December 6, 2007 cameron

The Napoleon Bonaparte Podcast #33 – The Battle of Waterloo Part 1

On this episode we discuss the first two major battles of the 1815 Waterloo campaign – Quatre Bras (16 June) and Ligny (16 June). The Battle of Quatre Bras was fought near the strategic crossroads of Quatre Bras, Belgium, on 16 June 1815 between Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch army and the left wing of the Armee du Nord under Marshal Michel Ney. The Battle of Ligny was fought on 16 June 1815 when French troops of the Armee du Nord (Army of the North) under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte, defeated a Prussian army under the command of Field Marshal Blucher. Ligny was Napoleon’s last victory. Blucher’s defeated army survived to play a pivotal part two days later at the Battle of Waterloo.

Battle map of the Waterloo campaign:


This show is based on David’s book “Napoleon For Dummies”.


Comments (61)

  1. Aragao Rambelli

    Do I have to pay to hear a podcast ?
    All I get is the survey thing (which I have already done)

  2. Simon Foster

    Today I achieved something truly fantastic I managed to pass on the Napoleon bug to my friends sister. After asking what books to read on the subject there was only one answer I could give. Somebody will find the Napoleonic Bible (Napoleon For Dummies) in their stocking come Xmas day. This is a disease that needs to be spread.

    P.S Great Show.

  3. Cameron

    Aragao, sorry about the annoying survey promo, I think it’s been playing up. I just deactivated it so you should be able to hear the show without any problems!

    Simon, Napoleon truly is the gift that keeps on giving. 🙂

  4. Simon, ‘the Napoleonic Bible?’ I LOVE it!

    Which leads me to what can only be described as shameless promotion of the book. If you’d like to see historians rewarded for their efforts and if you’d like to see Wiley do a ‘Julius Caesar for Dummies,’ then by all means please find someone on your shopping list who would like a good read on Napoleon! If all of our listeners bought just one copy this season…! 🙂



  5. The shows just keep getting better. It is a shame the material is running out – almost makes you wish Napoleon himself could have kept going for a little longer. I think Wellington’s attendance at Lady Richmond’s ball is one of those little details that makes history so fascinating. He must have known that he was in the centre of great events and that his actions would be scrutinised minutely. I can’t help wondering if he was remembering the example of Sir Francis Drake, who made a point of finishing his game of bowls before attending to the threat of the Spanish Armada. I don’t know how others see us, but the English themselves like to think of themselves as phlegmatic. Wellington may have been consciously playing up to this.

  6. Alan

    Dear Sirs

    I have listened to every episode of the Napoleon Podcast and i have found it very interesting and informative.
    The one disappointment is Cameron constant snide comments regarding anything British.
    He first tried to make fun of Nelson, The man who defeated the French Navy and basically ended any hopes of them being a Naval power.
    And now he is making Lord Nelson out to be some kind of sub standard lucky General.
    This is the man who drove the French out of Spain and then defeated Napoleon himself at Waterloo.
    Whether he likes it or not Nelson was a very skilled and successful leader and i am sure he had Napoleons respect even if is not lucky enough to have Cameron’s.
    Otherwise fantastic show.

  7. Alan

    Sorry I must have been drinking too much of Davids medicine when i wrote my last post 🙂
    Dear Sirs

    I have listened to every episode of the Napoleon Podcast and i have found it very interesting and informative.
    The one disappointment is Cameron’s constant snide comments regarding anything British.
    He first tried to make fun of Nelson, The man who defeated the French Navy and basically ended any hopes of them being a Naval power.
    And now he is making Lord Wellington out to be some kind of sub standard lucky General.
    This is the man who drove the French out of Spain and then defeated Napoleon himself at Waterloo.
    Whether he likes it or not Wellington was a very skilled and successful leader and i am sure he had Napoleons respect even if he is not lucky enough to have Cameron’s.
    Otherwise fantastic show.

  8. Thomas Richardson

    Not related to Waterloo, but:

    I notice that several websites assert that Napoleon is thought to have had Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). With Cameron’s interest in the person of Napoleon, it might be interesting if he and David would explore this part of Napoleon’s psychology.

  9. Cameron

    Snide? Alan, I’m just trying to add some realism to the hype the British have been trumpeting about these guys for the last 200 years. I’m never attacked them, just pointed out some interesting tidbits about them. As you’ll see in our next episode, your “Lord Wellington” (I prefer to think of him as Arthur) did NOT defeat Napoleon at Waterloo. His ass was saved by an old Prussian.

  10. Antonio

    Great show, as usual!

    Arthur did NOT defeat Napoleon at Waterloo? Cameron, now you reminded me of that famous Iraqi propaganda minister.

    Anyway, can’t wait for the next episode and to comment about Arthur’s ass and the old Prussian who saved it.


  11. Wes

    Really loved the show guys!!!!!!!!!!! Can’t wait for the next episode. If the British would have kept their long noses out of other poeple’s busines, we probably would not have had half the wars that Cameron and David have been discussing the last year. If the Brits had made peace with Napoleon, or kept the peace they had with the Treaty of Amean (spelled way wrong) everything would have been different and I blame the British. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA

  12. Will

    Well, as far as I know, Wellington was about to loose until the Prussians came along. Just in the nick of time.

    Every country has a certain amount of hype built up around a famous military leader from their past. Over time the hype tends to drown out the reality of what they actually did. The good overwhelms the bad and myth is created.

    Is this necessarily a bad thing? Not really. Every country needs a certain amount of myth regarding it’s founders to help build a national identity. To build a place for themselves in the world. Without myth, a nations identity is difficult to manifest.

