The Battle of Waterloo was an extremely significant battle – it represented the bitter defeat of the French Emperor, Napoleon, who was previously initiating numerous battles across the continent against the British. Waterloo was the end point of these Napoleonic Wars and I believe that the British leader, Wellington, played a big part in this defeat. However, I think that the help from the Prussians was just as important as the role of Wellington in the allied victory at Waterloo; the training and equipment of the allies put them at an advantage over the enemy (in particular, their discipline); and the mistakes made by French leaders Napoleon (delaying the battle) and Ney (not obeying orders) combined with the poor weather conditions, made it easier for the allies to push forwards.
Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley – Wellington – was a prestigious military leader who was able to devote his life to improving himself, militarily. He had tremendous military skill and could analyse a military situation and terrain, and formulate the appropriate tactics. He was an exceptional horseman – he once rode 300 miles across difficult terrain to reconnoitre. This was important at the battle of Waterloo because he made sure that his cavalry were greatly trained, and this enabled them to charge a heavy cavalry attack at the first French infantry attack. This attack was part of Waterloo and although not successful by itself, the charge of the British heavy cavalry immediately after was significant; Wellington ordered his unseen cavalry to attack. This is responsible for the victory at Waterloo because valuable time was needed for D’Erlon’s corps to reform, in addition to 3,000 casualties and over 2,000 prisoners taken. However, I don’t think that Wellington should get full responsibility for this attack – it was Uxbridge who ordered this charge, so he should be credited. But, Uxbridge did use one of Wellington’s favourite tactics which was a key part in this victory: the reverse slope.
Wellington’s most renowned tactic was to hide his troops on a reverse slope – this protected the troops from artillery fire and the enemy’s infantry; he brought troops to the front line at 25m. This helped in the cavalry charge as the enemy was unaware of the sheer number of unseen horses and soldiers nearby, so they were unprepared for such an attack. Wellington knew exactly where he wanted to be on the battlefield and this is responsible for the allied victory because to win the battle, you need to have control of the terrain and, if you know the place, then you’re able to spot any potential tricks of the enemy. Hence, Wellington could be given some credit for this success.
Apart from the battle at Assaye, Wellington always conserved his troops and didn’t waste them on ‘heroic’ movements; he waited until certain of a decisive victory, unlike Marshal Ney of France who organised and led a massed French cavalry attack. This attack was not supported by the French infantry and artillery – which many saw as a necessity. This revealed to be an unwise decision by Ney because a cavalry alone is not enough to break the great tactic of the British squares: these are indestructible, and Wellington put forwards this command. Though Wellington is not fully responsible for this victory because he did not come up with the squares tactic, so it is plausible that a different commander would’ve formed squares at this. Furthermore, I think that the victory at this battle was more due to the poor decisions made by Ney, rather than the good ones by Wellington, because if Ney would’ve just followed his orders then the squares would’ve been penetrated more easily. The missed opportunity at Ligny also supports my viewpoint: that Ney is more to blame than Wellington is to credit; Napoleon planned to split Wellington and the Prussians and for Ney to move his troops from Quatre Bras. This would’ve won Napoleon the war…if only Ney actually appeared. This would’ve led to a French victory for the war, but instead it was a mere battle victory. For this reason, I think Ney is partly responsible for the allied victory as he prevented a potential major win for France and hindered French advancement, allowing the allies to push forwards.
On the other hand, the French artillery did begin to press forwards, and the squares were under intense fire and almost broke Wellington’s centre. This was until the first Prussian unit entered the battle, increasing the numbers of the allies to almost 3x that of the French. This relieved pressure on Wellington’s troops and stopped them being pushed back any further. Yet, the extent of the significance of the Prussians was not seen until after 7:30pm; Napoleon still hoped to break Wellington before the rest of the Prussians arrived, so he set off the French Imperial Guard attack. They did manage to break Wellington’s line, but retreated due to the arrival of Blucher’s (Prussian) army. You could say that the French retreated, hence allied victory, because it was led by Ney (his failures earlier on in the battle make it easy to point the finger at him); because of the Imperial Guard being made up of troops who were defeated in the first infantry attack; or even because of Wellington’s well timed attacks – however, I think that the role of the Prussians was most responsible as it increased the force and effectiveness of the attacks, therefore I believe that there would’ve been no allied victory without the Prussians.
The French had superior artillery to the allied: France had 252 guns whereas the allies had 156; the French 12pdr cannon had ½ a pound more charge than the British 12pdr cannon and it could travel almost 200 yards further. Wellington, himself, was also critical of his artillery “To tell the truth, I was not very pleased with the Artillery…I would have had no artillery for the second part of the battle…” and he opposed when there were talks of giving the artillery officers a cash reward. I think that luck played a part in the allied victory: the battle itself was delayed by a number of hours, by Napoleon, because of the terrible storm the night before (Napoleon wanted the ground to dry up, first). This prevented the French pressing forward their artillery and gave time for Blucher’s army to arrive; therefore decreasing the responsibility of the artillery in the battle – instead, the cavalry and infantry played a significant role in defeating the French. This extra time also gave Wellington time to perfect his defences. In summary, I believe that luck played a part in the allied victory: the weather conditions led to Napoleon delaying the attack, giving time for Wellington to master his defences and gave time for Blucher to arrive.
In conclusion, I think that the leadership of Wellington was partially responsible for the allied victory: his ability to analyse a situation and terrain allowed him to quickly formulate the best tactics, for example the British Heavy Cavalry attack was unprecedented for the French, who then had to spend time reforming D’Erlon’s corps. This was due to the reverse slope tactic, and Wellington was the one who enforced this tactic because he had already studied the terrain and so knew where the best place for each corps was. Wellington also put great emphasis on making sure his cavalry were well trained – much like all of those under him – and this discipline made sure that they always formed squares when told to, much like in Ney’s cavalry charge. This discipline can be emphasised by comparing it to the discipline of the French – Marshall Ney was shown to not have been very well disciplined as he didn’t follow Napoleon’s orders at the battle of Ligny; this battle would’ve won the war, therefore emphasising the importance of discipline in battle. However, I think that there were many more factors which, when put together, are more responsible for the allied victory at Waterloo. Ney was very responsible for the allied victory: one, because he didn’t support his cavalry attack with an infantry or artillery, meaning it was just a ‘waste of troops’; two, because he caused the missed opportunity at Ligny. Napoleon also delayed the start of the battle, giving time for Wellington to perfect his defences and for Blucher’s army to arrive. This suggests that the French leaders should be blamed, not that Wellington should be credited, and perhaps the luck of the storm that produced these situations enabled Wellington to have an advantage. The most important factor, in my opinion, was the Prussians. This increased the size of the allies by 50,000, making them much more powerful and threatening. It also enabled the allies to attack the French on both sides, leading to the French Imperial Guard retreating (who were the best among the French, so their retreat plummeted morale across the rest of the French army).The Prussians also increased the effectiveness of any allied attack due to the sheer number of them. Because of that, I believe that Waterloo would not have been won without the Prussians.