Wellington at Waterloo

On the night of 17 June, 1815, Henry Padget, the Earl of Uxbridge, Wellington’s second in command, came to him with a question: he wanted to know what Wellington’s plan was for the battle the next morning.

Wellington replied, “Who will attack the first tomorrow, I or Bonaparte?” “Bonaparte,” said Uxbridge. “Well,” continued the duke, “Bonaparte has not given me any idea of his projects: and as my plans will depend on his, how can you expect me to tell you what mine are?” Then, giving Uxbridge a friendly pat on the shoulder, he said that one thing was certain: “Whatever happens, you and I will do our duty.”1

Duke of Wellington
Duke of Wellington

Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, won the greatest battle of his era against the greatest military commander in a generation, apparently by his uncanny ability to personally appear at the moment of crisis, imparting fresh orders and fresh morale. That impression isn’t entirely true: There were 67,000 soldiers under his command, arranged in some 16 divisions across a four-mile field of battle.2 Wellington couldn’t have been present at the decisive moment for every unit, even if he had wanted to, and attempting to do so would have been a failing game. He wasn’t devoid of plans either. Instead, Wellington made good use of the principles of mission command, even though he had to adjust for the unpreparedness of his army. Due to the hasty assembly of his army, and the urgency of his mission, Wellington was unable to form a fully competent staff. He compensated by reducing his dependence on shared understanding in the staff and emphasizing cohesive teams and clear orders.


When Napoleon retuned to France to be declared emperor again, the Duke of Wellington was already in Europe as an ambassador, working to negotiate a peace settlement with France under King Louis XVIII.3 Wellington had already fought a three-year war to liberate Spain from France, and his army had been redistributed, mostly to fight in the war of 1812.4 The Allied Nations quickly declared Napoleon an outlaw, and quickly appointed Wellington to lead the alliance against him, but they could not quickly deploy a trained army. One officer said,

We were, take all in all, a very bad army. Our foreign auxiliaries, who constituted more than half our numerical strength, with some exceptions, were little better than a raw militia — a body without a soul, or like an inflated pillow, that gives to the touch, and resumes its shape again when the pressure eases.5

Separately, Prussia had an army of 30,000 under the command of General Blücher.6 Napoleon was able to recruit an army of 72,000 in only a few months, all French veterans who had fought under his leadership before.7

Politically, Napoleon needed to defeat any opposition quickly and dramatically, in order to solidify his position in France and discourage a long war against all of Europe.8 The Allied forces needed time to build and train their armies. This gave the initiative to Napoleon and on 15 March, French troops exchanged fire with the Prussians at Charleroi, and were seen headed for the crossroads of Quatre Bras.9 Wellington communicated with the Prussian Liaison and his subordinate commanders under cover of a ball, and troop movements began the next morning.10

On 16 March, Napoleon attacked the Prussian army at Ligny, to the east of Wellington, beating them badly. General Ney of France attacked the Allied army at the crossroads of Quatre Bras. The Allied battle was a draw, with losses about the same on both sides. Prussia withdrew to Wavre after their defeat. This left Wellington exposed, so the Allied army withdrew to Waterloo, roughly parallel with the Prussian position.11

The Battle itself was surprisingly simple. As Wellington described it,

Never did I see such a pounding match. Both were what the boxers call gluttons. Napoleon did not manoeuvre at all. He just moved forward in the old style, in columns, and was beaten off in the old style.12

Wellington had discovered that Napoleon’s tactics relied considerably on shock to turn their opposition into a panic.13 He used a reverse-slope defense to mitigate the risk from artillery, and used infantry in squares against the French cavalry and infantry.14 As each wave of attack approached, the artillery would retreat with their rammers, powder, and linstocks. As the wave broke, the artillery would recover their cannons and fire on the retreating French.15 By 4:00 pm, Wellington was confident he would win the battle.16 Around 7:00, Napoleon attacked with the Old Guard. When they were repulsed, Wellington perceived that the French army had lost its will, and he ordered the attack and swept through them.17 Then the Prussian army arrived, effectively flanking the French and turning the defeat in to a complete rout.18

Mutual Trust

Wellington never achieved the adoration from his army that Napoleon regularly received. In fact, he actively sought to discourage it. When a man called him the greatest man who ever lived, Wellington told him, “don’t be a d____d fool.”19 Instead, he pursued a professional confidence based on trust. He had earned that trust over the course of his career by working to ensure two things: that his soldiers always had sufficient supplies, and that he never expended their lives unnecessarily.

