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Perspectives on Napoleon

Perspectives on Napoleon

Could Napoleon have won the battle of Waterloo?

Josh (Florida):

Napoleon could have won the Battle of Waterloo, but his campaign would have been at a loss anyway. He could have defeated Wellington if he would have put tremendous force on Wellington's right flank, his escape route. Napoleon also knew from the beginning that this task would be far-fetched and so did his soldiers. If the Prussians would not have shown up at the end of the battle, I think that Napoleon would have broken Wellington's line and be crowned the victor.

Maria (Ohio):

I don't doubt that Napoleon could have won the battle of Waterloo because if in fact, Wellington did, he could have too. The odds were against him though, and even if Napoleon did win, the French might not have accepted him as emperor once again. The truth though is that in no way was Wellington ever a better strategist or general than Napoleon, anyone can make it if they have a lucky break. To me though, Napoleon was still one of the greatest leaders that ever was and ever will be.

Herbert (Florida):

The younger, more aggressive Napoleon could have won the battle of Waterloo. But it would have made no difference. The defeated Anglo-Allied and Prussian forces would have fallen back to regroup, while larger armies from Russia and Austria were marching ever closer. Napoleon lacked reserve manpower and he no longer had the general staff support and the marshalate to field multiple armies effectively.

Mortier (Maryland):

Napoleon had many opportunities to win the battle of Waterloo. For instance, he could have attempted to storm the British positions without waiting to use his artillary, which might have allowed him a chance to drive them back before the arrival of Von Blucher's Prussians. Also, he should have done a reconnaissance of the terrain with some light cavalry before charging the supposedly feeble British position, which were actually used for Wellington's reverse slope tactic. He should have committed his reserve, the imperial guard early on so that any infiltrations of the enemy line could have been readily exploited. Additionally, he needed to take personal command of the battle rather than watching Marechel Ney do it. Overall, if he had taken personal command and not wavering, showing the typical decisiveness that was characteristic of him, it should have been a ready-made victory.

Mark (California):

Certainly, and earlier in his career he more than likely would have prevailed, perhaps without extended difficulty. But by this time, his military and political resources had worn away. After years of extended campaigns and the stress and strains of maintaining an empire, the republic could no longer support the tremendous effort necessary to battle all of Europe. Napoleon no longer had the organizational staffing available to implement his strategy. Many of his best officers and loyal soldiers were gone, he lacked extended supply lines and no longer had the unqualified political support in Paris.

Even if he had succeeded at Waterloo, it would have at best, only prolonged the inevitable. He was not in any position to conduct a 2 front war and no longer maintained the military industrial support for even limited campaigning. The Russian and Austrian troops would have quickly succeeded in taking the eastern territories before marching, once again on Paris.

Napoleon's primary blunder, came years earlier when he failed to recognize the importance of consolidating his possessions in Spain and driving the British off the continent. Instead, he marched off to Russia and let the ambition that had served him so well, sow the seeds of his destruction.

Thomas (Texas):

Napoleon had many opportunities to triumph with a major victory at Waterloo. I have studied the tactics of Civil War Battles, from the West Point Manuals, and historical archives, and if many of those generals base their tactics on Napoleonic traditions, but not Waterloo. Napoleonís genius was stated quite succinctly by a highly successful, Southern Cavalry Commander, "Get there fustest with the mostest." The other principle precept that Napoleon exploited so successfully was to commit your reserves, without reserve, in the best offensive method possible. Never weaken the commitment with partial, fall back scenarios. He had no fall back at Waterloo, it was either Major Victory or eventual defeat. There were too many allied forces to be dealt with. The capture of Brussels, two defeats of Prussia, would be too much for the Austrians and Russians, who were separated by many leagues of supply lines from support, and knowledge of past defeats would have been too much, and they would have sued for peace. Protection of lines of retreat, a lesson learned in Russia, was not applicable to Waterloo for Napoleon.

