The Battle of Waterloo was fought on 18 June 1815 between an allied coalition led by the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon’s French Army. It brought down the final curtain on a war that had raged for 23 years and ended French attempts to dominate Europe. It was Napoleon’s last gamble for victory.
In March 1815 the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba and returned to power in France. With Europe’s armies mobilising against him, Napoleon decided to go on the offensive. He hoped to win a quick victory that might shake the coalition formed against him, and even knock one or more of his enemies out of the war.
He looked to the Netherlands where two armies were concentrating. These were a Prussian Army under Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher and an allied force of British, Dutch, Belgian and Germans under Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington. Together, these two armies outnumbered the French. Napoleon’s best chance of success, therefore, was to keep them apart and defeat each separately.
On 15 June Napoleon crossed the River Sambre in an attempt to drive a wedge between Wellington and Blücher’s Prussians. The following day at Ligny the main part of his army defeated the Prussians who were forced to retreat with losses of over 20,000 men. French casualties were only half that number.
That same day Wellington beat off a French attack on the crossroads at Quatre Bras. However, the defeat of the Prussians at Ligny meant that he too had to retreat or risk being outflanked and overwhelmed. The Prussian defeat might have been more decisive had not poor staff work led an entire French corps to march back and forth between Ligny and Quatre Bras without attacking either force.
On 17 June, in pouring rain and pursued by Napoleon’s main force, Wellington fell back to the ridge of Mont St Jean, just south of the village of Waterloo.
Napoleon had detached Marshal Grouchy’s 33,000 men to follow the Prussians, but he lost contact with them. Unknown to the French, the Prussians, although defeated, were still in decent shape. They were retreating, not eastwards along their lines of communication, but northwards towards Wavre. This meant that, instead of moving away from Wellington, the Prussians were able to keep in contact with him. Emboldened by Blücher’s promise to send troops, Wellington resolved to stand and fight on 18 June until the Prussians could arrive.
A veteran of campaigns in India and the Peninsular War (1808-14), the Duke of Wellington (1762-1852) was already a national hero. At Waterloo he commanded 68,000 men and 156 guns. About a third of his soldiers were British, some relatively raw, others Peninsular veterans. The rest were of mixed quality. His King’s German Legion soldiers were as good as any, but others were inexperienced or of doubtful loyalty. With such a force there was no question of Wellington going on the offensive.
About a mile (1.5km) from the allied line lay Napoleon’s army. France’s greatest military commander, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) had established himself as master of Europe before being deposed in 1813. He returned from exile determined to win one final victory. His army at Waterloo was composed of veterans who had rallied to his cause on his return to France. Having detached 33,000 men under Grouchy to shadow the Prussians, Napoleon had 72,000 men and 246 guns.
The 48,000-strong Prussian Army, led by Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher (1742-1819), was a mix of veteran, militia and reserve units. Its strength lay in the officer corps, especially its General Staff, who managed to reorganise the army and move it to Waterloo within 48 hours of its defeat at Ligny. Nicknamed ‘Marshal Forwards’ because of his aggressive tactics, Blücher was a veteran of Jena (1806), Lützen (1813) and Leipzig (1813).
Wellington drew up his army along the ridge of Mont St Jean. Using tactics he had perfected in Spain, he positioned the bulk of his forces on the reverse slope of the ridge where they could not be easily seen by the enemy and were sheltered from artillery fire.
Three outposts lay in front of the ridge. To the west stood the Chateau of Hougoumont, which Wellington garrisoned with British Guardsmen and German Light Infantry. In the centre was the farm of La Haye Sainte, defended by more Germans and British riflemen. At the east end of the ridge lay the hamlet of Papelotte, occupied by German Duchy of Nassau troops.
Napoleon’s plan was simple, a diversionary attack against Hougoumont, followed by a main attack against Wellington’s left centre. In order to allow the ground to dry out following the previous night’s downpour, Napoleon delayed his attack until 11.30am. Following a massive artillery bombardment, the effects of which were partly negated by Wellington’s dispositions and by the wet ground, Jerome Bonaparte’s Division of Marshal Reille’s corps attacked Hougoumont.
The French cleared the wood in front of the chateau but were shot down as they left its shelter. A small group did manage to break into the chateau via the north gate, which had been left open to facilitate resupply. But the defenders managed to shut the gates and kill them. The chateau remained in British hands all day.
The original purpose of the French attack had been to induce Wellington to send more troops into Hougoumont, thus weakening his position elsewhere. However, while the Duke was frugal with his reinforcements, the French committed more men into the attack until nearly all of Reille’s corps were engaged.
At about 1.30pm Marshal D’Erlon’s corps attacked the allied left centre. They achieved initial success, driving back Major-General Bylandt’s Dutch-Belgians, but as they crested the ridge, they were stopped by General Picton’s division and then counter-attacked by British heavy cavalry.
