Bloody Sunday


To understand the Battle of Waterloo you need to know some background. Napoleon Bonaparte obtained his early military experience during the French Revolution with fighting on his home island of Corsica. He rose through his successful military exploits in the years to follow until in 1804 he declared himself Emperor of France. A campaign of conquest followed, and the French Empire engulfed much of Europe and stretched into North Africa. The downfall began with Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia, and he was deposed and exiled to the island of Elba in 1814.

By February 1815 Napoleon had soured on his situation in exile. The British had been involved in a messy business with their former colony in America and had not paid him the stipend promised. He commandeered a ship and sailed back to the French mainland, where joyous supporters abandoned the reincarnated French monarchy and rallied to him. He knew he needed to act quickly, because his old foes, the British and the Prussians recognized his intent to retake his European conquests, including Belgium, then a province of The Netherlands.

And that is the setting for Bernard Cornwell‘s book, Waterloo. I have the Kindle edition.

The  Duke of Wellington had previously toured the region south of Brussels and had noted a region south of the town of Waterloo as an ideal place for a battle. As fate would have it, the Duke was in France as ambassador to the France at the time Napoleon escaped from Elba. As revolutionary tension rose in Paris, the Duke was ordered to a new posting in London. When word broke of Napoleon’s return to power the Duke was still on the Continent, and he made ready to deal with a possible strike out of France’s northern frontier. As an ally he gathered Prince Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, who was then 74 at the time. It was von Blücher’s Prussian army that, in the final minutes, proved crucial to the course of history.

The battlefield south of Waterloo, that Wellington had surveyed in his prior travels, might not seem much to the casual observer. Coming from the south, from France, there is a low ridge that falls away into a shallow valley. To the north the ground again slopes upward, rounded off, followed by a gentle slope down to the north. Wellington figured that a military force on this northern slope would be hidden from an enemy advancing from the south. Those troops would be shielded from view and also from direct cannon fire. They would enjoy the element of surprise—it would be difficult to determine their number and disposition.

The region had the additional advantage of having woods and rough ground to  either side. This would forestall the unpleasant circumstance of having attacking troops coming at Wellington from the side. Two armies doing  battle here would have to go face to  face. The entire battlefield consumed about three square miles of ground.

Wellington gathered his forces south of Brussels, as he suspected Napoleon would strike first in that direction, his aim to seize the city and reclaim Belgium and the rest of the Netherlands for France. Wellington proved to be 100% correct, but not 100% prepared. He and almost his entire command staff were attending a gala in Brussels when a note was brought in that Napoleon was headed toward Wellington’s trap. The grand affair on the evening of 15 June 1815 served as Wellington’s battle dispatch center. He quietly visited his commanders in turn and gave them their marching orders. Then he took leave of his hostess and rode off into history.

Initial contact with Napoleon’s forces came the day of the ball in Brussels, and it signaled Napoleon’s intent. Wellington had stationed his forces to the south of the city, near the region previously described. They were deployed in a line running east and west, directly across Napoleon’s march. British (including Scots and Irish) were stationed to the west. This was in case all went to hell, and the Brits had to be evacuated from the Belgian coast. Blücher’s forces were to the east, because that was what was left over and also because their road home was in that direction. Napoleon’s aim was to split the British and Prussian forces, defeat one, then turn on the other and defeat those. Wellington had to ensure that did not happen.

Came Friday, 16 June, and Napoleon’s aim became clear. A place called Quatre-Bras (four arms) was a place where four roads came together. Wellington needed to hold that. He visited Blücher to the east at Ligny, where he was disheartened to observe that Blücher had no plans to take advantage of the back slope of the ridge in his area.

In the first place the Prussians had decided against using the ‘tired old dodge’ of sheltering their troops, and that refusal left many of Blücher’s regiments vulnerable to Napoleon’s efficient artillery.

Cornwell, Bernard. Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (p. 66). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Blücher’s mistake was to prove crucial.

Wellington, at Ligny, promised to send help to Blücher, provided he was not, himself, under attack. This was again  a critical sore spot, for in the event Wellington was under attack, and he never sent aid to Blücher.

Wellington was unable to hold off Napoleon’s attack at Quatre-Bras and retreated north to his preferred defensive position near Waterloo. French forces at Ligny soundly defeated Blücher, pummeling Prussian forces arrayed on the forward slope with their artillery.

Marshal Blücher, despite his age, tried to restore the position by attacking with his own cavalry. He was unhorsed and ridden over by French heavy cavalry, but Blücher’s aide-de-camp, with great presence of mind, draped a cloak over the Marshal’s medals and braid, so obscuring his eminent status, and in the failing light the French cavalry did not recognize him, so that at last he could be rescued by his own men. He was bruised and dazed, and his army was beaten, but it was not destroyed.

