For more than a decade, Europe’s centre of gravity had been one man – Napoleon Bonaparte. The Corsican artillery officer had risen through the ranks opened by the French Revolution, and ascended to become master of the Continent. Yet despite having bent France, Germany, Italy, Prussia and Austria to his will, a combination of British gold, Iberian guerrillas and Russian blood had defeated Bonaparte and forced him into exile. Napoleon became Emperor of the island of Elba, off the coast of Italy, while the Bourbon Louis XVIII was awarded the throne his brother had lost. Yet the restless ambition which had driven Napoleon for decades would compel him to make one final throw of the die and would lead to a final climatic clash between him and the nation he despised most at Waterloo.
The man who had once conquered Europe could never have been satisfied as the ruler of a third rate Italian power. Napoleon was further humiliated when, in an act of supreme pettiness, the French King refused to pay the allowance promised at Fontainebleau. Reports soon reached the Emperor that the Bourbons were angering the public and frustrating the army, that at Vienna the Quadruple Alliance was disintegrating and that there were plans to move him to a more secure location. On 26 February 1815, he simply boarded the Inconstant and sailed for the mainland.
French forces were dispatched to arrest the usurper, but whenever Bonaparte encountered them, he simply stood before them and dared the French troops to shoot their Emperor. Instead, confronted by their charismatic leader, the royalist soldiers, remembering the glorious victories at Austerlitz and Jena, became Bonapartists once more. Marshal Ney famously promised the King he would bring him Napoleon in an iron cage, but his mutinous army forced him too to defect. As Napoleon advanced on Paris, he only grew stronger as men flocked to his banner. A month after leaving Elba, the French assemblies were promising their unwavering loyalty to the Emperor, and the King had fled.
Napoleon attempted to strike a conciliatory note, presenting himself to France as a liberal and declaring to the statesmen in Vienna that he would accept the 1814 Treaty of Paris. But Bonaparte had long since proven his existence was incompatible with peace, and the Seventh Coalition immediately mustered its forces. 250,000 Austrian and German forces mobilised on the Rhine and in Italy, 200,000 Russians were sent from Poland, 150,000 Prussians marched along on the northern Rhine and 100,000 Anglo-Dutch troops waited in Belgium.
In contrast, Napoleon’s old allies did not rally to his banner. Marshals Marmont, Victor and Macdonald fled him. Berthier, Napoleon’s organisational genius, had torn loyalties, but was spared his predicament when he died from falling out of a window. Davout, the Iron Marshal, joined the Emperor, but Napoleon placed him in Paris to serve as an administrator. Murat was occupied in Italy, and Napoleon didn’t recall him. A few, such as Ney, joined him, but most simply elected to remain neutral in the whole affair. Of the nineteen Marshals still living, only eleven pledged themselves to their Emperor. A further four of these did nothing to aid him, and only three would ultimately be present for the fighting.
Napoleon had 120,000 soldiers, half of whom were raw recruits, with which to face the vast Coalition forces. The Emperor could have waged a defensive war, akin to that of 1792 or Iberia, and used the half a million men under arms (including the National Guard) to make the Coalition pay for every foot it gained in blood. Instead, in a decision heavily debated by historians, Napoleon took his army and went on the offensive, resolving to strike at the Prussians and Anglo-Dutch forces in the north, and so force the Coalition to reconsider the costs of the war. The Waterloo Campaign would see Napoleon again seize the offensive.
Napoleon advanced at his usual pace, using his typical ‘strategy of the central position’. He inserted himself into the point where the Prussians and British were to join, and planned to strike at one before wheeling and defeating the other. On 16 June, the French caught the Allies off guard and engaged the British at Quatre-Bras. At the same time, at Ligny, the French hammered the Prussians at Ligny. Their general, von Blücher, was only spared an arrest by the mercy of two French soldiers, and the army itself was only able to escape because poor French organisation and communication stopped Napoleon delivering a decisive blow. The Prussians were in retreat.
Napoleon spent 17 June idly, and then on 18 June 1815, Napoleon focussed on Wellington. The terrain was heavily weighted in Wellington’s favour; he had selected a battleground at Waterloo that allowed him to employ many of the tactics he refined over seven years fighting French troops. He drew his main line up on a hill, which allowed Wellington to use his famed “reverse slope defence” – where his men would lie on the side of a ridge opposite the French forces, effectively negating Napoleon’s favoured tactic of beginning with an artillery assault. Between the French and British lines were three farms: on Wellington’s right was Hougoument, in front of him was La Haye Saint and on his left was Papellotee. All three were garrisoned with elite British troops armed with the deadly new Baker Rifle, a weapon far superior to the standard French musket. These farms would dramatically hinder a French frontal assault. But there was also a forest and one road behind Wellington, meaning that if the Anglo-Dutch forces were forced to retreat, they would be massacred. The British commander was playing for the highest stakes at Waterloo.
Napoleon had learned on 17 June that the Prussians were returning, but he waited until midday to send Marshal Grouchy with 30,000 men to hound them. Napoleon was eager to begin the battle quickly, but the night to the seventeenth had brought torrential rain, and the ground was still wet. This would have dramatically hindered his artillery’s effectiveness, and so Napoleon fatefully waited for five hours. Bonaparte believed his best chance at victory was to punch through the British line. Wellington believed his best chance of victory was to present a string defence and await Prussian reinforcements. Waterloo would, therefore, be a battle of endurance. Although his Marshals warned Napoleon routing the army arrayed against him would be no easy thing to accomplish, the Emperor would not listen, noting “I tell you Wellington is a bad general, the English are bad soldiers; we will settle this matter by lunchtime.”
