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Waterloo 1815 : The Tragic And Suspicious Delay of Grouchy


“Suddenly happy, he said Grouchy! It was Blücher; hope changed sides, the fight changed soul"... Who, an undecided Napoleon or an obstinate Grouchy, bears responsibility for the rout at Waterloo?

Since his return from Elba on March 1, 1815, Napoleon has reconstituted an army of 125,000 men, which he launched on a forced march to meet the Anglo-Prussian coalition. His intention is to strike quickly in order to prevent the joining of the two armies, to reduce them one and the other separately. Wellington concentrates its 100,000 men around Brussels, Blücher its 120,000 Prussians between Namur and Dinant. On June 15, the French army managed to cross the Meuse and the Sambre, Napoleon chose to attack the Prussians the next day in the village of Ligny. On the evening of June 16, victory was total over the routed Prussians, Blücher was even wounded, Napoleon then believed that success would soon be acquired.

For his part, Ney tried unsuccessfully to break down the British device, and on the evening of June 16 the situation remained undecided despite the retreat of the Prussians. Napoleon estimated that it would take them at least three days to regroup after their defeat at Ligny, but if he wanted to separate the two English and Prussian corps definitively, he had no other solution than to pursue the latter to keep them as far away from Wellington as possible. This will be Grouchy's mission with his 33,000 men, but the order is not given until late.

What the Emperor does not know is that Blücher is far from defeated, and it is in good order that he has withdrawn with his army to Wavre to find Bülow's 80,000 men there. Quickly reorganized, the Prussians immediately set out to join Wellington, some troops remaining in Wavre to deceive Grouchy. A third of the French army therefore moves away from the central apparatus to pursue an enemy who in fact escapes. Grouchy did not notice the maneuver.

Walk to the cannon?

On June 18, the battle began, and the French attacks failed to break through the opposing front in the center as General Bülow threatened Napoleon's right flank. The immediate return of Grouchy would be opportune to take him in pincers, and couriers are dispatched to order him to rally the main army: "Do not waste a moment to get closer to us, to join us, and to crush Bülow whom you will take in the act."

Even before having received these new orders, Grouchy had of course the Waterloo cannonade, his deputies urging him to "march to the cannon", that is to say to join the main battlefield. But Grouchy, convinced that he always pushes before him the main part of the Prusian army, relies only on the orders received - the first -, and on the regulations, which provide that "march to the cannon" is a mandatory duty, except for units that have received other instructions. General Gérard insisted, offered to move towards the battlefield with his 13,500 men, but Grouchy refused, believing that "it would be a serious mistake to split up [his] troops". The fate of the battle is in play, does Grouchy know that when he insists on not coming to Napoleon's aid?

"It was Blücher"

In Waterloo the battle rages on and remains imprecise for a long time. All hopes rest on the return of Grouchy who does not return. And for good reason: it is 5 pm when he finally receives the 1st message urging him to join the battlefield. Despite the charges of Ney's cavalry, the situation soon turned desperate. We think we finally see Grouchy appear, but it is Blücher's Prussians who arrive… Napoleon calls in the Young Guard, then the Old Guard; Cambronne replies “shit!" ; for the emperor, Waterloo was a "fallen dream".

Defeat is too bitter not to point out a culprit. Grouchy failed at Waterloo, he will be that scapegoat. Faithful among the faithful since the campaigns of Italy, heroic in Eylau, in Wagram, in Russia where he commanded "the sacred squadron" which protected the Emperor, history now covers with opprobrium this soldier too obedient to the orders to not to appear suspect of criminal obstinacy. Worse, haven't we seen him hurry slowly in his pursuit of the Prussians, almost "dawdling", as if he had realized that everything was over now and that it was better to play another card?

Waterloo's only traitor

Louis-Auguste-Victor de Ghaisnes, Count of Bourmont and Napoleon's general, abandoned his division on June 15, 1815 to inform Wellington of the Emperor's plans and join Louis XVIII in Ghent. He also contributes as a prosecution witness to the death sentence of Marshal Ney, the "brave des braves". For services rendered, he became a peer of France in 1823 (did he cross Grouchy in the exercise of this dignity?), Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor in 1825, Minister of War of Charles X in 1830 then brilliant Commander of the French expedition to Algeria in 1830… before conspiring with the Duchess of Berry, being condemned to death in absentia, serving Dom Miguel in Portugal then Don Carlos in Spain and finally benefiting from an amnesty to enjoy a peaceful retirement, the fruit of a winding career ... largely watered down by history.