“Nothing could equal the splendor and the terror of the scene. Charge after charge succeeded in constant succession. The clashing of the swords, the clattering of the musketry, the hissing of the balls, and shouts and clamours produced, jarring and confounding the senses, as if hell and the Devil were in evil contention.” – Ensign Edmund Wheatley
“The campaign of Waterloo was unsurpassed for drama and left both sides bathed in glory. It let Napoleon make his exit fom the world stage to the thunder of cannon and made Wellington a British legend. Waterloo was irrelevant otherwise, however; it is almost impossible to argue that this mini-war had any historical significance.” – Historian Owen Connelly
The above three statements all are different views of the Battle of Waterloo which took place on today’s date, June 18 in 1815. And what can one say? Of Napoleon Bonaparte, so much has been said on both sides of the ledger. No other single historical person I have ever studied (with perhaps the exception of Vladimir Lenin) has retained so many years after his death such a tremendous power either to seduce or repel. Historians either love him or hate him. Of the battle, yes it was a close call and a vicious fight. But Napoleon, facing the combined armies of the Allied powers was going to be beaten anyway… if not on this day then soon after. And it has come down to us in the present day in the names of countless towns, and stations, and the like. It has been the subject or backdrop to countless books and films. Even in song… Gigi prays to be “Wellington, not Bonaparte..” in the Lerner & Lowe musical. And in sayings: to say that an event was a person’s “Waterloo” is to say that it was their final, unsuccessful battle. Hence, in 1973 the group ABBA sung: “Waterloo – I was defeated, you won the war… “ So what was this battle, and why was it fought? And whose last and final end did it mark, and why?
Europe, Peace, and Why Napoleon Was Such a Menace to Both
As stated in my Blog for December 2 (“Napoleon’s Masterpiece”) Napoleon Bonaparte (right) had stormed onto the world scene in the aftermath of the French Revolution (1789 – 1799) from the ashes of which he had risen to rule the French nation. He had by boldness, genius, and in some instances just plain luck, risen to proclaiming himself as “Emperor of the French”. In the course of this meteoric rise he had launched a series of wars of conquest which lead him to dominion over nearly all of a complacent and sleepy Europe, just as Adolf Hitler would do in the 1940’s. And just as Hitler would do, Napoleon overreached himself with a disastrous invasion of Russia. The Allied armies, consisting of England, Russia, Austria, and Prussia (the leading germanic state), had finally pushed him back Paris, and by 1814 had forced him to abdicate. They banished him to the Island of Elba (off the coast of Italy), and settled into the Congress of Vienna (Oct., 1814 – June, 1815) to settle on the new post-Napoleonic map of Europe. Louis XVIII was installed by the allies as the king of France. Unfortunately for these “great powers” Napoleon’s ego could not be satisfied as Emperor of Elba, and he escaped in March of 1815. He then gathered up his soldiers in a triumphant march to Paris wherein he arrived at the Tuileries (the French imperial palace) one day after Louis XVIII fled, and re-installed himself as Emperor.
The Allies Close Ranks and React!
The Allies (pictured above at the Congress of Vienna), had been so busy carving up Europe to suit their various appetites that they had nearly come to an impass when the news of Napoleon’s escape and return to Paris hit them like a thunderbolt. The last 15 years of nearly continuous warfare had made it clear to them that the little corporal had to be dealt with seriously and NOW. So they quickly concluded an alliance and mobilized their armies once again. While Russia and Austrian formed up their armies to the east and south of France, England and Prussia, with armies already in the area were the first to move in on Napoleon. England, whose forces contained contingents of men from Holland, Belgium and the German states (such as Hannover) in addition to their own men, dispatched the dashing and formidable Arthur Wellsey, the Duke of Wellington to the command of her armies. Wellington had for years commanded British forces in successful campaigns against the French forces in Spain and therefore knew how to defeat them. The Prussian forces were commanded by the hard-driving, profane and highly capable Marshall Blucher, who was known as “Marshall vorwarts” for his constant drive “forward!!” to the offensive.
