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Napoleonic Wars: The Battle Of Waterloo

Updated on November 03, 2013

A Battle That Changed History

The Battle of Waterloo changed the European political landscape forever and ended any French aspirations of European conquest once and for all.
The Battle of Waterloo changed the European political landscape forever and ended any French aspirations of European conquest once and for all. | Source

Western Europe In 1815

In 1815, roughly 250,000 French soldiers faced a force of 850,000 Coalition soldiers on four fronts. Napoleon was forced to keep 20,000 men in western France to stem a Royalist uprising.
In 1815, roughly 250,000 French soldiers faced a force of 850,000 Coalition soldiers on four fronts. Napoleon was forced to keep 20,000 men in western France to stem a Royalist uprising. | Source

The Restored Emperor

Napoleon Bonaparte returned from exile in 1815 to try to claim one last victory. In order to achieve it, he need to isolate the British and Prussian armies and defeat each one in turn.
Napoleon Bonaparte returned from exile in 1815 to try to claim one last victory. In order to achieve it, he need to isolate the British and Prussian armies and defeat each one in turn. | Source

Introduction

By the time Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated as Emperor of France in April 1814, Europe had been in the grip of warfare for 20 years. With Napoleon exiled to the tiny island of Elba, and the Bourbon dynasty restored to power, surely the long and drawn out war initiated by the French Revolutionary government would come to an end. But discontent in France soon grew towards the restored king Louis XVIII, and in virtually no time at all, Napoleon was back on the scene, embarking on a risky trip from the island to the French mainland with 1000 men. He landed on the 1st March 1815. Louis was forced to flee to Belgium while the Allies began to mobilise their armies. Napoleon sincerely desired peace but the other European powers could never permit him to threaten peace again and he was therefore obliged to mobilise eight corps. The French however, were tired of war and bloodshed, and were reluctant to pay taxes and place recruits at the Emperor’s disposal. The troops were weary as were the officers and even Napoleon’s own marshals, most of who owed their rank and wealth to his patronage, were reluctant to fight. This was especially true of Marshal Ney who disliked Napoleon as a tyrant who would plunge France into new and dangerous adventures.

Ney had actually promised King Louis that he would bring Napoleon back in an iron cage before going over to him. He felt deep down that Napoleon was a spent force and France, facing a hostile European coalition, could not prevail. Unfortunately for Napoleon his irreplaceable Chief of Staff from the old days, Marshal Berthier, had died in an accident and his replacement Marshal Soult was not so talented. The combination of Napoleon’s physical and mental decline, coupled with the bungling of his subordinates Soult and Ney would ultimately be a crucial factor in the outcome of the battle of Waterloo.

The Allied Commander

Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, the commander of the British, Dutch and German forces.
Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, the commander of the British, Dutch and German forces. | Source

The Allied Armies

On the opposite side Wellington was not having a smooth run either. His Peninsular veterans were dispersed across the world or had been demobilised. As a consequence Wellington was reduced to fighting Napoleon with a motley army of Dutch, Belgian, German mercenaries (Hessians and Nassauers) and a small force of British troops- many of whom were raw recruits. He had 68,800 infantrymen and 14,500 cavalry making a grand total of 92,300 troops divided into three infantry corps commanded by himself, General Hill and the Dutch Prince of Orange. The cavalry was under the Earl of Uxbridge who doubled as Wellington’s second in command. Relations between the two men were frosty at best. Uxbridge had apparently eloped with Wellington’s sister in law and then had been appointed against Wellington’s express wishes.

The Allies were therefore relying on the Prussians with 130,000 men to stem the Napoleonic tide. Their legendary commander, Field Marshal Prince Gebhard von Blucher may not have been the greatest of strategists given his troops’ nicknames for him- Alte Forwarts (Old Forwards’), but he could be relied upon to fight the French and come to the aid of Wellington who expected Napoleon to attempt to drive a wedge between their separate armies.

