The One Mistake That Cost Napoleon Bonaparte the Battle of Waterloo and the War

May 29, 2022 | Articles, Military/War


Napoleon Bonaparte left his signature in the 19th century. Few commanders since and before have fought and won as many battles and wars under different conditions as Napoleon. At the time, Napoleon Bonaparte did no man alive thought it was possible: conquering almost all of Europe. Napoleon was a short guy, and was always stressed with his height (allegedly wearing shoes that make him higher). However, what he lacked in physical appearance, Napoleon more than made up in brilliance, genius and military tactics. Once it became evident that General Bonaparte wanted to conquer all of Europe and make it entirely French, the most powerful countries forged an alliance against him. The alliance included the British, as well as Austria, Spain, Russia, Portugal, Sweden, the Netherlands and many other smaller countries. Napoleon’s understanding of war, mass warfare and raising armies completely changed and revolutionized the modern warfare. However, as every great General, he made one mistake that cost him the war.

Modernization of the army

One of the biggest reasons why Napoleon was so successful was the modernization of his French army. He owed a great part of his success to modernization of artillery tactics. Before Napoleon, the cannon had been used as a support for the infantry. The cannon served as a supporting fire, but Napoleon completely changed the cannon’s role. He used cannons as an own attack unit that is fairly mobile. Bonaparte’s mobile attack units struck in small group of up to 20 cannons. After firing for 30 minutes, Napoleon displaced and moved his cannons to another position on the field. That kind of mobility is what helped the General have success on the battlefield.



Aside from modernization of the army, a huge aspect of his success was his brilliant mind, tactics and genius on the battlefield. Before the battle, the General considered all the possible options in his mind. He identified a clear objective: destroy the enemy’s army. Whenever enemies tried to escape from battle, Napoleon dragged them into the battlefield with a threat to the capital city of the enemy. Whenever Napoleon was outnumbered, he managed to maneuver and with swift marching to throw all of his army into a portion of the enemy’s army. That enabled Napoleon to be stronger in the decisive points of the battle. During battles, Napoleon never depended on his big army to win the battle. Instead, he relied heavily on speed, aggressive maneuver and mass to win.

Napoleon developed two strategic systems. The first one was used when facing a superior enemy by the numbers. In this case, his strategy was to split the enemy into separate parts, focusing on the central position. Once he managed to split the central position, Napoleon used swift maneuvering to destroy one wing at a time. When Napoleon was superior in numbers, he managed to trick the opponent and pin his attention with a detachment of the army. The bulk of Napoleon’s army then marched towards the hostile lines of communication. Sometimes, Bonaparte merged the two strategies.

One formation that Napoleon frequently used was the “battalion square”. He often used different combinations of the formation, but the essence remained the same: light cavalry riding ahead and locating the enemy. After the cavalry located the enemy, it reported back to Napoleon. Then, the General ordered one of his wings, or sometimes both wings to engage the nearest force the enemy has placed on the ground. He always had reserves in his sleeve, made out of heavy cavalry and Imperial Guards. All of the troops in the formation marched in a close distance of one another, enabling them to support different formations at any given moment.


Napoleon’s dilemma and mistake

Both Napoleon and Wellington knew that the wild card of the battle is Blucher’s Prussian Army. Napoleon knew that he will have troubles defeating both the British and the Prussians. Wellington knew as well, that if the Prussian Army does not come to rescue them, they will be defeated.

But Napoleon was faced with a dilemma and forced to make a tough decision. Two days before Waterloo, Napoleon won another battle. But his cavalry and infantry were tired, and the night before the battle, there was rain. Napoleon was faced with a decision to wade his army through mud and tire them during the early stage of the battle, or wait another day for the ground to try out. Waiting one more day meant risking Prussian reinforcement for the British Army.

In hindsight, his decision to wait was what cost him the battle, and the War eventually. After Waterloo, Napoleon never managed to regroup, as the defeat signaled the end of his era.

Today, many experts believe that Bonaparte lost the edge with the return to Europe after unsuccessful invasion of Russia. The second mistake, and the crucial one was waiting too long in the morning of June 18, 1815. Had Napoleon Bonaparte marched an attack earlier in the morning, the Prussian army would not have made it to the battleground. The 50,000 men under the command of Marshal Blucher turned the tides during the battle. While Napoleon nearly broke through the enemy lines, he was defeated at the end.


The Battle of Waterloo

The Battle was fought on Sunday, June 18th in 1815. The battle was fought near Waterloo, a municipality in present day Belgium. At the time, Waterloo was part of the Netherlands. The battle was fought between the French Army commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte, and the allied armies under the command of the Duke of Wellington and Prince Blucher. Wellington commanded the British Army, while Blucher came to help with reinforcements from the Prussian Army.

Two days before the battle, Napoleon defeated Blucher at the Battle of Ligny. He couldn’t destroy the Prussian Army, and continued to march towards Waterloo. At the beginning of the Battle, Napoleon had 72,000 soldiers under his command, while the British Army under Wellington accounted for 68,000 soldiers. But the tides were turned after the Prussian Army of 50,000 soldiers came to the rescue.

Before the Battle, Wellington and Napoleon positioned themselves on opposite sides. Wellington positioned his army at a Waterloo inn, and Napoleon was three miles south from the inn. The men slept out as rain was falling through the night. Napoleon was confident he can defeat Wellington before the Prussian reinforcements come to the rescue.

At 9 in the morning, both commanders made their first tactical move. Wellington established a defensive position, determined to hold ground and block the road to Brussels while he waits for reinforcement. Napoleon was waiting for the ground to dry out.

At 11:30, Napoleon began the battle with an Attack on Hougoumont. The French Army outnumbered the Allied army 5,000 to 1,500. Hougoumont was the best defended garrison of Wellington. Napoleon was attacking the point all day, and his army broke open the gates at 12:30. However, the British army quickly closed the French.

While Wellington was defending Hougoumont, Napoleon used his tactic to split the enemy’s troops. He seized the opportunity and launched an attack to the center. An army of 18,000 infantry took the farm of Papelpotte and the area around La Haye Sainte. However, at this time, Napoleon spotted a movement in the east side of the battlefield and ordered his cavalry to investigate.

At 14:20, Wellington spotted the Prussian Army, but knew he has to hold ground for more than several hours. In a desperate move, he sent reinforcement to the La Haye Sainte and drove back the French Army. While Napoleon’s men were advancing towards the center of the British line, the British Cavalry hit the French infantry and sliced through the soldiers. Both Napoleon and Wellington suffered in the attack, as the French line was weakened, but the British left flank was damaged as well. That left Wellington in a tough position, unable to launch an attack before he gets reinforcement.

At 15:30, the Prussian Army made it to the battlefield. While they couldn’t break to the main battle, they managed to attack Napoleon’s army at the Plancenoit, a village located east of the battlefield. The Prussians forced Napoleon to send troops there, and start fighting on two fronts. Napoleon was stretched, fighting on both the west and east side.

At 16:00, Napoleon decided to focus his attention to the central stronghold, the La Haye Sainte. For two hours, the French army was launching attacks on the stronghold.

At 18:15, Napoleon finally seized La Haye Sainte. This enabled Napoleon to bring his artillery and attack the Allied centre. At 19:00, Napoleon sent his army across the field, marching between Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte.

When the French Army advanced and reached the ridge at 19:15, Wellington gave the order to stand firm and fire. Firing at point blank range, Wellington forced the French army back. With Blucher’s army arriving, the Allied Army managed to march an attack. The arrival of the Prussians turned the tide, and Napoleon was defeated.

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Thomas B.