The Battle of Waterloo – Napoleon’s “Breakfast…”
Napoleon had managed to raise an army, but while it contained many of the best veterans of his campaigns across Europe, they were older and not as rugged as they had been. Further while he had several of his best officers from his previous campaigns in place, many of his best men had declined to join him. His one best cohort who was with him this time was the energetic, red haired Marshall Michel Ney, “the bravest of the brave” as Napoleon had called him in the past. Ney was indeed a very brave and resourceful commander of his cavalry corps, but he was unsuited to overall battlefield command as would soon become apparent. Marshall Soult was an old veteran who had faced Wellington in Spain, and had good reason to respect the man and his men. When he told Napoleon that he had a stiff fight on his hands, the Emperor cut him off
“Because you have been beaten by Wellington you consider him a good general, I tell you that Wellington is a bad general and the English are bad troops! the whole affair will not be more serious than swallowing one’s breakfast!”
Well, Napo- leon’s breakfast had instal- led itself on a very good postion for defending against attack and was obviously not planning on retreat. Napoleon had attacked Wellington and Blucher at Ligny and Quatre Bras respectively on June 16 and had beaten both separately. But now with Wellington well set at Waterloo, he faced the task of driving him from a strong defensive position while hoping to keep Blucher from uniting with him to outnumber his own men. Wellington’s men were on the far side of a ridge from which they were shielded from much of the French artillery fire and where the French could not see them until they were almost on top of them. It had rained torrentially the night before, so that morning when the dawn came on bright and clear, Napoleon decided to wait awhile until the ground hardened a bit. There were two dwellings on the battlefield which became the focal points of fighting that day. One was the Chateau Hougoumont on the French left, and the other was La Haie-Sainte near the center of the two lines. The French attack began at 11:30 with an assault upon the walled compound of the Chateau Hougoumont (above). This was intended to be a diversion to draw troops away from the center, but Wellington had stationed strong reliable troops of the British Guards at that spot, and they held it tenaciously throughout the day drawing away more French troops than British.
At 1:00, Napoleon launched his first assault on the main allied line, sending D’Erlon’s corps at the ridge near La Haie-Sainte. The columns were huge and unmanageable, which made them prime targets for the Allied artillery. A subsequent cavalry charge was also beaten off . Ensign Wheatley of the King’s German Legion was present for this phase and described it as a harrowing affair:
“No words can convey the sensation we felt on seeing these heavy- armed bodies advancing at full gallop against us, flourishing their sabres in the air, striking their armour with the handles, the sun gleaming on the steel. The long horse hair, dishevelled by the wind, bore an appearance confusing to the senses to an astonishing disorder. But we dashed them back as coolly as the sturdy rock repels the ocean’s foam. The sharp-toothed bayonet bit many an adventurous fool, and on all sides we presented our bristly points like the peevish porcupines assailed by clamorous dogs.”
Marshall Ney Charges the Scots Highlanders
At about 3:30 Marshall Ney mistook some movement behind the Allied center as being the beginnings of withdrawal by Wellington. He was quite mistaken; Wellington with the Forest of Soignies at his back was prepared to fight where he stood. “Every Englishman on the field must die on the spot we now occupy.” he said. But Ney, a very brave officer, was also a hot-head to say the least. He lead his Cuirassiers (Cavalry) on a furious charge through the center of the Allied lines, up and over the ridges behind which he had been unable to see their true strength and the fact that the earlier barrage by the French artillery had mostly missed it’s target. Here Wellington (pictured below) had ordered some of his best men, the sturdy veteran Scots Highland Brigades into infantry squares. These were literally squared formations presenting both muzzle and bayonets to the French cavalry and which the horses simply could not break; the famous portrait above notwithstanding, the French horses would never charge directly at a square, but would peel off at a distance of some yards and circle around. The charges were repulsed. Eeles of the 95’th Regiment:
“(We) kept every man from firing until the Cuirassiers approached within thirty or forty yards of the square, when I fired a volley from my company which had the effect…. of bringing so many horses to the ground , that it became quite impossible for the Enemy to continue their charge. I certainly believe that half of the Enemy were at that instant killed on the ground; some few men and horses were killed, more wounded, but by far the greater part were thrown down over the dying and wounded. These last after a short time began to get up run back to their supports, some on horseback but most of them dismounted.”
