205 Years On: Why did Napoleon fail at Waterloo?

Napoleon was initially successful in his European campaign, which spanned from 1803 to 1815, but this changed for the worse overtime. It was Napoleon’s own poor decision making that led to the depletion of the Grand Armée over time, which allowed the Coalition to eventually defeat him at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Napoleon turned France into an aggressive military power, by mobilising majority of the population, beginning in 1791.[1] At this point revolutionary France had an army of 200,000 men.[2] Napoleon ensured that newcomers learned the traditional methods of warfare, which maintained a high level of discipline and order within the army.[3] He also ordered that his armies march in columns, allowing them to advance further on the battlefield and attack the enemy with close range musket fire, causing greater devastation.[4] These new tactics allowed him to initially exact continuous victories upon his enemies.

However, this didn’t last. Napoleon’s constant refusals of peace caused his forces to deplete further. Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich wished to negotiate peace between Russia and France, through the Armistice of Plaswitz, 1813.[5] The Coalition wanted Napoleon to agree to strict terms, which included evacuating the French army from Germany and Italy, and giving up the Grand Duchy of Warsaw.[6] Napoleon refused peace, thus prolonging the wars which would continue to drain his supplies.[7] Metternich was aware that if peace was not negotiated, it would be ‘too late.’[8] Napoleon’s arguments with Metternich and refusal to attend peace conferences led to a series of bipartisan agreements signed at Teplitz on the 9th of September 1813 by the Coalition.[9] This cemented an alliance between Russia, Austria and Prussia, which directly threatened France.[10] If peace had been negotiated, the Coalition would not have united against Napoleon, and Waterloo might have been avoided. By continuing to facilitate war, Napoleon allowed the supplies of his army to further deplete.

Napoleon’s errors in military leadership also contributed to the depletion of the French army. An example of this can be seen when looking at the Battle of Borodino, in September 1812. Napoleon advised his army to attack the Russian forces in a full frontal assault, instead of enveloping them.[11] This led to massive French casualties, as they were gunned down by musket fire.[12] Napoleon also decided not to employ the Imperial Guard, a force totalling 18,000 men, which may have swung the result of the battle in his favour. This poor strategy, coupled with Napoleon’s refusal to make peace with the Coalition, prompted historian Charles Esdaile to argue that Napoleon betrayed France.[13] Similar mistakes were made at the Battle of Leipzeig, in October 1813. Towards the end of the battle, the inaction of the Coalition allowed the majority of Napoleon’s forces to escape the battlefield.[14] However, due to miscommunication amongst the French forces, the causeway that the French used to escape the battlefield was destroyed, resulting in 30,000 deaths.[15] This figure added to the 38,000 causalities that the French had suffered over the three day course of the battle.[16]

The size of the Grande Armée was also an issue, as it could not move quickly enough to encircle an enemy, and Napoleon found the huge force difficult to control.[17] ‘Total war’ refers to warfare that includes all the population and resources of a nation, which Napoleon adhered to by mobilising the entire population of France in the 1790s. David Bell notes that although Napoleon initially made use of the army to wage total war in Europe, he eventually became a victim of total warfare himself.[18] French General Antoine-Henri Jomini too concurred that the size of the Grande Armée became increasingly problematic, advocating smaller sized armies as they were easier to manage.[19]

The size of the Grande Armée led to conflict amongst the generals, as the French high command found themselves disagreeing about how to best deploy the huge force. This lack of cooperation acted as a detrimental factor to the French forces, in contrast to the unity of the Coalition. Before his abdication, in 1814, Napoleon was stationed at Fontainebleau with 60,000 men.[20] Napoleon planned to fight the Coalition, bargaining on a military victory, but his commanders refused to comply and ordered him to abdicate.[21] Napoleon lost support from his generals and commanders due to his previous poor tactics in battle, as well as his inability to negotiate peace with the Coalition. Jacques MacDonald, one of Napoleon’s commanders, staunchly refused Napoleon’s orders, declaring that the French nation was ‘determined to make an end’ of the war with the Coalition.[22]

Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia just made things worse. Before the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon had already lost supplies due thunderstorms and blizzards, depleting his army before the battle took place.[23] Imperial Guard member Captain Coignet noted that the weather caused a loss in supplies, as the ‘ground was covered with horses frozen to death.’[24] Further supplies were lost due to dysentery, and 10,000 horses died due to malnourishment.[25] Twenty-four year old infantryman Jakob Walter noted that the army was reduced to eating ‘uncooked’ horsemeat.[26] At Borodino, Napoleon prepared to fight against Russia’s 121,000 men, with his 130,000.[27] The French and Russians lost 30,000 and 40,000 men respectively. Although neither side can declare victory in such a situation it is conceivable to think that if Napoleon had not lost so many supplies on the way to Borodino, he would have had a greater chance of winning the battle due to his strength in numbers.