Wellington's Right Hand Man

Henry Paget, the 1st Marquess of Anglesey, known as the Earl of Uxbridge between 1812-1815.
Henry Paget, the 1st Marquess of Anglesey, known as the Earl of Uxbridge between 1812-1815. | Source

The Prussian Commander

Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher, the commander of the Prussian army, who had already defeated Napoleon once before at the Battle of Leipzig two years before.
Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher, the commander of the Prussian army, who had already defeated Napoleon once before at the Battle of Leipzig two years before. | Source

Battle Map

A map of the battlefield at Waterloo.
A map of the battlefield at Waterloo. | Source

Quatre Bras And Ligny

On the 15th June Napoleon crossed the frontier into Belgium with 123,000 men in his Armee du Nord at Charleroi, exactly where Wellington had not expected him to strike. ‘Napoleon has humbugged me, by God’ was Wellington’s famous comment as he rushed to assist his troops holding Marshal Ney at the crossroads of Quatre Bras. Ney had showed uncharacteristic lethargy by failing to occupy this vital position, compounding this error further by only opening the battle in the afternoon and then using 4000 cuirassiers to charge the British infantry squares. Three days later, at Waterloo Ney would foolishly repeat the same mistake- charging unbroken infantry formations without any infantry support.

On the 16th June, the main battle took place at Ligny between Napoleon’s main army of 71,000 men and Blucher’s 84,000 Prussians. The Prussians had chosen to overextend themselves across marshy ground but Napoleon was not at his tactical best either. He delayed the battle until the afternoon when he was obliged to simply sledgehammer the Prussian lines into submission. For almost two hours savage fighting went on, often resorting to hand to hand with bayonets and firing at point blank range. Prussian losses amounted to 19,000 and while Blucher quit the field Napoleon had sustained heavy losses, some 14,000 men, a number that he could he ill afford to lose. Napoleon sent Marshal Grouchy in pursuit of the Prussians with 30,000 men, but Grouchy failed to press the enemy closely and far from retreating back to Germany as Napoleon had expected, Blucher marched west to support Wellington as he had promised.

Having beaten the Prussians, Napoleon rushed to Quatre Bras where he found the British, having held off Ney’s attacks, withdrawing from the battlefield in an orderly fashion, without any effort on the part of the French to pursue or harass them. Ney and his staff were sitting down for supper instead. Napoleon could scarcely believe his own eyes and gave his officers a violent dressing down that was certainly deserved, but achieved nothing, in terms of raising their morale. Ney would in the future remember this humiliation and acting upon his own initiative show that he was as dynamic as ever.

The Battle For Mont St. Jean

A portrait of the Battle of Mont St. Jean by Carle Vernet dating from the early 19th century.
A portrait of the Battle of Mont St. Jean by Carle Vernet dating from the early 19th century. | Source

Mont St. Jean

There was a much needed lull the following day as Wellington’s army numbering some 74,000 troops in total took up position around the farm of Mont St. Jean and the village of Waterloo where he set up his headquarters. The British general faced a French army of 74,500 men that had set up camp south of the road to Brussels while Napoleon, in spite of his superstitious frame of mind, had set up his headquarters at the inn of ‘La Belle Alliance’.

The two armies may have been almost exactly and evenly matched numerically. This, however, took no account of the vitally qualitative differences between the two armies. Napoleon’s troops were seasoned veterans whereas most of Wellington’s men were recently recruited troops and only 28,000 of these were actually British, they too in great part newly recruited men. Furthermore the French had not only cavalry and artillery but it was of far greater quality than Wellington’s. Not only did the French 12 pounder have a superior range to the British 9 pounder but the crews handling them were more experienced and better led. Perhaps this was due to the simple fact that Napoleon had once been an artillery officer in his younger days. It was his handling of the French guns at Toulon in 1793, which had, quite literally shot him to fame. In contrast, Wellington was a superb infantry commander.

The Morne Plaine

The famous Morne Plaine and Lions Mound as described once by Victor Hugo. The Lions Mound still overlooks the battle site today in Braine-l'Alleud, Belgium.
The famous Morne Plaine and Lions Mound as described once by Victor Hugo. The Lions Mound still overlooks the battle site today in Braine-l'Alleud, Belgium. | Source

A Highly Recommended Book And DVD

Waterloo (Sharpe's Adventures, No. 11)
Waterloo (Sharpe's Adventures, No. 11)

A novelization of the Battle of Waterloo, written from the viewpoint of Bernard Cornwell's famous fictional hero, Richard Sharpe

 
Sharpe's Waterloo
Sharpe's Waterloo

The DVD version of Bernard Cornwell's novel about Richard Sharpe and his exploits at Waterloo.

