The Waterloo campaign of June 1815 was the last thrust of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose shadow loomed over European politics and war for almost two decades.
The brilliant commander who triumphed again and again from Marengo to Austerlitz was a spent force, his best commanders dead or incapacitated. He was facing an enemy who had learned to adapt to his stratagems.
Hoping for one last victory, Napoleon sought to divide his foes before they could overwhelm him. It almost worked.
The Rise of Napoleon
The French Revolution and the execution of Louis XIV provoked an immediate reaction from the monarchist powers of Europe. The new republic found itself fighting for its existence. Its citizen armies turned the tables against the invading forces. Years of warfare ensued.
Out of this maelstrom of conflict, a young leader emerged, Napoleon Bonaparte. After a series of brilliant victories in Italy in the late 1790s, he emerged as the leader of the Republic.
After crowning himself emperor in 1801, Napoleon embarked on a decade of conquest that eventually led to France’s control of most of continental Europe, either directly or through proxies.
In 1812, he took on the Russian Empire, but Russia’s great depth, scorched earth strategy, and poor French logistics defeated him. His forces were decimated. For the next two years, Napoleon fought rearguard actions back to France.
In 1814, with the Allied powers on the doorstep of Paris, Napoleon abdicated. He accepted exile on the tiny island of Elba, off the coast of Italy. On February 26th, 1815, he escaped his exile and, with 1000 elite troops at his side, he marched towards Paris.
The French people, already disgusted with the Bourbon King Louis XVIII, rallied to his side. Every military formation sent to intercept him promptly mutinied and joined his forces. Louis fled and the Allies, then meeting in Vienna to carve up the postwar European world, immediately declared war against Napoleon personally.
Napoleon, who preferred peace until he could rebuild his forces, raised an army of 200,000 within months. However, the Allies were converging on France with triple that number of forces.
Napoleon recognized that if he gave them time to gather, they would crush his forces. A master of strategy, Napoleon determined he could crush them in detail if he moved quickly. He set his sights on the weakest forces facing him, the 200,000 Anglo-Dutch and German forces assembling in Belgium.
The Opposing Forces
On June 15, 1815, Napoleon set out in the charge of 128,000 motivated and veteran troops.
Facing him were two armies. The Prussian Army under Prince Wahlstadt Gebhard von Blücher numbered about the same in men. However, many of the units were not of the same quality as the French forces facing them.
The same was true of the Anglo-Dutch under the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley. Many of the British troops were seasoned veterans, but their Belgian and Dutch allies under the 22-year-old William, Prince of Orange, were of much more questionable quality.
With long experience in India and during the Peninsular War in Spain, however, Wellington recognized the limitations of less experienced formations of men. He was a master of defense but had never faced Napoleon.
Napoleon’s problems centered on his subsidiary commanders, many of whom he thrust into unfamiliar roles. His forces suffered from communication problems in the ensuing campaign.
Napoleon’s own increasingly indifferent command style, exacerbated by his failing health, led him to miss opportunities that he might have grasped in earlier battles.
Combat in the Napoleonic Wars
As is the case with warfare, effective combined arms were key to achieving decisive victories during the Napoleonic era. However, given the limited firepower, range, and rate of fire of weapons of the era, effective organization and discipline were also critical.
The chief weapon employed was the single-shot, breech-loaded musket, usually supplemented by bayonets. A well-drilled infantryman could only fire 3 rounds per minute, or one shot every 20 seconds.
The solution to this problem was to array infantrymen in ranks of at least 3 deep, with each rank firing in turn. Using this method, you could increase the rate of fire to around one shot every 7 seconds.
If unit cohesion was maintained, infantry regiments of up to 1000 men could maintain a respectable rate of fire. The key to winning a battle was therefore to break up these formations.
The French mastered the tactic of concentrating artillery fire, often armed with a canister or even chain, at a portion of the line and then using dense columns of onrushing infantry to break through these configurations of infantry.
