Chapter 2 of the first book of Volume II, "Hougomont"

"This orchard is sentient, like others, in the month of May. It has its buttercups and its daisies; the grass is tall there; the cart-horses browse there; cords of hair, on which linen is drying, traverse the spaces between the trees and force the passer-by to bend his head; one walks over this uncultivated land, and one's foot dives into mole-holes. In the middle of the grass one observes an uprooted tree-bole which lies there all verdant. Major Blackmann leaned against it to die. Beneath a great tree in the neighborhood fell the German general, Duplat, descended from a French family which fled on the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. An aged and falling apple-tree leans far over to one side, its wound dressed with a bandage of straw and of clayey loam. Nearly all the apple-trees are falling with age. There is not one which has not had its bullet or its biscayan. The skeletons of dead trees abound in this orchard. Crows fly through their branches, and at the end of it is a wood full of violets.

Bauduin, killed, Foy wounded, conflagration, massacre, carnage, a rivulet formed of English blood, French blood, German blood mingled in fury, a well crammed with corpses, the regiment of Nassau and the regiment of Brunswick destroyed, Duplat killed, Blackmann killed, the English Guards mutilated, twenty French battalions, besides the forty from Reille's corps, decimated, three thousand men in that hovel of Hougomont alone cut down, slashed to pieces, shot, burned, with their throats cut,--and all this so that a peasant can say to-day to the traveler: Monsieur, give me three francs, and if you like, I will explain to you the affair of Waterloo!"


Don Francisco said...

Not having a strategy to beat the coalitions he faced was one problem, but I do think being Napoleon was a bit of problem too. I remember reading about the events leading up to his 1812 campaign, it was not inevitable that he would invade Russia. The impression I was left with was that there was no-one of his capability and intellectual stature working with him that could hold him back. His enemies were as overawed by him as his friends.

With such a remarkable series of victories leading up to 1812, perhaps the French could be forgiven for thinking themselves invincible, as happens so often in history.

I think you have some mileage in these (not) Decisive Battles posts, just as thought provoking as the decisive ones!

FDChief said...

DF: He's always been my ultimate "Why Being Your Own Commander-in-Chief Is a Bad Idea" poster-child. As much as part of his problem was that the British, Austrians, and Russians (either together or serially) would never let him alone, he seems to have started many of his wars for what seem to me pretty poor reasons, or no real reason at all - just because he was irked about something or even because he seems to have been bored. And because he was head of state, and an autocratic one, at that, there never was anyone who could talk him out of his bad ideas.

And I think part of the lesson here is the Darwinian effect of fighting the same people. Part of his magic was that when he emerged from the primordial soup of the Revolution his enemies were pretty damn awful. But decades of beating the Austrians, Russians, British, and everyone else he could find had the effect of eliminating the truly rotten commanders so that by the 1810s the worst he was facing were merely bad, and several, such as Moore and Wellesley for the British, Schwartzenberg of Austria, de Tolley, von Bülow, were actually fairly decent.

I'm glad you're enjoying these. This month's genuine "battle" piece is another less-than-decisive one but one that, at least for me, has a genuine controversy at the heart of it.

Lisa said...

I appreciate your argument that Waterloo was simply the coup de grace.]

But simply winning was the chap at the end, rife with implications. Could he have possibly squeezed into a uniform and wielded a weapon? He is happy for the ersatz experience of the viewer.

Ael said...

It wasn't just the leaders that improved. The opposing armies also became national armies. In many ways it was WW0.

FDChief said...

Lisa: I know - isn't that a great picture? I was reading the Hugo quote and trolling the web for a picture of the battlefield today and this round mound popped up. He just seems the 21st Century version of Hugo's peasant tourist. Wonder if the poor bastard climbed the big hill?

Ael: They had to - the French levee en masse forced the other European nations to raise armies far larger than the old professional mercenary style of Fredrick's time. Same pressure, tho. If you didn't get better, you went under.

The interesting thing about the Naploeonic Wars were that they had a similar effect at reshaping the political map as their 20th Century counterparts, and a lot of that had to do with the effect of forcing the old monarchies to go to their peoples to get mass armies. Before 1789 the army was the king's plaything. After 1815 the army was often the "school of the nation", and often, the creator of the nation (as in the case of Germany and Italy...).

Lisa said...

He IS splendid, in that his form perfectly mimics that of the mound.

Poor chap -- I don't think he climbed it (unless there was a concessionaire at the summit.)

tagryn said...

* Your point about Napoleon's lack of a long-term plan is well taken. After almost a year on Elba, though, its doubtful he was worrying much about that. I suspect he had to know that, while he lived, he would always be viewed as a threat by the entire European monarchy, so the exile may have been viewed as a mix of "deal with tomorrow's problems tomorrow, let's get him gone today" and "once the French have forgotten him, we can quietly take him out." In any case, a life of quiet retirement was unlikely to be the Emperor's lot in life, given how he'd lived it to that point, nor would he have been satisfied with that (as events proved out).

* AFAIK Wellington's forces also weren't of the quality he'd commanded in the Peninsular War in Spain, being much more of a hodgepodge of nationalities than what he'd had there. That's probably one reason why the battle was such a near-run thing until Blücher finally arrived. Then again, Napoleon didn't have allies to call on, so he needed his army to be of a higher caliber than his opponents to have a decent chance of victory, whether this came from N's personal wizardry or the overall quality of his men.