Battle of Waterloo
The Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, ended the Napoleonic Wars. On April 13, 1814, Napoleon had been pressed by his marshals to sign the Treaty of Fontainebleau, by which he abdicated the throne of France and received Elba as a sovereign principality along with an annual subsidy of 2 million francs. The squabbling of the major powers at the Congress of Vienna, disaffection in France over the return of the Bourbon king Louis XVIII, the excesses of the Ultras (royalist supporters), and Napoleon’s endless ambition all led him to escape Elba and return to France in the adventure known as the Hundred Days. Napoleon claimed that he was formally absolved from upholding the Treaty of Fontainebleau when the Bourbon government failed to pay the promised subsidy.
Napoleon arrived by ship at Fréjus, France, on March 1, 1815. Troops sent to arrest him instead rallied to their former emperor, with the most important defection being that of their commander, Marshal Michel Ney, who had promised to return to Paris with Napoleon in an iron cage. On March 20 Napoleon returned to Paris and, despite general apathy among most of the French population, put together a field force of about 125,000 men. The allies had some 400,000 men in the theater of operations but could expand that to 700,000. Napoleon’s only hope was thus to attack and defeat the allies in detail before they could concentrate against him.
He set out for the northwestern French frontier with the aim of defeating first the British and Dutch forces under Field Marshal Sir Arthur Wellesley, Earl of Wellington, and then Prussian troops under Field Marshal Prince Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher von Wahlstadt before having to face the Austrians and Russians under Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg on the eastern frontier. Napoleon left Paris on June 11, secretly concentrating his forces near Charleroi in Belgium and hoping to strike before his opponents realized he had left Paris. On June 15 Napoleon seized Charleroi. Blücher reacted by assembling his forces 10 miles north of Charleroi, while Wellington began his own slower concentration 15 miles to the west. The key point was Quatre Bras, a small crossroads town that linked the two allied armies.
On June 16 Napoleon ordered Ney and 24,000 men of the French left wing to take Quatre Bras while he himself led about 71,000 men of the French center and right against 84,000 Prussians under Blücher at Ligny. Napoleon defeated Blücher but expected Ney to fall on the Prussian right flank and complete the French victory. Ney, however, had been slow to move and was held up at Quatre Bras until afternoon by forces under the Prince of Orange, one of Wellington’s subordinate commanders. Wellington and British reinforcements then came up, achieved numerical superiority, and threw Ney back. Marshal Jean Baptiste Drouet, Comte d’Erlon, because of confusing orders from Ney, marched his corps of 20,000 men back and forth between the two French armies and was unable to aid either. Blücher was thus able to withdraw from Ligny toward Wavre in good order. In the two battles combined, the allies had lost about 21,400 men, while the French lost some 16,400 men.
Belatedly, on the morning of June 17 Napoleon made what turned out to be a fatal error, detaching Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy and 33,000 men of the French right wing to pursue Blücher and the Prussians. Napoleon and Grouchy assumed that the Prussians would retreat back on their base of Namur. Napoleon turned with the main body to assist Ney, planning to drive toward Brussels along the Charleroi road.Wellington meanwhile was withdrawing north and concentrating at the small village of Waterloo, north of Quatre Bras on the Charleroi-Brussels road. Wellington appealed to Blücher to send him at least one corps; Blücher promised to come to his assistance with two corps or more. Wellington later called this “the decision of the century.”
Napoleon joined Ney at Quatre Bras and, on the afternoon of June 17, set out after Wellington. Steady rain, quagmires of mud, and the superb hit-and-run tactics of British horse artillery under Lieutenant General Henry Paget, Lord Uxbridge, delayed the French arrival at the village of Waterloo until midnight. Both sides were arrayed along ridge lines about a mile apart. Wellington planned to fight a defensive battle until Blücher and the Prussians could arrive. Wellington made his dispositions carefully, confident in his men, and the superb well-trained veterans of the Peninsular War infused the Anglo-Dutch army with confidence. Still, Wellington knew that allied victory depended on whether the Prussians could arrive in time.