  13. Alan

    I feel you are fighting British hype with more hype for Napoleon.
    Of course Napoleon was a fantastic soldier and leader.
    But the constant portrayal of him being the victim of a disgraceful injustice by the big bad British is just laughable.
    There were massive failings on both sides to resolve things.
    But let me put it this way.
    How many of these major battles were fought on French soil ?
    The fact that his armies were always in other countries fighting does not exactly seem to be the actions of a man who longed for peace.
    Anyway life is all about opinions 🙂
    Great show

  14. Michael

    Colin you wrote – “It is a shame the material is running out – almost makes you wish Napoleon himself could have kept going for a little longer. ” Almost makes you wish? Come now Colin, if the powers of Europe had not tried to invade France and throw Napoleon out again, there would have been no Quatre-Bras, Ligny, or Waterloo, and thousands of lives would have been spared.

    Antonio – if Blucher had not shown up at precisely the right moment, Napoleon would have eventually forced Wellington to withdraw from the field of Waterloo. More a failing on Grouchy’s part rather than Napoleon’s in trying to keep Blucher’s Prussians away from the battlefield.

    Alan – I agree there were blunders on both sides throughout the Napoleonic period resulting in wars, however, the reason Napoleon’s armies were “always in other countries” is so that he did not have to fight other countries’ armies on French soil, dictating to the French people what type of government they should have and forcing an unwanted absolute monarchy back onto the throne.

    and we all know what they say about everyone having opinions…. 🙂

  15. Cameron

    Alan, if “there were failings on both sides to resolve things”, what were Napoleon’s? As far as I can see, he continually signed peace treaties with the enemies of France and they continually broke the terms of those treaties. Can you make list of the treaties Napoleon broke?

  16. Come on Cameron. You think going to the ball and cricket match indicate Wellington was a bad general. Well, he met Napoleon, and Napoleon LOST. Good enough for me.

  17. Cameron

    Andy, as I said, in the next episode you’ll see that the outcome between Wellington and Napoleon at Waterloo was not that clear cut. If anything, Napoleon probably ended their battle in the stronger position. It was the late arrival of Blucher’s Prussians that tipped the balance and caused the collapse of Napoleon’s defense. And I do think that Wellington’s decision to go to a dance and, consequently, give his troops bad orders (which they had to ignore to save their lives), is a sign of a very poor leader.

  18. Cameron

    Oh and, Andy, I’m still waiting for you to point out the peace treaties that Napoleon was responsible for breaking!

    Will – having myths is fine and dandy but I think it’s about time the British acknowledged their part of the blame for the wars against France during Napoleon’s reign. It’s not healthy for us to accept the demonization of any individual or race of people as justification for military conflict which has its roots elsewhere. It continues to happen today with the popular analysis of WWII, Vietnam, and Iraq, and I think it diminishes us as a species.

  19. With regard to Wellington’s attendance at the ball. You are in Brussels in 1815. It is dark. There are no telephones. What exactly are you supposed to be doing?

    Now lets look at the overall strategic position. The allies have more military resources and thanks to Great Britain have overwhelming financial resources. They are going to win sooner or later. Napoleon’s only hope is a fool’s hope that by inflicting some spectacular defeats he can force a settlement. He has already failed to deliver a knock out blow to the Prussians.

    At Waterloo he needed to defeat Wellington completely and utterly and knock him out of the war completely. A technical victory with the French gaining the field but the British retreating in good order to Brussels would have been of very little use to Napoleon. There were still Russian and Austrian armies untouched.

    And even then his position in France was not that secure. I don’t think that a couple of indecisive military victories would have kept his popularity up for long in the face of conscription and heavy taxation. Outside France Napoleon was detested. Any conquests he made would have obliged him to garrison and occupy hostile populations.

    If I were in Wellington’s shoes, I think I would have allowed myself a dance.

  20. David

    Kudos to both of you (Cam & David). I have thoroughly enjoyed each and every episode so far, and this one ends with your best executed “cliffhanger” yet! I’m soooooooo eagerly awaiting the next Waterloo episode. You’ll be pushing out that episode today, right?…..right?…..right? Lol!

    Have a great Christmas, David….and try not to spend too much time at church, Cam. 😉



  21. Alan

    Cameron you crack me up mate you really do.
    If Australia was at war with Japan and was invaded and defeated and had a peace treaty forced upon them.
    And lets not pretend it was anything otherwise.
    Then of course the first chance the defeated country gets they will break it.
    Of course Britain was at fault but so was France.
    They were all at it in one way or another.
    But the bottom line is Britain continually outmaneuvered the French and won hands down in the end.
    Even with our poor generals.

  22. Michael

    Andy – you just completely oversimplified the debate we’re all having here – Wellington met Napoleon and Napoleon lost? Yes, but not because of the “brilliant” generalship of Wellington…as Napoleon once said, it all came down to a bit of luck in the end, and that lucky stroke was Blucher’s appearance on the battlefield at the end of the day. Marshal Grouchy had been charged with engaging the Prussians and keeping them away, and that in the end is what caused the French to lose at Waterloo.

    Cameron, what do you imply by popular analysis of WWII? I know where you’re going with Vietnam and Iraq, although without getting into a debate I know you and I would whole heartedly disagree on those two confilcts, but as far as WWII goes – who was demonized? Surely not the brutal Imperial Japanese and/or Nazi Germany. I understand not all Germans were Nazis, but the nation as a whole was complicit…other than the Jewish people being systematically exterminated, who was demonized?

    Alan, if you mean by “outmaneuvered”, the British out spent the French as paymasters of European coalitions, then yes, they did win in the end.

  23. Wellington and Napoleon had different objectives. Napoleon had to win a decisive victory against every force sent against him. Wellington could afford a tactical defeat so long as he could retreat in reasonably good order to Brussels. Remember that Napoleon would have to fight for every large town in the Netherlands. The population by this time detested him. Holland had been overun by revolutionary troops who had met with only token resistance. Now every large town would have been an obstacle to Napoleon. Only 15 years later Brussels was able to defy the Dutch army sent to capture it. Napoleon would need to leave garrisons to hold down Belgium and Holland if had succeeded in driving the British out. The Dutch would probably have breached the dykes to keep the French out. British command of the sea would enable them to land an army anywhere so all the sea ports would need to be strongly defended.

    Basically Napoleon was already pursuing a fool’s dream by the time he entered Belgium.

