From: Carl von Clausewitz and Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. On Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington, and the Campaign of 1815. Ed./trans. Christopher Bassford, Daniel Moran, and Gregory W. Pedlow. ClausewitzStudies.org, 2010. ISBN-10: 1453701508. ISBN-13: 9781453701508. 318pp. List price: $18.00.
by Gregory W. Pedlow
I am really too hard worked to become an Author and review these lying works called Histories,” wrote the Duke of Wellington in September 1842 after reading Lord Liverpool’s translation of Clausewitz’s account of the Waterloo Campaign. He immediately set to work on a response—his “Memorandum on the Battle of Waterloo”—but when finished he told the editor of his papers, “I don’t mean that this paper should be published. I have written it for Lord Francis Egerton’s information, to enable him to review Clausewitz’s history. I don’t propose to give mine enemy the gratification of writing a book!” Wellington’s use of terms like “lying works” and “mine enemy” to refer to his critics after he had finished reading Clausewitz’s history of the Waterloo Campaign suggests a strong reaction to what was actually a dry, analytical study. Why did the duke react in such a manner? The answer must be sought in his extreme sensitivity to years of criticism of his actions at the start of the campaign—allegations that he was ill-prepared for or surprised by Napoleon’s attack, was slow to react when it actually occurred and then failed to fulfill a promise to assist the Prussians, thereby causing their defeat at the Battle of Ligny—and also to his resentment of Prussian claims that they deserved the real credit for the victory at Waterloo. This essay will examine these allegations that first arose in the early 19th century. The main emphasis will be on what Clausewitz wrote about them, how Wellington replied to Clausewitz’s criticism, and what the evidence reveals about their differing standpoints.
Wellington’s Plans and Preparations
Clausewitz’s first criticism of Wellington concerned the very wide deployment of the Anglo-Allied army, which he said stretched across an area 90 miles wide and 65 miles deep and therefore could not be concentrated at its center in less than four or five days—much too long in view of the fact that the line of French fortresses was in many cases only a day’s march away. In contrast, Clausewitz claimed, the Prussian army was collected in a much narrower position and could be concentrated at its center in just two days. These calculations led Clausewitz to speculate that Wellington did not intend to assemble his army at a single point and thus may have planned to fight with his forces divided. In Clausewitz’s opinion, Wellington was expecting the French to advance “in several columns and on an extended front,” which meant that he would have to retain a strong reserve “ready to rush assistance to the point at which the enemy’s main force may be found.” For such a plan, two days warning would have been sufficient, according to Clausewitz, and he noted that Wellington and Blücher had reached agreement along these lines during their conference at Tirlemont at the beginning of May. Clausewitz added that in evaluating Wellington’s promise made at that time to concentrate his army at Quatre Bras and come to the aid of Blücher at Sombreffe, “the term ‘army’ meant only the greater part thereof, which Wellington himself may have called his main force—his reserve together with his left wing.” In Clausewitz’s opinion it would have been “completely impossible” to concentrate Wellington’s entire army on its extreme left wing in two days.
Clausewitz then rejected the assumption of a divided advance, which he had imputed to Wellington. Napoleon had always preferred to seek an all-encompassing battle, Clausewitz argued, and he certainly needed to do so in this case, since “only an overwhelmingly complete victory, surpassing all his earlier ones, offered him any hope of a better future. The most compelling assumption was therefore that Bonaparte would burst forth with his whole force against a single point.” Wellington had never commanded against Napoleon personally and had thus never experienced “such a lightning bolt.” Otherwise he “would have carried out quite different arrangements for billeting his forces.” Clausewitz therefore argued that no matter where in Belgium the battle occurred, it would have been impossible for Wellington to assemble his entire force and be able to operate together with Blücher.
To Clausewitz, Napoleon’s overall goal in 1815 could only have been “a glorious victory over both allied armies.” Such a victory would have “electrified” France and greatly strengthened Napoleon’s position in the French interior, while slowing the advance of the other Allied forces from Germany. Nevertheless, even a great victory would have given him only “the barest possibility of resistance against the collective power of his enemies.” Napoleon had claimed in his memoirs that the results of a French victory would have been decisive: “Belgium rising, its army reinforcing the French army…. the fall of the British government, which would have been replaced by friends of peace, liberty, and the independence of nations; this sole event would have ended the war.” Clausewitz did not think much of these expectations, saying they confirmed how “weak and uncertain” Napoleon considered his position to be. However, given the vital importance of continued British participation in the war, particularly as a major source of funding for the Allied war effort, it does seem hard to accept Clausewitz’s evident lack of concern regarding the consequences. He may, however, have doubted that such would be the British response to a battlefield defeat.
As for the specific objective of Napoleon’s offensive into Belgium, Clausewitz argued that this could only be “the combined Allied army, not any geographical positions such as Brussels or the right bank of the Meuse or even the Rhine.” Because a “great, all-encompassing decision” was at stake, geographical points and their connections to the armies could give only “insignificant advantages” in the short term, and any possible long-term impact would have been swept away by the outcome of the great battle. Clausewitz therefore dismissed the idea that Blücher needed to maintain possession of the right bank of the Meuse and that Wellington needed to cover Brussels. Instead, the two Allied commanders “could have united their forces upon one point and been certain that, no matter where this point lay, Bonaparte would seek it out.”
