You are here

Fighting in the Fog of War: Decision-Making under Extreme Uncertainty in the Waterloo Campaign

David Kirkpatrick
Occasional Papers, 3 June 2015
Modern decision-making frameworks can provide new insights into the actions of Napoleon, Wellington and Blucher at the Battle of Waterloo

The Battle of Waterloo, fought on 18 June 1815, is widely regarded as one of the most important battles in military history. It terminated the protracted war between the long-established European monarchies and the new French Republic and Empire. It marked the final defeat of the Emperor Napoleon, and the memories and myths of Waterloo cast a long shadow over the four decades of relative peace in Europe that followed.

The allied victory over France at Waterloo is a key moment in Britain’s history which has inspired a rich literature on Napoleon’s final days as emperor. On the 200th anniversary of the battle, this Occasional Paper provides a fresh approach using a modern decision-making framework. The analysis shows that commanders on all sides made serious errors and incorrectly assessed the costs, benefits and risks of the choices they made throughout the campaign.

For Napoleon these errors had disastrous consequences. This paper shows why the French emperor’s choices were flawed and how better-decision making could have led to more favourable outcomes at Quatre Bras, Ligny, Wavre and Waterloo. In turn, Napoleon’s hope of a restored empire might have been realised. While this study adds to the historical understanding of these events, Kirkpatrick identifies key lessons for modern decision-makers in the military, politics and business who must operate under conditions of uncertainty on a daily basis.  

About the Author

David Kirkpatrick is Emeritus Professor of Defence Analysis at University College London, and an Associate Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). 

David Kirkpatrick
Senior Associate Fellow

Professor David Kirkpatrick is a Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI. He trained as an aeronautical engineer and later as an economist.

... read more

Support Rusi Research

Subscribe to our Newsletter