THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO

- Introduction -

 

  

    "The day is lost," muttered the Duke of Wellington Grimly as the battle raged around him, "Unless Blucher and the Prussians arrive soon all is lost, and the fate of Europe is sealed!"

 

    To understand how important this battle is we need to go back two years, back to a battle called Leipzig.  At the Battle of Leipzig the united forces of Austria, Prussia, Russia and Sweden defeated the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte.  

    Napoleon was born in 1769 on the Island of Corsica. He was sent to France at the age of nine, in 1785. Napoleon graduated from Military School as an Artillery Lieutenant.  In 1789 the French Revolution started with the poor peasants of France rising in revolt against the rich.  By 1793 Napoleon Bonaparte had risen to the rank of adjutant-general in the revolutionary army.  He made himself known in Paris by dispersing a rioting mob. To achieve this he had ordered his men to fire directly into the crowd, killing many.  In that same year, Napoleon took command of a French army. The objective of his army was to drive an invading Austrian force out of Italy.  

 

 

    Within a year, using new tactics and improved techniques, he had succeeded in his goal.  Napoleon was then put in charge of the French invasion of Egypt.  He had great success against the Egyptian forces, but the English fleet, under Admiral Nelson, attacked his fleet in the battle of the Nile, forcing Napoleon to flee back to France...leaving most of his army in Egypt!

 

    On the 2nd of December 1804 Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of France.  Napoleon, as you know, was already at war with England, the great power on the ocean, but he soon found himself at war with Austria, Russia and Prussia. 

Napoleon crossing the alps.

 

    Napoleon acted quickly and within two years he had defeated Austria, Russia and Prussia. By then he ruled most of Europe.  

 

    Napoleon then decided that in order to defeat England - the only country that he had not yet  conquered - he needed to enforce a blockade against England. The objective of the blockade was to prevent any food or supplies getting into the country. But to carry out his plan, Napoleon needed to conquer Portugal, who was an ally of England.  

 

    To conquer Portugal Napoleon needed to pass through Spain.  Spain was at that time ruled by Napoleon's Brother, Joseph Bonaparte, so Napoleon had no trouble getting the Spanish Government to agree. But the Spanish people did not like the idea of a French army marching through their country, and as a result, political unrest was provoked. This  allowed English, Scottish and Welsh troops, under the command of Arthur Wellesley who later became Duke of Wellington, to land in Spain. 

 

    Wellington's forces were able to achieve some decisive victories, though they never fought an army under Napoleon’s command.  This series of battles is now known as The Peninsular War.

 

    In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia, although this decision proved fatal. Napoleon may have been able to defeat the Russian army, but he found no army in Moscow. The city was deserted, and Russia’s harsh winter was coming on quickly.

 

    Napoleon, hearing of a plot back in France, was forced to turn back. However, during their return, his army endured temperatures as low as –37.5 °C (35.5 °F).   An army of 450,000 soldiers went over, but fewer than a quarter of these returned.  

Victory declaration after the battle of Leipzig, 1813

- Leipzig -

 

   

    Now we get to the Battle of Leipzig.  

    During Napoleon's disastrous defeat in Russia, Wellington had been methodically "throwing" the French troops out of Spain. After the defeat of Napoleon in Russia, the Austrians, Russians, Prussians and Swedes gathered together an army with which to attack Napoleon.  

 

    The Battle of Leipzig was in Saxony.  Napoleon, seeing that his empire was in danger, marched to meet the oncoming allies with an army of about 185,000. Napoleon's army consisted of French and Saxon troops.  The allied army, on the other hand, led by Field Marshal Karl Shwarzenberg, numbered some 320,000 men and was made up of soldiers from Prussia, Austria, Russia and Sweden. Napoleon soon found himself severely outnumbered.

