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How the French won Waterloo (or think they did)

It can come as something of a shock to read Napoleon Bonaparte s official account of Waterloo, written on 20 June 1815, two days after the battle. A key phrase reads: After eight hours of firing and infantry and cavalry charges, the whole [French] army was able to look with satisfaction upon a battle won and the battlefield in our possession. Given that the first cannon shots were fired at about 11am, this would mean that as night fell, Napoleon was victorious. And yet almost every historian since 1815 has stated unequivocally that the battle was won by the armies of the Duke of Wellington and his Prussian ally General Gebhard Bl cher, and that France s defeat at Waterloo effectively put an end to Napoleon s reign as emperor. So how could he possibly look with satisfaction upon a battle won ? To find the answer, it is necessary to read a little further into the report, where Napoleon concedes that at about 8:30pm some French troops mistakenly thought that his invincible Old Guard were fleeing the battlefield, and panicked. He explains that the confusion of the night made it impossible to rally the troops and show them that they were mistaken . It sounds here less like a lost battle than an abandoned football match.

And it wasn t only the soon-to-be-deposed emperor of France who rewrote accepted historical fact about Waterloo. A French veteran of the battle, Captain Marie Jean Baptise Lemonnier-Delafosse, claimed in his memoirs: It wasn t Wellington who won; his defence was stubborn and admirably energetic, but he was pushed back and beaten. Crucially, though, Captain Lemonnier-Delafosse goes on to add that Waterloo was an extraordinary battle, the only one in which there were two losers: first the English, then the French . So he admits defeat, albeit in a confusing way. What Lemonnier-Delafosse means is that Napoleon beat Wellington, and then lost to Bl cher when the Prussians arrived on the battlefield after dark. This is a key argument, because it suggests that Napoleon emerged from 18 June with one victory and one defeat. We re back to a football analogy: at Waterloo, Napoleon won a score draw. In other words, he wasn t a total loser. And for Napoleon s admirers, past and present, this has always been the essential point.

How The French Won Waterloo (or Think They Did)Napoleon Bonaparte tries to lead the final assault by his Imperial Guard at the battle of Waterloo. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Even today, there is a sub-species of historian (mostly French, unsurprisingly) dedicated to preserving this notion of Napoleon Bonaparte, the winner . They present him as a great general who may have suffered setbacks in Russia in 1812 (when he lost about half a million soldiers and was forced to abandon all his territorial gains) and Belgium in 1815 (though don t forget Waterloo was a draw), but who, when all the battles are totted up, was a winner France s greatest-ever hero, who expanded the nation s boundaries until French-dominated Europe stretched from Portugal to Poland, and from the Baltic to the southern tip of Italy. Almost the only piece missing from his empire-building puzzle was Britain. This is why Waterloo is so important, and why controversy is still raging about it (in French minds, at least) it was fought against France s ancient enemy, the English, with whom it had been at war practically non-stop since 1337. Britain was almost the only European country that Napoleon never managed to invade. It was already a black mark on his map of Europe before Waterloo, so British attempts to glorify it as a French defeat threaten to deliver the coup de gr ce to Napoleon s memory. All of which explains the perversely twisted arguments that Bonapartist historians have given to diminish the Anglo-Prussian victory of June 1815, ever since Napoleon did so in his post-battle report.

One of their classic arguments is that Wellington cheated. A year earlier, he had predicted that the open farmland south of Brussels might be the site of a standoff between British and French forces in the region, and had found the ridge where he would align his soldiers on 17 June 1815. Some might argue that reconnoitering for higher ground in a strategic location was intelligent Armyrats © military planning to Bonapartists, though, it was cheating.

