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Battle of Waterloo


On Sunday, June 18, 1815, three great armies converged near the Belgian village of Waterloo to fight a battle that would determine the fate of Europe’s future. Standing at one end of the battlefield were the French under Napoleon Bonaparte, a military mastermind whose leadership had allowed his nation to dominate Europe. During his reign as Emperor of the French, many leaders and armies had crumbled before Napoleon, but there was one enemy he had never met and whom he had never defeated, the Duke of Wellington. At the Battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington led a British-Dutch army, containing British, Dutch, Belgian, and German troops, against Napoleon. The Duke was not alone. After relentlessly fighting against the French for most of the day, Wellington’s forces were eventually joined by the Prussian army under Prince Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. The battle itself was a bloodbath, and up until the very end, it was not clear who would win. With their combined forces, Wellington and Blücher ultimately prevailed, achieving a historic victory over Napoleon. Waterloo marked the end of Napoleon’s storied military career and of France’s domination in Europe.

Napoleon Bonaparte was larger than life. During his military career, Napoleon led his Grand Armée across the sands of Egypt, the meadows of Prussia, the plains of Iberia, and the snows of Russia. His political career was just as ambitious. In 1804, Napoleon became Emperor of the French and during his reign, the French Empire expanded across much of western and central Europe. Fueled by Napoleon’s brilliant military leadership, France looked unstoppable, but after a disastrous invasion of Russia, and the formation of a grand European coalition against him, the Emperor of the French was defeated. In 1814, Napoleon was forced to abdicate and sent into exile on the small Italian island of Elba. Napoleon’s abdication ended 21 years of warfare that had begun in the wake of the French Revolution. It was all supposed to be over, but Napoleon’s story was not finished just yet.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries by Jacques-Louis David. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In March 1815, Napoleon set foot in France again. He had escaped Elba, sailing to France in a small fleet with just 1,026 troops, 40 horses, and two cannon. The restored monarchy under Louis XVIII was widely unpopular among the French people and the conditions in France proved ideal for the Emperor to return. “I will arrive in Paris,” he told his troops, “without firing a shot.” Napoleon made good on his word. The army defending Paris declared its loyalty to him. Soon after, Louis XVIII abandoned the capital and fled the country. On March 20, tens of thousands of overjoyed Parisians welcomed Napoleon back to the city. Once the Emperor returned to power, it did not take long for Napoleon’s old enemies to mobilize their forces to confront him once again.

“It is up to you,” the Czar of Russia, Alexander I, told the Duke of Wellington, “to save the world again.” The Duke of Wellington’s military reputation was second only to Napoleon. Before he earned the title Lord Wellington, Sir Arthur Wellesley had led an expeditionary army that was tasked with keeping the French from occupying Portugal. His small army grew into a mighty force that liberated Portugal and Spain and invaded southern France. Wellesley won victory after victory, defeating several of Napoleon’s marshals. He had become the Duke of Wellington and was recognized as one of the two greatest soldiers of his age. In 1814, he was asked whether he regretted that he had never faced Napoleon in battle. He answered, “No, and I am very glad.” The Duke despised Napoleon as a man, but admired him as a soldier, reckoning that the Emperor’s presence on the battlefield was worth 40,000 men. After Napoleon’s stunning return to power in 1815, it would be up to Wellington to defeat the Emperor once and for all.

The Duke of Wellington. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the summer of 1814, when Napoleon was still in exile, it looked like the Duke of Wellington’s fighting days might be over. At this time he was a diplomat, traveling across the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Throughout his travels, the Duke found many places, which he noted were “good positions for an army.” He could not have known it at the time, but the following June, Wellington would fight the battle of his life on one of those good positions that he had keenly judged as a suitable place for fighting.

Upon his return to power in 1815, Napoleon prepared his forces to fight. The Austrians, British, Prussians, and Russians were all allied against him. Napoleon planned to divide the allies and, once divided, to fight them separately, denying his enemies the chance to launch a united attack against him. It would take time for the massive Russian army to cross Europe and reach the French frontier, and the Austrians were still not ready in May. To the north of France, in the old province of Belgium, which the allies had stripped from France and annexed to the Kingdom of the Netherlands, two armies were gathering: the British under Wellington and the Prussian led by Blücher. Napoleon believed that if he could defeat those two armies, then the other allies would lose heart. On June 15, 1815, the Emperor’s plans were set in motion and the French advanced into Belgium.