    Wellington knew the strong position he was in and the weak position of his opponent. I think that by the time the Prussians arrived Napoleon had already failed to deliver the knock out blow that just might have improved his hopeless chances a little.

    I can’t wait for the next installment.

  24. Cameron Reilly

    Michael – I think demonizing Hitler or Hirohito is just as foolish as demonizing Saddam or Bush. Surely it is more intelligent to try to understand the movitation and ambitions of these men that just decry them as “evil” or “madmen”? I am pretty sure Hitler didn’t think of himself as either of those things. If we aren’t able to calmly analyze the true facts and motivations of these leaders, we might never really understand the root causes of the atrocities committed during the wars they were involved in. For the human race to survive, it is my opinion that we need to evolve beyond this kind of propaganda.

    Alan – Let’s get a few things straight. The peace treaties “forced” upon the other European countries were the result of their defeat when THEY started wars again France! France didn’t start those wars. They defended themselves, won, signed a peace treaty, only to have those monarchs default on them over and over again. And what about Amien? What was Britian’s justification for breaking THAT treaty? So exactly where is Napoleon’s fault in all this?

  25. Cameron

    Colin – I think a responsible leader, knowing his army was being advanced upon by the greatest general of his time, would have been on the front lines with his troops, not in Brussles in the first place! Can you imagine Napoleon going to a dance when his armies were on the battlefield? It’s unthinkable. There’s no getting around it – Wellington screwed up. That’s not just opinion. As I mentioned in the last episode (quoting from David Chandler), the orders Wellington gave from Brussels were sending his troops in the wrong direction and it was only be disobeying them that they were able to save themselves.
    Now let me ask you – is that a sign of a good general? One whose subordinates need to disobey his orders because he is at a dance instead of being on the front lines?

  26. Cameron

    Thomas – ADD? According to Wikipedia, ADD “is characterized by a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity, as well as forgetfulness, poor impulse control or impulsivity, and distractibility”.

    That doesn’t sound like Napoleon to me at all. This is a guy who worked 20 hours a day for 20 years and was able to pick soldiers from his earlier campaigns out while on the front lines. He had a brilliant mind for details and seems to have had amazing retention.

  27. Sorry for the repitition in my posts above. For some reason the first one didn’t appear on my computer straight away and I thought it had been lost.

    Revolutionary France declared war on Britain and Napoleon also failed to comply with the details of and certainly breached the spirit of the peace of Amiens. So I think the hostilities between France and Britain at least were morally neutral. The Netherlands were overun by France. No question. His activities in the Iberian peninsula were hardly justified on the grounds of self defence.

    Even if Napoleon really was more sinned against than sinning, a sinner he certainly was.

    That Wellington’s subordinates were able to work on their own initiative in the light of their better knowledge of the situation shows that British military culture was flexible and allowed initiative. A good general shouldn’t need to be everywhere for his organisation to work effectively.

    But I say again, I don’t think that delivering a knock out blow to Napoleon as was actually achieved at Waterloo was ever what Wellington was planning. Simply holding him down and preventing a rapid advance was all that was needed. The allies would always win a war of attrition.

    But shall we all agree to postpone the Wellington versus Napoleon debate until after we have heard the account of the battle? So far all we can say is that as the armies approached Waterloo neither side was in precisely the position they would have chosen. Napoleon had failed to neutralise the Prussians and Wellington had failed to effect a junction with them. Points at this stage would be equal.

  28. Mutatis Mutandis

    There is a story that after the battle of Zama, which in effect ended the second Punic war, Scipio Africanus Sr. and Hannibal met for negotiations, and the Roman took the opportunity to ask his opponent whom he considered the greatest generals of history. The Carthaginian considered it for a moment and replied that he ranked Alexander the Great first, Pyrrhus of Epirus second, and himself third. Scipio, somewhat miffed, remarked that Hannibal had just lost the battle from him, and inquired how Hannibal would have deemed to rank himself if he had actually won? To which Hannibal replied that in that case, he would have considered himself the greatest general of history.

    It’s very probably apocryphal. But it does make the point that it is not just about winning or losing, you have to consider the context. The Napoleonic Empire consciously modeled itself on the Roman Empire; and with moderate justification in that there were some parallels in its scale, its richness of resources, its forms of government, its role as a law-giver and re-organizer of other nations, and its ultimate dependence on military success. And IIRC the French press was not averse to calling Britain the ‘modern Carthago’, which was intended as an insult but was not inappropriate in that both were maritime trading nations with a very modest field army, highly dependent on volatile alliances with (generously subsidized) others. It was also true that like the Punic wars, the Napoleonic wars were essentially about the conflict between an empire-builder and a trader, and their opposite interests. (Outside Europe the roles were actually reversed; there Britain was the empire-builder and France the trader.)

    The point is, of course, that if the Napoleonic wars were a re-run of the Punic wars, this time Carthago won. And I think that Wellington would have been justified if he had said that, having won against such odds, he could consider himself the better general. Reasonable expectations were that the French should win the wars. Napoleon came very close to victory, established an enormous empire, and then lost it all.

    The reason, as I see it, was that Napoleon did not respect the limits of the possible. His far-out ventures (Egypt, Spain, Russia) always ended badly because they outstretched France’s resources and his own ability to remain in control of events. Napoleon became a victim of his own legend, and the 100 days were just the most dramatic illustration of his unwillingness to acknowledge his own limitations.

    In contrast, Wellington was a naturally cautious commander who fought battles to win, not merely to be victorious; a realist who took limited risks to achieve limited goals. The Iron Duke was a capable diplomat and a respectable politician, but he did not have a the political, administrative, and literary talents of a Napoleon. He was, however, a better strategist and tactician.

  29. Cameron

    Colin – hey I agree that Napoleon wasn’t a saint. But let’s be clear about the Revolutionary Wars. The Declaration of Pilnitz, issued by Leopold II of Austria and Frederick William II of Prussia, called on European powers to intervene if Louis XVI of France was threatened. This was an act of war. THEN… Revolutionary France (obviously pre-Napoleon) declared war on Austria because they were agitating émigré nobles in Austria, especially in the Austrian Netherlands. THEN… after Louis was executed in 1793, as far as I know, Great Britain joined the coalition against France. Tell me if I’m wrong, but that’s my recollection of the sequence of events.

