Battle of Waterloo

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The Battle of Waterloo took place on June 18th, 1815 in what is now Belgium, but was then in the Netherlands. The French army under Napoleon Bonaparte fought the combined allied Anglo-Dutch army under the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian army under Marshall Blücher. After having nearly defeated the 68,000 man Anglo-Dutch army, the 72,000 man French army was defeated after an all-day battle. This battle marked a turning point in history by ending nearly 25 years of constant warfare between Republican/Imperial France and the rest of Europe, in what are now known as the Napoleonic Wars.

Background

By 1815, much of Europe had been at war with France: Britain, Russia, Austria, Sweden, Spain and Portugal had invaded France in 1814, leading to a temporary peace until Napoleon's escape from exile. The Battle of Waterloo was the culminating event of the Hundred Days, which was Napoleon's attempt to return to power as Emperor of France. His subsequent campaign ended in defeat at Waterloo and marked his final, definitive fall from power.[1] He was exiled to the island of Saint Helena, and Louis XVIII regained the French throne.

Waterloo Campaign

The Waterloo Campaign began on June the 14, 1815, when the French army crossed the border into Allied occupied Belgium at Charleroi by maneuvering between the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies. On June 16, 1815 Napoleon defeated the Prussian army at Ligny, then turned to follow the retreating Anglo-Dutch army which fell back to Waterloo. However, Napoleon split off a large detachment of his army to pursue the retreating Prussians. This had disastrous consequences for the French army on June 18th.

Battle

Before the battle, the Duke of Wellington positioned his army on a low ridge south of the village of Waterloo. Wellington placed the majority of his troops just behind the crest of the ridge to conceal them. Two large farmhouses anchored his position in the valley below. These farmhouses were used by his troops as miniature fortresses in front of the main allied defenses.

A number of heavy rains occurred in this area during this period in June, particularly on the night of June 17th-18th. This weather delayed the arrival of the pursuing French which gave a great advantage to Wellington's army because the wet ground favored the defenders rather than the attackers. It particularly slowed the movement of the French artillery and rendered it less effective.

Another factor that likely effected the outcome of the battle was Napoleon himself. A number of witnesses and commentators mentioned Napoleon's poor health, which caused him to leave his command headquarters briefly during the battle. Napoleon's tactical handling of his army during the battle was problematic, as well. The battle did not begin until nearly noon, when the French began a bombardment of the Anglo-Dutch positions. The French launched a series of attacks which were not well-coordinated but eventually began wearing down Wellington's army.

Meanwhile, the French detachment of 30,000 men under Marshall Grouchy, which had been intended to pursue the Prussian army, failed in its mission. Instead of pushing the Prussian army to the north-east, away from the Anglo-Dutch army, Grouchy simply followed the Prussian army as it moved to the north-west towards Wellington's forces. As a result, in the late afternoon Blücher's Prussian forces began attacking the French right flank and right rear. Napoleon was forced to send part of his reserves to combat the Prussians. In a last effort to win the battle, Napoleon committed his Imperial Guard to assault the center of Wellington's line. This attack proved to be too little, too late. Napoleon's Imperial Guard was pushed back, which demoralized the rest of the French army and caused them to flee the battlefield. Two regiments of the Old Guard, the elite regiments of Napoleon's Imperial Guard, fought a rear-guard action. These men were able to delay the allied counter-attack and permitted many French troops to successfully retreat.

Aftermath

Within a few weeks of his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon surrendered on July 15th. Later the British transported him to exile on Saint Helena.

Historians have cited a few reasons for the French army's defeat. However, the most definitive factor for their loss was the arrival of 40,000 to 50,000 Prussian reinforcements late in the day.

Footnotes

  1. National Army Museum: 'Waterloo Timeline'. Accessed April 7th, 2015.