 

Dispositions

As battlefields go, Waterloo was actually a very compact and dense, when compared to Borodino (1812) for example. It was a battlefield where there was to be a lot of action in a compressed space in the course of a single day. That day, the 18th June 1815 was to change the course of European history forever.

Wellington had drawn up his army based on divisions divided into three corps. His extreme left flank was secured by the German division of the Prince of Saxe-Weimar backed by Uxbridge’s cavalry to their rear. On the opposite side, on the extreme right was the Prince of Orange’s Dutch-Belgian division, then came Clinton’s division behind the Braine l’Allend road, with Cook’s division positioning themselves at the junction of the Brussels road. Alten’s division positioned themselves so that they faced the farm of La Haie Sainte along with Wellington’s Reserve Corps. Finally, there was General Picton’s division, which were strung out along the Ohain road. Picton’s division was among the finest in the whole Allied army. Napoleon had elected to string his army along a line that was exactly parallel to Wellington’s. Additionally, it was perpendicular to the Charleroi to Brussels road with the left flank at the Nivelles road. Pire’s cavalry was on the extreme left with Kellerman’s Cavalry Corps and the Cavalry of the Guard under Guyot at the rear, while Prince Jerome Bonaparte’s infantry faced the walled estate of Hougoumont. The centre was made up of the divisions of General Count J.B. D’Erlon’s I Corps with Milhaud’s cavalry at the rear. The right flank was anchored on the position of La Haie Sainte.

Facing the prospect that Blucher might intervene at any moment, Napoleon had to make the first move and secure a swift and decisive victory over Wellington before he could turn and face the Prussians. Should the two enemy armies actually link up it would spell doom for not only his army but his restored Empire as well. Everything depended upon this roll of the iron dice of war. Interestingly enough Napoleon’s plan, as at Borodino in 1812, was unimaginative and depended upon using brute force in a frontal assault instead of trying to outflank or outmanoeuvre the Allied army. Napoleon aimed simply to break Wellington’s line through the farm of La Haie Sainte in the centre and occupy the crossroads behind, drive on and occupy Mont St. Jean farm.

Hougoumont Today

This is the gate on the north side of the Hougoumont Estate today.
This is the gate on the north side of the Hougoumont Estate today. | Source

The First Move

A map showing the movements of the opposing forces during the battle. Napoleon's forces are in blue, while the Allies are in red.
A map showing the movements of the opposing forces during the battle. Napoleon's forces are in blue, while the Allies are in red. | Source

The French Advance

The French infantry advancing at the start of the battle.
The French infantry advancing at the start of the battle. | Source

The Battle Begins

Napoleon had prepared to attack at 10:30 am but there had been a downpour overnight that made the ground too soft for cavalry and artillery fire. The main assault was postponed with fatal consequences until around 1 pm, with the French beginning a preliminary artillery bombardment at 10:50 am against the chateau of Hougoumont on Wellington’s right, which was held by the tough Hanoverian troops of the King’s German Legion (KGL).

Napoleon intended to attack from the left flank, but needed to draw Wellington’s attention away from it. So he relayed orders that his brother Prince Jerome was to attack Hougoumont to draw off Wellington’s reserves. But instead the Prince sent wave after wave of his infantry against the staunchly defended estate with little to show for it, tying down his troops while Wellington only sent minimal reinforcements. He threw in all of his four regiments and half of Foy’s division for good measure. It was vital for Wellington to hold this crucial pivot point in the battle line at all costs so he committed his toughest troops, the Scots and the Coldstream Guards to support the German defenders.

Shortly before Napoleon was due to commence his attack, an hour after midday, a courier arrived, approaching the Emperor with the grave news that General Bulow’s Prussian Corps (30,000 men) was approaching from the direction of Wavre. A cautious man would have probably withdrawn but Napoleon gambled on Grouchy, who was en route to the battlefield, arriving in time to intercept the Prussians and claim a crucial victory. Alas, it took Grouchy four hours to reach the field, if he had arrived three hours earlier, then the Prussians may have been crushed. But in the time that it took Grouchy to arrive, the Prussians had already succeeded in aiding Wellington to beat the Emperor. As an additional insurance against the arrival of the Prussians, the Emperor sent orders to Count Lobau with his 20,000 men to shore up his right flank, which faced to the east, exactly where the Prussians were marching from. Although it was a sensible move from Napoleon, it also ensured that the main assault against Wellington was considerably weakened.