When asked who was the greatest captain of the age, the Duke of Wellington replied: “In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon.” (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“Napoleon has humbugged me, by God!” Napoleon’s advance had caught the allies napping and the Duke of Wellington knew it. The Emperor’s army was deployed compactly, presenting a front some 12 miles wide, separating Wellington and Blücher’s forces and ready to operate against either. Napoleon divided his army. He would attack the Prussians around the village of Ligny and his marshal who was called the “bravest of the brave,” Michel Ney would attack the British-Dutch army at the crossroads of Quatre-Bras. On June 16, 1815, Napoleon earned a hard-fought victory over the Prussians, but Wellington managed to hold the crossroads against Ney. Despite the Emperor’s victory, he did not achieve his first objective of destroying one of the allied armies. The Prussians had been forced to retreat. While Blücher's army was certainly bruised, it had not been broken.

Nicknamed Marshal Forwards, because of his habit of shouting his men forward, the 72-year-old Prince Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher marched with a fanatical determination to defeat Napoleon. Blücher had been unhorsed and ridden over by French heavy cavalry at Ligny. Despite his physical pain, his willpower was as strong as ever. “We lost the day,” Blücher remarked, “but not our honor,” and he would live up to his nickname and fight again. Marshal Forwards made a critical decision to march his army north to Wavre instead of retreating eastwards, keeping alive the possibility of uniting his forces with Wellington. “I shall once again lead you against the enemy,” Blücher declared in his Order of the Day to his men, “and we shall defeat him, because we must!”

Prince Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Once the news about the Prussians reached Wellington, the Duke ordered a retreat from Quatre-Bras to the ridge of Mont St Jean, three miles south of the village of Waterloo. This was one of those “good positions for an army” that Wellington had earmarked during the summer of 1814. By the end of June 17, 1815, the Duke of Wellington’s army had reached and was encamped on this strong defensive position. Napoleon and his troops spent the day pursuing Wellington, marching through heavy rain, which “fell in torrents,” as the Emperor recalled in his memoirs. When the French caught up, it was clear that the British had decided to make a stand at Mont St Jean. That night, as Napoleon gazed out at the enemy campfires lighting the rainy sky, he exulted, “Ah! Now I’ve got them, those English!” The stage was set for the Battle of Waterloo.

The Duke of Wellington was a master of defensive warfare and he always selected his battlefield with great care. Mont St Jean had stuck out to him for a reason. He could station most of his men behind a gentile ridge that would provide shelter from French cannon fire. Wellington’s right flank was protected by the great complex of Château Hougoumont, his center by La Haie Sainte farmhouse, and his east flank by the village of Papelotte. His army of British, Dutch, Belgian, and German troops numbered some 73,200 strong and fielded 157 cannon. The Duke had total confidence in both his Redcoats and in his King’s German Legion battalions, but there were many others in his army who had never experienced battle before. Most important of all would be the addition of the Prussians. Blücher fielded an army of around 100,000 troops and 240 cannon. He promised to send half his men and 134 guns to assist Wellington at Mont St Jean, but before the battle started, Blücher’s men still had to trek some difficult miles before they could reach the field. The Duke of Wellington could not beat Napoleon without the assistance of the Prussians. His army would have to hold on against the Emperor until Blücher could arrive to tip the balance in favor of the allies.

The battlefield as it appears today. (Photo: independent.co.uk)

On the morning of Sunday, June 18, 1815, Napoleon received a dispatch from Marshal Emmanuel, Marquis de Grouchy. The day before, the Emperor had given Grouchy 33,000 men, roughly one-third of the entire French force, and instructed him to pursue the Prussians to prevent them from linking up with Wellington. Now, Marshal Grouchy reported that instead of retreating eastwards, the Prussians had gone north to Wavre, which meant they were only a few hours’ march of the rain soaked valley beneath Mont St Jean. Napoleon did not seem alarmed. He was confident that Grouchy would keep the Prussians busy and that he would beat Wellington before any junction could happen. Not all of the Emperor’s generals shared his confidence. One marshal said, “Sire, in a straight fight the English infantry are the very devil,” an opinion that irritated Napoleon. The Emperor had never fought a pitched battle against the British. Those who had faced Wellington and his Redcoats knew that a difficult fight was in store for them. To raise the spirits of his generals, Napoleon famously told them, “Because you’ve been beaten by Wellington you consider him to be a good general! And now I tell you that Wellington is a bad general, that the English are bad soldiers, and that this affair will be over by lunch!”