The Coalition, in contrast got stronger, and developed their own tactics to combat Napoleon, and also sought to replicate Napoleon’s in order to defeat him. Upon the French advance into Moscow, the Russians adopted the tactic of ‘scorched earth,’ and set Moscow alight.[28] This exacerbated the precarious position of Napoleon following the Battle of Borodino and cost him even more supplies. Napoleon instructed his troops to ‘live off the land,’ so they survived on the resources of the towns that they plundered.[29] In order to combat this, Russian agents set Moscow alight, reducing the city ‘to ashes.’[30] Russian general Kutuzov then cut the French columns in two repeatedly, inflicting major deaths upon the retreating French army.[31] Due to the lack of food and cohesion of the French forces, Russia was able to exact victories over the French, by attacking them on all sides in November.[32] The French were forced to flee, leaving valuables such as guns behind.[33] Napoleon escaped Russia with 20,000, as opposed to the 130,000 which he led into battle at Borodino. [34] French losses amounted to half a million, which could have been prevented if the French army was well supplied and did not need to rely on the land to live. [35] In response to Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia, the Coalition adopted Napoleon’s tactic of conscription.[36]

Despite each nations’ own personal aims, the Coalition agreed on March 1st 1814 that their universal goal was to defeat Napoleon.[37] This demonstrates the cooperation of the Coalition, as nations were willing to put their own priorities aside and prioritise dealing with the threat. This cooperation can be seen at Waterloo. During the climax of the battle, Wellington’s troops were reinforced by two Prussian corps, led by Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher.[38] This combined strength overpowered Napoleon, and what was left of his army.

It seems that Napoleon tried to reach too far, as his own ambition, and refusal to desist caused his army to get smaller and smaller, leading to his eventual defeat at Waterloo.

Thanks for reading!


[1] M. Broers, ‘Changes in War: The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars’ in H. Strachan and S. Scheipers (eds.), The Changing Character of War (Oxford, 2011), p. 3.

[2] Ibid., p. 3.

[3] Ibid., p. 5.

[4] Ibid., p. 5.

[5] C. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars (London, 2007), p. 504.

[6] Ibid., p. 504.

[7] Ibid., p. 504.

[8] M.A Klinkowstrom, and A. Napier, (trans.) Memoirs of Prince Metternich, vol. 1, New York (1880), c.f. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, p.505 n. 68.

[9] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars,p. 509.

[10] Ibid., p. 509.

[11] Ibid., p. 478.

[12] Ibid., p. 478

[13] C. Esdaile, The Wars of Napoleon (London, 1995)

[14] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, p. 515.

[15] Ibid., p. 515.

[16] Ibid., p. 515.

[17] Ibid., p. 468.

[18] D. A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Modern Warfare (London, 2007), p. 8.

[19] H. Strachan, European Armies and the Conduct of War (London, 1983), p. 64.

[20] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, p. 528.

[21] Ibid., p. 528.

[22] Found in M. Glover, The Napoleonic Wars: An Illustrated History 1792-1815 (London, 1979), p. 205.

[23] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, p. 463.

[24] J. Fortescue (ed.), The Notebooks of Captain Coignet, Soldier of the Empire (London, 1989), p. 207, c.f. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, p. 463 n. 5.

[25] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, p. 463.

[26] A. S. Raeff, pp. 41-42 c.f. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, p. 463 n. 6.

[27] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, p. 476.

[28] Ibid., p. 478.

[29] Broers, ‘Changes in War’, p. 6.

[30] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, p. 474.

[31] Ibid., p. 478.

[32] Esdaile, The Wars of Napoleon, p. 260.

[33] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, p. 479.

[34] Ibid., p. 479.

[35] Ibid., p. 479.

[36] Ibid., p. 478.

[37] Glover, The Napoleonic Wars: An Illustrated History 1792-1815, pg. 203.

[38] Ibid., p. 215.

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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