Clausewitz’s analysis of Wellington’s plans and deployment thus appears purely military in character, based upon assumptions about Wellington’s intentions derived from an examination of the deployment of the Anglo-Allied army prior to the outbreak of hostilities. Wellington was evidently impressed by the quality of Clausewitz’s analysis, for he wrote in the margin of the chapter “Reflections on Wellington’s Dispositions” of Lord Liverpool’s manuscript translation, “This is an important chapter.” In his subsequent Memorandum, however, the duke took a much more critical view, saying that historians such as Clausewitz were “too ready to criticize the acts and operations not only of their own Generals and armies, but likewise those of the best friends and allies of their nations, and even of those acting in co-operation with its armies. This observation must be borne in mind throughout the perusal of Clausewitz’s History.” In replying to Clausewitz’s criticisms, Wellington argued that his deployment was not based solely on military factors, because his army’s mission was much more than just “the general operations of the war.” First and foremost it had to “preserve the communications with England, Holland and Germany.” In addition, it had to protect the King of the Netherlands, who had placed his seat of government at Brussels, and French King Louis XVIII, who was residing in Ghent.
Wellington also noted that the initiative rested with the French. Thus the Allied generals had to be “prepared to move in all directions, to wait till it should be seen in what direction the attack should be made, and then to assemble the armies as quickly as possible to resist the attack, or to attack the enemy with the largest force that could be collected.” This observation would appear to concede Clausewitz’s point that the best course for the Allies would have been to concentrate their forces at the earliest possible moment and then, in effect, wait for Napoleon to make his move. Yet Wellington rejected Clausewitz’s assertion that the Allies’ sole concern should have been “the early junction of the two Allied armies, with a view to fight a great battle with the enemy.” Such a course of action, the duke argued, would have enabled French cavalry and light troops to occupy Brussels, Ghent, and the English lines of communications, while the initiative for fighting a general battle would still have remained with Napoleon, even if his main force remained behind the French frontier. Wellington also thought that Clausewitz was too indifferent to the “moral impression” that would have resulted from the loss of Brussels and Ghent, the flight of the two kings and the loss of his lines of communication without him “making the smallest effort to save any of these objects.”
It is on this issue of Wellington’s operational plans and priorities that his differences of opinion with Clausewitz are most readily apparent. Wellington’s goal, as he said, was to be able to assemble “the largest disposable force at his disposition, after providing for the defense and security of his military communications with England, Holland, and Germany, and of the objects entrusted to his care and protection” by the Congress of Vienna (thus Brussels, Ghent and the two kings). Clausewitz argued that geographic points and lines of communication were less important than the need to concentrate forces for a “great battle.” Having stressed the political considerations governing Napoleon’s conduct, it is striking that Clausewitz should have argued for the primacy of purely military considerations in the development of Allied strategy, whereas Wellington accounted for his conduct mainly in political terms. Given the fragility of the Allied coalition—its members had nearly come to blows over re-drawing the map of Europe at the Vienna Congress and the loyalty of the Dutch was open to question—Wellington’s concerns about the political ramifications of abandoning Brussels without a fight cannot be ignored. Ultimately, however, their disagreement was not about the importance of political concerns but about how quickly they could have an impact. Thus to Clausewitz, if the Allies lost even a symbolically important city like Brussels but then won the “great battle,” this would have been like “a mighty river sweeping away such a weak dike.” Wellington, in contrast, was not prepared to risk losing Brussels and Ghent under any circumstances. Victory over Napoleon could never be a sure thing, and conceding such psychologically important successes would only amplify the disaster if the great battle were lost.
The greatest obstacle to Clausewitz’s call for a rapid union of the two Allied armies was finding provisions for so large a force, which he clearly recognized. Thus, while he stated that it was “very risky ” for the Prussians to remain in their extended positions once they knew that Napoleon was assembling troops on the border, he explained that this failure to concentrate in time had resulted to a great extent from “the continual difficulties which the Dutch authorities made with respect to provisioning.” These difficulties would of course have been greatly multiplied if both Allied armies had concentrated in a single area.
As for Clausewitz’s suggestion that either of the two armies could have ignored its supply line for a time in order to operate together with the other, this would appear to pose major problems in at least one of the two scenarios he proposed: that of Wellington falling back on the Meuse and using Blücher’s supply lines. The Prussians already had great difficulty keeping their own army supplied, and it is doubtful that they would have been capable of providing logistical support for both armies, even for a short period of time. In the critical area of ammunition, cross-national supply would have been difficult or even impossible in both scenarios because of the differing calibers of the two armies’ firearms.
In addition to logistics, another important reason for the failure of the Allied armies to concentrate prior to the French attack—one not mentioned by either Clausewitz or Wellington—is that until almost the last minute the Allied commanders did not believe Napoleon would attack at all. Thus in an 8 May 1815 letter about plans for an eventual Allied offensive, Wellington remarked, “I say nothing about our defensive operations, because I am inclined to believe that Blücher and I are so well united that the enemy cannot do us much mischief.” Three days later the duke wrote to the closest Prussian commander, Lt. Gen. Hans Ernst von Zieten of the 1st Corps, “There is constant talk of an attack, but in view of the strength of the two armies and their close union, this seems hardly likely.” Throughout May and even into June, Wellington received a steady stream of intelligence reports describing insurrections in the Vendée and Brittany. These forced Napoleon to take troops away from the frontier and send them to the interior. These reports were intermixed with ones suggesting that Napoleon would indeed attack, but Wellington seems to have discounted the latter reports as overstated or perhaps even part of a French deception plan. As late as 13 June, Wellington was writing, “We have reports of Buonaparte’s joining the army and attacking us; but … I think we are now too strong for him here.” Even on the morning of 15 June, when French troops had already begun their offensive (a fact not yet known in Brussels), Wellington told Baron von Reede, the Dutch liaison officer at his headquarters, “I do not believe that they will attack us; we are very strong.” Wellington thus did not feel any need to draw his forces closer together in the weeks prior to the battle, believing he would have adequate time to concentrate once the Allies were ready to take the offensive in early July.
