The Battle of Waterloo
17th June 1815: The Calm During the Storm
Little, if any, fighting took place on the morning of the 17th June. As the Prussians continued to withdraw north towards Wavre, Napoleon spent most of the morning letting his men rest and touring the battlefield of Ligny. He seems to have been unaware that the Anglo-Dutch army remained in its position at Qautre Bras.
Wellington’s forces, meanwhile, were equally unaware of what had happened at Ligny. After eventually learning of the direction of the Prussian withdrawal, he ordered his own army to pull back from Quatre Bras to the ridge of Mont St Jean, just south of the town of Waterloo.
Ney’s troops at Quatre Bras were inactive for most of the day, and by the time Napoleon arrived at Quatre Bras and ordered a full scale attack, the bulk of Wellington’s army had slipped away. Over the course of the day, the French pursued the Allied force, being held back by British cavalry and artillery. The experimental ‘rocket troop’ even saw action, although their erratic weapons, the Congreve Rocket, had mixed results.
Map of the Battle of Waterloo (Author's Collection)
The British were fortunate, since, as the French began their pursuit, the weather broke. Although the troops quickly became drenched in the storm, the rain-soaked ground prevented the French cavalry from racing cross-country to attack the retreating column.
As evening drew in the Anglo-Dutch force filed into positions on the now famous position at Mont St Jean. Wellington knew the area well, having examined the position when travelling through the country the previous year. It offered a strong defensive line, with three forward positions at Hougoumont, La Haye Sainte and Papelotte anchoring and offering some protection to the main line. These positions were garrisoned with high quality units, with the majority of the infantry, and all the cavalry being masked from view on the reverse slope of the Mont St Jean ridge. The French, meanwhile, deployed on a ridge roughly parallel to the Allied one, with their centre at the inn of La Belle Alliance
However, Wellington only resolved to fight at Waterloo after receiving a guarantee from Blucher that the Prussians would march to his aid. That night Wellington slept at an inn in Waterloo, whilst Napoleon set up his Headquarters at the farmhouse of Le Caillou, 3km to the south of La Belle Alliance, both sites have since been turned into museums.
That night, as the rain continued to fall into the early hours, neither army enjoyed much in the way of food, warmth, shelter or sleep. Few provisions were available, and troops on both sides plundered what food they could from the surrounding landscape.
Crucially though, the stage was set for a battle the following day. The final chapter of the Napoleonic Wars was about to begin.
Up Next: The Battle of Waterloo
Interested in Learning More?
Tim Clayton, Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe’s Destiny (London: Abacus, 2014)
Charles Esdaile, Napoleon, France and Waterloo: The Eagle Rejected (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2016)
Geoffrey Wootten, Waterloo 1815: The birth of modern Europe (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1992)
Rory Muir, Wellington: Waterloo and the Fortunes of Peace (Yale: Yale University Press, 2015)