While Major-General Lord Somerset’s Household Brigade drove back the supporting French cavalry, Major-General Ponsonby’s Union Brigade smashed into D’Erlon’s infantry. They routed three of his four divisions but then carried their pursuit too far, charging the French guns across the valley. They were counter-attacked by French cavalry and cut to pieces.
Learning that Prussian forces were heading for the battlefield, Napoleon ordered General Lobau’s corps to face them on his right flank. At about 4pm, believing the Allies were pulling back, Marshal Ney launched a cavalry charge against the infantry of Wellington’s right centre. The latter formed square and although more and more cavalry were committed to the attack, the soggy ground hampered the French. They also lacked infantry support. They could make no impression on the squares, which held firm despite suffering casualties from artillery fire.
Meanwhile, the Prussians were arriving in force on Napoleon’s right, obliging him to detach more troops to steady the situation. At about 6pm Ney’s infantry captured La Haye Sainte, severely weakening Wellington’s position. Ney brought up artillery and skirmishers and, under a withering fire, Wellington’s centre began to disintegrate.
Ney called for reinforcements to push home his advantage, but Napoleon first sent troops to recapture the village of Plancenoit from the Prussians, giving Wellington time to strengthen his position. The timely arrival of Lieutenant-General von Ziethen’s Prussian corps on Wellington’s left was critical in enabling him to shift units to shore up his centre.
Finally, at about 7pm, in a last bid for victory, Napoleon released his Imperial Guard, his finest troops. Two large columns of Guardsmen marched up the ridge between Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. Unfortunately for them, they chose to attack where Wellington was strongest.
Under heavy fire from Major-General Maitland’s Foot Guards, Major-General Adam’s Light Infantry and General Chassé’s Belgians, the Imperial Guard halted, wavered, and finally broke. Their defeat sent the rest of the French Army into panic. A general retreat ensued which continued all night, harried by the Prussian cavalry.
Napoleon’s gamble had failed. He had lost nearly 40,000 men killed, wounded or captured to the Allies’ 22,000. Napoleon spoke of fighting on, but when the Allies entered Paris on 7 July, he was forced to abdicate. He spent the rest of his life in exile on the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic.
Wellington was lauded on his return to Britain and showered with further honours. He eventually entered politics and became prime minister (1828-30 and 1834).
Waterloo ended the wars that had convulsed Europe and much of the globe since the French Revolution (1789-99). It also ended France’s attempts, whether under Louis XIV or Napoleon, to dominate the continent. Waterloo inaugurated a general European peace that, apart from the brief interruption of the Crimean War (1854-56), lasted until 1914. In the years that followed 1815, France and Britain were brought closer together, fighting as partners in the Crimea and remaining allies through two World Wars.
Visits to the battlefield of Waterloo started immediately after the campaign and continue to this day. Among the attractions is the Lion’s Mound. King William I of the Netherlands built it in 1820 on the spot where he believed his son the Prince of Orange had been wounded. Visible for miles around, the monument dominates the area. A visitor centre has been built nearby that provides interpretation about the campaign.
There are other memorials at the Brussels-Charleroi and Braine L'Alleud-Ohain crossroads, locations of mass graves of British, Dutch and Hanoverian soldiers. A French monument, ‘The Wounded Eagle’, marks the spot where a unit of the Imperial Guard made its last stand. A monument to the Prussian dead is located in Placenoit village. There are also plaques and memorial stones at La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont.
The Wellington Museum in Waterloo village, the Duke’s headquarters during the battle, includes displays and artefacts and stands opposite the church of St Joseph, which houses many memorials to the fallen. The Caillou farmhouse, site of Napoleon’s headquarters, has also been transformed into a museum.
In Britain and throughout the Commonwealth, Waterloo and Wellington have been commemorated in the names of streets, railways stations, bridges, public houses and parks. The name ‘Waterloo’ itself has entered the English vocabulary; one who has been defeated after a run of success is said to have ‘met their Waterloo’. The pop group Abba’s winning entry in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest was based on this phrase.
The battle has featured in many novels, such as Stendhal’s ‘The Charterhouse of Parma’ (1839), William Makepeace Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’ (1847) and, more recently, Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Sharpe’s Waterloo’ (1990) and Susanna Clarke’s ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ (2004). Cinematic depictions include Karl Grune's ‘Waterloo’ (1929) and Sergei Bondarchuk’s ‘Waterloo’ (1970), which featured Christopher Plummer as Wellington and Rod Steiger as Napoleon. Interest in the battle continues to grow and groups such as Waterloo 200 are organising nationwide events to celebrate its bicentenary in 2015.