The Battle of Waterloo
Did the Weather Change History?
Background: The Battle of Waterloo was fought thirteen kilometers south of Brussels between the French, under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Allied armies commanded by the Duke of Wellington from Britain and the 72-year-old General Blücher from Prussia. The French defeat at Waterloo drew to a close 23 years of war beginning with the French Revolutionary wars in 1792 and continuing through the Napoleonic Wars. There was a brief eleven-month respite when Napoleon was forced to abdicate, exiled to the island of Elba. However, the unpopularity of Louis XVIII and the economic and social instability of France motivated Napoleon’s return to Paris in March 1815. The Allies soon declared war once again. Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo marked the end of the Emperor’s final bid for power, the so-called ‘100 Days,’ and the final chapter in his remarkable career.
Why did Napoleon lose?
Wellington described his victory as a ‘damned near-run thing.’ The battle was closely fought, and either side could have won, but mistakes in communication, leadership, and judgment led, ultimately, to the French defeat.
Communication was key. The fastest way to communicate was by sending messages with horseback riders, but this created a delay in instructions being carried out, and there was a high chance of the messages being intercepted and never arriving. Given the numbers of troops involved and the distances involved, potentially fatal results could easily occur if communications failed, and Napoleon did not have any system in place to ensure that the orders had been received.
In his choice of leaders, Napoleon’s judgment was poor. Marshal Grouchy was said to be a great General, but he was out of his depth in this battle. He showed little initiative and was tardy in his pursuit of the Prussians, giving them time to regroup. Ney also proved unreliable as a leader, failing to take advantage of his situation in the precursory battle at Quatre-Bras and then in leading the cavalry, unsupported by infantry and artillery, at Waterloo.
The Battle of Waterloo took the lives of 47,000 soldiers and occurred in an area as small as 6.5 km by 3.5 km.
For an hour by hour breakdown of the battle’s events, visit BBC History (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/battle_waterloo_01.shtml). And, of course, the Waterloo 1815 website has magnificent details (http://www.napoleon-battles.com/).
One of the elements outside Napoleon’s direct control, but one that brought about many of his woes was the weather from June 16-18, 1815. Both the French and the Allies experienced the same conditions, and the blame for the loss most likely can be attributed to the fact that Napoleon’s arrogance and inflated self-confidence stood in the way of reason.
The area around Waterloo experienced heavy rains on June 17 and the morning of the 18th. Some military strategists suggest that the soaked ground might have delayed the battle and would have given the Prussian army the time to join forces with Wellington. One must remember that even Victor Hugo spoke of the influence of weather on the battle’s outcome. In chapter 3 of Les Misérables, the commentator says, “If it had not rained in the night between the 17th and the 18th of June, 1815, the fate of Europe would have been different. A few drops of water, more or less, decided the downfall of Napoleon. All that Providence required in order to make Waterloo the end of Austerlitz was a little more rain, and a cloud traversing the sky out of season sufficed to make a world crumble.”
Dennis Wheeler and Gaston Demarée’s article, “The weather of the Waterloo campaign 16 to 18 1815,” cites several passages from those who experienced the battle firsthand.
From the letters of Private William Wheeler of the 51st Kings Infantry comes this excerpt, “…[a]nd as it began to rain the road soon became very heavy…the rain increased, the thunder and lightning approached nearer, and with it came the enemy…the rain beating with violence, the guns roaring, repeated bright flashes of lightning attended with tremendous volleys of Thunder that shook the very earth…”
Napoleon planned to attack at 8 A.M., but some experts estimate that it was closer to eleven before he struck. Besides the soft ground slowing the progress of Napoleon’s heavy artillery, one must take into consideration the concept that cannon shot was designed to fall short of the target and then skip along the ground for the most damage. In muddy conditions, the weapon’s effectiveness was compromised. The cavalry could not move forward easily. Captain Cotter of the South Lincolnshire regiment wrote of, “…[m]ud through which we sank more than ankle deep….” The cavalry charge was reduced from a gallop to a canter. A damp mist rose and mixed with the guns’ smoke. However, the winds did not carry away the “veritable fog of war.”
Finally, the French infantry advancing towards the Anglo-Dutch lines reportedly crossed through fields of wet rye. Muskets and rifles loaded prior to the march would likely misfire because of damp powder. Napoleon’s assault would have suffered more than would have Wellington’s defensive lines under such conditions.