In 1815, Napoleon with his French Imperial Guard, and Wellington with his British and Allied Army, faced off in a mud-filled field in Belgium. One significant battle could conclude 20 years of bloody fighting on the continent of Europe.
It was a face-off between two of history’s military giants. Both were the same age, had a string of victories behind them and were formidable strategists. The end result hung in the balance by 18 June and the winner would determine the future of Europe.
Napolean vs Europe
In order to understand Waterloo, it is important to note that Napoleon had been attempting to establish a European empire since 1804 under his military dictatorship.
Napoleon was defeated by the British at Trafalgar in 1805, but he continued to invade countries across Europe before being forced to resign. In March 1815 he returned to Paris, causing Prussia, Britain, Austria and Russia to declare war. Napoleon invaded Belgium in June, in a hope to capture Brussels. Napoleon sent troops to fight Wellington, and led a regiment against the Prussian troops of General Blucher. Blucher retreated, but Wellington’s army was not defeated. This was now the scene for a final, conclusive battle.
Midnight, 18 June. Wellington stayed at Waterloo Inn while Napoleon was 3 miles south, before the battle.
Wellington was aware that the success of the next day relied immensely on the arrival of General Blucher and his Prussian army who were 18 miles east of Waterloo, recuperating in Wavre. Napoleon was confident that he could conquer Wellington and return to Brussels if the Prussians and Allied forces were separated.
The First Strategic move
9am, 18 June. Wellington set up a strong defense position, obstructing the road to Brussels in order to halt Napoleon’s advance toward the capital.
Wellington was also aware that he was outnumbered – about 68,000 Allied troops against Napoleon’s 72,000 – so he stationed his troops behind three garrisoned farms and a ridge. The farm of Papelpotte was situated on his left, Hougoumont to his right, and La Haye Sainte in front. The combination of high fields of corn, well-placed garrisons and the incline meant that Wellington had an excellent cover and vantage point to shield his troops. From here he could attempt to hold the ground until the Prussian troops arrived.
Napoleon was also thinking about the terrain which was sodden from rainfall during the night, making it hard to move his guns and men into position.
Napoleon made the decision to postpone his first big attack until the ground dried out. This was a dangerous plan as it would allow the Prussian troops time to get there and join Wellington on the ridge. But at the same time, making the French army trudge through mud would carry the risk of tiring out the troops too early in the battle. For the time being, he decided to draw out the British and weaken their defensive position. He initiated a diversionary attack on Hougoumont Farm.
While Wellington’s right flank was busy defending Hougoumont, Napoleon seized the chance to cause some damage to the British line’s centre.
They captured the farm of Papelpotte, as well as the area surrounding La Haye Sainte. Victory looked like it was now within grasp for Napoleon.
Napoleon’s troops finally reached Blucher’s army near Plancenoit, which was a village 5 miles east of the battlefield.
Soon though, the Prussians captured the high ground situated north-east of the village. The French were attacked hard. Although Blucher was unable to join Wellington at the main battle, his performance meant the French had to split their resources.
Defeat of Napoleon
After the final Prussian attack, the field was full with tens of thousands of bodies. A lot of them were dead, and the others were badly wounded and left to die.
Wellington stopped Napoleon’s continuous march towards conquering Europe and affirmed Britain’s role as a vital player in Europe. Napoleon died in 1821 in St Helena, where he was exiled. Wellington became a hero by securing a peace deal with France, and in 1828 became Prime Minister.