Battle of Waterloo
|Battle of Waterloo|
|Date||June 18, 1815|
|Result||Decisive Allied victory|
The Battle of Waterloo, fought on June 18, 1815, was Napoleon Bonaparte's last battle. After his exile to Elba, he had been restored to the throne of France for a Hundred Days. During this time, the forces of the rest of Europe converged on him, commanded by United Kingdom's Duke of Wellington, and Prussia's Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher.
"The nearest run thing you ever saw in your life" – the Duke of Wellington
Table of contents
The Anglo-allied and Prussian armies were separated by previous engagements on June 16 1815 — a French and Anglo-Allied stalemate (Battle of Quatre Bras) and a French victory over the Prussians (Battle of Ligny). This was part of Napoleon's strategy to split the much larger allied force into pieces that he could outnumber if he were allowed to attack them separately. His theory was based on the assumption that an attack on the center of the allied forces would force the two main armies to retreat in the direction of their supply bases, which were in opposite directions. However, ambiguous orders by Napoleon on the 17th to his subordinate Marshal Grouchy to pursue the Prussians with 30,000 men contributed to Napoleon's eventual defeat. Grouchy, being a late riser, started the pursuit late on both the 17th and the 18th. On the 18th, with the right wing of the Army of the North, reinforced with a cavalry corps, he ignored Gérard's advice to "march to the sound of the guns" and engaged the Prussian rearguard under the command of Lieutenant-General Baron von Thielmann at the Battle of Wavre.
In the night of the 17th/18th, the Prussian army was reinforced by the arrival of IV Corps under the command of General von Dennewitz, which had not been present at Ligny.
After the Prussian defeat at Ligny, Wellington's position at Quatre Bras had become untenable. On a rainy 17th, Wellington withdrew his army to the previously reconnoitered position at Waterloo, followed by the left wing of the French Army of the North under the command of Marshal Ney. Napoleon joined Ney with most of the Reserve Army which (along with the right wing of the Army of the North) had defeated the Prussians at Ligny.
At Waterloo, Wellington had the reinforced farm Hougomont anchoring his right flank, and several other farms on his left. Napoleon faced his first major problem even before the battle began. Unsure of the Prussian Army's position since its flight from Ligny two days previously, Napoleon was all too aware of the need to begin the assault on Wellington's positions with the most feared weapon of the era, the French field artillery. This baptism of fire was delayed for hours until the sodden ground from the previous night's downpour had dried out sufficiently to take the weight of the French ordinance. The mud also hindered infantry and cavalry as they trudged into position. When the French artillery eventually opened fire on Wellington's ridge at around 11:35, the expected impact on the Allied troops was diminished by the soft terrain that absorbed the impact of many of the hurtling cannon balls. In addition, Wellington had characteristically placed the majority of the Allied army behind the ridgeline so as to shield the army from the expected barrage.
A crucial element of the French plan of battle was to draw Wellington's reserve to his right flank in defense of Hougomont, but French attacks on the farm were eventually unsuccessful, even after one point when they succeeded in breaking into the farm's courtyard before being repulsed. Hougomont became a battle within a battle and, throughout that day, its defence continued to draw thousands of valuable French troops into a fruitless attack while all but a few of Wellington's reserves remained in his centre.
At 13:30, Napoleon ordered Marshal Ney to send d'Erlon's infantry forward against Wellington's centre left passing to the east of La Haye Sainte. The attack centred on the Belgian-Dutch 1st Brigade commanded by Major-General Willem Frederik van Bylandt, which was one of the few units placed on the forward slope of the ridge. After suffering an intense artillery bombardment and exchanging volleys with d'Erlon's leading elements for some nine minutes, van Bylandt's outnumbered soldiers were forced to retreat over the ridge and through the lines of General Thomas Picton's division. Picton's division included veteran regiments from the Peninsular campaign among which were the Highland regiments, some of the few battle-hardened regiments that remained with Wellington's British contingent at Waterloo. Picton's division moved forward over the ridgeline to engage d'Erlon. The British were likewise mauled by volley-fire and close-quarter attacks, but Picton's soldiers stood firm, eventually breaking up the attack. The French assault was then driven off by the British heavy cavalry commanded by Uxbridge and the famous charge of the Scots Greys. Such a spectacular event also cost the heavy cavalry so dearly that, collectively, they played little part in the remainder of the battle.
When Napoleon unexpectedly left the field in the early afternoon, Ney, the epitome of French elan, mistook an Allied manoeuvre to reposition further back from the ridge as a general retreat. With no consultation, he ordered one regiment to advance, then another, then another until a massed assault of over 5,000 cavalry was thundering – and struggling – up the steep slope. The attacks were repeatedly repelled by the solid Allied infantry squares (four ranks deep with fixed bayonets vulnerable to artillery or infantry but deadly to cavalry), the harrying fire of British artillery as the French cavalry recoiled down the slopes to regroup, and the decisive counter-charges of the British Light Cavalry regiments and the Dutch Heavy Cavalry Brigade.
