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…”
And Private John Lewis of the 95th Rifles wrote home to say, “…[t]he rain fell so hard that the oldest soldiers there never saw the like…”
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.
An article in the Evening Standard suggests that a volcanic eruption in Indonesia changed the climate and provided Wellington the advantage. We know the year 1816 was called “The Year Without Summer.”
“A volcanic eruption in Indonesia contributed to Napoleon Bonaparte’s downfall at the Battle of Waterloo, scientists have claimed. New evidence suggests electrically-charged volcanic ash altered the Earth’s weather in 1815, causing a June downpour of heavy rain across Europe. The wet and muddy conditions played a key role in the French emperor’s defeat at Waterloo, an event that changed the course of European history. Two months before the battle, the volcano Mount Tambora erupted on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, killing 100,000 people and sending huge amounts of ash 62 miles into the atmosphere. Electrified ash “short circuited” the ionosphere, the upper atmospheric layer responsible for cloud formation, the new research has shown. The resulting “pulse” of cloud formation led to heavy rain across Europe, according to lead scientist Dr Matthew Genge, from Imperial College London . . .”
Dr Genge said: “Victor Hugo in the novel Les Miserables said of the Battle of Waterloo: ‘an unseasonably clouded sky sufficed to bring about the collapse of a world’.
Great Historical Events That Were Significantly Affected by the Weather. Part 11: Meteorological Aspects of the Battle of Waterloo
The American Meteorological Society tells us, “The weather had important effects on the battles. On the 16th, in a battle between part of the French army and part of the Prussian army, at the village of Ligny, about 40 km south-southeast of Brussels, thunderstorms connected with the passage of the aforementioned warm front made the use of muskets impracticable.
“However, the most important weather effects developed on the 17th and during the night from the 17th to the 18th. Violent thunderstorms occurred early in the afternoon of the 17th close to Ligny, while Napoleon was in the process of attacking the Anglo–Dutch force at Quatre Bras. The rains turned the ground into a quagmire, making it impossible for the French artillery and cavalry, and even for the infantry, to move across the fields in extended order, as required by the emperor. The French advance was so greatly slowed down that Wellington was able to withdraw his lighter force to a better position near Waterloo. Thus, the Anglo–Dutch force was almost completely preserved for the decisive battle of the next day.
“The rain showers of the 17th and the night from the 17th to the 18th softened the ground to an extent that, on the morning of the 18th, Napoleon and his artillery experts judged that the battle—the Battle of Waterloo—could not be started before a late hour of the forenoon [1130 local standard time (LST)]. Until the arrival of the Prussian force, about 1600 LST and later, the battle tended to go in favor of the French, but the Prussians turned the tide of the fighting.
“The paper quotes judgments of military historians on the significant effects of the weather. Some historians believe that, had Napoleon been able to begin the attack earlier on the 18th, the battle would have ended in a French victory.”
I loved the info about the battle at Waterloo.
I cannot imagine the type of warfare these men must have experienced. With modern technology, a person does not have to look into the face of someone they kill. What torturous nightmares these soldiers must have experienced!!!
Very interesting article. IMO, the Lord intervened via the weather. The realities of war are so difficult for me to contemplate…
God does work in mysterious ways.
Thank you for sharing your research with us. I found this history interesting. I’ve read so many Regencies with descriptions of the war and Waterloo in particular, it is very real to me. And yes, the horrors the soldiers brought back with them…..heartbreaking.
As a military brat and military wife, “war” has always been held in “respect” for its changing humanity in our household.