In closing, it is much easier in all of the media that I have participated in to win against the computer, or an opponent using the historical opposition strategy, to win as Napoleon, than to win an Wellington. The Allies have a difficult command structure with language differences, colored by national misconceptions as to fighting abilities, and belief in that the allies would stay in the field under adverse conditions. The French have a unified command structure with no language difficulties, and strengthen with a hard core of battle hardened NonComs and Officers. The French just have to realize the decisive moments, and utilize the proper times for consolidation, and the times for pursuit, and remember that delay brings victory to the allies. To win as Wellington, one must rely on French mistakes, make all the correct choices, and French unwillingness to press the attack before six pm. If the Prussians arrive in strength before Wellington has been routed, it is all over for the French. Napoleon, the genius, lost using the tactics of his opponents.

Pavlik (Florida):

Napoleon could have won the battle of Waterloo, and indeed, he almost did. After the brave but uncoordinated assaults made by Ney, Wellington's line was on the verge of complete dicintegration. La Haye Sainte was taken and the Allied center was almost destroyed. If Napoleon would have allowed Ney to push on with fresh troops of the Imperial Guard, Wellington would have been forced to retreat, leaving Blucher on the battlefield alone. The Prussians, I believe would not have stood alone again against Napoleon (after Ligny) and retreated as well. Even if they stayed to fight, Napoleon's troops could have destroyed them piece-meal as they emerged from their long march. Napoleon could indeed have won the campaign of the Hundred Days. What would follow that I think would ultimately be his demise (he could not face the combined forces of Austria and Russia - if they persisted with their invasion).

Jason (Iowa):

Napoleon certainly could have won the battle of Waterloo. Being outnumbered is typical in most for his campaigns, and by concentrating against one opponent at a time, in this case Wellington, he could have had a strong victory. One of his problems is definitely his hesitation, especially in the morning. I realize that artillery is an important branch of his force, but wasting the entire morning waiting for the ground to dry seems a little bit silly. After all, if the ground is too wet for his artillery to be effective, then the British artillery should also be ineffective. His heitation to use the Imperial Guard also crippled his fighting capabilities. This hesitation seemed to hurt him in several battles. What good are elite shock troops if you are unwilling to commit them at crucial times? If they are your best troops, you have feel confident about and willing to deploy them. If he threw them into battle while Ney's cavalry occupied the enemy, they would have a screen from enemy fire and enhance the fighting capabilities of the cavalry.

I should also mention that I always find Ney's tactical decisions disappointing. Perhaps Napoleon should have factored in Ney's record in previous battles more heavily and appointed a different field marshall to that position. If Napoleon really routed the British troops (about 1/3 casualties or higher), the British would probably pull the leftovers of their army out of the continent in the same way they did in other engagements during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. With a strong French victory over Wellington, the Prussians would most likely fall back or be defeated in combat. It might take a couple more battles after that, but like in previous years, the Austrians and Russians would not be able to get it done against France and Napoleon. The best case scenario after they are defeated is to have a France (around 1803 borders) ruled by Napoleon that would probably remain at war with Britain, but that could convince other european powers that it is too exhausted for offensive campaigns. This could provide for stability on the continent, especially if some of Austria's lands are returned to them.

Dave (Hawaii):

Napolean was at the fate of circumstance... several things went just so slightly against him at Waterloo... he could have easily won. I think he should have crushed the Prussians which would have compelled the British to move from the prefered ground of Waterloo to try and save the Prussians. Napolean then could do 1 of 3 things:
  1. He could continue into central Eurpoe and toward the Austrians (whom would have likely been easily routed)... if the British persued their flank and supply line would be extreemly vulnerable to the French forces still in France. Napolean then could turn on Wellington and crush him from both sides. This would work since the British would not press Napolean since they would be reluctant to be cut off from the sea... this would likely be the Allies undoing. The Russians would miss out as they were slow to respond.
  2. Napolean could retire toward Paris. The British would likely advance...they Napolean could choose his ground. If he waited for the Allies to combine I think he still stood an excellent chance as the advantage would fall to the defender (even against a huge allied force).
  3. I think Napolean's best bet was to destroy the Prussians then try to crush the British utterly. That would give him substantial time to deal with the others.