Cornwell, Bernard. Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (p. 74). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Blücher’s army was not destroyed, and he retreated, not to the east and toward home, as Napoleon had hoped, but north to Wavre. This kept Blücher only three miles from the Waterloo battlefield.

The retreat from Quatre-Bras and Ligny was under horrible conditions, as rain fell in torrents upon the miserable troops. On  Saturday both sides did what they could to prepare for the conflict that was sure to follow on 18 June.

Came the critical Sunday, and Napoleon waited for the ground to dry. This was necessary, because his big cannons required a firm footing before they could fire, and also the muddy ground would favor Wellington’s defenders over Napoleon’s attacking force. French artillery opened up at 11 in the morning, and the real battle began about three in the afternoon. It ended just as the sun went down after nine p.m. It was a battle of attrition, a slaughter.

Napoleon’s cavalry and troops attacked again and again, while Wellington  stood his ground on the northern ridge and cut them to pieces. The British formed squares with lances and bayonets to defend against charging French cavalry, and multiple magnificent cavalry detachments were destroyed outright attempting to assail these defensive formations. Fighting in-line, British infantry was completely unflinching. They stood their ground under fierce French attacks and mowed the enemy down  with well-disciplined fire from ranks of muskets.

French troops expected to catch Blücher retreating to the east, or at least further north. Instead, he was working his way through difficult terrain to close the few miles to the main battle. He was slowed down by the need to keep all his force together to prevent feeding them piecemeal into the meat grinder that was Waterloo. Blücher did arrive while the final attack was in progress, and he tipped the balance.

For the first time known, the exalted French Imperial Guard broke and fled the battle. It was the signal for the British and the Prussians to go on the attack. They chased down French troops individually and murdered them. It was the end of Napoleon’s army.

Napoleon returned to France, seeking any means of escape. He considered asylum in the United States, but was taken prisoner in July and shipped off to the British possession of Saint Helena, the most remote island on the planet, save Tristan da Cunha, 1200 miles away. There he died in 1821, less than six years after Waterloo.

Cornwell relates the oft-told tale of Waterloo, adding his book to an existing truckload. You should read it for its freshness and most probably because you have never read any of the remaining truckload. Rehashing the Battle of Waterloo on Wikipedia can be factual and dry. Cornwell brings characters to life and serves up the brutality of the conflict and the suffering of all, including a multitude of civilians. Some excerpts will illustrate:

Historical importance:

Yet Waterloo was the deciding event at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and ever since men and women have tried to provide that coherent account.

Cornwell, Bernard. Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (p. 5). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Napoleon’s place in history:

The world would not see his like again until the twentieth century, but unlike Mao or Hitler or Stalin, Napoleon was not a murderous tyrant, although like them he was a man who changed history.

Cornwell, Bernard. Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (p. 20). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.


Napoleon as a heartless military commander:

He was a superb administrator, but that was not how he wanted to be remembered. Above all, he was a warlord. His idol was Alexander the Great. In the middle of the nineteenth century, in the American Civil War, Robert E. Lee, the great Confederate General, watched his troops executing a brilliant and battle-winning manoeuvre and said, memorably, ‘It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.’ Napoleon had grown too fond of it, he loved war. Perhaps it was his first love, because it combined the excitement of supreme risk with the joy of victory. He had the incisive mind of a great strategist, yet when the marching was done and the enemy was outflanked he still demanded enormous sacrifices of his men. After Austerlitz, when one of his generals lamented the French lying dead on that frozen battlefield, the Emperor retorted that ‘the women of Paris can replace those men in one night’. When Metternich, the clever Austrian Foreign Minister, offered Napoleon honourable peace terms in 1813 and reminded the Emperor of the human cost of refusal, he received the scornful answer that Napoleon would happily sacrifice a million men to gain his ambitions. Napoleon was careless with the lives of his troops, yet his soldiers adored him because he had the common touch. He knew how to speak to them, how to jest with them and how to inspire them. His soldiers might adore him, but his generals feared him. Marshal Augereau, a foul-mouthed disciplinarian, said, ‘This little bastard of a general actually scares me!’, and General Vandamme, a hard man, said he ‘trembled like a child’ when he approached Napoleon.

Cornwell, Bernard. Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (p. 20). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Napoleon’s strategy:

No wonder that one French general wrote home that his men were in a ‘frenzy’ for the Emperor. And in that frenetic atmosphere Napoleon decided on a pre-emptive blow against the British and the Prussians. He would attack them before the Austrian and Russian armies could reach the French frontier, and for his attack he had 125,000 men and 350 cannon. Facing him was Blücher with 120,000 men and 312 cannon and Wellington’s army of 92,000 men and 120 guns. The Emperor was outnumbered, but that was nothing new and he was a master of manoeuvre. His task now was to divide the allies then destroy them one by one. War, he had declared, was simple. ‘It’s like a boxing match, the more you punch the better it is.’

