WATERLOO, BELGIUM 18 JUNE 1815
The bloody culmination of the Waterloo Campaign, the Battle of Waterloo was one of the most explosive of the 19th century, with a British-led allied army under the command of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, defeating a French army under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte and ending the latter’s 100-day reign as emperor of France.
The war had begun after Napoleon I returned from exile on Elba (an island off Tuscany) to Paris on 20 March 1815. This set into motion a chain of events that would see Napoleon reclaim his position as emperor, the Congress of Vienna declare him an outlaw and the Seventh Coalition pledge to field a large army to bring his rule to an end.
With hundreds of thousands of soldiers drafted to take Napoleon down, it was only a matter of time before blood was spilt — something that occurred two days prior to Waterloo when Napoleon struck at the Prussian army before it could join up with Wellington’s on 16 June.
The French ruler did this by splitting his army into three groups, with two dedicated to the Prussians. The following exchange was the Battle of Ligny and saw Napoleon defeat the Prussians by causing their centre to collapse under repeated French assaults. While the Prussians lost men, they were not routed however and — as we shall see -were disastrously left to retreat uninterrupted, with only a cursory French force giving chase.
On the same day as the Battle of Ligny Napoleon’s army’s remaining left flank had been engaged with some of Wellington’s forces at Quatre Bras, where they had attempted unsuccessfully to overrun the Prince of Orange’s position. With the Prussians apparently defeated, Napoleon turned his attention on Quatre Bras, reaching the area the following day. By this point, however, Quatre Bras had been abandoned by both sides; Wellington could not hold it without the Prussians. After catching up with his left flank commander, Marshal Michel Ney, who was pursuing a retreating Wellington towards Waterloo, Napoleon ordered his right flank commander, Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy, to see off the Prussians more definitively.
By this time, with Napoleon issuing the order late on the afternoon of 17 June, the Prussians had already made significant ground and regrouped at the town of Wavre — a position from which they could easily rejoin Wellington at Waterloo — and Marshal Grouchy was unsuccessful in catching them. Despite eventually defeating a solitary Prussian Corps at Wavre on 18 June, by this time the Battle of Waterloo was in full swing and Grouchy was unable to take part.
After Napoleon had issued the order to Marshal Grouchy he continued to hunt down Wellington with his remaining forces before making camp south-west of Wellington’s position at Waterloo. The scene was now set for the Battle of Waterloo the next day (18 June), which, as we all know, resulted in a famous victory for the Duke of Wellington and a final defeat for Emperor Napoleon.
As a consequence of Napoleon’s loss at Waterloo, the French monarchy was restored, with King Louis XVIII regaining the throne on 8 July 1815, while the emperor himself was banished to the volcanic island of Saint Helena in the Atlantic Ocean. Napoleon would live on Saint Helena for a further six years, before passing away in May 1821.
01 First foray
Between 10 and 11.30am on 18 June the Battle of Waterloo began with a French attack on a Coalition position at Hougoumont, a large farmhouse that served as a tactical outpost This fighting was low key at first with few troops from each side engaged, but by the early afternoon it had become a bloody epicentre for much of the fighting, with the Coalition forces holding out against numerous French assaults.
02 GRANDE BATTERIE
Around midday Napoleon ordered his grande batterie of 80 cannons to open fire upon Wellington’s position. The cannons caused many casualties in Wellington’s cavalry, opening a potential weak point in the defending lines.
03 French infantry attack
After the Coalition’s lines had been weakened, Napoleon began his attack proper, with numerous infantry corps advancing. The initial fighting went the way of the French, with the left’s infantry pressing Wellington’s forces back. However, just when it looked like Napoleon would make a decisive break, he was informed that Prussian troops were fast approaching. He tried to send word to Marshal Grouchy to engage with them, but his commander was in Wavre.
04 British heavy cavalry attack
Seeing their infantry was about to buckle, Wellington’s First and Second Brigade of heavy cavalry charged and smashed into the French infantry. By the time they reached the bottom of the hill, they had completely halted the infantry’s advance. In doing so, however, they had left themselves exposed and without backup.
05 Napoleon counters
With the Coalition’s heavy cavalry now facing squares of French infantry to the front and with no support, Napoleon ordered a counterattack, dispatching his cuirassier and lancer regiments from his own cavalry division. A massive central battle ensued, with cavalry, infantry and artillery all involved. While Napoleon’s cavalry regiments took out much of the Coalition’s heavy cavalry, they could not wipe them out. Napoleon also dispatched troops to intercept the Prussians.
At the heart of the battle, Coalition and French squares then undertook a series of back-and-forth exchanges. All the while cannon and musket fire continued to rain down from all sides and, aside from one more combined arms assault by the French on the centre right of Wellington’s lines, a general melee ensued, with each side seeing their numbers steadily chipped away.
07 Prussians arrive
Wellington had been exchanging communications with General Blucher, commander of the Prussian army, since 10am and knew he was approaching from the east. At roughly 4.30pm the Prussians arrived and, noting the village of Plancenoit on Napoleon’s right flank was a tactically important position, began to attack the French forces in position there. After initially taking the village though, French forces reclaimed it.
08 Imperial Guard attacks Wellington
With his forces temporarily holding off the Prussians at Plancenoit, Napoleon went on one last major offensive. He sent the supposedly undefeatable Imperial Guard into Wellington’s army’s centre in an attempt to break through and attack his flanks from within. While the guard had some success, breaching multiple lines of the Coalition force, eventually they were overrun by Wellington’s numerically superior infantry and wiped out.
09 PLANCENOIT RECAPTURED
The Prussian army retook Plancenoit and targeted Napoleon’s right flank, giving Wellington the upper hand. The Old Guard who had been supporting the French position at Plancenoit beat a hasty retreat.
10 French army retreats
With the French left, right and centre now disintegrating, the only cohesive force left available to Napoleon were two battalions of his Old Guard. Despite hoping to rally his remaining troops behind them, the strength of the Coalition’s forces left this untenable, and all Napoleon could do was order a retreat. His exit was covered by the Old Guard, many of whom died holding back the Coalition’s advance.