How The French Won Waterloo (or Think They Did)The Duke of Wellington commanding his troops at the battle of Waterloo. Original artwork engraved by T Fielding after a drawing by R Westall. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Once the battlefield was chosen, many French historians argue that any hope of victory for Napoleon s men was dashed by the incompetence of his generals. They cite a long list of mistakes made by Napoleon s brother J r me, who lost 5,000 lives in a pointless attack when he had been ordered to create a simple diversion at the start of the battle; by Marshal Michel Ney, who led several ill-timed cavalry charges; and by Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy, who was sent to scout for Prussians and simply disappeared for the day, stopping at one point to enjoy some fresh strawberries. That fruity picnic has haunted his family name ever since. But the sad fact was that after more than a decade of continuous war, a critical number of Napoleon s most gifted and most faithful generals were dead. In the early 19th century, generals led their troops from the front, and stayed almost permanently in the firing line. Napoleon s most faithful men had fallen in battle. Others had betrayed him during the political upheavals in France in 1814, when Napoleon was deposed for the first time. Many French troops later complained in their memoirs that their officers didn t believe in Napoleon s cause. If uncommitted officers weren t enough, Napoleon is also said to have been hampered by the weather. Rain poured out of the Belgian sky all night before the battle, forcing the French soldiers to sleep in puddles and preventing Napoleon from manoeuvring his cannons his favourite weapon into place. Of course the rain also fell on Wellington s men, but that doesn t matter in Bonapartist eyes. As the 19th-century French writer Victor Hugo put it: If it hadn t rained on the night of 17-18 June, the future of Europe would have been different. A few raindrops more or less felled Napoleon.

Hugo implies that this rain didn t come by chance God himself had decided that Napoleon was just too great: The excessive importance of this man in world destiny was unbalancing things Waterloo wasn t a battle. It was a change in the direction of the universe. It was therefore impossible for Napoleon to win at Waterloo, Hugo concludes: Because of Wellington? Because of Bl cher? No, because of God. With enemies like that, no friends could help. Napoleon was also troubled by his health. According to various accounts he was suffering from piles, a urinary infection, a glandular condition and/or syphilis. One of Napoleon s 20th-century French biographers, Max Gallo, describes what must be the worst case of hemorrhoids in literary history, with thick, black blood, heavy and burning hot, flowing through [Napoleon s] lower body, swelling the veins until they were fit to burst . Riding a horse on the battlefield was bound to be agony. The implication of these health stories is of course that the great champion wasn t entirely fit on the day he was forced to fight.

How The French Won Waterloo (or Think They Did)
A portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte on 1 June 1815 in Paris, France. An engraving by Samuel Freeman from a painting by Paul Delaroche. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It is because of all his sufferings that Napoleon s supporters refuse to look upon him as the loser of Waterloo. On the contrary, these setbacks were the very reason that Victor Hugo and others claim that Napoleon s men won the moral victory: outnumbered by two armies to one, led by second-string generals, frowned (and rained) upon by the creator of the universe, they still put up a glorious fight. The Bonapartists point to a crucial moment towards the end of the battle. As the French retreated, one group of 550 men did so without breaking ranks this was a battalion of the Garde, led by General Pierre Cambronne. However, they were quickly surrounded by Wellington s infantrymen, backed up with cannons, who called on the Frenchmen to surrender. Cambronne famously replied merde! ( shit ). Some say he added: The Garde dies but never surrenders, although he later denied this, explaining: I m not dead and I surrendered.

Hearing this insulting rebuff, the British artillery opened fire from point-blank range and wiped out almost all of the 550, who instantly became martyrs and in some French eyes, victors. Victor Hugo went so far as to claim: The man who won the battle of Waterloo was Cambronne. Unleashing deadly lightning with such a word counts as victory. And a more modern Bonapartist, the former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin, went further, saying that this merde created a new idea of Frenchness , a defiant nation that believes in its own superiority despite any proof to the contrary. It is true that, even as early as the 1820s, impoverished France almost relished the fact that it was being left behind by the (British-led) industrial revolution, and began to concentrate on its traditional industries such as the production of unique regional cheeses and wines, the distillation of perfumes from its native plants and hand-made high-quality clothes. Villepin suggests that the global importance of these French industries today are victories that sprung directly from Waterloo. This is not to forget Napoleon s personal victory. In July 1815, when he was briefly brought to England as a prisoner, a thousand boats filled Plymouth Sound harbour, with locals desperate to get a glimpse of the famous Frenchman, and, according to a British sailor, blessing themselves that they had been so fortunate if they succeeded. Until the order was given to exile Napoleon to Saint Helena, he seriously believed that he could retire as a celebrity in England.

