Thursday, May 18, 2023

Background Briefing (Not a Boring Post ... No, Really!)

Nassau troops at Hougoumont during the Battle of Waterloo
Jan Hoynck van Papendrecht 
While I was doing research for the next chapter in my novel of the Waterloo campaign, it struck me that many of you might not know the broad outline of that campaign. Ya know, what the ossifers like to call "the big picture."

So today, I am going to remedy that.

If you've been following along, you know that in March of 1815, Napoléon Bonaparte escaped with a small band of followers from the island of Elba. He had been installed as the ruler of that place by the victorious European powers after his first abdication. The use of the word "first" might give you a clue as to what happened next.

That small band of followers advanced on Paris, growing into an army as they did do. It is rumored that Napoléon sent a letter to Louis XVIII, King of France, telling him not to bother sending him any more troops as he had more that enough for the moment. You see the King was sending troops of the Royal Army to stop Napoléon. Thing is though, most, if not all, of those men had formerly been in the Imperial Army of Napoléon himself.

Things sucked in France in 1815, the nobles who had fled the revolution had returned and many wished to set the clock back to 1789. Land had been taken from them (and the Church mind you) and given to the people to have as their own. Many of those nobles (and yes, the Church too) wanted that stuff back.

Unemployment was rife, after all France had been on a war economy for over 20 years and there was no need for the manufacture of weapons, cannon, uniforms, and all the other various and sundry things needed by an army arrayed against the whole of Europe. (Well, most of it anyway.)

Businesses had been shut down and with the army shedding thousands of troops, there were no jobs for those former soldiers. So the return of Napoléon seemed a good alternative to the King and all those nobles.

I reckon that most people, but not all, had forgotten of the hardships of campaigns, the thousands of deaths, and the general turmoil which had engulfed most of Europe for 25 years. 'Tis only natural, people tend to remember the good times, not the bad times. (You know they had their share ...¹)

At any rate, Louis fled Paris with his supporters (having no desire to see if the Parisian mob would treat him as they had treated his brother, Louis XVI, who had "sneezed into the basket²" in 1793) and Napoléon Bonaparte was once again hailed as Emperor. That would last for roughly a hundred days (hence the label Les Cent Jours attached to all of my posts in the series).

We've covered the very early stages of the campaign when Napoléon's Armée du Nord, crossed over into the United Netherlands on the 15th of June, 1815. That day was mostly skirmishing and maneuvering, the 16th would see two battles being fought, we're in the midst of those two battles now: Ligny and Quatre Bras.

Map of the area where the battles were fought.
These two battles were where the campaign was lost, Waterloo itself was simply the final act. Not that Napoléon would have lost anyway, but by the time the sun rose on the 18th, the French had only a slim chance of victory.

But they still had a chance.

(Source [modified])
In the map above, we can see that the blue circle, marked with an "N," is the position Napoléon hoped to achieve in the initial battles. That is, between the armies of Wellington and Blücher. Napoléon's army outnumbered Wellington's army, it also outnumbered Blücher's, as you can see below:

Napoléon: 124,000–126,000

Wellington: 107,000
Blücher: 123,000
Total: 230 000

Together they had a significant numerical superiority over Napoléon. The Emperor couldn't afford to let the two combine. On the 16th he accomplished that, but that separation wouldn't last.

The red arrow marked "1" is the path of retreat Napoléon wanted the Prussians to take, he dispatched Marshal Grouchy and perhaps a third of his army to push Blücher in that direction. The arrow marked "2" is the path actually taken by most of Blücher's army.

While French scouts did report large numbers of troops retreating along arrow "1," those in fact were stragglers and deserters, not as numerous as reported. In the meantime, old Blücher (he was 73, not old by today's standard - said the 70-year old - but old in those days) took the bulk of his army north, towards the town of Wavre.

The orange arrow marked "3" is the retreat path Wellington chose, towards Brussels. Though he didn't lose at Quatre Bras, the Prussian retreat from Ligny forced the Duke to fall back.