Even with part of his force detached to deal with the Prussians, Napoleon’s army still slightly outnumbered Wellington’s. The Emperor entered battle with 77,500 men and 246 cannon. Among his ranks were some of the most feared soldiers in all of Europe. Napoleon planned to weaken Wellington’s line with artillery before sending his battle-hardened veterans to launch hammer-blow attacks that would break through the Duke’s center. Unfortunately for the Emperor, that was exactly the kind of fight that Wellington desired. The Duke wanted to be attacked head-on. In a straight infantry-versus infantry fight, Wellington had complete faith in his very best troops. As these great armies aligned for battle, it was clear that this would be a fight for the ages.

Napoleon reviewing his Imperial Guard before the Battle of Jena in 1806. The Imperial Guard was Napoleon’s favorite unit, the shock troops of the French Empire. On June 18, 1815, Napoleon would call upon his Immortals to finish the Battle of Waterloo. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

About twenty minutes past eleven on June 18, the cannon on the left of Napoleon’s line are believed to have fired first. The Emperor had originally wanted to begin the battle at 9 a.m., but his gunners determined that the ground was too wet for their artillery. Napoleon decided to wait and a few hours later, the cannon roared.

The first French assault targeted Hougoumont, on Wellington’s right flank. Hougoumont’s farm buildings and orchards were savagely fought over throughout the day long-battle. Wellington’s men were determined to hold this vital strongpoint and Napoleon’s were just as eager to capture it. Private Johann Leonhard described that the skies over Hougoumont “seemed to have been changed into an ocean of fire, all of the farm buildings were aflame. The soil underneath my feet began to shake and tremble, and large fissures opened before my very eyes.” At one point a group of French infantrymen led by Sous-Lieutenant Legros forced their way into the courtyard of the main buildings. Nicknamed L’Enfonceur, or the smasher, Legros carried a pioneer’s axe and burst into the courtyard, followed by his men and a single drummer boy. Lieutenant-Colonel James Macdonell led a small group of men past the intruders and together they forced the big gates shut. After that task was completed, preventing any more Frenchman from entering, Macdonell and his men turned on Legros. With the exception of the drummer boy, all the French intruders were killed. The Duke of Wellington later remarked that closing the gates was the decisive act of the battle.

Legros and his men bursting into the courtyard at Hougoumont. (Photo: argunners.com)

As the fighting raged around Hougoumont, a Grand Battery of 80 French cannon began a bombardment at around 1 p.m., targeting the left side of Wellington’s ridge. This heavy concentration of firepower was meant to break apart enemy formations before French troops moved forward to assault the position. It is estimated that the Grand Battery fired around 4,000 roundshot and shells at the eastern section of Wellington’s ridge in the half-hour before the infantry attacked. There were some 15,000 British-Dutch-German troops in this area, but nearly all of them were concealed behind the crest of the ridge, which made Wellington’s men difficult targets for the French gunners. An officer of the 92nd Gordon Highlanders said that the bombardment was “horrendous,” but casualties were few. The Duke’s men were either lying down, or sitting, and the thick mud also helped limit the damage. One Hanoverian officer explained: “the number of casualties would have been much higher had not the rain softened the soil so that the cannon balls lost much of their lethal force that they could have kept by bouncing off hard soil.”

The Duke of Wellington knew that a great attack was about to be launched against his left and he rode over to that part of the ridge to inspect his troops. At moments of great danger, Wellington was always close by the threatened troops and his presence had a major impact on his soldiers. With his telescope, the Duke watched the far ridge, trying to read Napoleon’s intentions. He also turned his spyglass to the east, hoping to see the Prussians coming to his assistance. Napoleon was similarly looking to the east, waiting for Grouchy’s Corps of 33,000 men and 96 cannon to join him. Reinforcements were indeed on the way, but they would not be fighting for the Emperor of the French.

