Two men faced each other across a field in Belgium. One with the desire to rule the world, the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The other, the man who would stop him once and for all, Arthur Wellesley, the newly created Duke of Wellington. The place was Waterloo, and the day would mark the final end to the ambitious but crumbling plans of the once-exiled Emperor of France.
Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Corsica in August 1769 a year after the island was transferred to French rule. His parents were descended from Italian nobles, and as a result of his family’s wealth, Bonaparte was to briefly attend school in Autun, in the Burgundy region of France, from the age of nine, for a period of around four months before transferring to a military academy in Brienne-le-Chateau. He showed a remarkable adeptness for the military inclinations, despite being teased relentlessly about his accent and did fairly well in Maths, History and Geography. After leaving the academy at the age of 15, Bonaparte was enrolled in L’ Ecole de Militaire in Paris, an elite Military training school where he was trained as an Artillery officer, having to cut his course in half due to his father’s death and the ensuing reduction in his allowance.
Arthur Wellesley was born into a wealthy noble
Anglo-Irish family, the Wesleys, in May 1769. By 1798 the family had changed their name to the more British Wellesley. Arthur attended Eton before joining the Army in 1787, helped in part by his older brother Richard’s sponsorship, and purchased a series of commissions in order to rise quickly to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. Wellesley took an active part in several campaigns at the end of the eighteenth century into the nineteenth, including Mysore, where Richard was appointed Governor-general in 1797, and Assaye in 1803, an action which saw his knighthood on his return to England. By 1807 Wellesley was a Member of Parliament and Chief Secretary for Ireland, but put his political career on hold for a return to the Army and control of the British, Portuguese and Spanish forces in the Peninsular Wars against the French. His success forced Napoleon’s exile to St Helena. Arthur returned to England once again, to a new title as Duke of Wellington.
Napoleon Bonaparte, once leaving L’Ecole Militaire became a second Lieutenant in the Artillery but as the eighteenth century drew to a close, he became embroiled in a series of revolutionary conflicts between France, Corsica and Italy to name but a few. After changing sides from Corsica to France, Napoleon proved his worth and eventually achieved the role of Artillery General. He took part in the French Revolution, fighting against the Royalist supporters before moving on to Egypt. His plan to take over Britain by defeating her Navy was put on hold due to the comparative weakness of France’s Naval Fleet, so Bonaparte changed tactics by heading out to interfere with the British trade route into India.
After the moderate successes in the taking of Egypt and a decidedly dismal follow-up in Damascus during which Napoleon, upon discovering the garrison at Jaffa was defended by former prisoners of war, ordered their mass slaughter. Around 1400 men, women and children were bayoneted or drowned. This series of conflicts saw most of Napoleon’s army infected and dying from bubonic plague. In August 1799 Napoleon retreated back to Egypt and left his army in the hands of Jean Baptiste Kleber and returned to Paris, whilst the British Navy were withdrawn from their blockade of France.
That November, aided by a handful of supporters including his brother, Napoleon staged a coup and overthrew the council of the five hundred. A few months later, following a rigged plebiscite, during which he received over 99% of the vote, he elected himself First Consul and closed the council down. Napoleon had effectively become Dictator of France.
In 1800 Napoleon was on the move again, seeking to further expand his empire, this time into Italy. When Austria refused to recognise France’s new territories, he invaded there too, forcing them to capitulate in 1801. In March 1802, Britain and France signed the Treaty of Amiens, which conceded the new colonies of England to France, and the return to the slave trade the islands which now came under French control. Following the refusal of Britain to withdraw from Malta, the reinstatement of the slave trade in the Caribbean, and Napoleon’s failed attempt to reassert control in Sainte-Domingue, during which campaign he again suffered large losses due to disease, Napoleon withdrew his forces from the Island, and Britain declared war on France. Napoleon sold his interests in Louisiana to the United States for a meagre 3 cents per acre, giving him around $15m in what is now known as the Louisiana purchase.