Napoleon was certain that the Prussians would not come to the aid of Wellington. He therefore overruled his staff and did not recall Grouchy. This meant that Napoleon had just 72,000 troops at Waterloo against 68,000 British and Dutch. Had he recalled Grouchy, Napoleon would have had more than 100,000 men on the field of battle. If Blücher had been able to join Wellington, however, the allies would have had an overwhelming advantage of nearly 140,000 men.
Heavy rains had made the battlefield soggy. Napoleon had expected to open the battle at 6:00 a.m., but on the advice of his artillery commander, who wanted firmer ground for movement of the guns, Napoleon delayed the attack. Battle was not joined until near noon, and it was after 1:00 p.m. when the grand battery of 80 French guns opened up. The first French infantry attack did The Battle of Waterloo is regarded as one of the most important battles in world history, but it is significant only in that it marked the end of Napoleon’s rule. What if the battle had gone the other way? Given the general lassitude of the French people and the determination of the allies to defeat him, it seems certain that Napoleon would have been beaten in another subsequent battle of the nations.not occur until about 1:45. Had the ground been firmer, Napoleon might well have destroyed Wellington’s forces and reached Brussels that evening.
The battlefield at Waterloo measured only about three square miles. Napoleon was confident that massed artillery fire, followed by a frontal infantry assault, would carry the day. Wellington, however, positioned the bulk of his forces on the reverse slope of a ridge, protected from direct French artillery fire. The French infantry attack was launched against the center of the allied line. The English hollow squares withstood repeated French infantry attacks. Napoleon’s younger brother Jérôme, moreover, disobeyed orders to only occupy the approaches to the château of Hougoumont, wasting an entire division in repeated unsuccessful charges against the building’s thick walls. The French infantry and cavalry attacks were not coordinated, and Ney, whose courage was unquestioned, led his troops into battle piecemeal.
Despite savage fighting, British and Dutch forces managed to hold long enough to allow Blücher’s Prussians to join them and save the day. Grouchy meanwhile was held up by the Prussian rear guard at Wavre and chose to continue his attack there rather than march to the sound of the guns at Waterloo, plainly audible less than 14 miles distant. The retreat of the Imperial Guard—the first time this had occurred—signaled the end of the battle. When word went out that the Imperial Guard had retreated before massed British musket fire there were cries of “Sauve qui peut!” (“Save yourselves!”), and the retreat became a rout. Casualties were 26,000 French (with 9,000 more captured), 15,000 for the British-Dutch forces, and 7,000 for the Prussians.
Napoleon fled the field, his escape purchased with the lives of two regiments of his Old Guard. He first went to Paris, where he found that Joseph Fouché had seized power in the name of the recently deposed Bourbons. Napoleon could have continued the fight, but he knew that all was lost. On June 22 he abdicated in favor of his son by Marie Louise of Austria and then went to Rochefort, where on July 15 he surrendered to the British and went aboard the British ship of the line Bellerophon. The British sent him to the small remote island of St. Helena in the windswept South Atlantic.
The Battle of Waterloo is regarded as one of the most important battles in world history, but it is significant only in that it marked the end of Napoleon’s rule. What if the battle had gone the other way? Given the general lassitude of the French people and the determination of the allies to defeat him, it seems certain that Napoleon would have been beaten in another subsequent battle of the nations.
Napoleon’s Hundred Days were costly for France. In the Second Treaty of Paris of November 20, 1815, France lost additional territory (being restricted to the borders of 1790 rather than 1792 under the First Treaty of Paris) and had to pay an indemnity of 700 million francs, support an allied army of occupation until the indemnity was paid, and return all captured artworks.
Hamilton-Williams, David. Waterloo: New Perspectives. London: Arms and Armour, 1993.
Hofschroer, Peter. 1815, the Waterloo Campaign: The German Victory, from Waterloo to the Fall of Napoleon. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1999.
Howarth, David. Waterloo: A Near Run Thing. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books, 1997.
Sibourne, William. History of the Waterloo Campaign. London: Greenhill Books, 1990.