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Dear Mr. History,

I am very fascinated with the Battle of Waterloo and all of Napoleon’s battles.

I wonder why Napoleon attacked frontally in the Battle of Waterloo instead of manouvering around the right flank of Wellington’s army. Was it because he wanted to save time by crushing Wellington before the Prussians arrived? Wasn’t Napoleon aware of Wellington’s reverse hill deployment (as his generals would have so advised)?

And why did Grouchy not march to the sound of the guns? At this stage I would assume that he has completely lost track of the Prussian Blucher.

Hope you can provide some insight into these mysteries.

Francis Leong

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Dear Mr. Leong,

Napoleon’s plan from first contact with the Allied armies in Belgium was a grander variation on what he’d done during his early Italian campaigns: take advantage of the central position to divide and conquer. On June 16, 1815, his corps had fought separate battles against British General Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington at Quartre Bras and Prussian Feldmarschall Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher at Ligny. Although the Prussians were defeated at Ligny, they fell back in good order and Napoleon badly underestimated how far back they were or how quickly they would regroup and return. Still, to continue pursuing his strategy his original plan for Wellington was to try to seize Mont Saint Jean and Hougoumont farm, the latter of which would sever Wellington’s communications to the sea, and therefore, he expected, would compel Wellington to send in his reserves to recapture it. As those reserves were drawn in, Napoleon would use the reserve artillery of the I, II and VI Corps to decimate those troops and then send his I Corps around Wellington’s left to roll up his forces, pushing them further away from the Prussians. Meanwhile, Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy had orders to pursue the Prussians to Wavre while staying close enough to join the main force as soon as possible.

Among other things, Napoleon acted on the assumption that Wellington’s main battle line was in the village of Waterloo, rather than farther forward, on the ridge. He also assumed that it would take the Prussians at least two days to regroup, unaware that in fact Blücher would lead his army back to the fray about five hours after it began. While that happened, Grouchy dutifully sought contact with the retreating Prussians and defeated them at Wavre (June 18-19), not realizing until too late that he was only dealing with General Johann von Thielmann’s III Corps, while the bulk of the Prussian army was striking at his emperor.

The failure of the French to ever suss out Wellington’s frequent habit of positioning his infantry on the reverse slope and take measures to deal with it is a mystery that nobody has explained. All we know is that Napoleon was in good company when he too failed to anticipate the tactic’s effectiveness at Waterloo. As Wellington put it in retrospect, “They came on in the same old way and we defeated them in the same old way.”



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History

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