What did Napoleon say about the Battle of Waterloo?
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
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 excellent series of posts on Adventures in Historyland. And if you are curious about what might have happened if Napoleon had gone on to fight another battle, read Napoleon in America.
You might also enjoy:
The Duke of Wellington: Napoleon’s Nemesis
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?
- Elizabeth Wormeley Latimer, Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena with General Baron Gourgaud (Chicago, 1903), p. 31.
- 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.
- Mémorial de Sainte Hélène, Vol. II, Part 4, p. 252.
- Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena with General Baron Gourgaud, p. 187.
- Barry E. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1822), p. 249.
- Mémorial de Sainte Hélène, Vol. I, Part 2, pp. 6-7.
- Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena with General Baron Gourgaud, pp. 185-188.
- Mémorial de Sainte Hélène, Vol. II, Part 4, pp. 252-253.
- Talks of Napoleon at St. Helena with General Baron Gourgaud, pp. 187-188.
- Clementina E. Malcolm, A Diary of St. Helena (1816, 1817): the Journal of Lady Malcolm, edited by Sir Arthur Wilson (London, 1899), p. 31.
- Ibid., pp. 30-31.
- Barry E. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1822), pp. 299-301.
- Mémorial de Sainte Hélène, Vol. IV, Part 7, pp. 143-45.
- 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.
49 commments on “What did Napoleon say about the Battle of Waterloo?”
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It was fate; for after all, I ought to have won that battle.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Thanks David. Eloquently put.
Thanks for the post. With your permission I would like to post comment on Waterloo.
Thanks Gary. Please do comment on Waterloo – that would be most welcome.
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.
Very interesting, John. Thanks for these details about the Moravian Brethren. I knew nothing about them.
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,
Thanks for your comment. There’s more about Napoleon’s birth here: http://shannonselin.com/2016/08/birth-napoleon-bonaparte/.
Thanks, Tamela. I’m glad you’re enjoying them.
Was Napoleon actually on the Battlefield during the Battle of Waterloo?
According to the Wikipedia article on the Battle of Waterloo, which appears to be well-referenced, “Napoleon initially commanded the battle from Rossomme farm, where he could see the entire battlefield, but moved to a position near La Belle Alliance early in the afternoon. Command on the battlefield (which was largely hidden from his view) was delegated to Ney.”
This is another revealing narrative. However, another account has it that Napoleon once said on the isle of St. Helena, “Waterloo will erase the memories of all my victories.”
That sounds like something he would say.
I have a source (a newspaper article by none other than Karl Marx) who quotes Napoleon as saying “Russian trickery… cheated England at the Congress of Vienna to such a degree that Napoleon at St. Helena exclaimed, ‘Had he been victorious at Waterloo, he could not have imposed more humiliating conditions upon England.'” Does anybody know where to find the original French or the original English translation (rather than Marx’s rather free translation into English, which was a third language for him anyway)?
I don’t, off the top of my head, know where to find the original quote, Spencer. If I come across it, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, maybe someone else will provide the answer.
Vandamme told Grouchy to go to the sound of the guns and he did not and here was the critical failure, a vast body of men wasted and Boucher free to exercise the coup de grace, but if Grouchy had listened then, all of us would not exist….back to the future and all that.
How true, Mi. That’s the thing about ‘what ifs’ – change one thing and there’s a raft of unforeseen repercussions.
Thank you. This was very helpful to me for my national history day project!
You’re most welcome, Abasuquar.
Great article to see again. I know Ney has some “blame” but Grouchy’s inaction has influence too. I can’t say Ney didn’t try hard tho, five horses shot out from under him, charge after charge. It’s a wonder he wasn’t injured or pinned under one of those horses. Thanks again for this article.
You’re welcome, Randy. Glad you enjoyed it.
If everything did not happen exactly as it did, you would not exist. Watch back to the future 1,2 and 3 so the next question is why do u exist? Why are u here? What have u to do? Young men have better things to do than dying at the age of nineteen.
Very true, Mi!
It comes down to command choices & therefore Napoleon
If only he took Murat instead Ney
Davout on right instead D’Erlon
Lamarque on Left
And waited a week to consolidate corps and drier ground surely?
They would dispensed Prussians entirely and shattered Wellington in most likely two engagements, one Wellington rushing save Blucher & three days later. Stand at Mont st Jean without Blucher & Napoleon secures France.
He also needs to Guillotine the Bourbons & Talleyrand
Thanks for this good “what if”, Andi.
Hi Shannon, yours is a great history website, I enjoy it a lot. Little is said about Napoleon´s health at Waterloo. He suffered badly from haemorrhoids at the battle (his diet was lacking, he was normally constipated and that he liked to lead his battles personally, and those factors could contribute to explain what happened at Waterloo) Because he was suffering with his piles, Napoleon couldn’t sit on his horse to lead his troops as he normally did.
