Corps and Columns – The Battle Tactics of Napoleon Bonaparte and Why They Failed Him at Waterloo

Written by Cameron King. Edited by Bradley Bosson.


The Duke of Wellington once said of his old enemy Napoleon, ‘His presence on the field made the difference of forty thousand men.’ Though this could simply be exaggerated rhetoric, spoken only to make the aging, unpopular Wellington’s achievements seem greater than they were, it is undeniable that Napoleon was a brilliant General. Over the course of just fifteen years he humbled the greatest powers on the continent, Poland, The Holy Roman Empire and Spain were all conquered by his armies. He was so revered as a leader that upon his return from exile and his resumption of power, the seventh coalition did not declare war against France, they declared war against Napoleon himself. But what made Napoleon such a feared and respected commander; and why did he fail to defeat the Seventh Coalition at Waterloo?

Over his career as a general Napoleon fought in sixty battles, of these, he lost seven. This is an extraordinarily impressive number of victories, and his enemies knew it. Napoleon would often win battles in which he was significantly outnumbered, engaging and overwhelming the enemy when other generals would have retreated. Napoleon’s main characteristic as a general was his speed, he deployed his troops quicker than his enemies, often attacking his opponent before they had the time to organise into formation. What allowed him to do this was the organisation of his armies. Generally, European armies at the time were a large mass of troops controlled by a central body. Napoleon, on the other hand, divided his army into corps d’armee, divisions of 20,000 – 40,000 men commanded individually by his marshals. Each corps was essentially a miniature army, possessing its own artillery, infantry, cavalry, communications and administration. The corps would usually travel within a day’s march of each other, this allowed Napoleon’s army to, ‘Pivot on its axis without confusion.’ Manoeuvring was much easier using the corps system, the delegation of power to Napoleon’s marshals made the chain of command shorter, improving the effectiveness of communications therefore increasing the speed of deployment and movement.

Napoleon used the corps system to his advantage in a number of ways, on the battlefield, the corps system was essential to Napoleon’s tactics, especially when fighting two armies, as he did on several occasions. Napoleon’s most commonly used strategy when fighting two armies was to distract half of his enemy’s force, while he destroyed the other, the corps system made this much easier, it allowed an entire division of the army to focus on defeating one enemy, rather than worrying about both. The use of corps also allowed napoleon’s army to live off the land, if his army was one solid mass the land could not sustain it. However, the lower numbers of the corps and their spacing allowed them to forego supply lines, giving them greater mobility.

It was not only the organisation of Napoleon’s armies that gave him an edge over his enemies, it was their deployment in the field. Given Napoleon’s ferociously fast style of command, he regularly used attacking columns to his advantage. In Napoleonic era warfare the standard deployment for infantry was in line, soldiers would stand shoulder to shoulder, two to four ranks deep and fire upon the enemy, this gave the unit maximum firepower but made them weak to mass charges. Columns, on the other hand, were deeper than they were wide, essentially a huge block of men advancing towards the enemy. The column brought many advantages, it allowed more rapid movement on the field and a more effective bayonet charge. Most importantly it struck fear into the enemy, the sight of a huge mass of men advancing at speed towards a thin line caused panic among the enemy ranks, as it did to the Russians at Austerlitz. The column also had disadvantages, most notably, it had limited firepower due to its short width, and this meant that a well-disciplined line could fend off a column through sheer volume of fire. To combat this Napoleon employed the Ordre Mixte formation (shown below), in which two divisions in columns were separated by a division of line infantry, and were preceded by a line of skirmishers to confuse and damage the enemy. This gave napoleon much more flexibility and allowed him to deploy both line and column in a synchronised manner, giving him the best of both worlds.

Though Napoleon’s tactics had been successful in dozens of battles, they failed him at Waterloo. Through years of fighting Napoleonic armies, both Wellington and Blucher (the British and Prussian commanders at Waterloo) knew what to expect from the emperor. Seeing the success of Napoleon’s armies, by 1812, every European army was now divided into corps, this advantage was no longer afforded to Napoleon. Facing two armies, Napoleon attempted his standard strategy, he sent his Marshal, Grouchy to hold off the Prussians while he destroyed the British army. Grouchy, however, failed to find the Prussian army until they had already reached Napoleon, at which point he fruitlessly attacked Blucher’s rear guard. The delegation Napoleon afforded to his generals through the corps system, therefore, had backfired. Napoleon’s columns, of which he was so fond, also failed him at Waterloo. British line infantry had a fearsome reputation, they were well disciplined, lead from the front and fired faster than any of their counterparts. Napoleon was warned of this by his generals, who had fought Wellington in the Peninsular War, Napoleon, having never personally fought the British, brushed their advice aside. He should have listened. Several waves of French attacks were repulsed by the British, even when the Garde Impériale, Napoleon’s most experienced soldiers, attacked in column, they were forced into retreat by the British lines.

In the end, Napoleon became complacent in the tactics which had been so successful throughout his campaigns, and they failed him at Waterloo, though at great cost to both the British and the Prussians. In the words of the Duke of Wellington, ‘nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.’