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Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Waterloo

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Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Waterloo

Wellington at Waterloo by Robert Alexander Hillingford

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Waterloo - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Waterloo was fought June 18, 1815 during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).

Armies & Commanders

Seventh Coalition

  • Duke of Wellington
  • Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher
  • 118,000 men

    French

  • Napoleon Bonaparte
  • 72,000 men
  • Battle of Waterloo - Background:

    Escaping exile in Elba, Napoleon landed in France in March 1815. Advancing on Paris, his former supporters flocked to his banner and his army was quickly re-formed. Declared an outlaw by the Congress of Vienna, Napoleon worked to consolidate his return to power. Assessing the strategic situation, he determined that a swift victory was required before the Seventh Coalition could fully mobilize its forces against him. To achieve this, Napoleon intended to destroy the Duke of Wellington's coalition army south of Brussels before turning east to defeat the Prussians (Map).

    Moving north, Napoleon divided his army in three giving command of the left wing to Marshal Michel Ney, the right wing to Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy, while retaining personal command of a reserve force. Crossing the border at Charleroi on June 15, Napoleon sought to place his army between those of Wellington and Prussian commander Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher. Alerted to this movement, Wellington ordered his army to concentrate at the crossroads of Quatre Bras. Attacking on June 16, Napoleon defeated the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny while Ney was fought to a draw at Quatre Bras (Map).

    Moving to Waterloo:

    With the Prussian defeat, Wellington was forced to abandon Quatre Bras and withdraw north to a low ridge near Mont Saint Jean just south of Waterloo. Having scouted the position the previous year, Wellington formed his army on the reverse slope of the ridge, out of sight to the south, as well as garrisoned the chateau of Hougoumont forward of his right flank. He also posted troops to the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte, in front of his center, and the hamlet of Papelotte forward of his left flank and guarding the road east towards the Prussians.

    Having been beaten at Ligny, Blücher elected to quietly retreat north to Wavre rather than east towards his base. This allowed him to remain in supporting distance to Wellington and the two commanders were in constant communication. On June 17, Napoleon ordered Grouchy to take 33,000 men and pursue the Prussians while he joined Ney to deal with Wellington. Moving north, Napoleon approached Wellington's army, but little fighting occurred. Unable to get a clear view of Wellington's position, Napoleon deployed his army on a ridge to the south straddling the Brussels road (Map).

    Here he deployed Marshal Comte d'Erlon's I Corps on the right and Marshal Honoré Reille's II Corps on the left. To support their efforts he held the Imperial Guard and Marshal Comte de Lobau's VI Corps in reserve near the La Belle Alliance inn. In the right rear of this position was the village of Plancenoit. On the morning of June 18, the Prussians began moving west to aid Wellington. Late in the morning, Napoleon ordered Reille and d'Erlon to advance north to take the village of Mont Saint Jean. Supported by a grand battery, he expected d'Erlon to break Wellington's line and roll it up from east to west (Map).

    The Battle of Waterloo:

    As the French troops advanced, heavy fighting began in the vicinity of Hougoumont. Defended by British troops as well as those from Hanover and Nassau, the chateau was viewed by some on both sides as key to commanding the field. One of the few parts of the fight that he could see from his headquarters, Napoleon directed forces against it throughout the afternoon and the battle for the chateau became a costly diversion. As the fighting raged at Hougoumont, Ney worked to push forward the main assault on the Coalition's lines. Driving ahead, d'Erlon's men were able to isolate La Haye Sainte, but did not take it.

    Attacking, the French had success in pushing back the Dutch and Belgian troops in Wellington's front line. The attack was slowed by Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton's men and counterattacks by the Prince of Orange. Outnumbered, the Coalition infantry was hard-pressed by D'Erlon's corps. Seeing this, the Earl of Uxbridge led forward two brigades of heavy cavalry. Slamming into the French, they broke up d'Erlon's attack. Carried forward by their momentum, they drove past La Haye Sainte and assaulted the French grand battery. Counterattacked by the French, they withdrew having taken heavy losses.

    Having been thwarted in this initial assault, Napoleon was forced to dispatch Lobau's corps and two cavalry divisions east to block the approach of the advancing Prussians. Around 4:00 PM, Ney mistook the removal of Coalition casualties for the beginnings of a retreat. Lacking infantry reserves after d'Erlon's failed attack, he ordered cavalry units forward to exploit the situation. Ultimately feeding around 9,000 horsemen into the attack, Ney directed them against the coalition lines west of Le Haye Sainte. Forming defensive squares, Wellington's men defeated numerous charges against their position (Map).

    Though the cavalry failed to break the enemy's lines, it allowed d'Erlon to advance and finally take La Haye Sainte. Moving up artillery, he was able to inflict heavy losses on some of Wellington's squares. To the southeast, General Friedrich von Bülow's IV Corps began to arrive on the field. Pushing west, he intended to take Plancenoit before attacking the French rear. While sending men to link up with Wellington's left, he attacked Lobau and drove him out of the village of Frichermont. Supported by Major General Georg Pirch's II Corps, Bülow attacked Lobau at Plancenoit forcing Napoleon to send reinforcements from the Imperial Guard (Map).

    As the fighting raged, Lieutenant General Hans von Zieten's I Corps arrived on Wellington's left. This allowed Wellington to shift men to his embattled center as the Prussians took over the fight near Papelotte and La Haie. In an effort to win a quick victory and exploit the fall of La Haye Sainte, Napoleon ordered forward elements of the Imperial Guard to assault the enemy center. Attacking around 7:30 PM, they were turned back by a determined Coalition defense and a counterattack by Lieutenant General David Chassé's division. Having held, Wellington ordered a general advance. The Guard's defeat coincided with Zieten overwhelming d'Erlon's men and driving on the Brussels Road.

    Those French units that remained intact attempted to rally near La Belle Alliance. As the French position in the north collapsed, the Prussians succeeded in capturing Plancenoit. Driving forward, they encountered French troops fleeing from the advancing Coalition forces. With the army in full retreat, Napoleon was escorted from the field by the surviving units of the Imperial Guard.

    Battle of Waterloo - Aftermath

    In the fighting at Waterloo, Napoleon lost around 25,000 killed and wounded as well as 8,000 captured and 15,000 missing. Coalition losses numbered around 22,000-24,000 killed and wounded. Though Grouchy won a minor victory at Wavre over the Prussian rearguard, Napoleon's cause was effectively lost. Fleeing to Paris, he briefly attempted to rally the nation but was convinced to step aside. Abdicating on June 22, he sought to flee to America via Rochefort, but was prevented from so by the Royal Navy's blockade. Surrendering on July 15, he was exiled to St. Helena where he died in 1821. The victory at Waterloo effectively ended more than two decades of near-continuous fighting in Europe.

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