By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Bernard Cornwell
Narration by: Bernard Cornwell, Dugald Bruce Lockhart
To Bernard Cornwell the battle of Waterloo was like an ancient game (dating back to the Chinese Han dynasty of 206BC-220AD) known as rock-paper-scissors. Cornwell notes in “Waterloo” that history both explains and obscures a great deal about Europe’s epic defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. Many first hand letters from participants in the battle have been preserved. However, first hand epistolary information is often in conflict; partly because of the fog of war but often because of individuated experience and survivors’ egos. Some combatants exaggerate their personal contribution; some only see the battle at the end of their bayonet, while others fade into oblivion because of repeated distortions of perception and fact. However, a more subtle value in Cromwell’s history of Napoleon’s defeat is its insight to a truth of all battles in war.
The Waterloo’ battle lasts only four days but, like a boxer’s fight to win or lose each round, each day lasts forever. The results of battle seem as much a game of luck as strategy.
The two main protagonists are French’ General and dethroned Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, and English’ General, 1st Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesly. On March 13, 1815, the UK, Russia, Austria, and Prussia declare war as Napoleon I invades Belgium. The Duke of Wellington is Napoleon’s primary opponent because he is first on the scene. Wellington is given command of the Britsh-German-Dutch-Belgian coalition. Though Wellington is at the heart of the battle that defeats Napoleon, Cornwell notes that arrival of Prussian forces under von Blücher is the beginning of the end for Napoleon’s second and final ascension to the throne of empire.
Napoleon escaped his confinement on Elba Island after his defeat in Europe in 1814. On February 26, 1815, he leaves Elba to arrive in Paris on March 20th. Remarkably, Napoleon assembles a new army; said to have numbered as many as 200,000. Napoleon’s plan is to isolate two armies of an opposing coalition to defeat each before their combined strength can be fully assembled. For Napoleon to accomplish this feat, he increases the size of his army to an estimated 300 thousand. The split of Napoleon’s forces is a gamble because it evens the size of opposing armies.
As the saying goes “man plans and God laughs”. General Ney, one of Bonaparte’s most experienced and determined (if not wisest) generals, is unable to delay the Prussian army long enough for Napoleon to defeat Wellington. An irony, noted by Cornwell, is that Ney changed sides three times before rejoining Napoleon’s reappearance in France. Ney fought many battles in Napoleon’s rise to Emperor. Cornwell notes that Ney is instrumental in getting Napoleon to surrender his title after his losses at the Battle of Leipzig. Napoleon is exiled to Elbe Island in 1814.
Ney becomes a peer of France under the restored monarchy, led by King Louis XVIII. Ney is ordered by King Louis to recapture Napoleon after his escape from Elbe in 1815, but Ney chooses instead to take command of Napoleon’s Army of the North. Ney’s initial assignment as Napoleon’s commander is to delay the Prussian army long enough for Napoleon to defeat Wellington. Ney fails. After defeat at Waterloo, Ney is convicted of being a traitor and executed by firing squad in Paris on December 7, 1815. Many Frenchmen are said to have disagreed with the decision to execute Ney.
Cornwell calls this a rock-paper-scissors’ war because of the different tactics used by Emperor Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington to win the battle of Waterloo. The “Rocks” of the rock-paper-scissors’ game are square formations of soldiers that decimate French’ soldiers that use cavalry and foot soldiers to scissor through square military formations. These formations are three and four deep Wellington’ soldiers that form a four-sided square to alternate rifle fire at oncoming French soldiers. The square formations work well against scissors but are decimated by the shrapnel that falls like deadly confetti on the squares.
Scissors of the game are columns and lines of soldiers that are ineffectively thrown at square formations (rocks). As French Calvary and foot soldiers attack Wellington’s squares, they are slaughtered. Rock-paper-scissors is cleverly apt because, like a game players’ hand throws, the square formations are unpredictable. Waterloo’s rolling terrain hides Wellington’s squares.
Ney’s Calvary charge is decimated at Waterloo because he does not see the square formations before it is too late. Like three hand throws in the game, no one knows whether rock, paper, or scissors are on the other side of the ridge. The battle is a back and forth game of rock-paper-scissors that ends with the arrival of Prussia’s overwhelming ground force. Napoleon does not have enough time to destroy Wellington’s squares with artillery fire.
Waterloo’s history has some relevance to what is happening in the Middle East of the 21st century. America and its allies are using confetti without experienced and uniformly committed field soldiers that can fight through the opposition’s squares.
The squares formed by ISIS and other factional interests in the Middle East cannot be defeated by deadly drones and bomb fragments.
Weakening the squares is not enough. It is an unwinnable war for fundamental reasons noted by Francis Fukuyama in “Political Order and Political Decay”. The Middle East will not (and may never) adopt the three pillars of government that will provide a level of uniform commitment to defeat factionalism.
Without the defeat of factionalism in the Middle East, a stable form of government cannot be formed. As long as in-country’ factions form independent battle formations (rocks), anarchy will continue and indigenous populations will either live in fear, die, or emigrate. Political democratic order must develop among disparate factions of the Middle East before any form of nation-state can be created. Formation of legitimate government is the key to peace in the Middle East. The requirement of government legitimacy is true for all nations of the world. Legitimized government is the only agency for uniform commitment of a nation that can defeat factionalism and anarchy.