On 18 June 1815 two giant armies faced off just south of Brussels; an Anglo-Allied army, led by the Duke of Wellington, faced a force led by Napoleon Bonaparte in what would be his last battle – Waterloo.
The road to Waterloo
Napoleon had been restored as Emperor of France after escaping exile, but the Seventh Coalition of European powers had declared him an outlaw and mobilised a 150,000-strong army to force him out of power. But Napoleon sensed an opportunity to destroy the Allies in a lightning strike on their forces in Belgium.
In June 1815 Napoleon marched north. He crossed into Belgium on 15 June, brilliantly driving a wedge between Wellington’s British and allied army based around Brussels, and a Prussian army at Namur.
As the allies scrambled to respond, Napoleon lunged at the Prussians first, driving them back at Ligny. Napoleon had his first victory of the campaign. It would be his last.
Coalition in retreat
British troops halted a detachment of Napoleon’s army at Quatre-Bras, but as the Prussians retreated, Wellington gave the order to pull back. Lashed by torrential rain, Wellington’s men trudged north. He ordered them to take up position on a defensive ridge he had identified just south of Brussels.
It was a hard night. The men slept in canvas tents that let the water in. Thousands of feet and hooves churned the ground into a sea of mud.
We were up to our knees in mud and stinking water…. We had no choice, we had to settle down in the mud and filth as best we could….. Men and horses shaking with cold.
But on the morning of 18 June, the storms had passed.
Napoleon planned an assault on the British and allied army, hoping to rout it before the Prussians could come to its aid and capture Brussels. In his way was Wellington’s polyglot, untested allied army. Wellington strengthened his position by turning three great farm complexes into fortresses.
18 June 1815: The Battle of Waterloo
Napoleon outnumbered Wellington and his troops were seasoned veterans. He planned a massive artillery barrage, followed by massed infantry and cavalry assaults.
His guns were slow to get in position because of the mud, but he brushed off concerns, telling his staff that Wellington was a poor general and it would be nothing more than eating breakfast.
His first assault would be against Wellington’s western flank, to distract his attention before launching a French attack right at his centre. The target was the farm buildings of Hougoumont.
At around 1130 Napoleon’s guns opened up, 80 guns sending iron cannonballs hurtling into allied lines. An eyewitness described them as being like a volcano. Then the French infantry assault began.
The allied line was pushed back. Wellington had to act fast and he deployed his cavalry in one of the most famous charges in British history.
The cavalry crashed into the French infantry; 2,000 horsemen, some of the most illustrious units of the army, elite Life Guards as well as dragoons from England, Ireland and Scotland. The French scattered. A mass of fleeing men surged back to their own lines. The British cavalry, in high excitement, followed them and ended up among the French cannon.
Another counterattack, this time by Napoleon, who sent his legendary lancers and armour-clad cuirassiers to drive off the exhausted allied men and horses. This hectic see-sawing ended with both sides back where they had begun. The French infantry and allied cavalry both suffered terrible losses and corpses of men and horses littered the battlefield.
Marshal Ney orders the charge
At around 4 pm Napoleon’s deputy, Marshal Ney, the ‘bravest of the brave’, thought he saw an allied withdrawal and launched the mighty French cavalry to try and swamp the allied centre which he hoped might be wavering. 9,000 men and horses rushed allied lines.
Wellington’s infantry immediately formed squares. A hollow square with every man pointing his weapon outwards, allowing for all round defence.
Wave after wave of cavalry charged. An eyewitness wrote,
“Not a man present who survived could have forgotten in after life the awful grandeur of that charge. You discovered at a distance what appeared to be an overwhelming, long moving line, which, ever advancing, glittered like a stormy wave of the sea when it catches the sunlight.
On they came until they got near enough, whilst the very earth seemed to vibrate beneath the thundering tramp of the mounted host. One might suppose that nothing could have resisted the shock of this terrible moving mass.”
But the British and allied line just held.
“Night or the Prussians must come”
By the late afternoon, Napoleon’s plan had stalled and he now faced a terrible threat. Against the odds, Wellington’s army had held firm. And now, from the east, the Prussians were arriving. Defeated two days before at Ligny, the Prussians still had fight in them, and now they threatened to trap Napoleon.
Napoleon redeployed men to slow them down and redoubled his efforts to smash through Wellington’s lines. The farm of La Haye Sainte was captured by the French. They pushed artillery and sharpshooters into it and blasted the allied centre at close range.
Under terrible pressure Wellington said,
“Night or the Prussians must come.”
Committing the Old Guard
The Prussians were coming. More and more troops fell upon Napoleon’s flank. The emperor was under assault almost from three sides. In desperation, he played his final card. He ordered his last reserve, his finest troops to advance. The imperial guard, veterans of dozens of his battles, marched up the slope.
Dutch artillery pounded the guardsmen, and a Dutch bayonet charge put one battalion to flight; others trudged towards the crest of the ridge. When they arrived they found it strangely quiet. 1,500 British foot guards were lying down, waiting for the command to jump up and fire.
When the French army saw the Guard recoil, a shout went up and the entire army disintegrated. Napoleon’s mighty force was instantly transformed into a rabble of fleeing men. It was over.
“A spectacle I shall never forget”
As the sun set on 18 June 1815, bodies of men and horses littered the battlefield.
Something like 50,000 men had been killed or wounded.
One eyewitness visited a few days later:
The sight was too horrible to behold. I felt sick in the stomach and was obliged to return. The multitude of carcasses, the heaps of wounded men with mangled limbs unable to move, and perishing from not having their wounds dressed or from hunger, as the Anglo-allies were, of course, obliged to take their surgeons and wagons with them, formed a spectacle I shall never forget.
It was a bloody victory, but a decisive one. Napoleon had no choice but to abdicate a week later. Trapped by the Royal Navy, he surrendered to the captain of HMS Bellerophon and was taken into captivity.