The Battle of Waterloo was the final and decisive action of the Napoleonic 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 what is now Belgium, the battle ranks as a great turning point in modern history.
After raising France to a position of dominance in Europe from 1804 to 1813, Napoleon met defeat in 1814 by a alliance of major powers, notably Prussia, Russia, Great Britain, and Austria . Napoleon was then deposed and exiled to the island of Elba, and Louis XVIII was made ruler of France. In September 1814, the Congress of Vienna, with delegates from most of the nations of Europe, got together to discuss problems arising from the defeat of France. On February 26, 1815, however, while the congress was in session, Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France .
In Paris, Napoleon, found out about the plan, after that he was determined to attack the allies on their own ground before their army could take form. With characteristic energy and decisiveness, he mobilized within two months an army of 360,000 trained soldiers. He deployed half of these troops within France as a security force and grouped the remainder into attack units. On June 14, 1815, Napoleon, moving with the highest speed and secrecy, reached the Franco-Belgian border with 124,000 of his troops . Another 56,000 men were left behind in secondary positions.
On June 15, 1815, Napoleon moved across the border of Belgium, and his sudden arrival caught the allied command unprepared. After crossing the Sambre River, the French routed a Prussian advance guard at Charleroi. Napoleon then ordered his left wing, under Marshal Michel Ney, to attack a brigade of Wellington’s cavalry at Quatre-Bras, 12 mi north of Charleroi. He next ordered the right wing, under General Emmanuel de Grouchy, to move eastward against a Prussian brigade stationed in the town of Gilly. By late afternoon on June 15, Grouchy had completed his mission and pressed forward to a point near the village of Fleurus, where a corps of Bl cher’s men was concentrated. 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 Bl cher, and his main force was in a position to swing either left against the Anglo-Dutch army or right to engage the Prussian forces.
Meanwhile, at Quatre-Bras, Ney had unaccountably waited several hours to begin his attack on the Anglo-Dutch position, and this delay enabled Wellington to reinforce Quatre-Bras with several divisions of cavalry and infantry. Ney finally attacked at 2 PM but was sharply repulsed. Successive onslaughts on the Anglo-Dutch positions were similarly unsuccessful; throughout the afternoon Ney was severely handicapped by the absence of D’Erlon’s corps. At about 7 PM Wellington counterattacked vigorously and drove Ney back to the town of Frasnes, a few miles south of Quatre-Bras. Ney lost 4300 troops and Wellington 4700 in the action. D’Erlon, however, joined Ney in Frasnes at 9 PM.
Early in the morning of June 17 a courier from Bl cher reached Wellington at Quatre-Bras and informed him of the Prussian defeat at Ligny. Wellington, realizing that Napoleon had outflanked him, promptly dispatched a message to Bl cher 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 the town of Waterloo. Several hours later Wellington retired unobtrusively from Quatre-Bras, leaving behind a brigade of cavalry as a decoy to mislead Marshal Ney.
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 Bl cher that strong reinforcements from his army of 70,000 would arrive during the day . Wellington’s strategy was therefore to resist Napoleon until Bl cher’s forces could arrive, outflank the emperor’s right wing, and so overrun the whole French line. Napoleon’s army, facing north, totaled 74,000 troops with 246 cannons. The emperor’s battle plan was to capture the village of Mont-Saint-Jean and thus cut off the Anglo-Dutch avenue of retreat to Brussels. Wellington’s army could then be destroyed at Napoleon’s leisure.
The battle began at 11:30 AM with a feint by Napoleon at Wellington’s right. This maneuver, which proved unsuccessful, was followed by an 80-gun French bombardment designed to weaken the allied center. At about 1 PM Napoleon saw advance elements of Bl cher’s army approaching from the east. Once again the emperor dispatched a message to Grouchy, apprising him of the situation and ordering him to overtake and engage the Prussians.
Fierce cavalry and infantry engagements were being fought meanwhile along the ridge, south of Mont-Saint-Jean, that sheltered Wellington’s main force . In each instance the French attacks were savagely repulsed. At 4 PM Bl cher’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. Wellington rallied, however, and Ney was driven back.
Napoleon then mounted a desperate general offensive, during which he committed all but five battalions of his Old Guard to an assault on the allied center. Allied infantrymen, formed into hollow squares, inflicted severe losses 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 panic . Only valiant rearguard 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 Bl cher conferred and agreed that Prussian brigades should pursue the beaten French. During the night of June 18 the Prussians drove the French from seven successive bivouacs and finally forced them 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 complete was Napoleon’s downfall that Waterloo, the name given to his last battle, became a synonym for a crushing defeat.
In his reminiscences about the Waterloo campaign, Napoleon severely criticized General Grouchy for his failure to intercept the Prussians after their retreat from Ligny. “Another lapse was Ney’s failure to attack Wellington on June 17 and thus prevent his withdrawal from Quatre-Bras” ; Ney also erred in ordering D’Erlon’s corps to turn back from Ligny on June 16, thus depriving Napoleon of the chance to destroy Bl cher’s army. Finally, Napoleon himself erred in massing only 124,000 men before Charleroi when he might easily have marshaled more by drawing on reserve troops left in secondary positions.
The Battle of Waterloo was one of the bloodiest in modern history. During the fighting of June 18, French casualties totaled 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.
Herold, J. Christopher. The Battle of Waterloo New York: Horizon Cravel, 1967
Howarth, David. Waterloo: Day of Battle New York: Atheneum, 1968
Schom, Alan. The Hundred Days New York: Atheneum, 1992