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Decisive Battles of History: Waterloo

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William Sadler: The Battle of Waterloo

William Sadler: The Battle of Waterloo

Political Background

For thirteen years, between 1799 and 1812, Europe was dominated by one man, Napoleon Bonaparte. The French emperor rose amidst the chaos that the Revolution unleashed in France. The rise of Napoleon was unprecedented as, in ten years, he transformed from a lowly artillery officer in the Royal Army to the military dictator of France. Numerous coalitions attacked France during the 1790s and 1800s. Still, the Revolution threw off the shackles that limited the efficiency of Ancien Regime France. Despite the great number of enemies France faced between 1792 and 1809, the French always prevailed over their enemies. Napoleon personally led the main French war effort from 1800 and scored many impressive victories over the great monarchies of Europe at Austerlitz, Jena and Friedland.

Britain did not participate in any of these battles, but Perfidious Albion was the staunchest and most relentless opponent of Napoleonic France. The British dominated the seas and smashed the combined Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar. It was a victory so decisive that it solidified Britain’s dominance of the seas for another hundred years.

After Trafalgar, Napoleon gave up his effort to defeat the Royal Navy directly. He decided to take a different course of action and started an economic war with Britain. His Continental System outlawed British goods from Europe; in this way, Napoleon hoped he could destroy the economic muscle of Britain.

Unfortunately for Napoleon, the System was not universally well accepted in Europe, and its imposition dragged the emperor into two wars. The first one was the Peninsular War after Napoleon deposed the ruling monarchies of Portugal and Spain in 1807 and 1808; the second was the Invasion of Russia in 1812.

Both Portugal and Russia were imposing the Continental System very laxly. Thus, they sabotaged Napoleon’s strategy to bring Britain to her knees.

Unlike his war against the coalition forces, these two wars were catastrophic for France. The guerrilla warfare of the Spanish people made controlling and pacifying Spain impossible. At the same time, diseases, supply shortages and finally, the Russian winter led to the destruction of most of Napoleon’s army in Russia.

As 1813 began in Europe, the political landscape of the Old Continent was about to go through many changes. Napoleon escaped from Russia, but his army suffered horrendous losses and left him much weakened. Tsar Alexander of Russia decided to continue the war against Napoleon in 1813.

The loss of his best troops was not the only problem Napoleon faced in early 1813. His Prussian allies decided to abandon him and allied themselves with the Russians. His other ally Austria remained neutral in the early campaign of 1813 but entered the conflict in August.

The combined might of Russia, Prussia, and Austria was too much for even Napoleon, whose weakened army was first pushed back from Germany and mainland France was also invaded. The allies invaded France from the East, while the Duke of Wellington from the South.

Napoleon put up a brilliant resistance in the early months of 1814, but he was forced to abdicate in the end. His enemies allowed him to take up residence on the small Mediterranean Island, Elba.

While Napoleon was sent to Elba, the Bourbons were restored as the ruling dynasty of France. They were not much more popular than before, but so long as the Great Powers of Europe were backing them, the French people had no choice but to put up with them.

The rulers and representatives of the continent's Great Powers met in Vienna to decide the fate of post-Napoleonic Europe. Unsurprisingly, once the common enemy was defeated, the past animosities and differing interests led to much arguing and resentment in Vienna.

News of the quarrelling at the Austrian Imperial Capital soon reached Napoleon too. The emperor was well-supplied with information, and he was carefully measuring up the latest developments.

Joseph Beaume: Napoléon Ier quittant l'île d'Elbe. 26 février 1815

Joseph Beaume: Napoléon Ier quittant l'île d'Elbe. 26 février 1815

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The Return of Napoleon

The quarrels of the Great Powers, the unpopularity of the Bourbons in France, the return of tens of thousands of prisoners of war to France and finally, rumours that the British wanted to abduct and transport him to a remote island in the Atlantic finally convinced Napoleon that the time was ripe to take back his throne. In late February, Napoleon slipped away from Elba and arrived in France on March 1, 1805.

He only had a small force of 1000 men at his disposal when he landed, but his following soon swelled. Napoleon was generally warmly received, and most of the soldiers he encountered flocked to his side. His former Marshal Michel Ney promised King Louis XVIII to bring back Napoleon in a cage, but he joined Napoleon’s forces when the two met.

When news of Napoleon’s return and the collapse of the Bourbon monarchy reached Vienna, the quarrels of the Great Powers were put to halt, and the rulers of the old monarchies swore to depose Napoleon once again. Napoleon was declared an outlaw, and the allies began to mobilise their soldiers for war.

Napoleon soon realised that he would have to fight to maintain his throne. He started to rearm France, but the small army of the Bourbons needed time to be rebuilt. By the end of May, Napoleon had nearly 200,000 men at his immediate disposal, with many more being trained. Facing him, the coalition had many more than Napoleon, but their forces were still widely dispersed around Europe.

The closest to France were the mixed British-Dutch-German army of Wellington and the Prussian army of Blucher in Belgium. The Austrian army of Prince Schwarzenberg was also stationed close to the Rhine. Another Austrian army was stationed in Italy, but the Russians were still many miles away from their allies. The coalition nations agreed to attack on July 1st, much to the annoyance of Blucher and Wellington, who were already within striking distance.

