Friday, September 5, 2014

The Battle of Waterloo: Did the Weather Change History?

by Regina Jeffers

Background: The Battle of Waterloo was fought south of Brussels between the Allied armies commanded by the Duke of Wellington from Britain and the 72-year-old General Blücher from Prussia, and the French under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte. The French defeat at Waterloo brought an end to 23 years of war starting with the French Revolutionary wars in 1792 and continuing through the Napoleonic Wars. There was an eleven-month respite with Napoleon forced to abdicate and exiled to the island of Elba. The unpopularity of Louis XVIII, however, and the social and economic instability of France brought Napoleon back to Paris in March 1815. The Allies declared war once again. Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo marked the end of the so-called '100 Days,’ the Emperor's final bid for power, and the final chapter in his remarkable career.

Why did Napoleon lose?

The battle was closely fought; either side could have won, but mistakes in leadership, communication, and judgment led, in the end, to the French defeat. Wellington said his victory was a 'damned near-run thing.’

Communication was the key. The fastest means was sending messages with horseback riders, but this created a delay in instructions being carried out, and chances were high of messages being intercepted and not arriving. Given the numbers of soldiers and the distances involved, potential fatalities could occur if communications were disrupted, and Napoleon did not set up the means to ensure that orders had been received.

In choosing leaders, Napoleon used poor judgement. Marshal Grouchy was considered a great General, but this battle was too much for him. He was tardy in his pursuit of the Prussians, giving them time to regroup, and showed little initiative. Ney was also unreliable as a leader, not taking advantage of his situation in the Quatre-Bras precursory battle and then in leading the cavalry which was not supported by infantry and artillery at Waterloo.

47,000 soldiers died in the Battle of Waterloo in an area as small as 6.5 km by 3.5 km.

To see an hour by hour breakdown of the events, see BBC History. And, of course, the Waterloo 1815 website has intriguing details.

Something outside Napoleon’s control, but a matter that caused many of his problems was the weather during June 16-18, 1815. The French and Allies experienced the same conditions, but Napoleon's loss most likely can be attributed to his arrogance and inflated self-confidence which stood in the way of reason.

The Waterloo area experienced heavy rains on June 17 and the morning of the 18th. Some military strategists suggest that the soaked ground would have delayed the battle and given the Prussian army more time to join Wellington. Even Victor Hugo spoke of the weather's influence on the outcome of the battle. In Les Misérables, Chapter 3, the commentator says, “If it had not rained in the night between the 17th and the 18th of June, 1815, the fate of Europe would have been different. A few drops of water, more or less, decided the downfall of Napoleon. All that Providence required in order to make Waterloo the end of Austerlitz was a little more rain, and a cloud traversing the sky out of season sufficed to make a world crumble.”

The article by Dennis Wheeler and Gaston Demarée, “The weather of the Waterloo campaign 16 to 18 1815,” cites passages from those who had firsthand experience in the battle.

An excerpt from a letter written by Private William Wheeler of the 51st Kings Infantry reads, “…[a]nd as it began to rain the road soon became very heavy…the rain increased, the thunder and lightning approached nearer, and with it came the enemy…the rain beating with violence, the guns roaring, repeated bright flashes of lightning attended with tremendous volleys of Thunder that shook the very earth…”

Private John Lewis of the 95th Rifles wrote, “…[t]he rain fell so hard that the oldest soldiers there never saw the like…”

Napoleon planned his attack for 8 A.M., but some experts believe it was closer to eleven that he struck. Besides the wet ground slowing the progress of Napoleon’s heavy artillery, one must consider that cannon shot was meant to fall short of the target and skip along the ground to do the most damage. Under muddy conditions, the effectiveness of the  weapon was compromised. The cavalry could not easily move forward. Captain Cotter of the South Lincolnshire regiment spoke of, “…[m]ud through which we sank more than ankle deep….” The cavalry's charge was slowed from a gallop to a canter. A mist rose and mixed with gun smoke. Winds, however, did not sweep away the “veritable fog of war.”

The French infantry at last heading for the Anglo-Dutch lines crossed through fields of wet rye. Muskets and rifles which had been loaded before the march would no doubt have misfired because of damp powder. Napoleon’s assault would have suffered more than Wellington’s defensive lines under such conditions.

So, how do the events at Waterloo fit into one of my novels? In The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam returns from service under the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo to find personal disaster awaiting him. His new wife, his cousin Georgiana Darcy, was to meet him at his estate in Scotland. Georgiana, however, has been told that he did not survive the Battle of Waterloo, and in grief she has run from the manor house and is assumed to have lost her life on the unforgiving moors.


Shackled in the dungeon of a macabre castle with no recollection of her past, a young woman finds herself falling in love with her captor – the estate’s master. Yet, placing her trust in him before she regains her memory and unravels the castle’s wicked truths would be a catastrophe.

Far away at Pemberley, the Darcys happily gather to celebrate the marriage of Kitty Bennet. But a dark cloud sweeps through the festivities: Georgiana Darcy has disappeared without a trace. Upon receiving word of his sister’s likely demise, Darcy and wife, Elizabeth, set off across the English countryside, seeking answers in the unfamiliar and menacing Scottish moors.

How can Darcy keep his sister safe from the most sinister threat she has ever faced when he doesn’t even know if she’s alive? True to Austen’s style and rife with malicious villains, dramatic revelations and heroic gestures, this suspense-packed mystery places Darcy and Elizabeth in the most harrowing situation they have ever faced – finding Georgiana before it is too late.

Twitter - @reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers, an English teacher for thirty-nine years, considers herself a Jane Austen enthusiast. She is the author of 13 novels, including Darcy’s Passions, Darcy’s Temptation, The Phantom of Pemberley, Christmas at Pemberley, The Scandal of Lady Eleanor, A Touch of Velvet, and A Touch of Cashémere. A Time Warner Star Teacher and Martha Holden Jennings Scholar, as well as a Smithsonian presenter, Jeffers often serves as a media literacy consultant. She resides outside of Charlotte, NC, where she spends time teaching her new grandson the joys of being a child.


  1. Wonderful post, so informative!
    It's so strange to think how little it takes to change the course of history!
    And what a great use of historical facts to build a great story!

  2. The weather and incompetence, from what you say. I would not have wanted to be a Spanish sailor on the Armada.

  3. A very interesting post. It sounds like a real devil's stew of poor management, and then nature spoke up, loudly!


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