Guns ‘n Horses. Or ‘Marshal Ney Makes a Mistake’
A writer friend of mine recently got into a heated online discussion on the merits, or otherwise, of Napoleon Bonaparte. The other party, as proof of Bonaparte’s genius as a military strategist, cited his decision to give overall command of the French cavalry at Waterloo to Marshal Ney.
Which made me gnash my teeth a bit. Because if you’ve studied or read about the battle, you’ll know that Ney’s continued futile charges against British (or more correctly, Allied) infantry squares were largely ineffective, destroying the greater part of the Emperor’s cavalry in the process.
So why did Ney persist in what seems now to be an almost suicidal action when he must, surely, have realised his mistake?
It wasn’t all Ney’s fault. A talented professional soldier, dubbed ‘bravest of the brave’ by the Emperor for his early exploits, Ney proved a superb strategist. The return of at least a part of Napoleon’s shattered army from the disastrous Russian campaign of 1812 was in no small part due to his
efforts as commander of the rearguard. But as a tactician he could be…well, pretty abysmal, really.
Of Napoleon’s three most able cavalry commanders, two were dead. Lasalle, whose most famous saying was that any hussar who lived beyond thirty was a charlatan, was killed at Wagram and the irascible Montbrun by cannon fire at Borodino. In the third, Kellerman, he had a man who might have pulled it off, winning the battle of Waterloo for the French in the process. But Kellerman had upset Bonaparte by claiming, truthfully, that his cavalry charge had won the battle of Marengo for the Emperor. Napoleon never forgave him, and as a consequence he languished in the background at Waterloo, a humble brigade commander.
Ney’s other problem, which had served him well in previous campaigns, was a tendency to overreact emotionally to a crisis. This was fine when leading flagging infantry from the front, always his place, but caused confusion and dismay amongst the cavalry. And thanks to the reverses the Emperor suffered that day, cavalry were all Ney had to throw forward in any numbers.
You see, Ney made a fatal mistake. It wasn’t simply that the troop movement which persuaded him Wellington’s forces were at breaking point was not actually a retreat, merely a re-alignment and movement of wounded men and prisoners to the rear. Neither was it the fact he could not see that the Allied infantry had formed square formations, normally pretty imgregnable to cavalry, until late on in his charge. (They stood on a reverse slope, Wellington’s favourite defensive position).
It was the fact he forgot his guns.
It works like this. Your cavalry charge. The enemy infantry rush to form squares, each man facing outwards, their bayonet-tipped muskets forming an impenetrable steel hedge that no self-respecting horse will impale itself on. Enemy horsemen then charge your cavalry which is forced back by a combination of cavalry attack and musket fire. And if you charge again, the same thing happens.
So you must also use your artillery against the square. Guns, unlimbered just out of musket range, pepper the infantry with canister or roundshot before your cavalry try again, in two lines this time, the first keeping enemy cavalry from attacking your gunners whilst the second line tries to exploit any weakness in the square as a result of the artillery bombardment.
What Ney somehow forgot was that at Marengo, Kellerman had used both cannon and his cavalry to smash the Austrians. If Ney had done the same, perhaps the French would be celebrating the bicentennial of their victory at Waterloo in 2015.
Instead, the unsupported French cavalry were cut down in swathes by musketry from the infantry squares. To the redcoats it must have been like shooting ducks in a gallery; the French dragoons’ long sabres could not reach them through the bayonet hedge. Eventually, their horses utterly exhausted from charge after charge, the remnants of Napoleon’s once magnificent cavalry arm trickled back towards French lines in total bewilderment, leaving hundreds upon hundreds of dead and wounded horses and men on the field behind them.
So to use the selection of Marshal Ney and his leadership of the afternoon cavalry charges as an example of Napoleon’s military genius was a bit silly, really. Ney had declared for the re-instated French King while Bonaparte was exiled to Elba. Napoleon afterwards treated him as a traitor to the cause, but was forced to relent because he was absolutely desperate for seasoned field commanders.
That’s the only reason Ney was there.
There’s a slightly sad postscript. Despite his faults Ney really was a brave man, yet his years of courageous service to his country failed to save him from a firing squad after Napoleon’s second abdication.