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Dedicated to Alberto Guerra Escamilla

 

 

As the last of the twilight faded, the heroic remnants of the Old Guard held back the flood of refugees. Chaos was endemic in the French ranks. All discipline and order had gone save for the superb bearing of a few battalions of Old Moustaches. The grognards marched south with pursed lips and heavy hearts. It was night on June 18th 1815 and their Emperor had just been defeated in battle.

Never had a contest been so equal, even though the valiant French Army had in the end faced a combined force that was nearly double their numbers. It seemed that fate itself had been against them. Perhaps even the weather? It seems at first a ludicrous assertion, a feeble excuse for defeat. But then those who might scoff obviously know knowing about Tambora.

There are over 17,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago that stretch across thousands of miles of seas and oceans. They range in size from giants like Java and Sumatra to tiny insignificant dots, uninhabited and unfrequented. One of the islands is called Sumbawa.

The massive crater in the north can clearly be seen above. Sumbawa is within the so-called Ring of Fire, one of the most volcanically active places on Earth. Tambora had a composite cone and was one of the most deadly types of volcano - a stratovolcano. Krakatoa is another island in the same chain. 1

The molten fires from deep within the Earth’s crust began to stir spectacularly in 1812 – a fateful year if ever there was one. Steam and smoke rose from the cone of the threatening volcano and ash was scattered over the surrounding jungle and seas. The local inhabitants and people on passing vessels must have cast a wary eye at the imminent menace.

On the other side of the world, the greatest man of the Nineteenth Century was about to take a great gamble. Napoleon’s supposed ally, Tsar Alexander of Russia had deployed his forces to the border in 1811, threatening Napoleon’s empire. Unable to garner allies from the usual suspects, Austria and Prussia, Alexander backed down. Without the millions in gold that England could use to bribe continental armies to fight the French, Alexander’s enterprise was seen as just too risky by both Francis of Austria and Frederick-William of Prussia.

Napoleon had had enough. He had been extremely lenient with Alexander at Tilsit in 1807 and became very fond of the handsome, cultured but very impressionable young Tsar. The French Grand Army had defeated the Russians decisively at Friedland and the western provinces of the great colossus were at Napoleon’s mercy. Not for the first time, nor for the last, Napoleon was magnanimous in victory. Alexander had told him he hated the English as much as Napoleon did, to which the French Emperor replied that in that case peace was assured between them. They got on so famously that they joked they would be each other’s secretaries during the peace negotiations.

Like many a political love affair, this one was not going to last. Napoleon had been assured by Alexander that Russia would close its ports to English goods. A trade ban was the only way in which Napoleon could retaliate against the British Cabinet’s and the younger brother of the exiled French King Louis XVIII, D’Artois’, repeated plots against his life and fomenting of wars and strife on the continent. Britannia not only ruled the waves, she was determined to stick her trident wherever it might do the French the most damage.

The Tsar who had been captivated by Napoleon’s charm when he finally met him in person, went back to Saint Petersburg only to discover that the Treaty of Tilsit was either loathed or hated by the Russian ruling class and seen as a pact with the devil by members of his own family, who were not best pleased with him. As a consequence, the backsliding began almost immediately. At Erfurt in 1808, Alexander promised to send troops to aid Napoleon if the Austrians provoked yet another war, but in 1809, when Francis launched a surprise attack on Bavaria, Napoleon’s ally, Russian soldiers were conspicuous by their absence on the battlefield of Wagram. Despite this, Napoleon allowed Alexander to annexe some territory in the following peace dealings.

As Napoleon gathered his forces in 1812 for what he knew would be an epic struggle, steam and smoke billowed from Tambora’s hungry mouth. A giant was re-awakening from a sleep that had lasted 5,000 years. The famous comet that presaged the invasion of Russia had already scared the living daylights out of superstitious folk in many European countries. As the renewed devastation of war threatened innumerable peasant farmers and townspeople alike, no one dreamt that their lives were about to be rocked by a force of nature that made even Napoleon’s army of 500,000 seem inconsequential.

As if the god Vulcan was juggling with the plates of the earth, molten magma seethed and rolled beneath the buckling crust of Sumbawa. There were rumblings and outpourings of black smoke. A force that, when unleashed would be the equivalent of thousands of atomic bombs, was being marshalled beneath Tambora’s proud, austere façade.

On the surface of the thin crust thousands of miles away in Europe, tiny humans were toying with their destiny. For two weeks in 1812 Dresden was the centre of the world. Having arrived on May 16th, Napoleon quickly established himself in the palace of his ally the King of Saxony and from there he saw to the final preparations for the invasion of Russia. By his side, fluttering like moths around a flame, gathered the rulers of the states that he had vanquished: the Emperor and Empress of Austria; the King, Queen and Crown Prince of Prussia; dozens of German princes and a myriad of minor nobles.


