On this day of 18 June two hundred years ago men were dying in their thousands in a corner of the one-time French Empire that is now Belgium, near a town named Waterloo. Having escaped Elba, Napoleon had landed in France on 1 March and begun raising new armies to face the Seventh Coalition of Britain, Netherlands, Prussia and several German states. Moving rapidly north, Napoleon drove the Prussians from Charleroi on the Sambre River on 15 March and moved up the Chaleroi-Brussels road, inserting himself between them and the British and their allies. The following day he defeated the Prussians again at Ligny, while fighting a smaller battle at Quatre-Bras just to the west in order to prevent the British from coming to their aid. Instead of fleeing east the Prussians retreated north to Wavre, chased by Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy, and Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, also moved north to take up defensive positions south of Waterloo. Napoleon met Marshal Michel Ney at Quatre-Bras, and two days later the climactic struggle at Waterloo took place.
Wellington had 68,000 troops and 156 guns present, with 50,000 Prussians under Prince Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher just off to the east. Napoleon brought up 73,000 men and 252 guns, a large proportion of them veterans, whereas many of the best British infantry were still in North America. Wellington established his line, two and a half miles in length, on the reverse slope of an east-east ridge, and in the open ground before him were three strong points that he fortified and garrisoned. On his far right was the sturdy country château of Hougoumont, which could be safely resupplied and reinforced by a sunken road. On the far left was the tiny village of Papelotte, which not only guarded the Allied left flank but covered the road along which Prussian reinforcements would come. In the center, on either side of the road north, was another walled farmhouse, La Haye Sainte, and a sand pit, into which Wellington placed riflemen. His line could not be easily attacked or outflanked unless these points, at least Hougoumont or Papelotte, could be taken.
Sometime between 10:30 and 11:30 AM the French artillery opened up, and an infantry attack was launched against Hougoumont. Both Napoleon and Wellington apparently saw the château as the key. The Corsican wanted Wellington to weaken his line feeding in reinforcements, but as it happened the French were also compelled to send in more and more troops. In the afternoon the château was set afire by French artillery hits, but the chapel survived and was held by the British until the battle ended.
At around 1:00 in the afternoon Napoleon launched an infantry attack at the center of Wellington’s line, sending a division of the I Corps under Jean-Baptiste Drouet, comte d’Erlon, against Le Haye Sainte. The attackers were unable to dislodge the King’s German Legion from the farmhouse, but they surrounded it, and at 1:30 d’Erlon sent his other three divisions against Wellington’s left. The outnumbered Dutch brigades, the focal point of the attack, were reinforced, but by 2:00 the left of the Allied line was giving way. Napoleon was winning.
At this moment Wellington’s cavalry commander, Henry Paget, Earl of Uxbridge, personally led a charge of two brigades of heavy cavalry (2000 horse), including the famous Scotts Greys, through the line at the French infantry. The charge completely disrupted the French assault, but as usual the “charge everything” cavalry went too far and found itself milling around with blown horses in front of the French lines. They suffered heavy casualties, and a counterattack by French cavalry drove them back. Nevertheless, the Allied line had been saved, and d’Erlon’s Corps had suffered immense losses.
Around 4:00 Ney, who had a much better view of the battlefield than his boss, saw Allied casualties being moved from the center of the battle line and mistakenly assumed the entire army was retreating. In response he launched a massive cavalry charge, some 9000 horse, but lacking available infantry reserves, he led them off alone. The British immediately formed squares, and while they suffered from the distant French artillery, they had no problem fending off the repeated French charges. Wellington had his artillerymen take shelter in the squares, and since the French did not spike the unattended guns, they could dash out and harry the cavalry in between charges. Getting nowhere, Ney brought up what infantry he could, but he could not break the squares. Nevertheless, the French infantry finally took La Haye Sainte because the German Legion had exhausted its ammunition.
For all that Ney’s magnificent charge had failed to break the Allies Wellington was still in trouble. French guns in La Haye Sainte were now taking a heavy toll on his center, and many of the Dutch units were wavering. A number of his officers were now dead, and caught inside one of the squares, he had a very limited appreciation of the big picture. Foremost in his mind: where were the Prussians? “Night or the Prussians must come,” he said.
