EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY WARFARE AND THE CHALLENGE OF REVOLUTION
At waterloo, the army that apparently encapsulated change, the French army of the Emperor Napoleon, was stopped by another, the British army of Arthur, Duke of Wellington, that was essentially an eighteenth- century force in its composition, culture, and methods. This contrast needs emphasizing because it undercuts much of the standard analysis of military history, with its repeated stress on the positive consequences of change and its ranking of military capability in terms of the welcoming of change. This is an issue that is pertinent for warfare and that we will also address more generally in Chapter . Waterloo, of course, was more than an eighteenth-century victory over the Napoleonic aftermath of the French Revolution, yet that description captures an important aspect of the battle. It is therefore appropriate to begin by considering eighteenth-century ancien régime (old regime, pre-1789) warfare before turning to the impact of the French Revolution, which broke out in 1789. The space this book devotes to conflict before the Napoleonic Wars might appear surprising, but it is important to remember that standard modern linear perceptions of warfare as a condition experiencing continual change, with past episodes appearing anachronistic due to very different conditions, notably weaponry, were not pertinent for the period of this book and, indeed, are of only limited value for modern warfare.
By modern battle standards, both ancien régime and French Revolutionary/Napoleonic combat relied on close-quarter fighting by soldiers who could see each other. In terms of the proximity of the combatants, Waterloo encapsulated this point, even if gunpowder smoke ensured that they could not see clearly, and indeed this smoke led both to confusion and to a high level of unpredictability at the level of individual combatants. This confusion and unpredictability affected the accounts they left and help explain discrepancies between them. In Europe, the weapons of the various armies (and navies) of the period were similar, and differences between the weapons did not generally account for victory or defeat. The key infantry deployment was linear, as the standard weapon, a flintlock musket equipped with a bayonet, led to long, thin linear formations based on a shoulder-to- shoulder drill designed to maximize firepower. This ensured that casualty rates could be extremely high, particularly as a result of the exchange of fire at close quarters between lines of tightly packed troops. Low muzzle velocity led often to wounds without the victim being knocked over, but these wounds were dreadful, because, the more slowly a projectile travels, the more damage it does as it bounces off bones and internal organs. As a result, the real point of drill and discipline was defensive: to prepare a unit to remain intact, and tractable to its commander, in the face of death and injuries and regardless of the casualties. Waterloo provided numerous instances of this, notably from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., with the British squares exposed to deadly French artillery fire in support of repeated cavalry attacks. Despite the bayonets on the firearms carried by infantry, hand-to-hand fighting on the eighteenth-century battlefield was relatively uncommon, and most casualties were caused by shot, which indeed remained the case at Waterloo. The hand-to-hand fighting that occurred at Waterloo reflected the breakdown of conventional tactics, notably in the struggle for particular strongpoints such as La Haie Sainte. Alongside the relative infrequency of hand-to-hand fighting, the accuracy of muskets and, indeed, of most musketeers was limited, which led to deployment at close range. In 1985, the historian Arthur Ferrill discussed how the Macedonian leader Alexander the Great (r. 336–323 b.c.), popularly regarded as the greatest general in antiquity, could have beaten the British at Waterloo in a.d. 1815, an argument that was an ironic commentary on the apparent timelessness of conflict between the two periods. Ferrill conceded that the classical world lacked firearms, but he argued that the effectiveness of the latter in 1815 was not a quantum leap greater than those of the projectile weapons of the classical period, namely arrows, spears, and slings.
Indeed, the difficulties created by muskets, which had both a short range and a low rate of fire and had to be resighted for each individual shot, were exacerbated by the serious and persistent problems associated with poor sights, eccentric bullets, heavy musket droops (firing short), recoil, overheating, and misfiring in wet weather. As most guns, both muskets and cannon, were smoothbore, with no rifling (grooves) in the barrel, part of the explosive force of the gunpowder charge was dissipated, so that the speed of the shot was not high, while its direction was uncertain. Non-standardized manufacture (a result of craft-production techniques), as well as wide clearances, meant that the musket was difficult to aim or hold steady, and the ball could roll out if the barrel was pointed toward the ground. To counteract these problems, training stressed rapidity of fire (to build up the volume of shot) and thus drill and discipline. Yet what could be achieved was affected by serious difficulties at the tactical level. In particular, given the poor state of communications, coordination along the long front line of troops posed a problem. An increase in the number of officers and non-commissioned officers helped address the issue at the tactical level, although this tactical solution could not secure matters of general command, especially of responding to the unpredictable flow of battle. In responding to this flow, commanders relied on mounted couriers to communicate orders, but the couriers sometimes suffered accidents or were wounded, problems that affected Wellington’s army at Waterloo.