The Battle Of Waterloo On Film

D'Erlon's Attack

At 1:30 pm, some 84 guns positioned at La Belle Alliance opened fire and continued firing for half an hour. These French 12 pound guns had a firing range of around a mile. However, the ground beneath the guns was soft and fine, thus making the bombardment rather ineffective, because as each round-shot hit the ground, it simply sank into it, instead of ricocheting through the Allied infantry as it should have done. Even if they had, Wellington had placed most of his precious troops (the ones he wished to spare) just beyond the ridge rather than on top of it.

At 2pm, the Prussians arrived, and this was the cue for Napoleon to unleash D’Erlon’s I Corps. D’Erlon hoped to break through the Allied lines by sheer weight of numbers, and so formed his divisions into three massive columns of battalions deployed one behind the other. Although very vulnerable to Allied artillery and musket fire in this formation, the avalanche of blue-clad infantry proved almost irresistible once I Corps’ assault got underway sweeping Van Biljandt’s exposed 1st Netherland Brigade aside. Wellington’s left centre position buckled under this huge wave of attacking infantry forcing him to commit all the units he could spare. The best he had was Sir Thomas Picton’s 5th Infantry Division (6,745 men) made up of both British and Hanoverian troops.

Picton’s ferocious counter attacks backed by Uxbridge’s cavalry, including Sir William Ponsonby’s Brigade, held the French, only just though and only at an enormous cost. Both Picton and Ponsonby died, while Uxbridge lost a leg from a cannon shot. Some 40 percent of Uxbridge’s men were dead, captured or wounded. But their sacrifices were worth it since the French attack ground to a halt. They began to retreat, finally fleeing, leaving some 3000 prisoners for the British to pick up. An hour later, the British had defeated the first French assault.

British Stubborness

French curirassiers charging into perfectly formed British squares during the Battle of Waterloo.
French curirassiers charging into perfectly formed British squares during the Battle of Waterloo. | Source

The Storming Of La Haie Sainte

The French storming La Haie Sante, which was a crucial position at the centre of Wellington's position.
The French storming La Haie Sante, which was a crucial position at the centre of Wellington's position. | Source

Uncovering Waterloo's Secrets

Ney's Cavalry Attacks

At 3:30 pm Napoleon gave orders for his artillery to pound La Haie Sainte and for Marshal Ney to prepare for a new assault that he would lead in person. But without informing his Emperor, Ney ordered 5000 of his cavalry to attack what he thought were retreating enemy troops, but Wellington was simply bringing some of his units out of the range of fire and redeploying the rest. Lacking infantry or artillery support, Ney’s cavalry stormed in typical French bravado style up the slope, where they were promptly met by a hail of artillery and mass musket fire at point blank range. Hundreds of cavalrymen met their death with extreme courage, while the British infantry, in perfect square formations repelled wave after wave of the cuirassiers, dragoons and lancers coming at them.

Ney retreated, reformed and charged again and again without breaking the British. At 5 pm General Francois Kellerman joined the attack with his III Cavalry Corps. Like Ney, Kellerman gave no thought about seeking Napoleon’s permission before they set of in pursuit of the ‘retreating’ Allied troops. The intensity of the fighting was such that Ney himself had four horses shot from underneath him while some of the British squares were close to breaking point after Kellerman joined in. Yet it all proved to be in vain and by 6 pm even Ney had come to realise that breaking the British squares was a hopeless task. With his last horse having been shot, he simply trudged back to the French lines along with those who somehow managed to survive the barrage of artillery and musket fire.

Napoleon could not believe what Ney had done or that Wellington’s ‘mongrel’ army had been able to stand up to this onslaught. Ney did manage to atone for his rash stupidity by eventually taking La Haie Sainte, which had been valiantly held right to the last by the KGL. Having lost the 2nd Regiment and its commander, Baron Ompteda had decided that enough was enough and retreated in good order with his broken 1st Hanoverian Brigade. Wellington’s centre was in a state of near collapse that threatened to undermine his entire army.

