Just after 9 p.m. on June 15th, 1815, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, scribbled off a note to be sent back to England: “It has been a damned serious business. Blücher and I have lost 30,000 men. It has been a damned nice thing, the nearest-run-thing you ever saw in your life, by God!”
The battle of Waterloo was final. The French were retreating to Paris, harassed by Marshall Blücher’s Prussians. Napoleon Bonaparte would be captured within a month. Europe would be safe again after 22 years of nearly constant French incitement.
Yet, the outcome was so close; so narrow. French cavalry had sliced through the center of Lord Wellington’s lines with aggression and surprise, cutting the allies in half. The 17,000 infantrymen under Napoleon’s hand-picked second, Michel Ney, had suffered heavy casualties though, and replacements were needed.
In an advantageous but precarious position upon a ridge, Ney called upon his Commander to send him reinforcements. “Some troops!” Napoleon replied, “Where do you expect me to get some? Do you want me to make some?!”
Indeed, Napoleon did have troops; some 10,000 more. They were, however, unable to respond to the call. They were bogged down in a tortuous guerilla war against the “Chouans” in the northwest of France, in the hedge-country called La Vendée.
These Chouans, these wild men of the Vendée, were both peasants and aristocrats, but royalists all. They had sacrificed their homes and safeties, had lived and been slaughtered like animals, but had fiercely resisted all revolutionary authorities since the Reign of Terror began.
Had Napoleon but learned the lessons of his predecessors and left these determined liberty-loving peoples to themselves, history could have easily been quite different. But for the want of those 10,000 men, Napoleon’s one hundred day return could have been extended.