 

    In the year 1813 the two armies met.  While at first, Napoleon's army was able to withstand attacks from the north by the German Generals Schwarzenberg and Blucher, the situation began to change when the Allies were reinforced by troops from Russia and Sweden. Things became even worse for Napoleon when the Saxon troops in his army deserted en masse, and simply ran away!  As a result, Napoleon was forced to withdraw. To make matters even worse, 30,000 of  his soldiers found themselves cut off from their escape as a result of a bridge being blown up by mistake. These soldiers were taken prisoner by the allied troops.

 

 

 

 

- The 100 Days -

 

 

    The defeat and retreat of Napoleon's troops quite effectively started a ball rolling that led to both the end of Napoleon's reign, and of the French Empire. Not long after this,  Napoleon was utterly defeated, and the Allies, including England, were able to invade Paris.  Finally Napoleon abdicated, and he was quickly captured by the Allies.

 

    The Allied nations allowed Napoleon to rule a small island called Elba, he was allowed a small army and an even smaller navy. Elba was guarded by many British Ships, and it looked as though Napoleon would never escape.  However, Napoleon only remained in exile for one year before he escaped.  

   

    While he only took a few loyal soldiers with him, the soldiers that were sent to find Napoleon and to arrest him soon ended up joining their former Emperor.  In fact, it seemed that everywhere Napoleon went, former soldiers eagerly joined him, and so soon Napoleon had assembled for himself a very large army.  In response, the Allies, (Great Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia) quickly began increasing the size of their armies.  

 

    Because most of Britain’s trained soldiers were fighting in America,  the British commanders were forced to call up the Militia, and mobilise soldiers who were still in training. The commander of the British Army was Arthur Wellesley, also known as the Duke of Wellington; This was the same man who had previously defeated the French in the Peninsular War.  


    British soldiers soon started arriving in Belgium, and a unit of the Prussian army, under the command of Field Marshal Gebhard von Blucher (this was the same man who had defeated Napoleon in Leipzig), arrived in Belgium as well.  

The Battle of Waterloo

- The Lead Up To The Battle -

 

     The British army contained soldiers from Holland, Germany, Belgium and many other countries in addition to the regular British soldiers.

The majority of soldiers in Wellington's army were from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland or Holland, and as a result, they came to be known as the Anglo-Dutch army. Blucher's army was made up of many reservists and militia as well as the regular Prussian soldiers.  The Prussian army had been defeated by Napoleon before, and as a result, they wanted revenge.

 

    The French army, larger than any one of its opponents, was made up almost entirely of trained veterans who had fought with Napoleon in many previous battles.  Wellington had a total of 90,000 men under his command, more than half of whom were not British, but came from a variety of countries. Many of these soldiers turned out to be very unreliable in battle. Blucher had just over 115,000 soldiers in his army, while Napoleon was in command of 125,000 veteran troops.

 

    The Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies wisely took up their positions on the defensive, while Napoleon decided to attack. He reasoned that if he was first able to defeat the large Prussian army, which he had done before, then he should be able to quickly defeat the much smaller British force.  With the Anglo-Dutch and Prussians out-of-the-way, Napoleon would have the full support of the French people, and as a result, his army would increase dramatically as thousands of people joined him.

Then all that he would have to do would be to defeat the Russian and Austrian armies, just as he did last time.

Wellington's 33rd Regiment

- Quatre-Bras -

 

    The French army moved into Belgium. Napoleon swiftly attacked the Prussian position at Ligny, causing the Prussians to retreat. Meanwhile, his ally, Marshal Ney, simultaneously attacked the Dutch position at Quatre Bras.

   

    Several British divisions came forward to provide assistance to the outnumbered Dutch, but many of the Dutch and Belgians lost heart and fled. The fighting raged all day, with the British slowly winning back the ground that the badly outnumbered Dutch had lost to the French. At nightfall the fighting stopped.  

 

    Fighting around Quatre Bras had been fierce, with hundreds killed on both sides. The Duke of Brunswick, who had been a brave general, was killed in the fighting, and this was a sore loss to the British.  

