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June 18, 1815, was one of the most momentous days in world history, marking the end of twenty-two years of French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. On the bloody battlefield of Waterloo, the Emperor Napoleon and his hastily formed legions clashed with the Anglo-Allied armies led by the Duke of Wellington -- the only time the two greatest military strategists of their age faced each other in combat.
With precision and elegance, Andrew Roberts sets the political, strategic, and historical scene, providing a breathtaking account of each successive stage of the battle while also examining new evidence that reveals exactly how Napoleon was defeated. Illuminating, authoritative, and engrossing, Waterloo is a masterful work of history.
The Waterloo Campaign began in earnest at 3.30 a.m. on Monday, 12 June 1815 when the Emperor Napoleon, exhibiting none of the torpor and lack of decisiveness that his supporters later claimed afflicted him, left Paris after a farewell dinner with his family and was quickly driven north in his carriage, crossing the Belgian border with an army of 124,000 men a mere three days later. He had only been in France for three months, having landed at Fréjus near Antibes from his island exile on Elba on 1 March.
Napoleon had initially hoped to regain his throne from the legitimate Bourbon monarch of France, King Louis XVIII, without a war, but on 13 March the rest of the European powers, then in congress at Vienna, had denounced him as an outlaw and a 'disturber of world repose'. Once Louis had fled Paris on 18 March and Napoleon had entered the Tuileries Palace the following day, it was perfectly clear to all that the Emperor would have to defeat at least four nations' armies to survive in power. Nor was time on his side.
Napoleon's strategy was really dictated to him by the fact that although vast enemy armies were being despatched towards France, they could only arrive at its borders piecemeal and so could, he hoped, be defeated one by one, through his employing the superior generalship that had allowed him to win all but ten of the seventy-two battles he had fought in his career.
Although it is very difficult to be accurate as to exact troop strengths throughout this period, Napoleon had roughly 20,000 troops under Marshal Davout in Paris, 85,000 guarding France's frontiers, 10,000 putting down the royalist revolt in La Vendée in western France, and 123,000 in the Armée du Nord. To add to these 238,000 effectives, around 115,000 French troops were either on leave or absent without leave, 46,000 conscripts were in training at depots, and there were National Guard units garrisoning border fortresses who could have been called upon were Napoleon to be granted more of his most precious commodity of all: time.
To march north quickly, defeat either the Anglo-Allied armies under the Duke of Wellington or the Prussian army under Marshal Gebhard von Blucher, Prince of Wahlstadt, would have the immediate effect of re-establishing la Gloire. As one historian has summarised Napoleon's plans: 'His object was to defeat one or the other before they had time to concentrate and then, forcing both back on their divergent communications, to enter Brussels as a conqueror. Thereafter... the Belgian common people would rise against the Dutch, the war-weary French take heart and unite behind him, the Tory government in London fall, and his Austrian father-in-law [Emperor Francis II], deprived of British subsidies, sue for peace.'
There were other factors that imparted a sense of urgency to Napoleon's actions, principally the knowledge that British regiments were on their way back from America, no fewer than 200,000 Russians were marching towards France along with 210,000 Austrians, and a Spanish! Portuguese force of around 80,000 might also take the field in the south. Napoleon therefore formulated a bold plan, as one might have expected from a commander who, though he had tasted catastrophic defeat in Russia in 1812, terrible reverses in 1813, and the humiliation of abdication in 1814, nonetheless remained one of the most formidable strategists of world history.
Even though over 700,000 Allied soldiers were being mobilised to defeat him, only a fraction of these were guarding Brussels roughly 116,000 under BlUcher and 112,000 under Wellington and the Emperor had crushed six enemy coalitions in the past. Furthermore Wellington needed to leave some of his troops garrisoning Brussels.
The logistical, supply and communications problems involved in coordinating the coalition's efforts would, Napoleon hoped, be exacerbated by certain political differences that had emerged between them in Vienna. Whatever the odds against him, he was certainly not about to give up the chance of ruling France again, and of one day handing on his throne to his beloved son Napoleon, the King of Rome.
France had been exhausted by almost continual warfare since 1792, and although she despised the Bourbons and failed to support them on Napoleon's return, only a quick victory would encourage the majority -- and especially the middle classes impoverished by twenty-three years of war -- to return to his standard. Accordingly he set the nation to work to prepare for the coming invasion. Parisian workshops had been busy throughout April, May and the first half of June turning out over 1,200 uniforms per day and manufacturing twelve million cartridges. Muskets were produced at the impressive rate of 12,000 a month, with another thousand a month being repaired and reconditioned.
By the time his Armée du Nord crossed the River Meuse and captured Charleroi on Thursday, 15 June, it was as fine and as well-equipped a force as Napoleon had commanded in years ...Waterloo
Posted October 11, 2009
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