What did Napoleon say about the Battle of Waterloo?

Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo by Hippolyte Bellangé

Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo by Hippolyte Bellangé

On June 18, 1815, Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo by a coalition of British, German, Dutch-Belgian and Prussian forces led by the Duke of Wellington and Prussian Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher. As a result of this defeat, Napoleon was removed from the throne of France and spent the rest of his life in exile on the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena. There he had plenty of time to reflect on the last battle he ever fought. What did Napoleon say about the Battle of Waterloo?

I should have won

In September 1815, en route to St. Helena, Napoleon lamented,

Ah! If it [the Battle of Waterloo] were only to be done over again! (1)

Napoleon was amazed that he had lost. On St. Helena in December 1815, he told the Count de Las Cases:

[A]ll was fatal in that engagement; it even assumed the appearance of absurdity; yet, nevertheless [Napoleon] ought to have gained the victory. Never had any of his battles presented less doubt to his mind; and he was still at a loss to account for what had happened. (2)

On June 18, 1816, the first anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo,

[t]he circumstance was mentioned by some one present, and the recollection of it produced a visible impression on the Emperor. ‘Incomprehensible day,’ said he in a tone of sorrow. (3)

Napoleon said to Baron Gourgaud:

‘My regrets are not for myself but for unhappy France! With twenty thousand men less than I had we ought to have won the battle of Waterloo. But it was Fate that made me lose it.’ The Emperor then told why he did not thoroughly understand the battle. (4)

It’s the generals’ fault

In addition to fate, Napoleon found earthly candidates to blame for the loss.

Had it not been for the imbecility of Grouchy, I should have gained the day. (5)

Grouchy, [Napoleon] said, had lost himself; Ney appeared bewildered…D’Erlon was useless; in short, the generals were no longer themselves. If, in the evening, he had been aware of Grouchy’s position, and could have thrown himself upon it, he might, in the morning, with the help of that fine reserve, have repaired his ill success, and, perhaps, even have destroyed the allied forces by one of those miracles, those turns of fortune which were familiar to him, and which would have surprised no one. But he knew nothing of Grouchy; and besides, it was not easy to act with decision amongst the wrecks of the army. It would be difficult to imagine the condition of the French army on that disastrous night; it was a torrent dislodged from its bed, hurling away every thing in its course. (6)

I made a great mistake in employing Ney… I should have placed Soult on my left.… I ought not to have employed Vandamme. I ought to have given Suchet the command I gave to Grouchy.… My ordonnance officers were too young…. I ought to have had in their place men of experience. … Soult (my second in command at Waterloo) did not aid me as much as he might have done.… The men of 1815 were not the same as those of 1792. My generals were faint-hearted men…. I needed a good officer to command my guard. If I had had Bessières or Lannes at its head I should not have been defeated. (7)

Had it not been for the desertion of a traitor, I should have annihilated the enemy at the opening of the campaign. I should have destroyed him at Ligny, if my left had done its duty. I should have destroyed him again at Waterloo if my right had not failed me. (8)

Maybe my fault too

Napoleon After The Battle Of Waterloo by François Flameng

Napoleon After The Battle Of Waterloo by François Flameng

Amidst such recriminations, Napoleon occasionally gave a nod to his own mistakes in the campaign.

If I had remained with the battalion of my Guard on the left of the high road, I might have rallied the cavalry…. Perhaps when I became aware of the immense superiority of the Prussians at Ligny, I ought sooner to have ordered a retreat…. Perhaps I should have done better to have waited another month before opening the campaign in order to give more consistency to the army…. I ought to have had mounted grenadiers in reserve; their charge would have altered the state of affairs. (9)

According to Admiral Pulteney Malcolm, who commanded the North Sea squadron that cooperated with Wellington’s army during the Waterloo campaign, and who later met with Napoleon on St. Helena,

Bonaparte said two causes lost him the battle – Grouchy failing in checking the Prussians, and his great charge of cavalry being made half an hour too soon. (10)

No credit to Wellington

In July 1816 Napoleon told Admiral Malcolm:

Wellington ought to have retreated, and not fought that battle, for had he lost it, I should have established myself in France…. Wellington risked too much, for by the rules of war I should have gained the battle. (11)

The following March he told Dr. Barry O’Meara,

The plan of the battle will not in the eyes of the historian reflect any credit on Lord Wellington as a general. In the first place, he ought not to have given battle with the armies divided…. In the next, the choice of ground was bad; because if he had been beaten he could not have retreated, as there was only one road leading to the forest in the rear. He also committed a fault which might have proved the destruction of all his army, without its ever having commenced the campaign…; he allowed himself to be surprised. On the 15th I was at Charleroi, and had beaten the Prussians without his knowing any thing about it….