The Prussians Are Here

The arrival of the Prussians effectively saved the Allied forces from defeat and ultimately condemned Napoleon to his last ever defeat.
The arrival of the Prussians effectively saved the Allied forces from defeat and ultimately condemned Napoleon to his last ever defeat. | Source

Napoleon's Last Gamble

The Final Attack

The Prussians had begun to appear at the edge of the battlefield (the Bois de Paris) by 4pm, and barely an hour later Napoleon was forced to shore up Lobau’s VI Corps (now reduced to 7000 men) by sending 4000 men of the Young Guard. Three hours later von Zeithen’s I Corps had arrived to break up Bulow’s men. In a last attempt to break through Wellington’s centre Napoleon ordered the Old Guard, his final reserve, his best troops, soldiers who had never been beaten to attack in two columns that were 75 men abreast.

Yet again British troops concealed behind the ridge were able to surprise the columns before they could deploy into lines and shattered them with a hail of musket fire from close range. As the Old Guard fell back, the French army’s morale finally cracked and they broke and fled, shouting ‘Sauve qui peut!’-‘It’s every man for himself!’ and ‘Trahison!’- ‘Treachery!’ Napoleon fled in a coach and at 8:30 pm Wellington met his Prussian saviour Blucher at the La Belle Alliance.

The Closing Stages

The battlefield situation between 5:30 pm and 8pm.
The battlefield situation between 5:30 pm and 8pm. | Source

Aftermath

The French had lost some 30,000 men, while Wellington had lost 15,000 and the Prussians 6700. By 5 am the following day Napoleon was back in Charleroi heading towards Paris. On the 22nd June, he abdicated for a second time and fled the capital. On the 15th July he boarded a ship called HMS Bellerophon at Plymouth and exactly four months later disembarked onto the shore of a tiny island lost in the Atlantic called St. Helena. It would serve as Napoleon’s home until his death in 1821.

The Morning After The Battle

A depiction of the battlefield of Waterloo the day after the fighting ceased.
A depiction of the battlefield of Waterloo the day after the fighting ceased. | Source

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    • stevarino profile image

      Steve Dowell 4 years ago from East Central Indiana

      Excellent article!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks very much Steve, glad you liked it. Appreciate you taking the time to stop by.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      So interesting and thank you for sharing.

      Eddy.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      So interesting and thank you for sharing.

      Eddy.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      The French did not perform well at all. However, Napoleon's June 15 attack could have been the preliminary force to win. The 12-pounder had so much power, and by virtue of that, could well have been just the ticket to claim victory. Unfortunately, the weather was against him. Do you think that could have been the reason that the French really did so poorly?

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Great article, JKenny. Descriptive and easy to read and informative. I don't think a lot of people know how close Wellington came to losing and, as you state, the whole of European (and World) history would have probably changed significantly. For better? For worse? Would the two World Wars have started earlier? Later? Maybe just one?Who knows. And the whole cavalry/infantry/artillery thing is like rock/paper/scissors. Infantry in line gets beaten by cavalry, infantry in squares beats cavalry, artillery beats infantry in squares, etc. Voted up, etc.

      P.S. I still don't understand why I don't always get email notifications when some hubs are published.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you Eddy. Appreciate you taking the time to visit. Thanks again and take care.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Deb, yes the weather was certainly a factor, but there's also the blunders committed by Marshal Ney to consider, maybe if he had followed Napoleon's orders then the Prussians may have been forced off the battlefield entirely. Either way, it was certainly a winnable battle for the French, but morale was against them. Many had lost faith in Napoleon, they'd grown tired of war.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Harald, I often think about how the next century may have played out if Napoleon had won at Waterloo. Its difficult to say because he actually desired peace, but the Allies were determined to destroy him once and for all. If he had won, would things have returned to the status quo, or would he have embarked on another campaign of conquest elsewhere. You do get the feeling that if Napoleon had remained in power, then we would probably have had a World War in the mid 19th century maybe. Thanks for stopping by.

    • peternehemia profile image

      Peter Nehemia 4 years ago from Jimbaran, Bali, Indonesia

      A great read about the European history. Napoleon Bonaparte is indeed admirable, but so do the other generals in this battle.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you Peter for stopping by. Yes, Napoleon was admirable to an extent, but he was also a bloodthirsty, warmongering tyrant. Who cared little for the welfare of his men.

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