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Battle of Waterloo

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Map of the Waterloo campaign
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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 been restored to the throne of France for a Hundred Days. During this time, the forces of the rest of Europe converged on him, commanded by United Kingdom's Duke of Wellington, and Prussia's Gebhard Leberecht von Blcher.

"The nearest run thing you ever saw in your life" – the Duke of Wellington

Contents

Prelude

The Anglo-allied and Prussian armies were separated by previous engagements on June 16 1815 -- a French and Anglo-Allied stalemate (Battle of Quatre Bras) and a French victory over the Prussians (Battle of Ligny). This was part of Napoleon's strategy to split the much larger allied force into pieces that he could outnumber if he were allowed to attack them separately. His theory was based on the assumption that an attack on the center of the allied forces would force the two main armies to retreat in the direction of their supply bases, which were in opposite directions. However, 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 Grard's advice to "march to the sound of the guns" and engaged the Prussian rearguard under the command of Lieutenant-General Baron von Thielmann at the Battle of Wavre.

In the night of the 17th/18th, the Prussian army was reinforced by the arrival of IV Corps under the command of General Blow von Dennewitz, which had not been present at Ligny.

After the Prussian defeat at Ligny, Wellington's position at Quatre Bras had become untenable. On a rainy 17th, Wellington withdrew his army to the previously reconnoitered position at Waterloo, 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 Reserve Army which (along with the right wing of the Army of the North) had defeated the Prussians at Ligny.

Battle

At Waterloo, Wellington had the reinforced farm Hougomont 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 with the most feared weapon of the era, the French field artillery. This baptism of fire was delayed for hours until the sodden ground from the previous night's downpour had dried out sufficiently to take the weight of the French ordinance. 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 hurtling cannon balls. In addition, Wellington had characteristically placed the majority of the Allied army behind the ridgeline so as to shield the army from the expected barrage.

A crucial element of the French plan of battle was to draw Wellington's reserve to his right flank in defense of Hougomont, but French attacks on the farm were eventually unsuccessful, even after one point when they succeeded in breaking into the farm's courtyard before being repulsed. Hougomont became a battle within a battle and, throughout that day, its defence continued to draw thousands of valuable French troops into a fruitless attack while all but a few of Wellington's reserves remained in his centre.

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

At 13:30, Napoleon ordered Marshal Ney to send d'Erlon's infantry forward against Wellington's centre left passing to the east of 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. The French assault was then driven off by the British heavy cavalry commanded by Uxbridge and the famous charge of the Scots Greys. Such a spectacular event also 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. By this Napoleon had committed all of his infantry reserves, except the Guard.

When Napoleon unexpectedly left the field in the early afternoon, Ney, the epitome of French lan, mistook an Allied manoeuvre to reposition further back from the ridge as a general retreat. With no consultation, and by lack of infantry, 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. The 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 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 the French 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. Approx. 30.000 Prussians attacked Plancenoit again. The place was defended by 20.000 Frenchmen in and around of the village. The Old Guard and supporting other troops, were able to hold on for approx. 1 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 Young Guard had 92% losses.

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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. The guard battalions marched on, and the situation became critical. Chass's Netherlands division was sent forward. Chass 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 Chass 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 on 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. 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 which was a signal for a general advance.

After the Guard's 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!".

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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 were 2 battalions of the Old Guard stationed around La Belle Alliance. These were a final reserve and a personal body guard 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 La Belle Alliance. 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 battle field 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 and they 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 pursued them throughout the night.

Conclusion

At around 21:00 Wellington and Blcher met at Napoleon's former headquarters La Belle Alliance, signifying the end of the battle.

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.

Waterloo in popular culture

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Waterloo Monument
  • 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 bares 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 (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1644) (Audio Book (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/8623))
  • "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 (movie) was a film of 1970, 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.

References

  1. Wellington's Dispatches June 19 1815
  2. Les Misrables by Victor Hugo

External links

eo:Batalo de Waterloo fr:Bataille de Waterloo he:קרב ווטרלו hu:Waterlooi csata ja:ワーテルローの戦い nl:Slag bij Waterloo no:Slaget ved Waterloo sv:slaget vid Waterloo pl:Bitwa pod Waterloo zh:滑铁卢战役

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