Why did Napoleon attack at Waterloo

Jan 2009
1,192
#21
Napoleon almost always attacked. He was a great believer in the attacker's power to decide the time, place, and other circumstances of battle. The defender must accept battle on the attacker's terms. Napoleon always prefered to control the battle through the use of offensive action. For Napoleon to surrender the initiative and let Wellington attack him would have been out of character. It also would have allowed Wellington to wait for Blucher to reinforce him.
Because that's what he did. He was the agressor, the invader. That's why Wellington had marked the site long before. He knew he'd be fighting a defensive battle against a French attack. He didn't know the Prussians would be defeated when he planned it.

Agreed. Here is a website that has some of Napoleon's quotes on Warfare: The Words of Napoleon and Others Who May Have Influenced His Methods

It is very noticeable how strong an emphasis he puts on aggression and offense.


If you have space and time on your side that's fine.

Above all he was running out of time.
This too. Like Chlodio said in the above, if Napoleon waited, he would simply give Wellington & Blucher more time to combine. Even if he would be convinced that Blucher would have been thoroughly routed, Wellington might adopt more Fabian tactics against him, and hence drag the final decision out. It was a gamble, but had Napoleon succeeded in crushing Wellington and then finished Blucher off, he might have held onto the hope of shattering the resolve of the Alliance and pave way to a negotiated settlement for his return on the French throne. Other threads have already mentioned why this is a very unlikely outcome, with the Russians and the Austrians massing their armies, and Napoleon's promises of peace ringing hollow. After all, he already returned from Elba. Who is to say what he would do in another ten years after raising a new Grande Armee, if he was left in control of France?
 

betgo

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
5,880
#22
I don't know much about the battle, but it seems like Napoleon had to attack, so his opponents could choose favorable ground. At Waterloo, there were no Austrian or Russian forces and only 25,000 British soldiers. Once those allies mobilized and moved there troops to France or nearby, Napoleon would have been severely outnumbered.
 

tomar

Ad Honoris
Jan 2011
12,947
#23
If you have space and time on your side that's fine.

Above all he was running out of time.
Time is an element that is often under valued in military strategy... He who has the more time has a significant advantage (which is why those who play the long game normally win if their adversary is playing the short game)......

But I dont think he was running out of time (unless he had made his own time table). It had been just a few days since the campaign started and if he was already running out of time, that's not even a short game... thats a roll of the dice......
Napoleon had been at war for years, he had won dozens of victories and yet even after that many of his opponents did not throw in the towel.... Its doubtful he was so naive as to think that a victory at Waterloo would be enough...
 
Aug 2015
2,359
uk
#25
Napoleon's only chance was to overwhelm his opponent with a massive superiority in numbers. That way he could rout his opponent whilst sustaining minimal damage. He could not afford to lose a single man more than he had to.

This is why he manoevered between Blucher and Wellington's forces. He could have taken them on at the same time and still achieved a victory; it wouldn't have been the first time he had taken on greater numbers and won. And of course facing two armies with two commanders had it's own problems for his opponents. But doing so was very risky and would inevitably lead to a sibstantial loss of men whether he won or not.

So why did he send a third of his army off running round the countryside after Blucher? If he thought him defeated at Ligny, he should have completed the rout and wiped the Prussains out. Wellington would not likely stand against the full French army with no hope of Blucher turning up. And why would you send a third of your men after a routed enemy?

My only thought is that Napoleon wanted a crack at the English - specifically Wellington - before the end. He must have known his situation was desperate, that defeat was almost inevitable either because of a lack of support in France or because he had completely failed to negotiate a peace with any other European nation. But here was the chance to set the record straight, to show that he was still great and to give the other great general of his age a bloody nose.

So my supposition is that he knew Blucher wasn't beat, so he sent a substantial part of his army to prevent the Prussains from reforming and to give himself enough time to fight Wellington on equal terms unhindered. If he could win this battle he would regain much of the prestige that he had lost and -maybe - regain some control back home.
 
Aug 2015
2,359
uk
#27
Absolutely Napoleon didn't have to attack, but then again he didn't have to become Emperor, or take on the whole of Europe, or return from Elba with a handful of men and win back France. That was who he was, and if he hadn't attacked, he wouldn't have been Napoleon.
 
Likes: frogsofwar
May 2018
588
Michigan
#28
I meant to post earlier, but there were many reasons why Napoleon attacked at Waterloo:

-He needed to defeat the Coalition armies in detail. Combined together, Wellington and Blucher had an overwhelming advantage over Napoleon. The proof is in what happened at Waterloo: Wellington planned to hold out against Napoleon long enough for Blucher to arrive (or specifically, Bulow and his corps).

-In addition to the Anglo-Allied Army and the Prussians, the Austrians and Russians were marching. If Wellington and Blucher were overwhelming, then Wellington, Blucher, Austria and Russia, as a combined force, were so strong not even Napoleon would stand a chance. The odds, in terms of numbers, go beyond Austerlitz and reach an "Assaye" level. And at Assaye, Wellington had the advantage that only about 10,000 of Pohlmans 50,000-100,000 man army were actually well trained.

