The Battle of Waterloo, 1815
Created | Updated May 14, 2008
On 18 June, 1815, the army of Napoleonic France faced an allied force of British, Belgian and Dutch troops on a ridge outside a small Belgian town called Waterloo. If the outnumbered line of allied troops folded, the road to Brussels would be open and Napoleon would again be able to plunge Europe into war. To prevent this, the armies of the Duke of Wellington simply had to hold a ridge overlooking a farm until the Prussian army under General Blucher could arrive and hopefully inflict a defeat on Napoleon, a master of war. The battle and its ramifications would shape Europe for a century to come.
The Opposing Armies
The British Army in Belgium was led by a man described by contemporaries and historians alike as 'possibly the greatest British soldier of all time'. From his roots as the 'Sepoy General' who campaigned in India to create the British Raj, to the mastermind of Britain's Peninsular War which drove the French armies from Portugal and Spain before capturing the city of Toulouse in Southern France, Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington had never lost an engagement in his career. This, however, counted for nothing in the eyes of his detractors, who were quick to point out that Wellington had never faced the Emperor Napoleon.
Under the Duke's command were 54,000 infantry, of which only a few had fought for him in the Peninsular War1, and 13,000 cavalry which he described as 'Lions led by Donkeys' due to the fact that officers in the cavalry corps were generally self-serving, arrogant and inept. Alongside the backbone of his infantry and cavalry divisions, Wellington was able to deploy 157 artillery pieces, some equipped with Britain's secret weapon, a shell devised by one Colonel Shrapnel, which would explode above an enemy formation and rain musketballs onto the men below. Also included in the British artillery train were a few of the experimental Rocket Corps, using William Congreve's loud, frightening and generally ineffective rockets2. However, the burden of command did not fall to Wellesley alone that day. His division commanders included the questionably talented Prince William of Orange, the much-beloved and solid General Sir Rowland 'Daddy' Hill, Lord Uxbridge whose cavalry charge met with triumph and disaster and finally the rough-and-ready Sir Thomas Picton, who took to the field wearing a top hat.
The British plan was one of necessity: hold the line against the numerically superior and more experienced French, and hope that the Prussians could arrive in time to win the day.
If the British were hinging their hopes of victory on the undisputed aptitude of The Duke of Wellington, then the French felt even more confident in their commander. While Wellingon had fought across a peninsula, the French general had conquered an entire continent. From Madrid to Moscow blue-coated troops had marched to victory under the Golden Eagle standards of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. It had taken the collective power of British Redcoats, Prussian military doggedness, Spanish partisans and the cruel Russian winter to force the Corsican Ogre into exile on Elba. However, after less than a year, Napoleon had returned to France, recruited the generals sent to stop him, retaken Paris without firing a single shot and then recalled his veterans who flocked to the Eagles hungry for more conquest.
On the morning of the battle, Napoleon had under his command 54,000 infantry, including his elite Imperial Guard who had never been stopped in battle and 16,000 cavalry commanded by the hot-headed and courageous Marshal Ney, the so-called 'bravest of the brave'. To support this force, Napoleon, an artillery officer early in his career, mustered 246 cannon with which to rain death and pain onto Wellington's thin red line. Along with his considerable force at Waterloo, Napoleon had left a rearguard of 33,000 troops and 96 guns under Marshal Grouchy at nearby Wavre to prevent the Prussian army linking with the British.
Although the army of Napoleon outnumbered that of Wellington, the combined armies of Britain and Prussia would swamp and destroy the French army. This in mind, Napoleon's plan was simple. Destroy the British, then turn to face the Prussians.
For most of his 73 years Gebhard von Blucher had been a soldier, and it fell to him to lead the Prussian army to fight Napoleon at Waterloo, despite the fact he had been injured days before at an engagement with the French at Ligny. Under the command of the oldest and least-successful general of the battle were the black-coated regiments of Prussia3. Around 49,000 infantry and cavalry men supported by 134 artillery pieces would march to the aid of the British, although a French detatchment at Wavre would have to be dealt with first.
The Prussian plan for the day was just as simple as those of Britain and France. March with all speed to Waterloo and engage Napoleon's force on its flank, then crush it utterly between the overwhelming numbers of the combined allied armies. However, it wasn't just Grouchy's detatchment that stood in von Blucher's way. His own Chief of Staff, General Augustus von Gneisenau, was convinced that the British Army would betray the Prussians, and simply 'fight the war against Napoleon to the last German4.' This in mind, he organised the Prussian force into an order of march designed to delay, if not prevent, the linking of the allied army, so that a fresh Prussian force could engage the French after they had exhausted themselves beating the British into a bloody stain on the Belgian landscape. This paranoid act of mistrust would perhaps be the defining act of the battle.
