Why did Napoleon attack at Waterloo

tomar

Ad Honoris
Jan 2011
14,102
Of course we need to consider only what Napoleon knew at the time, and not hindsight... Based on what he knew, why did he take the chance ?

  1. The anglo-allied position was strong
  2. Weather had been rainy delaying the start of the attack and reducing effectiveness of artillery
  3. Although Napoleon did not know Wellington's exact strength he must have known that anglo allied forces were comparable in numbers to his own (as we now know some 68 000 anglo allied to 73 000 french on the battlefield but Wellington had dispatched an additional circa 20 000 to guard flanks and retreat routes so Napoleon should have expected to have been outnumbered)
  4. The whereabouts of the prussian army were unknown (although they had been defeated at Ligny that defeat was not decisive) as in fact were those of Grouchy who was chasing them.. However it would be expected that both the prussians and Grouchy would "march to the sound of the guns" and thus it was unpredictable who (if anyone) would make it first to Waterloo as reinforcements.

Given this situation what was Napoleon hoping to achieve and why did he take such a risk ?
 

notgivenaway

Ad Honorem
Jun 2015
5,787
UK
If he waited, the British/Prussian combined forces would have been too great. He had to attack at that time, and it was more opportune.
 
Apr 2014
411
Istanbul Turkey
Napoleon considered that to be able to rule France and make Coalition to accept his terms , he had to destroy both Anglo-Dutch Army and Prussian army massing in Belgium since they were in his easy reach and since they were in Belgium they were a mor immediate threat to France. That is why he entered Belgium , to destroy Anglo-Dutch Army and Prussian Army before they were united.
Weather conditions or nummerical disadvantage rarely made him stop his operations before but this time he miscalculated , the delay was initially did not matter for him (he did not know Prussians were incoming to St. Mont Jean) , reducing of French artillery effectiveness is both due to mud AND Wellington's reverse slope position tactic. His field marshals with Peninsular War experience warned Napoleon that British infantry in defence is a very formidable opponent but Emperor (who did not fight British since 1793 Siege of Toulon) dismissed them , underestimating British , Dutch and Hannoverian infantry. Instead of overflanking to lever Wellington's forces out , Napoleon opted brute force tactic of frontal attacks as if he still had manpower reserves of Grande Armee.

Napoleon was extremely overoptimistic about scale of his victory in Ligny , assuming Prussians were routed and retreating either further north to Wavre or east towards Rhine. His previous opponents like Austrians , Russians and several other Prussian generals were indeed like that , discoordinated , not cooperating each other. Wellington , Blucher duo was different though. (Napoleon realised too late that his adversaries learned a few things about campaign strategy , coordination , communication and staff work) Both Wellington and Blucher were constantly in contact with couriers and the day before the battle of Waterloo (after winning the field then retreating from Quatre Bras before overflanked) , Wellington accepted to fight French army at St. Mont Jean on 18th June only if Blucher supported him with at least one corps till noon. Blucher , despite his defeat at Ligny , confirmed this and replied "you can fight your battle and hold on , I am coming" Napoleon at the other hand did not operate with Grouchy as a direct subordinate before. His communications with Grouchy's force was very weak due to bad staff work (his previous Chief of Staff Berthier killed himself before Napoleons return from Elba and taking over France. Instead Soult who was a very good Field Marshall but bad Chief of Staff was appointed)
 
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tomar

Ad Honoris
Jan 2011
14,102
If he waited, the British/Prussian combined forces would have been too great. He had to attack at that time, and it was more opportune.
He could have manouevered.....

Also the combined anglo prussian forces were now smaller since the prussian defeat at Ligny had taken out some 20 000 prussians
 

tomar

Ad Honoris
Jan 2011
14,102
Napoleon considered that to be able to rule France and make Coalition to accept his terms , he had to destroy both Anglo-Dutch Army and Prussian army massing in Belgium since they were in his easy reach and since they were in Belgium they were a mor immediate threat to France. That is why he entered Belgium , to destroy Anglo-Dutch Army and Prussian Army before they were united.
Weather conditions or nummerical disadvantage rarely made him stop his operations before but this time he miscalculated , the delay was initially did not matter for him (he did not know Prussians were incoming to St. Mont Jean) , reducing of French artillery effectiveness is both due to mud AND Wellington's reverse slope position tactic. His field marshals with Peninsular War experience warned Napoleon that British infantry in defence is a very formidable opponent but Emperor (who did not fight British since 1793 Siege of Toulon) dismissed them , underestimating British , Dutch and Hannoverian infantry. Instead of overflanking to lever Wellington's forces out , Napoleon opted brute force tactic of frontal attacks as if he still had manpower reserves of Grande Armee.

Napoleon was extremely overoptimistic about scale of his victory in Ligny , assuming Prussians were routed and retreating either further north to Wavre or east towards Rhine. His previous opponents like Austrians , Russians and several other Prussian generals were indeed like that , discoordinated , not cooperating each other. Wellington , Blucher duo was different though. (Napoleon realised too late that his adversaries learned a few things about campaign strategy , coordination , communication and staff work) Both Wellington and Blucher were constantly in contact with couriers and the day before the battle Wellington accepted to fight French army at St. Mont Jean on 18th June only if Blucher supported him with at least one corps till noon. Blucher confirmed this and replied "you can fight your battle and hold on , I am coming" Napoleon at the other hand did not operate with Grouchy as a direct subordinate before. His communications with Grouchy's force was very weak due to bad staff work (his previous Chief of Staff Berthier killed himself before Napoleons return from Elba and taking over France. Instead Soult who was a very good Field Marshall but bad Chief of Staff was appointed)
Good points but why was he optimistic about Ligny ? the French had occupied the battlefield so they must have know the extent of prussian casualties....