  30. Nicholas Stark

    I would have to agree with Cameron’s last post. Yes, the French were the ones who officially launched the war against Austria, but Prussia, Spain, and England joined of their own initiative. In addition, the forces of the First Coalition instigated fighting with the aforementioned Declaration of Pilnitz and the Brunswick Manifesto. For the expansion of the war, the Coalition is largely responsible. The French were only in Italy after the Austrians had invaded that country. For what reasonwere the Austrians in Italy? The Italian peoples had not attacked them, nor even allied themselves to the French which might have provoked the invasion. Many of the French politicians didn’t even want that first war; the declaration of war was opposed by Maximilien Robespierre and many of the Jacobins, but the disillusioned Girondins managed to get their way. Colin, I understand your point of view, but I cannot agree with your statement that “British military culture was flexible and allowed initiative.” Wellington was the senior officer, and as such the disobediance of the soldiers was insubordination. I do not consider insubordination to be the same as “being flexible.” To Mutatis Mutandis, I do not understand why you would include Egypt in your collection of Napoleon’s “far-out ventures;” was it not the Directory that ordered the invasion? And what would have been more “far-out”: a likely-to-succeed (and successful) Egyptian campaign or a near-impossible invasion of England? I would say that although I’m a bit skeptical of the justification of liberating Egypt, I can certainly say that it was a much more realistic thing to do than attempting a direct invasion of England.

  31. Cameron, I think you have everything correct in your sequence of events, but you have left out the French declaration of war on Great Britain on 1st February 1793. So the British joined the coalition nominally as a result of the declaration of war and not as a result of Louis’ head removal. The real motive for the conflict was the French occupation of the Netherlands giving France control of the whole Channel and North Sea coast with all its ports.

  32. Mutatis Mutandis

    My two cents: Don’t forget that before Napoleon, warfare in Europe was more or less continuous, with only occasional outbreaks of peace. The Congress of Vienna resulted in a relatively quiet century after the Napoleonic wars, but the history of Europe before it was much more tumultuous. The last Bourbon kings before the revolution all got involved in their share of the fighting. And then there were rulers such as Frederick II of Prussia, of whom Napoleon is claimed to have said (standing at his grave) “If this man were still alive, I would not be here.”

    If Napoleon was perceived as an aggressor and usurper, it was not because he got involved in a lot of fighting, but because of what he did with the occupied territory after the victory. He badly rocked the boat of standard European politics by indulging in wholesale political reorganization, everywhere he went, and by putting various more or less suitable members of his family on the thrones. By doing so he turned warfare from an appropriate pastime for the rich and noble, into an existential threat to the Ancien Regime and its ways. It was, in the eyes of European monarchs, just not the proper thing to do, and much worse than merely defeating them and taking a few chunks of territory. The post-Vienna relative peace came about exactly because warfare had acquired this dangerously revolutionary element.

    Therefore, the idea of a ‘peaceful coexistence’ between Napoleonic France and the other European monarchies is an illusion. Merely by existing, and by being successful, the “Napoleon system” would be a threat to the old monarchies, and this was unavoidable. We have the other example of the Cold War; for the communist dictatorships of the Warsaw Bloc the presence of the democratic West was always and unavoidably a threat to its continued existence, whether the West wanted this or not. Perhaps if rolls of barbed wire and concrete walls had existed in the early 1800s, a long-term peace between France and its neighbors would have been possible.

    To Nicholas: Wellington was not the type of commander who tolerated insubordination, but he was also a realist who understood that in warfare, unexpected things do happen. “It may frequently happen that an order may be given to an officer which, from circumstances not known to the person who gave it at the time he issued it, would be impossible to execute, or the difficulty or risk of the execution of it would be so great as to amount to a moral responsibility.” He expected from his officers that they would use their brains, orders or no orders. He had some good subordinates and managed to get rid of a few others.

    As for the invasion of Egypt, Napoleon indeed got orders to invade Egypt from the Directory — because he asked for them! It was his own initiative and the Directory agreed because it was already worried about the ambitions of this talented young general. It was a better plan than the invasion of Britain, but it was still rather unrealistic, as long as the Royal Navy commanded the seas. An European army could not live off the land forever in a place like Egypt, which did not produce suitable replacements for worn-out armaments and equipment.

  33. I think Mutatis is right about exactly what it was about Napoleon that spooked other countries. The prospect of a continent ruled by one man was not appealling to anyone.

  34. Cameron

    First of all, let me say I love the debate that’s going on here! Great to see many new contributors.

    And I agree that the other powers were concerned about his vision for a united Europe. The point David and I have continually tried to make, though, is just that Napoleon does NOT deserve the reputation of warmonger or tyrant. He inherited wars. He won them, signed peace treaties. The OTHER Monarchs broke those treaties, not Napoleon. He was the aggrieved, not the aggressor.

  35. Cameron, I am enjoying the debate too.

    How does Holland fit in with Napoleon not being a tyrant? He closed down a democratic assembly and replaced it with his brother as absolute monarch. Sounds pretty tyrannical to me.

  36. Oh my, I stay away from the site for a couple of days and return to find ‘le deluge!’ Not quite like the one that recently happened in my neck of the woods, and far more pleasant! I won’t try to respond to everything, but a few comments might be in order.

    First, regarding Egypt, it wasn’t really Napoleon’s idea, and he certainly didn’t have the power to demand such a major military undertaking. We’re not sure who first broached the idea, but it seems likely that it was Talleyrand. An invasion of England was out of the question, and the Directory wanted Napoleon out of the country. Napoleon wanted another successful military campaign, and if it led to comparisons with Alexander the Great, so much the better.