At least since the war in the Iberian peninsula, Wellington had fought with his commissariat to get his soldiers the supplies they needed.20 “No troops can serve to any good purpose unless they are regularly fed; and it is an error to suppose that… a man or animal of any country can make an exertion without food.”21 Wellington’s efforts included ensuring proper food, equipment, and pay.22 One concern was the moral effect on the local populace if the soldiers plundered for food: “I did not lose thousands of men to bring the army under my command into the French territory, in order that the soldiers might plunder and ill treat the French peasantry, in positive disobedience of my orders.”23

Regarding his soldiers’ lives, Wellington had earned a reputation as a “defensive” general because he typically maintained a defensive posture until he was able to attack decisively.24 But Wellington was only defensive by comparison. Later in life, regarding Napoleon, he said,

No man has ever lost more armies than he did. Now with me the loss of every man told. I could not risk so much; I knew that if I ever lost five hundred without the clearest necessity, I should be brought upon my knees to the bar of the House of Commons.25

So Wellington held a defensive line until he saw an opportunity for a decisive attack. The result was that veteran British soldiers were known to be some of the most reliable in the world.26

The respect that the soldiers had for Wellington was reflected in the respect he had for them. In a conversation with his friend Thomas Creevy, Wellington was asked how he planned to win the upcoming battle.

Just then a British infantryman came in sight, peering about at the Park and its statuary.

“There,” said Wellington, pointing to the small scarlet figure, “There, it all depends upon that article whether we do the business or not. Give me enough of it, and I am sure.”27

Hastily Assembled Army

Unfortunately, “that article” was what they didn’t have enough of. The army that had fought with Wellington for three-years in Spain had been redistributed, mostly to fight in America during the war of 1812.28 In Brussels, only 10% of his army was composed of seasoned British veterans.29 37,000 were citizens of other nations, including veterans who had fought under Napoleon, and 30,000 were fresh recruits, with no prior military experience.30 The solution was to mix the troops, so that there was no unit that was comprised entirely of new recruits.31

But Wellington wasn’t able to make those kinds of adjustments with his senior staff. Wellington had long complained about the British system of officer promotion, and in Brussels he complained that the staff he received appeared to have been selected specifically to spite him.32 British officer ranks were usually purchased, and positions were often assigned on the basis of social rank.33 In order to personally overcome the lack of professionalism that resulted, Wellington devoted significant effort into the development of his officers.34 Given time, Wellington probably would have worked well with staff he was given, or found a way to replace the ones who could not be trained, but there were only three months between Napoleon’s return to France and the final battle at Waterloo. With the urgency of the mission, Wellington often worked around his staff, instead of with them.

Mission Orders and Commander’s Intent

Wellington was famous for the quality of his orders. One subordinate reported that his “orders were so clear that he defied any man who called himself an officer at all to blunder.”35 His typical day started at four with dispatches to England and orders to his army.36 On the morning of the Battle of Waterloo, he was up and writing by three.37 While Wellington’s orders were detailed and precise, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t allow his subordinates to modify his instructions to fit the situation. Both at Quatre Bras and at Waterloo, Wellington gave positioning instructions to his leading element to set up at a specific place, and then praised his officers for finding a more suitable location.38

However, while Wellington’s orders were clear at the tactical level, they seem to have been less so at the operational and strategic levels. Wellington was famously closed-mouthed about strategy, and it isn’t exactly clear why. Some of it may have been related to Operational Security.39 There doesn’t seem to have been any clear regulation about OPSEC at the time, and personal letters home had a tendency to find their way into the newspaper. At least once, Wellington threatened to send an officer home for writing letters that ended up in the newspaper.40 It may also be that Wellington’s intent involved more flexibility than could be communicated in a set of orders. Wellington famously compared his plans to a net of rope:

They planned their campaigns just as you might make a splendid piece of harness. It looks very well; and answers very well; until it gets broken; and then you are done for. Now I make my campaigns of ropes. If anything went wrong, I tied a knot; and went on.41

The advantages to a flexible strategy are obvious. But one disadvantage is that, while flexibility can be developed, it can’t be handed over in a conversation. And Wellington’s greatest constraint was a lack of time.