Paul (Connecticut):

Yes. If he had detained the Prussian forces long enough to wear down the British blocks, his forces would have won the day. However, I do agree that Europe would never have come under his control again.

Paul (New York):

Certainly Napoleon could have won the battle of Waterloo. Unfortunately, he chose poor battlefield commanders. Grouchy had little experience with independent command; Soult would have known better and marched to the sound of the guns. Ney was always impetuous and unthinking; if Davout had been with Napoleon, instead of back in Paris as Minister of War, he would have known better than to send waves of cavalry against the British squares unsupported by infantry. Davout may have even made the battle unnecessary, for he would have had the knowledge to crush Wellington at Quatre Bras as he did Brunswick at Auerstadt. And if Marmont had not been a traitor, he could have led the artillery to better, more concentrated fire.

Napoleon's army was a veteran unit, but its morale was brittle. The treason of 1814 sowed the seeds of defeat in 1815, because so many officers and marshals proved themselves more concerned about their own estates than the survival of the empire.

Travis (North Carolina):

Yes, Napoleon could have won at the battle of Waterloo had several things not taken place. First, Napoleon needed his confidence to win, and in this battle, he lacked it. After his Russian defeat and exile, he became inconfident. Thus, he lead his armies with less power and confidence. Second, he shouldn't have sent troops to stop the Prussians from coming. He could've just crushed the British first, then taken care of the Prussians later with more troops. Third, if Berthier was present at the battle, Napoleon's chief of staff, he would have won. Napoleon was also very ill, and if he'd been in full health, he wouldn't have delayed on attacking. Although, if Napoleon had won the battle, he would've lost eventually in the end. Mainly because Great Britain, Prussia, Russia, and Austria would continually come at him.


No, and you have to go back to the disastrous campaign against the Russians. Any force that has attacked Russia and this attack prolongs itself into the Russian winter, has never succeeded in history. IE: Stalingrad.

The Grand Armee had been reduced to a Petit Armee, demoralized, tired, and really out of shape. The hundred days were really a major turning point in European history -- things would go back to the way they were on the continent, with each side having and protecting their own interest without interference until WW1.

Wellington, as Sun Tzu remarks, had the field. He was in a better position to see the battle, the British squares were extremely formidable against either infantry or calvary attacks. If Napolean pushed his artillery forward to smash the squares, British snipers and infantry would have had an open shot at the Frech artillery. Napolean lost the battle before it began. Napolean even comments about this and he himself knows that he and his men are in a poor location and the terrain does not suit calvary nor artillery. He fought at the wrong place, a place of not his choosing. Remember, if you fight a battle of the opponent's choosing, you are at a disadvantage and Napolean knew that he was at a disadvantage, but he had no choice, the Allies trapped him, he had to fight or go back to Paris and wait for a much larger Allied force.


Quite possibly, as Wellington put it, the battle was "a near run thing". There are hundreds of what-ifs related to the specific course of the battle, as well as the campaign that preceeded it.

Disregarding all of these, one can quite simply, and with great confidence, say that Napoleon was let down by his subordinates, Ney and Grouchy, neither of whom wher competant to command an entire wing of the French army, as they had to do at critical times of the campaign. In addition, Ney had shown at Liepzig and Jena his inability to coordinate large numbers of troops in battle, a patern he repeated with disasterous consequences at Waterloo.

Bottom line, if Davout had been availble to command either wing of the French army, either pursuing the Prussians on the 17th and 18th, or attacking the British on the 16th and 18th, Napoleon would have won on the 18th, with either Wellington or Blucher destroyed.

