What if Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo?

Napoleon winning the Battle of Waterloo is one of the ten most popular scenarios in English-language alternate history, and the most popular one in French. (1) The Waterloo “what if?” pops up repeatedly in alternate history forums and has been the subject of numerous books, stories and articles. Broadly speaking, exploring what might have happened if Napoleon had won at Waterloo involves pursuing one or more of the following questions.

How might Napoleon win the Battle of Waterloo?

The Battle of Waterloo by Clément-Auguste Andrieux

The Battle of Waterloo by Clément-Auguste Andrieux

Napoleon himself spent time reflecting on how Waterloo might have gone differently, as discussed in my post about his comments on the battle. When the question is considered by others, answers range from specific changes in the campaign…

  • Marshal Grouchy and his men arrive on the battlefield. – Robert Aron, Victoire à Waterloo [Victory at Waterloo] (1937); Steven Marthinsen, Napoleon’s Waterloo Campaign: An Alternate History (2 volumes, 2003)
  • Napoleon captures Hougoumont farm. – Joseph Edgar Chamberlin, “If James Macdonnel Had Not Closed the Gate of Hugomont Castle” in The Ifs of History (1907)
  • The British abandon Quatre Bras. – Peter Hofschröer, “What if Constant Rebecque Had Obeyed Wellington’s Order of 7 pm, 15 June 1815, and Abandoned Quatre Bras?” in The Napoleon Options: Alternate Decisions of the Napoleonic Wars edited by Jonathan North (2000)
  • Napoleon defeats Wellington and continues the fight against the Prussians on June 19th. – Andrew Uffindell, “Napoleon and Waterloo” in The Napoleon Options
  • Napoleon is defeated at Waterloo but finds fresh troops at Quatre Bras, with which he organizes an ambush of the pursuing Prussians. – John R. Elting, “Ambush at Quatre Bras” in The Napoleon Options
  • Napoleon, taking into account a message from Grouchy that the Prussians are marching to join the British, changes his plan of attack. – Antoine Reverchon, Et si Napoléon avait gagné à Waterloo? (2015)

To more fanciful factors…

  • Napoleon does not have an attack of hemorrhoids on the day of the battle. – Luc Mary and Philippe Valode, Et si…Napoléon avait triomphé à Waterloo? [And if…Napoleon had triumphed at Waterloo?] (2011)
  • Various small things happen differently, beginning in the 14th century, leading to Napoleon’s victory. – Roland C. Wagner, Chroniques du désespoir [Chronicles of Despair] (1991)
  • Lavoisier’s invention of dynamite in 1794 leads to Napoleon’s victory at Waterloo. – Jean-Claude Dunyach, “La dynamique de la revolution” [“Revolutionary Dynamics”] in Déchiffrer la trame (2001)
  • Napoleon has a dirigible to supply aerial intelligence at Waterloo. – Tony Keen, “Napoleon’s Airship” in Visions, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1990) (2)

If Napoleon wins, do the allies make peace or does the fighting continue?

Many historians argue that a French victory at Waterloo would not have made much difference to the ultimate outcome, as Napoleon would have gone on to be defeated within a matter of weeks or months. See for example, All About History’s interview with Alan Forrest and Mark Adkin.

In an intriguing version of “it wouldn’t have mattered much,” Nick Tingley notes that Napoleon’s nephew wound up on the French throne anyhow. See “What if Napoleon Bonaparte had won the Battle of Waterloo” on the History is Now magazine blog.

What are the implications for Europe?

Historian G.M. Trevelyan argued that even if a victorious Napoleon became a man of peace, his former enemies would maintain their standing armies, stifling reformist movements on the continent for decades. See “If Napoleon Had Won the Battle of Waterloo” in Clio: A Muse (1913).

Alternatively, Andrew Roberts suggests in “Why We’d Be Better Off if Napoleon Never Lost at Waterloo” (Smithsonian Magazine, June 2015) that liberalism would have flourished.

Does the French empire expand?

French expansion to England and/or other continents is often mooted. Historian Helmut Stubbe da Luz speculates that Napoleon would have invaded Russia again and potentially extended his empire as far as China (see “If Napoleon won Waterloo, French-speaking Europe, no world wars?”). Alternate history writers have also imagined some far-reaching consequences.

