Waterloo ’15 Tour: June 2

Yesterday I promised that I would speak of the other Irishman to fight at Waterloo, Wellington himself. I’m not going to get into a detailed biography and list of achievements. There isn’t enough space on the web. Suffice it to say that he is considered one of the most brilliant defensive tacticians in history(meaning he knew when to stand, when to retreat, and when to lie down). Okay, so the lying down isn’t as bad as it sounds. Wellington had a knack for using what’s called the reverse slope in a battlefield–especially Waterloo. what he did was find a rise, and then position his men behind it. Then he told them to lie down and wait out the cannon balls to hit the forward slope and then bounce over them. The French stood up to cannon-fire. The French were slaughtered by Wellington’s cannons. The English suffered horrifically, but that reverse slope(and the downpour the night before and on and off that day, which made the ground so muddy balls stuck instead of bounced), gave them a better chance than the French. A little tidbit about that rain. It seems that before most of Wellington’s major battles, the army was struck by a drenching thunderstorm. They called it Wellington weather. The soldiers were miserable the night before Waterloo, but the rain was considered good luck.

I can talk all day about tactics–well, actually, I can’t. I suck at details like that. But the more I read up on Waterloo, the more I believe that while tactics were important, two things turned the battle. The indomitable will of the Prussian General Blucher to arrive in time to help, and Wellington the man. Now, Wellington was not loved. Not like Napoleon was. He was respected. He was revered. And one more thing. He was THERE. Napoleon ran his battle from the rear lines, leaving his second, Marshall Ney, to do the dirty work. The soldiers might have loved Napoleon enough to throw away everything to follow him, but when they needed him most to rally their spirits, he wasn’t there. Wellington, on the other hand, was. He was everywhere, calmly seated on his great warhorse Copenhagen, looking as if he were conducting a review for the King. No matter how dangerous, he was there exhorting the men, but more importantly, showing them a calm and unconcerned face. If they were going to lose, it wasn’t because he frightened his own troops with his own uncertainties. He positioned himself alongside an elm tree, but he also rode along the ridge they defended, sometimes jumping Copenhagen right over the outer line of a square to temporary safety. His aides died or were wounded alongside him, but he never wavered until much later, back in his rooms, when he broke down. But during the battle, his men saw a confident, unruffled, focused commander in the midst of a hell of noise, smoke, fire and blood, and they believed they would prevail. And they did. Barely. But barely counts in battles. And I still say they got that edge by a commander who stood by his men, no matter what.

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