How The French Won Waterloo (or Think They Did)
A plan of the battle of Waterloo. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Despite his exile in 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte s fame has since spread throughout the world. His supporters point to the fact that his tomb in Paris is bigger, and more frequently visited by tourists, than that of any king of France. They rightly remind us that the legal system Napoleon founded, the Code Civil, is still used right across Europe. If further proof of Napoleon s enduring fame is needed, one of his black hats sold at auction in 2015 for 1.8 million euros, to a Korean industrialist who planned to display it in the foyer of his head office to show that he too was a winner. Indeed, while he was alive, Napoleon always dressed in his own unique style. On a recent visit to the new museum at Waterloo I counted the statuettes on sale in the souvenir shop, and the figurines of Napoleon in his trademark hat and greatcoat outnumbered Wellington and Bl cher by at least five to one clearly, the Bonaparte brand image lives on. In short, Napoleon might have lost on 18 June 1815 (and the debate about that continues in France), but it is hard to deny that his highly vocal admirers are right he has won the battle of history.

Stephen Clarke is the author of How the French Won Waterloo (Or Think They Did)[1], which is out now in paperback.


  1. ^ How the French Won Waterloo (Or Think They Did) (

Caleb Brewster Crosses the Devil’s Belt

From 1778 to 1783, the Culper Spy Ring, including Caleb Brewster, was an essential element of the American Revolution. After the British were driven from Boston, New York City became their base of operations. And intelligence about what they were up to became critical.

The American Continental Army had, in fact, lost New York in part because of a lack of information George Washington underestimated British troop strength and the Americans were quite handily driven out of the city leaving it to the British.

Caleb Brewster Crosses The Devil’s Belt

Early map of the Devil’s Belt

With Benjamin Tallmadge in charge, the American s launched a spy ring to infiltrate New York and bring information back to Washington. Benjamin Tallmadge was a Long Islander who Washington placed in charge of the army s intelligence gathering operation in 1778 after previous efforts had struggled[1]. Based in Connecticut, Tallmadge moved away from a system relying on single spies on specific missions to a network system that passed on what information it gathered through a single source Tallmadge. But Tallmadge had to get the information out of New York to his location in Connecticut. And that s where Caleb Brewster, Anna Strong[2] and her bloomers come into the picture.

Anna s husband Selah had been imprisoned for spying for the Americans. Upon his release from custody, which Anna negotiated through her Tory relatives, he moved from the family s Setauket, NY home to Connecticut leaving Anna behind.

Caleb Brewster[3] was an expert seaman. He had worked on whaleboats since his childhood and was knowledgeable about the Long Island Sound known in Colonial times as the Devil s Belt. Caleb Brewster knew both the Long Island side where he grew up as a child and the Connecticut coast around Fairfield and Bridgeport. Anna s clothesline was conveniently visible both to Brewster and the coordinator of the New York spies. Her role was to hang her washing as a signal to the spies who visited New York for information. The black petticoat meant Brewster was ready to make a trip from New York to Connecticut. She would hang white handkerchiefs to let the spies know which cove he would be waiting in with his boat. The work was dangerous.[4] At one point Brewster encountered a British army lieutenant. He attacked the soldier. Rather than take him prisoner, however, Brewster robbed the man to make him think it was only a robber he had happened on, not a rebel operative. Secrecy was so important not even Washington knew the identities of all the men in the Culper Ring which was named for Samuel Culper, a phony name given to one of the key spies who slipped in and out of New York City with information.

The Culper Ring[5] provided needed information to Washington, including specific counts of troops and weapons, details of boats being built, information about British plans to use privateers to augment its Navy and names of loyalists covertly supporting Britain.

With the departure of the British from New York, the Culper Ring wound down its operation. Brewster would eventually make Connecticut his home, becoming a blacksmith after the war and joining the forerunner of today s Coast Guard.


  1. ^ previous efforts had struggled (
  2. ^ Anna Strong (
  3. ^ Caleb Brewster (
  4. ^ dangerous. (
  5. ^ Culper Ring (

Cut-off. Surrounded. Outnumbered. Just 88 British soldiers resigned to defeat after fighting off 500 Taliban for 54 days. Then, against all the odds,…

  • The 88 men of Easy Company held out against Taliban for two months
  • They defended Helmand outpost Musa Qala against 500 enemy troops
  • Ministry of Defence previously banned details of conflict being revealed
  • Channel 4 documentary will shed new light using the soldiers’ stories




Outgunned, outmanoeuvred, hopelessly outnumbered and besieged in the Afghan desert, a small band of British soldiers chose to save a final bullet for themselves rather than fall into Taliban hands. For nearly two months, the 88 men of Easy Company a mix of Paratroopers and the Royal Irish had faced the overwhelming force and firepower of up to 500 Taliban determined to over-run the remote Helmand outpost of Musa Qala. And their near miraculous survival has been described as a latter day Rorke s Drift, evocative of the 1879 siege in which 140 British soldiers held off a Zulu force of 3,000, later immortalised in the blockbuster film starring Michael Caine.