Also even without the prussians, the anglo allied force was potentially outnumbering Napoleon's foces AND had a strong defensive position.... And Napoleon could not afford heavy casualties (even a French victory at Waterloo would have come at a high cost)
 

Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
5,935
Good points but why was he optimistic about Ligny ? the French had occupied the battlefield so they must have know the extent of prussian casualties....

Also even without the prussians, the anglo allied force was potentially outnumbering Napoleon's foces AND had a strong defensive position.... And Napoleon could not afford heavy casualties (even a French victory at Waterloo would have come at a high cost)
It's less about numbers, as in casualties, but the effect on the moral on the army as a fighting force. The Napoleonic battles were bloody, but still more about making the adversary's forces break and run, than about physical destruction... extermination kinda thing.

Having seemingly Broken the Prussians at Ligny, Napoleon could surmise that the Prussian had been put out of commission for the forseeable future. At least to the extent they wouldn't make a battle-winning appearance at Waterloo.
 
Apr 2014
411
Istanbul Turkey
It's less about numbers, as in casualties, but the effect on the moral on the army as a fighting force. The Napoleonic battles were bloody, but still more about making the adversary's forces break and run, than about physical destruction... extermination kinda thing.

Having seemingly Broken the Prussians at Ligny, Napoleon could surmise that the Prussian had been put out of commission for the forseeable future. At least to the extent they wouldn't make a battle-winning appearance at Waterloo.
On top of that Napoleon sent a third of his army under Marshall Grouchy after Prussians , he was confident in pursuit Prussians would be finished. The problem was neither Napoleon nor Soult gave clear orders to Grouchy. Should he enter between Anglo-Dutch and Prussians by overflanking west of Wavre ? Or should he push back Prussian rearguards towards north to Wavre ? Or should he overflank east of Wavre , cut Prussian communication links to Rhine (that was what Gneisenau was afraid of , that is why he was hesistant to go westwards to St. Mont Jean to support Wellington's army) Soult's orders and written communique were not clear on that regard and Grouchy was not Desaix who saved Napoleon from defeat at Marengo with a last minute arrival. Most of the French field marshalls who thought in same wavelength with Napoleon were no more on active field command during Waterloo Campaign (Desaix , Lannes , Murat , Davout , Soult , Massena were either dead , assigned elsewhere or no longer in French service) Ney became unbalanced after retreat from Borodino. His best Chief of Staff Berthier killed himself. So did Junot. Bernadotte and Marmont were no longer serving to Napoleon. And Grouchy was an unknown quality.
 
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pugsville

Ad Honorem
Oct 2010
9,804
On top of that Napoleon sent a third of his army under Marshall Grouchy after Prussians , he was confident in pursuit Prussians would be finished. The problem was neither Napoleon nor Soult gave clear orders to Grouchy. Should he enter between Anglo-Dutch and Prussians by overflanking west of Wavre ? Or should he push back Prussian rearguards towards north to Wavre ? Or should he overflank east of Wavre , cut Prussian communication links to Rhine (that was what Gneisenau was afraid of , that is why he was hesistant to go westwards to St. Mont Jean to support Wellington's army) Soult's orders and written communique were not clear on that regard and Grouchy was not Desaix who saved Napoleon from defeat at Marengo with a last minute arrival. Most of the French field marshalls who thought in same wavelength with Napoleon were no more on active field command during Waterloo Campaign (Desaix , Lanes , Murat , Davout , Soult , Massena)
It was Napoloen who sent grouchy in the wrong direction. It was Napoleon who did not prusue on the night of Ligny, it was Napoleon who refused Soults entreaties to summon Grouchy before Waterloo.

Grouchy followed orders. Napoleon wrote bad ones, delayed Grouchy movements, and sent groujcy in the wrong direction. yes people still blame Grouchy.

It was not some laspe from an age General but a chractistic Mistake from a man who repeatedly too an overly optimistic view. Manrego, Dresden-Klum, it was hardly new.

When will the Napoleonic excuse factor stop the scapegoating of everyone but the bungler-in-cheif himself.

Murat was a military idiot.
 
Apr 2014
411
Istanbul Turkey
Also even without the prussians, the anglo allied force was potentially outnumbering Napoleon's foces AND had a strong defensive position.... And Napoleon could not afford heavy casualties (even a French victory at Waterloo would have come at a high cost)
As I said Napoleon underestimated British and their allies a lot. Wellington's army was composite made up British , Kings German Legion , Dutch and Belgians , Hannoverians , Bruswick and Nassau troops. Hardly a monolit force and Wellington was aware of this fact and very disturbed because of it. Napoleon himself did not fight with British over 20 years and when one of his division commanders Maximillian Foy who served in Peninsular War , warned Napoleon about skill of British infantry in defense on eve of the battle on 18th June , Napoleon snarled back "Just because you were defeated by Wellington you think he is a good general. Let me tell you something , Wellington is bad general and British are bad soldiers. This affair will be concluded before one ends his breakfast !"
 

Edric Streona

Ad Honorem
Feb 2016
4,531
Japan
He was unsure wether the Prussians were coming... and I believe, sorry oi can’t recall the source, he may have also expected Grouchy to abandon his mission and March to the sound of fighting.

Also he underestimated Wellington, and he rightly considered the allied troops to be mostly greener than his own.

Also he was NAPOLEON the victor of countless battles... even after being exiled he’d come back and won a battle with a sub par army.... he was very cocky and arrogant at a time when cocky arrogance was commonplace ... guy overestimated his own abilities.