For most of this period, the senior Prussian leadership held similar views. On 3 June the Prussian commander, Field Marshal Prince Blücher, wrote to his wife, “In ten days the shooting will start and we will enter into France. Bonaparte will not attack us. We could stay here for another year, because his situation is far from brilliant.” In the same vein, General von Gneisenau, Blücher’s chief of staff, wrote on 9 June, “The enemy will not attack us but will instead withdraw back to the Aisne, Somme and Marne in order to concentrate his strength there.” Even as late as the 12th, Gneisenau was writing to Prussian Minister of War Hardenberg that “the danger of an attack has almost completely disappeared.” It was not until 14 June that the Prussian commanders changed their minds and decided that Napoleon was preparing to attack after all. Their new view was sent to Wellington at 10 p.m. that evening by Lt. Col. Henry Hardinge, the British liaison officer at Blücher’s headquarters. He wrote that “The prevalent opinion here seems to be that Buonaparte intends to commence offensive operations.” Such an attack was evidently not seen as imminent, however, because Gneisenau had not yet ordered the concentration of the Prussian army. Soon afterward, some new and compelling intelligence must have arrived in Namur, for between 11:30 pm and midnight he hastily wrote and dispatched orders for the army to assemble at Sombreffe. A little more than four hours later, the fighting began.
Wellington’s Reaction to the French Attack
In his history, Clausewitz stated that the reports of French concentrations received on 14 June led Blücher to concentrate his forces that evening but that Wellington hesitated to take a comparable decision on committing his forces for another 24 hours. Even after the news of the French attack arrived on the evening of the 15th, Wellington continued to believe that Napoleon would advance via Mons and “considered the clash near Charleroi to be a feint. Thus he was content simply to order his troops to be ready.” Clausewitz added that Wellington did not order his reserve to begin its march until midnight on the 15th, after news arrived from Mons that the French had not attacked there and had instead moved to their right. He criticized the duke for losing more time the following morning. He therefore concluded that the duke’s hesitation, and the wide deployment of his forces, made it impossible for the Anglo-Allied army to provide any support to Blücher in resisting Napoleon’s attack.
Wellington took exception to most of Clausewitz’s account. He claimed that on 15 June “The first account received by [me] was from the Prince of Orange, who … reported that the enemy had attacked the Prussians at Thuin.” Wellington added that a second report of the French attack—this time from the Prussians—arrived later that afternoon, brought by General Carl von Müffling, the Prussian liaison officer to the duke’s headquarters. Wellington then expressed displeasure with the tardiness of the Prussians in notifying him of the French attack. He noted that, according to Clausewitz, Napoleon attacked Zieten at 4 a.m. on the 15th and forced him back to Charleroi by 10 a.m., yet no news of these events reached Brussels before 3 p.m. (and this report had not come from the Prussians). According to Wellington, once the news did arrive, he reacted immediately: “Orders were forthwith sent for the march of the whole army to its left. The whole moved on that evening and in the night, each division and portion separately, but unmolested.… The reserve … were ordered to assemble…, which they did on that evening; and they marched in the morning of the 16th upon Quatre Bras, towards which post the march of all the troops consisting of the left and centre of the army, and of the cavalry in particular, was directed.” Wellington added that there was “no evidence” to support Clausewitz’s allegations regarding a lengthy pause by the Allied reserve on its march to Quatre Bras.
Wellington’s strong reaction to Clausewitz’s mild observations must be understood in the context of long-standing criticism of his actions on 15 June. Such criticism included claims that he had been caught by surprise by the French attack or had been slow to react to it. In responding to Clausewitz, however, Wellington made some statements that require closer examination. He claimed in the Memorandum that the earliest report of the French attack on the Prussians arrived in Brussels at 3 p.m. This differs from what he wrote in his report on the battle to Earl Bathurst on 19 June 1815. There he stated that this news arrived “in the evening” of 15 June. The issue of what time this news actually reached Brussels has long been the subject of considerable controversy, with some Prussian accounts claiming that Wellington had learned of the French attack much earlier—at 9 a.m. on 15 June—through a message sent by General Carl von Zieten, commander of the Prussian 1st Corps at Charleroi. The evidence to support such an early message is very weak, however. Most historians now believe that Zieten did not send a message to Wellington based solely on the initial sounds of firing at 4:30 a.m., but instead waited until reports from the front arrived at his headquarters. Thus his message did not leave Charleroi until around 9 a.m. At any rate, the key issue here is not when Zieten sent the message, but when Wellington received it.
The 33-mile distance from Charleroi to Brussels could normally have been covered in approximately six hours. Some unknown source of “friction”—of which there were many examples in the transmission of messages in June 1815—delayed Zieten’s courier. He did not arrive in Brussels until after 5 p.m., as two letters written that evening show. Thus the Württemberg liaison officer to Wellington’s headquarters, General Ernst von Hügel, described the arrival of Zieten’s message in Brussels in a report to his king written at 6 p.m.:
Just now a Prussian hussar has ridden up to General v. Müffling, who lives very close to me, and has brought him news that Müffling immediately passed on to me: Napoleon attacked the Prussian army at Thuin on the Sambre this morning. The results are not yet known. Müffling has just now returned from the Duke. The Prince of Orange had reported that strong canon fire has been heard on our left flank. Wellington at once ordered all his Corps to march through the whole night and concentrate. Müffling allowed me to read Zieten’s report: in the face of considerable enemy superiority he must withdraw his advanced posts towards Fleurus. By the evening of the 17th we will know whether the campaign has begun favorably or unfavorably for the Allies. But this much I can assure Your Majesty with complete certainty: the best understanding exists between the Duke of Wellington and Prince Blücher, and both are acting in complete agreement.”
