The Waterloo Defeat: Not Grouchy’s Mistake


Grouchy

Somebody. I forgot his name.

Just as I like football analysis by football pundits I tend to like battle analysis by strategy pundits. Now that (being Dutch) Dutch football victories are ancient history these days I switched my attention to Waterloo, two centuries ago. A great Dutch victory 🙂

Found a nice analysis. The question is: could Napoleon have won Waterloo if Grouchy had showed up in time to stop the Prussian attack on Napoleon’s right flank?

The situation: Napoleon has defeated the Prussians at Ligny and the Anglo-Dutch at Quatre Bras. Wellington retreats to Mont St. Jean and the Prussians with Blucher in the direction of Wavre. Napoleon attacks the entrenched Wellington at Waterloo (Mt St. Jean). He orders Grouchy to pursuit Blücher, but Grouchy can’t find Blücher and moves away, north-east from Napoleon, even when he hears the sound of guns in the distance (Waterloo guns). Blücher takes a shortcut and returns in time to the battlefield to attack Napoleon’s right flank and give the final blow. Rest is history.

Afterwards Napoleon and many of his veterans blame Grouchy for moving (too) far away.

The emperor himself, recalling the Waterloo Campaign, also blamed the marshal: “Finally, I triumphed even at Waterloo, and was immediately hurled into the abyss. On my right, the extraordinary maneuvers of Grouchy, instead of securing victory, completed my ruin.”

Still, Marshall Grouchy has no Marechal Grouchy road named after him in France, unlike other marshalls.

Situation was analyzed by military historian Stephen Millar. I recommend his article. He said the mistake was not Grouchy’s. Grouchy informed that he had plans to move further northeast. Napoleon didn’t react.

Grouchy’s dispatch, however, caused little alarm at French headquarters. If Napoleon or Soult, his chief-of-staff, had any reservations about Grouchy’s confusion, they did not immediately attempt to clarify the marshal’s previous instructions: 

“Napoleon and Soult, therefore, one would suppose, might have seen by the programme which Grouchy had marked out for himself in his despatch that in all probability he was not clearly apprehending the situation, and that it was therefore possible that he might make a serious, perhaps a very serious, mistake the next day. They ought, therefore, if they suspected this to be the state of the case, to have replied at once, giving him precise instructions

Napoleon forgot to give Grouchy sufficient information.

“Yet although Grouchy told the officer who carried the 10 pm despatch to wait for an answer, none was returned. Grouchy was not even informed where the army was, and that it was confronted by the English army in position. Nor was he advised, as he surely should have been, that Domon’s reconnaissance had proved that a strong Prussian column, consisting, as we have seen, of the two beaten corps, those of Ziethen and Pirch had retired on Wavre by way of Gery and Gentinnes. It is impossible to account for these omissions.”

Grouchy expected Blucher to fall back further north, to defend Brussels. He was not aware that Wellington had entrenched himself southwest and that Blücher would move towards Wellington.

“In fact, the fatal error of Napoleon again confronts us. A line to Grouchy that the English were in position intending to fight would have poured a flood of light upon the nature of Blucher’s dispositions, but Grouchy was deliberately left to make a choice between conjectures, and for want of the information at Napoleon’s disposal, he conjectured wrongly. Grouchy’s movement on Wavre, therefore, was in response to what he supposed Blucher’s intentions to be, but it was entirely useless in view of the plan which Blucher was actually adopting.”

When he finally heard the ‘sound of guns’ he was already to far away to head Blücher off. He was on the wrong side of a river, had not captured the bridges over the river, the roads were in a bad state and if he would have tried to cross the river the strong Prussian flank would probably have stopped him.

“While it is true that an advance by the French left wing towards the Dyle at daybreak would have been preferable, such an movement did not subsequently ensure a successful intervention at Waterloo. In fact, it is probable that Grouchy’s troops would have run into great difficulties trying to secure the two bridges

(…)

“To decide the matter of time M. Quinet [French writer and historian Edgar Quinet] induced two friends of his to traverse the whole journey on foot. It took them five and a half hours. Thus they walked at a rate of a little more than three miles an hour.

An army corps could not advance at anything like that rate, more particularly when the state of the roads is taken into account. Two miles an hour is a fair rough estimate for the march of an army corps under such circumstances as then prevailed. Grouchy’s leading columns would therefore have debouched on Plancenoit at 9 pm, assuming that he started from Sart-a-Walhain at twelve.

This calculation is based entirely upon the assumption that his march would have been unimpeded by the Prussians. Such might have been the case, but at the same time it is most improbable that it would have been so. If the Prussians disputed the passage of the river, it is clear that Grouchy could not arrive on the field of Waterloo that night. If they did not do so, he could not arrive until the battle was over.”

In other words, no way that Grouchy could have halted Blüchers attack on Napoleons right flank. He should have tried it, however. He was not trying and not thinking. Millar, citing one of his sources, theorist Hooper:

“However, a hard-fought, but unsuccessful, attempt to reinforce Napoleon’s army would, in all probablity, be preferable to ignoring events (…) “The truth is that, on the morning of the 18th, the facts of the situation, if we may be allowed the phrase, rendered it impossible for Grouchy to prevent the junction of Wellington and Blucher.

One fact alone ought to settle the question for ever. Grouchy, at Gembloux, was separated from Napoleon at La Belle Alliance by more than twice the distance which separated Blucher from Wellington. No manoeuvering could have made the lines of march shorter. Four Prussian corps d’armee were nearer to Wellington than two French corps d’armee were to Napoleon. Moreover, one half the Prussian force could, if needed, have been thrown upon Grouchy’s army at some point in any line of march he might have selected.

Still further, Wellington and Blucher were executing a well-defined concerted plan, and were in close communication. The reverse was the case with Napoleon and Grouchy. Turn it which way we may, consider it a question of generalship, or one of time and distance, and we arrive at the same conclusion. It was, on the morning of the 18th, beyond the power of Grouchy to alter materially the battle of Waterloo. This, however, does not exonerate him from the charges of not having patrolled to his left, and of not having tried at least to cross the Dyle at Moustier and Ottignies; nor does it exonerate him from the charge of having clumsily conducted the battle of Wavre.”

But the real man to blame was Napoleon. He selected Grouchy as wing commander: he failed to give him the right information: he himself underestimated the power of Prussians to rally and return. So he lost. In unforgettable style, though…

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