RJ (California):

Napolean could easily have won the battle of Waterloo and retained control of France. Marshal Ney led a cavalry assault in which the vast majority of British guns were in French hands for several hours. There was ample opportunity to destroy the guns, but Ney lacked the forsight when he led the assault. Also, von Blucher may have died or been captured in an earlier battle, in fact he was knocked off his horse and was hidden only by a coat pulled over his face from a French search. If he had been killed or captured, his successors would have allowed Grouchy to push them back into Prussia. Finally, there were several direct orders from Napolean to Grouchy to screen the Prussians and hit Wellington on the flank, but Grouchy ignored them and continued to follow a diversion of 10,000 Prussian troops. If Ney had had the forsight to spike the British guns and ordered infantry to follow his cavalry assault, if von Blucher had been killed or captured or if Grouchy had followed Napolean's orders, the Russians would likely have gone home and signed a treaty and the Austrians would have probably been defeated.

James (Oklahoma):

Military Command is a matter of both skill and chance. Had "old Bluker" not arrived at the last moment with his fresh troops the "Grand Army" may very well have carried the battle. In that event our view of Napoleon would no doubt be quite different.

Rob (Michigan):

Yes Napolean could have won. If only he had used the brilliance that he used in all his prior Prussian campaigns. Napolean was so successful agianst Prussia and Italy because he changed the rules of war, and that is what he should have done again at Waterloo. By this time all of Europe was familiar to Napolean's new flanking strategy, and his strategy of fighting the enemy one-by-one. Napolean should have changed the rules again, instead of sending the cavalry. Napolean should have simply attacked the enemy's supply line. Or use the same strategy that the Rusians used on him, slowly retreat and at the same time sabatoge the land that your enemy will cross as they persue you, (or force them to cross a bridge and place cannons on the other side) and once the enemy has been weakened strike with full force.

Charles (California):

Of course, Napoleon could have won the Battle of Waterloo, except that he made enough mistakes to turn it into a disastrous defeat. First, he underestimated his opponents. He had no respect for Blucher, who had been defeated several times already by the French, and was confident that Wellington was merely a "Sepoy" General. He also underestimated the British Infantry, who were remarkably cool under fire, and the resiliency of the Prussians to bounce back quickly after the Battle of Ligny.

Those who say that the Prussians won or that the English won, do a disservice to both armies. It was a joint effort all the way and neither the English nor the Prussians could have won on their own. Although relations between the two armies were strained at best, they still had a common enemy and this united them in their cause to defeat the Emperor.

As far as the battle itself, Napoleon's decision to give Ney the overall command was the first of a long string of errors that ultimately led to his defeat. The waste of enormous resources to overtake Hougemount was another. Ney's total lunacy in charging the British squares with French Cavalry but without the infantry may have been the turning point of the battle. It gave Wellington's army confidence to stand up to the final desperate attack by the Imperial Guard. Napoleon's gamble to use the Guard was his most disastrous mistake. Never had he attacked without leaving something in reserve to at least preserve some kind of order in case of a defeat. As soon as the Prussians arrived on the field in large numbers, Wellington, with his customary skill, advanced the entire Allied line---and there was nothing left to stop them from completely routing the French.

In the final analysis, no historian can make the case that either Blucher or Wellington was a superior commander to Napoleon. Wellington himself said on many occasions after the Battle of Waterloo, that Napoleon was the greatest general of any age, past or present. Blucher was not of a similar mind, but this probably had more to do with his hatred of Napoleon and the damage the French had done to Prussia. Historians can make the case, however, that on June 18, 1815, both the Duke of Wellington and Marshal Blucher outperformed and outsmarted the greatest military man of the age, sending him into his final well-deserved exile.

Robert (Massachusetts):

He should have won easily. Wellington is the most overrated general in the history of Britain. If Grouchy follows the standing orders of "March to the sound of the guns" instead of running around the Prussians would have been caught in a vice. Mistakes are mistakes. He left his best marshal in Paris to mind the store. What people forget is they still had a large force training that would have outnumbered the two allied armies as they rallied and entered France. Without support from Austria or Russia they would have been crushed. The only interesting thing in a "what if" scenario is if they killed Wellington in the battle and/or the Prussians don't find Blucher trapped under his horse. The British and Prussians may sue for peace which losing two armies at once may let Napoleon settle into France to consolidate gains. Plus the utter shock value to the Austrians and Russians.