  • 150 years later, England is part of the French empire. – George Collyn, “Unification Day” in The Traps of Time, edited by Michael Moorcock (Penguin, 1979)
  • After a Great War in the early 20th century, England falls to the European federation, leaving – by the 1930s – only the New Hanseatic League (chiefly Scotland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Estonia) as hold-outs. – Jenny Davidson, The Explosionist (HarperTeen, 2008) and Invisible Things (HarperCollins, 2010)
  • Assassination attempts are constant in 1958 New Orleans, capital of New France and home of the Emperor-in-exile of Eurasia. – Felix C. Gotschalk, “The Napoleonic Wars,” in Beyond Time, edited by Sandra Ley (Pocket Books, 1976)
  • Hitler leads an Amerind-Negro army against Europe. – Paul Van Herck, “Opération Bonaparte” originally in Dutch, translated into French by Michel Védéwé as Caroline, oh! Caroline (Champs-Élysées 1976) 

Read more

For further discussion of “what if Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo,” see Alternate History Weekly Update, the Alternate History Discussion Board, the AltHistory Wiki, the Total War CenterThis Day in Alternate History and this post by Michelle R. Woods.

If you enjoy alternate history, see my posts about Napoleon in Alternate History and Alternate History by Napoleon, and check out Napoleon in America.

You might also enjoy:

Could Napoleon have escaped from St. Helena?

10 Interesting Facts About Napoleon Bonaparte

Alternate History Books by Women

How were Napoleonic battlefields cleaned up?

Assassination Attempts on Napoleon Bonaparte

Marshal Grouchy in America

  1. Evelyn C. Leeper, “Alternate History 101,” http://leepers.us/evelyn/ah101.htm accessed May 29, 2015.
  2. Thanks to Uchronia for the descriptions of the short stories referred to in this post.

29 commments on “What if Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo?”

  • James Joseph Styles says:

    A very popular discussion topic as proved by the books and papers on the subject.

  • Tom Vance says:

    The best scenario, of course, would have been the battle of Waterloo not being forced on Napoleon by the Allies. I’ve always been intrigued by the speculation that the two world wars may not have occurred had Napoleon’s plans for a unified Europe succeeded.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      That is intriguing, Tom. Of course other wars may have taken their place, particularly if Britain remained outside Napoleon’s empire.

    • Irene.Hartlmayr says:

      Hello Tom,
      I am glad that you state the fact that the war of 1815 was forced onto Napoleon by the Allies, a fact that is ignored by most people, who go on the assumption that Napoleon was out to dominate Europe once again.

    • Mitxael says:

      Is difficult to say. Just consider that germany and UK were allies against Napoleon buy in both WW, France and England were allies against Germany. Europe needed to be nearly destroy to get some years of peace and Waterloo only involved armies.

  • Irene.Hartlmayr says:

    Hi Shannon,
    Thanks for this nice summary of the what-ifs concerning Waterloo.

  • Hale Cullom says:

    Got in on this quite late, but going to comment anyway.

    It appears to me that Napoleon’s best chance to win the campaign, possibly even the war, was on the 16th, by getting Count D’Erlon’s corps into Blucher’s rear on the Ligny battlefield, about Marbais. That could have occurred had either (1) Ney captured Quatre Bras by moving sooner; or (2) had D’Erlon’s mysterious movement towards Napoleon’s wing continued; and, (as with a little reconnaissance by the former, it might well have) had the Count inclined his march a bit more to the north.

    In all probability, Blucher would not only have been defeated at Ligny but crushed.

    But once that did not occur, the odds then got very steep. Even had Blucher’s arrival at Waterloo been inhibited by Grouchy somehow on the 18th (perhaps as Marthinsen sets out in his alternative history), Napoleon’s exhausted army still has to fight another battle on the 19th — against Blucher after beating Wellington.

    I think the only scenario that comes out positively long term for the French is the crushing of the Prussians in isolation on the 16th. Wellington is then liable to be run out of Belgium, and the question then becomes whether the allies want to go on.

