Battle of Waterloo

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Jump to: navigation, search
Battle of Waterloo
The Battle of Waterloo, by William Sadler
The Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler
Conflict: War of the Seventh Coalition
Date: June 18, 1815
Place: Waterloo, Belgium
Outcome: Decisive Allied victory
France Anglo-Allied/Prussian
Napoléon Bonaparte Duke of Wellington
Gebhard von Blücher
73,000 67,000 Anglo-Allied
60,000 Prussian (but only 25,000 engaged)
34,000 23,000
Waterloo Campaign
Quatre BrasLignyWaterlooWavre
Map of the Waterloo campaign
Map of the Waterloo campaign

The Battle of Waterloo, fought on June 18, 1815, was Napoleon Bonaparte's last battle. After his exile to Elba, he had reinstalled himself on the throne of France for a Hundred Days. During this time, the forces of the rest of Europe converged on him, commanded by the United Kingdom's Duke of Wellington, and Prussia's Gebhard von Blücher.

The battlefield is in Belgium, about 12km (7.5 miles) SSE of Brussels, and 2km (1.2 miles) from the town of Waterloo, at 50° 40′ 45″ N, 4° 24′ 25″ E.



See main article Waterloo Campaign

As far back as 13 March, six days before Napoleon reached Paris, the powers at the Congress of Vienna declared him an outlaw; four days later the United Kingdom, Russia, Austria and Prussia bound themselves to put 150,000 men into the field to end his rule. Napoleon knew that, once his attempts at dissuading one or more of the allies from invading France had failed, his only chance of remaining in power was to attack before the Allies put together an overwhelming force. If he could destroy the existing Allied forces in Belgium before they were reinforced, he might be able to drive the British back to the sea and knock the Prussians out of the war.

Napoleon moved two armies, the Army of the North (AotN) and the Reserve Army (RA), up to the Belgium frontier without alerting the Allies. He crossed the frontier at Thuin near Charleroi, engaging Prussian outposts, and split his army in two. He took the reserves and the right wing of the army and attacked the Prussians, under the command of General Blücher, at the Battle of Ligny on June 16, 1815. The left wing of the army under Marshal Ney proceeded to block the Nivelles-Namur road at the crossroads of Quatre Bras so that the Anglo-Allied forces under the command of Wellington could not go to the aid of the Prussians. Ney's wing of the French army engaged Wellington's forces in the Battle of Quatre Bras on the same day as Napoleon engaged the Prussians. The outcome of the day of fighting was that, at Quatre Bras, Ney stopped any of Wellington's forces going to the aid of Blücher's Prussians and Napoleon, although unable to destroy the Prussian army, forced it to retreat in disarray.

This was part of Napoleon's strategy to split the much larger allied force into pieces that he could outnumber if he was allowed to attack them separately. His theory was based on the assumption that an attack through the centre of the allied forces would force the two main armies to retreat in the direction of their respective supply bases, which were in opposite directions.

The general retreat of the Prussian army had taken it to the town of Wavre, and this by default became the marshalling point of the army. The Prussian chief of staff, General August von Gneisenau, planned to further withdraw toward the Rhine, away from the Anglo-Allied army. General Gneisenau believed that the British had failed in promises given to support the Prussians at the battle of Ligny. However, General Blücher arrived at Wavre - having fallen under his horse whilst leading a counter charge, and then been ridden over by French cavalry twice - and after a stormy meeting Gneisenau was persuaded to march upon Wellington's left flank at dawn with the I, II and IV Corps. The IV Corps, under the command of General Bülow von Dennewitz, had not been present at Ligny, but arrived to reinforce the Prussian army during the night of the 17th and 18th. III Corps formed the rearguard tasked with hindering the pursuit of the Prussian army by the French.

Ambiguous orders by Napoleon on the 17th to his subordinate Marshal Grouchy, to pursue the Prussians with 30,000 men, contributed to Napoleon's eventual defeat. Grouchy, being a late riser, started the pursuit late on both the 17th and the 18th. On the 18th, with the right wing of the Army of the North, reinforced with a cavalry corps, he ignored Gérard's advice to "march to the sound of the guns" and engaged the Prussian rearguard under the command of Lieutenant-General Baron Johann von Thielmann at the Battle of Wavre.

After the Prussian defeat at Ligny, Wellington's position at Quatre Bras became untenable. During a stormy 17th, Wellington withdrew his army to the previously reconnoitered ridge at Mont St. Jean, about a mile south of his headquarters at Waterloo. He was followed by the left wing of the French Army of the North under the command of Marshal Ney. Napoleon joined Ney with most of the reserves which (along with the right wing of the Army of the North) had defeated the Prussians at Ligny.