One hour later, at 7 p.m., General Müffling wrote to Field Marshal Blücher that “The news has just arrived that Lt. Gen. v. Zieten has been attacked.” While both letters contain phrases like “just now” and “just arrived,” these should not be taken too literally. Hügel’s letter described a number of actions that happened after Zieten’s message arrived—Müffling taking the letter to Wellington, then returning, then discussing the contents with Hügel—so the most likely arrival time is between 5 and 5:30 p.m.
As General Hügel’s letter shows, Zieten’s message was not the first news of the French attack to arrive in Brussels. The duke had already been told about the attack by the Prince of Orange. The prince, in turn, had learned of it during his visit to the Dutch outpost at Saint Symphorien southeast of Mons early in the morning and had then decided to ride to Brussels to bring the news himself. In his 1842 Memorandum Wellington recalled that the prince arrived in Brussels at around 3 p.m. It is possible, however, that his arrival time was somewhat later. General von Müffling wrote in his history of the Waterloo Campaign, published in 1816, that the news of the French attack arrived in Brussels at 4:30 p.m. Lord Fitzroy Somerset, Wellington’s Military Secretary at Waterloo, recalled in a memoir written sometime between 1815 and 1820 that “about five o’clock in the afternoon the Duke of Wellington while at dinner received from the Prince of Orange, who was up at Braine-le-Comte, a report sent to his Royal Highness from his advanced posts” [about the French attack]. Such an arrival time would also be more in keeping with Wellington’s dispatch to Earl Bathurst immediately after the battle, in which he stated that the news first arrived in the “evening,” a term that had a much broader meaning in 1815 than it does today. As for Clausewitz, he wrote that “on the evening of the 15th [Wellington] received the report that General Zieten had been attacked and driven back by the main French army at Charleroi.” He thus accepted Wellington’s statement in the Waterloo Dispatch concerning the arrival time for news of the French attack, but incorrectly assumed that this news included the fact that Charleroi had fallen.
The arrival of Zieten’s message, which confirmed the initial report brought previously by the Prince of Orange, led Wellington to begin issuing orders to his troops shortly before 6 p.m. These were not, however, orders “for the march of the whole army to its left,” as the duke claimed in his Memorandum. Rather, they simply directed units to assemble and be ready to move. The actual movement orders (the so-called “After Orders”) did not go out until after 10 p.m. These directed the army, including units already located farther to the east at the crossroads of Quatre-Bras on the highway from Charleroi to Brussels, to concentrate in the vicinity of Nivelles. Wellington’s emphasis on Nivelles in his movement orders is understandable. It was the most significant town behind his troops on the front lines of the left flank, and the Prussian commander under attack by the French, General Zieten, had requested that Wellington concentrate there when he reported the news of the French attack. Furthermore, the Prussians had previously announced their intention to defend the Sambre crossings and—if a retreat from Charleroi became necessary—to concentrate at Gosselies. This meant that they would be covering the portion of the Allied line in front of Quatre-Bras.
The actual situation of the Allies was quite different, however. The Prussians had abandoned Gosselies and moved eastward toward Sombreffe—leaving the road to Quatre-Bras uncovered—without notifying Wellington. Wellington therefore continued to assume that this approach to Brussels was protected by Zieten. The lack of any reports from the Prussians, beyond the fact that their outposts had been attacked, led Wellington to write at 10 p.m. that the French were “threatening” Charleroi, when in fact they had captured it 11 hours earlier. This lack of current information, combined with Zieten’s request, led to Wellington’s concentration orders, which—if carried out to the letter—would have led to the abandonment of Quatre-Bras on the vital approach road to Brussels. Fortunately for the Allies, the Prince of Orange’s able chief of staff, Baron Jean de Constant Rebeque, possessed more recent information about the growing French threat in this sector. He therefore ignored the portion of Wellington’s movement orders that no longer corresponded to the actual situation. Instead, Constant ordered General Perponcher’s 2nd Netherlands Division to concentrate at Quatre-Bras.
Wellington first became aware of the seriousness of the situation when a courier, bearing General Constant’s report of the French advance up to Quatre-Bras, arrived around 12:30 a.m. at the famous “Waterloo Ball” held by the Duchess of Richmond in Brussels. After issuing orders to hasten the departure time of the reserve from Brussels, Wellington continued to consider the entire situation before getting a few hours of sleep. When General Wilhelm von Dörnberg—commander of the frontier outpost and intelligence-gathering centre at Mons—arrived between 4 and 5 a.m., Wellington quickly got up. He told Dörnberg to ride to Waterloo and order General Picton to march immediately with his division to Quatre-Bras.
Clausewitz was critical of Wellington’s actions on the morning of 16 June, saying that “much time was lost” while the duke reconnoitered the enemy at Frasnes and then went to meet with Prince Blücher at Sombreffe at 1 p.m. During that time, “the reserve appears to have waited for further orders at the edge of the Soignies Forest, where the road divides in the directions of Nivelles and Quatre Bras.” Wellington’s Memorandum rejected this last claim outright, saying “he can have no proof of this fact, of which there is no evidence.” In reality, there is. The reserve did indeed pause at the edge of the Forest of Soignies. This is confirmed by the accounts of several officers involved in the march. But this pause was to give the troops a chance to rest and cook a meal in the shade (important on a hot summer day), while allowing missing units to catch up. Its purpose was not to await further orders from Wellington, as these had already been brought by General von Dörnberg. Furthermore, the pause did not last until Wellington returned from his meeting with Field Marshal Blücher, as Clausewitz suggests. It had already ended at noon for most of the units. In all this, it is worth recalling that, owing to poor reporting on the Prussian side, no one on Wellington’s staff had any reason to believe that major fighting was imminent. The lack of urgency in the procedures adopted for the march to Quatre-Bras was entirely consistent with the expectation that contact with the enemy would not take place until the following day, 17 June. And had the Prussian 1st Corps carried out its previously announced intention to defend the Sambre River crossings, thus delaying the French advance, it does seem likely that no major battles could have taken place on 16 June.