Flames of Moscow 1812 by Verachagin

In his honour grand receptions were held, gala performances at the theatre; boar hunts; firework displays; illuminations and torchlight processions. At the age of forty-two, the Emperor of France was at the height of his power and the fate of Europe seemed to lie in his hands.

The fires of Moscow shown below, the result of a maniacal plan by Rostopchin, the Governor of the city, were as nothing when compared to the seething cauldron of volcanic lava about to be unleashed in the southern hemisphere.

General Winter destroyed Napoleon’s Grand Army, along with starvation, disease, mismanagement and bad luck. Napoleon’s cavalry vanished almost overnight. He had his back to the wall in 1813 and 1814 but it was treachery that finally removed him from power, not the military might of the Allies.

When he returned from Elba to popular, if not universal acclaim in France, he was able to march on Paris without a drop of blood having been shed. The Emperor had come home. Louis XVIII waddled into his coach and that should have been the end of that. However, the Royalists in Europe and the parasitic aristocrats in many countries, were hell bent on either regaining all of their privileges if they were French and had lost them in the Revolution, or on keeping their ‘birthrights’ and perquisites if they were from other countries, especially Britain. So Napoleon’s plea for peace – he sent letters to all the monarchs – went unanswered.

Men like Jean-Roch Coignet flocked to Paris to serve Napoleon in any capacity they could. In 1815 he was to have his best army since 1809 as many veterans came back to the colours. But morale was fragile. The common soldiers were loyal with adamantine steadfastness, but there were many ‘loyal’ traitors like Bourmont, one of d’Artois’ agents, just waiting for their chance in the officer corps.

The cry ‘Vive l’Empereur’ was heard in the streets and boulevards and then on the way to the frontier, the chorus of thousands willing to die for the man whom even his enemies called a genius. But it would be all to no avail for on the other side of the world, the roar of Tambora had been heard on April 10th 1815.

It had taken centuries for the magma chamber beneath the volcano to fill. Then a series of titanic explosions rent the air sending streams of volcanic ash high into the stratosphere. The pyrotechinics went on for seven days and a chunk of Tambora a mile wide was vapourized. With a rating of seven on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, the only one ever with such a high figure, Tambora was the loudest and largest volcanic eruption in the whole of human history. Clouds of ash fell on distant Borneo, Java and nearby Sulawesi. Some 71,000 people died, around 11,000 as a direct result, the rest from starvation and disease. 2

Its effects were global. Once the ash got into the stratosphere the dust and detritus was caught up in the jet stream and shunted around the Earth. Steven Cary of the University of Rhode Island states that: “The Tambora eruption, which is the largest historic eruption we know of, caused a global cooling of about 1 degree Centigrade…it had very serious implications” 3 - including regional differences in temperature of up to 10 degrees. There was a loss of up to 90% of light leading to a weird daytime twilight and there were frosts in New England in the summer of 1816. Indeed, 1816 was widely known as ‘the year without a summer’ and there was widespread starvation. The global darkness was at its worst in September 1815. As Byron put it: “the bright sun was extinguish’d… morn came and went – and came, and brought no day”. 4

An estimated 100-150 cubic kilometres of ash and debris were thrown skywards along with a massive sulphur dioxide discharge of 200 million tons and a dark cloud enveloped creation in a Biblical apocalypse leading to widespread global cooling. 5 Rain drops form around miniscule drops of dust that float in the atmosphere – imagine what happens when there are trillions of dust particles to form such nuclei. The resultant downpours were enough to please even the Storm God of the Hittites. And some of these unprecedented and hitherto unheard of storms occurred on the night before Waterloo.

In the dreary damp and dismal summer of 1816 Mary Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein’. To many, Napoleon had been cast as the monster, in Britain his name was even used to frighten wayward children. But what really died the year before on the sodden fields around Mont Saint-Jean was equality of opportunity and careers open to talent. They were replaced by the undead, the returning vampires from the former Ancien Regime that just would not lay down and die. It took further revolutions in 1830 and 1848 to drive the last stakes into the heart of privilege.

The fog of war – smoke quickly clouded the battlefield at Waterloo

The eruptions could not have come at a worst time for Napoleon. Ten weeks after Tambora, ample time for the dust to be scattered across the globe, he was looking through the driving rain at Wellington’s army on Mont Saint-Jean. The atmosphere holds most water at the height of summer and Waterloo was fought only three days before the longest day –June 21st.

The tremendous monsoon like rains held up the French forces for a crucial three hours on the 18th, having already slowed down their pursuit of Wellington the day before. These hours were critical as they allowed the Prussians to arrive and play their vital part in the battle.