After numerous attacks on the Allied ridge, the French cavalry was effectively destroyed. At this point, the assumption that Napoleon had counted on turned out to be optimistic – the Prussians had not been forced away far enough, and they were able to come to the aid of the Anglo-allied forces. Napoleon must have realized that with the return of the Prussians, he would be heavily outnumbered on the field. The Prussians were already engaging the Imperial Army's right flank when La Haye Sainte fell to the French in the early evening. With Wellington's centre exposed, Napoleon committed his last reserve, the undefeated Imperial Guard. After marching through a blizzard of shell and shrapnel, they seemed poised to crush Wellington. But unbeknownst to them, 1,500 British Guards under Maitland were lying down to protect themselves from the French artillery. They rose as one, and devastated the shocked Imperial Guard with volleys of fire at point-blank range, and then charged. The Imperial Guard, for the first time in history, fell back in disarray and chaos. Wellington, judging that the retreat by the Imperial Guard had unnerved all the French soldiers who saw it, stood up in the stirrups on Copenhagen, his favourite horse, and waved his hat in the air which was a signal for a general advance.
After the Guard's unsuccessful attack on the British centre, the French Imperial Guard rallied to their reserves of three regiments, (some sources say four) just south of La Haye Sainte for a last stand against the British. A charge from General Adam's Brigade and an element of the 5th Brigade (The Hanoverian Landwehr (Militia) Osnabruck Battalion), both in the second Anglo-allied division under Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton, threw them into a state of confusion; those which were left in semi-coherent units fought and retreated towards La Belle Alliance. It was during this stand that Colonel Hugh Halkett took the surrender of General Cambronne. It was probably during the destruction of one of the retreating semi-coherent squares from the area around La Haye Sainte towards La Belle Alliance that the famous retort to a request to surrender was made "La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas!" "The Guard dies, it does not surrender!".
At about the same time the Prussians, after a battle which had lasted about an hour, finally drove the French out of the village of Plancenoit, which was on the extreme (British) left of the battle field. The last unit to be driven out was the Old Guard of the Imperial Guard stationed in the Plancenoit church and cemetery.
The whole of the French front started to disintegrate under the general advance of the Anglo-allied army and the Prussians following the capture of Plancenoit. The last coherent French force were regiments of the Imperial Guard stationed around La Belle Alliance. These were a final reserve and a personal body guard for Napoleon. For a time Napoleon hoped that if they held firm the French Army could rally behind them. But as the retreat turned into a rout, they were forced to form squares as protection against the leading elements of allied cavalry. They formed into two squares, one on either side of La Belle Alliance. Until he was persuaded that the battle was lost and he should leave, Napoleon commanded the square which was formed on rising ground to the (British) right of La Belle Alliance. The Prussians engaged the square to the left and General Adam's Brigade charged the square on the right forcing it to withdraw. As dusk fell both squares retreated away from the battle field towards France in relatively good order, but the French artillery, and everything else belonging to them fell into the hands of the British and Prussians and they were surrounded by thousands of fleeing Frenchmen who were no longer part of any coherent unit. British and Allied cavalry harried the fleeing French until about 23:00 hours. The Prussians pursued them throughout the night.
At around 21:00 Wellington and Blücher met at Napoleon's former headquarters La Belle Alliance, signifying the end of the battle.
After the French defeat at Waterloo and the final battle of the Napoleonic Wars at the Battle of Wavre, Napoleon was deposed and remained at large for some time in France before surrendering to the British. He was subsequently exiled to Saint Helena, where he died in 1821.
Armies participating in the campaign
- Anglo-Allied Army – 106,000 men of mixed quality (British, Dutch/Belgian, and minor German states)
- Prussian Army – 128,000 men of mixed quality
- French Army (Armee du Nord) – 128,000 men of good quality.
- Imperial Guard of 25,000, a formidable élite group of units.
Armies participating in the battle of Waterloo
- Anglo-Allied Army – 67,000 men of mixed quality (British, Dutch/Belgian, and minor German states)
- Prussian Army – 25–60,000 men of mixed quality (numbers depend on the way of counting, as the Prussians arrived in the afternoon, some divisions arrived on the field but did not really participate)
- French Army (Armée du Nord) – 73,000 men of good, though not exceptional, quality.
- Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher (1742 to 1819)
- Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769 to 1852)
- Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 to 1821)
The battle commenced at about 10:00 with an attack upon Hougoumont and had concluded by 21:00 when Wellington and Blücher met at La Belle Alliance. The British pursued the retreating French for several more hours, the Prussians continued the pursuit throughout the night.
Casualties are estimated at 25,000 men killed and wounded and 9,000 captured among the French forces. Wellington's casualties were 15,000 and Blücher's about 8,000.
- Wellington's Dispatches June 19th, 1815
- Reference Library of Bibliographic Sources – German Waterloo Sources
- Gutenberg: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo on line version in HTML
- British MOD "On this day" article
- Eye witness accounts of Napoleonic warfare.
- Waterloo's significance to the French and British – including proportions of soldiers by nation
- Myths and Lies about the performance of Dutch and Belgian troops in 1815
- BBC History – Waterloo