Cornwell, Bernard. Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (p. 34). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Wellington’s predicament:

In the first place he did not want to display panic. He had been taken by surprise, and by the time he arrived at the ball, at 10 p.m., he knew he had been wrong-footed by Napoleon, but this was no time to show alarm. He knew he was being observed, so it was necessary to display confidence. The second reason was eminently practical. The Duke needed to issue urgent orders, and virtually every senior officer in his army was at the ball, making it easy for him to find and direct them. The ball, in truth, served as an orders group, and it would have been foolish of the Duke to pass up such an opportunity. Lady Hamilton-Dalrymple, who shared a sofa with him for part of the evening, recollected that ‘frequently in the middle of a sentence he stopped abruptly and called to some officer, giving him instructions’.

So what had happened to invest the ball with such threat?

Hell had broken loose on the road from Charleroi.

Cornwell, Bernard. Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (p. 47). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The failure of Napoleon’s generals:

But Marshal Ney, astonishingly, did nothing. He could have captured the crossroads any time that morning with little effort. He had an overwhelming advantage in numbers, yet still ‘the bravest of the brave’ hesitated. He claimed later to be waiting for further orders from Napoleon, yet he had not even obeyed the Emperor’s previous orders, which were clear enough, capture Quatre-Bras, and while he waited the British– Dutch reinforcements were marching from Nivelles and from Brussels. Many explanations have been offered for Ney’s inactivity: that he really was confused and waiting for orders, or that he misunderstood the Emperor’s intentions, or, perhaps, that he was being extremely cautious.

Cornwell, Bernard. Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (p. 63). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The drama of individual soldiers.

Franz Lieber reaches the centre of the village, steps round a house and is faced by a French infantryman just a dozen paces away.

He aimed at me, I levelled my rifle at him. ‘Aim well, my boy,’ said the sergeant-major, who saw me. My antagonist’s ball grazed my hair on the right side; I shot and he fell; I found I had shot through his face; he was dying. This was my first shot ever fired in battle.

Cornwell, Bernard. Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (pp. 71-72). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The lives of the men who fought:

… Franz Lieber, the young Prussian who joined the army with such enthusiasm in Berlin. He emigrated to America in 1827, was Professor of Political Economics at South Carolina College, but moved to the north before the Civil War and taught at Columbia University where he compiled the Lieber Code, credited as the first attempt to codify the rules of war. He lived till 1870.

Cornwell, Bernard. Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (p. 340). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

General Bernard was to survive the day unscathed, but his change of allegiance from Louis XVIII to the Emperor meant he would be banished from France, so eventually he emigrated to the United States, where his engineer training was put to good use. He built Fort Monroe in Virginia and helped design the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

Cornwell, Bernard. Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (p. 193). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The history of language:

It was the invention of Henry Shrapnel, a Royal Artillery officer, and was simply a shell designed to explode above the enemy and shower him with musket balls.

Cornwell, Bernard. Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (p. 171). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The character of Wellington in battle:

The Duke’s great gift was to remain calm in this turmoil, to filter out what was unthreatening and to concentrate on what was essential. He knows that a great attack is about to be launched on his left and he has ridden along that part of the ridge to inspect the troops who will be attacked, but he is content to let General Picton, who commands that wing, deal with the threat. He knows and trusts Picton, just as he trusts Macdonell in Hougoumont. He is watching the far ridge, using his telescope, trying to read what Napoleon intends, but he is also turning that spyglass to the east.

Cornwell, Bernard. Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (pp. 172-173). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Wellington is looking east, from which he hopes to see Blücher’s troops arriving.

The utter waste of battle:

‘The best of all that France possesses,’ General Foy said, watching in amazement as the cavalry rode again and again to its doom. ‘I saw their golden breastplates,’ a French infantry officer said of the cuirassiers, ‘they passed me by and I saw them no more.’

Cornwell, Bernard. Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (p. 242). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The cavalry charges lasted around two hours. It was a waste, destroying much of Napoleon’s cavalry for small purpose and, more importantly, using up precious time. Marshal Ney persevered with a tactic that was not working, and Napoleon, watching from close to La Belle Alliance, did not interfere.

