On June 12, 1815, Maréchal Soult, major-général of the Armée du Nord, inexplicably changed Napoleon’s final concentration orders for the Armée du Nord. Of all the correspondence Napoleon sent the army in June of 1815, this was the only order that had been explicitly demanded be kept secret.
Had Soult not mangled Napoleon’s orders, the Army would have advanced on June 14, the anniversary of the Battles of Marengo and Friedland. The Namur-Nivelles road would have been seized. There would have been no major battles south of Brussels.
There would have been no battle of Waterloo.
The Waterloo campaign has many controversies that are still debated. Yet this most pivotal event of the campaign has gone largely unnoticed – why did Soult change Napoleon’s secret orders?
Soult’s behavior in this matter is incredible and incomprehensible. Although he is at pains to state that his instructions had been given to the different corps in accordance with the imperial order of 10 June, his report shows that, at least for the right wing, his orders were in total contradiction to those he had received. – Philippe de Callatay
Why did Soult forget to send orders of movement to Grouchy on June 12? Actually, a better question is, why is this myth even believed?
On June 14th, Gneisenau ordered the Prussian Corps to begin concentration on their headquarters.
Lettow-Vorbeck tells us:
If a few hours later, Gneisenau found it necessary to order the gathering of the entire troops, very reliable news must have prompted him to do so. Ollech follows Nostitz’s diary, which states that two defectors, brought to Namur during the night of the 15th, had stated with great firmness that Napoleon was about to attack the Prussian army the following morning. These cannot have been any ordinary defectors whose statements, according to their restricted horizon, would only have had some value regarding their specific part of the troops, and would otherwise have been restricted to mere rumors, later to be recognized as exaggerated or wrong. In the present case, these were persons knowledgeable of the orders that had been given concerning the advance of the French army on the morning of the 15th. From this point of view, Major retd. Ritz’s memories, which, however, were only put down on paper in 1861, become more important. In the respective night, he had stayed on guard at the Meuse bridge in Namur, as a cadet in the second Infantry Regiment. He states that a squad of 5 or 6 horsemen had arrived at his post at about 11 PM. Whilst being examined, one of them had replied that he was a Prussian field-grade officer and asked to be taken to the prince’s lodgings, because he was accompanied by a French general who needed to speak to the latter in a very urgent matter. Ritz himself believes that the term “general” might have been used to make him leave his post which he had refused to do initially. Furthermore, it seems highly probable that these were indeed French officers, according to his statement.
Indeed, these orders made it possible to unite three Army Corps at Sombreffe, on the 16th, still before Napoleon’s attack. The IV. Corps could also have arrived there on time, had the order it had received been executed. However, it must not be overlooked that this was only possible because of the special messages received in the night leading up to the 15th. If the orders had only been given on the 15th, at 9 AM, after receipt of Zieten’s first message, a timely gathering so far frontwards would have been impossible and would have had to happen further behind. Without this treason committed by members of the French army, the surprise intended by Napoleon would have been successful to an even stronger degree than was the case now.
Who were these French “defectors”?
In the morning of June 15, Vandamme’s 3rd Corps was significantly delayed. The popular story is that a rider fell and broke his leg… this legend is based on hearsay and has many holes. What really happened to Vandamme’s orders?
For 150 years, the primary source material for French operations in 1815 has remained stagnant. In the last few years, hundreds of new pieces of correspondence have been identified from private collections and newly discovered registries of Soult, Bertrand, and d’Erlon.
During this research, hundreds of additional pieces of primary source material have been identified and remain unseen in private collections. This work has already answered the questions above, but there is still so much left to discover.
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