[Wellington] certainly displayed great courage and obstinacy; but a little must be taken away even from that, when you consider that he had no means of retreat, and that, had he made the attempt, not a man of his army would have escaped. First, to the firmness and bravery of his troops, for the English fought with the greatest obstinacy and courage, he is principally indebted for the victory, and not to his own conduct as a general; and, next, to the arrival of Blucher, to whom the victory is more to be attributed than to Wellington, and more credit due as a general; because he, though beaten the day before, assembled his troops, and brought them into action in the evening. I believe, however, that Wellington is a man of great firmness. The glory of such a victory is a great thing; but in the eye of the historian, his military reputation will gain nothing by it. (12)

Put it down to fate

By November 1816, Napoleon was no longer expressing astonishment at his defeat. Indeed, he now claimed to have had a premonition of failure. He said to Las Cases:

It is very certain that during the events of 1815, I relinquished the anticipation of ultimate success: I lost my first confidence. Perhaps I found, that I was wearing beyond the time of life at which fortune usually proves favourable; or, perhaps, in my own eyes…the spell that had hung over my miraculous career was broken;  but, at all events, I felt that something was wanting. Kind fortune no longer followed my footsteps…; she was now succeeded by rigid fate, who took ample revenge for the few favours which I obtained, as it were, by force. It is a remarkable fact, that every advantage I obtained at this period, was immediately succeeded by a reverse…. I gained the brilliant victory of Ligny: but my lieutenant robbed me of its fruits. Finally, I triumphed even at Waterloo, and was immediately hurled into the abyss. Yet I must confess that all these strokes of fate, distressed me more than they surprised me. I felt the presentiment of an unfortunate result. Not that this in any way influenced my determinations and measures; but the foreboding certainly haunted my mind. (13)

Fate, or destiny, became Napoleon’s official explanation. Baron Gourgaud left St. Helena in 1818. Shortly thereafter he published a book called The Campaign of 1815, an account of the Waterloo campaign based in large part on notes dictated by Napoleon. Gourgaud billed it as a “simple but faithful recital of facts,” noting that “the Emperor Napoleon [had] been pleased to communicate to me his opinion on the principal events of the Campaign.”

Napoleon, with an army alarmingly inferior in numbers, met his enemy, in this fatal campaign, with almost equal forces on every point of contest. By his ability alone he everywhere established an equilibrium: the enemy, surprised in his cantonments, with his troops scattered over a circuit of twenty leagues, was compelled to engage before his forces were united; and finally, to fight the last battle in a position in which his total ruin was inevitable had he been beaten.

All the probabilities of victory were in favour of the French. The combinations were excellent, and every event appeared to have been provided for: but what can the greatest genius perform against destiny? Napoleon was conquered. (14)

You can read Gourgaud’s book, which includes Napoleon’s detailed observations on the campaign, for free on Google Books.

For more about the Battle of Waterloo, see the National Army Museum’s Waterloo 200 online exhibit and the excellent series of posts on Adventures in Historyland. If you want a quick summary, the Royal Engineers Museum has produced a handy infographic. For perspectives on the French loss, see “Waterloo – Bias, Assumptions, and Perspectives” by Allan Douglas on Napoleon.org.

And if you wonder what might have happened if Napoleon had gone on to fight another battle, read Napoleon in America.

You might also enjoy:

Napoleon’s Nemesis: the Duke of Wellington

Were there Canadians at the Battle of Waterloo?

What if Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo?

Why didn’t Napoleon escape to the United States?

Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?

What were Napoleon’s last words?

How were Napoleonic battlefields cleaned up?

  1. Elizabeth Wormeley Latimer, Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena with General Baron Gourgaud (Chicago, 1903), p. 31.
  2. Emmanuel-August-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena (London, 1823), Vol. I, Part 2, p. 6.
  3. Mémorial de Sainte Hélène, Vol. II, Part 4, p. 252.
  4. Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena with General Baron Gourgaud, p. 187.
  5. Barry E. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1822), p. 249.
  6. Mémorial de Sainte Hélène, Vol. I, Part 2, pp. 6-7.
  7. Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena with General Baron Gourgaud, pp. 185-188.
  8. Mémorial de Sainte Hélène, Vol. II, Part 4, pp. 252-253.
  9. Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena with General Baron Gourgaud, pp. 187-188.
  10. Clementina E. Malcolm, A Diary of St. Helena (1816, 1817): the Journal of Lady Malcolm, edited by Sir Arthur Wilson (London, 1899), p. 31.
  11. Ibid., pp. 30-31.
  12. Barry E. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1822), pp. 299-301.
  13. Mémorial de Sainte Hélène, Vol. IV, Part 7, pp. 143-45.
  14. Gaspard Gourgaud, The Campaign of 1815; or, a Narrative of the Military Operations which took place in France and Belgium during the Hundred Days (London, 1818), p. vi.

 

15 commments on “What did Napoleon say about the Battle of Waterloo?”

