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