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.     

4 thoughts on “Why Napoleon Lost Waterloo”

  1. You’re absolutely correct. Indeed, clear communication is essential in all aspects of life.
    British military historian JFC Fuller criticised the vaguely-worded orders issued by Marshal Soult during the Waterloo campaign, but added that it was Napoleon who appointed him Chief of Staff, even though Soult had never held such a position before.

  2. It’s worse in a game environment because you’re often dealing with amateurs who have little if any actual/practical military experience and not only don’t know how to compose a coherent set of orders, but lack the fundamental confidence in the operational art to not be vague in how they word things (couching much of their writing in deliberately ambiguous and “cover-your-ass” equivocation).

  3. The challenge of commander’s intent, and mission command! Hard to replicate in a boardgame. I really think pub battles/team play can somewhat replicate….but I haven’t had the chance to put it to the test 🙂

  4. Two things:
    1. Napoleon almost won, it was a close run thing. He did not unequivocally lose because Grouchy didn’t March to the sound of the guns. Ney, and his continuous cavalry attacks on British squares, had as much to do with Napoleon’s defeat as Grouchy’s absence.

    2. Had the Prussians not been engaged at Wavre, they may have arrived at Waterloo even sooner, and certainly in greater numbers.

    The cool thing with having the whole available order of battle from the campaign in Command Post Games’ “Waterloo” is players can play out these what ifs and decide for themselves!

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