Shared Understanding

Earl of Uxbridge
Earl of Uxbridge

It’s evident that Wellington wasn’t being deliberately reticent about his plans with his second in command. Outside of the orders he had written, the placement of units on the field of battle, and the coordination he had made with the Prussian army, there wasn’t any unifying plan. There was no “shaping action” or “decisive action.” Napoleon would attack, and the Anglo-allied Army would stand against them. Wellington’s tone indicates that he may have been more than a little exasperated with Uxbridge’s lack of understanding about the situation.

It’s possible that Wellington expected a shared understanding among his staff to be obvious from the orders that he wrote. General Müffling, the Prussian Liaison, took conference with Wellington as he wrote his orders before the battle and debated with him how well the farm of Hougoumont was defended against the possibility of a flanking movement. Wellington listened, and adjusted his orders accordingly.42 Presumably Uxbridge was there as well, getting the same information about the battlefield. Or else not. Nevertheless, Wellington’s conversation with Uxbridge makes it clear that Wellington had failed to create a shared understanding across his staff. What was missing in Wellington’s army was a formal process for calling together the staff, discussing the challenges, and determining courses of action. It appears that such a process never occurred to anyone.

Shortly after the battle Wellington found himself in another conversation with the inquisitive Thomas Creevy, again wishing to know what the decisive factor was in the battle. After some back-and-forth, Wellington replied, “By God! I don’t think it would have done if I had not been there!”43 Creevy himself waited seven years before sharing that anecdote for fear that it would be taken as egotism or vanity.44 But another way of understanding this quote might be Wellington’s whelming realization of a single flaw in his mission command: There was no continuity plan in the event that the commander was removed from the fight.


Wellington’s failure to create a shared understanding of the battle at hand was the one significant flaw in his otherwise exceptional use of the principles of mission command. Multiple factors combined to prevent him forming his staff to their fullest potential, but he compensated by building cohesive teams and the use of clear orders that established his intent without sacrificing flexibility. That cohesive flexibility ultimately allowed them to stand their ground and win the war in a single campaign, despite the disadvantage of a hastily assembled army

End Notes

1Haythornthwaite, Philip J. Wellington the Iron Duke. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2007, 78
2John Schneider, ed. Allied Order of Battle (Napoleonic Literature) http://web.archive.org/web/20120717034259/http://www.napoleonic-literature.com/Waterloo_OB/Allied.htm (accessed 21 May 2015)
3Haythornthwaite, 71
4Ibid., 73
6Weller, Jac, and Andrew Uffindell. “Wellington’s Waterloo Tactics.” In On Wellington: The Duke and His Art of War. London: Greenhill Books ;, 1998., 117
8Bassford, Christopher. On Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington and the Campaign of 1815. [Print-on-demand ed. Charleston, SC: Pulished for Clausewitz.com by CreateSpace.com, 2010., http://www.clausewitz.com/readings/1815/one.htm (Accessed 21 May 2015)
9Longford, Elizabeth. Wellington: The Years of the Sword. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1969., 415 ff
10Ibid., 416
11Ibid., 423 ff
12Haythornthwaite, 81
13Weller and Uffindell, 120
15Ibid., 125
16Longford, 467
17Davies, Godfrey. Wellington and His Army. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1954, 40
18Longford, 481
19Haythornthwaite, 95
20Davies, 77
21Haythornthwaite, 32
22Davies, 74 ff
23Haythornthwaite, 68
24Ibid., 51
25Ibid., 68
26Weller and Uffindell, 115
27Longford, 404
28Haythornthwaite, 73
29Longford, 401
31Haythornthwaite, 73
32Ibid., 44
33Ibid., 5
34Davies, 52
35Ibid., 57
36Haythornthwaite, 41
37Longford, 444
38Ibid., 441
39Davies, 31
40Ibid., 4
41Longford, 442
42Ibid., 450
43Ibid., 490


Author: KB French

Formerly many things, including theology student, mime, jr. high Latin teacher, and Army logistics officer. Currently in the National Guard, and employed as a civilian... somewhere

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: