The Battle of Waterloo was the final and decisive action of the Napoleonic Wars, the wars that effectively ended French domination of the European continent and brought about drastic changes in the political boundaries and the power balance of Europe. Fought on June 18, 1815, near Waterloo, in modern Belgium, the battle ranks as a great turning point in European history.
After raising France to a position of preeminence in Europe, Napoleon met defeat in 1814 by a coalition of major powers, notably Prussia, Russia, Britain, and Austria. Napoleon was then deposed and exiled to the island of Elba1, and Louis XVIII was made ruler of France. In September 1814, the Congress of Vienna convened to discuss problems arising from the defeat of France. On February 26, 1815, while the congress was in session, Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France.
Many veterans of his former campaigns flocked to his side, and on March 20, 1815, he again took the throne. The Congress of Vienna, alarmed by Napoleon’s return to power, had reacted quickly to the crisis. On March 17 Austria, Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia each agreed to contribute 150,000 troops to an invasion force to be assembled in Belgium near the French border. A majority of other nations present at the congress also pledged troops for the invasion of France, which was to be launched on July 1, 1815.
Napoleon, learning of the invasion plan, was determined to attack the allies on their own ground before their army could form. He mobilized an army of 360,000 trained soldiers within two months. He deployed half of these troops within France as a security force and sent the remainder into attack units. On June 14, 1815, Napoleon, moving with speed and secrecy, reached the Franco-Belgian border with 124,000 of his troops. Another 56,000 men were left behind in supporting positions.
On June 15, 1815, Napoleon moved across the border of Belgium, and his sudden arrival caught the allied command unprepared. Napoleon ordered his left-wing, under Marshal Michel Ney, to attack a brigade of Wellington’s cavalry at Quatre-Bras, north of Charleroi. He next ordered the right-wing, to move eastward against a Prussian brigade stationed in the town of Gilly. By nightfall on that first day of fighting, Napoleon’s armies held the strategic advantage.
The emperor had succeeded in placing his army between the advance elements of the armies of both Wellington and Blücher, and his main force was in a position to swing either left against the Anglo-Dutch army or right to fight the Prussian forces.
On June 16 Napoleon moved with his reserve from Charleroi to Fleurus. There he assumed command of General Grouchy’s army and easily defeated the Prussian forces. He then drove north to the Ligny area to engage Blücher, who with his army had hastened west from Namur hoping to intercept the French.
Early in the afternoon of June 16, Napoleon heard the sound of Ney’s artillery at Quatre-Bras. He then brought his force of 71,000 into action against Blücher’s army of 83,000. After an hour of inconclusive fighting, Napoleon dispatched an urgent message to Marshal Ney ordering him to send his First Corps, a force totalling 30,000 men, to the battlefield at Ligny.3 Instead of delivering the order through Marshal Ney’s headquarters, Napoleon’s courier took it directly to General D’Erlon, the First Corps commander. D’Erlon left immediately for Ligny.
When Ney later learned of D’Erlon’s departure, however, he dispatched a message ordering the corps back to Quatre-Bras. The message was delivered to D’Erlon just as he reached the Ligny battlefield. Again D’Erlon obeyed instructions, taking part in neither of the battles. Napoleon was able to defeat Blücher after an action lasting three hours. That evening the Prussians withdrew, leaving 12,000 troops dead or wounded. Because of D’Erlon’s failure to enter the fighting the main body of Blücher’s army, about 70,000 men, were able to retreat.
Meanwhile, at Quatre-Bras, Ney had waited several hours to begin his attack on the Anglo-Dutch force, this delay enabled Wellington to reinforce Quatre-Bras with several divisions of cavalry and infantry. Ney finally attacked at 2 PM but was firmly held. Successive attempts on the Anglo-Dutch position were similarly unsuccessful, Ney was severely handicapped by the absence of D’Erlon’s troops. At about 7 PM Wellington counterattacked strongly and drove Ney back to the town of Frasnes, a few miles south of Quatre-Bras. Ney lost 4,300 troops and Wellington lost 4,700 troops in the action. D’Erlon, however, joined Ney in Frasnes at 9 PM.