Without going into too much detail, as I shall address these individual battles over the course of subsequent posts, for the next few years, alliances were forged and broken, Bonaparte gained strategic victories in the Battle of Ulm, which was achieved by a dangerous but successful pincer manoeuvre later to be developed by the Germans into the famous Schlieffen plan of the Great War, which was ironically used as a means to invade France, and the famous Austerlitz victory when he smashed a superior army of Russian and Austrian troops, in a display of what is now regarding as military tactical genius.
It wasn’t all to go Napoleon’s way though. As Napoleon was flexing his military muscles at Ulm, his naval fleet combined with that of Spain, his ally of the time, was attempting to over-power the might of the British Navy off the Cape of Trafalgar. They failed. Due to the lack of nerve of their commander, Villeneuve, who was somewhat lacking in confidence when it came to engaging Admiral Lord Nelson, thanks to his prior defeat in Egypt, and the cunning tactics and superior skills of Nelson himself, France, despite a slightly larger fleet, played right into the hands of the Royal Navy and suffered a humiliating defeat, only blighted by the fatal shooting of Nelson during the engagement.
Following his alliance with Spain, in 1807 on the premise of invading Portugal to force their submission to previous terms of ceasing trade with Britain, Napoleon then after causing strife between the Spanish Elite, leading to the Spanish War of Independence, flipped his allegiance and turned on his Allies. Arthur Wellesley entered this arena, the British now fighting the French alongside the Spanish and Portuguese for control of Iberia which became known as the Peninsular Wars. This particular conflict lasted for seven years until France’s eventual defeat in 1814.
Napoleon kept up his spread through Europe, territories now included Belgium, Austria, Italy, Spain, Germany and next on the list was Russia which Napoleon invaded in 1812. Victory was claimed by France following the Battle of Borodino however as the Russian forces retreated to Moscow, they were followed by Napoleon and his Army, hoping to secure the city for France and force terms with the Tsar. This was not to be. Russia may not have been successful in their defence of Russia, but they weren’t just going to hand it over. Employing the scorched earth policy as they retreated, and burning the city as they left, they ensured that the advancing French would have no prize to claim and no provisions to sustain it. Winter was approaching, and the French were ill-equipped.
Napoleon abandoned the city after a few short weeks, and attempted a withdrawal back to France via Poland following an attempted coup by Claude Francois Malet. By the time he reached Berezina, many of his troops had starved or frozen to death, or been murdered by straggling Russians, intent on revenge. There they were met by a large Russian force, and engaged in the Battle of Berezina, which led to further serious casualties, Bonaparte was forced to abandon everything, and flee in a sled.
Napoleon was only to have one further successful campaign, in the 1813 Battle of Dresden. Despite this victory, the coalition powers were building numbers against him, more countries were joining forces and the tide began to turn decisively against him. In the Battle of Leipzig, Napoleon suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of the allies. In November 1813, the Allied powers offered terms to Napoleon which would enable him to retain a small amount of his conquered territory up to 1794 levels, including Saxony Belgium and an area to the West of the Rhine. He would also be allowed to retain his leadership of France. He refused the terms. By 1814, Bonaparte had retreated back into France, he was pinned down on several fronts and realised that his days were numbered as Emperor. He requested to renegotiate terms as per the 1813 allied offer. He was refused. By now the offer was for boundaries to return to pre-1791 areas, meaning the loss of pretty much all Napoleons captured territory including Belgium. Again he refused.
Following a last minute stand against the allied coalition, the six days war, which led to small scale victories for France, the leaders in Paris offered a surrender in March 1814. On April 1st It was emphasised that the Allies were fighting Napoleon, not France, and would agree to honourable terms of peace, in return for his removal. On April 2nd, the Senat issued a declaration to the effect that Napoleon was deposed. On hearing this news at Fontainebleau Napoleon ordered his army to march on Paris and re-take the city, his Generals mutinied. Napoleon claimed the army would follow their Emperor. The Generals refuted this, stating the troops would follow their generals. They then offered their surrender to the Allied coalition.
