The ground chosen by Wellington for what would become known as the Battle of Waterloo was an extremely concentrated position. Barely three miles wide and with just 1 mile between the two ridges, it is sobering when visiting the site today to think that around 40,000 men from both sides were killed in an area which can walked over in an afternoon.
By dawn on the 18th June, the rain from the previous day had finally stopped. Historians have fiercely debated the importance of that rain. The ground at Waterloo holds moisture, turning soil into clinging mud which slows down the walker. It has often been said that Napoleon delayed his attack to allow the ground to dry out and make manoeuvring easier. In reality the additional time would have had little effect on the firmness of the ground, and the delay is more likely to have been to allow troops to move into position.
The delay was welcomed by Wellington, for whom every passing hour brought the Prussians closer, though their progress was also impeded by the saturated ground, and the steep landscape.
Nonetheless, at around 11:30 the battle began with Napoleon bombarding the Allied position. At around the same time, he launched a feint attack on Wellington’s right, aiming to threaten the chateau of Hougoumont and force Wellington to commit his reserves before Napoleon launched his main attack on the centre. The plan backfired, as Wellington steadfastly refused to commit more men to the chateau’s defence, not least because they weren’t needed. The attack on Hougoumont escalated into a siege within a battle. At one point a group of French troops found their way into the complex’s courtyard through a gate which had been left open to allow communication with the rest of the Allied army. In a heroic effort by the men of the elite Guards unit which garrisoned the chateau, the gates were forced shut, and the Frenchmen trapped inside were killed. Throughout the day General Reille, the French commander in that section of the battlefield, poured thousands of men into the attack, but Hougoumont did not fall. Wellington’s right flank was secure.
At around 1:00pm Napoleon launched an entire corps, under D’Erlon in what was meant to be his main attack on the Allied centre. These troops initially made good progress, pushing back the Dutch troops positioned to the left of the main road through the battlefield. At this crucial moment, however, the British Union and Household heavy cavalry brigades were ordered forward by their commander the Earl of Uxbridge, and shattered D’Erlon’s entire corps of 12,500 men. Elated by their success, however, the Union and Household brigades cavalry charged all the way to the French position where they were cut off by French Hussars and Lancers. They would play no further part in the battle, and the best of Wellington’s cavalry had been decimated.
Despite this set back for Wellington, it was actually Napoleon’s position which was becoming more dangerous. As early as 1pm he noticed Prussian troops heading towards the battlefield from the direction of Wavre, and sent Lobua’s corps to hold them off. By 4:30, the Prussians were advancing in forces towards Plancenoit, a town in the rear of Napoleon’s right flank, though their first attack on the town could not take place until 6pm.
In the meantime, the French bombardment of the Allied line continued. At around 4:00pm it is often said that Wellington pulled back some of the units on his right flank, in a move which Marshal Ney mistook for a withdrawal and launched a huge cavalry pursuit. In truth, the folds in the ground would have made it impossible for Ney to make such an observation, but, whatever the reason, between 4 and 6pm 5,000 French cavalry made a series of charges against the Allied position. Funnelled into a very tightly packed area ½ a mile wide thanks to the ‘breakwaters’ of Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte, they were received by the Allied infantry, which had calmly deployed into square formations (the best defence against cavalry). Despite fierce determination from the French, who were bombarded by Allied artillery on their approach, and found themselves in a maze of solid infantry formations, the Allies remained unbroken. Marshal Ney, who led the attack himself, had several horses shot from underneath him – not for nothing was he known as ‘the bravest of the brave’.
A window of opportunity presented itself to Napoleon when the farm of La Haye Sainte, in the Allied centre, fell to the French in the afternoon, after the troops inside ran out of ammunition. However, with the Prussians now arriving in Plancenoit, Napoleon was unable to provide Ney with reinforcements for a combined infantry and cavalry attack on the British right. Fighting in Plancenoit continued until 8pm, with the village changing hands repeatedly. Napoleon was even forced to commit some of his elite ‘Old Guard’ to regain the village. Meanwhile Prussian reinforcements had allowed Wellington to move units from his left flank to strengthen his centre.
Napoleon was now able to post cannons within 300 yards of the allied line thanks to the fall of La Haye Sainte, and this opened the way for one final attack by units from the elite ‘Imperial Guard’. The Guard were Napoleon’s best soldiers, with an exceptional record of success, and represented a desperate move by Napoleon to win the battle. His reserves were dwindling due to pressure from the Prussians, and he could therefore only send forward 8 battalions. They faced the British Guard, commanded by General Maitland, although it is claimed that Wellington himself gave the orders for the Guards, who had been told to lie flat to hide themselves from the French and take shelter from their artillery fire, to stand and fire, shouting ‘Now Maitland! Now is your time!’
The main gate at Hougoumont (Author's Collection)
The Farm of La Haye Sainte
After an exchange of volleys, and some vicious hand to hand fighting, the Imperial Guard broke. It is often said that cries of ‘La Guarde recule’ caused the entire French army to flee. In truth, Wellington followed up the success against the Imperial Guard with a general advance with part of the right flank, whilst more Prussian troops arrived on the French left flank, creating a panic. At the same time, the Prussians finally broke through at Plancenoit, where the fighting had raged for hours, with the fiercest struggles taking place around the church in the centre of village, which troops fought over whilst it was burning down. Attacked on all sides, the French army broke and ran, with some remaining units of the Imperial Guard making a futile attempt to hold off the pursuing forces.
At around 10pm Wellington and Blucher met at La Belle Alliance, with Blucher remarking ‘Mein Liebe Kamerad. Quelle affaire’ (My dear friend, what an affair). The Battle of Waterloo was over. The Anglo-Dutch force had lost around 15,000 men killed and wounded. The Prussians had lost another 5,000 men, and the French had lost 25,000 killed and wounded, and another 8,000 men deserted. It had been an extremely bloody affair.
As Wellington put it ‘Next to a battle lost, there is nothing so melancholy as a battle won’.
Interested in Learning More?
Rory Muir, Wellington: Waterloo and the Fortunes of Peace (Yale: Yale University Press, 2015)
Tim Clayton, Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe’s Destiny (London: Abacus, 2014)
Charles Esdaile, Walking Waterloo: A Guide (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2019)
Dan Snow and Peter Snow, The Battle of Waterloo (London: Sevenoaks, 2015)