Why Napoleon Lost Waterloo

Many blame Grouchy for Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Why did Napoleon lose at Waterloo? Because of these orders.

Lessons from Kriegsspiel

A very big question.  Over the course of designing Pub Battles:  Waterloo, several other musket era games and playing Kriegsspiel, I am gaining a deeper insight and understanding of this subject.  Let’s look at some examples:

Kriegsspiel Antietam

Emily orders Gabe to advance SE down road X to attack the enemy.  The problem was road X doesn’t go SE it goes SW.  What should Gabe do?  Should he travel SW down road X and attack nobody  OR should he travel SE down road Y and attack the enemy?  What did Emily mean?


Napoleon orders Desaix to march south to recon enemy positions and block off any routes of escape.  The troops form up.  They are ready to begin marching south when they suddenly hear cannon fire to the north:  where Napoleon had the Austrians under siege in Alexandrie.  What should Desaix do?  Should he obey orders and start his march to the south?  Should he directly disobey these orders and march north to the sound of the guns in case Napoleon needs his support? 

June 17th, Waterloo

After the battle at Ligny, Napoleon takes the main army up the Brussels road to pursue Wellington and bring him to battle.  He detaches Grouchy with 2 Corps.  Grouchy’s orders are to march east to Gembloux and pursue the Prussians.  The problem is that the Prussians march north.  What should Grouchy do?  Should he march north in pursuit of the Prussians or march east to Gembloux?

June 18th, Waterloo

The Prussians seem to be concentrating at Wavre.  Napoleon orders Grouchy to attack the Prussians at Wavre so that they cannot join Wellington at Waterloo while he attacks them.  As Grouchy begins to march to Wavre, he hears heavy cannon fire starting at Waterloo.  What should he do?  March to Wavre and attack the Prussians as ordered or disobey his direct orders and march to the sound of the guns to support Napoleon? 

Are you noticing a trend here? 

Why did Napoleon lose at Waterloo?  As wargamers we tend to compare combat & movement factors, leader ratings and hex terrain.  As miniature players we tend to focus more on comparing individual unit weapon performance and morale ratings.  We can argue and quibble over details like this till the cows come home.  From my experience in Kriegsspiel, I’d say all of this is trumped by orders and communication.  Why did Napoleon lose at Waterloo?  Because of his orders to Grouchy.  What will your people do when given orders with conflicting goals?  God only knows. 

What did Gabe do at Antietam?  He surmised that Emily got her directions messed up.  He disobeyed orders.  He immediately attacked by marching down the wrong road to attack the enemy in the wrong direction.  He sent Emily a snarky message back telling her what he was doing and that she needs to learn how to read a compass!

I discussed this game with Gabe last week.  (Amazing because we played this game several years ago but we still talk about it and remember it vividly.)  His response to this problem in the game was pretty bold.  I asked him to consider the ramifications in real life, a real war, thousands of men’s lives at stake.  I pointed out that his military career and retirement were at stake.  His chances for promotion later.  Possibly a courts-martial and firing squad if he disobeyed orders.  He went down the wrong road in the wrong direction.  This is disobeying direct written orders during a battle with the enemy.  Would he still have responded this way in a real war?

After consideration, Gabe agreed that his response would have been very different in a real war.  Instead, he would have sat and did nothing while he wrote back and respectfully requested confirmation of the confusing orders.  His response:  delay and inaction.  Sounds about right.

What did Grouchy do on the 17th of June?  Put yourself in Grouchy’s shoes.  Napoleon, the greatest military mind of the age, orders you to march to Gembloux.  If the Emperor of France orders you to march to Gembloux, you march to Gembloux.  How could you do anything else?  As it turns out, this march delayed Grouchy’s column which ultimately led to Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.  It put Grouchy a half day’s march behind the Prussians.  Imagine yourself in Grouchy’s command.  You read the order from Napoleon, wad it up into a ball and throw it away saying:  “Nah, I think I’ll go north instead.  He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  I don’t think the Prussians are going to go that way.”  Yeah, that’s not going to happen. 

The same situation on the 18th of June.  When the guns opened up at Waterloo, Soult and Gérard urged Grouchy to march to the Emperor’s aid.  Grouchy refused.  Why?  His orders were to march to Wavre!  We have the benefit of hindsight now.  Put yourself in Grouchy’s shoes then.  March to Waterloo?  Why?  So the Emperor can have you shot for disobeying direct orders?  Grouchy’s attack at Wavre was supposed to tie down the Prussians and keep them from marching to Waterloo.  That was the Emperor’s plan.  What if disobeying orders and marching to Waterloo is what causes Napoleon to lose?  Now Napoleon lost the battle because you disobeyed direct orders!  That won’t be pretty.  At least by marching to Wavre, Grouchy had the defense of saying:  “But that’s what he told me to do!”

Ok, now let’s go back to Marengo.  What did Desaix do?  He disobeyed orders, turned and marched immediately to the sound of the guns.  Why the difference here?  First of all, Napoleon was still early in his career.  He hadn’t quite reached the status of “Military Genius of Our Age” yet.  It was easier to take a gamble and risk with a young, upstart revolutionary general. 

There was also a big difference in priorities.  Desaix was just on a scouting / recon mission.  Not a huge deal.  He could always return the next day to scout and recon.  An unexpected, critical battle breaking out that could decide the entire campaign is a much bigger priority.  Better to get there just in case…  There isn’t much to lose. 

