Overview of Battle of Waterloo

BATTLE OF WATERLOO, On June 18, 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte received a crushing military defeat on the fields near the Belgian village of Waterloo, about 9 miles (14 kilometers) south of Brussels. Napoleon's defeat ended 23 years of recurrent warfare between France and the other powers of Europe. The battle betwee n Napoleon's forces, which included 72,000 troops, and a combined Allied army of 113,000 British, Dutch, Belgian, and Prussian troops was fought so hard that either side might have won. A heavy rain the evening before the battle forced Napoleon to delay his attack. The delay cost him the battle.

Only three months before, Napoleon had slipped away from his island prison of Elba off the western coast of Italy. When he returned to France his veteran soldiers flocked to rejoin him. He hurried northward, hoping to defeat his enemies before they cou ld unite against him.

Napoleon's plan was to get between the British and Dutch, who were grouped near Brussels, and the Prussians, who were east of the road from Charleroi to Brussels. On June 16 French Marshal Michel Ney engaged the British at Quatre Bras, while Napoleon c rushed--as he thought--Field Marshal Gebhard L. von Blucher's Prussians at Ligny. After these battles Napoleon ordered Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy to follow the Prussians, and Napoleon turned his attention to the British. Blucher, however, marched northwa rd to the assistance of the Duke of Wellington, the British commander, while Grouchy wasted valuable time looking for the Prussians east of Ligny. It was at this point that Napoleon's plans began to fall apart. The essence of his original strategy was sur prise. The battle of Ligny was indecisive because Marshal Ney had failed to send reinforcements that could have crushed the Prussian army. Then Napoleon made the false assumption that Blucher would retreat to the northeast instead of heading northwest to link up with Wellington. Lastly, the element of surprise was completely lost when Napoleon wasted the night of June 16 and the morning of the 17th without giving battle. By the time he started, Wellington was ready for him.

The British, meanwhile, retreated from Quatre Bras to the village of Waterloo. Napoleon overtook them late on June 17. Because of the heavy rain that night, he could not attack until the next morning. His artillery could not move until the ground dried . He delayed the attack until 11:00 AM.

The ensuing battle raged for ten hours. Napoleon repeatedly threw his cavalry against the bayonet-wielding British infantry. During one furious cavalry charge the French overran all the British artillery. Had the guns been destroyed or at least made un usable at that time, the French cavalry might have won the battle. For a time it looked as though the British ranks would give way under the onslaught.

Wellington eagerly awaited the help the Prussians had promised. Finally, late in the afternoon, Blucher and his men arrived. Those few hours of delay in the morning had been decisive. The French made a last desperate attack but were slowly overcome. By 9:00 PM the French defeat had become a rout. Napoleon lost 25,000 men killed and wounded and 9,000 captured. Wellington's casualties were 15,000 and Blucher's about 8,000.

On June 22, 1815, four days after the battle of Waterloo, Napoleon signed his second abdication in Paris. This ended his rule in France forever.

Closeup of the Battle of Waterloo, Quatre Bras, Ligny and Wavre

At Ligny and Quatre Bras, Napoleon had been successful in splitting the Prussian army (Blucher) from the EnglishDutch army (Wellington). Now he planned to drive the wedge deeper. Wellington had 67,661 troops24,000 British, the rest Dutch, Belgians and Germansand 156 guns along the narrow ridge of Mont Saint Jean. Napoleon placed the greater part of his 71,947 men and 246 guns at La Belle Alliance to confront Wellington and sent de Grouchy with another 33,000 to threaten Blucher and his Prussians. The w hole front was no more than four miles long, but effectively less than that.

The key points in Wellington's defenses were the great Chateau de Goumont, better known to history as Hougoumont, and the farmhouse of La HayeSainte. Taking the initiative, Napoleon attacked at 11:20 a.m., and fierce battles developed at the strong poi nts and around the squares of British infantry. Ney, leading the French cavalry, took La HayeSainte and, at Hougoumont, French troops also got a footing, at great cost.

Napoleon now had to handle a crisis on his right flank, where the Prussians (Counts Zieten and Dennewitz) with 31,000 troops took the village of Plancenoit. Napoleon threw in reserves who retook the village with the bayonet but now, at 7 p.m., he had t o turn back to the main battle. He brought up nine battalions of his veteran Old Guard infantry, and Ney led them in yet another assault. The British line held firm. Wellington now counterattacked, as did the Prussians at Plancenoit. The French began to r etreat and the battle was decided by 8 p.m. Prussians troops pursued, but the most elite French units' discipline was good enough to withstand being ridden down and annihilated. The Grenadiers of the Old Guard were never broken and marched out in perfect order. The rest of Napoleon's army became leaderless fugitives.

The troops on both sides had suffered grievously. Most had started the battle drenched and exhausted after a sleepless night in heavy rain. British dead and wounded numbered 15,000, Prussians 7,000. The usual estimate of French casualties is 25,000, pl us 8,000 prisoners and 220 guns. Napoleon abdicated (for the second time) on June 22 and was sent to St. Helena.

See Quatre Bras; Ligny; and Wavre below.

Quatre Bras

Returning from exile, Napoleon led the revived French armies into Belgium, his object being to drive a wedge between the Prussian army (Blucher) and the BritishDutch army (Wellington). Napoleon led the attack on Blucher, while Marshal Ney with 25,000 m en moved towards Quatre Bras. He smashed against the 36,000 BritishDutch troops of Prince William of Orange and held a clear advantage until Wellington threw in General Picton's division. Even then Ney might have won had he used the French I Corps, but he had a misunderstanding with Napoleon about its use. Wellington's counterattack decided the issue. Casualties: French, 4,300; Allies, 4,700.


The preWaterloo battle was fought between Blucher and 84,000 Prussians and Napoleon with 60,000 French. Attacking the Prussian positions, the French met stiff resistance, especially at Ligny. But Blucher used up his reserves and Napoleon, bringing in t he Guard and a division of heavy cavalry at sundown, drove them out. Casualties: Prussians, 12,000; French, 8,000.


At Ligny, on June 16, Napoleon had defeated Blucher who fell back to Wavre, ten miles from Waterloo. Napoleon sent de Grouchy with 33,000 troops to keep the Prussians away while he dealt with Wellington at Waterloo. Grouchy found the Prussians holding Wavre in force, but he attacked them. Blucher maneuvered most of his men out of the way, towards Waterloo, leaving only 15,000 troops (Thielmann) to occupy Grouchy. Instead of closely pursuing Blucher, Grouchy pounded away at Wavre. Next morning he forced Thielmann out of his positions12 hours after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, where 33,000 more French troops might well have won the battle for Napoleon.

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