Waterloo should never have happened.
In March 1814 Napoleon had abdicated the throne of France, in the face of the Allies' successful invasion of France in the War of the Sixth Coalition. He was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba, and initially threw himself into re-organising the civil administration of his new ‘kingdom’. Within months, however, he had become bored and dreamed of returning to France.
Napoleon’s mind turned to regaining the throne at an opportune time. The French people had rapidly become disillusioned with the restored Bourbon monarchy which had been reinstated on the French throne after Napoleon’s abdication. Meanwhile, tensions had begun to emerge between the allies of the Sixth Coalition, as each nation sought to gain the maximum amount of power from the peace negotiations that followed Napoleon’s abdication. Now that the unifying threat of Napoleon’s dominance of Europe had been removed, there was a very real possibility of them falling out and warring with each other.
Napoleon on Elba
Victorian Visual Tech
On 26th February 1815 Napoleon seized his chance, evading the British naval force that were supposed to imprison him on the island, and landing in southern France on 1st March a force of just 750 men who had made up his bodyguard in exile. All the forces sent by the French King Louis XVIII to capture Napoleon switched sides and joined the Emperor, the most famous example being Marshal Ney who is said to have vowed to Louis that he would bring Napoleon back in an iron cage, only to resume his position as one of Napoleon’s foremost marshals.
Louis fled Paris as it became clear that he did not have the numbers, or the loyalty of the troops to oppose Napoleon, allowing Bonaparte to reoccupy Paris and claim that he had found the crown of France lying in the gutter. Debate rages amongst historians as to whether Napoleon’s return to power was enabled by the support of the people, or was simply a coup made possible by the overwhelming loyalty of the army to their former Emperor.
On his return Napoleon sought to present himself as a peaceful ruler. He ordered a series of reforms, abolishing feudalism, allowing freedom of the press and creating a parliament-based government, all of which was designed to increase popular support for him. He also wrote to the European leaders, trying to convince them that he did not want war. This has become a key element of a wider argument between researchers about whether or not Napoleon was a ‘man of peace’ who had war forced upon him, or whether his offers of peace were simply devious ploys to gain time.
Regardless of Napoleon’s motives, his request for peace was rejected. As he returned to France, the leaders and diplomats of his former enemies were gathering in Vienna for a congress which had been intended to create a new balance in Europe by redrawing the map. Instead all the nations agreed to declare war on Napoleon (not France), and not to negotiate a separate peace settlement with him until he had been defeated once and for all. The War of the Seventh Coalition was about to begin.
King Louis the 18th of France
By François Gérard
For Napoleon, time was short. He knew that he would be incapable of defeating the unified forces of the Coalition powers (Britain, Prussia, the Netherlands, Austria and Russia). He therefore had to strike swiftly at his enemies before they gathered against him. Knowing it would take time for the Russian and Austrian armies to march across the continent, he set about rearming, creating a fresh army which was partly filled with war veterans who had rejoiced at his return, and the prospect of restoring France to the glory of the height of the Empire.
The most appropriate target was the combined Anglo-Dutch force under Wellington and the Prussian force under Blucher, both of which had gathered in Belgium. If Napoleon could crush this army, march into Brussels and take Belgium, he thought the other nations might hesitate and reconsider their commitment to war.
On the road to Brussels, just 12 miles to the south of the city, was a small, seemingly insignificant town called Waterloo. It would prove to be one of the most important locations in European history.
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Interested in Learning More?
Charles Esdaile, Napoleon, France and Waterloo: The Eagle Rejected (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2016)
Jeremy Black, Waterloo: The Battle that Brought Down Napoleon (London: Icon Books, 2010)
Tim Clayton, Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe’s Destiny (London: Abacus, 2014)
Rory Muir, Wellington: Waterloo and the Fortunes of Peace (Yale: Yale University Press, 2015)