On April 4th Napoleon Bonaparte was forced to step down from power and abdicate. Initially his abdication favoured his baby son, with his wife Marie-Louise as regent. The Allies refused these terms, citing this would leave the door open for Bonaparte to find a way back to power. Napoleon conceded defeat. He was exiled to Elba, whilst his wife and son returned to family in Austria, he would never see them again. Whilst on Elba, Napoleon was allowed sovereignty of the Island, and during his short time there, managed to introduce improvements to agriculture and iron mining, as well as building a small army and naval force. Upon hearing rumours that his banishment to a remote island was imminent, in February 1815, Bonaparte escaped exile aboard a ship bound for the French mainland. News of his escape quickly reached the powers who dispatched a regiment to capture him as he landed on shore.
He was met by the 5th regiment at Grenoble where he dismounted his horse and approached the force until he was within firing range and declared “Here I am. Kill your Emperor if you wish.” Their response was to join forces with him. Over the following few months, Napoleon built up his force once again, until he commanded an army of around 200,000 men. The allied powers responded with a combined force of 600,000 men between them, their commander, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington.
The forces had a couple of minor clashes on the way to Waterloo, the Battles of Ligny on the 16th June during which the Prussian forces were defeated and forced to retreat, surprisingly unnoticed, Wellington followed this up with a plan to concentrate on Quatre Bras which was being held for him by the Prince of Orange. French forces under Ney reached this objective ahead of Wellington, Orange withdrawing to a safer distance, under the push by Ney, Wellington soon arrived with reinforcements forcing Ney to retreat. Wellington hearing of Blucher’s defeat at Ligny, realised this cast doubt on the strength of his hold on Quatre Bras, changed his muster position to a previous scouted vantage point just outside the village of Waterloo to the south on a low ridge known as Mont-Saint Jean. Blucher’s forces marched parallel to Wellington remaining at a communicable and supportive distance.
Meanwhile, Napoleon brought up the reserve to assist Ney in retaking Quatre Bras, upon their arrival, they found the position empty and after delays set off in pursuit of Wellington to Waterloo, hampered by the weather. As the last of Wellington’s rear-guard retreated over the narrow bridge of Thuy, the French hastened to catch up but were beaten back by consistent cavalry and guns. As they attempted to cross the bridge, they were met by concealed fire from the 10th (Prince of Wales) Hussars, who had been issued with a specially commissioned rifle by their commander in chief, on the recommendation of his close friend Baron Friedrich von Eben, son of the famous commander of the Prussian Hussars, Karl August von Eben.
Friedrich had fought alongside the British forces in the Peninsular wars, in the York Hussars, after resigning his own commission from the Prussian cavalry. He had suggested the use of rifles for cavalrymen but had been turned down initially. His friends the Duke of Sussex and his older brother, the Prince of Wales, later George IV were eager to take up the suggestion and further issued his cavalrymen with a new sabre, bearing the Prince of Wales motif. By the end of June 17th, Wellington’s forces were amassed at their position over Waterloo, their support, the Prussian army under Blucher were positioned a few miles away to the East.
On the morning of the 18th, Wellington’s troops were in their positions behind the ridge, and defending three strategic garrisoned farms at Hougoumont, La Haye Sainte and Papelpotte. Having troops stationed within the garrisoned farms, and lined up in a disused quarry, were the sharpshooters of the 95th rifles, Wellington had also made use of natural features, some boggy land, to one side and sand to the other, a sunken road covered by infantry concealed behind hedges covered his supply and reinforcements line. Napoleon knew he was at a disadvantage with his position beneath the ridge, and the all night rain would hamper his attempts at positioning his heavy artillery, and impede both his foot soldiers and cavalry. He was also aware that Wellington’s forces at this moment were inferior to his own, although he knew that this would alter should Blucher’s reinforcements arrive from their position.
Napoleon was advised by his brother Jerome that the Prussians, defending Wavre were preparing to march to Waterloo to reinforce Wellington. Nonetheless he disregarded this information, believing that the Prussians would be too exhausted after defending the British retreat from Quatre Bras, and the two day march they endured. He felt that they would be unable to reach, let alone reinforce the fight for at least two days. Blucher however made the march within a matter of hours. Bulow, with IV corps was delayed slightly by the bad weather which forced a slower march, through narrow streets at Wavre with 88 cannon, and the added impediment on his route of a fire.
