How Wellington fought the battle of Waterloo before Napoleon had even left Elba

The Artful Strategist has a lesson in the geography of anticipation.

Exactly two hundred years ago this week, a score of British infantry battalions, formed up in squares and scattered across a ridge south of Brussels, were under relentless attack from ten thousand French Cavalry who were hurling themselves and their mounts against the battered rows of red jackets and steel bayonets. This was the afternoon of June 18th, and one of the most famous battles in history had reached its most precarious moment when individual bravery counted far more than grand strategy.

Just one hundred days before, Napoleon gave his captors the slip from Elba and landed at Golfe Juan with a handful of his personal troops. Soon the Emperor was marching over the Alps on his way back towards Paris and the alarums of another European war.

Napoleon was Europe’s favourite bogeyman and its other crowned heads were anxiously mustering armies intent on ending once and for all his pursuit of la gloire. In what today we might recognise as a classic challenger brand manoeuvre, Napoleon decided that his best strategy was to defeat in quick succession the two still separated British and Prussian armies gathering on his borders in the north so that he could broker a truce and/or turn his attention to the three other armies forming more tardily in the east.

Napoleon moved quickly and his army crossed the frontier at dawn on the 15th June 1815. Word soon reached the commander of the Anglo-Dutch army, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, who with an appropriate sense of a good story was just preparing to go to a dance and famously quipped that Napoleon had ‘humbugged’ him.

Nonetheless Wellington determined that in what was to be their first (and indeed, last) battlefield encounter, he would now return the compliment in his own strategic terms.

He would achieve this by choosing where he was going to give battle, somewhere he had studied and already knew well: It was a place the Duke had discovered while Napoleon was still contemplating an escape from Elba.

Throughout history, the ability to choose good ground has been one of the most important attributes of successful generals. Knowing the right battlefield geography was key to the success of Hannibal at Cannae, Robert Bruce at Bannockburn and the Union cavalry commander Buford, who though massively outnumbered, was able to hold the high ground at Gettysburg against General Lee’s Virginians till the Iron Brigade came to his relief and probably saved the Union.

As a general, Wellington had a marvellously instinctive sense of terrain and collected potential battlefields like some painters collect landscapes. In the summer of 1814, when Europe had been restored to peace, he was travelling on diplomatic duties through what was then the Kingdom of Netherlands when he saw a number of places which he noted were ‘good positions for an army’.

One of these was a wide valley between two ridges situated on the main road from France to Brussels. So if war were to break out again, this would be a possible invasion route. The location went into his commonplace book.

A year later, with panic breaking out in the streets of Brussels but with the British officer class nonchalantly getting togged-up for the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, Wellington was able to show his staff exactly where he was going to stop the Napoleonic double whammy.

It was on the northern ridge known as Mont St Jean. We know it today as Waterloo.

Precept: It’s good to maintain a state of healthy paranoia and to develop a heightened appreciation of what may be good ground to compete on. As the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu puts it: ‘In time of peace, prepare for war; in time of war, prepare for peace.’

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