The lack of urgency in Wellington’s concentration orders was an important reason why much of his army arrived late or not at all at the Battle of Quatre Bras. The ultimate cause, however, was his long delay in recognizing the true location of Napoleon’s main attack and then in issuing orders to counter it. Wellington’s Memorandum is essential for understanding the reasons for this delay, because it shows the preconceptions under which he was acting: that a French attack was unlikely, but that if it did occur, it would be against his center or right wing. The duke wrote that he “did not at first give credit to the reports of the intention of the enemy to attack by the valley of the Sambre and the Meuse” (thus against Zieten’s 1st Corps) because “the enemy had destroyed the roads leading through those valleys.” Wellington therefore believed that Napoleon could have made his attack “by other lines with more advantage,” meaning an attack along the road from Mons to Brussels, or an even greater turning movement around the Anglo-Allied right. In the days and weeks preceding the attack, a large flow of often-contradictory intelligence reports had reached Wellington, some suggesting that the French were preparing defenses, others suggesting a French attack on the Prussians, and still others providing support for Wellington’s strongly-held notion of a French attack against his right. Some intelligence reports arriving in Brussels in early June even suggested that Napoleon would attempt to deceive the Allies by launching a feint or a diversionary attack against the Prussians, to be followed by the real attack against the Anglo-Allied army. As such reports fit right in with Wellington’s preconceptions, he may have given them more weight than others. Ultimately, however, he was not expecting Napoleon to attack at all.
Wellington’s comments in the Memorandum about the dangers of making a “false movement” reflect considerable anxiety about being deceived by Napoleon. The duke noted that “whatever may be thought of Buonaparte as a leader of troops in other respects, there certainly never existed a man in that situation, in any times, in whose presence it was so little safe to make what is called a false movement.” A key eyewitness has confirmed that such concerns were paramount for Wellington. In an account written within a few years of the battle, Lord Fitzroy Somerset, Wellington’s Military Secretary, recalled that at about 10 p.m. on the evening of 15 June he said to the duke, “No doubt we shall be able to manage these fellows [the French].” Wellington replied that “there was little doubt of that provided he did not make a false movement.” Many years later, Wellington summarized his overall philosophy on this issue when commenting on the strange movements of d’Erlon’s corps between the battlefields of Quatre Bras and Ligny on 16 June: “I wonder what they would have said of me if I had done such a thing as that. I have always avoided a false move. I preferred being late in my movement to having to alter it.”
Given this mindset, it is not surprising that Wellington failed to react strongly to the initial reports of a French attack on the Prussian army. Those reports offered no proof that this was the main attack rather than an “affair of outposts” or, even worse, a deception designed to inspire a “false movement” away from the real French threat elsewhere. Such a feint had been suggested in several intelligence reports from France. Vague initial reports of cannon and small arms fire, whenever they may have arrived, would not have been sufficient evidence of the true direction of the main French attack to cause Wellington to order his entire army to concentrate on its extreme left, thus virtually abandoning the other main approaches to Brussels. It was not until the initial hours of 16 June that Wellington received firm proof that Napoleon’s main advance was via Charleroi.
Wellington’s unwillingness to commit his forces prematurely in response to something that might turn out to be a mere feint by the French is understandable. Yet he can be criticized for neglecting some basic preparatory measures that could have hastened such a march once sufficient intelligence concerning Napoleon’s true intentions had been received. Even the duke’s personal secretary, Colonel John Gurwood, editor of the Wellington Papers and a cavalry officer at Waterloo, felt that more could have been done on 15 June. In an 1842 letter to Wellington, Gurwood wrote, that “It is clear that the regiments of cavalry were not in hand, as they ought to have been by order of their Brigadiers and that under the circumstances they ought to have been assembled daily after daylight in their respective alarm posts. In consequence of this want of arrangement nearly four hours were lost in the assembly of the brigades, and the brigade to which I belonged made several very long halts, waiting for orders.” Gurwood’s suggestion that the units should have been assembled daily after daylight would have been quite practicable in June 1815. This is shown by the fact that the Dutch Army had actually issued such an order to its units. An experienced commander such as Wellington should not have omitted such an elementary precaution. One can only conclude, as his correspondence prior to the battle reveals, that he was not expecting to be attacked. Surprise in war is a matter of degree. Wellington, like Blücher and, for that matter, Napoleon, was looking for a fight in June of 1815. He just found it a little sooner than he expected and—contrary to his expectations—was now defending Belgium rather than invading France.
Prussian Allegations That Wellington Caused Their Defeat at Ligny
On the morning of 16 June, Wellington’s army was still scattered across the Belgian countryside, while the Prussian army was concentrating around the villages of Sombreffe and Ligny. Wellington then sent a letter to Blücher from the most forward Allied position at Frasnes, describing the intended movements of his army. That letter gave the impression that the Anglo-Allied army was more concentrated than it actually was. Soon afterward, he rode over to the Prussian army to discuss strategy with the Prussian leadership. This meeting at the Mill of Brye, behind the Prussian right flank, has become the center of a major controversy. There are Prussian claims that Wellington made a firm promise to support them but then failed to do so, thereby causing their defeat at the Battle of Ligny. While Clausewitz himself never made such an extreme allegation against Wellington, his book does shed some light on this important issue.
