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Ask MHQ: Why Wasn’t Davout at Waterloo?

By Andrew Roberts
12/2/2009 • Ask MHQ

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Q: Why didn’t Napoleon take Louis-Nicolas Davout as one of his commanders at Waterloo?

—Bob Evans
Salem, Ohio

A: When Napoleon initially returned from Elba in 1815, he was hardly spoiled for choice of commanders. Soult was serving as the Bourbons’ war minister, while Ney, Berthier, Macdonald, St. Cyr, Suchet, and Augereau had also taken Louis XVIII’s shilling. Murat was more concerned about protecting his kingdom of Naples than in helping the newly restored emperor. Although some marshals, principally Soult and Ney, returned to Napoleon’s service—Berthier had either been murdered or committed suicide—the one he needed most of all as a battlefield commander was his “Iron Marshal,” Louis-Nicolas Davout, prince of Eckmühl (1770–1823).

Davout had shown his loyalty by being one of only two marshals (the other was Lefebvre) to greet the emperor at the Tuileries Palace on his return to Paris on March 20, 1815. Yet instead of using Davout in the Waterloo campaign, Napoleon preferred to keep the Iron Marshal in the capital, fulfilling the three roles he was appointed to on April 30: minister of war, governor of Paris, and commander in chief of the national guard. Each of these positions was vital; indeed, the distinguished Napoleonic historian David Chandler has argued that Napoleon was only able to take the offensive in mid-June 1815 because of Davout’s “unflagging efforts” in the capital. It was therefore Davout’s very loyalty to Napoleon that recommended him to stay in Paris when Napoleon set off on campaign.

Marshal Davout would likely have tipped the balance in France’s favor at Waterloo. (
Marshal Davout would likely have tipped the balance in France’s favor at Waterloo. (
Yet with Ney severely underperforming during the battle of Waterloo, Jerome failing to take Hougoumont, Bourmont changing sides, Soult’s execrable staff work, and Grouchy’s criminal negligence in not returning to the sound of the Grand Battery guns, it’s clear that Davout was more desperately needed in Belgium than in Paris. I suspect that if he had been on the campaign, Davout’s long history of success in independent command would have led Napoleon to detail Davout rather than Grouchy (who had only been raised to the marshalate in April 1815) to chase the Prussians on June 17, the day after his victory at Ligny.

Davout’s timely arrival on the scene at Waterloo the following day would have tipped the balance of the close-run battle. Davout’s entry had won battles for Napoleon before—principally, of course, at Austerlitz—and the eruption of 33,000 Frenchmen and 93 guns instead of the Prussians on Wellington’s eastern flank at Waterloo on the afternoon of June 18, 1815, would undoubtedly have swung the battle into a French victory, assuming Wellington had elected to fight there without the certain knowledge of Prussian support. Instead, for essentially secondary political and administrative reasons, the overconfident Napoleon left Davout hundreds of miles from the spot where he could have saved the empire.

British historian Andrew Roberts is the author of Napoleon and Wellington and Waterloo, June 18, 1815: The Battle for Modern Europe.

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4 Responses to Ask MHQ: Why Wasn’t Davout at Waterloo?

  1. N. Villaroman says:

    You forget to mention Davout’s brilliant victory against overwhelming odds at the battle of Auerstadt (14 Oct 1806), where his III Corps defeated the bulk of the Prussian army, thus outshining even Napoleon’s exploits the same day futher south at the battle of Jena (where the Emperor defeated only the vanguard of the Prussians). This showing of independent command ability further strengthens the postulation of whether or not the “Iron Marshall” could have tipped the balance and helped vanquish the “Iron Duke”.

  2. brian says:

    That’s right, Davout was the great victor over the Prussians at Auerstaedt. He was more than capable of independent command. At Borodino 1812, Napoleon would have lost fewer casualties had he followed Davout’s repeated advice of turning the Russian left flank instead of storming through the center on a suicidal frontal attack.

    Davout would’ve certainly won the day at Waterloo. But due to his experiences in 1814 wherein his Marshalls even Ney deceived him, Napoleon thought probably that Davout was the only loyal Marshall left to guard his rear in Paris

  3. John Merkatatis says:

    Very good argument about Davout,but Napoleon was a professional soldier who knew the importance of logistics for his rapid campaigns
    and his logistics genius Berthier had left an vacuum difficult to fill.So what did Napoleon suppose to do?

  4. Christian says:

    If I remember correctly Napoleon and Davouts relationship became strained as a result of Davouts military prowess which other marshals used as a way of estranging Napoleon from him so that they remained in Napoleons favour this could be the reason why davout was left behind, btw the link is a very interesting pdf on the Iron Marshal

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