Strategic Situation of Western Europe 1815

Strategic Situation of Western Europe 1815

The Waterloo Campaign

Napoleon had two choices. He could either fight a defensive or an offensive campaign. The defensive campaign would have meant a repetition of his 1814 campaign, but with more than twice the manpower he had in 1814.

But Napoleon was not a man to stand in the defence, and rather chose to attack the English and Prussian forces in Belgium. He received intelligence that the two armies were still widely dispersed, so he had the chance to destroy them in detail. If he had defeated the two armies separately, around 1/4 of the coalition troops would have been thrown in disarray.

Once that was done, Napoleon hoped he could bring the allies to the negotiating table and make a peace suitable to him. If the allies would not accept this, he could go on and defeat the remaining forces.

Napoleon crossed into Belgium on June 15, 1815. He had an army of 126,000 soldiers at his disposal, while his enemies combined had more than 200,000 men. If Napoleon wanted to defeat them, he had to fight them one at a time and not allow the two armies to unite against him under any circumstance.

The Battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras

The Battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras

Napoleon entered Belgium near Charleroi and wanted to drive a wedge between the Prussians and the British. The Prussians reformed their army after their disastrous defeats during the War of the Fourth Coalition and were able to react much more quickly to Napoleon than Wellington was.

Napoleon sent the left wing of his army under the command of Michel Ney to hold the crossroads at Quatre Bras. Ney’s main objective was to block the route of Wellington’s army, so they could not join the Prussians. Ney suffered around 4,000 casualties but succeeded in achieving his goal.

On the same day, Napoleon met the Prussian army at the Battle of Ligny and won a hard-fought victory against Blucher. The Prussians were defeated and suffered many more casualties than Napoleon, but they were not routed and remained a potent danger to the French.

Napoleon left the right-wing of his army under the command of Marshall Grouchy to pursue the Prussians while he took the centre and joined Ney the next day. Once Wellington received news of Blucher’s defeat, he immediately retreated to a battlefield he carefully selected the previous year, near a village called Waterloo, only some 8 miles south of Brussels.

Heavy summer rains fell on June 17 when Wellington retreated with the French at his back. Wellington soon received messages from Blucher, who promised to aid Wellington if he took the fight to Napoleon.

The battlefield at Waterloo suited Wellington perfectly, as he was able to deploy his troops on his favoured reverse slope ground, and the French had to take three fortified farmhouses to reach the British troops on the hill. The reverse slope also gave Wellington’s men some cover from the much superior French artillery.

The rain also aided Wellington. On the 17th of June, heavy rains turned the battlefield into a sea of mud, which forced Napoleon to wait hours on 18 June before he could begin his attack against Wellington.

Crucially for Napoleon, Marshal Grouchy was also completely failing at the task the emperor gave him. He took the fight to the Prussians at Wavre, but Grouchy was fighting only the Prussian rearguard, while the bigger part of the Prussian army was already on its way to Waterloo.

The Battle of Waterloo

The battle began around 11 when Napoleon ordered an attack against the fortified farmhouse at Hougoumont. The attack was only a faint; in reality, Napoleon hoped Wellington would reinforce the farm by sending his reserves, which would leave his centre weakened when the main French attack came.

Around midday, the French artillery unleashed a murderous barrage on the British army on the slope. Though the reverse slope gave Wellington’s army some protection, the barrage still cost them many dead.

Around 1:30, Napoleon deemed that the British centre was sufficiently weakened for him to send infantry to attack. The French were met by musket fire and charged down by the English heavy cavalry. The French attack was repelled, but the English cavalry charged too far ahead and was countered by the French cavalry, which caused them terrible losses.

Not much later, Napoleon, who was feeling unwell, had to retire for a few hours and left Ney in command. Wellington ordered his troops to redeploy, which Ney misinterpreted as a retreat. Ney led a mass heavy cavalry charge against Wellington, but the disciplined English and allied infantry formed squares and repelled the French cavalry. Crucially, the cavalry charge was not supported by either infantry or artillery, so it proved a costly mistake.

Around the same time, Prussian troops started to arrive. Napoleon had to commit part of his reserve to face them, which exhausted his reserve of fresh troops, which would have been crucial to delivering the death blow against Wellington.

Around 6 PM, the French finally captured the farmhouse at La Haye Sainte, which allowed Napoleon to bring forward artillery. Wellington’s men, who were still formed in squares, were bombarded by French artillery, which inflicted a bloody toll on them from close range.

Around an hour later, Napoleon committed his Imperial Guard to deliver him victory. Napoleon usually was hesitant to send his Guard into action, but the continuous arrival of Prussians forced him to commit most of his reserves against Blucher.

The Guard advanced against Wellington, but unfortunately for Napoleon, the few thousand guardsmen he sent to finish Wellington were not enough—the English repelled them. Seeing the guard retreat, Wellington ordered a general advance against the French.

News of the Guard's defeat and the arrival of more and more Prussians created a panic in the French army, and most of the army turned to flight.

Aftermath

The battle was lost. Napoleon hurried back to Paris to raise support, but he received none. He was forced to abdicate on June 22, 1815, and surrendered to the British not much later.

This time around, the allies sent him to the island of Saint Helena in the Atlantic, making sure that there would be no comeback for the emperor.

Source

Chandler, David. (1973). The Campaigns of Napoleon. Scribner.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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