The first such Prussian criticism of Wellington came before the Battle of Waterloo had even been fought. When Blücher sent his report on Ligny to King Frederick William on 17 June, it contained Gneisenau’s complaint that “the army of the Duke of Wellington was unexpectedly, and in contrast to his promise, not yet concentrated sufficiently to be able to operate together against the enemy.” That same evening, Gneisenau wrote to his wife that “because promised help did not come and misunderstandings had occurred, we were forced to retreat.” Shortly after Waterloo, Gneisenau wrote that “The Duke of Wellington had promised to attack the enemy in the rear, but he also did not come, because his army—for who knows what reason—could not be concentrated.” In August 1815, Gneisenau again claimed that Wellington “did not keep his promises to be ready to help us on the 16th [of June],” and mentioned the “defeat we had suffered because of him.”
In his Memorandum of 1842, Wellington gave no details of the discussions with the Prussians at Brye beyond simply mentioning that the meeting took place. His only other remarks on the meeting were made to friends in conversations that focused on his criticism of the Prussian positions at Ligny rather than on any promise of support. While he was not a participant at the meeting at Brye, Clausewitz’s account nevertheless deserves close attention, because he certainly had close contact with senior Prussian leaders who were there, Gneisenau in particular. Clausewitz wrote that “the Duke told the Field Marshal that his army was at that moment assembling at Quatre Bras, and in a few hours he would hasten with it to assist Blücher.” Clausewitz then added that, when Wellington spurred his horse to ride away, his parting words were supposedly, “At four o’clock I will be here.” Since much of Wellington’s army was still on the march across the Belgian countryside, Clausewitz’s account suggests that Wellington was promising much more than he could deliver.
Two other participants at the meeting at Brye recalled a much more conditional statement by Wellington. General von Dörnberg wrote that Wellington had said to Gneisenau, “I will see what is opposing me and how much of my army has arrived and then act accordingly.” General von Müffling stated in his memoirs that Wellington had promised to come to the Prussians’ aid “provided I am not attacked myself.”
Placing such reservations on possible support to the Prussians does seem very much in character for the cautious Wellington. But even if this were not the case, and he actually had made the definite promise reported by Clausewitz, such a promise would have been based upon the assumption under which both Allied commanders were operating at the time of their meeting—i.e., that virtually all of the French army of about 130,000 men was opposing the Prussians. Clausewitz noted that the Allies thought Blücher had about 80,000 men on the field, so if Wellington could bring another 40-50,000 (his left wing plus the Reserve), the two sides would be about equal. Once the additional 35,000 men of the Prussian 4th Corps arrived, Blücher thought, victory would be “pretty certain.” To Clausewitz, these odds were no guarantee of success against Napoleon, but they were still sufficient to make Blücher decide to give battle. The Prussian commander was reluctant to consider retreating, because doing so would move his army further from Wellington’s and make a bad impression on the troops and the nations. And it was certainly in keeping with Blücher’s fiery character for him to decide to stand and give battle no matter what the odds rather than start the campaign with a retreat.
Clausewitz’s account suggests that the Prussians were not expecting the entire Anglo-Allied army to participate in the battle. Rather, they were counting on the appearance of a substantial portion of it in the course of the day. Given the long delays in concentrating Wellington’s army, however, it is doubtful that even the expected 40-50,000 men could have arrived in time.
In any case, the situation upon which any promise of support by Wellington would have been based was not what the commanders had assumed during their meeting at Brye. Napoleon had not massed his whole army against Blücher. He had instead divided it, sending 45,000 men toward Quatre Bras under Marshal Ney to prevent Wellington from interfering with the battle that Napoleon and the rest of the army were going to fight against Blücher. Another 10,000 men of Lobau’s 6th Corps had been left behind and then forgotten at Charleroi, leaving the force that Napoleon led on 16 June at only 63,000 men. As a result, the 83,000 Prussian troops waiting to receive Napoleon’s assault at Ligny actually enjoyed considerable superiority in numbers, although Gneisenau either did not realize this fact or was unwilling to admit it. The Prussians also benefited greatly from the strong stand of Wellington’s army at Quatre Bras. Wellington was unable to provide assistance on the battlefield of Ligny itself, but his stubborn defense and subsequent strong counterattack generated such heavy pressure that Ney recalled d’Erlon’s corps just when it was about to intervene at Ligny. If the two neighboring battles of Quatre Bras and Ligny are considered as one large engagement, as they should be, then Wellington did provide considerable assistance to Blücher. Prussian complaints that their defeat was due to Wellington’s failure to provide support therefore sound like a search for a scapegoat outside their own ranks to explain their defeat in a defensive position of their own choosing by a numerically smaller force. To his credit, Clausewitz—although critical of Wellington’s delays in concentrating his forces—never went so far as Gneisenau in blaming Wellington for the Prussian defeat at Ligny.
Controversy Over Who Won Waterloo
Another area of Anglo-Prussian controversy in the 19th century was the issue of who deserved the lion’s share of credit for the final victory over Napoleon on the 18th of June. This debate began almost immediately after the battle’s end. The first Prussian claim that they had struck the decisive blow came in General Gneisenau’s post-battle report to his king:
It was half an hour past seven, and the issue of the battle was still uncertain…. The French troops fought with desperate fury: however, some uncertainty was perceived in their movements, and it was observed that some pieces of canon were retreating. At this moment the first columns of the corps of General Zieten arrived on the points of attack, near the village of Smohain, on the enemy’s right flank, and instantly charged. This moment determined the defeat of the enemy. His right wing was broken in three places; he abandoned his positions. Our troops rushed forward at the pas de charge, and attacked him on all sides, while, at the same time, the whole English line advanced.
