The Battle of Waterloo

Jun 17, 2015

- By Bill Bonner

Bill Bonner
Paris, France

Dear Diary,

The markets continued lollygagging along yesterday, with no clear destination. The Dow rose 113 points.

Today, on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, we do not celebrate war. Only a fool would celebrate something so horrible. But we pay our respects to the glorious imbecility of it. War may be dreadful, little more than a racket in many ways, but it is also a magnificent undertaking. It engages the heart and the brain at once and exposes both the genius of our race, and its incredible stupidity.

But we are talking about real war. Not phony wars against enemies who pose no real threat. Phony wars earn real profits for the war industry, but only an ersatz glory for the warriors. Real soldiers take no pride in them. Instead, to a real hero, they are a source of shame and embarrassment.

Wars are not conducted to Free the Holy Land. Or Make the World Safe for Democracy. Or Rid the World of Tyrants. Or Fight Terrorism. Those are only the cover stories - the jingos used to get the public to offer up its treasures...and its sons.

Wars are fought to release the fighting spirit - that ghost of many millennia in the scrap for survival.

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And so it was, that 200 years ago tomorrow, one of the greatest military geniuses of all time - Napoleon Bonaparte - faced two powerful armies, the English, under the Duke of Wellington and the Prussians, under Gebhard von Blucher. Napoleon had been run out of France but he had come back. The old veterans rallied to his cause and he soon had an army of 300,000 seasoned soldiers. Moving fast, he put his forces in his favored "central position" between Wellington and Blucher.

First, on the 17th of the June, 1815, he attacked the Prussians and drove them back. Then, he turned to Wellington, who had formed up his army on a slight rise, at Waterloo.

Napoleon knew how to plan and execute a campaign. He was where he wanted to be, with two of his best commanders on either side of him, Marshal Grouchy on his right and Marshal Ney on his left.

But two things conspired against him. The Prussians had been beaten, but not destroyed. They quickly regrouped and then marched toward Waterloo. And it rained. Soft ground always favors the defender. The attacker wears himself out in the mud. Wellington only had to hold his position. Napoleon had to break the English line before the Prussians arrived at his back.

And so, the stage was set, on June 18th, for one of the most extravagant showdowns in military history. Napoleon was having breakfast on the morning of the battle when one of his generals suggested a re-organization that might strength the French position. Bonaparte replied:

    "Just because you have all been beaten by Wellington, you think he's a good general. I tell you Wellington is a bad general, the English are bad troops, and this affair is nothing more than eating breakfast".
Wellington shared Napoleon's opinion of his own troops. He thought they were bad too. They were a collection of soldiers drawn from many different units. They had not seen action in almost 20 years. Many were poorly trained. Of his cavalry he wrote:
    "I didn't like to see four British opposed to four French: and as the numbers increased and order, of course, became more necessary I was the more unwilling to risk our men without having a superiority in numbers."
The battle began in the late morning. No one knows exactly when. Quickly, the 'fog of war' descended on the battlefield, with no one sure what was going on. Crucially, Napoleon missed the rapid approach of the Prussians, whom he expected would require 2 days to get back in fighting order after their defeat on the 17th.

An Englishman describes the scene once the battle was underway:

    I stood near them for about a minute to contemplate the scene: it was grand beyond description. Hougoumont and its wood sent up a broad flame through the dark masses of smoke that overhung the field; beneath this cloud the French were indistinctly visible. Here a waving mass of long red feathers could be seen; there, gleams as from a sheet of steel showed that the cuirassiers were moving; 400 cannon were belching forth fire and death on every side; the roaring and shouting were indistinguishably commixed- together they gave me an idea of a labouring volcano. Bodies of infantry and cavalry were pouring down on us, and it was time to leave contemplation, so I moved towards our columns, which were standing up in square.

    - Major Macready, Light Division, 30th British Regiment, Halkett's brigade,

In order to win the battle, the French had to dislodge Wellington from his ridge. Again and again, they attacked. And again and again, they failed. The Englishmen - along with a large number of Irishmen, Scots, and Germans - held their ground.

The Scots Greys, the Gordon Highlanders, the Irish Inniskillings - all fought better than either Bonaparte or Wellington had expected.

But the 'bravest of the brave' was on the French side, Marshal Ney, whose statue we encountered on Sunday. When we saw the statue, we wondered: what sort of people are these who execute a man for treason and then honor his memory with a statue of him in their capital city?

Ney was hero's hero, a man whose military career was such a long shot...that so defied the was is hard to believe he ever existed. He was everything our modern military lard-butts are not: he was the fighting spirit in the flesh.

As many as 12 separate attacks were launched against the British lines. Ney, leading the charge personally, had 5 horses shot from under him. Here, an English infantryman remembers what it was like to see him coming:

    About four p.m., the enemy's artillery in front of us ceased firing all of a sudden, and we saw large masses of cavalry advance: not a man present who survived could have forgotten in after life the awful grandeur of that charge. You discovered at a distance what appeared to be an overwhelming, long moving line, which, ever advancing, glittered like a stormy wave of the sea when it catches the sunlight. On they came until they got near enough, whilst the very earth seemed to vibrate beneath the thundering tramp of the mounted host. One might suppose that nothing could have resisted the shock of this terrible moving mass. They were the famous cuirassiers, almost all old soldiers, who had distinguished themselves on most of the battlefields of Europe. In an almost incredibly short period they were within twenty yards of us, shouting "Vive l'Empereur!" The word of command, "Prepare to receive cavalry", had been given, every man in the front ranks knelt, and a wall bristling with steel, held together by steady hands, presented itself to the infuriated cuirassiers.

    - Captain Rees Howell Gronow, Foot Guards,

But even Marshal Ney could not break Wellington's defensive squares.

And then, Blucher arrived and Napoleon was beaten. His 'central position' became a trap, where he was hammered by the Prussians against the British anvil.

Four days after the battle, Major W. E. Frye, describes what he saw:

    22 June. This morning I went to visit the field of battle, which is a little beyond the village of Waterloo, on the plateau of Mont-Saint-Jean; but on arrival there the sight was too horrible to behold. I felt sick in the stomach and was obliged to return. The multitude of carcasses, the heaps of wounded men with mangled limbs unable to move, and perishing from not having their wounds dressed or from hunger, as the Allies were, of course, obliged to take their surgeons and wagons with them, formed a spectacle I shall never forget. The wounded, both of the Allies and the French, remain in an equally deplorable state.

    - Major W. E. Frye After Waterloo: Reminiscences of European Travel 1815-1819.

More tomorrow...on what happened to Michel Ney.

Bill Bonner is the President & Founder of Agora Inc, an international publisher of financial and special interest books and newsletters.

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