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