Why didn’t France fight on against the Sixth Coalition after the Battle of Waterloo?

As this is my first post I thought it best to write something relating to the period in which my research is focused; this being the age of horse and musket. The question I wish to pose relates to the Waterloo campaign in early June 1815, namely why did French resistance to the Sixth Coalition disintegrate so rapidly after the Battle of Waterloo?

I will not go into the finer details of the campaign as I assume that all who read this possess at least a rough understanding of the hundred days campaign. In short, faced with the combined armies of the Sixth Coalition (Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, Austria and the United Netherlands) Napoleon, having returned from Elba and disposed of the Bourbon Monarchy marched north into Flanders with nearly 200,000 troops and sought to defeat the Anglo-Dutch army under the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian army under Marshal Gebhard Von Blücher. Taking the central position, Napoleon pushed the Prussians aside, inflicting heavy losses on them at the battle of Ligny 16 June 1815 while Marshal Ney simultaneously attacked the Anglo-Dutch at Quatre Bras. With the Prussians seemingly beaten, Napoleon detached 30,000 troops under Marshal Grouchy to hound Blucher and prevent the Prussians from marching to Wellington’s aid. Napoleon then marched on Wellington and fought the battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815. Here, stern British and Dutch resistance kept the French at bay while the Prussians managed expertly to hold off Grouchy and march to Wellington’s side. The rest as they say is history. Despite this, why did France collapse so quickly after Waterloo?

From a purely military perspective the situation facing Napoleon after Waterloo was not as bad as the one he faced following defeat in Russia, nor was it as grievous as the one he faced after the battle of Leipzig in 1813. Admittedly the French army was tired and had sustained very heavy losses, both in terms of manpower and horses while their ammunition was low. Several key commanders had been killed while the invincible reputation of the Imperial Guard was broken. The cavalry meanwhile were in a bad state, which, foraging apart made reconnaissance very difficult. Overall, total French losses for the campaign amounted to roughly 60,000 men.[1] Despite this however the state of the allied armies was not much better, Wellington’s army of 68,000 at Waterloo had sustained 18,000 losses, this included many fine officers such as Sir Thomas Picton, while his cavalry were in no state to pursue the French. The Prussians had also sustained heavy losses both at Ligny and Wavre while they also lost 7,000 men on the field of Waterloo against the Young Guard. Allied losses for the campaign thus totalled roughly 55,000. With such heavy losses sustained and no reinforcements on the way until the Austrians and Russians arrived, the allies were unable to destroy the French army.

The French where capable of striking back at the weary allies, Napoleon was alive, if ill and exhausted, while Marshal Grouchy and his 25,000 French troops swiftly re-joined Napoleon, swelling the ranks of survivors.  To the south, guarding the Alpine passes, Napoleon could count on General Suchet’s army; on the Rhine the capable General Rapp was at hand to protect the river valley, while other French commanders kept the Vendee in check. In Paris, Marshal Davout, Napoleon’s greatest general was alive and well, as was Ney and Soult. The French thus had a range of armies waiting to defend the frontier of France under gifted commanders, while waiting in the wings in the towns and city streets of the Republic the National Guard could be counted on to provide patriotic cannon fodder once allied troops crossed into France.

Logistically the situation was difficult for both sides, but it was particularly bad for the French, in that their system of’ living- off the land’ would no doubt anger French peasants. Despite this situation however France was unlikely to simply roll over if Napoleon remained hopeful of victory. French troops would no doubt offer stern resistance when fighting on French soil, something Prussian troops later in the century would learn to their cost.

Perhaps the main reason for France’s sudden collapse in 1815 was the lack of political support for Napoleon in Paris and the lack of energy on the part of the Emperor to continue the fight. In his absence the French government had grown uneasy and yearned for a peaceful conclusion to events. His abdication ended the war.

Despite this however the Waterloo campaign ended with Napoleon still in power, as long as his soldiers were willing to die for him and he remained eager to attack hope remained for France. It was his decision to abdicate for a second time that ended the campaign of 1815. If he had chosen to fight on however, the Napoleonic wars may have continued to run their bloody and destructive course. Bogged down in France, short of supplies and facing aggressive French resistance the coalition powers would have been put under immense pressure. If Napoleon had been able to turn defeat into victory by defeating the Anglo-Prussian armies in Champagne while the other French armies held the Russians and Austrians in check, the campaign of 1815 may have been a springboard for another great French victory, rather than the end of Napoleon’s reign.

Andrew Limm


[1] All figures are quoted from David G. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1967), pp.1093-1094.

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2 responses to “Why didn’t France fight on against the Sixth Coalition after the Battle of Waterloo?

  1. I agree that the question I posed above is not a new one. Peter Hofschroer’s coverage of the aftermath of Waterloo is detailed and important and, like the rest of his work, thought provoking. Despite Hofschroer’s analysis of the aftermath of Waterloo however, historians have remained focused on the battle itself. The controversial character of Hofschroer’s arguments regarding Waterloo have not helped this situation; the majority of historians continue to trade blows over the finer details of 18 June 1815, rather than conduct research into the events that followed.

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