Marshall Blucher Arrives with the Prussians!
At about that same time, the one thing which Napoleon had sought most to avoid, began happening. A large portion of the Prussian Army whom the French had forced back at Ligny on the 16’th began to arrive on his right flank, and began to support Wellington’s attack. Napoleon had begun the day with 72,000 men against 68,000 with Wellington. Blucher’s arrival with an additional 30,000 men and his attack on Napoleon’s right flank at the village of Plancenoit began to push the odds firmly in the Allied favor. Napoleon had dispatched Marshall Grouchy to pursue Blucher, but Blucher was a fighter, and he was determined to aid Wellington in ridding the world of Napoleon once and for all. And in one of the many “what ifs” of this day Grouchy either didn’t understand his orders or was simply overwhelmed by his added responsibilities. Whatever the case, Grouchy allowed the Prussians to slip away, and then failed to arrive at Waterloo in time to affect the outcome. With Blucher about to turn the battle against him, and having to send his reserve troops to face him at Plancenoit, Napoleon faced the climactic moment of the battle, indeed of his life. He had only one reserve of troops left to send forward in a last ditch attempt to break Wellington’s line. The Imperial Guard. These were the most skillful, battle-hardened veterans in Napoleon’s Army, and their use in combat was strictly a last resort. Napoleon had been unwilling to commit them at the Battle of Borodino against the Russians in 1812. But today, he had no choice. Slowly the Imperial Guard began to move forward into fields of tall standing corn, and with Wellington himself giving the order the British stood and fired into the French column when they were about 40 yards away. Captain H.W. Powell, 1’st Foot Guards:
“A close column of Grenadiers.. about 6,000 strong. were seen ascending the rise au pas de charge shouting ‘vive l’Empereur!’ They continued to advance till within fifty or sixty paces of our front, when the brigade were ordered to stand up. Whether it was from the sudden and unexpected appearance of a Corps so near them, which must have seemed as starting out of the ground, or the tremendously heavy fire we threw into them, La Garde, who had never before failed in an attack suddenly stopped. Those who from a distance and more on the flank could see the affair, tell us that the effect of our fire seemed to have force the head of the Column bodily back.”
This, the first ever repulse of the Emperor’s Imperial Guard was news which spread like a shock-wave back through the ranks of Napoleon’s army. “Le Garde recule!” began being shouted by all who witnessed it, and this was followed by “sauve qui peut!”; roughly “every man for himself!” This lead to Wellington calling for a general advance all along the line. And thus ended Napoleon’s last battle. This time the Allied powers were not interested in bandying about with half-measures. There could be no question of sending him to any nice little place nearby anything else. Nor would they permit him to move to America as he evidently hoped. No, THIS time they banished him to the most remote place they could find for him that was reasonably habitable: the island of St. Helena. And BE – LIEVE me when I tell you it’s remote. Take a globe sometime and look for a tiny little dot in the South Central Atlantic Ocean. There on his wind swept rock he lingered on, attempting to re-write history’s accounts of him, and arguing with his British jailers about details of the conditions of his captivity. He died in 1825 and was buried on St. Helena. In 1840 his remains were disinterred and returned to Paris with suitable pomp and glory at L’Invalides in Paris (pictured above). As I said at the start of this posting opinions about him and his day at Waterloo remain sharply divided. But he certainly turned his world upside down until Waterloo wrote “THE END“.
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by Philip J. Haythornthaite, Hippocrene Books Inc., New York, 1988.
by John Keegan, Viking Press, 1976.
by Owen Connelly, Scholarly Resources Inc., Wilmington, Delaware, 1987.
edited by Jon E. Lewis, Carroll & Graf Publ. Inc., New York, 1998.
edited by John Carey, Avon Books, New York, 1987.