At best, the command situation was generally slow and, at worst, serious problems could arise when couriers failed to deliver orders or they were misunderstood. The latter were especially serious, as it was impossible to check orders except by the long process of dispatching and receiving couriers. Such issues of command effectiveness recurred frequently during the Waterloo campaign, including at Waterloo, and were a particular problem for commanders trying to move their forces and to coordinate advances. Indeed, because Wellington rested on the defensive at Waterloo, this problem gave him an advantage. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of command and of individual commanders, there were major issues in fighting effectiveness. As Waterloo demonstrated, combat readinesss was not simply the sum of what individuals could do with their weapons. Unit action was crucial, and therefore unit cohesion was a key factor in fighting effectiveness. Rather than employing individually aimed fire, soldiers fired by volley, in a process designed not only to maximize the continuity of fire, but also to establish a relative superiority that could help sway the conflict. Within the pattern of volley-fire, there were variations in the order in which ranks or platoons fired, and these variations remained the case during the Napoleonic Wars. In particular, there were contrasts between firing by rank and platoon, although such contrasts were far less significant than those, in both defensive and offensive formations, between lines, columns, and squares.
Whatever the method, the speed of fire was enhanced from the eighteenth century by the use of paper cartridges, with the ball, powder, and wadding in a single package. This packaging made reloading easier and allowed each soldier to carry more ammunition. Another instance of variety between armies was the stress placed on the battlefield use of artillery, either for counterbattery fire (bombarding the opposing cannon) or for firing on opposing troops. The latter was a practice developed by Napoleon, who massed cannon successfully to that end, but had also been a practice advocated and used by ancien régime commanders such as Frederick II (Frederick the Great) of Prussia (r. 1740–86). Wellington, in contrast, generally used his artillery for close support and made very few attempts to create “grand batteries,” the one exception being at his victory over the French at Vitoria in 1813. At Waterloo, Wellington certainly did not create such a battery, and this was understandable due to his determination to mount a strong defense along the entire line and not simply in the central section.
Cannon were deadly, firing both round shot—solid cannonballs—and canister shot (also called case-shot)—canisters that shattered on impact, spreading their contents. But cannon were affected by muzzle explosions, defective caps, and unexpected backfiring, although the key problems were poor accuracy (by later standards) and the fact that cannon could not fire indirectly. They could not be placed behind cover, but had to be trained directly on their targets. Mortars and howitzers, in contrast, with their high trajectories, could provide indirect fire, although their range was affected by these higher trajectories, and the absence of aerial reconnaissance seriously limited the value of indirect fire. This lack of reliable information would have been a factor had it been possible for Napoleon’s cannon (as it was not) to bombard Wellington’s troops on the reverse (hidden) slopes, which he used so skillfully at Waterloo to provide cover. The absence of smokeless powder meant that all firearms were badly affected by smoke. After the first shots, battlefield visibility was limited, a major factor at Waterloo, and one that contributed to a confusion that commanders sought to counter with tight formations. The problem of battlefield visibility put a premium on the fire discipline required to delay shooting until a short range had been reached. Moreover, short-range infantry fire was more deadly than longer-range fire as velocity was lower in the latter case, while the musket balls spread out far more.
On the ancien régime battlefield, the infantry was generally flanked by cavalry units, but over the eighteenth century as a whole, the proportion of cavalry in European armies declined as a result of the heavier emphasis on firepower, as well as the greater per capita cost of cavalry. There were also particular supply problems for cavalry, with the need for large quantities of fodder, which was bulky to transport. Cavalry was principally used on the battlefield to fight cavalry, although, having defeated the other side’s cavalry, it then often turned on the defending infantry. In ancien régime warfare, frontal attacks on unbroken infantry in defensive positions were uncommon and, when tried by the French against the British at Minden (1759), spectacularly unsuccessful. Infantry units, unless they could rapidly reform into defensive squares, were exposed, however, to attack by cavalry in flank and rear, and squares were more vulnerable to attack if the troops had just fired at another target.
Cavalry played a crucial role in some ancien régime battles, such as the British victory over the French at Blenheim (1704) and the Prussian over the French at Rossbach (1757), and cavalry-infantry coordination, or at least combination, could be important. At Fraustadt (1706), a Swedish army defeated a Saxon force twice its size, the numerous Swedish cavalry enveloping both Saxon flanks, while the relatively small Swedish infantry force held off attacks in the center. Much depended on the terrain and cover. Due to the many hedges on the battlefield, Roucoux (1746) was very much an infantry battle, while at Waterloo the dense cover and terrain to the front of Wellington’s far left discouraged the French from launching attacks there, but the very opposite was the case in the open terrain between Hougoumont and La Haie Sainte.