Early in the morning of June 17 a courier from Blücher reached Wellington at Quatre-Bras and informed him of the Prussian defeat at Ligny. Wellington promptly dispatched a message to Blücher suggesting that he swing to the northwest and join the Anglo-Dutch army for a united stand against Napoleon near the village of Mont-Saint-Jean, just south of Waterloo. Several hours later Wellington retired from Quatre-Bras, leaving behind a brigade of cavalry to mislead Marshal Ney.
That same morning, Napoleon ordered Grouchy to take 30,000 troops and pursue Blücher’s retreating army. Napoleon then sent messages to Ney at Frasnes ordering him to engage Wellington immediately. Ney, who was not aware of Wellington’s retreat, failed to obey these orders. Napoleon arrived at Frasnes that afternoon, assumed command of Ney’s forces, brushed aside the tiny force guarding Quatre-Bras, and set off with his army to pursue Wellington. Early that evening Napoleon caught sight of the Anglo-Dutch army set in the high plain south of Mont-Saint-Jean. Both sides began to prepare for battle.
In the meantime, General Grouchy had failed to overtake Blücher’s army. Late on June 17, Grouchy’s scouts informed him that the Prussians had turned northwest, seeking a juncture with Wellington. Napoleon sent the reply, early on June 18, that Grouchy should keep trying to make contact with the Prussians. Grouchy’s pursuit was slow and unmotivated, and he failed to locate the enemy.
On the morning of June 18, the French and Anglo-Dutch armies were in battle position. The Anglo-Dutch forces, facing south, comprised 67,000 troops with 156 cannons, and Wellington had received assurances from Blücher that strong reinforcements would arrive during the day. Wellington’s strategy was therefore to resist Napoleon until Blücher’s forces could arrive, overpower the emperor’s right-wing, and take the whole French line.
Napoleon’s army, facing north, totalled 74,000 troops with 246 cannons. The emperor’s battle plan was to capture the village of Mont-Saint-Jean and cut off the Anglo-Dutch avenue of retreat to Brussels. Wellington’s army could then be destroyed at Napoleon’s will.
The battle began at 11:30 AM with a fake move by Napoleon at Wellington’s right. This unsuccessful maneuver was followed by an 80-gun French bombardment designed to weaken the allied center. At about 1 PM Napoleon saw advance elements of Blücher’s army approaching from the east. Once again the emperor dispatched a message to Grouchy, apprising him of the situation and ordering him to engage the Prussians.
Fierce cavalry and infantry battles were being fought along the ridge, south of Mont-Saint-Jean. In each instance, the French attacks were heavily rejected. At 4 PM Blücher’s advance troops, who had been awaiting an opportune moment, entered the battle and forced the French to fall back about 0.5 mi. A counterattack restored the French lines and pushed the Prussians back 1 mi to the northeast. Shortly after 6 PM, Ney drove deep into the Anglo-Dutch center and seriously endangered Wellington’s entire line. However, Wellington rallied and Ney was driven back.
Napoleon then mounted a desperate offensive, during which he committed all but five battalions of his Old Guard to an assault on the allied center.6 Allied infantrymen inflicted severe punishment on the French, crushing the offensive. Although Napoleon regrouped his shattered forces and attacked again, the French situation became increasingly hopeless. At about 8 PM the Prussians, who had taken up positions on the extreme left of Wellington’s line, drove through the French right-wing, throwing most of Napoleon’s troops into a panic.
Only actions fought by a few Old Guard battalions enabled the emperor to escape. As Napoleon’s routed army fled along the Charleroi road, Wellington and Blücher conferred and agreed that Prussian brigades should pursue the beaten French. During the night of June 18, the Prussians drove the French back across the Sambre River.
Napoleon signed his second abdication on June 22, on June 28 King Louis XVIII was restored to the throne of France, thus ending the so-called Hundred Days. British authorities accepted the former emperor’s surrender on July 15, he was later exiled to the island of Saint Helena. So horrific was Napoleon’s downfall that Waterloo became a synonym for a crushing defeat.
The Battle of Waterloo was one of the bloodiest in modern history. During the fighting of June 18, French casualties totalled about 40,000, British and Dutch about 15,000, and Prussian about 7000; at one point about 45,000 men lay dead or wounded within an area of 3 sq mi. Additional thousands of casualties were suffered by both sides during the three-day campaign that preceded the final battle.
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