By now, Napoleon led 72,000 soldiers, compared to Wellington’s rag tag Anglo-Dutch force of 68,000, of which only 31,000 were British. At 11:35, Napoleon struck at Hougomont. The French Emperor wanted to repeat Austerlitz, where a series of feints had tricked the Allied armies into reinforcing their flanks by weakening their centre, only for Napoleon to storm through the weakened middle of their line. But Wellington saw the trap, and the British at Hougoument stood strong, despite Napoleon deploying more troops to the point throughout the day.
At 13:00, Napoleon ordered an artillery barrage on Wellington’s main line, but the reverse slope tactic meant this achieved little. Half an hour later, the French sent forward lines of infantry which successfully began to push back the main British lines between La Haye Saint and Papelotte, and the Anglo-Dutch line was only stopped from collapsing by the heroics of Thomas Picton.
It was at this point, that Napoleon realised for certain that the Prussians were coming. The IV Corps, 30,000 strong and led by General Bülow, came into sight, and he soon found out that the bulk of the Prussian army was following him. The Prussians had used their head start well, and, although the Marshal had engaged the German rear at Wavre, the main force had eluded the Grouchy. Napoleon ordered him to return at once, but the Marshal could not make it to Waterloo. Concerned by the Prussian menace, Napoleon began assembling French reserves in anticipation of an assault.
The British response to the French attack on their lines was a heavy cavalry charge. The French infantry had advanced without suitable cavalry and artillery support, and were vulnerable to such an assault. This combined with the disciplined fire of the British lines to break the French. Yet as the British cavalry pushed its advantage, driving the French into retreat, it was counter charged by the French heavy horse and was itself defeated.
At 4:00, Marshal Ney committed one of the worst blunders of the Waterloo Campaign. Believing he saw weakness in the British right, he led a massive cavalry charge to shatter the Allies and win the day. Fatally, however, he used only the cavalry, and was unsupported by artillery or infantry. Wellington’s troops simply moved into hollow squares, fixed their bayonets to their rifles and shot the French horse, which could do nothing but be mown down. The Wellingtonian squares could have been attacked with artillery fire to which they were most vulnerable, but instead Ney decided to send a second French infantry advance to accompany his cavalry. They were dispatched at 6:00, after Ney had progressively exhausted his cavalry supply.
By this point in the day, Prussian troops had begun trickling in, with I Corps joining Wellington’s line and IV Corps attacking Plancenoit, a location behind Napoleon’s right flank. Under General Bülow, they took the position through sheer weight of numbers. But Napoleon had also stormed an enemy position. The French captured La Haye Saint, the central farmhouse of the Waterloo battlefield. The critical hour of the battle had arrived – any more delays from Napoleon would herald the arrival of more Prussian forces that would decisively swing the tide to the Coalition forces.
Napoleon sent his artillery forward to La Haye Saint, and at close range they tore through the centre of the British line. However, this weak point was never exploited. Napoleon felt that it was more prudent to keep his fourteen Imperial guard battalions in reserve, as a counter to the Prussians, than use them against the British. When Ney requested a small number of reinforcements, Napoleon rejected his request, as he was too heavily focused on Plancenoit. The Emperor’s chance to shatter the British line came and went.
Finally, at 7:30, Napoleon reconsidered, and began an offensive with the Old Guard. These were the veterans of Napoleon’s campaigns, and enjoyed a semi-mythical reputation as “the Immortals.”Napoleon rarely committed them to battle, however, believing they were better used to raise morale amongst the rest of his army and because he didn’t wish to jeopardise their reputation for invincibility. Now though, Napoleon threw the die, and sent the Guard into action, largely without artillery or cavalry support. But as the Guard approached, Wellington ordered his men, many of whom had been lying out of sight, to stand. Stunned by this new force, the Guard absorbed four volleys of British fire before breaking.
It was at this very moment that the Prussians arrived in force, and began to overrun the French line from Plancenoit. Fearing they would be enveloped, the right wing of Napoleon’s army had begun to crumble. Then, at 8:15 Wellington ordered a massive advance. His troops converged with the Prussians to form a single united front and, fifteen minutes later, Napoleon’s Imperial Guard had been wiped out, defeated for the first and last time in its history. The French troops started fleeing from the massacre. Napoleon also hurried away, with his last chance to seize power having slipped through his fingers at Waterloo.
By 9:15, Blücher and Wellington were able to regroup and celebrate their victory. The Prussians sent troops to pursue the fleeing French, but by then the battle had been decided. Napoleon’s defeat was total, and his second reign would last a mere one hundred and ten days. The battle was, in the words of the Duke of Wellington, “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life” and the French Emperor had inflicted heavy casualties upon the British. Perhaps Napoleon had squandered opportunities, and perhaps after decades of ceaseless warfare he was no longer the same man as the victor of Marengo, the Pyramids and Austerlitz. Yet the Hundred Days and the Waterloo Campaign are the final testament to the astonishing power of will which had driven one man to dominate Europe. They ensured the end of Napoleon Bonaparte’s career would not be remembered as an ignominious exile off the Italian shore, but a final romantic blaze of glory.
Barthorp, M., 1976. The Imperial Guard at Waterloo. History Today
Clarke, C., 2007. Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947. Penguin Books
Forester, C., 1953. Could Napoleon Have Won. History Today
Roberts, A., 2015. Napoleon the Great. Penguin Books
Zamoyski, A., 2019. Napoleon: The Man Behind the Myth. William Collins