Such Prussian claims soon became public. In July 1815 the British Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, recommended that Field Marshal Blücher not be the only Allied field marshal to receive the Prince Regent’s prestigious Military Order, because the Prussians “rather assume more than their fair share of credit for the battle of Waterloo.”
Clausewitz’s history also attributed the collapse of Napoleon’s army to the actions of the Prussians. He concluded that after many hours of very heavy fighting, Wellington’s and Napoleon’s armies were like fighters “who had been driven to such a state of exhaustion that a decisive blow would be all the more decisive, such that the defeated side would not be able to rally again. This decisive blow resulted from the attack of the Prussians.” In Clausewitz’s account, the village of Plancenoit had been captured and Zieten’s corps had broken through the right side of the French line before Wellington defeated the final assault of the Imperial Guard and ordered the general advance of his army. But Clausewitz admitted that he was not completely certain of the timing of events on the French right flank. He commented in his next chapter, “It would be interesting to know if the Prussians were already firmly in possession of Plancenoit when Bonaparte marched off with these last reserves [the Imperial Guard battalions used to attack Wellington], throwing them into the very jaws of destruction.”
The issue of how much of a role the Prussians played in the collapse of Napoleon’s army remains controversial to this day. Two recent books have restated the old Prussian claim that their attacks on the French right were the main cause of Napoleon’s defeat. But these claims—and thus also Clausewitz’s account—are not supported by key Prussian accounts of the fighting on this side of the battlefield. The War Diary of the Prussian 1st Corps, which was written shortly after the end of the battle, described how the advance guard of the corps’ 1st Brigade attacked and captured the hamlet of Smohain and continued on to attack the French right wing. But then, “because our forces were too weak, they were forced back to Smohain. In the meantime the rest of the brigade’s infantry arrived. The enemy, who were already being attacked in the rear and the flank by the 4th Corps from Plancenoit and now also by us and also by the entire English army in the front, fell back, offering only slight resistance, which soon ended and turned into flight and the complete dissolution of their entire army.” The War Diary thus shows that the 1st Corps suffered an initial setback when advancing from Smohain, and succeeded in pushing back the French right wing only after the English general advance took place. The casualty returns for Zieten’s corps on 18 June also show that it did not undergo much heavy fighting that day, as would have been the case had it attacked and broken through a deployed French force, rather than simply advancing against disordered enemy units that were already in the process of disintegration due to events elsewhere on the battlefield.
The other event mentioned by Clausewitz as a cause for the dissolution of Napoleon’s army—the final capture of Plancenoit by the Prussians—did not occur until after the defeat of the Imperial Guard’s attack. This prompted Prussian historian Julius von Pflugk-Harttung to write, “The main problem of the Prussians was their lack of success at Plancenoit.… Because the enemy Guard battalions unswervingly held this village until Wellington’s line had achieved the final victory, they also kept the Prussians from gaining the laurels of the day.… If Bülow had captured Plancenoit an hour earlier, he would have achieved the decisive results in the flank and rear, which Wellington now won at the front.” Clausewitz and Wellington, each from their different perspectives, would doubtless have smiled at this sort of perfectly legitimate but ultimately empty speculation. There were any number of occasions in the campaign of 1815 in which an hour one way or another might have made all the difference.
Ultimately any attempt to give complete credit for the victory over Napoleon to either Wellington or Blücher is meaningless. This was neither a British victory nor a Prussian victory; it was an Allied victory. The tenacious stand of Wellington’s army against a series of heavy French attacks throughout the day was the essential precondition for the final Allied victory, for if he had been forced to retreat, the late arrival of the Prussians could have left them exposed to great danger. The arrival of the Prussians and their subsequent attack contributed to Wellington’s successful defense by diverting Napoleon’s attention and a considerable portion of his reserve at critical junctions in the battle. And at the end of the battle, the complete dissolution of Napoleon’s army occurred as a result of a combination of near-simultaneous actions by both armies that shattered French morale: Wellington’s forces defeated the supposedly invincible Imperial Guard and began a general advance; the leading elements of General Zieten’s corps attacked French right-wing troops who had been told to expect reinforcements under Marshal Grouchy; and General Bülow’s and General Pirch I’s corps renewed their heavy attacks on Plancenoit, leading finally to its capture.
Wellington’s Memorandum clearly supports such an “Allied victory” viewpoint because, while he wrote that the battle was terminated by the attack of his own army, he gave great credit to the contribution of the Prussians by noting that the French troops had retired from their final attack “in great confusion” due in part to the fact that the “march of General Bülow’s corps by Frischermont upon Plancenoit and La Belle Alliance had begun to take effect.” He also stated that the arrival of the Prussians on the left of the Anglo-Allied line had led him to decide to undertake the final assault that destroyed the French army. Quoting from his 1815 Waterloo Dispatch, Wellington called the attack of the Prussians against Napoleon’s right flank “a most decisive one,” and he concluded that “even if I had not found myself in a situation to make the attack which produced the final result, [the Prussian assault] would have forced the enemy to retire if his attacks should have failed, and would have prevented him from taking advantage of them if they should unfortunately have succeeded."
Can We Still Benefit from Reading Clausewitz and Wellington on Waterloo Today?