    The allied war effort in 1815 was immense, but it was dependent on British subsidies. I wonder if these would have continued to be forthcoming after a significant reverse in Belgium? The British public was quite war weary. Losing to the recently vanquished Napoleon would have likely been quite disheartening. Moreover, I wonder if the Austrians, with Italy back in their camp, would have felt inclined to push the French to the wall (including Kaiser Franz’s brother in law). . .to mostly save Belgium and the Prussian position on the Rhine?

    Seems like there would be at least the possibility of making a deal.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      I’m glad you jumped in, Hale. It’s an intriguing scenario and I wonder what the allies would have done.

  • Mats Svensson says:

    Best looking author 😉
    Nah, seriously I love your book.

  • J M says:

    The allies would not have stopped …… he was an outsider ….

  • Hale Cullom says:

    With a tip of the hat to Stephen Marthinsen’s superb alternative history “Napoleon’s Waterloo Campaign” I append my own “victory at Waterloo” scenario, written for the board wargame “Napoleon’s Last Battles.”

    To summarize, I think, had Napoleon won in Belgium, his chances of survival were better than is generally recognized because everyone was quite broke.

    That said, his best opportunity to win the campaign vanished on 16 June, when D’Erlon’s I Corps failed to come into action at either Quatre Bras or Ligny. The second best chance vanished on the morning of the 17th, when the Emperor elected to change focus to Wellington rather than pursuing Blucher with the bulk of his army (thereby making Wellington’s less handy army come to him). This scenario is a “third best.”


  • Hale Cullom says:

    I see I’d commented earlier. Okay, not too much different this time…

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Hale. Your scenario is fascinating! I love how much you’ve thought all this through.

  • RUSS says:

    Another idea (from someone who has a Dutch Belgian army and thinks they are seriously under rated) is that the army, peed off at the treaty joining the two nations, decides to change sides.

  • Stephen William Barker says:

    Personally in the long run I don’t think Napoleon winning at Waterloo would have made much difference. A previous comment suggested that Allies would not have continued fighting Napoleon had he won as they were all broke. The same applies to France which had been drained by continual warfare and the effects of the British blockade.
    Something that could have changed the course of events would have been the death of Wellington during the course of the battle. He was fortunate not to have been hit. Had he died or been seriously wounded, would his successor have displayed the same skill in beating off the French attacks until the Prussians arrived.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      I think you’re right that a Napoleonic win would not have made much difference, Stephen. That’s a very interesting speculation about the effect the death of Wellington could have had on the battle.

  • Charles Pineda, Jr. says:

    Wellington learning of the Prussian defeat retreated to Waterloo. Although the Prussians had been defeated by Napoleon they were still organized. Therefore, Wellington retreating ten to fifteen miles and the Prussian reorganizing Napoleon should have gone after Blucher and his Prussians and destroyed what was left of that defeated army. Then he could have send cavalry to scout the positions of the English army, attacked it, and destroy it too without worrying about Prussians coming to Wellington’s aid. With Grouchy’s troops now with Napoleon he could do several things: Starve off the English, allow the ground to dry hard and use his artillery to destroy the British. With good (hiding troops behind hills) scouting reports, moving artillery, infantry, and cavalry behind the British line, and with plenty of time, the British army would have soundly been defeated, and, in all probability, surrendered.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks for this plausible alternative scenario, Charles.

  • Randall Brown says:

    Ney’s total failure at taking Quatre Bras, the fact that Napoleon was a very sick man at Waterloo [one author even suggesting that he took a two-hour nap during the battle!], and third, the deterioration of the Old Guard from its top form two years earlier all added up to failure. Of course it didn’t help Napoleon that the man on the other side of the field was Wellington.

  • Ivan Tenev says:

    Napoleon was doomed, all European monarchs were against him. France was cornered and the fact that in 1814 no people’s guérilla rose against the Allied armies, like in Spain and Russia, proves that people were tired of war. Even if Waterloo was won by Napoleon, he couldn’t stop about 600,000 Russians and Austrians who were marching toward France already during the Battle of Waterloo. Thank you Shannon.

  • Gary Schotel says:

    Interesting article and interesting comments.

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The Napoleon of 1815, one week after his triumphal entry into Brussels, was offering to Wellington the same facilities to evacuate the seat of war which the English general had offered at Cintra, seven years before, to the defeated lieutenant of the Emperor.

G.M. Trevelyan