    And, Matatis, it was not a lost cause, even with the British fleet. Their control of the Mediterranean was not as complete as folks might think. And if Admiral Brueys had followed Napoleon’s orders regarding securing the fleet once they landed, Nelson would never have had his victory, Napoleon would have had a steady supply of men and supplies, and History might well have had a new Alexander in more ways than one.

    There is also the little matter that Talleyrand didn’t bother to tell Sultan Selim III of Turkey about French objectives. Even with the loss of the fleet, if the Turks didn’t send two armies to toss out the infidels, the campaign might have gone much better as well. There would have been no need to move into the Holy Land, no failed siege at Acre, no plague at Jaffa, etc. Napoleon could have consolidated his position in Egypt and who is to say what the ultimate result would have been.

    This doesn’t mean that General Bonaparte made no mistakes, or that he didn’t have great ambition, or that France should have been invading Egypt in the first place (though that didn’t stop the British). Its just to say that two major and unexpected problems, neither of Napoleon’s making, kept the campaign from having any real chance to succeed.

    And to lump it with Spain, Russia and perhaps others and use it to justify calling Napoleon a warmonger is absurd on its face.



  37. Regarding the relative generalship of Wellington, where he should have been, what he should have done, did he really win Waterloo, etc, etc, etc. Oh my, where to begin!

    I have no problem calling Wellington a good general. He was certainly better than most of his British peers, and would have been a good commander under Napoleon had he been born on the other side of the Channel. But to suggest he was as good as Napoleon at any level stretches reason beyond what I will accept.

    I’ll cut him a little slack on the Ball in Brussels, but not much. As Cameron said, the orders were messed up, and he should have been making a better effort to stay on top of things.

    Initiative and flexibility in the 19th century British army? Oh, please. If subordinates were used to taking their own initiative it was only because the method of selecting senior officers was so corrupt that incompetence was a serious problem. That was one reason that Wellington seemed so good: the others were so bad! I don’t think it was the Prince Regent who said ‘in every soldier’s knapsack is a marshals baton!’

    Of course, the army of the French Revolution had similar problems, given so many ‘vacancies at the top.’ That ultimately worked in their favor, as it made room for Bonaparte and others to rise, but it also allowed for some incompetent officers and far too much political involvement in military matters. But by the time we get to Waterloo, the edge in generalship clearly goes to the French.

    Unfortunately, as we saw a couple of episodes ago, some of that edge was lost in Napoleon’s selection of staff assignments (selections that, it must be said, stemmed largely from the tragic loss of Berthier). And in the last episode we saw the first really glaring example of what came as a result of the problem, namely de Erlon’s absolute inability to give a decisive and crushing blow to either the Prussians or the British. Mangled orders and massive egos conspired to diminish Napoleon’s victory that day. In my next book, ‘The Road to St Helena: Napoleon After Waterloo,’ I suggest that the battle of Waterloo was actually lost two days earlier with the deErlon fiasco. Add to that the question of Grouchy’s pursuit, and things have already turned bad.

    But, as we will see, there are other problems that pop up as well.



  38. Finally, for now, there is the question of what Wellington and Napoleon wanted and or needed out of this campaign. For Wellington, the question is fairly easy. It was suggested above that all he needed to do was to keep Napoleon from gaining a major victory, retreating (if necessary) in good order to Brussels or beyond. There is much truth to that argument, though he certainly wanted to gain glory by administering a major defeat to the Corsican Ogre.

    If you remove the Prussians from the scene, assuming that Grouchy actually does his job and keeps them otherwise occupied and then marches in support of Napoleon, it isn’t clear that Wellington will be successful in this endeavor. He could fall back on Brussels, but Napoleon could keep a sword at his back and exact a stern toll on Wellington’s men. Its not clear to me that he could hold Brussels or that he would try. As far as everyone hating Napoleon and the entire country rising up against him, don’t be so sure.

    But Napoleon might not have tried to chase Wellington into the sea. He certainly was not interested in regaining control of Belgium. His needs were quite different. He really wanted a major victory, and chasing first the Prussians and then the British from their respective fields would be just fine, thank you very much. He could then consolidate his forces and attempt to seek some kind of peace with the Allies. His position at home would have been quite secure, at least in Paris and the areas inclined towards the Empire. The Royalist areas would have continued to keep quiet, awaiting developments.

    Again, in my next book, I point out that this is what Fouché was actually hoping for. A victory by Napoleon would worry the Allies enough that they might be willing to accept his abdication in favor of his son, with Marie Louise as Regent. Napoleon might have been OK with that. Its also possible that he could have sued for peace and that they might have been willing to ‘put him on probation.’

    But I get ahead of events here. We’ll have the next episode out before Christmas, but its likely to be after the first of the year before we get into the post-Waterloo drama (which, did I mention, is the subject of my next book?). 🙂

    All the best to one and all,


  39. Spazman

    I’m surprised that no one has adressed Mutatis’ mistaken assertion that Wellington was a better general than Napoleon. First of all, as a tactician Napoleon was and is unrivaled. The battles of Austerlitz and Jena are proof of that. In addition, while as a strategist Napoleon lacked the perfection of Caesar, he was no slouch in that department either. Wellington only fought one battle against the Emperor himself and there he was only saved by the timely arrival of Blucher. There is a reason it is called the Napoleonic Era and NOT the Wellingtonic Era…

  40. Mutatis Mutandis

    I do have a problem with the idea that Napoleon only wanted “a major victory”. Maybe it is true, but if so it only strengthens my criticism of Napoleon as a military and political leader. For this is cloud-cuckoo-land stuff: It had not worked in 1813, so why would it work in 1815?