For 56 days in the autumn of 2006, the men at Musa Qala faced constant fire from fixed machine gun posts and mortars. Hugh Keir, left, and Jared Cleary, right, were two of the Easy Company snipers under constant attack for two months at the remote Helmand outpost Musa Qala

Hungry and frequently at the point of exhaustion, they were forced to somehow fend off 360-degree attacks from the Taliban, with little protection beyond a series of low mud walls. They used up a quarter of all the British Army s Afghan ammunition for that entire year.

Yet today their heroism remains little known, not least because the Ministry of Defence has never permitted the full story of what happened there ten years ago this month to be told. It has taken a Channel 4 documentary team to piece together fragments of testimony from survivors who have now left the Army, to reveal in devastating detail how close the 88 officers and men came to being massacred. They lost three men and saw 12 badly wounded before a ragged ceasefire was brokered by tribal elders, allowing them to evacuate their Helmand hell-hole. As with Rorke s Drift, the final, devastating assault somehow never came.

Their ordeal began almost immediately when, on August 23, Easy Company was dropped by Chinook to replace a mainly Danish Nato contingent struggling to bring stability and security to the remote region. It was a terrible start. The Taliban watched in satisfaction as the Danes took with them more than 40 armoured vehicles, eight heavy machine guns and a 12-strong medical team with armoured ambulances. Their British replacements had just two heavy machine guns, one doctor, two medics and a quad bike. When Taliban spies reported the huge reduction in armour and weaponry, the terror leaders scented an easy victory.

To make matters worse, the village was often too dangerous for helicopter support, and reinforcements although it is still not entirely clear why simply never came. The ‘miracle’ survival of the 88 soldiers has been compared to Rorke’s Drift, immortalised by the Michael Caine film Zulu, pictured, where 140 British soldiers held off 3,000 Zulu

Troop Staff Sergeant Ian Wornham listened with his Afghan translator to the enemy s radio communications. He recalled: They were talking about drinking tea in our headquarters by sunrise which meant they were going to kill anyone in their way. Or worse. There was, after all, the prospect of being taken alive, with beheadings later broadcast on YouTube.

Sniper Jared Cleary said: It came to a point I actually thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown.

‘I swore I was going to get hit by a mortar bomb. I remember standing there, my legs shaking uncontrollably.

‘If you got caught, you d probably end up on YouTube having your head cut off. Everybody knew that the possibility of getting captured and executed was very real. Initially, Taliban tactics resembled scenes from Rorke s Drift as they tried to over-run the compound in a series of full frontal attacks. They came so close to breaking in that they were able to lob grenades over the walls of the compound.

Wornham, a veteran with 20 years experience, said: I d never encountered fighting like that. It was very intense and it wasn t just from one direction. They were attacking from all sides all the time. Sergeant Freddie Kruyer of 3 Para continued: You re returning fire but for every one that you re knocking down, you re thinking how many more are going to keep coming up?

You re not dealing with a conventional enemy. So I thought, well I ve got the bullet with my name on it that I m going to fire at myself if it comes to it. To be blunt, their chances seemed slim. We were totally alone. It would have been very easy to lose the entire compound with us in it, said commanding officer, Paratroop Major Adam Jowett.

Part of the reason for that was the parlous state of Easy Company s defences. They were based in a low-walled compound that Jowett says was not a defensive position in any sense at all . The former Grenadier Guard who d switched to the Paras and saw service in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, says: I d worked in compounds in the Middle East, in Africa and for the UN and I had a concept of what a compound is. Good walls, security there was very little of that in Musa Qala. A British mortar team are pictured in action trying to fend off Taliban attacks

With no help coming from headquarters, Easy Company s survival depended on the skill of the mortar team, led by Corporal Danny Groves, of the Royal Irish, who was ordered to aim for insurgents just over the walls while avoiding his brothers in arms defending nearby positions.