Wellington at Waterloo by Robert Alexander Hillingford. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The advance guard of the Prussian army was six miles away from the battlefield. Napoleon knew this because one of his cavalry patrols had captured a Prussian officer who had been carrying a message to Wellington. Marshal Grouchy had previously been sent to deal with the Prussians. He had moved north, believing that the enemy was marching from Wavre towards Brussels. A series of confusing dispatches between Napoleon and Grouchy only compounded what was already a situation that lacked clarity. Grouchy eventually received more concise orders instructing him to hurry west towards the Emperor’s battle and to attack the Prussians as they closed on Napoleon’s right wing. That dispatch did not reach Grouchy until late in the afternoon, by which time he was fighting the rearguard that Blücher had left in Wavre. Grouchy would be of no help to Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

The Prussians were coming, but Napoleon believed that he still had enough time to defeat Wellington. As a precaution, the Emperor sent 3,500 cavalry, 7,000 infantry, and 28 guns to make a new line facing east that could defend his right flank against any Prussian assault. In the Emperor’s mind, victory was in his grasp. He just needed to shatter Wellington’s line, put the British-Dutch army to panicked flight, then turn to face the new enemy. Napoleon had to force a crushing blow and he had the manpower to get the job done. As 18,000 French infantrymen advanced towards the enemy, it looked like victory was on the horizon.

As the French infantry prepared to strike Wellington’s eastern line from La Haie Sainte to Papelotte, General Jean-Baptiste Drouet, Count d’Erlon told his men, “Today you must conquer or die!” The French columns pushed forward, but were met by lines of British infantry, who delivered devastating volleys of fire at the packed French formations. As d'Erlon's men wavered, Wellington’s troops gave them the cold steel, charging with their bayonets. The Duke also sent in British heavy cavalry to help repulse the enemy. The grand assault was broken up and the French were sent in a headlong retreat. Wellington’s cavalry performed admirably, but suffered heavy losses when they were counter-charged by French lancers.

Scotland Forever! The charge of the Royal Scot Greys at the Battle of Waterloo by Elizabeth Thompson. As Napoleon watched the enemy cavalry from the far ridge, he is supposed to have said, “Those terrible grey horses, how they fight!” (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

While Napoleon watched the battle from afar, Marshal Michel Ney, the man called the “bravest of the brave,” had operational command of the French forces. When Ney observed the ground behind Wellington’s line, he saw streams of retreating men and wagons going north. Marshal Ney jumped to the conclusion that Wellington was disengaging his army and attempting to withdraw. He was not going to let the enemy slip away and launched a series of massed cavalry attacks against the Duke’s line. The French would pay a terrible price for Ney’s judgment. Wellington’s army was not running away. When the French cavalry attacked, they were met by the Duke’s infantry in square formations, presenting unbroken walls of bayonets that horses cannot be made to charge. A slaughter followed as the French riders helplessly circled the squares while Wellington’s infantrymen shot them off their horses. Lieutenant John Black almost pitied the cavalrymen, who he referred to as “the most beautiful troops in the world,” as they valiantly galloped forward and were cut down. The French cavalry charges lasted around two hours, destroying much of Napoleon’s cavalry. Marshal Ney persevered with a tactic that he should have seen early on was not working. In doing so, he did little but waste valuable time and lives. Napoleon could have done something as he watched these futile cavalry attacks being made, but surprisingly, he did not interfere.

British squares receiving French cavalry at the Battle of Waterloo. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Around 4:30 p.m., the Prussians made their dramatic appearance from the woods and entered the fight. “Our men were exhausted,” wrote one Prussian soldier, “but old Blücher allowed us no rest.” Marshal Forwards had sent every man that he could spare and before long, his troops were engaged in vicious street fighting with the French in the village of Plancenoit on Napoleon’s right flank. “We shall conquer because we must conquer,” proclaimed Blücher.

Street fighting between the Prussians and the French in the village of Plancenoit. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The French did manage to capture La Haie Sainte, but through eight hours of relentless fighting, Wellington’s men had largely managed to hold on against everything that Napoleon had thrown against them. One final test was still to come. Recognizing that he had one more chance at victory, Napoleon decided to send his elite reserve, the Imperial Guard to attack Wellington’s center. The men of the Imperial Guard knew that they were only sent into battle during the most desperate moments and their boast was that they had never been defeated. Soon after 7:30 p.m., Napoleon’s Immortal’s advanced forward to secure victory for their beloved Emperor. Following the pattern of that bloody day, not even the vaunted Imperial Guard could stand the destructive firepower of Wellington’s unwavering lines of infantry. When the Guard broke, so too did the hopes of France. By 8:30 p.m., it was all over.