    The strategic position was still unchanged, i.e. France did no longer have the resources to fight a prolonged war against the coalition powers, and Napoleon could not be everywhere at the same time. The political situation was unchanged too, in that all the other European powers wanted to see Napoleon removed from power. A regency of Napoleon’s young son was an illusionary solution, as it was only too obvious who was going to be the power behind that throne. A comfortable retirement for Napoleon? It is indeed slightly unfair, but I can image that the other rulers would say: We tried that last year, and you can see what happened…

    From the French position, I don’t see that much of a point in the battle of Waterloo. It was futile attempt by Napoleon to cling to power. Even a major victory would not have solved the problem; it would have resulted in a longer war, but not in victory. Napoleon simply did not know when to admit defeat. His refusal to give up could have been called admirable fortitude in the face of adversity, if it had not gotten so many people killed. He should have remained in Elba, and maybe indulged in a political (instead of military campaign) to put his son on the throne of France.

    Waterloo makes much more sense from Wellington’s perspective. Napoleon needed to win ALL his battles; the coalition powers only one. Waterloo was “a close run thing”, but it was a reasonable choice. It was a good defensive position which had been selected beforehand, Wellington’s apparent neglect notwithstanding, and if the Prussians could join up the French would be outnumbered. As I said before, Wellington was a general who fought battles to win, not merely to be victorious.

    David, “to lump it [Egypt] with Spain, Russia and perhaps others and use it to justify calling Napoleon a warmonger” was not my intention. I don’t think Napoleon was a warmonger any more than, say, Louis XIV, or Frederick II. My point was that all Napoleon’s ventures outside the traditional battle grounds of West-European armies (which included, to its misfortune, Italy) were failures in the end. Egypt, Spain and Russia highlighted his weaknesses as a general: Lack of attention to problems of logistics, and an over-dependence on short-term tactical victories as a substitute for a long-term strategic plan. In all three cases, the stated goals of the campaign were unrealistic and unachievable; the emulation of the one Alexander was as far-fetched a goal as the hope of making the other Alexander submit. In all three cases, the French were driven out by opponents who did have a serious, or at least a better, strategic plan.

    That Egypt could have been a success if de Brueys had listened to Napoleon’s advice, is debatable. Maybe the battle of Aboukir would not have happened, or at least not in this form, but that hardly means the French navy would have been victorious. Nelson was a highly skilled fleet commander and his ships, on a one-to-one basis, were superior to their French equivalents because of better training and command. The Royal Navy was going to win control of the Meditteranean sooner rather than later; if not by defeating the French, then by forcing them to stay in port. In the end, Napoleon was in the same position as Rommel in 1941-1943: Tactical victories counted for little if the strategic position was untenable.

    The Hundred Days highlight this Napoleonic weakness, IMHO. Napoleon was once again hoping that a series of tactical victories would compensate for the overall weakness of his strategic position, and the lack of a long-term perspective. Sorry, but that was not going to happen.

  41. Extremely good points Mutatis. When I read about Napoleon my jaw often drops at the scale of his successes and his failures. But he was a gambler. A skilled, hard working and highly intelligent gambler and one with an amazing amount of energy and imagination. But at the end of the day a gamble is a gamble, and few gamblers end up rich.

  42. Andy H

    Love the podcasts guys. I had a napoleon marathon in catching up, but now have to wait eagerly like everyone else for the next episode;)

    Its really interesting to read the comments after listening to the shows, try to weigh the pros and cons of the arguments…

    Wellington a bad General? Well, I think his actions in Brussels are at fault. What he does in Brussels isn’t relevant – he shouldn’t have been there. I’ve got to agree with Cameron that he should have been with the army, but a blip doesn’t make him a bad general. He remedies the situation, and the army falls back to a good defensive position from which he and Blucher can defeat Napoleon. Napoleon had to destroy Wellington at Waterloo before the Prussians arrived. Napoleon knew it, Wellington knew it and Blucher knew it. Wellington did what he had to do, confident that Blucher was coming to Waterloo, and Napoleon did not. I don’t think its unfair to say that Wellington won, but it IS very common for the Prussian involvement to be overlooked, and the battle as it was would not have won without the timely intervention of Blucher.

    Would Wellington have stood without confidence in Blucher? Would he have fought the battle differently if the situation had been different? Wellington was cautious and his contemporaries thought him unimaginative but he beat all of the marshals in the Peninsula and had an understanding of how to use his tactics to win. His track record, like Bonaparte’s, speaks for itself. He did not, however, have Napoleon’s genius (IMO). I don’t think (certainly in his prime) anyone of the period with comparable tools at their disposal would match Napoleon.

    Was Napoleon a despotic dictator? I’m glad to say – despite living and having been educated in the UK – that I’ve been slightly enlightened by you guys. He fights defensive wars (but, erm, doesn’t give up land which he annexes around his borders – yeah, maybe if I were an opponent I’d want to break a treaty and get that land BACK!!!!!). His government is progressive, and heck, after the revolutionary govt it must have seemed like a godsend. France and the French prosper under his rule. But then his family start appearing on the thrones of Europe and I find it hard to square that with benevolence and the picture painted of the progressive, libertarian ruler. Maybe to a Corsican thats just what you do for your family? But it would certainly ring an alarm bell or two if you were in Moscow or London or Vienna? But then maybe, just maybe, Napoleon was a real human being with failings like anyone else and capable of making the odd blunder here and there himself? And doesn’t that make him more interesting?

    All the best guys!!! Thanks again.

  43. Shall we, who struck the Lion down, shall we
    Pay the Wolf homage? proffering lowly gaze
    And servile knees to thrones?

    I think a little Byron wouldn’t be amiss here in this discussion as to who was the greater general. Didn’t Cam mention early on Byron’s summation of his country’s military leaders? Nelson was a hero; Wellington a mere corporal.

    I find the negative comments about Napoleon installing his relatives on various thrones throughout Europe puzzling. Whom should he have installed? What was the historical model given the time period? Isn’t that part of his greatness…he was forging a transition between “divine” monarchies which bled their subjects dry and nascent democracy? What precedent did he have for electing rulers? What would Sweden do a few years on? I would argue that we’re still so unimaginative that Americans, for one, continue to “enthrone” family relations: Roosevelt, Kennedy, Bush and Clinton?