In essence, Napoléon had achieved his initial objective, split his enemies. He had, however, deceived himself as to the scope of the Prussian defeat (for such it was, Napoléon's last victory) and assumed that the Prussians were finished for this campaign.

He was sadly mistaken.

The map above shows the general movement of the three armies from the 15th to the 18th of June. I hope you will use this as a guide while reading the rest of the posts in this series.

Something is definitely squirrelly with Blogger (the host of this blog). As of 1900 EDT on Wednesday, that day's post had garnered less than a hundred views (oh my faithful readers!) Yet the number of views for the blog itself was at 6,403. Hhmm, what's up with that?

I don't care, I ain't in it for the page views, nope. As long as I enjoy writing, and two or three of you keep reading, I'll keep at this blogging thing of ours.

Adieu my Chanters, see you tomorrow.

¹ Musical reference, what band, what song?
² A euphemism for being executed by guillotine.


  1. A very good idea to post such an outline Sarge, both maps bring back good memories of long ago with NAW from SPI......... :)

  2. I had a pretty good picture in my head, but the diagrams are useful, thanks for that.

    1. I was writing and I realized that I knew what was going on and the context, but not everyone would. Even for those who do, like yourself, a handy reference helps.

  3. Was Louis XVII the executed Dauphin?

    1. Yes, but there is some dispute in the manner of his death. Apparently tuberculous was given as the cause of death, though at the autopsy one of the doctors was stunned at the number of scars on the young boy's body. While being held prisoner he had apparently been tortured. So he wasn't executed outright, but he really was slowly executed through neglect and torture.

  4. This overview does help, thanks.
    I'd ignore the blogger count and just keep responding to comments. Heck be happy that blogger (google) has not shut you down for not supporting the ruling cabal!

    1. At least once a month it seems the spambots come out in force and screw up the statistics. It's something I've learned to live with.

  5. I find the maps very useful, and the history fascinating. Thank you. Blogger ... like the "browser wars", there were survivors who had to make changes that were not in either their own or their fans interests, and they struggle onwards.

    1. The browser wars, that brings back memories.

  6. Thanks for filling in an embarrassing deficiency in my exposure to Napoleonic era events. Sadly, "if it didn't happen here, or we were not involved" I have shamefully ignored way much history.

    Maybe if all them furriners had names I could pronounce and remember it might have been different.
    John Blackshoe

    1. The names thing, oh boy, I get it. I've tried to pick names that an Anglophone wouldn't have too much trouble with, but ...

  7. Thank you Sarge! That was an incredibly helpful background. One question (always with the questions): You note that Napoleon deceived himself on the retreat of Blucher. That my patchy memory recalls, this was not typically something Napoleon was prone to do. Was this wishful thinking, a lack of true actionable intelligence, or had Napoleon just degraded by this time in his abilities?

    1. Two factors - bad intelligence and Napoléon wanting it to be the case. The Waterloo campaign was not the Emperor at his best. I think in his heart he knew that he had very little chance of success and tended to see things which just weren't there. Overly optimistic perhaps. Napoléon was no longer a young man, twenty plus years of campaigning wore him out. So your surmise is pretty much on point.

  8. As you post, I follow along using Google Maps satellite view plus I drop down to ground level for the "drive-by" view. Fascinating to see the ground over which this history occurred!

    1. I am a huge fan of Google Maps street view, I use it constantly for my historical posts. Like you say, it is fascinating to see the ground from this level. Almost as good as walking it!

  9. Thanks for the background, it really helps to understand what was happening and how bad the screwup really was. Having the Prussians go north-northeast instead of just northeast really screwed with the plans.

    As to Blogspot, lots of blogspot bloggers have been complaining about the service over the last three weeks. Makes me wonder what Three-Letter-Agency (of which I include the DNC) is messing with or colluding with Google.


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