The Last Stand of the Imperial Guards. Legend has it that when called on to surrender, French General Pierre Cambronne, who commanded a brigade of the Guard responded, “La Garde meurt, mais ne rend pas!” The Guard dies, it does not surrender! Cambronne himself claims that he said, “Buggers like us don’t surrender,” but he was taken prisoner after he was struck from his horse by a musket ball that grazed his head and knocked him unconscious. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

After the Imperial Guard was repulsed, the French army lost heart and fled the battle-scarred landscape. Since it took time for the news to reach the men defending Plancenoit, they continued to fight until around 9 p.m. Some French gunners in the Grand Battery also kept on firing while the army disintegrated around them. About half past nine, Wellington and Blücher met and shook hands. “Mein lieber Kamerad,” said Blücher, “quelle affaire!” My dear comrade, what an affair! Wellington certainly thought so too. “I hope to God that I have fought my last battle,” wrote the Duke just one month after the bloody struggle.

The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher after Waterloo. (Photo: Napoleon.org)

“I am wretched even at the moment of victory, and I always say that next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.” With the help of Blücher's Prussian army, the Duke of Wellington had defeated Napoleon, once and for all, but he would never forget the horrors of that day. As night fell on June 18, there were probably around 12,000 corpses on the battlefield and between thirty and forty thousand wounded men, all within three square miles. Private Edward Costello was astonished at the sight: “The scene surpassed all imagination, and baffles description: thousands of wounded French, Belgians, Prussians and English; carts, waggons and every other available vehicle, were continually arriving heaped with sufferers.” Many of the wounded were to die in the subsequent days. Major Harry Smith rode over the battlefield the day after the fight: “The sight was sickening … All over the field you saw officers, and as many soldiers as were permitted to leave the ranks, leaning and weeping over some dead or dying brother or comrade.” Whether it was a man at the top like the Duke of Wellington or an average soldier like Private Costello, Waterloo was the defining experience of their lives. For the remainder of their days, everything was seen through the prism of that terrible day.

It is estimated that the British-Dutch forces under Wellington were missing 17,000 men after the struggle, of whom 3,500 were killed, 10,200 were wounded, and the rest deserted. Around two-thirds of Wellington’s casualties were most likely caused by French artillery. The fighting in Plancenoit cost the Prussians some 7,000 casualties. Napoleon’s army suffered over 30,000 killed and wounded. With 45 percent of all combatants killed or wounded, the Battle of Waterloo resulted in the highest casualty rate of the entire Napoleonic period.

The Duke of Wellington proclaimed that the battle was “the nearest thing you ever saw in your life!” (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Waterloo was a major turning point in European history. All of Europe once trembled before him, but Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo marked the end of his legendary military career and of France’s domination of the continent. The Duke of Wellington’s successful defense of the ridge at Mont St Jean ensured that Britain would dominate the nineteenth century.

Shortly after the battle, Napoleon was forced to abdicate unconditionally for a second time. He wanted to escape to the United States, but after finding a British squadron waiting for him at the port of Rochefort, it was clear that he would not find salvation in America. On July 15, 1815, Napoleon surrendered to the captain of the HMS Bellerophon. The following day, the ship bore the former Emperor away from France for the last time. He was exiled to the small tropical island of Saint Helena, in the South Atlantic Ocean, where he spent the last six years of his life dictating his reminiscences to a handful of devoted followers. On May 5, 1821, Napoleon died at the age of 51, most likely from stomach cancer. While his end was not glorious, the legacy of Napoleon's incredible life survives to this day. As historian Andrew Roberts writes, "More books have been written with Napoleon in the title than there have been days since his death in 1821." Roberts also notes that Napoleon fought sixty battles and lost only seven. Few men ever stared down Napoleon on the battlefield and won, but on June 18, 1815, the Duke of Wellington and Prince Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher did just that. All three men are truly titans of history.

Sources

History.com: Battle of Waterloo.

History.co.uk: Waterloo.

Napoleon: A Concise Biography by David A. Bell.

Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts.

Waterloo: Napoleon’s Last Gamble by Andrew Roberts.

Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, And Three Battles by Bernard Cornwell.

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