As the sun rose on a muddy field in Belgium on Sunday the 18th June 1815 who could have guessed that the stage was set for one of the most famous and bloody battles in modern history.
Two Generals, both born in 1769, old adversaries and both highly experienced and charismatic men who had led their troops to victory on countless occasions now squared off for their final encounter. On the one hand, the self-proclaimed Emperor of France Napoleon Bonaparte with his Imperial Guard of 72,000 experienced fighters and facing him, his nemesis, the Duke of Wellington, outnumbered with only 68,000 mostly inexperienced soldiers.
Napoleon had been trying to create a unified Europe under his military dictatorship since he crowned himself Emperor in 1804. The British defeated him at Trafalgar in 1805 but he went on to invade countries across Europe before finally being forced to abdicate and his banishment to the Mediterranean island of Elba in 1814.
His banishment lasted a mere 9 months as Napoleon escaped from Elba and marched on Paris, gathering his ‘Grande Armée’ to him as he went. Upon hearing the news the Council Of Vienna declared him an outlaw and the major powers of the day, Great Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria all committed troops to the purpose of defeating him.
Knowing he could not hope to stand against such a mighty opposition, Napoleon chose to advance the attack and try to defeat the Armies piece-meal before they could unite. Russia and Austria were to the East and far away but Prussia and Britain were very near the French border in Belgium, much closer and needed to be dealt with quickly. Initially successful, he met and forced the retreat of the Prussian Army under the command of General Blucher at the battle of Ligny on June 16th and then turned his attention to Wellington.
Wellington, having the advantage of picking his ground did so carefully, choosing a high ridge-line with three defensible positions in the foreground and dug in waiting for the arrival of the enemy, knowing and indeed relying upon the fact that Blucher’s army was a mere 18 km away and regrouping to join him.
The battle when it came was a bloody one. It had rained hard the previous night and the ground was soft and muddy so battle did not commence until 11.00am as Napoleon feared the mud would hinder his artillery. The fighting was ferocious with the advantage swinging from side to side but ultimately it was the strength of the British Infantry and the timely arrival of Blucher’s forces that won the day and routed the French. The fighting was finished for the day by 10.00pm.
On a battlefield no larger than 30 football fields, more than 55,000 men died.
Napoleon himself fled the field, initially to Paris and then upon hearing that the Prussians had orders to capture him dead or alive, to the port of Rochefort with the idea of escaping to America. The British however, had blockaded the ports and on the 15th July Napoleon surrendered himself to Captain Frederick Maitland RN.
In October, he was exiled to the remote, British-held island of Saint Helena, in the South Atlantic Ocean. He died there on May 5, 1821, at age 51, most likely from stomach cancer. Napoleon was buried on the island; however, in 1840, his remains were returned to France and entombed in a crypt at Les Invalides in Paris, where other French military leaders are interred.
Wellington returned home a hero and in 1828 was elected Prime Minister by a grateful nation.
The importance of Waterloo on modern day history cannot be over-stated. Napoleon was one of the greatest generals and military strategists that have ever lived and his social reforms shaped and changed the way France would develop. His misfortune was to come up against yet another brilliant military strategist at the peak of his career but the battle was so closely contested that all through that long day the advantage see-sawed from one to the other. According to Wellington, the battle was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life”.
He was also famously quoted as summing up the feelings of the time as “We always have been, we are, and I hope that we always shall be, detested in France”.
Vive la difference!
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