-Napoleon underestimated Wellington. Instead of pulling some kind of daring maneuver as he did at Austerlitz, Napoleon threw his columns against Wellington's lines in an uncharacteristically "lazy" manner. Soult, Ney and Foy all warned Napoleon that Wellington was not to be underestimated. I'd note that all three had seen Wellington's skill as a general up close, and personal in Spain. Napoleon dismissed their warnings with a rather stupid comment that they were only afraid of Wellington because he beat them all in Spain. Thus, Ney, Foy and Soult had the biggest "I told you so" moment in history. Tsar Alexander said, after Austerlitz, "We are babies in the hands of a giant." If Napoleon was a giant, then Wellington was Odin.

I will note that I have a theory as to why Napoleon didn't attempt some tactically brilliant maneuver at Waterloo: unless Napoleon was a complete military incompetent (which he certainly was not), he had to know that Wellington was a brilliant general. and his comments were to bolster confidence among his Marshals (although I believe that even if he acknowledged that Wellington was good, he still underestimated him). At Salamanca, Wellington took advantage of a serious "mistake of maneuver" made by Marmont. As military historian Rory Muir says: War is often compared to chess. But for the analogy to be accurate, one piece in three would not move as ordered (or not move at all!), moves would have to be declared several turns in advance, and the player would only get an occasional glimpse at the board. If Napoleon started to cleverly maneuver his troops, Wellington would certainly make Napoleon pay for any mistakes, or "fog of war" errors that are unavoidable in the days before radio communications.
 

tomar

Ad Honoris
Jan 2011
12,947
#29
I meant to post earlier, but there were many reasons why Napoleon attacked at Waterloo:

-He needed to defeat the Coalition armies in detail. Combined together, Wellington and Blucher had an overwhelming advantage over Napoleon. The proof is in what happened at Waterloo: Wellington planned to hold out against Napoleon long enough for Blucher to arrive (or specifically, Bulow and his corps).

-In addition to the Anglo-Allied Army and the Prussians, the Austrians and Russians were marching. If Wellington and Blucher were overwhelming, then Wellington, Blucher, Austria and Russia, as a combined force, were so strong not even Napoleon would stand a chance. The odds, in terms of numbers, go beyond Austerlitz and reach an "Assaye" level. And at Assaye, Wellington had the advantage that only about 10,000 of Pohlmans 50,000-100,000 man army were actually well trained.

-Napoleon underestimated Wellington. Instead of pulling some kind of daring maneuver as he did at Austerlitz, Napoleon threw his columns against Wellington's lines in an uncharacteristically "lazy" manner. Soult, Ney and Foy all warned Napoleon that Wellington was not to be underestimated. I'd note that all three had seen Wellington's skill as a general up close, and personal in Spain. Napoleon dismissed their warnings with a rather stupid comment that they were only afraid of Wellington because he beat them all in Spain. Thus, Ney, Foy and Soult had the biggest "I told you so" moment in history. Tsar Alexander said, after Austerlitz, "We are babies in the hands of a giant." If Napoleon was a giant, then Wellington was Odin.

I will note that I have a theory as to why Napoleon didn't attempt some tactically brilliant maneuver at Waterloo: unless Napoleon was a complete military incompetent (which he certainly was not), he had to know that Wellington was a brilliant general. and his comments were to bolster confidence among his Marshals (although I believe that even if he acknowledged that Wellington was good, he still underestimated him). At Salamanca, Wellington took advantage of a serious "mistake of maneuver" made by Marmont. As military historian Rory Muir says: War is often compared to chess. But for the analogy to be accurate, one piece in three would not move as ordered (or not move at all!), moves would have to be declared several turns in advance, and the player would only get an occasional glimpse at the board. If Napoleon started to cleverly maneuver his troops, Wellington would certainly make Napoleon pay for any mistakes, or "fog of war" errors that are unavoidable in the days before radio communications.
Again I have a problem with the theory that Napoleon had to fight right there and right then.... Attacking a strong position (especially when you do not have the advantage of numbers) is never a very good idea... If time was so much against him that even a day made a huge difference then the whole concept of his campaign (not only the Waterloo battle) was wrong.....
Alternatively he could have simply used his grand batterie to batter the anglo allied forces until they either crumbled or their position was revealed to be too strong, thus not risking french troops....
 
Apr 2014
353
Istanbul Turkey
#30
Again I have a problem with the theory that Napoleon had to fight right there and right then.... Attacking a strong position (especially when you do not have the advantage of numbers) is never a very good idea... If time was so much against him that even a day made a huge difference then the whole concept of his campaign (not only the Waterloo battle) was wrong.....
Alternatively he could have simply used his grand batterie to batter the anglo allied forces until they either crumbled or their position was revealed to be too strong, thus not risking french troops....
Napoleon used the Grande Battery bombartment on Anglo-Dutch positions during Battle of Waterloo. But it was not that effective due to muddy ground where cannon balls stuck AND Wellington's reverse slope tactic which protected British and Dutch infantry from most of the French artillery fire. Besides French artillery cooperation and coordination with other arms of French army (cavalry and infantry) was not that good due to Ney's erratic orders. British Household and Union Cavalry charge on French Grande battery (they took out 16 guns , unlike Frnch , British cavalrymen brought nails with them) also reduce effectiveness of French guns.