This book covers the least familiar part of the Waterloo campaign - the French retreat in the aftermath of the battle, involving the scattered fragments of the army defeated at Waterloo and Grouchy’s intact army as they attempted to escape from Belgium, and then attempt to either reach safety or to find some way of defending Paris. It is based on a series of eyewitness accounts of the period, a mix of official reports and letters, diaries and post-war memoirs. The author is aware of the bias in many of these documents, many of which emerged in the post-war battle of the memoirs as the defeated French generals attempted to shift the blame to their colleagues, with even Napoleon joining in from exile.
I must admit I hadn’t realised how badly the main French army fell apart after Waterloo. All of our eyewitnesses make it clear that the battle was followed by several days of complete chaos. A variety of reasons are suggested for this, including the defeat of the Guard late in the battle, which demoralised those troops still on the battlefield, the lateness of the defeat, which meant that the first part of the retreat took place in the dark, making it impossible for anyone to restore order, and finally Napoleon’s decision to leave the army and return to Paris, followed soon afterwards by his abdication.
It must be said that some of our witnesses do come across as rather delusional in the aftermath of Waterloo. Many of the writers felt betrayed or surprised when the Bourbons disbanded the defeated Army, somehow believing that they should have welcomed an army that had sworn loyalty to them in 1814, then deposed them and forced them into exile in 1815 before fighting to defeat their allies. There are also complaints about slow pay or under payment of wages, where perhaps the biggest surprise is that the restored Bourbons agreed to pay the troops who had just been fighting against them at all! Many of the writers also claimed that they could have defeated the British and Prussians outside Paris, but others make it clear that the morale of the Waterloo army was far too fragile. There was also a lack of clarity about what the army was fighting for after Napoleon abdicated,
Three central themes merge on the French side. The first are the efforts of many of the officers and men to escape from the army, and return home, with even quite senior officers simply giving up and abandoning their post. The second were the efforts of some senior officers, led by Grouchy for most of the retreat, to restore as much order as possible and try and mount a defence of Paris. Third were the political attempts to try and end the fighting without an Allied occupation of Paris. At the same time the Allies slowly advanced towards Paris, and still managed to outmanoeuvre the remaining French armies.
This is a splendid study of an unfamiliar aspect of an otherwise very familiar subject,
1 - The Rout from Waterloo
2 - Napoleon’s Flight
3 - 19 June
4 - 20 June
4 - 21 June
6 - Napoleon Abdicates
7 - 22 June
8 - 23 June
9 - 24 June
10 - 25 June
11 - 26 June
12 - 27 June
13 - 28 June
14 - 29 June
15 - Paris
16 - ‘The Brigands of the Loire’
17 - The Disbandment of the Army
Author: Andrew W. Field
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military