The Battle of Waterloo

Battle_of_Waterloo_-_RobinsonThis year marks the bicentenary of the battle of which shaped the future of both Britain and Europe for over a century.

Exiled to Elba in 1814, Bonaparte escaped to France in March 1815, raising an army of seasoned veterans (69,000) in a final bid for power. He was forced to leave an additional 20,000 men in Paris to deal with any case of a royalist rebellion there, however. The allied coalition of Prussia, Austria and Russia, under the command of the Duke of Wellington, in addition to the Prussian General Gebhard von Blutcher, assembled their forces on the north eastern borders of France, 15 kilometers south of Brussels.

Napoleon hoped to defeat each of his opponents piecemeal before they could join forces. On 16th June, Blutcher was defeated at Ligny. However, Napoleon lost contact with the Prussian forces, who re-grouped and retained communications with Wellington.

Wellington positioned his troops across the main road to Brussels, on high ground (the Mount-Saint-jean escarpment), using the natural features of the terrain to fight a defensive engagement. Just ahead of his concealed infantry regiments, he occupied the farmhouse at Hougoumont. He also took positions across the road by which the Prussians would join the battle. The 95th Rifles (the “Green Berets” of the Sharpe novels) acted as a screen of sharpshooters.

Even before it had begun, Napoleon’s marshals were pessimistic as to the outcome of the battle. All had been defeated by Wellington in the Peninsular War. Napoleon himself suffered from stomach pains on the day of the battle, Sunday 18th June, and was absent from the field during a crucial period of the engagement. It fell to Marshal Ney (“the bravest of the brave”) to make the fatal decision to commit the Imperial Guard cavalry regiment against the British infantry squares, having mistaken the evacuation of their wounded from the field for a general retreat. Napoleon’s cavalry, the elite of his army, was shot down from all sides.

Ny 11.30a.m. of that Sunday, both forces were fully engaged. Particularly ferocious was the assault on the Hougoumont farmhouse, defended by the 2nd Coldstream Guards. Ultimately, the French became entombed its yard; there were no survivors, save a lone drummer boy.

The Prussian 1st corps arrived on the field of battle in the late afternoon to link up with Wellington’s highland battalions. The French began a retreat, having lost the bulk of their artillery and cavalry forces, and the result of the battle was decided.

Riding over the battlefield on the Sunday evening and seeing the carnage, Wellington is said to have remarked: “worst than a battle lost, is a battle won.”

Napoleon was exiled to St Helena, dying in 1821. the Borbons were restored to France. The Congress of Vienna produced a lasting peace in Europe and Prussia assumed a dominat position at its heart, whilst France endured a long decline. Britain rapidly gained an empire on which the sun never set. And the battle of Waterloo would determine infantry tactics right up to the first world war.

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Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.

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