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BATTLE OF WATERLOO
The Battle of Waterloo was the final and decisive action of the Napoleonic Wars, the
wars that effectively ended French domination of the European continent and brought about
drastic changes in the political boundaries and the power balance of Europe. Fought on June
18, 1815, near Waterloo, in modern Belgium, the battle ranks as a great turning point in
After raising France to a position of preeminence in Europe , Napoleon met defeat in
1814 by a coalition of major powers, notably Prussia, Russia, Britain, and Austria. Napoleon
was then deposed and exiled to the island of Elba1, and Louis XVIII was made ruler of
France. In September 1814, the Congress of Vienna convened to discuss problems arising
from the defeat of France. On February 26, 1815 while the congress was in session,
Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to France. Many veterans of his former
campaigns flocked to his side, and on March 20, 1815, he again took the throne. The
Congress of Vienna, alarmed by Napoleon's return to power, had reacted quickly to the
crisis. On March 17 Austria, Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia each agreed to contribute
150,000 troops to an invasion force to be assembled in Belgium near the French border.2 A
majority of other nations present at the congress also pledged troops for the invasion of
France, which was to be launched on July 1, 1815.
Napoleon, learning of the invasion plan, was determined to attack the allies on their
own ground before their army could form. He mobilized an army of 360,000 trained
soldiers within two months. He deployed half of these troops within France as a security
force and sent the remainder into attack units. On June 14, 1815, Napoleon, moving with
speed and secrecy, reached the Franco-Belgian border with 124,000 of his troops. Another
56,000 men were left behind in supporting positions.
On June 15, 1815, Napoleon moved across the border of Belgium, and his sudden
arrival caught the allied command unprepared. Napoleon ordered his left wing, under
Marshal Michel Ney, to attack a brigade of Wellington's cavalry at Quatre-Bras, north of
Charleroi. He next ordered the right wing, to move eastward against a Prussian brigade
stationed in the town of Gilly. By nightfall on that first day of fighting, Napoleon's armies
held the strategic advantage. The emperor had succeeded in placing his army between the
advance elements of the armies of both Wellington and Blücher, and his main force was in a
position to swing either left against the Anglo-Dutch army or right to fight the Prussian
On June 16 Napoleon moved with his reserve from Charleroi to Fleurus. There he
assumed command of General Grouchy's army and easily defeated the Prussian forces. He
then drove north to the Ligny area to engage Blücher, who with his army had hastened west
from Namur hoping to intercept the French.
Early in the afternoon of June 16, Napoleon heard the sound of Ney's artillery at
Quatre-Bras. He then brought his force of 71,000 into action against Blücher's army of
83,000. After an hour of inconclusive fighting, Napoleon dispatched an urgent message to
Marshal Ney ordering him to send his First Corps, a force totaling 30,000 men, to the
battlefield at Ligny.3 Instead of delivering the order through Marshal Ney's headquarters,
Napoleon's courier took it directly to General D'Erlon, the First Corps commander. D'Erlon
left immediately for Ligny. When Ney later learned of D'Erlon's departure, however, he
dispatched a message ordering the corps back to Quatre-Bras. The message was delivered to
D'Erlon just as he reached the Ligny battlefield. Again D'Erlon obeyed instructions, taking
part in neither of the battles. Napoleon was able to defeat Blücher after an action lasting
three hours. That evening the Prussians withdrew, leaving 12,000 troops dead or wounded.
Because of D'Erlon's failure to enter the fighting the main body of Blücher's army, about
70,000 men, were able to retreat.
Meanwhile, at Quatre-Bras, Ney had waited several hours to begin his attack on the
Anglo-Dutch force, this delay enabled Wellington to reinforce Quatre-Bras with several
divisions of cavalry and infantry. Ney finally attacked at 2 PM but was firmly held.
Successive attempts on the Anglo-Dutch position were similarly unsuccessful, Ney was
severely handicapped by the absence of D'Erlon's troops. At about 7 PM Wellington
counterattacked strongly and drove Ney back to the town of Frasnes, a few miles south of
Quatre-Bras. Ney lost 4,300 troops and Wellington lost 4,700 troops in the action. D'Erlon,
however, joined Ney in Frasnes at 9 PM.4
Early in the morning of June 17 a courier from Blücher reached Wellington at
Quatre-Bras and informed him of the Prussian defeat at Ligny. Wellington promptly
dispatched a message to Blücher suggesting that he swing to the northwest and join the
Anglo-Dutch army for a united stand against Napoleon near the village of Mont-Saint-Jean,
just south of Waterloo. Several hours later Wellington retired from Quatre-Bras, leaving
behind a brigade of cavalry to mislead Marshal Ney.
