On 18th June 1815, British and French soldiers met on the battlefield just outside of Belgium. Napoleon’s position as the self-crowned emperor of France was hanging in the balance.
The eventual defeat of Napoleon marked the end of his regime and led to his surrender shortly after. The downfall of Napoleon became legendary, but a lot is still not taught about the Battle of Waterloo. Here are 10 facts that you probably didn’t learn in school.
Despite its famous title, the Battle of Waterloo was not fought in the town of Waterloo. The battle was actually fought along the Mont-Saint-Jean Ridge and was initially known in France as the 'Battle of Mont-Saint-Jean'.
2. Wellington at Waterloo
The battle gained its more commonly known name because Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, had positioned his headquarters in the small town. While the battle had originally raged in the fields of Mont-Saint-Jean, the town of Waterloo became synonymous with victory thanks to Wellesley signing off his report to his superiors in Britain with the line: “Napoleon never set foot in Waterloo - it’s a fact.”
3. Who defeated Napoleon?
While the defeat of Napoleon’s army is credited to Wellesley and the English, it was, in fact, an international effort. The Allied armies included soldiers from Wales, Ireland, Scotland, The Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium.
The tide of the war was turned by an additional 50,000 Prussian troops that arrived on the battlefield late in the afternoon.
4. The weather certainly helped
Another deciding factor in the outcome was the weather. Heavy rainfall in the area the night before had turned the fields into a quagmire. Napoleon put off the battle until midday, in the hopes that it would allow the ground some time to dry out - essential for his heavy artillery and guns. This would, however, prove to be a fatal choice as it allowed time for the Prussians to arrive before the French secured a victory.
5. Napoleon in the States
There are many rumours surrounding Napoleon’s flight from Waterloo and his subsequent plans following the downfall of his empire - including the story that he rode away from the battlefield in tears. However, one thing that’s for sure was his plan of escape. In a letter written by one of Napoleon’s relatives, it was revealed that Napoleon planned to flee to America to avoid the aftermath of his defeat.
With the British Navy blockading all naval avenues out of France, it would have been a sorry end for the disgraced emperor to be caught in an attempt to be smuggled out of France. With this in mind, Napoleon surrendered to a British warship on 15th July, less than a month after the loss at Waterloo.
6. Uxbridge’s leg
We all know that war is a gruesome affair, but perhaps the most telling account can be found in the loss of Lord Uxbridge’s leg. Shattered by a piece of case shot, the story goes that upon looking down, Uxbridge exclaimed to Wellington, “By God sir, I’ve lost my leg!”, to which Wellington replied, “By God sir, you have!”.
Uxbridge’s leg was amputated with no anesthetic, and his only comment on the procedure was that the knives had felt “a little blunt”. Uxbridge’s leg was buried in a field at Waterloo and even received its own headstone. It became a tourist attraction for those visiting the battle site until 1878 when the bones of the leg became involved in a diplomatic incident.
7. How many died at Waterloo?
The final death toll landed at just under 50,000 men. 25,000 of those casualties were French, while approximately 23,000 were from the Allied forces. Around 7,000 horses lost their lives as well.
8. Waterloo porcelain
The grizzly acts didn’t end with the battle either. Once the battle concluded, residents of the neighbouring villages came out in droves armed with sacks and pliers to loot the bodies. Everything that could be of value was stripped from the bodies, including the shoes of dead horses.
One of the more popular spoils of war came from teeth. The macabre collection of teeth was sold to dentists to make dentures. It became a selling point for the dentists, who referred to the teeth used in their dentures as ‘Waterloo porcelain’.
9. No quarters given
The Allied armies were given the order of "no quarter given" - a command that the French army had given against the Prussian army just two days earlier at the Battle of Ligny.
This grim command signalled that the soldiers should show no mercy in harrying the routed French armies. It was even rumoured that any men who returned with prisoners would be shot for disobeying orders.
10. Clearing the battlefield
Once the dust had settled and the armies withdrew, there was still the matter of clearing the 50,000 dead and severely injured men from the battlefield. 50 local peasants armed only with shovels and handkerchiefs, supervised by medical professionals, were hired to clear the battlefield of the dead and dispose of the vast amount of bodies in the best way that they could.
Once the bodies had been stripped of all earthly possessions, the deceased Allied soldiers were dragged into poorly dug graves, while the bodies of the French soldiers were piled and burned in pyres.
The pyres burned for well over a week, and the smoke and flames could be seen for miles. Those tasked with the battlefield clean-up could be seen stoking the flames and adding more bodies to the pile.
However, no matter how intense the heat of the fire got, there were still scores of bones and human remains that lingered. Tourists collected bones as memorabilia on visits to the site, and human remains could still be easily seen above the ground a year after the battle was won.