Carlos (Oregon):

I think Napoleon had a greater mind than The Duke of Wellington and that only luck helped The English.

Chen (Utah):

Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo was an unnecessary event, just as were the Russian defeats at Austerliz and Prussia's defeat at Jena. In the sense of asking whether there was a possibility that Napoleon could've won the Battle of Waterloo itself, there certainly was a possibility.

There is the first fact that Napoleon had some 200,000 troops at his disposal but only took 70,000 into battle against Wellington. He could easily have turned the tide of the battle with the reinforcements. Then there is the failure of Grouchy to intercept the Prussians. Had he done so, the Olds Guards of Napoleon would still have failed to break through the British lines, but the failure of the Prussians to arrive would have prevented a rout on the part of the French.

Then there is the fateful calvary charge on Wellington's lines, which could've been coordinated with more artillery and the guards, which would've have been more likely to break through. Also, Napoleon was bleeding his forces on Wellington's right flank, and there is no evidence that it seriously threatened Wellington's lines, another mistake of Napoleon. Even in the end, when Napoleon took La Saint Hayne or whichever name that barnhouse should be assigned, he didn't have enough guns nor men to reinforce the position and ultimately lost it.

So in the sense of the single battle of Waterloo, Napoleon clearly could have won. But ever since his invasion of Russia, Napoleon's ultimate defeat was guaranteed.

Paul (California):

If he had not sent a third of the Grand Armee, under Grouchy, to chase Blucher's Prussians, after their defeat at Ligny, and "Keep his sword in Blucher's back" OR more precisely, if Blucher had been smart enough to cut across and "March to the sound of the guns" to reinforce Napoleon at Waterloo, instead of plodding along behind the Prussian army, then Napoleon could have won and taken Brussels that night or next day. If Grouchy's 30,000 men had got to the field at Waterloo in the mid to late afternoon, ahead of the Prussians instead of behind them and too late, this would have been enough to push Wellington off the ridge. Wellington himself said "It was a damn near-run thing," after the battle. Of course during the battle, when told his men were down to three rounds per man, he prayed "Give me night, or give me Blucher."

Yes, against all odds, Napoleon made a dramatic comeback from Elba, an incredible forced march and shock arrival at Charleroi, and it was indeed "a near run thing" that he could have won, if Grouchy had cut across and reinforced him at Waterloo. (This was partly Napoleon's fault for not spelling out his orders more precisely. But a more brilliant, less plodding, General than Grouchy, would have known what to do when the cannons were blasting over the hills at Waterloo. Certainly if had been Marshall Ney and his cavalry, he would have been there at full charge, without a doubt.)

Thomas (Michigan):

No, he was vastly outnumbered. It was idealistic of him to think that part of his command could hold off the Prussians from arriving on the scene. At best he could hope for a draw. Even then time would have caught up with him and internal political foes would of weakened him, just as the grand alliance of all of Europe would of bled France to death on the battle field. Like much the same situation that Gen Lee faced when opposing Gen Grant: Lee was a better General but he could not replace the men he lost, just as Grant brought to bear all the force and overwhelming manpower of the north.


I think he could if he had enough time to prepare. He almost did win but I think his generals did him in. The British were able to suprise his toops by hiding under the crest of a hill. I think if Ney could have charged when he should have, it would have ment a victory. Also if Blucher could have been delayed longer, it would have been a French victory.

Dave (California):

His surviving officers seem to concur that Napoleon had become ambivalent, overweight and lethargic. This plus his absolute uncareing attitude towards the suffering his men endured during battle didn't help much either. His Armies defeat was inevitable.