Broken infantry formations became an easy target for cavalry. The much faster horse soldiers largely eschewed projectile weapons as one-shot pistols or carbines fired from a moving horse were not accurate or effective weapons.
Instead, lances and sabers were the most common weapons. Coupled with the shock of several thousand pounds of moving horse and rider, cavalry could ride down exposed infantry.
The counter-strategy to a cavalry charge was to form infantry squares, with lines of musketeers facing in all four directions, usually with bayonets fixed. Horses will not charge masses of infantry bristling with bayonets and so cavalry charges were forced to circle the squares, exposing them to withering fire.
The Opening Battles
On June 15, Napoleon’s forces set out from Charleroi in three main columns.
The left wing, under Marshal Ney, was tasked with feeling out Wellington’s positions. On the right, Marshal Grouchy, Napoleon’s newest marshal, was to probe for the Prussians. Napoleon followed up with the main reserve.
Both probing columns found their opponents. Originally, Napoleon wanted to concentrate on the Anglo-Dutch forces, He ordered Marshal Ney to probe against their position around the critical road junction of Quatre Bra.
He pledged to Ney that he would send a corps to reinforce his 20,000 troops in the attack. However, sensing an opportunity on the other flank, Napoleon switched his angle of attack toward the Prussians at Ligny and withdrew the promised reinforcements from Ney.
The forces Ney encountered at Quatre Bras on the afternoon of June 16th were just an advanced guard of 8,000, mostly Dutch units. However, British forces arrived on the scene within hours, including Wellington himself, and he fought Ney to a standstill. Without the corps recalled to Ligny, Ney did not have the force to break through.
Napoleon’s main force had somewhat better luck and inflicted a major defeat on Blücher’s Prussians. He did not have enough force, however, to exploit his victory, and the Prussians withdrew in good order. Because of a series of providential errors, the Prussians ended up withdrawing to the north instead of to the east.
Napoleon tasked Grouchy to follow and keep tabs on them while he turned to face the British. This was a task in which Grouchy failed spectacularly. He pursued the rear guard forces instead of the main Prussian formation, which pivoted toward the British at Waterloo.
It was at this point that Napoleon missed a critical opportunity that he would not have missed in prior battles. While Wellington had pinned Ney at the Quatre Bras, the reverse was also true. A gap opened between the British and Prussian forces.
Wellington realized his exposed position and withdrew during the night toward a previously scouted position at St. Jean, just south of a village named Waterloo.
The weather may have also impacted Napoleon’s ability to conduct decisive actions. Wellington conducted this withdrawal under horrible conditions of torrential rain, which turned the landscape into a sea of mud. This did not stop his forces from taking up positions along the ridgeline at St. Jean.
Wellington also fortified and garrisoned three stone farmhouses in the valley below, Hougemont, La Haye Sainte, and Papellon. These strong points were intended to break up attacks on the ridgeline to their backs, where Wellington placed most of his forces.
The Day of the Battle
On the morning of June 18th, the two forces faced each other across the fields of central Belgium.
Napoleon assessed the British positions ahead of him and saw his primary hope lay in drawing them off the ridgeline into the marshy valley below. This was a daunting task, but against a lesser commander than Wellington, it might have worked.
It was not until the afternoon that Napoleon judged the ground sufficiently dried to allow his assault to begin. The battle opened with a French artillery barrage against Wellington’s forces along the ridgeline.
The wet ground and the slope of the ridge hindered its effectiveness against the forces there. Wellington famously ordered his troops to lie down, further limiting any damage the French fire could cause.
As a diversion, he ordered Marshal Ney to attack the farmhouse at Hougemont, on Wellington’s left flank. Napoleon intended this attack to act as a diversion to get Wellington to send troops down to relieve the outpost.