Cornwell, Bernard. Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (p. 247). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Napoleon’s final moment:

Napoleon himself led the Guard forward. He rode at their head down from the French ridge to the valley floor where he handed them over to Marshal Ney, who would lead them to the British– Dutch ridge. And off to Napoleon’s right, somewhere beyond the skeins of smoke lying over the corpses of d’Erlon’s men, there were new troops visible on the allied ridge, new troops and new guns, and the Emperor, knowing that the arrival of the Prussians would damage the morale of his men, lied to them. He sent officers to spread the untruth that the newcomers were Grouchy’s men come to assault Wellington’s left wing while the Immortals broke through his centre. One of the officers who was ordered to spread the lie was Colonel Octave Le Vavasseur, an artillery officer and an aide to Marshal Ney.

Cornwell, Bernard. Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (pp. 286-287). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.


At a critical moment a British officer took the initiative and decided the combat and the doom of the French:

He took the 52nd out of line. Half Colborne’s men were Peninsular veterans, they knew their business. Sir John marched his battalion forward, then wheeled it round so that his men faced the left flank of the Guard Chasseurs. His brigade commander, Sir Frederick Adam, galloped to discover what he was doing and Colborne later thought he answered that he was going ‘to make that Column feel our fire’. General Adam, just thirty-four years old, had the sense to let Colborne continue; indeed he rode to the 71st and ordered them to follow the 52nd, who were now on the forward slope, their own flank exposed to whatever enemy lurked in the valley’s smoke, but they were in position to slaughter the Guard and they did. They began firing volleys into the French flank so that the Imperial Guardsmen were being attacked from their front and from their left. It was merciless. The Unbeaten were being killed by the Unbeatable. Colborne’s men took heavy casualties from the French Guard, but his own volleys were tearing the 4th Chasseurs apart and the frontal fire of the British Guards was hammering into their leading ranks and, like the other battalions of the Imperial Guard, they broke. They did not just retreat, they broke. They had been beaten by British volleys and they fled that terrible musketry and when they fled so did the rest of the Guard. And when they broke, so did the hopes of France. ‘Fortune is a woman,’ Napoleon had said, and now she spat in his face. When the 4th Chasseurs broke, so did his army. The morale of the French troops collapsed, panic set in, men saw the undefeated Guard fleeing in defeat and they fled too. Even Napoleon admitted it:

Cornwell, Bernard. Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (p. 301). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The breaking point:

It was so sudden. All afternoon and evening the battle had raged, the French pushing hard and bravely against Wellington’s line, and suddenly, in an instant, there was no French army, just a rabble of panicked fugitives.

Cornwell, Bernard. Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (p. 302). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

It was not the end for many of the characters in the Waterloo drama. Two Prussian officers involved went on to additional fame and glory:

August von Gneisenau:

As a soldier, Gneisenau proved the greatest Prussian general since Frederick the Great. As a man, his noble character and virtuous life secured him the affection and reverence not only of his superiors and subordinates in the service, but of the whole Prussian nation. A statue by Christian Daniel Rauch was erected in Berlin in 1855, and in memory of the siege of 1807, the Kolberg grenadier regiment received his name in 1889. One of his sons led a brigade of the VIII Army Corps in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.

A painting of him by Marie von Brühl is in the collection of Deutsches Historisches Museum.

Several German navy ships, including the World War I armored cruiser SMS Gneisenau, the World War II battleship Gneisenau, and a post-war frigate were named after him.

Gerhard von Scharnhorst:

Several German navy ships, including the World War I armored cruiser SMS Scharnhorst, the Second World War battleship Scharnhorst, and a post-war frigate, as well as a district of the city of Dortmund and a school in the city of Hildesheim, were named after him.

Both the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau were sunk by the British nearly 100 years later in the battle of the Falklands.

Napoleon’s Marshal Ney, who performed so poorly in the battle, did little better in the following weeks:

Marshal d’Erlon encountered Marshal Ney during the panicked retreat from Waterloo and advised him to flee into exile. Ney should have taken that advice. Instead he returned to France where, on the restoration of the monarchy, he was arrested and tried for treason. On 7 December 1815, early on a wintry morning, Marshal Ney was executed by a French firing squad.

Cornwell, Bernard. Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (p. 340). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.



Call me picky if you want, but Cornwell makes an error in placing the time of the battle. He persists in saying the battle was fought in the summer of 1815, but summer did not officially begin until a few days after the battle. Other than that, as I read the narrative I sometimes have the feeling I have seen a certain passage already. A closer review may reveal that Cornwell reuses helpful text at multiple points in the story.

About John Blanton

I'm a retired engineer living in San Antonio, Texas. I have served in the Navy, raced motorcycles, taken scads of photos and am usually a nice guy. I have political and religious opinions, and these opinions tend to be driven by an excess of observed stupidity. Gross stupidity is the supposed target of many of my posts.
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