Only a handful of history’s battles have iconic status.
Waterloo is one of them.
Despite being one of the most written about battles in history, much of the Waterloo story is mis-remembered. Whilst we often refer to ‘the Battle of Waterloo’, we should really refer to the ‘Waterloo campaign’ of the 15th-19th June 1815. Over those 5 days, 4 battles were fought at Quatre Bras, Ligny, Wavre and at Mont St Jean (more generally referred to as Waterloo itself).
Some parts of the broad story of the campaign are well known. On 26th February 1815 Napoleon escaped from exile on the island of Elba, capitalising on the disillusionment of the French people with the restored monarchy, and the squabbling between his former enemies. The French King Louis XVIII fled France as his armies deserted him, and Napoleon reinstated himself as Emperor. The former coalition allies promptly declared war upon him, and both sides re-armed. Faced with the knowledge that he would not be vastly outnumbered by the combined forces massing against him, Napoleon made a pre-emptive strike at the nearest force – an Anglo-Dutch force under the Duke of Wellington and a Prussian force under Marshal Blucher which was camped in Belgium.
The Duke of Wellington
by Francisco Goya
In a bold move on 15th June 1815, Napoleon sought to split his two opponents, thrusting his army like a huge battering ram down the narrow gap between the two forces. He hoped that Wellington and Blucher would retreat on their own lines of communication, losing their ability to support one another, so that he could overwhelm each one in turn. It almost worked. As news arrived in Brussels late in the evening of the 15th June, Wellington remarked that he had been ‘humbugged’ by this unexpected move.
Over the night and morning of the 16th June, the Prussians gathered at Ligny, whilst the Anglo-Dutch army concentrated at the crossroads of Quatre Bras. Napoleon, meanwhile, ordered Ney to push Wellington back from Quatre Bras, whilst he used the bulk of his army to attack the Prussians at their exposed position around Ligny. Whilst Quatre Bras descended into a bloody stalemate, Ligny proved to the Napoleon’s last victory, though a costly one. The Prussians were broken and withdrew as night descended. The failure of the French to pursue their beaten enemy became pivotal in the story of the campaign.
Rather than pulling back along their supply lines, the Prussians bravely decided to withdraw north, enabling them to stay in contact with Wellington, and potentially be able to support them if needed. On the 17th June Wellington withdrew from Quatre Bras to Waterloo, closely pursued by the French, with Wellington telling Blucher that he would fight if the Prussians promised to march to his aid.
Napoleon, unaware of how close the Prussians were, attacked the Anglo-Dutch force on the 18th June. It proved to be his last battle. Over the course of nine hour long struggle, Wellington’s force withstood wave after wave of attack, whilst the arrival of the Prussians on Napoleon’s right flank placed ever greater strain on the Emperor’s forces. After the British shattered the Imperial Guard, who had been thrown forward in a desperate final attempt to win the day for the French, the morale of Napoleon’s army collapsed and it fled. Napoleon abdicated on 22nd June when it became obvious that he did not have the means to fight on, finally bringing the Napoleonic Wars to an end.
The Wounded Eagle Monument on the Waterloo Battlefield
Yet the story of Waterloo is far more complex, sophisticated, and exciting that this simple summary suggests. To this day, there are a whole host of questions which historians fiercely debate: How important were the Dutch and the Prussians in the Allied victory at Waterloo? Why has their involvement always been downplayed? Why did the French army collapse so completely when the Imperial Guard broke? How was Napoleon able to regain control of France in March 1815? Was Waterloo a ‘Glorious Irrelevance’ as some have argued?
This sequence of pages go into more depth on the Waterloo campaign, exploring each of the major engagements, and offering answers to some of the enduring questions about this campaign.
Up Next: The Origins of the Waterloo Campaign
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Interested in Learning More?
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)
Charles Esdaile, Napoleon, France and Waterloo: The Eagle Rejected (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2016)