BATTLE OF WATERLOO
18 June 1815
The great Allied victory near the Belgian village of Waterloo against the final offensive of Napoleon Bonaparte has at its core the legend of the arrival of the Prussian army in the nick of time to save the day for the beleaguered forces under General Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. The claim has always encouraged arguments about the decisive moment in the battle. It is not untrue that the Prussians arrived as the struggle was near its end, and thus ensured a comprehensive rout and pursuit of the French army, but it is not necessarily the case that Wellington needed Prussian help. His management of a classic defensive strategy on ground of his choosing sealed the outcome of a battle that Napoleon had been overconfident of winning.
Waterloo was neither the longest nor the largest battle of the Napoleonic Wars, but it was decisive in ending the spectacular career of the Corsican-born emperor who had taken France and then Europe by storm. After defeat and exile to the island of Elba in 1814, Napoleon harboured ambitions for a return to glory. Escaping from his unwary British guardians, he returned to France in March 1815, overthrew the recently installed king, Louis XVIII, raised an army of veterans and admirers and prepared to fight Europe for his right to rule. Meeting at Vienna to argue out the terms of a peace settlement, the other Great Powers responded to the arrival of a fresh Napoleonic threat by immediately forming a Seventh Coalition. This included Great Britain, Prussia, Austria and Russia, which each pledged 150,000 troops to finish off Napoleon once and for all.
By early summer Napoleon had organized an army loyal to him, led by marshals and generals who had served him through conquests and defeats. His strategy in the past had relied on dividing his enemies and defeating them piecemeal. The armies of the Coalition were gathered slowly together, but the British army in Belgium under Wellington, with a mixed force of 90,000 soldiers from Britain, the Low Countries, Brunswick and Hanover, was the nearest and the most vulnerable. The Prussians, under Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher and Lieutenant General August von Gneisenau, were forming an army of 130,000, but the two coalition forces were still stationed some distance apart – Wellington around Brussels, the Prussians further east around Namur. Napoleon chose to attack them separately before they had consolidated their forces. The Battle of Waterloo was in truth a battle of three days of position and manoeuvre as Napoleon sought to eliminate two of his powerful opponents. On 15 June, he launched his field army of around 100,000 men across the Belgian border. Part of it was to attack and drive back the Prussians, and part was to march on Wellington before he was ready and drive the British into the sea.
On 16 June, the French army attacked the Prussians at Ligny and Wellington’s army at the village of Quatre Bras. The larger Prussian force resisted stoutly but took heavy casualties to prolonged French assault; they eventually fell back in good order having suffered 19,000 losses to 13,900 French. Marshal Michel Ney commanded the force against the British and initially he had 28,000 men to Wellington’s 8,000. But more of the Coalition force arrived and they soon numbered around 30,000, allowing early French gains to be retaken. Wellington then disengaged with great discipline, moving his forces back to a position he had already reconnoitred on the road to Brussels, along a ridge at Mont-Saint-Jean near the village of Waterloo. In torrential rain the two sides moved into position to continue the contest. Napoleon was confident that the Prussians were fleeing eastward and sent Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy to pursue them, but on 17 June Blücher informed Wellington that he was actually moving north in order to join him at some point on the following day, the very outcome that Napoleon had wanted to avoid. The bulk of the French army, around 72,000 men, moved up the Brussels road towards Wellington. On the morning of 18 June, through paths and fields turned to churning mud by heavy rains, Napoleon drew up his army for what he hoped would be a textbook victory against a British opponent he had consistently underrated.
Wellington had chosen his ground well. On either flank he was protected by a hilltop farm, Hougoumont on the right, La Haie Sainte on the left, both of which were heavily garrisoned. He placed his artillery along the forward slope to slow up the French advance, and held the bulk of his infantry and a reserve of cavalry on the rear slope, concealed from view and sheltered from the worst of the French artillery barrage. The foot soldiers were in ranks four-deep on the centre and right, though weaker on the left in expectation that the Prussians would soon arrive from that direction. Napoleon had once claimed that war was waged only with ‘vigour, decision and unbroken will’ but at Mont-Saint-Jean he was a tired commander, made sluggish by painful haemorrhoids and cystitis and a greater remoteness from the battlefield, whose management he left to Ney. Rather than try a battle of manoeuvre, he believed his force strong enough to sweep Wellington’s army away with a firm frontal assault. The two redoubts at Hougoumont and La Haie Sainte were invested first; Hougouomont was never captured, La Haie Sainte only at 6.15 p.m., both attempts absorbing large numbers of French troops. At 1.30 p.m. the first wave of French infantry – four divisions under Count Jean Baptiste d’Erlon – attacked Wellington’s centre. As they crossed in columns over the ridge, they confronted a line of defence that they could not break. The cavalry under Lord Uxbridge then charged, driving the French infantry back. The attempt by the French to dislodge the enemy on foot had failed.
As Wellington reformed his line, withdrawing some units, Ney thought his opponent was retreating. The French cavalry were now called on to charge the fleeing enemy. They were instead subjected to heavy fire from the forward British cannon even before they reached the crest; once across it they found that Ney had been wrong. Wellington’s infantry were arrayed in thirteen solid squares that proved impenetrable after two hours of exhausting charges, each one made across an ever-growing pile of corpses and horse carcasses. Wellington spurred on his men in person as he moved from square to square, exposing himself to continuous danger. By 6 p.m. the French horsemen had had enough and more infantry were sent in, once more subject to heavy fire from front and flank. News was at last arriving among the French soldiers that the Prussian army was advancing from the left. Napoleon had already sent his Sixth Corps to block the German advance, removing a large part of the French reserve. At 7.30 p.m., with the British line still firm, Napoleon flung in the last of his Imperial Guard but the famed force cracked and Wellington at last ordered a general advance, with the cavalry and his disciplined line of foot overwhelming a broken and exhausted enemy. The Prussians began to arrive at 8 p.m.
Did the Prussians save the day? The threat certainly worked to force Napoleon to squander his reserves while the news of the Prussian advance demoralized a French army already suffering debilitating casualties. The French had 31,000 killed or wounded, almost half their force. Wellington’s army had 16,200 casualties, 3,500 of them dead. Neither side had given much quarter. But the real damage had been done by the disciplined British line much earlier in the day. Colonel Stanhope of the First Foot Guards welcomed the sight of the Prussian troops but remarked with some justice the next day, ‘The French were beat before but this was a very pretty sight.’ The defeat was comprehensive. Napoleon fled to Paris but his army was broken. Light resistance was swept aside as Wellington and Blücher advanced on the French capital, which they occupied on 7 July. Napoleon ended his days on the Atlantic island of St Helena, wondering where he had gone wrong; Wellington became and has remained Britain’s most celebrated soldier.