    Napoleon, with all his flaws, and they were great, dared to imagine, as J. David has pointed out, a united Europe. I view Waterloo as prologue and agree with Byron,

    I have warred with a world which vanquished me only
    When the meteor of Conquest allured me too far

    It’s encouraging that 200 years on Napoleon still inspires a dialogue reaching across continents marked by civility and peaceful exchange.

    Thanks for the hand map, describing the battle fields, JDM. Worth the price of your next book in my view.

  44. Los

    Hi guys just wanted to say thanks for the great work! My two sons and I (10 and 5) have listened to EVERY one of your podcasts while we’re in the car and it’s an obviously outstanding primer to the Napoleonic era. We are also amateur history buffs, miniatures/board wargamers and have fought more than our fair share of battles after your many podcasts. Just wanted to say keep up the great work,you have helped pass on the Napoleonic bug to another generation. Cheers…

  45. Cameron Reilly

    Los, that’s wonderful that your sons listen to the show. My sons are 7 years old and I don’t think they would sit through an entire episode yet. Mind you, they already know a fair bit about Napoleon as you can imagine. 🙂
    Thanks for letting us know, your message made my day.

  46. Mutatis Mutandis

    Don’t get too excited about the image of Napoleon as a “progressive, libertarian ruler” because he wasn’t. Progressive, rather too much in the eyes of some his contemporaries; libertarian, not.

    He did inherit many of the ideas of the Enlightenment, and major progress was incorporated in the reform of the legal system with the Code Napoleon. This was more than a legal reform; it also implied a social reform and its application in many of the territories occupied by France was revolutionary.

    However, Napoleon’s rule was always Napoleon-centric, and that was its downside. The Code Napoleon did not prevent Fouche from running a police-state on behalf of the emperor. Granted, Napoleon had good reason to worry about conspiracies and possible assassination attempts.

    And it is much the same story with many other reforms. He did make a major effort to improve French education, which was of lasting benefit. But his system of education was heavily regimented and discipline, geared to turn out loyal soldiers and servants of the empire. He restored some religious freedom, but he did it by subjugating the church(es) to the interests of the state. He did encourage culture, but only to the extent that it praised him. He did encourage the press, but it was probably more heavily censored than it had been under Louis XVI, and his the official ‘Bulletins’ of his army became synonymous with lies.

    At times he heavily favored his own perceived interest over the principles of the revolution, even when it was arguable counter-productive to do so. Hence is reaffirmation of slavery in the French colonies, and his refusal to proclaim the liberation of the Russian serfs in 1812.

    Had Napoleon been more liberally inclined (and for a career soldier, he was arguably rather liberal) it would have earned him more support from intellectual circles everywhere in Europe, but more hostility from aristocratic circles — the two overlapped but did not coincide. That was a difficult balancing act, and it was impossible to please everyone.

  47. Marcus

    Well said, Mutatis.

    Holland, Britain and the United States were a century ahead of France in terms of progressive, libertarian ideals. The ideas of the Enlightenment were well entrenched in these nation long before The French Revolution.

    France was catching up in 1789, not setting the agenda as the propaganda would have us believe.

  48. That is right Marcus. Remember that Holland was a republic with a consitution, albeit an oligarchical rather than a democratic one. Napoleon installed a king on them. Not a liberal thing to do at all.

  49. Shaun

    Whilst no doubting that Napoleon ‘humbugged’ Wellington (as late as the 15th he was convinced that Napoleon wouldn’t attack) in the early exchanges of the Waterloo campaign, but for the show host to suggest that this makes Wellington a poor leader makes for a shallow argument. Also, it begs the question: Why didn’t Napoleon’s many intelligence failures/poor decisions render him ‘a very poor leader’?

    Furthermore,implying that Wellington was merely attending cricket matches and parties and not attending to his duties are irreconcilable with actual facts. A mere perusal of Wellington’s dispatches(available online) would suggest otherwise.

    One further point, I must agree that the host is wrong in suggesting that the Prussians saved Wellington from disaster at Waterloo. This shows an ignorance that is unforgivable in a history podcast. Like Marcus suggests, Wellington only stood at Mont-Saint-Jean on the guarantee that Blucher would reinforce with at least one corps, Blucher promised at least two corps, and stated he would arrive as early as 12 noon on the 18th. As we all know, they were late!

  50. Cameron

    Shaun, yes, Napoleon’s bad decision made him a poor leader in this circumstance. I think a great deal of the blame for his defeat at Waterloo rests on his shoulders. You can complain all you like, but the fact remains that the greatest military leader of the century back and marching towards Wellington’s troops, he knew that, and yet he attended parties and cricket matches instead of where the action was. I’m yet to hear a decent excuse for that.

    My comments about the Prussians were in response to the repeated claims that “Wellington beat Napoleon at Waterloo” and the British hyperbole that goes along with it. The facts are that until the Prussians arrived on the scene, it is debatable who was in the stronger position.

  51. John


    I have been following the podcasts since the start and thank David and Cameron for their work. I cant say that I agree with all that they say, but it provokes debate and interest in the period and that can only be a good thing.

    Where do I start here?

    Wellington was outplayed at the start of the campaign, that is clear enough, as was Blucher. But it has to be noted that the two of them did show mental strength to play the parts they did – W to hold his ground at Waterloo and trust in B to respond, and then B driving Bulow’s and Ziethen’s corps to assist, despite the misgivings of some of B’s staff.

    We shouldnt forget (despite David’s use of the name ‘British’ to describe W’s army) that W had a very mixed bunch – a third British, a third German and a third Dutch/Belgian. Despite the recent trend to talk-up the quality of the non-British component, W probably had good reasons to doubt much of its quality and even loyalty (apart from the KGL components). By comparision, N’s army was entirely French. Do you not think that W would acted differently if he had his Peninsular army? He was forced to appoint the Duke of Orange to a corps command for political reasons, even though he was not capable. So as N had to make allowances for things back in Paris, W had to accomodate his allies.

    IMHO, Napoleon is the giant of the period and the greatest general of the time, but W is a long way clear of third. Maybe its easy to portay the events in the Peninsular as a sideshow, but when you look at W’s planning and preparation of the Lines of Torres Vedras ( as an example) its pretty clear to me that W had a far greater grasp of strategy and the overall objectives that he faced than anyone bar N.