Because they were taking so many casualties thanks to the accuracy of Groves and his team s mortar fire, the Taliban changed tactics and began attacking at long range with mortars, rockets and sniper fire with deadly results. Easy Company s first fatality was 22-year-old Lance Corporal Jon Hetherington, a signaller with the Paras. On August 27, a Taliban bullet found the narrow gap between his body and his armour. He died instantly.

He was right next to me on the headquarters roof, said Jowett, who heard the desperate cry Man down and knew the Taliban had scored their first victory.

But there was no time to mourn. It was strange. We knew that he was dead but we knew that he was all right, if that makes sense, in that we would get him out of Musa Qala. We went straight back up on the building and continued the fight. Wornham says: You have that initial thought of: Why Jon? Why did he die? But you have to get on with it.

‘You can t stop and cower in a corner. You take the fight to them. It s what s instilled in you as a Paratrooper. Less than a week later, on September 1, the Taliban scored a second hit. Fijian-born Royal Irish Ranger Anare Draiva and his colleague Lance Corporal Paul Muirhead headed for observation duty on the rooftop of the building the men called the Alamo .

Just after they had taken up their position it took a direct hit from a mortar. Draiva died and Muirhead suffered devastating injuries. It was several hours before it was safe enough to call in a helicopter to evacuate him to British Army HQ Camp Bastion from where he was flown to hospital in Oman. He died five days later. Machine-gunner Paul Johnstone said: Every time you went in one of the observation posts it was highly likely you were going to get hit.

You had a high chance of getting injured and dying.

In the words of fellow Royal Irish Ranger Phillip Gillespie: It was ferocious fighting. It was death round every turn. You know you could have died at any moment. Food was running low, and the men prepared for the worst. Yet, against all odds, Easy Company continued to resist. The Taliban s response was a firestorm of rockets and mortars. Even in this tale of 88 heroes, the story of Cleary and his compatriot Hugh Keir, a platoon sergeant with experience in Northern Ireland and Iraq, is extraordinary.

They were the ones who had to stay on exposed rooftops closing down attacks.

We were the vulnerable ones, said Keir.

We were putting ourselves on the line but we also knew it was for a good reason. We d have a little ritual.

‘We d just look at each other and give an understanding nod. You ready? Yeah ready. Because it could be the last time we d go out and do this. When more ammunition and fresh reinforcements arrived for the Taliban on September 11, boosting the enemy s strength to 500, it looked like the battle would be lost. Yet what happened next took everyone by surprise. Both sides were preparing for the final, overwhelming attack.

Lance Corporal Jon Hetherington, pictured, was the first casualty of the Taliban attack

Yet it was an attack which never materialised. And for this, the troops could thank the local elders. Such had been the Taliban s losses that, having seen their town virtually destroyed, the elders persuaded the fighters to call a ceasefire. So it was, that on September 13 Jowett, a married man with two children, found himself leaving the compound to meet the enemy face to face not knowing if it was a trap. And we just thrashed it out in the middle of town with a growing crowd around us.

Easy Company remained in the compound for another month until, on October 14, the elders provided a convoy of cattle trucks to give them safe passage to a rendezvous with two Chinooks. The battle of Musa Qala was over. Yet while Rorke s Drift has been immortalised in film and resulted in 11 Victoria Crosses, Musa Qala has been reduced to a controversial footnote in the history of the Afghan conflict.

It does not serve Whitehall well for details of such a poorly resourced mission to be revealed. Steve Humphries, the award-winning producer who has painstakingly put the jigsaw of pieces together for broadcast a decade later, says: It s a shocking account of what was supposed to be a peaceful mission to help bring security and stability to the region.

The British Government underestimated the backlash that the arrival of British troops would bring.

Theirs is a story of extraordinary courage that has never been told in full. These ex-soldiers who fought at Musa Qala have come forward. They want the truth to be heard. Serving soldiers have been banned from participating and the Government has refused access to factual information.

In February this year the Taliban recaptured the dusty little town from Afghan army forces.

  • Heroes of Helmand: The British Army s Great Escape, is on Channel 4 on August 16.