In general, although the Prussian general Blücher demonstrated the continued role of cavalry at the battle of Leipzig in 1813, it was less important than it had been in the past. The degree to which the social prestige of being an officer in cavalry units nevertheless remained high reflected the extent to which values did not necessarily reflect practicalities. The British heavy cavalry units were socially particularly prestigious. Despite this, the infantry was the key arm in the British army.
Napoleon did not benefit greatly at Waterloo from the strength of his cavalry, which was more numerous than that in Wellington’s army by about 15,600 to 13,350, although this lack of benefit owed something to their inappropriate use and, in particular, to the failure to operate combined-arms attacks successfully. The French cavalry was also affected by the nature of Wellington’s position as they could not get effectively at the British troops on a wide front until the French infantry had cleared the way by taking either Hougoumont or La Haie Sainte. At Waterloo, there were major cavalry attacks on infantry, by the British heavy cavalry on the disordered corps of Jean-Baptiste Drouet, Count d’Erlon, and by the French cavalry on British foot soldiers in the afternoon. This latter was not in preference to an attack on the British cavalry, which was not deployed in a way that left it exposed.
Unbroken infantry was more vulnerable to artillery fire than it was to cavalry attack, especially because of the close-packed and static or slow-moving formations that were adopted in order to maintain infantry discipline and firepower as well as the cohesion that enabled infantry to fight on despite casualties. The use of artillery increased considerably during the eighteenth century and by 1762, Frederick the Great, who had not initially favored the large-scale use of artillery, was employing massed batteries of guns. The development in the mid- eighteenth century of a new system of fabricating cannon—casting them solid and then drilling them out, rather than casting a hollow barrel— improved effectiveness by decreasing windage (the gap between the barrel and the shot). This improvement made it possible to use smaller charges and thus to lighten barrels and increase mobility, although the improvement also meant that bigger pieces could be used in the field. Moreover, during the century, cannon became both more mobile and standardized. The leaders in this field were, in the 1750s, the Austrians, who enhanced the mobility of field pieces by reducing their weight. From the late-1760s, the French, thanks to the brilliant innovation of General Jean-Baptiste Gribeauval, assumed pride of place in artillery. This was the service from which Napoleon rose to prominence.
The greater standardization of artillery pieces led to more regular fire, and this encouraged the development of artillery tactics, away from the largely desultory and random bombardments of the seventeenth century toward more efficient exchanges of concentrated and sustained fire. Artillery fire therefore acquired the key characteristics of its infantry counterpart. Grape and canister shot proved particularly deadly at Waterloo: these consisted of a bag or tin with small balls inside, which scattered as a result of the charge, causing considerable numbers of casualties at short range to infantry, horses, and cavalrymen.
The notion of ready improvement, however, has to be qualified by an appreciation of the difficult trade-off in field artillery between mobility and weight. Heavier field pieces provided more effective fire support, as with Napoleon’s Grand Battery at Waterloo, but that effectiveness depended, in part, on the battle being relatively static, since heavy cannon could not be moved rapidly. When the cannon’s targets were stationary, they were highly vulnerable. In the British army, the Twenty-seventh Regiment, the Inniskillings, deployed on the afternoon of Waterloo at the crossroads to the north of La Haie Sainte, lost well over half its numbers to French cannon fire. During the battle, the Grand Battery was only briefly attacked by British cavalry, and then unsuccessfully, so that it was able to continue firing on the British lines.
Far from being unchanging prior to the outbreak of the French Revolution, warfare saw a tactical and operational responsiveness to circumstances, not least the war-making of opponents. Thus, during the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), which is known in America as the French and Indian War, warfare was shaped by the fluid dynamics of the contending armies, as everyone sought to avoid the mistakes of the previous year’s campaigning season. This rapid learning curve indicated the variety and flexibility of ancien régime warfare. Just as this warfare is misleadingly seen as inflexible, so there is also an emphasis on conventions of fighting that suggest that it was restrained and limited. Among officers of the period, there was indeed a pseudo-chivalry that reflected their sense of being members of a common profession and, in large part, an aristocratic caste, as well as conventions of proper conduct, conventions that played a role for some at Waterloo. In 1758, Lord George Sackville, who was to direct British strategy during the War of American Independence, reported of the opposed British and French forces in Germany, “Our sentinels and advanced posts are in perfect harmony and good humour with each other, they converse frequently together and have not yet fired though officers go out of curiosity much nearer than there is any occasion for.” The following year, Captain William Fawcett of the British army noted that the advanced posts of the two forces in Germany were very close,From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Battle of Waterloo by Jeremy Black. Copyright © 2010 by Jeremy Black. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.