 

    Next morning, the British soldiers were ordered to pull out as the Prussians had been defeated at Ligny.  Without the Prussians, the Duke of Wellington knew that he would have to deal with the full force of Napoleon's mighty army.  As a result, Wellington decided to go on the defensive, and he pulled his men back to place called Waterloo. 

Cavalry at during the battle of Waterloo.

- Waterloo -

 

    Waterloo was a town not far from Brussels in Belgium.  Outside the town was a ridge which was close to  two farm houses, called La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont.  

 

    Wellington arranged his army so that most of his men were out of view from the field below. He positioned some of the soldiers from the King's Own German Legion in La Haye Sainte and some of the elite Coldstream Guards at Hougoumont.  

 

    Now all that he needed to do was to wait. He wasn't waiting for too long before masses of French soldiers appeared.   

    With regards to numbers, Wellington commanded about 49,000 infantry, 12,400 cavalry and 5,640 artillerymen and his army possessed about 155 cannons.  Meanwhile, Napoleon, had with him almost as many infantry soldiers  as Wellington, as well as over  15,700 cavalry troops, 7,230 artillerymen and almost 250 cannons.  

 

    So as you can see, when compared to Wellington’s army, Napoleon’s forces contained thousands more men and almost twice as many cannons. In addition, Wellington's infantry included only 15,000 British soldiers; the rest were from Hanover, Brunswick, Nassau, Holland and Belgium. Wellington’s knew from his  experiences at Quatre Bras that  these soldiers could well turn out to be extremely unreliable.

 

    The British army, which was made up almost entirely of young soldiers, were forced to watch as Napoleon’s army of hardened experienced soldiers slowly swelled in numbers. Wellington desperately hoped that the Prussian army would arrive very.

And so it was, on 18th of June 1815,  that the future of Europe depended upon two men. On one side stood Napoleon Bonaparte, the master of the attack, while on the other side stood The Duke of Wellington, who was known as the master of defence.

 

British & French soldiers fighting at Waterloo

    At nearly ten o'clock the French attacked Hougoumont. The small British garrison readied themselves for an assault.  As the French attacked the Château of Hougoumont, French skirmishers in the woods surrounding the chateau prevented any help from coming.  

   

    French artillery soon managed to set part of the château on fire, but the Coldstreamer Guards fought on.  The fighting elsewhere was also fierce, with thousands upon thousands of French infantrymen attacking the allied soldiers at La Haye Sainte, which was held by only 250 men from the ‘King's Own German Legion’.

   

    In the centre of the battle, Marshall Ney had organised one of the largest cavalry charges in history, which consisted of 12,000 French horses thundering toward the British front line.

   

    The British infantry at their positions quickly realized that there would be only one way to stop the French charge, "Form squares!" shouted an officer, and the soldiers obeyed immediately.The British square formation consisted of  groups of infantry soldiers, all pointing their bayonets outwards.  The French horses refused to run into the hedge of bayonets, and so the French cavalry charges were ineffective.

An illustration of the Battle of Waterloo
    Ney soon understood what the British were doing, and so he ordered the cavalry to retreat. Next, he ordered the artillery to open fire.  The British squares soon became killing grounds, but the brave soldiers stood their ground against endless waves of French cavalry attacks.
 
    Bad news soon arrived, "We have lost La Haye Sainte sir!" gasped a messenger, "The day is lost," said Wellington to himself "unless Blucher and the Prussians arrive soon, all is lost!"  Then, and unfamiliar army was sighted in the distance, it could be the French reinforcements that were sent after Blucher, or, it could be the Prussians themselves.
Prussian troops at Waterloo
    Napoleon soon realized to his horror, that the unidentified army was the Prussians.  However, they were a long way off, and he had one trick left... The Imperial Guard, the French elite.
By Wolfgang Sauber - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16272399
    In over 20 years of fighting the French Imperial Guard had never lost a battle, they had never even retreated.  Napoleon Boneparte was going to throw these élite soldiers at the centre of the British line.  
  Napoleon decided to send eight battalions of the Middle and Old Guard units, numbering between 4,500 and 5,000 men.  Facing them was a line of mixed nationalities, an inexperienced Dutch brigade, numbering around 1,500 and a small brigade of English Foot Guards, numbering 1,400.   
 