Instead of collapsing, however, the defenders of Hougement, a crack British unit of 2,000 Guardsmen, held off 13,000 French infantry through repeated assaults. The hot-headed Ney continued to feed valuable troops into the “diversion” that turned into a major distraction for the French forces.
In the center of the British line, however, one unit of Anglo-Dutch soldiers had deployed along the forward slope of the ridgeline. This relatively green unit buckled under the French artillery fire and broke.
Napoleon thought he finally sensed a weak point in the line and dispatched two divisions against that point. While they brushed aside the few remaining Dutch soldiers, they met an unbloodied and veteran British unit as they crested the ridge. The French infantry was decimated by disciplined musket fire.
Casualties on Both Sides
This time it was the French who buckled, pursued by British infantry down the hill.
The infantry charge petered out, and the force was nearly overwhelmed. However, at the last possible moment, two brigades of British-heavy cavalry charged up behind them and routed the French forces back into the French Main Battery.
The cavalry followed the fleeing French infantry in a mad charge that put them among the French guns, where they cut down the defenseless gun crews. As they engaged in this frenzied assault, French cavalry who were waiting in reserve behind the French artillery counterattacked. This surprise assault inflicted heavy losses on the English horsemen. This attack resulted in the loss of 40% of Wellington’s entire cavalry.
Both sides, exhausted, paused to take stock of the situation. After an attack on La Haye Sainte around 4 pm, the French saw the wounded being evacuated up the slope and mistook this for a general withdrawal.
Ney ordered several brigades of French cavalry to charge the “retreating” troops. This order became inflated by exuberant commanders. Thousands of cavalrymen charged up the hill in one of the largest such attacks of the entire Napoleonic Wars.
A Critical Mistake
Wellington, astonished at the mistake the French were making, immediately ordered his forces at the top of the ridge to form squares while his artillery decimated the French cavalry. These attacks, while impressive, made little dent in the English forces arrayed in their defensive positions. French cavalry casualties were horrendous.
By the time this attack was wrapping up, French skirmishers to the east of their positions started encountering the advancing Prussians, alerting Napoleon to their presence. He knew he had very little time to overwhelm Wellington and ordered the Imperial Guard to advance on the British positions.
The Imperial Guard, the most elite of all French formations, had a fearsome reputation. In recent years, their mere presence was often enough to sway the outcome of a battle. As a result, they had seen very little combat. They attacked British formations that had not been weakened by earlier attacks or artillery barrages.
The Guard columns advanced resolutely up the hill against Wellington’s long rows of musketeers. They took a terrible beating before they even reached the British forces. The resulting fighting was fierce. Wellington’s line came close to buckling before the pressure became too much for the French Guardsmen, who broke and ran.
At this moment in the battle, the French Army faced two crises.
First, units saw the Guardsmen, who had never been defeated in battle, break and run. This sight was a crushing blow to their morale.
Second, the increasing fire on their right flank from the advancing Prussians showed their enemies would heavily outnumber them as the two armies joined.
The retreat of the Guardsmen quickly became a general rout of the entire army.
With both Blücher and Wellington in pursuit, Napoleon fled to Paris.
Massive Russian and Austrian armies also massed along France’s eastern frontier and Napoleon abdicated a week later. This time, the Allied powers exiled him much further away than the Mediterranean. He spent the last 8 years of his life in isolated St. Helena in the South Atlantic.
The Treaty of Vienna that ended the Napoleonic Wars ushered in a century of general European peace. Great Britain expanded its colonial reach and became the superpower of the 19th century.
The Bourbon monarchy only lasted until 1848 to be replaced by a new empire under Napoleon’s nephew, Napoleon III. The Franco-Prussian War ended this empire in 1871, leading to the next round of great power conflict with the new power of a united Germany at the center.
Marshall-Cornwall, James, Napoleon As Military Commander (Barnes & Noble, 1998)
Weigley, Russell F., The Age of Battles (Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 1991)
Wootten, Geoffrey, Waterloo 1815: The Birth of Modern Europe (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005)