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A Colossal Clash of Arms: The Battle of Waterloo


The great French author Victor Hugo once wrote, “Waterloo is not a battle; it is the changing face of the universe.” On Sunday, June 18, 1815, the world did indeed change forever along the slopes of Mont Saint-Jean, a few miles south of the Belgian village of Waterloo. Separated by a shallow valley, the Emperor of the French, Napoleon Bonaparte, and his 77,500-strong army stared down an Anglo-Allied army containing some 73,200 British, Dutch, Belgian, and German troops under the command of the Duke of Wellington. Many leaders and armies had crumbled before the Emperor, but as author Bernard Cornwell points out, before the Battle of Waterloo, “there was one enemy he had never met and whom he had never defeated, and that was the Duke of Wellington, whose military reputation was second only to Napoleon’s.” For both commanders, the destiny of their respective nations rested on the outcome of this colossal clash of arms.

Until his forced abdication and exile to the Mediterranean island of Elba in 1814, Napoleon was the most powerful man in Europe, guiding the French Empire to glory and dominance over the continent and beyond. After escaping from exile and returning to power in France the following year, the Emperor’s old enemies mobilized their forces to take him down yet again.

Napoleon's Return From Elba by Charles de Steuben. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Moving swiftly to strike his adversaries before they could unite their armies against him, Napoleon led his faithful warriors into Belgium on June 15, 1815. The following day, Napoleon’s main force defeated the Prussian army under Prince Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher at Ligny, but Wellington managed to hold the crossroads of Quatre Bras against another contingent of the Emperor’s troops. As Napoleon went after Wellington, the Anglo-Allied commander pulled his army back to the ridge of Mont Saint-Jean in a torrential downpour on June 16. In a twist of fate, Wellington had actually scouted the ridge of Mont Saint-Jean the previous summer and considered it a strong position for an army to fight. Although the Emperor detached a large corps to pursue and finish off the Prussians after Ligny, his troops were unable to prevent Blücher and his men from retreating northwards to unite with the Anglo-Allied army on Wellington's chosen battleground.

After waiting part of the morning to give the wet ground time to dry for his artillery, Napoleon’s cannon finally roared at around 11:30 a.m. on June 18, opening the great Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon and Wellington’s forces were locked in a bloody struggle all day. Fighting raged over three outposts that Wellington had garrisoned in front of the ridge of Mont Saint-Jean: the Château of Hougoumont to the west, the farm of La Haie Sainte in the center, and the village of Papelotte to the east. French infantry, cavalry, and artillery relentlessly tried to break down the Anglo-Allied army, but by using the ridge to shelter most of his troops from the enemy’s fire, Wellington maximized his strong defensive position.

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

Although pushed to the breaking point, Wellington’s army held out long enough to be joined by Blücher's Prussians, who started to arrive at approximately 4:30 p.m. Before long, the Prussians were pressing upon Napoleon’s flank, viciously fighting against the Emperor’s troops.

Around 7:30 p.m., Napoleon made his final push to break Wellington, sending his favorite and most elite unit, the Imperial Guard, against the Anglo-Allied commander’s center. Following the pattern of that bloody day, not even the Guard was able to punch through against Wellington’s stout lines of infantry. As one historian of the battle writes, “When the French army saw the Guard recoil, a shout went up and the entire army disintegrated.” As Cornwell adds, when the Imperial Guard broke, “so did the hopes of France.” By 8:30 p.m., it was all over.

Napoleon's retreat from the Battle of Waterloo. (Photo Credit: National Army Museum)

The combined forces of Wellington and Blücher had prevailed, defeating Napoleon once and for all. When the two victorious commanders met up and shook hands that night, Blücher reportedly said, “My dear comrade, what an affair!” Wellington certainly agreed, declaring after Waterloo, “I pray to God that I have fought my last battle.”

Wellington and Blücher’s armies suffered around 22,000 dead, wounded, captured or missing at the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon lost some 40,000 casualties. For a man who fought sixty battles and lost only seven, Waterloo was the fatal failure that neither Napoleon nor his empire could recover from. Six years after the bloodbath in that once quiet valley south of Brussels, Napoleon died in exile at the age of 51 on the small tropical island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean. Waterloo marked “the climactic end of over 50 years of warfare to determine whether France or Britain would be the dominant power,” as Cornwell explains. By holding his army together and defeating Napoleon at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington ensured that the 19th century would belong to Britain.


Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts.

National Army Museum: Battle of Waterloo.

National Geographic: How the Battle of Waterloo Changed the World.

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