On Sunday 18th June 1815, near the village of Waterloo just south of Brussels, three armies converged to fight one of the most decisive battles in European history. It was also one of the bloodiest, and in the words of the victorious British general the Duke of Wellington, 'a damned near-run thing'.
Waterloo was the final act in 23 years of almost incessant warfare between France and her neighbours. The conflict began during the French Revolution, and continued into the reign of the Emperor Napoleon (1804 – 15), whose brilliant military leadership gave France the upper hand for much of the period. But following Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, and the formation of a grand European coalition against him, Napoleon was finally defeated, forced to abdicate and sent into exile.
That was supposed to be the end of it. But in March 1815, in a daring and unexpected move, Napoleon returned to France, overthrew the unpopular Bourbon monarchy and raised new armies. As his old enemies mobilised their own forces to confront him once more, Napoleon struck first. He advanced into modern-day Belgium, intending to fall upon the Duke of Wellington's multinational army and Prince Blücher's Prussian army before they could join forces. The Allies were caught napping – in the words of the Duke of Wellington, they had been 'humbugged'!
Napoleon attacked the Prussians first, mauling Blücher's army at Ligny on 16th June. The Prussians were forced to retreat, but they were not broken. On the same day Wellington fought off another wing of Napoleon's army at the crossroads of Quatre Bras. He then fell back to a strong position (which he had earmarked earlier) near the village of Waterloo, and prepared to fight a defensive battle to save Brussels. His hope was that if he could fend off Napoleon's army here for long enough, Blücher's Prussians would come to his aid, and together they could defeat the French emperor.
Wellington had fought (and beaten) the French many times, but had never fought Napoleon himself. As so often, he picked his battlefield with great care. At Waterloo most of his troops were stationed behind a gentle ridge that would give shelter from the French cannon fire. His right flank was protected by the château of Hougoumont, his centre by La Haye Sainte farmhouse, and his east flank by the village of Papelotte, all of which were garrisoned and fortified. It was a strong position, and it needed to be - Wellington's army was a smorgasbord of British, Dutch, Belgian and German troops, most of whom had never been in battle before.
Napoleon's 'Grande Armée' was also a mixed bag: it contained some veterans of his great victories, but a significant number of untested conscripts. Napoleon, who had never fought a British-led army before, resolved upon a simple strategy: he would make a feint against Wellington's line of retreat by threatening the Château d'Hougoumont, then smash his way through the centre and open the road to Brussels. The 'x-factor' for both commanders was the uncertain status and location of Prince Blücher's Prussian army: Napoleon hoped and believed it was still in disarray after its defeat at Ligny, and would make no appearance; Wellington was praying it would reach him sometime that afternoon.
The French began their assault on Hougoumont, on Wellington's right flank, at 11am. The farm buildings and orchards were held by elite companies from British and German regiments, who fought a savage day-long battle for possession of this vital strongpoint. At one point the French forced their way into the courtyard of the main buildings, but the gates were closed behind them and all the intruders massacred. Wellington would later describe the moment as a turning point in the battle.
Meanwhile, the French began a huge cannonade against Wellington's position, firing solid iron roundshot which tore bloody holes in the Allied ranks. But because most units were on the reverse slope, they were a difficult target for the French gunners. Wellington also ordered his men to lie down, so many cannonballs flew harmlessly overhead.
At 1pm, Napoleon launched his first infantry attack against Wellington's centre. The French columns were met by lines of British infantry, who poured volleys of devastating musket fire into the packed enemy formations. As the French wavered, the British charged with their bayonets. Wellington sent in British heavy cavalry to support them. The French were soon in headlong flight, though the British cavalry suffered heavy losses too when they were counter-charged by French lancers.
The French next launched a series of massed cavalry attacks on Wellington's centre. This time they were met by Wellington's infantry in square formation, presenting an unbroken wall of bayonets that horses cannot be made to charge. As the French cavalry circled these squares impotently, they were shot from the saddle by Allied infantry.
Napoleon had so far launched a series of badly co-ordinated and unsupported attacks. His usual instinctive grasp of a battle's ebb and flow seems to have deserted him on this most crucial of days. His defenders argue that he was sick, and/or let down by reckless or incompetent generals; critics say he was complacent and unimaginative. Wherever the truth lies, by late afternoon Napoleon had failed to break Wellington's defensive position, and at last, the Prussians had begun to arrive. Blücher had sent every man he could spare, and by 5pm they were engaged in viscous street fighting with the French in a village called Plancenoit on Napoleon's right flank.
Wellington's army, battered but not broken by hours of artillery fire and infantry and cavalry assault, had one last test to withstand. At 7pm, Napoleon sent his elite reserve, the Imperial Guard, against the Allied centre. But once more they were met by unwavering lines of red-coated infantry. The sheer destructive firepower into which the French veterans advanced was too much even for these feared troops. As the 'invincible' Imperial Guard began to retreat, the entire French army lost heart, and Napoleon's army quickly became a flood of fugitives, pursued mercilessly by Prussian cavalry. Napoleon's power had been broken for all time in a single, brutal day of fighting, which left more than 50,000 casualties, and an estimated 10,000 dead.