Thomas (California):

I think the biggest consideration at the battle of Waterloo was the untimely arrival of the Prussians. We must remember that Napoleon wanted to attack at dawn, as was his custom, but the soft, damp ground, which negated the lethal riquochet effects of cannonfire, and the pleadings of his advisors, convinced him to delay the attack 4 hours. At the time when Blucher arrived, Wellington was beat, despite all of the mistakes that Napoleon made during the battle. If Napoleon attacked at dawn, then the Prussians are still 2 hours away when Wellington is defeated.

Azat (New Jersey):

Yes. The only reason he lost was because he was very ill at the moment and could not move to attack Wellington before the Prussians were supposed to come with reinforcements. If he was in full health, he would have attacked as soon as he could, and most historians should agree he would have won Waterloo. His genious did not leave him, his health did. Napoleon was a very ill man at the end of his career.

Veronica (Kansas):

No, Napoleon did not manage the battle nor did he effectively utilize the resources he possessed. By searching out a decisive battle with the allies when he did, he fought on less than ideal terrain. He lacked full command and control of his forces, and ended up attacking in peicemeal fashion. He wasted an entire corps on Hougemont when a smaller force could have held down the same number of Allied troops. His cavalry and infantry did not coordinate thier attack, and the British cannons (captured and held by the french cavalry for only a few minutes) were not destroyed. The failure to bring equipment to destroy the cannon reflects a lack of planning for actions on the objective when it was taken. Problems with supply forced him into believing he had to fight. In short - he fell victim to Clauswitz's principals of war. He was less effective than Wellington at bringing together all the principals of war and synthesizing them into winning tactics.

Andrew (California):

Maybe, had a lot of "what ifs" occured all in his favor. However, I think the larger issue is even had he won what would that have accomplished? I don't think an allied defeat would have forced them to sue for peace terms, I think they would have pushed ahead with the eastern invasions again a la 1814, and eventually Napoleon would have been defeated again, only the losses would have been even greater. Unfortunately there was no turning back the clock once they declared war against Napoleon instead of France, only his total defeat would satisfy.

Kevin (North Carolina):

Yes, Napoleon could have won the Battle of Waterloo. Two days earlier, if d'Erlon's corps had attacked at Ligny on the Prussian's right flank, the Prussians could have lost two thirds of their army instead of the 34,000 they did lose. They would have been effectively out of the campaign and Wellington would have had to face the Armee du Nord alone. It was the presence of the Prussians on 18 June that defeated Napoleon. If Grouchy had followed the Prussians or even had taken off across country on hearing the gunfire at Mont St. Jean on the 18th, that would have kept the Prussians off Napoleon's flank and would have allowed him to finish Wellington. With the British and Prussians defeated/destroyed, the Russians would have found themselves quite far from home, and there were indications that the Austrians might have switched sides again.Napoleon's greatest weakness in 1815 was Berthier, his chief of staff since 1796, being absent. Napoleon himself said that 'if Berthier had been there, I would not have met this misfortune.'

Paul (Michigan):

Yes, Napoleon could have won the battle of Waterloo.

a) If the heavy cavalry had been accompanied by artillery for deployment at close range against the infantry squares.

b) If the heavy cavalry had taken the necessary equipment with them for spiking the British guns, which were in the possession of the cuirassiers for about 20 minutes following the first charge.

c) If the Old Guard had followed the cuirassiers and opened a gap in the British line.


A few things may have helped the French cause:

  • Hougoumont bogged down most of Reille corps that could have been used to support D'erlon assault.
  • mixed order was not used.
  • cavalry charged in isolation and with infantry support would have won the day.
  • relations between Wellington and the prussian HQ were not good and a defeated Allied army would have prompted to retreat of the Prussian army.
However, what's next after Waterloo? Belgians and Dutch rallying to France? Who would have stopped a Russo-Austrian army? At best another 1814 Campaign...

Read posted reponses to another question:

What was Napoleon's greatest achievement?
Did Napoleon change Europe for better or for worse?
Are there lessons to be learned from Napoleon?

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