    By the time of Waterloo, W was also far better able to influence the actual battle. Whilst we can critcise W on the opening days of the campaign, his actual role at Waterloo was extremely active compared to N who witnesses state generally sat in a chair at the rear.

    Perhaps Cameron, you might have a closer look at W’s career rather than just seeing him a fly in your Napoleons ointment?

  52. I think we are getting ahead of ourselves discussing the battle before the podcast. Both sides made mistakes in the delployments ahead of the battle. My argument would be that Wellingtpn made fewer and less serious errors, and that furthermore the whole strategy that Napoleon was following was deeply flawed.

    Can’t wait for the big one Cameron.

    Do you have any plans for arranging on-line counselling for the fans of the podcast? When it finishes a lot of us are going to have to return to empty and unfulfilling lives without the next Napoleon podcast to look forward to.

  53. Oh and thanks to Sally for bringing a fresh perspective to the debate. I think that Byron would not be an impartial observer. As a radical thinker Byron would not have been on the same wavelength as the conservative Wellington who later became a Tory prime minister. He also had the misfortune to survive the fighting and so didn’t have Nelson’s huge advantage of having a heroic death. These are great for PR.

    It is also worth remembering that the Whigs wrote British History so Wellington has not had as good a write up as he might have done. When David descirbes Nelson as one of Britain’s heroes he is spot on. But the Duke of Wellington has never really shared Nelson’s popularity.

  54. Colin,
    Byron was definitely not impartial when it came to Wellington. He made no secret of his idolization of Napoleon and continued to publish odes to his hero after Waterloo which the British press naturally had to qualify but still published. Part of his animosity probably stemmed from jealousy, though, not mere anti-Tory sentiment. Fiona MacCarthy, in her biography of Byron, suggests that Wellington’s huge post Waterloo hero-of-the-moment popularity with the ladies irritated Byron whose preference for young boys apparently didn’t exempt him from craving the attention and adoration of women. BTW I highly recommend FM’s book if one doesn’t like poetry, as it dwells largely on the influence of Napoleon on Byron, paying scant attention to his actual verse and focusing instead on his travels and the time period. But it’s kind of fun putting a modern spin on some of his zingers about Waterloo from Childe Harold, including his, “On with the dance!”

    I also agree somewhat on the probability that time would have diminished Nelson’s stature in the public eye, although he seems to have learned early on that he wasn’t cut out for politics whereas Wellington seemed to relish the role no matter how badly it played out. His ultra-Tory politics aside, Apsley House is a great visit.

  55. Joe


    Any comments/reasons why Napoleon did not take direct control of his forces at the battle of Waterloo.
    From the podcast he appears to have allowed Ney to take operational control of the French forces unlike say his earlier campaigns in 1805, 1806 where he retained more or less direct control of his forces in battle. I can’t imagine Napoleon undertaking the cavalry charges led by Ney without having infantry support. How did he allow this to happen?

  56. heinrich

    well the dumm wellington won becaus of he had 1300000men and Napoleon had 730000
    so he cod have won it if he had 1300000men
    becaus he was smart strong and the best general in the history

  57. Sébastien

    Well, the whole campaign was lost on 16th because of one badly written order from Soult. Napoléon wanted D’Erlon to attack the right flank of Blucher at Wagnele and d’Erlon understood to go to Wagnee instead, behind Napoleon’s army.

  58. Will Hazell

    I know this is seven years later Cameron, but your “Wellington was saved by the Prussians!” comment is ludicrous. The British army had no chance of defeating Napoleon by themselves,the campaign was always meant to be fought as an alliance – the only reason the battle was fought at all was in the hope/knowledge that the Prussians were coming.

    A less-than-perfect British army fulfilled its objective admirably and held against the full weight of the French Juggernaut for as long as it needed to, and much of the credit has to go to Wellington’s calm, intelligent leadership. Dismissing that as just the slimy Brits being bailed out by Prussia is just plain wrong.

    • cameron

      Hey Will. Well I haven’t listened to the episode since we recorded it, but I’m pretty sure we didn’t portray it as “just the slimy Brits being bailed out by Prussia”. You are correct that it was an alliance. You are also correct that the British had no chance of defeating the French by themselves. But your hyperbole is getting out of control with the “French juggernaut” business. At Waterloo the Brits & their allies (not including the Prussians) had almost as many troops (68,000) as the French (73,000). So it’s hardly a “juggernaut”. And they would have been defeated by Napoleon if Grouchy had managed to follow orders. Is that holding out as long as they needed to? I guess so. It was pure luck though. The Prussians didn’t arrive on the scene due to good strategy on Wellington’s behalf. It was bad communication between Napoleon and Grouchy. If Napoleon’s orders had been carried out, the outcome of the battle might have been very different. BUt it was as it was. I stand by the comment that Wellington was saved by the arrival of the Prussians though. I don’t think that’s debatable.

  59. Will Hazell

    Maybe the word juggernaut is a bit over the top, but it was still a more intimidating force, the French had a great deal more artillery and the British force were deprived of many of the Peninsular veterans and included a large quantity of less-than-impressive Dutch and Belgian troops. It’s very true that the speed of the Prussians arrival saved the day, but I just think it’s a shame to dismiss the fact that Wellington did an incredibly good job, and that the British/King’s German Legion troops fought ferociously to hold the French back.

    A more general comment I’ve wanted to make for a while… when I started this podcast, I was very much in the British-beat-the-tyrant camp, and was completely shocked that anyone could ever have a positive view of Boney. You’ve have definitely done a great deal to convince me otherwise… in fact, I’m now the proud owner of a Napoleon T-Shirt!

    I still think he was dangerously obsessed with his own personal power, that he enjoyed an intense pleasure in military domination, and that he was largely responsible for provoking the coalitions against him, but I am most definitely now a great admirer of the man and his many virtues. So thank you for that.

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