Jacques Logie in ‘Waterloo- the 1815 Campaign’ is very dismissive of all this. He states: “Some writers, basing themselves on the declarations of General Drouot, explain this delay by arguing that the state of the ground, made sodden by the previous day’s storm and the overnight rain, would not have allowed the movement of artillery before the end of the morning.” He goes on, revealing his attitude further by saying: “The attempted vindication lacks foundation, for in his Memoires, Napoléon acknowledged ‘…that at eight o’clock that morning, the gunnery officers, who had gone over the ground, announced that the artillery could be manoeuvred. Albeit with a certain difficulty which in an hour would be reduced.’” 6

Logie, as well as being as fine an apologist for Wellington as ever existed this side of the Channel, gives the impression that the cataclysmic Tamboran downpours were little more than the sort of summer storms that might hold up a Wimbledon final and were simply an excuse for Napoleon’s defeat.

The English artillery officer Captain Mercer, who was there as the French pursued Wellington’s fleeing army after Ligny and Quatre Bras, remarks: “I had longed to see Napoleon, that mighty man of war – that astonishing genius who filled the world with his renown. Now I saw him, and there was a degree of sublimity in the interview really equalled. The sky had become overcast since the morning, and at the present moment presented a most extraordinary appearance. Large isolated masses of thundercloud, of the deepest, almost inky black, their lower edges hard and strongly defined, lagged down, as if momentarily about to burst, hung suspended over us, involving our position and everything on it (in) deep and gloomy obscurity…” 7

David Hamilton-Williams describes what followed: “Just as Napoleon prepared to set off up the Brussels road after Wellington, the heavy clouds massed overhead broke forth with a violent thunderstorm which brought sheets of rain on to the stage of human events. The game was escape and pursuit; the quarry had a long lead; but the hunter was driven; and the rain assigned a handicap to both parties.” 8

Logie enthuses about Wellington being ‘everywhere’ at Waterloo exposing himself to danger and infers Napoleon no longer got so personally involved in battle. Yet during this pursuit according to Dumaine, one of officers in the French Guard artillery: “he was constantly near the pieces, exciting the gunners by his presence and by his words, and more than once in the midst of the shells and bullets which the enemy’s artillery showered upon us”. 9

Uxbridge had to order a British withdrawal at Genappe and: “Throughout this dogged retreat rain fell in torrents with thunder and lightning, and men and horses were reduced to a walking pace because of the mud.” 10 And this was only the start of the Tamboran storm.

Light faded very early on that night of June 17th, so much for extended summer nights. This, and roads that had become quagmires, hampered the French far more than the English who, at that stage, just wanted to escape and hide: “Nightfall would favour the hunted not the hunter”. 11

Wellington got to Mont Saint-Jean and Napoleon soon realized that he meant to defend the position. He had wanted the Englishman to stand and fight, but his own army was now very extended. As Hamilton-Williams makes clear: “Now that all Wellington’s men had closed up on Mont St-Jean it was only the French who were impeded by the foul weather”. 12

At his headquarters at Le Caillou Napoleon soon realized how much time the storms had already cost him. Sergeant de Mauduit of the Guard wrote: “The tracks were so deep in mud after the rain that we found it impossible to maintain any order in our column...One by one the regiments of his Guard came up, but each arrived there in a state of exhaustion. During all the marches and countermarches of that frightful night there was a real helter-skelter. Regiments, battalions, even companies became muddled…our greatcoats and our trousers were caked with several pounds of mud. A great many of the soldiers had lost their shoes and reached the bivouac barefoot”. 13

Anyone for tennis Monsieur Logie?

Captain Fritz of the Prussian Landwehr wrote in his journal: “In very bad weather we set off again in the morning to cross the Dyle…” 14 on his way to Wavre. And Napoleon wrote in his Memoirs that in the early hours of the 18th the rain continued to fall in torrents: “I returned to my headquarters well satisfied with the great error which the enemy commander was making and very anxious lest the bad weather should prevent my taking advantage of it”. 15

By 8 a.m. on June 18th only d’Erlon’s corps was in line of battle, Reille’s was still in the process of positioning itself. Despite Logie’s abrupt dismissal above, Hamilton-Williams counters that: “When Napoleon had dictated general movement orders for his attack formations, he had timed them for 6 a.m. But several officers had complained that the deep mud and general softness of the ground from the recent downpour would make very difficult the movement of men, horses and especially artillery pieces, each weighing several thousand pounds”. 16

Furthermore, some of the men had been bivouacked some distance from the battlefield at Genappe and Glabais and would obviously need time to trudge through the mud to their stations: “Napoleon’s own reconnaissance of the terrain confirmed this. At this moment the main road was the only passable route forward. 17 For these reasons, Reille’s corps had not left Le Caillou before 9 a.m. Hence the Emperor had to change the general orders to the same time – 9 a.m.