Wellington himself was believed to have said '[a man] may as well seek to write the history of a dance as to write the story of a battle', yet despite his obvious skepticism the events of the battle of Waterloo are well-documented.
On the morning of 18 June, after a night of heavy rain5, the British army formed up on a ridge close to a small hamlet, Mont Sainte-Jean, just south of the village of Waterloo. This was a masterstroke by the Duke of Wellington, as the ridge offered a fantastic defensive position. The top of the ridge had a small reverse slope, meaning it would act as a parapet to protect the British soldiers. At the rear of the British position a small wood could cover any possible British retreat and a group of large hedges covered part of the ridge offering more protection. Also protecting the British line were three fortified positions which would serve to split and hold up the French advance: the chateau, farm and woods of Hougoumont, the farm of La Haye Sainte, and the villages of Papelotte, La Haye and Frischermont.
At around 11.30am, Napoleon opened the battle with a massive salvo from his artillery, and then signalled for some of his troops to advance towards the British right. A column of French soldiers marched the strong point at the chateau of Hougoumont, intending to overwhelm the 2,000-strong garrison and prompt a British counterattack. However, against all odds, the detatchment of Coldstream Guards6 held the chateau and its grounds for most of the day, tying up 10,000 French soldiers in the process.
As this feint had failed to draw off Wellington's reserves, Napoleon turned his attention to the centre of the battlefield and the farm of La Haye Sainte. The 18,000 French soldiers dispatched quickly dispersed the Dutch-Belgians, but were slowed by determined resistance from the 95th Rifles. This force then split, with a number assaulting the King's German Legion holding the farm and the majority pressing on towards the ridge. As the French column attempted to spread into a line so that it could bring more muskets to bear, the British 5th Division, who had been hiding behind the ridge, stood and fired a devastating volley into the surprised and bewildered French. Before they could recover, commander Thomas Picton ordered a bayonet charge which blunted and turned back the attack. Unfortunately for the British, Picton was shot through the head as he led the charge. The 5th found themselves ahead of the British line, threatened not only by the regrouping French infantry, but by a detatchment of French cavalry who had just destroyed a large part of the force under Prince William, who had seen fit to send a detatchment of infantry into an area they were not needed, despite warnings about the presence of cavalry. All the beleaguered soldiers could do was to form a defensive square7 and suffer under the French guns and muskets. Seeing this disaster unfolding, Lord Uxbridge prepared his cavalry and the famous charge of the Scots Greys began.
Lord Uxbridge's cavalry, comprising all British heavy cavalry available at Waterloo (some 2,500 men), quickly destroyed the French infantry8 and light cavalry, threatening the 5th Division, but then bloodlust, incompetence and the arrogance of the aristocratic cavalry officers took over. Screaming 'To Paris!' and convinced that they alone could win the battle, the cavalry swept up to the French gun line, yet found themselves unable to break the defensive squares of the French infantry or destroy the cast-iron cannons of the artillery emplacements. As the Scots Greys milled about in confusion, squadrons of French lancers spurred into action and set about massacring the disorganised British as they galloped for the safety of the ridge. The French attack on the centre had been destroyed, but Wellington had lost seven regiments of heavy cavalry in the process. Wellington himself summed it up with the statement 'The cavalry never did know when to stop charging.'
It was now mid-afternoon, the Prussians still had not arrived, and the French artillery opened up again. To an informed British soldier on the ridge, the situation must have seemed very bad indeed. Napoleon then decided to unleash his own cavalry, and 5,000 French horsemen trotted towards the British line. Where the British charge had been ill-disciplined, the French horsemen attacked closely-packed and in waves. These attacks were unable to break the British defense as the infantry merely formed squares. It did, however, have two effects.
Firstly, it drove off the remaining Dutch-Belgian forces, who fled to Brussels, proclaiming that Napoleon had won; and secondly, it kept the British infantry in tight formations, which reduced their firepower and made inviting targets for French artillery. This state of affairs continued until a point at which it is claimed that 'everyone was so tired, the cavalry and the men in the squares merely stood and stared impotently at each other.' However, at 4.30pm, while these cavalry charges and continued bombardment began to whittle down the British force, a cannonade was heard from the southeast. The vanguard of the Prussian army was in sight and beginning to harry the French flank.
