The Battle of Waterloo
By Gareth Glover
Image (c) English Heritage
Date: 18 JUNE 1815
Location: 2km from Waterloo in Belgium; 13 km south of Brussels
Size of battlefield: 4 square kilometres
The 72,000-strong French army commanded by Emperor Napoleon versus an Allied army (British/Hanoverian/Brunswick/Nassau/Dutch/Belgian) of 67,000 commanded by Field Marshal Duke of Wellington. Later joined by 40,000 Prussians commanded by Field Marshal Blucher.
Napoleon, Emperor of France, had conquered an empire which almost spanned the entire continent but was defeated in 1814 and banished to the Isle of Elba. He escaped and marched with a small army to successfully reclaim his throne in Paris, forcing the king to flee. Threatened by a combination of all the major nations of Europe, he decided to strike first to destroy part of this allied group before it could form. The armies under Wellington and Blucher were already encamped near the French border. Napoleon invaded Belgium in a surprise attack, defeated the Prussians at Ligny on 16 June, while part of Wellington’s forces fought a holding action at Quatre Bras. The Prussians retreated but remained in operation; Napoleon mistakenly assumed they were fleeing to Germany. Wellington withdrew his army to a chosen position and offered battle, knowing that the Prussians were marching to join him and outnumber the French.
Object of the battle: Napoleon wanted to destroy Wellington’s army and capture Brussels.
The armies faced across a shallow valley on two low parallel ridges. Wellington’s army was protected by three large farm complexes: Papelotte, La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont, which had all been turned into minor fortresses.
Time battle commenced: 11.20am Time ended: 8.30pm
Main features of the battle
- Wellington fought a defensive battle.
- Napoleon attempts to capture the Hougoumont complex, which sucks in a huge number of troops but fails to capture it.
- A huge infantry assault is destroyed by Wellington’s cavalry but they were in turn decimated by the French cavalry.
- A number of mass cavalry attacks fail to break the allied lines.
- La Haye Sainte farm is eventually captured and Wellington’s centre put under extreme pressure.
- The Prussian army arrives and immediately attacks the French right wing, forcing Napoleon to split his army to fight on two fronts.
- In a final act of desperation, Napoleon sends his Imperial Guard to smash Wellington’s forces, allowing him to turn against the Prussians.
- The French Guard fails and retreats.
- The Guard retiring causes panic in the French army and they run from the battlefield.
- The Prussians pursue the French all night, preventing them rallying.
Casualties: Total casualties amounted to approximately 44,000 men and 12,000 horses killed and wounded.
- The French army proves incapable of reforming and Paris falls.
- Napoleon abdicated and France surrenders, he died in exile on the Island of St Helena.
- King Louis XVIII returns to the throne.
- The terrible slaughter cements the ‘Era of Congress’ in an attempt to avoid another pan European war. It worked for exactly 100 years until 1914.
Courtesy of Waterloo 200 and of The Gareth Glover Collection at www.garethglovercollection.com.
GARETH GLOVER is a former Royal Navy Officer who lives in Cardiff. He has studied the Napoleonic wars for 30 years and gained a reputation as the foremost authority on British archive material. He has brought more than 20 previously unpublished Napoleonic memoirs into the public domain.
Copyright Waterloo 200. Many thanks for their kind support.