That same morning, Napoleon ordered Grouchy to take 30,000 troops and pursue
Blücher's retreating army. Napoleon then sent messages to Ney at Frasnes ordering him to
engage Wellington immediately. Ney, who was not aware of Wellington's retreat, failed to
obey these orders. Napoleon arrived at Frasnes that afternoon, assumed command of Ney's
forces, brushed aside the tiny force guarding Quatre-Bras, and set off with his army to
pursue Wellington. Early that evening Napoleon caught sight of the Anglo-Dutch army set
in a high plain south of Mont-Saint-Jean. Both sides began to prepare for battle.
In the meantime, General Grouchy had failed to overtake Blücher's army. Late on June
17, Grouchy's scouts informed him that the Prussians had turned northwest, seeking a
juncture with Wellington. Napoleon sent the reply, early on June 18, that Grouchy should
keep trying to make contact with the Prussians. Grouchy's pursuit was slow and
unmotivated, and he failed to locate the enemy.
On the morning of June 18, the French and Anglo-Dutch armies were in battle position.
The Anglo-Dutch forces, facing south, comprised 67,000 troops with 156 cannons, and
Wellington had received assurances from Blücher that strong reinforcements would arrive
during the day. Wellington's strategy was therefore to resist Napoleon until Blücher's forces
could arrive, overpower the emperor's right wing, and take the whole French line.
Napoleon's army, facing north, totaled 74,000 troops with 246 cannons. The emperor's battle
plan was to capture the village of Mont-Saint-Jean and cut off the Anglo-Dutch avenue of
retreat to Brussels. Wellington's army could then be destroyed at Napoleon's will.5
The battle began at 11:30 AM with a fake move by Napoleon at Wellington's right. This
unsuccesful maneuver was followed by an 80-gun French bombardment designed to weaken
the allied center. At about 1 PM Napoleon saw advance elements of Blücher's army
approaching from the east. Once again the emperor dispatched a message to Grouchy,
apprising him of the situation and ordering him to engage the Prussians.
Fierce cavalry and infantry battles were being fought along the ridge, south of
Mont-Saint-Jean. In each instance the French attacks were heavily rejected. At 4 PM
Blücher's advance troops, who had been awaiting an opportune moment, entered the battle
and forced the French to fall back about 0.5 mi. A counterattack restored the French lines
and pushed the Prussians back 1 mi to the northeast. Shortly after 6 PM Ney drove deep into
the Anglo-Dutch center and seriously endangered Wellington's entire line. However,
Wellington rallied and Ney was driven back.
Napoleon then mounted a desperate offensive, during which he committed all but five
battalions of his Old Guard to an assault on the allied center.6 Allied infantrymen inflicted
severe punishment on the French, crushing the offensive. Although Napoleon regrouped his
shattered forces and attacked again, the French situation became increasingly hopeless. At
about 8 PM the Prussians, who had taken up positions on the extreme left of Wellington's
line, drove through the French right wing, throwing most of Napoleon's troops into panic.
Only actions fought by a few Old Guard battalions enabled the emperor to escape. As
Napoleon's routed army fled along the Charleroi road, Wellington and Blücher conferred
and agreed that Prussian brigades should pursue the beaten French. During the night of June
18 the Prussians drove the French back across the Sambre River.
Napoleon signed his second abdication on June 22, on June 28 King Louis XVIII was
restored to the throne of France, thus ending the so-called Hundred Days. British authorities
accepted the former emperor's surrender on July 15, he was later exiled to the island of Saint
Helena.7 So horrific was Napoleon's downfall that Waterloo became a synonym for a
The Battle of Waterloo was one of the bloodiest in modern history. During the fighting
of June 18, French casualties totaled about 40,000, British and Dutch about 15,000, and
Prussian about 7000; at one point about 45,000 men lay dead or wounded within an area of
3 sq mi. Additional thousands of casualties were suffered by both sides during the three-day
campaign that preceded the final battle.