Already, at least three hours had been lost because of Tambora’s storms. Thus Mars, the god of war had had to wait in the wings while Tlaloc the Aztec god of rain prepared the stage for battle.

Waterloo battlefield 18

There were further delays for: “It was not until 10-30 that the formations had been completed; the battle would be starting rather late in the day because of the mud and the distance many units had had to march from their bivouacs”. 19

Napoleon is forced to abandon his coach during the chaos of retreat


For some, the Battle of Waterloo will always be Wellington’s greatest victory and how with 15,000 infantry, 5,840 cavalry and 2,967 Ordnance personnel (less than 24,000 British) he managed to defeat Napoleon’s 72,000 men .20

More objectively, the role of the German soldiers of all arms ought to be accorded more importance and, especially, the pathological hatred that Blucher bore towards Napoleon. Having been knocked off his horse at Ligny and nearly captured by the French, the old man still insisted on honouring his commitment to provide Wellington with at least one Prussian corps when he came to face Napoleon. Gneisenau would have been only too happy to have returned to Prussia asap, until his muddy, bedraggled superior resurfaced.

This makes a nonsense of Marxist history – which seeks to make the individual totally unimportant in the grander scheme of things. Similarly, it was Napoleon’s own personal charisma that earned him the undying devotion of his soldiers. And yes, Wellington deserves recognition for his leadership on the field of battle. But without the Prussians there would have been no victory.

Another person who was sorely missed and who could have prevented many of the errors on the French side, was Berthier, Napoleon’s former Chief-of-Staff and right hand man. Very little is said about him today and he is a far more important historical personage than many other popular historical figures. Without

Louis Alexandre Berthier there might not have been a United States because it was his military talents that ensured victory for Washington and his French allies over the British at the siege of Yorktown in 1781. Had Berthier been at Napoleon’s side during the Waterloo campaign, the British might well have faced a defeat as ignominious as that of Yorktown.

The great Tamboran eruption of 1815 and its effect on the weather is another element in the run-up to the great battle that deserves further study. A rare diary belonging to a farmer called John Andrew from the North-West of England has recently come to light. He kept a detailed weather record: “ ‘Hail as large as eggs’, ‘deep snowdrifts’ and ‘sky as red as blood’ are all carefully documented in the well-preserved ‘weather books’ written around the time of the Battle of Waterloo.” 21 Although these specific comments probably refer to 1816 ‘the year without a summer’ it indicates that global climate change was a real event after Tambora.

And, that the outpourings of ash that clouded the atmosphere affected the weather at the most crucial point of the Waterloo campaign, there can be no doubt.

 

©John Tarttelin 2009

 

NOTES:

1. See Mount Tambora map and further details on Wikipedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Tambora

2. Ibid., Wikipedia. See also article on Physical Geology 2005 Tambora, The year without a summer on
http://www.earlham.edu/~ethribe/web/tambora.htm

3. Steven Cary of the University of Rhode Island, quoted in BBC programme ‘EARTH AND LIFE’ an Open University series, in an episode called ‘Above the Volcano’ (1997)

4. Byron quoted in Tambora The year without a summer, above.

5. See Wikipedia and Physical Geology as above.

6. JACQUES LOGIE WATERLOO The 1815 ( 2003) Campaign p.171

7. Quoted in DAVID HAMILTON-WILLIAMS WATERLOO NEW PERSPECTIVES (1993)

pps. 251-252 (My italics)

8. Ibid., p. 252

9. Ibid., p. 253

10. Ibid., p. 253

11. Ibid., p. 253

12. Ibid., p. 254 (My italics)

13. Ibid., p. 254 (My italics)

14. Ibid., p.255

15. Ibid., p. 258

16. Ibid., p. 261

17. Ibid., p. 261 (My italics)

18. Source of map: Battle of Waterloo – Wikipedia

19 Hamilton-Williams op.cit., p.265

20. Ibid., p. 268

21. Lancaster University England - LU News 19th Century Weather Diaries Shed Light on Climate Change - Dr Rob Mackenzie, Deborah Lee and Christine Valentine . See
http://domino.lancs.ac.uk/info/lunews.nsf/x/0132FCO7906DBD25802573A6005469D2

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • DAVID CHANDLER THE CAMPAIGNS OF NAPOLEON (1966)
  • DAVID HAMILTON-WILLIAMS WATERLOO NEW PERSPECTIVES (1993)
  • JACQUES LOGIE WATERLOO THE 1815 CAMPAIGN (2003)