    At around 7:30pm, upwards of 4,500 French elite Guards surged forwards towards the wavering British line.  The French Guard overran the first line, then were attacked by artillery and the Dutch infantry brigade, but still they pressed on, while the small Dutch force had attacked part of the Guard columns, the rest of the Guard had approached the ridge, but, unbeknownst to them, behind the ridge was, "the thin red line," a small undermanned English Foot Guard brigade, under the command of Colonel Maitland.  
 
    Suddenly, the 1,400 British soldiers fired a volley and then rushed down the hill upon more than 1,500 French Guards, upwards of 300 French fell in the first volley (20% off their total number).
    The French faltered, then, retreated!
 
French soldiers at the Battle of Waterloo

    As the French Imperial Guard retreated for the first time in history, the astonishing word spread through the French army, sapping them of all moral: "La Garde recule. Sauve qui peut!" ("The Guard retreats. Save yourself if you can!")  Then Wellington stood high and waved his hat in the air, this signaled a general advance.  The entire Anglo-Dutch army then threw themselves onto the retreating French, the retreat turned into a rout.  The Prussians who by now had reached the battlefield, attacked Napoleon from the right, while Wellington was counter-attacking front on.  

 

    To cover his retreat, Napoleon ordered an artillery barrage, even though many of his soldiers were in the firing line.  The English foot guards who had defeated the guards knew of their reputation, so, as they swept down the hill after the imperial guards, they kept the famous bearskin hats.  Those hats are the same kind worn by the Guards protecting Buckingham Palace.  

 

    As the British soldiers had been fighting all day, they let the Prussians take up the pursuit of the enemy.  Wellington didn't know any German and Blucher only knew these words in French: "What an Affair!"

 

    The French casualties numbered some 20,000 killed or wounded and 7,000 captured, while the Anglo-Dutch had 13,500 killed or wounded and the Prussian numbers are close to 5,500.  Napoleon failed to raise another army, so he gave himself up to the British, who sent him to the Island of St Helena in the South Atlantic ocean, Napoleon spent the rest of his life in exile.  Blucher lived for about four years after the battle, the Duke of Wellington went on to become the Prime Minister of Great Britain, and died on September 14, 1852.

 

 

Written and Researched By

Cody B. Mitchell 

INFOBOX

Summary:  Napoleon Bonaparte French Empire forces were hoping for a quick victory against the Prussian and Anglo-Dutch forces, they planned to then attack the Austrian and Russian forces and secure their final hold on Europe!

Date:  18th of June 1815

Combatants:  An inexperienced allied force under the command of the well respected Duke of Wellington versus a slightly larger French force of veteran soldiers lead by the war hero Napoleon Bonaparte.

Location:  The village of Waterloo, Belgium, Europe.

 

Battle Statistics:

British & Dutch Numbers:  49,000 Infantry; 12,000 Cavalry; 5,640 Artillerymen and 155 Cannon.

French Numbers:  48,000 Infantry; 14,000 Cavalry; 7,000 Artillerymen and 250 Cannon.

British & Dutch Casualties:  Approx. 13,700 killed or wounded and 3,300 missing.

French Casualties:  24,000 to 26,000 killed or wounded (including some 6 to 7,000 captured) and 15,000 missing.

Outcome:  The British infantry strategy was shown to be the most effective form of fighting and Wellington's defensive strategy won over Napoleon's of purely offense.

 

Campaign Statistics:

Allied Numbers:  Total: 209,000; Anglo-allies: 93,000 and Prussians: 116,000

French Numbers:  Total: 198,000

About:

1815, June the 18th.

Three of the world's most brilliant generals; three of the world's best armies; and two of the world's dominant war strategies.

They all meet at one small village in Belgium...

WATERLOO.

"La Garde recule.

Sauve qui peut!"

 

"The Guard retreats.

Save yourself if you can!"

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