Order of Battle

The battle was to involve 73,000 French soldiers; while the Allied army from Britain, Hanover, Brunswick, and the Netherlands and Nassau (Of the 26 infantry brigades in Wellington's army, nine were British; of the 12 cavalry brigades, 7 were British. Half the 29 batteries of guns were Hanoverian or Dutch.), and two Prussian army corps engaged in the battle totalled approximately 93,000.

See Order of Battle of the Waterloo Campaign


At Waterloo, Wellington had the reinforced Hougomont farm, anchoring his right flank, and several other farms on his left. Napoleon faced his first major problem even before the battle began. Unsure of the Prussian Army's position since its flight from Ligny two days previously, Napoleon was all too aware of the need to begin the assault on Wellington's positions. The battle commenced at about 10:00 with an attack upon Hougoumont[1], but the main attack, with the most feared weapon of the era, the French field artillery, was delayed for hours until the sodden ground from the previous nights's downpour had dried out sufficiently to take the weight of the French ordnance. The mud also hindered infantry and cavalry as they trudged into position. When the French artillery eventually opened fire on Wellington's ridge at around 11:35, the expected impact on the Allied troops was diminished by the soft terrain that absorbed the impact of many of the cannon balls. In addition, Wellington had characteristically placed the majority of the Allied army behind the ridgeline - a "reverse slope defence" - so as to shield the army from the expected barrage.

A crucial element of the French plan of battle was the expectation that Wellington would move his reserve to his right flank in defense of Hougomont. At one point, the French succeeded in breaking into the farm's courtyard before being repulsed, but their attacks on the farm were eventually unsuccessful, and Wellington did not need to use his reserve. Hougomont became a battle within a battle and, throughout that day, its defence continued to draw thousands of valuable French troops, under the command of Jerome Bonaparte, into a fruitless attack while all but a few of Wellington's reserves remained in his centre.

Map of the battle.  French units are in blue, Anglo-Dutch units in red, Prussian in black.
Map of the battle. French units are in blue, Anglo-Dutch units in red, Prussian in black.

At about 13:30, after receiving news of the Prussian advance to his right, Napoleon ordered Marshal Ney to send d'Erlon's infantry forward against Wellington's centre left passing to the east of the farm La Haye Sainte. The attack centred on the Belgian-Dutch 1st Brigade commanded by Major-General Willem Frederik van Bylandt, which was one of the few units placed on the forward slope of the ridge. After suffering an intense artillery bombardment and exchanging volleys with d'Erlon's leading elements for some nine minutes, van Bylandt's outnumbered soldiers were forced to retreat over the ridge and through the lines of General Thomas Picton's division. Picton's division included veteran regiments from the Peninsular campaign among which were the Highland regiments, some of the few battle-hardened regiments that remained with Wellington's British contingent at Waterloo. Picton's division moved forward over the ridgeline to engage d'Erlon. The British were likewise mauled by volley-fire and close-quarter attacks, but Picton's soldiers stood firm, eventually breaking up the attack by charging the French columns.

Cavalry formations were ordered to charge in support of the infantry attack; the Household Brigade (1st and 2nd Life Guards and Royal Horse Guards), the Union Brigade (Royals, Scots Greys and Inniskillings) and Vivian’s Hussar Brigade (10th and 18th Hussars and 1st Hussars, King’s German Legion). The French assault was then driven off by the British heavy cavalry commanded by Uxbridge in the famous charge of the Scots Greys. The cavalry charge destroyed d'Erlon's column, but, rather than reform, they galloped on to attack French guns and were in turn counterattcked by French cavalry. Major-General William Ponsonby, commanding the Union Brigade was killed. This spectacular event cost the heavy cavalry so dearly that, collectively, they played little part in the remainder of the battle.

Meanwhile, the Prussians began to appear on the field. Napoleon sent his reserve, Lobau's VI corps and 2 cavalry divisions, some 15,000 troops, to hold them back. With this, Napoleon had committed all of his infantry reserves, except the Guard.

When Napoleon unexpectedly left the field in the early afternoon (an incident disputed among historians), Ney, the epitome of French élan, mistook an Allied manoeuvre to reposition further back from the ridge as a general retreat. With no consultation, and without any participation by infantry or artillery, he ordered one cavalry regiment to advance, then another, then another until a massed assault of over 5,000 cavalry was thundering - and struggling - up the steep slope. Historian David Hamilton-Williams contends that as Napoleon had not left the field, and as the positioning of the cavalry before the attack took over an half hour, there was ample time to countermand Ney, leading him to the conclusion that the cavalry charge was ordered by the Emperor himselfCitation needed.