They were on the way, actually. Blücher had left his III Corps, 17,000 infantry under Johann Adolf Freiherr von Thielmann, in Wavre to hold up Grouchy and marched westward with the other three corps. Grouchy’s original orders, necessarily vague, on 17 June were to pursue and harry the Prussians and generally keep them from joining Wellington, but they beat him to Wavre, from which they could march to support the British and Dutch. Grouchy realized this, and on the morning of the following day he could hear the artillery at Waterloo and was urged by his officers to “march to the sound of the guns.” But there were no roads between his army and the battlefield fourteen miles away, and he decided to continue to Wavre, eight miles distant along a good road, in order to prevent as many Prussians as possible from joining the battle.
Thinking that Grouchy’s force was much smaller, Thielmann was in the process of sending troops west when he realized he was facing an entire corps. He could not recall all of them and thus faced 33,765 French with only 15,200 men when Grouchy attacked around 4:00. The Prussians put up fierce resistance, and while Grouchy took the town and got his army across the Dyle River, it was too late. At 6:00 he received orders, dispatched almost five hours earlier, to come to Napoleon’s aid, but by 11:00 he had only reached Limal, a short distance from Wavre. The Battle of Wavre continued until the next morning, when Grouchy finally learned the result of Waterloo. Thielmann had likely saved the Allied victory.
Meanwhile, back at the main event the long-awaited Prussians were arriving. By 4:30 IV Corps under Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr von Bülow was emerging from the Bois de Paris and threatening the French right flank. Units took positions on the Frichemont heights to protect Papelotte and the Allied left, and Bülow began approaching Plancenoit, from which village he could attack the French flank and rear. Napoleon sent VI Corps under Georges Mouton, comte de Lobau to meet him, and a fierce battle for Plancenoit developed, compelling him to reinforce Lobau with eight brigades of the Young Guard and two of the Middle/Old Guard. To the north Hans Ernst Karl, Graf von Zieten’s I Corps was pushing the French back from Papelotte and shoring up Wellington’s left flank, allowing him to move units to his critical center.
Napoleon now had to win the battle before the Prussians completely turned the tide. At 7:30 he tapped his last reserves and sent five battalions of the Middle Guard and three of the Old Guard at Wellington’s weakened center, hoping to break through and roll up the line. Ney led the charge, but smashed into the right-center, which was marginally stronger, and after an epic battle the hitherto undefeated Imperial Guard was thrown back. Wellington ordered a general advance, and the entire army began pursuing the retreating French. The surviving Guard rallied for a last stand near La Haye Sainte, but were rapidly overwhelmed and retreated further south, during which move they were asked to surrender and of course refused. Legend has it that their commander, Count Etienne Cambronne, replied “La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas!” – “The Guard dies, it does not surrender!” Heroic, but many believe he instead gave a pithy one word answer: “Merde!”
The battle and Napoleon’s career were over. The Hundred Days and Waterloo seize the imagination, but this bit of imperial self-indulgence did not come cheap. At Waterloo alone the French suffered some 25,000 killed and wounded, the Allies 22,000; almost 20,000 combatants went missing. It was glorious, but only from a distance – the screams of the wounded and the sight and smell of thousands of dead men and horses could only move a normal person to disgust.
Still, who could resist heroic anecdotes such as the defiance of the Imperial Guard? Or consider the story of Uxbridge’s leg. Late in the day the cavalry commander was on his horse next to Wellington when a cannonball hit his leg. He is believed to have exclaimed “My god, sir, my leg is off!” to which Wellington replied “My god, sir, it is!” He survived the amputation of his lower right leg (!), commenting that a victory like Waterloo was worth a leg. Less well known is the fact that the leg, which was buried in the garden of the farmhouse where it was amputated, was later disinterred by the owner and put on display as a tourist attraction.
And if Napoleon had won at Waterloo? It is difficult to believe history would be significantly different, since the British, Dutch and Germans would simply form another coalition, and France, exhausted by thirteen years of warfare, would have trouble just collecting enough warm bodies.
It might be said the defeat of Napoleon was a defeat for progressivism and a victory for regressive royalty. There is some to truth to this, but the fact is that royalty was already doomed, and while Revolutionary France was culturally a harbinger of the future, so was Napoleon’s dictatorship, which might strike one as a bit less than progressive.