By now the battlefield rivalled an image of Hell. The field was a mass of mud, blood and bodies. The air was full of foul-smelling gunpowder smoke, reducing visibility and irritating the eyes of every man on the field. Added to this was a cacophony of noise: the gunshots, artillery, shouts of the fighting, the moans of the dying and the screams of injured men and horses. The only thing heard over the top of it was the drumming and the bugling signalling orders to the troops of both sides.
Things were beginning to look disasterous for Wellington. By 6.00pm the main Prussian force was only beginning to engage the French flank. The Prince of Orange had sacrificed another two battallions to the French cavalry by ordering them to advance in a line. The French had finally taken La Haye-Sainte. The centre of the British line was open to attack, and no reserves were left to reenforce the centre.
However, at this critical moment, when victory seemed certain for the French, Blucher's Prussians formed up on Wellington's left and the Duke sent whatever troops he could muster into the centre. The Prussians had arrived just in the nick of time. The British line was now only around 35,000 strong, due to casualties and to the desertion of the Dutch-Belgians. Wellington was forced to deploy his remaining cavalry behind his infantry to prevent any more men from fleeing the field, and gave an order which stunned and startled his remaining troops: 'Colours to the rear.' The flags which had flown over the British regiments all day long were taken down and removed from the battlefield to prevent them from being captured by the French.
Yet, however desperate Wellington thought the situation was, it had undoubtedly become worse for Napoleon. His troops were now outnumbered and his only hope was one final, decisive attack. Two massive columns were drawn up, yet it was not the number of men which he hoped would prove decisive. These columns contained the Imperial Guard. Each guardsman had been promoted for his skill and bravery, and 600 of the Guard had been Napoleon's personal protectors during his exile on Elba. These men had never been stopped, never defeated and now they marched on a group of exhausted and bloody redcoats holding a ridge in Belgium. If this final gambit proved effective, Napoleon could yet snatch a victory. However, the Guard had never faced the British before. Whereas most European armies, including the French, fought in a mighty column which worked like a battering ram, the British fought in a line. A thin, two-man-deep line against an immense formation driven by incessant drumming. However, a line could bring all of its muskets to bear, and the British were the best trained and most drilled troops in the world.
Faced with this maelstrom of musket balls and able to reply only with the muskets of those on the edge of the formation, the great columns of the Imperial Guard slowed down. Fully half the Guard was dead by the time the columns stopped and for the first time ever, the call of 'La Garde recule!'9 was heard echoing accross the French lines as Napoleon's elite fled. This broke the morale of Napoleon's army, and with Blucher pressing from the left, Wellington gestured forwards with his hat and issued his final order of the day: 'Go on, go on! They won't stand. Don't give them a chance to rally!'
With that, the surviving British streamed forwards. The French army crumbled, and Napoleon was defeated. But it had been close10 and the price had been high. By 10.00pm, 15,000 British, Dutch and Belgian soldiers, 7,000 Prussian and between 25,000 and 30,000 French soldiers lay dead on the field of Waterloo.
The Aftermath of The Battle
The legacy of Waterloo brought peace to Europe, but it also laid the foundations for war. As Napoleon's army fled defeated into the Belgian night, an era came to the end. For the first time in nearly 30 years, Britain and France entered into a lasting peace. This peace and a new era in peace and cooperation would lead to their alliance against the Russians in the Crimean War of 1854-1856, and eventually 'La Entente Cordiale', an alliance between the two nations which has lasted for over a hundred years and endured through two World Wars.
The battle may have brought peace between Britain and France, but it left Prussia as the strongest military power in Western Europe. This brought Prussia even more to the fore as the most powerful German state and allowed the Prussian Prime Minister, Otto von Bismarck, to unify the German states and declare the German Empire in 1871, after the Franco-Prussian War of that year. This in turn kick-started events which would lead to World War I and in turn to World War II.
As for the three generals of the day: Lord Wellington entered politics and became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1828, guiding the young Queen of the time, Victoria. The Duke died in 1852 and was buried in St Paul's Cathedral. Bonaparte was exiled to the remote island of St Helena, where he died in what some consider to be suspicious circumstances. His remains were returned to France some years after his death, and hundreds of Waterloo veterans packed the streets to watch the final journey of the Emperor to his tomb in the magnificent church of Les Invalides, where he lies to this day with his son. Blucher, unfortunately for his reputation, went insane in his final years, and claimed at one point to be pregnant with an elephant which he conceived with the aid of a French grenadier.
The battlefield today is a somewhat disappointing and tacky tourist attraction, with only the 'panorama' of the battlefield really worth the admission charge, although the giant mound11 offers a brilliant view of the three strongpoints and the woods. Even if it is made mainly of the ridge on which the British army stood all afternoon12 to forge a famous victory near the town of Waterloo.