The cavalry attacks were repeatedly repelled by the solid Allied infantry squares (four ranks deep with fixed bayonets - vulnerable to artillery or infantry, but deadly to cavalry), the harrying fire of British artillery as the French cavalry recoiled down the slopes to regroup, and the decisive counter-charges of the Allied Light Cavalry regiments and the Dutch Heavy Cavalry Brigade. After numerous fruitless attacks on the Allied ridge, the French cavalry was exhausted.

The Prussians were already engaging the Imperial Army's right flank when La Haye Sainte fell to French combined arms (infantry, artillery and cavalry) in the early evening. The Prussians had driven Lobau out of Plancenoit, which was on the extreme (Allied) left of the battle field. Therefore Napoleon sent his 10 battalion strong Young Guard to beat the Prussians back. But after very hard fighting the Young Guard was beaten back. Napoleon sent 2 battalions of Old Guard and after ferocious fighting they beat the Prussians out. But the Prussians had not been forced away far enough. Approximately 30,000 Prussians attacked Plancenoit again. The place was defended by 20,000 Frenchmen in and around the village. The Old Guard and other supporting troops were able to hold on for about one hour before a massive Prussian counter-attack kicked them out after some bloody street fighting lasting more than a half hour. The last to flee was the Old Guard who defended the church and cemetery. The French casualties at the end of the day were horrible; for example the 1er Tirailleurs of the Young Guard had 92% losses.

The Sunken Road at Waterloo, by Stanley Berkley.
The Sunken Road at Waterloo, by Stanley Berkley.

With Wellington's centre exposed by the French taking La Haye Sainte, Napoleon committed his last reserve, the undefeated Imperial Guard. After marching through a blizzard of shell and shrapnel, the already outnumbered 5 battalions of middle guard defeated the allied first line, including British, Brunswick and Nassau troops. Meanwhile elements of General von Ziethen's 1st Prussian Army Corps had finally arrived helping to relieve the pressure on Wellington's left flank, thus allowing Wellington to strengthen his shaken centre. The French guard battalions marched on, and the situation became critical. Chassé's Netherlands division was sent forward. Chassé sent forward his artillery to halt the French advance. Their fire took the victorious grenadiers in the flank. This still couldn't stop the Guard's advance, so Chassé ordered his first brigade to charge the French.

Meanwhile, to the west, 1,500 British Guards under Maitland were lying down to protect themselves from the French artillery. They rose as one, and devastated the shocked Imperial Guard with volleys of fire at point-blank range. The French chasseurs deployed to answer the fire. After 10 minutes of exchanging musketry the outnumbered French began wavering. This was the sign for a bayonet charge. But then a fresh French chasseur battalion appeared on the scene. The British guard retired with the French in pursuit - though the French in their turn were attacked by fresh British troops of Adam's brigade.

The Imperial Guard, for the first time in history, fell back in disarray and chaos. A ripple of panic passed through the French lines - "La garde receuil. Sauve qui peut!" ("The guard recoils. Save what you can!"). Wellington, judging that the retreat by the Imperial Guard had unnerved all the French soldiers who saw it, stood up in the stirrups on Copenhagen, his favourite horse, and waved his hat in the air, signalling a general advance. The long-suffering Anglo-Allied infantry rushed forward from the lines where they had been shelled all day, and threw themselves upon the retreating French.

After its unsuccessful attack on the Allied centre, the French Imperial Guard rallied to their reserves of three battalions, (some sources say four) just south of La Haye Sainte for a last stand against the British. A charge from General Adam's Brigade and an element of the 5th Brigade (The Hanoverian Landwehr (Militia) Osnabruck Battalion), both in the second Anglo-allied division under Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton, threw them into a state of confusion; those which were left in semi-coherent units fought and retreated towards La Belle Alliance. It was during this stand that Colonel Hugh Halkett took the surrender of General Cambronne. It was probably during the destruction of one of the retreating semi-coherent squares from the area around La Haye Sainte towards La Belle Alliance that the famous retort to a request to surrender was made "La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas!" "The Guard dies, it does not surrender!"[2].

The Field at Waterloo, as depicted in the 1851 Illustrated London Reading Book
The Field at Waterloo, as depicted in the 1851 Illustrated London Reading Book

At about the same time the Prussians finally drove the French out of the village of Plancenoit.