Grouchy faced a much more difficult dilemma.  “Pursue the Prussians” is a much higher priority than scout, recon and forage.  On the 18th, Grouchy’s orders were to “Attack the Prussians” to prevent them from joining Wellington.  This is a mission critical priority.

“March to Gembloux and pursue the Prussians.”  The Prussians march north.  Gembloux is east. 

“March to Wavre and attack the Prussians.”  Wavre is north.  The Prussians march west. 

Why did Napoleon lose at Waterloo?  Because of these orders.  Many blame Grouchy for Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.  Ultimately, a leader is responsible for his command and the performance of his subordinates.  These are elementary mistakes that you see immediately in Kriegsspiel.

Notice how these orders put the subordinates into a bind.  Do Y and X.  What if that becomes impossible?  Why put all this stress on your people?  You are setting yourself up for failure.  How can you avoid conundrums like this in the first place?

George Patton used to say:  Tell people ‘what’ to do, not ‘how’ to do it.  How would Patton have written these orders?

Instead of:

“March to Gembloux and pursue the Prussians.”

Patton would write:

“Pursue the Prussians.”

Instead of:

“March to Wavre and attack the Prussians.”

Patton would write:

“Pursue the Prussians and Prevent them from joining Wellington.”

-except there would probably be a lot more swear words thrown in there. 

Good orders focus on:  What to Do.  They focus on the end result or goal of the mission.  Where is Grouchy?  I don’t know where the *^%$#&@ he is but wherever he is, we can be sure that he is all over the Prussians like %&$#*@#$%^!

Napoleon does deserve a little slack.  He was suffering from very heavy health issues during the campaign.  He was not at his best.  He certainly wouldn’t have gotten as far as he did if he wasn’t doing something right. 

We can learn a lot from Napoleon, Waterloo and Patton.  We can learn important things from wargaming but the most important lessons to be learned come from Kriegsspiel.     

Think and Move Like Napoleon

What made Napoleon so fast?  Kriegsspiel shows us how.

This Pub Battles Variant simulates a more realistic command experience.

I had a great time running and playing CPXs and Kriegsspiels this year at Origins.  One thing that really stood out to me was how much like a video game it was.  With wargames, we usually have the luxury of slowing down and pondering carefully over tricky moves and situations.  Not so in Kriegsspiel.  It is much more true to life.  Slow periods of nothing interrupted by lightning strikes of panic and scrambling.

When a critical report comes in, the clock is ticking.  What should you do?  How should you respond?  Who needs new orders?  Where should you send them?  You have 2 min to answer all of these questions and write a new clear and concise order.  Can’t do it that quick?  Then you just missed your chance to respond first.  Can you have it together by the next 2 min turn before couriers go out again?  How many turns will it take you?

Napoleon was very quick.  He was often 1 step ahead of the enemy.  How did he pull this off?  Something interesting I learned about Napoleon, was that he often wrote orders in advance.  During the periods of nothing and ‘boredom’, he spent his time thinking ahead.  What are the key decision points coming up?  How will the enemy respond to your moves?  What are the possibilities?  Napoleon would then write out orders for several different enemy reactions in advance, already written to the commands they need to go to.  All he needed to do is pick a stack and hand to the couriers.  The thinking, decision and order writing was already done.  Boom, your troops are off and running almost instantly.

Our play test group has often discussed the Alter Rolls in Pub Battles.  This is the most crucial way to influence a battle.  Much better than the usual +1 mod to combat rolls.  This affects timing.  It is a shame that such a key element in the game is left to a simple die roll.  Make it or break it?  We’ve often discussed ways of expanding this beyond a die roll.  Instead of a leader rating, it would be much better if all the leaders were the same.  Your rating would instead be determined by your skill as a player but how?

After pondering the Kriegsspiel model, we have a new optional rule on this to try:

Rather than a die roll and only getting to roll once per turn for Alters, use the following rules:

Every HQ can attempt to Alter the sequence every chit pull IF that HQ has not moved yet in the turn.

There is no die roll.  There can only be 1 Alter per Chit Pull. (excepting ties) 

The first HQ that announces its Alter gets to do it.  All other fail.   

You must announce the Command and the type of Alter.  For example:

“First Corps, Delay”

“Eleventh Corps, Jump” 

You must say it clearly and discernable.  No mumbling.

Whatever you say, you must do.  You can’t blurt something random out and then decide what you really want to do later.

In a tie, BOTH HQs Alter.  Roll a die to determine which goes first.

You can Jump if your Chit was pulled.  This prevents another command from Jumping ahead of you, IF you say it first.  


Most of the play testers hate this rule.  It doesn’t work for solitaire games.  They prefer deep, thoughtful analysis to rapid, twitch style video games.  That’s fine.  That’s why this is an optional rule. 

However, consider this:  You have all the time in the world to thoughtfully analyze what you should do during the turn and before the Chit Pull.  Do you planning ahead of time, like Napoleon did.  When the time comes, be decisive and strike quickly. 

For those wargamers that want ‘more realism’, I’d argue this is it!  This puts you in the mindset of a commander.  It literally starts training your mind to think and behave like a commander.  Playing this way will teach you good leadership skills and habits.  

Even if you don’t like the idea, I’d urge you to find an opponent and at least give it a try.  Don’t knock it until you try it.  With a little practice, you may find it is easier than you think.  It also adds a lot of tension and fun!