Napoleon vs. Wellington
Napoleon was the habitual attacker while Wellington was the consummate defender. Napoleon believed in bold and rapid offensive. He often began his battles holding back a heavy reserve and waiting for the enemy to make a mistake or reveal a weak position. His battle plan was offensive movement supported by massive firepower. Napoleon possessed a keen sense of timing for his breakthrough attack—artillery reserve moved to within 400 yards of the enemy in support of advancing infantry columns. Cavalry charges accompanied the infantry assault which forced the enemy infantry to form into squares.
Wellington’s preference for defense arose in the Peninsular War where until 1813 his forces were always outnumbered. He attacked only when odds were absolutely in his favor. He discovered in the unforgiving crucible of battle that a disciplined, professional infantry, like the British “thin red line,” made massed column assaults self-destructive. Although Napoleon faced many enemies, Wellington learned to fight one enemy well.
Wellington placed his troops in “reverse slope” positions where a low ridge protected them from the worst effects of the lethal artillery fire that habitually preceded the French army’s initial advance. Wellington always tried to conceal his positions, not only for protection, but also for tactical surprise. At Waterloo, he added further protection to his defensive line by fortified outposts such as Hougoumont and with strong supporting artillery batteries. Wellington skillfully brought to bear the maximum firepower of his forces while they held the tactical advantage of fighting from defensive positions.
Napoleon’s offensive tactics, in his last battles, rendered the encounters into brutal slugfests. Preferring to strike his enemy hard with minimal tactical maneuver, Napoleon relentlessly pressed his infantry forward in repeated, direct charges targeting a vulnerable spot—at which he also concentrated his artillery fire—to forge the decisive breakthrough and win the day.
After the Battle of Waterloo, Wellington said, “Never did I see such a pounding match. Both were what the boxers call gluttons. Napoleon did not maneuver at all. He just moved forward in the old style, and was driven off in the old style.”
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, HISTORYNET Editor at Large