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War: Napoleonic Wars
Date: 18th June 1815
Place: Braine-l’Alleud and Plancenoit, United Kingdom of the Netherlands (now Belgium)
Belligerents: France vs Seventh UK, Netherlands, Hanover, Nassau, Brunswick & Prussia
The decisive battle of the age, the dichotomy of Waterloo can’t be underestimated for its historical significance. It was the day that decided the fate of Europe’s future.
On the (now) Belgian battlefields, Sunday 18th June 1815 marked the end of Napoleon Bonaparte’s imperial power as well as his ill-fated efforts to establish a European empire under his military dictatorship, positioning France as the continent’s dominant force. It was the death knell of over two decades of bloody, almost constant warfare between France and myriad European powers.
‘Waterloo is not a battle; it is the changing face of the universe.’
As the dictatorial epoch of Napoleon ended, it ushered in an age of ‘modus vivendi’, a mode of living whereby conflicting parties learn to co-exist in peace. Almost 90 years later on 8th April 1904, the signing of the Entente Cordiale saw significant and permanent improvements in Anglo-French relations.
The prelude to battle
After the defeat at the Battle of Paris in March 1814, Emperor Napoleon abdicated and was forced into exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba. France’s ruling dynasty, the House of Bourbon, was returned to the throne in the form of King Louis XVIII and Europe’s powers willed the return of peace and normality to their continent. The Napoleonic Wars were over.
Or so Europe thought…
Almost a year to the day later on 1st March 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France. Within 19 days he was in Paris, he had rallied his Grande Armée and was restored as Emperor. Europe had to regroup and overthrow him again.
King Louis ran for the hills and therein started Napoleon’s Hundred Days campaign. The diminutive demi-god was worshipped by his loyal followers, demonised by his enemies and both respected and feared by all.
His return to power prompted Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria under the overall command of the Duke of Wellington and Prussian Generalfeldmarschall Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher to declare war. Napoleon had to act quickly with his best chance of success being the defeat of each allied force one-by-one before they’d had an opportunity to unite.
In the days leading up to Waterloo, Napoleon defeated von Blücher’s Prussians on June 16th at the Battle of Ligny and drove them east, 20,000 men lighter. On the same day, French Marshall Michel Ney’s troops fought the allied army at the Battle of Quatre Bras, forcing Wellington’s men back towards Brussels.
The scene was set for a final dramatic denouement. One from which Napoleon would be comprehensively defeated, never to set foot in his homeland again.
The Battle of Waterloo
Like the Battle of Hastings which wasn’t actually fought in Hastings but in the nearby town of Battle, the Battle of Waterloo was fought three miles south in the villages of Braine-l’Alleud and Plancenoit along the Mont Saint Jean Ridge. While the French refer to the battle as the Battle of Mont Saint Jean, the rest of the world calls it the Battle of Waterloo, the small town where Wellington made his HQ.
In terms of numbers, The Duke of Wellington led a force of 68,000 mainly inexperienced men from the UK, The Netherlands, Hanover, Brunswick and Nassau (added to by 50,000 Prussians) and Napoleon had mustered an army of 73,000 fiercely devoted troops made up of over 50,000 infantry, 14,500 cavalry and 8,000 artillery and engineers.
On the night before the battle, the heavens opened and threw a spanner in the French works. Relying so heavily on his artillery, Napoleon feared that a sodden, muddy battlefield would slow the advance of his men, horses and heavy guns so he decided to wait until late morning to launch his attack.
For such a highly-regarded strategist, this delay proved to be his undoing.
While Wellington’s troops were ready, von Blücher’s men were still making their way to Waterloo from the east and those vital additional hours gave them time to regroup and put on a united front.
It was game time. Two of history’s great military heavyweights were about to face off. They were the same age; they were both formidable strategists and both had a track record of success on the battlefield. Something had to give.
While waiting for the Prussians to show up, Wellington positioned his men in a strong defensive position, blocking Napoleon’s route to Brussels by garrisoning three farms – Papelotte, Le Haye Sainte and Hougoumont – and took cover in the high cornfields.
The pocket dynamo launched a diversionary attack on Hougoumont in an attempt to draw out the British and while the allies were outnumbered by over three to one, they held firm. The French broke through the gates around 12.30pm but the British closed them tout de suite trapping 40 French soldiers inside. They killed all but one – an 11-year-old drummer boy.
With the allies busy at Hougoumont, Napoleon seized his opportunity to capture Papelotte and the area surrounding Le Haye Sainte. Victiore was close but soon after lunch, Napoleon spotted movement in the fields to the east. The Prussians had arrived.
Napoleon’s military career was over and he was reported to have ridden off the battlefield in tears.
Tens of thousands of bodies lay strewn (Wellington and von Blücher lost 23,000 men between them and Napoleon lost 25,000 with a further 9,000 taken prisoner). In a quite bizarre postscript, within hours of the battle’s end, locals armed with pliers began removing the front teeth of the dead men, selling them to dentists who crafted dentures. The dentists did nothing to conceal where the teeth were from, selling them as ‘Waterloo Ivory!’
The greatest military leader in French history returned to Paris on the morning of 21st June 1815 and abdicated the following day. King Louis was restored – again – on 8th July while Napoleon hatched a plan to escape to the USA. In a last affront, he was frustrated by a British naval squadron and surrendered to the commander of HMS Bellerophon, Captain Frederick Maitland, on July 15th. E
xiled – again – 4,000km east of Brazil’s east coast on the volcanic tropical island of St Helena, Napoleon died there on 5th May 1821 of, according to his physician François Carlo Antommarchi, stomach cancer, although the true cause of his death has been long-debated by historians and medical experts alike. His body was returned to Paris in 1840 and he was afforded a state funeral. It stayed in the cupola in St Jérôme's Chapel for two decades and then interred in a Louis Visconti-designed stone sarcophagus in 1861 in the crypt under the dome at Les Invalides.
Alongside the Battle of Britain, Waterloo is considered Britain’s greatest military triumph and while it’s generally agreed that it wasn’t the best showcase of the strategic nous of either Napoleon or Wellington, it’s also agreed that its lasting legacy is the role it played in achieving lasting peace in Europe after decades of bloodshed.
The history of the Battle of Waterloo is utterly fascinating, as are the historic sites associated with it such as Waterloo Battlefield itself, and you can read all about the most famous sites of the Napoleonic Wars on TripHistoric.