An epic showdown between France and a coalition of European nations, the battle was Napoleon Bonaparte’s last stand and, ultimately, the moment that his epoch-defining leadership of France came to an end.
It’s also remembered as a face-off between two of history’s great military commanders, Napoleon and Britain’s Duke of Wellington.
This article is an edited transcript of The Battle of Waterloo with Peter Snow available on History Hit TV.
Two very different characters
Wellington had fought across India, Portugal, Spain and southern France as a commander, and achieved a string of stunning victories against many of Napoleon’s senior generals, but never against Napoleon Bonaparte himself. Waterloo was the first time that the two men would meet on the battlefield.
He was known to his officers as the “Peer”, because he was very grand, very aristocratic, and he rode a horse called Copenhagen. And, whereas Napoleon was very lavish with praise and lavish with rewards, Wellington was very tight, very disciplined, very cold and very hard.
As an old man, he was asked, “Do you have any regrets,” and he said, “Yes, I should have given more praise”.
Wellington was austere, intelligent and remote, but a hugely respected commander.
By contrast, Napoleon was hugely charismatic and extremely popular with his troops. He had been comprehensively defeated in Moscow in Russia, 1812, at Leipzig in 1813 and, of course, he had abdicated in 1814.
But he bounced back in 1815, only 100 days before Waterloo. Indeed, such was his popularity that, upon arriving back in France, he was immediately carried on the shoulders of his army all the way back to Paris.
On returning to Paris, Napoleon was greeted by a great surge of popularity. There he was, Napoleon Bonaparte, back again, and, unbelievably, he was gathering an army to attack a formidable coalition of allies.
The outlaw versus the duke
All of the enemies of France came together, declaring Napoleon an outlaw. The Spanish, some of the Italian kingdoms, the Austrians, the Russians, the Prussians, many of the German nations and the British all formed armies to face Napoleon.
But Wellington’s army, together with that of his Prussian allies, was Napoleon’s first target.
The setting was southern Belgium. Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher led the Prussians and Wellington commanded an allied army made up of British, Dutch and Belgian troops, and many German troops as well. Only one-third of Wellington’s army was British and Irish.
Blücher’s substantial Prussian force was spread out across southern Belgium, waiting for Napoleon to make his move. And it was pretty surprised by the speed and secrecy with which he did so. He crossed the border while the British and the Prussian armies were still coalescing.
The date of 15 June 1815 is an extraordinary moment in history.
Napoleon crossed the Belgian frontier with a 100,000-strong army, knowing that he faced an enormous Coalition army of something like a million men. It’s hard not to admire his chutzpah. Napoleon was undoubtedly a gambler.
On 16 June 1815, he attacked Blücher in the Battle of Ligny, and succeeded in significantly damaging the Prussian army. Then, having removed Blücher from the field, he turned his attention to Wellington.