  • John Adan says:

    Napoleon made a good analysis of Waterloo action. He missed 3 factors: The mud, reconnoissance and topography. Wellington won because he pulled back from Quatre Bras to Moint St Jean and forced Napoleon to get bogged down in the the muddy quagmire in between. Fierce defense of Hougomont, infantry squares, and laying on the ground behind the ridge helped as well. Mercer’s gunners have been superb. Spontaneous charge of Coldwell and the Belgians into the flanks of the Old Guard delivers the decisive blows. Napoleon cut his teeth in the rocky hills of Corsica. He did not pay enough attention to the Belgian mud. The Hussites prevailed for 100 years in the 15th century by drawing the enemy into muddy drained ponds and against circled wagons. Wellington visited Waterloo 2 years before the battle of 1815 and analyzed its topography. He understood that Napoleon would have to use the coal road from Charleroi to Brussels, the only way through that valley full of alluvial mud.

  • IRENE HARTLMAYR says:

    Napoleon’s comments on the battle of Waterloo are, on the whole,backed up by other commentaries by independent observers,then as now. Napoleon was quite capable of criticising his own mistakes, although his detractors do not usually acknowledge this fact. And then,it is understandable that – considering his reputation as a great general-this final defeat was (apart from the consequences) a humiliating blow to his pride. If Blücher had not turned up in time, the battle would have been lost for Wellington or at least it would not have been such a resounding victory as the British claim it to have been.

  • IRENE HARTLMAYR says:

    And the battle itself would not have been necessary and would not have taken place if the Allies of 1814 had not been adamant about outlawing Napoleon the minute they received the news of his return to France. Interestingly, the only one who reacted-at least momentarily-with common sense to Napoleon’s return was the Austrian Emperor Francis I, who is reported to have said that if the French want to keep “Bonaparte”, let them have him.

  • David Lelliott says:

    After reading a lot of accounts, the battle was lost before it started. Communication seemed to falter. Ney lost it on the 16th and 18th, and Waterloo was a well planned execution. The Prussians came through at the right time. No more than Napoleon would have planned himself.

  • David lunn says:

    “Ask of me anything but time for time is what life is made up of.” Waterloo even in the quagmire was won in its genius campaign. The same old central position was executed before the Duke of Wellington knew where Blucher was had been or was heading after his defeat at Ligny. The emperor Napoleon had not lost any of his skills, only his better servants of victory, as everything that happened on that fateful day of the 18th June 1815 was in the style of Borodino, and at the last the famous Imperial Guard was not defeated as history misinterpreted, but was dispersed into three separate conflicts. The young guard — when the sands of time began to run out — directed upon the Prussians at Placenoit. The middle guard alone and without the cavalry, grenadiers who most certainly would have carried the victory against Maitland’s ferocious volleys, and thirdly last of all the honourable old guard, who only covered the sad retreat of the defeated emperor of France. And so it was if only that fine imperial guard all as one could have marched upon that line of allied rabble supported by its cavalry which was sacrificed earlier in the day. Then victory would surely have been the emperor’s, and with it the salvation of France. Time compressed by insubordination treason and ultimately DESTINY.

  • Gary says:

    Thanks for the post. With your permission I would like to post comment on Waterloo.

  • John Adan, MD, FACC, FSCAI says:

    Napoleon, raised in Corsica, was good at mountain warfare. Like Hannibal, he crossed the Alps and he (Massena) chased the Russians (Suvorov) out of Switzerland. The English welcomed the Moravian Brethren after the Hussite movement ended at the battle of the White Mountain. The English employed these battle hardened Protestants at various hot spots against the Catholics. There is a Moravian Brethren church in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Several communities in USA, to guard against the French raids from Canada. During a British Peninsular tour we found the abandoned ruined Protestant church in Portugal of all places, on the Spanish border. In the church there is a crypt with a chalice, the symbol of Moravian Brethren. Most likely they were stationed there to guard Portugal against Spanish raids. Portugal is the oldest ally of England, since Princess Ferdinanda of Lancaster married the King of Portugal in 1275. France expelled their Protestants, the Hugenots and some of them were settled in Northern Ireland, working as weavers. It is likely that England is more familiar with the Hussite style of warfare, using the muddy terrain plus ringed wagons, under the command of Jan Zizka z Trocnova. In his Will he ordered that after his death a drum be made out of his skin to lead the troops into battle. This was done. They prevailed until their yeoman cavalry betrayed them at the battle of White Mountain. It is remembered to this day in common lore and used as a curse.

  • VideoPortal says:

    Napoleon was born in Ajaccio , on the French-occupied island of Corsica , in 1769, to parents who were of Genoese nobility by birth, though without riches and privileges,

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks for your comment. There’s more about Napoleon’s birth here: http://shannonselin.com/2016/08/birth-napoleon-bonaparte/.

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It was fate; for after all, I ought to have won that battle.

Napoleon Bonaparte