Today is the anniversary of the start of the Waterloo campaign, with Napoleon crossing France’s borders and attacking Charleroi in Belgium. But why did he do it? What chance did he think he had?
With the whole of Europe agreeing to take concerted military action against him, Napoleon was faced with two choices. He could remain in Paris and attempt to defend himself or he could take the fight to the enemy.
By acting quickly, he hoped to strike the Allies before they could meet up as one unbeatable army descending on Paris
But why Brussels? When Napoleon first escaped from Elba, everybody had assumed he was going to threaten the Austrians through Italy where his brother-in-law, Murat, was King of Naples. In the event, during the Hundred Days Murat acted alone and was soundly defeated, so Napoleon could expect no aid from him. Unlike Italy, Belgium was easily reached from Paris without long supply lines. An attack on Belgium also had the advantage of being popular with the French people. The French-speaking south of Belgium was seen by many as a natural part of France and Belgian troops had marched under Napoleon’s Eagles. It was widely believed that the Belgians would not fight against the French.
Having made the decision to attack Belgium Napoleon now had to decide on the direction he was to take. He decided to strike directly toward Brussels, hoping to separate the Prussian and British armies.
A line of forts protected the French border with Belgium and allowed French troops to manoeuvre without the British knowing exactly where they were being concentrated. Napoleon chose to move north to Charleroi.
Early in the morning of 15 June, the French army moved on Charleroi. The Prussian troops defending the town were forced back. By noon Charleroi was in his hands and he could move on north.
Of course, as we all know, he never reached Brussels, being stopped just south of a little town called Waterloo. But what would he have achieved if he had captured the Belgian capital?
Napoleon was not stupid enough to think that with the small army that was all that could still be raised in France he would ever again be able to fight a war of aggression on a grand scale. What he was mainly doing was buying time. He knew that there were going to be elections quite soon in Britain and that a party opposed to further warfare on the continent might well win. In that case, Napoleon thought, there was every chance that the British would no longer take part in military action against him. Perhaps then the alliance of the other powers might fall apart.
Militarily, had he succeeded in defeating the British before the Prussians joined them, he would have been left facing only the Prussian army, which he thought he might succeed in defeating. In fact, the Prussians were forced to retreat at Ligny the day after they were drive out of Charleroi and senior officers argued that they should fall back to Prussia, apparently sharing Napoleon’s belief that the French could beat them once they were isolated from the British. The Russians and the Austrians were too far away to play any role at this stage.
Napoleon’s wife, Marie Louise, who has succeeded Josephine, was the eldest child of the Habsburg emperor Francis II of Austria. Napoleon was convinced that this marriage might persuade Austria to separate itself from the Alliance against him.
Britain, then, was to be defeated in the field and then to remove itself from the Alliance because of political changes; Prussia was to be driven back by military force; Austria was to be persuaded to make a separate settlement because of Napoleon’s connection by marriage to the Emperor; Russia, left alone, would not pursue an aggressive war against France.
Napoleon was chancing everything on a last desperate gamble, but it was not a stupid one. The Prussians did nearly retreat. The British, even with Prussian help, nearly did lose Waterloo, that “damn close run thing”. Napoleon was probably overoptimistic in believing that he could win over the Emperor of Austria. Marie Louise was effectively a prisoner in Vienna and remained so even though Napoleon had been begging the Emperor to send her to Paris ever since he returned from Elba. His repeated promises to the French that she was on her way suggest he may really have come to believe it, but this may have been wishful thinking rather than a fine political calculation.
It is easy to forget, too, just how war weary Europe was. With all the leaders assembled in Vienna when Napoleon escaped from Elba it was comparatively easy for Talleyrand to persuade them to agree immediate military action. But if Napoleon could show that another war would last more than a few weeks, would the European leaders, and their people, be prepared for more fighting? The wars with France had left millions of dead and disrupted the economies of all the countries of Europe. If Napoleon looked set to stop at Belgium and, as he had repeatedly promised, not to threaten the peace of Europe again, how long would the Allies be prepared to keep armies in the field?
In the end Napoleon lost and we will never know if his plans would have succeeded. He certainly would have been in a massively better situation. Had he won the battle, the citizens of Brussels were already making ready to welcome him in and a French Emperor with two capital cities is a much more credible figure on the international stage than one who barely controls much of France. Also, although most of the Belgian troops fought alongside the British, their loyalty was always in doubt. Had Napoleon won, his military force would almost certainly have been substantially strengthened as Belgian troops came over to his side.
In any case, what choice did he have? With the armies of four countries ready to join in a combined attack on Paris that he simply did not have the forces to resist attack was, indeed, the best form of defence. And Brussels was the obvious place to launch his attack.
The first step in the campaign had gone well. The next morning Napoleon’s armies march out of Charleroi on the road towards a tiny hamlet called Quatre Bras.
Chesney, Charles Cornwallis (1868). Waterloo Lectures: a study of the Campaign of 1815.
The illustration shows the Sambre in Charleroi around 1815 (I. Hoolans, detail postcard old edition G.Houdez). It is taken from a website of information about the town: http://www.charleroi-decouverte.be/pages/index.php?id=416
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