“The Emperor Napoleon seemed confident of victory when he breakfasted with his senior generals at Le Caillou farmhouse on the Charleroi – Brussels road at eight o’clock on the morning of Sunday, 18th June 1815. He had feared that the Anglo-Allied army under the Duke of Wellington might have withdrawn from its defensive positions on the ridge of Mont St Jean during the night, but dawn had revealed it still in place. The meal was served on silver plate bearing the Imperial arms, and once it was cleared away maps of the area were spread across the table and the council of war began.

‘The army of the enemy is superior to ours by one-fourth,’ Napoleon announced (incorrectly, as in fact the 72,000 French outnumbered the 68,000 Anglo-Allied troops). ‘We have nevertheless ninety chances in our favour, and not ten against us.’ At this, Marshal Ney – ‘the bravest of the brave’ – who had only just arrived having reconnoitred the Anglo-Allied lines, warned: ‘Without doubt, Sire, provided Wellington be simple enough to wait for you. But I must inform you that his retreat is decided, and that if you do not hasten to attack, the enemy is about to escape from you.’ ‘You have seen wrong,’ the emperor confidently told him, ‘and it is too late now. Wellington would expose himself to certain defeat. He has thrown the dice and they are in our favour.’

Marshal Soult, Napoleon’s chief of staff, was not so sanguine. The previous evening he had urged the emperor to recall Marshal Grouchy, who had been sent off that morning with a very substantial force to chase the Prussian army after its defeat at Napoleon’s hands at the battle of Ligny. As Soult had told a member of his staff, it was ‘a great mistake to separate so large a force of some thirty thousand men from the main army which is facing the English’, and he reiterated this view at the pre-battle conference.1

Soult had fought against Wellington in the Iberian Peninsula, always coming off worst, and consequently held the British army and its commander in high regard. Napoleon now used that fact against him, retorting that ‘Because you have been beaten by Wellington, you consider him a great general. And now I tell you that Wellington is a bad general, that the English are bad troops, and ce sera l’affaire d’un déjeuner.’ (A modern colloquial translation might be: ‘We’ll settle this matter by lunchtime,’ or even ‘This’ll be a picnic.’) It was a brutal put-down, and an unconvinced Soult merely answered: ‘I earnestly hope so.’2

Soult’s views were then supported by General Honoré Reille, the commander of II Corps, who entered the farmhouse in the company of his subordinate commander, Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoleon’s youngest brother. When Napoleon asked Reille, who had also seen much service in the Peninsula, for his views on the British army, he was told:

Well posted, and Wellington knows how to post it, and attacked from the front, I consider the English infantry to be impregnable, owing to its calm tenacity, and its superior aim in firing. Before attacking it with the bayonet, one may expect half the assailants to be brought to the ground. But the English army is less agile, less supple, less expert in manoeuvring than ours. If we cannot beat it by a direct attack, we may do so by manoeuvring.

According to those present, Napoleon had no verbal answer to this, merely rejecting Reille’s warning with a dismissive shrug. General Maximilian Foy, yet another Peninsular veteran, then also interposed to say: ‘Wellington never shows his troops, but if he is yonder, I must warn Your Majesty that the English infantry in close combat is the very devil!’ Foy had been on the losing side in no fewer than eight major engagements against Wellington, with whom he had personally discussed ‘la guerre’ at dinner the previous October.

Jérôme Bonaparte, meanwhile, warned his brother of a conversation overheard by a Belgian waiter at the King of Spain Inn in nearby Genappe, in which one of Wellington’s staff officers had spoken of the Prussians linking up with the Anglo-Allied army. ‘After such a battle as Fleurus’, Napoleon said of the engagement now called Ligny, ‘the junction between the English and Prussians is impossible for at least two days; besides, the Prussians have Grouchy on their heels.’3 It seems not to have occurred to any of them, not even to the pessimistic Soult, that the Prussians might start to appear on the French right flank a mere five hours later.