The whole of the French front started to disintegrate under the general advance of the Anglo-allied army and the Prussians following the capture of Plancenoit. The last coherent French force consisted of two battalions of the Old Guard stationed around the inn called La Belle Alliance. This was a final reserve and a personal bodyguard for Napoleon. For a time Napoleon hoped that if they held firm the French Army could rally behind them. But as the retreat turned into a rout, they were forced to form squares as protection against the leading elements of allied cavalry. They formed into two squares, one on either side of La Belle Alliance. Until he was persuaded that the battle was lost and he should leave, Napoleon commanded the square which was formed on rising ground to the (Allied) right of the inn. The Prussians engaged the square to the left, and General Adam's Brigade charged the square on the right, forcing it to withdraw. As dusk fell both squares retreated away from the battlefield towards France in relatively good order but the French artillery, and everything else belonging to them, fell into the hands of the British and Prussians. The retreating Guards were surrounded by thousands of fleeing Frenchmen who were no longer part of any coherent unit. British and Allied cavalry harried the fleeing French until about 23:00 hours. The Prussians, led by General von Gneisenau, pursued them throughout the night.


At around 21:00 Wellington and Blücher met at Napoleon's former headquarters La Belle Alliance, signifying the end of the battle. Waterloo cost the Anglo-allied forces around 15,000 dead and wounded, and the Prussians some 7000. Napoleon lost 25,000 dead and injured. 8000 of his troops were taken prisoner.

After the French defeat at Waterloo and the final battle of the Napoleonic Wars at the Battle of Wavre, Napoleon was deposed and remained at large for some time in France before surrendering to the British. He was subsequently exiled to Saint Helena, where he died in 1821.

The battlefield today

Lion Monument at Waterloo, erected by the Dutch on the spot where it is believed the Prince of Orange was wounded.
Lion Monument at Waterloo, erected by the Dutch on the spot where it is believed the Prince of Orange was wounded.

The current terrain of the battlefield is very different from what it would have been in 1815. In 1820, the Dutch King William I ordered the construction of a monument on the spot where it was believed his son, the Prince of Orange, had been wounded. A giant mound was constructed here, using 300,000 cubic meters of earth taken from other parts of the battlefield, including Wellington's sunken road. Wellington, when visiting the site years later, allegedly complained "they've spoiled my battlefield!"

Waterloo in popular culture

  • The word Waterloo has entered the English language as a word signifying a decisive and final outcome. For example: "to meet one's Waterloo". It usually bears a negative connotation, since Waterloo was Napoleon's downfall.
  • "The Adventures of Gerard" (1903) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle contains a chapter "How the Brigadier Bore Himself at Waterloo", about his fictional hero Brigadier Etienne Gerard. The chapter consists of two short stories which were originally published separately. Project Gutenberg:The Adventures of Gerard (Audio Book)
  • "Waterloo: Sharpe's Final Adventure Campaign" is a novel by Bernard Cornwell, which sets his fictional hero Richard Sharpe at the battle on the staff of the non-fictional Prince of Orange. The book was later adapted for television by the ITV and starred Sean Bean as Sharpe.
  • Waterloo was an 1970 Italian-Russian film, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk. It was the story of the preliminary events and the battle, and is remembered for its lavish battle scenes.
  • The band ABBA made a song titled Waterloo that won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974.
  • The band Iced Earth made a song about the battle titled "Waterloo" which is on their "The Glorious Burden" album, 2004.
  • The famous quote attributed to Wellington ("The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton") was certainly an invention; unlike his older brother, Wellington got poor grades at Eton; on one of his rare visits back there, the only athletic activities he could remember were skipping across a brook, and fisticuffs with a fellow student.
  • In the video game Psychonauts, an insane asylum employee, and descendant of Napoleon Bonaparte, loses his sanity after continuously losing a game of "Waterloo" with a patient, and develops a split personality between himself and his forefather.


  • Wellington's Dispatches June 19, 1815
  • Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
  • David Hamilton-Williams, The Fall of Napoleon, the final betrayal, Arms and Armour, London, 1994, 352 p
  • David Hamilton-Williams, Waterloo New perspectives the Great Battle Reappraised, Arms and Armour, London, 1993, 416 p

Further reading

  • Campaigns of Napoleon by David G. Chandler
  • Napoleonic Wars by Michael Glover
  • 1815, The Waterloo Campaign by Peter Hofschroer


  1. ^  Wellington's Dispatches June 19th, 1815
  2. ^  The retort to a request to surrender may have been"La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas!" "The Guard dies, it does not surrender!" or the response may have been the more earthy "Merde!", but Letters published in The Times in June 1932 record that Cambronne said neither, as he was already a prisoner, but that they may have been said by General Michel who was killed at Waterloo. The Guard dies, it does not surrender. Cambronne surrenders, he does not die

External links

Personal tools