Napoleon made the tactically dangerous decision to remain fixed until the ground had dried sufficiently to allow his troop and cannon to be moved. He gambled on this being a possibility before the Prussians had chance to reach Wellington. He decided to begin by a bombardment, using his brother’s command, to the flanking garrison at Hougoumont, which lay between his own position and the road to Brussels. He launched a heavy cannon assault on the farm backed up by 5000 troops. The farm, defended by 1500 of Wellington’s men, defended their position within the garrison all morning against repeated strikes. At 12.30, the French broke through the gates. The British managed to shut them again behind the French, trapping them inside the compound. They slaughtered every French man, save for an 11 year old drummer boy whom they spared. The assault continued into the afternoon.
Napoleon’s next wave, 18,000 infantrymen advanced up the road to Wellington’s central position, Le Haye Sainte, his hope being that if he could break through, he would drive the British coalition back towards Brussels and break through. Le Haye Sainte was quickly cut off from reinforcement, the advancing left-flank led by Francois Donzelot who had encountered Wellington in Spain, and knew of his favoured method of defence by use of large masses of short range muskets to repel infantry attack, and therefore chose a variant on the usual abreast formation, initially met with success, however it was short-lived.
His men were unable to change formation quickly. The French cuirassier, and further infantry were able to move around the back of the farm, effectively cutting it off, it seemed the French were winning. Wellington quite aware that the tide was turning against him, sent reinforcements from his own line to defend the farm. Lord Uxbridge, with two brigades of cavalry up behind the ridge, chose his moment and attacked the French from the flank, cutting them down in droves.
At one pm, movement had been spotted in the distance, Napoleon dispatched cavalry to investigate. Shortly after, he sighted the first columns of Prussians in the nearby village of Lasne-Chapelle-Saint-Lambert roughly four or five miles in the distance, he promptly sent word to Grouchy to return to Waterloo. The message arrived too late.
At 3.30pm The French cavalry encountered Blucher’s corps five miles to the east of Waterloo, where they were pinned down by heavy conflict. Although it removed Blucher from the main battle, it served the purpose in removing first a large contingent of the cavalry from the field, and then further French troops through the afternoon as Napoleon desperately tried to hold the village of Plancenoit and keep Blucher away from the main field. Wellington, hearing the roar of the Prussian guns in the distance, knew Blucher would be unable to join him, but was relieved that this meant the division of Napoleon’s forces. By 4pm, back at Waterloo, Napoleon watched in horror as his remaining men, split between fierce conflict on both the left and right flank were struggling to overcome the British forces.
Meanwhile at Le Haye Sainte, Uxbridge with his combined cavalry and heavy dragoons, had made a tactical error by leading in with his force, rather than remaining at the rear to position reinforcements. The French cuirassier had broken through the fiercely defended British infantry and by six o clock, the garrison fell.
As the French forces flooded in, and the surviving British defenders retreated, Napoleon gave the order to advance up the ridge towards Wellington’s position with his remaining force. His infantry, now occupying the farmhouse were able to give covering fire as the French advanced, on foot. It was by now 7.15pm. They drew their swords, Wellington, in the long grass behind the brow of the ridge drew his breath and gave the order for his men to stand firm and fire.
The muskets of the British infantry tore into the advancing line of French. Again and again they reloaded and fired, forcing the French to retreat. To the left flank, the Prussians appeared, and joined in the fray. The French were driven further back, with the British Allies in full chase. As they ran, Wellington’s men had a clear shot at Napoleon, by now being shielded by his men. Wellington ordered his men to hold their fire. The defeated Frenchman escaped.
At 8pm the battle was over. The British and Allied forces, a rag –tag of multi-national men, with little battle experience, led by Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington and his few hardened veterans, were victorious. The battlefield of Waterloo was strewn with tens of thousands of dead. Wellington lost around 15,000 of his force, killed or wounded, Blucher lost 7000. The French casualties amounted to some 26,000 men.
On June 24th, 1815 Napoleon announced his abdication for the second time. He tried to escape to America, but was cut off by a complete blockade of French ports. He was subsequently forced to surrender and later exiled once again, this time to St Helena, where he would remain until his death six years later.