Napoleon then laid down his plan of attack, which was far removed from the tactical manoeuvring called for by Generals Reille, Foy, d’Erlon and others. The Prussian field marshal Prince Blücher had been defeated at Ligny by a direct frontal assault, and now Napoleon wanted to repeat the tactic against Wellington. There would be a brief diversionary attack designed to draw the Anglo-Allied reserves away from the target area on their centre-left. Then, after a massive artillery bombardment, Napoleon’s heavy cavalry, Imperial Guard and reserves would break Wellington’s line and simply roll it up.4 ‘Gentlemen,’ the emperor announced as he rose from the table to summon his mare Marie, the first of several horses he was to ride that day, ‘if my orders are carried out well, tonight we shall sleep in

Napoleon certainly seems implicitly to have believed it; he had even ordered his robes of state to be brought along for his address to the people of Belgium after his victory. Furthermore, the Old Guard had been ordered to carry their parade dress in their knapsacks for a triumphant entry into Brussels, and the emperor even ordered a well-done shoulder of mutton for
his dinner that evening.6

With such seemingly overwhelming evidence of Napoleon’s hubristic behaviour on the morning of the battle it is hardly surprising that historians have accused him of gross over-confidence, of ‘self-delusion’, even of incipient lunacy. His underestimation of Wellington’s capabilities is regularly held up as a factor to explain his subsequent defeat.7

The duke, meanwhile, was no less confident of success. He was pleased with the fields at Mont St Jean that he had reconnoitred the previous year for just such a defence. They had fine topography, access roads, and, most importantly, the Prussian army was within a few hours’ hard march.8 Early that morning Wellington had received word via his Prussian liaison officer, Baron Philipp von Müffling, that Blücher had ‘put himself at the head of [his] troops, for the purpose of immediately attacking the enemy’s right flank, should Napoleon undertake anything against the Duke’. Referring to a rude remark Napoleon had once made about him, Wellington told Müffling: ‘Now Bonaparte will see how a general of sepoys can defend a position.’ He afterwards stated that he had never taken so much trouble over his troop dispositions, as he knew he could never afford to make the slightest slip in the presence of a general as impressive as Napoleon.

It is understandable that almost all the historians of Waterloo have concluded that, in the words of one of them: ‘Whereas Napoleon consistently misunderstood and underrated Wellington, Wellington was never in doubt about the genius of Napoleon.’9 Yet the reality is not nearly so simple. History might not repeat itself, but historians repeat one another, and the myth has grown up of ludicrous Napoleonic over-confidence. This in turn, almost for the sake of contrast, has spawned a mirror myth of Wellington’s modesty and near-perfect gentlemanliness, always ready to accord Napoleon the first place in the hierarchy of generalship. It is these two myths that the present work sets out to dispel, for the truth is far less straightforward and much more interesting.

Although Napoleon and Wellington never met or corresponded, and fought only one battle against each other, they spoke about one another a great deal both before Waterloo and afterwards. This study of their constantly evolving relationship will show that the received wisdom about Napoleon’s disdain for Wellington’s generalship and Wellington’s respect for Napoleon’s is, despite what was said at Le Caillou, entirely wrong.

We shall see how both Napoleon and Wellington regarded each other’s military ability highly by the time they met at Waterloo. Thereafter both changed their minds and slowly began to damn each other’s martial prowess to the point where – in part through a series of misunderstandings – Napoleon came to loathe Wellington, and rant about his ineptitude. Meanwhile, while maintaining a public stance of great respect for his opponent, Wellington came privately to despise Napoleon both as a general and as a man. This is not a joint biography, but rather a study in beliefs and rivalry, propaganda
and rancour.

Napoleon and Wellington were not equals in any sense until they faced each other across the fields of Waterloo. In 1804, when Napoleon was proclaimed Emperor of France, Wellington was merely a knight of the Bath. From 1808 until 1814, when Napoleon was master of Europe, Wellington was only the commander of an expeditionary force in the Iberian peninsula. Nor was Wellington in any sense the author of Napoleon’s nemesis; that honour must go to the emperor himself when he conceived his plan to invade Russia in 1812. If the relationship between two men were reflected in a fable it would be that of the hare and the tortoise.

Napoleon’s ambitions were monumental, incorporating Europe, Russia and even the Orient, while Wellington’s were those of the rest of his class and profession, entirely circumscribed by parliamentary government. Yet although their characters are usually described as mirror opposites – romantic Napoleonic genius versus prosaic Wellingtonian practicality – there was a single-minded determination for victory and a tendency to ruthlessness that united them. Napoleon had won sixty of his seventy battles; Wellington had fought far fewer, but had won them all. For both men Waterloo was to be their last.”