When he was on the battlefield, he was able to take daring decisions which on many occasions tipped the balance in his favour. However, although he tried to delay the start of this battle, he couldn’t, so he had to decide on strategy from his tent while he took baths to alleviate the pain and was half asleep from the effect of the laudanum. In that situation, he couldn’t see that the Prussian army was coming up from behind to surprise them, and his troops lost the battle.
The Devil is in the details…
Thanks for your kind comment about the website, Blas, and for the details about how Napoleon’s health affected his performance at the battle.
The great myth about Waterloo is Wellington got lucky when Blucher and the Prussians arrived. In reality Wellington only fought the battle because he knew the Prussians were coming.
He didn’t have to beat the French, he merely had to hold them long enough to allow the Prussians to arrive, when overwhelming numbers would lead to a French defeat.
Wellington’s great strength was as a defensive general and his selection of ground. His use of a reverse slope for example, was a classic tactic he used in Spain to neutralise French artillery.
Frankly the idea that Wellington was a poor general is laughable. He defeated every one of the French marshals who faced him in Spain. That is hardly the record of a bad general.
Thanks for your comments. Very well said about Wellington.
The Guard were feared throughout Europe and there were many times Napoleon used them at crucial times of battle knowing full well that the enemy would break at their approach, the problem at Waterloo is the British didn’t follow the script and stood their ground and not only that poured effective volleys of fire into them. The Guard could have pressed on and taken the day as they had done in previous battles but they realised the British weren’t going to cower and run as they were expected to, (then again maybe some had fought in the Peninsula campaign and knew of their dogged fighting qualities).
I feel not enough credit is given to those Redcoats who confronted the Guard and stopped them doing what they had done at so many other battles, even Napoleon himself commented in 1816 about the dogged determination and fighting qualities of the English/British soldiers at Waterloo and I believe had the Guard been confronted by another nations army the line would have broke and he would have achieved yet another last minute victory.
Good point, Steve. Thanks.
If Wellesley had chosen to give battle only because he received assurance from Blucher, Napoleon too, gave battle because he was assured of Grouchy keeping away the Prussians.
Good point, Ankit.
Guard’s final attack was the last opportunity to break the British positions, even after Grouchy’s errors had done their effects on the battleground. It was planned with the massive force of around 37 battalions (15 of them from line-infantry); unfortunately more than half this force was deployed, little by little, to fight and stop the Prussians around and in Plancenoit. When Napoleon launched that attack it was led by only 11 battalions, so it was repelled quite easy by the superior (and well placed) British forces. I believe this is the crucial turning point of the battle.
I really appreciate the information you provided here. My question is how do you classify your novel “Napoleon in America” is it a historiographic metafiction or ukrony? Thanks.
Thanks, Ipek. Napoleon in America is alternate history, so I guess it would be closer to uchronia.
To Steve’s point about the victory at Waterloo, being largely an outcome of the “determination & fighting qualities of the English / British soldiers at Waterloo”. I believe Napoleon spoke specifically about the grit and bravery of the Irish and Scots at Waterloo. My great, great, great grandfather fought at this battle at the end of 3 years continuous campaigning in Europe in 1815 in the 2nd Battalion of the Black Watch (the non kilt-wearing battalion) and his regiment numerically reflected the nationality ratio of the British force as a whole, of Scottish 40%, Irish 40%, English 20%. The total force was of course, a coalition of 7 countries under the command the Irishman Arthur Wellesley, who I would nevertheless describe as ‘Anglo-Irish’. Thus the oft repeated description of the battle being an “English victory” is tiresome. To describe it like this is tantamount to describing “Operation Overlord” as a American operation, based on the nationality of Dwight Eisenhower.
I agree, Kevin. Thanks for highlighting the multinational nature of the force that defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.
Grouchy comes in for a fair bit of criticism but his last order from Napoleon was to follow the Prussians, not “pursue”. Napoleon was without Berthier, his outstanding chief of staff. With an innate ability to read the Emperor’s awful handwriting and clarify the intentions of the orders, he might have, just might have understood the imperative of not letting the disorganised Prussians regroup. That failure to follow his usual hard pursuit of a defeated army gave Blucher that all important factor “time”.
Napoleon actually used the appearance of the Prussians on his right flank to both good and bad effect. He told his marshals that the grey uniforms marching towards them were in fact Grouchy’s Grenadiers. Morale is a very delicate factor in any Army. There were already rumours of traitors or officers less than faithful to Napoleon working in the ranks. Once the lie was exposed that fragile element must have suffered a severe blow.
Once the Guard stumbled then fell back before the volleys of the British, the cry went up “La Guard recule” and morale collapsed. To his discredit, Wellington claimed that the Prussians arrived an hour later than in actual fact thus crediting his own troops with the disintegration of the columns. He later claimed that it was an attempt to quell the rising militarism in Prussia by not giving them to much credit. Possibly prescient, probably not. Enjoyed the article and the informed comments. Hope my memory has proved reasonably secure!
Thanks, Dave. Great analysis!