Saturday, 4 July 2015

Why did Napoleon Lose the Battle of Waterloo?

by Mugdha Godbole


Napoleon leading his troops
After the French Revolution of 1789, the country of France was in a traumatised time. And the one man that brought all of France together was Napoleon. He was seen by the French people as the saviour of France.

The young officer quickly turned to a dictator and then announced himself to be Emperor of France.
His wife soon gave birth to their first son, Napoleon Francis Joseph Charles. Napoleon seemed determined on starting a Napoleonic dynasty and as he was the first generation of it, unlike many other royal families of the time, he was very sensitive towards humiliation- both to either himself or his country.
Napoleon wanted to isolate Britain from the rest of Europe so he conquered many countries of Europe and enforced a continental blockade of Britain which was nearly impossible to impose.

Soon, Napoleon became aware of the alliance between Britain and Portugal. He saw Portugal as an “open door” for Britain. Napoleon now went on the offensive and decided to invade Portugal through Spain.
However, Spain proved to be a costlier battle than anyone had expected; regarding both economic and human cost. War in Spain was brutal. Men were skinned alive and buried alive. Even Napoleon himself said “All the circumstances of my disasters are bound up in that fatal knot. The campaign was a resounding failure- a humiliation.

In times like those, it would be very foolhardy to trust someone- even if they were your closest ally. Napoleon, unfortunately, made that fatal error. He somehow convinced himself that he and the Tsar of Russia had a special bond- over Britain. In late 1811, Napoleon was thoroughly shocked when Russia made an agreement with Britain which meant trade was open between both of them. In Napoleon’s eyes, this was a complete betrayal and needed to be harshly answered. Napoleon assembled the largest military operation to date. His army consisted of 600 000 men and his carriage was sewn with diamonds in case of hurried flight. All in all, he was well prepared. Napoleon was fighting a life or death struggle for his empire.

In June 1812, Napoleon’s forces invaded Russia, but, much to their surprise, the Russian army fell back. In July 1812, they had a small battle with the Russians but Napoleon kept getting sucked further into the country. But by that time, 80,000 soldiers were dead; thousands were too weak or ill to continue; and Napoleon had lost a one-third of his central strike force. Napoleon had misjudged the length of the supply lines needed and the Grand Armee had been forced to ‘live off the land’. However, as the Russians had retreated, they had burned crops and scorched the land. The army was soon decimated by hunger, exhaustion and disease.

Battle of Borodino, 1812
Soon, the big decisive battle that Napoleon had wanted for so long was soon the arrive at Borodino. The Russians took up a strong defensive position. Napoleon, then, made his big tactical error. He was cautious and soon his caution would prove to be self- destructive. Napoleon opted for a frontal attack. The battleground soon became a bloodbath. The French won but Napoleon had greatly underestimated the enemy- a trait that was to be his bane in the future. The winter of 1812 in Russia was especially harsh. The whole campaign had been a massive humiliation for Napoleon. 95% of his army had been captured or were dead and two-thirds had died because of other causes that military. The campaign was a catalogue of mistakes made by Napoleon. 1812 looked to be the beginning of the end for Napoleon.

The rest of all the powers of Europe had all allied themselves against Napoleon. Napoleon won some military victories in 1813 but his opposition came up with an effective tactic that saw them achieve more victories. They only attacked when Napoleon’s marshals were present but fell back when Napoleon came.
The weight of numbers finally crushed Napoleon as France had never fully recovered from the disaster of 1812. In 1814, the Russians captured Paris and the Tsar entered the city. Napoleon had finally paid the price for the failure in Russia. By that time, France was exhausted. Napoleon still wanted to fight but the population was against him. The entire senate had turned against Napoleon. Finally, he agreed to abdicate and was exiled to the small island of Elba. On 26 February 1815, Napoleon left Elba for France. He was greeted as a national hero and was seen as a revolutionary patriot.

On 20th March, 1815, he arrived in Paris. In reality, Napoleon was prepared to forget what happened but the Seventh Coalition were set on vengeance at the audacity of Napoleon’s escape and the threat he might possess to the peace of Europe. Napoleon then attacked Blücher’s Prussian army but they managed to reorganise themselves. Wellington offered battle to Napoleon after learning of the Prussian army’s reorganisation and that they would be able to march to support. 

Battle of Waterloo, June 18, 1815
At the start of the Battle of Waterloo, Wellington managed to withstand several French attacks. Napoleon was engaged in battle when he saw movement far out to the east. It was the Prussians. Blücher’s army had come and smashed the right flank of the French army. The French and the Prussians were soon locked in battle. The French were under immense pressure from both sides so they had to split their resources.


Napoleon’s tactic in most battles was to try and outflank the enemy. However at Waterloo, the topography and Wellington’s position made that impossible. Instead, the enemy was outflanking him. The Battle of Waterloo was a staggering defeat and he was at the state of no return. One month after Waterloo- Napoleon surrendered. He was exiled to St. Helena where he spent the rest of his days- humiliated but at least not dead.

Napoleon sent into exile for the final time, 1815
The downfall of Napoleon was a chain of events. It began when he waged an economic war against Britain. Portugal and Spain weakened him further. He woefully trusted the Tsar Alexander. The invasion of Russia was a catastrophic disaster and one that spelled the end for him. Waterloo was the final push that sent the Napoleonic Empire crashing into a dark abyss, never to return.


The world according to Napoleon was changing and Napoleon just did not adapt to it.

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