Now that so much time has passed since Clausewitz wrote his history and Wellington his reply, are these two accounts still useful for today’s historians? The answer is yes, very much so. Their value lies not so much in providing tactical details as in the insights they provide about the thinking of the key participants. Clausewitz’s history is generally quite accurate, particularly where the Prussians are concerned. His analysis of Napoleon’s attempts to rewrite history via his memoirs written in exile on St. Helena provides a very valuable corrective to the many accounts of Waterloo that accept Napoleon’s statements without question. Clausewitz’s descriptions of the Anglo-Allied army’s plans and actions are less authoritative, due to the lack of information available to him, a fact of which he was well aware. Still, the obligation to think things through using all the available evidence remained, and Clausewitz did not shrink from criticizing anyone, even his own commander in the campaign. His criticisms never had the object of judging them as individuals, however. Rather, they were made in order to understand the commanders' actions, and he therefore stressed the need for analysts and critics to put themselves “precisely into the position of the individual who had to take action.”
Clausewitz’s analysis of the overall strategic situation prior to the start of the campaign also offers a valuable perspective that is often ignored by historians anxious to begin right away with a description of the fighting. And at the tactical level, Clausewitz was careful not to expect unrealistic feats of movement—unlike many armchair critics of the Waterloo campaign, who lacked practical experience leading troops under similar conditions.
Wellington’s Memorandum, written specifically in reply to Clausewitz’s account of the duke’s actions during the opening stages of the campaign, is therefore a much less comprehensive account of the campaign of 1815, but it represents the most detailed statement ever made by Wellington about his decision-making process in 1815, breaking his decades of silence on this subject. Wellington’s description of the complex political-military situation at the start of the campaign is a significant contribution in itself. This does not mean that everything in the Memorandum should be accepted as gospel. It was written 27 years after the events by a 73-year-old man no longer at the height of his powers. Wellington was also clearly trying to put his actions in a favorable light in response to decades of criticism far less measured than Clausewitz’s. In doing so, however, the duke made statements about the timing of orders and troop movements that are not in accord with the available documentation. Since much of this information was readily available to Wellington in the form of the published dispatches, and was in fact consulted by him as he wrote his Memorandum, these errors cannot be blamed simply on the faulty memory of an old man.
Wellington’s inaccurate statements about his orders and the movements of his troops at the start of the campaign have led some historians to question the value of the Memorandum. Colonel Charles Chesney complained in 1868 that “Wellington clearly gives his own impression, in 1842, of what he ought to have done in 1815.” The American historian John Codman Ropes went even farther, writing in 1893 that, “We are quite within bounds when we say that this Memorandum adds nothing to our knowledge of the facts. We may add that it is a pity that this is so.… It is a pity, we repeat, that he did not set himself to the task of drawing up an exhaustive and accurate narrative of the facts of the campaign.”
Ropes’ statement goes too far. The importance of the Memorandum lies not in details about orders and movements but in its revelation of Wellington’s overall state of mind and his strategic concept at the start of the campaign. Wellington clearly demonstrated the primacy of his instructions to defend Brussels at all times. He also noted his concerns about being fooled by Napoleon into making a “false movement”—concentrating his army in the wrong area against a threat that turned out to be a feint. And his continued insistence that Napoleon would have been better advised to attack “by other lines rather than by the valleys of the Sambre and the Meuse” show why the duke remained preoccupied with this possibility, even to the extent of leaving a considerable force to guard his flank at Hal prior to the Battle of Waterloo. There is no question that some of the caution that Wellington displayed in his encounter with Napoleon was rooted in his personality and in the engrained habits of a long and successful military career. Clausewitz regarded such influences as natural and characteristic of all great commanders. These personal qualities and habits in turn provided the lens through which Wellington evaluated what was for him the outstanding fact of his situation when the fighting began on the 15th of June: that he did not know much of anything about events on the Prussians’ front and thus was reluctant to abandon his own beliefs about what Napoleon was likely to do.
In closing, it is worth recalling what both men thought about trying to analyze a battle such as Waterloo. Clausewitz remained very cautious as both a historian and theorist of war:
With battle plans and all sorts of retrospective accounts before us, and with the events behind us, it is very easy to discover the actual causes of failure and, after thoroughly considering all the complexities of events, to highlight those that can be deemed mistakes. But all this cannot be done so easily at the time of action. The conduct of war is like movement in a resistant medium, in which uncommon qualities are required to achieve even mediocre results. It is for this reason that in war, more than in any other area, critical analysis exists only to discover the truth, not to sit in judgment.
Wellington, for his part, doubted that it would ever be possible or even desirable to write an accurate history of the battle:
The history of a battle is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost; but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance.
Then the faults of the misbehavior of some gave occasion for the distinction of others, and perhaps were the cause of material losses; and you cannot write a true history of a battle without including the faults and misbehavior of part at least of those engaged.
Believe me that every man you see in a military uniform is not a hero; and that, although in the account given of a general action, such as that of Waterloo, many instances of individual heroism must be passed over unrelated, it is better for the general interests to leave those parts of the story untold, than to tell the whole truth.
Wellington obviously believed that a true history of the Waterloo Campaign could tarnish some glittering reputations, and the inaccurate statements he made in the Memorandum about his initial orders and troop movements suggest that one of the reputations he was trying to protect was his own. Such defensiveness was actually unnecessary, because his performance in command of the Anglo-Allied army at the battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo more than made up for his initial cautious response to the French attack. And it is the Memorandum that best helps us understand the reasons for this caution by showing the situation in June 1815 from Wellington’s perspective, thus enabling us to fulfill Clausewitz’s criteria for strategic criticism by placing ourselves precisely in Wellington’s shoes. Historians should be grateful that Clausewitz’s carefully reasoned analysis of the campaign of 1815 finally provoked Wellington into breaking his long-held silence on the subject and revealing his mindset at the start of the campaign. Clausewitz’s history and Wellington’s Memorandum therefore remain essential reading for everyone interested in the Waterloo Campaign.