Napoleon defeated Prince Gerbhard von Blücher’s Prussian army at Ligny on 16 June 1815, forcing it to retreat to Wavre. The battle of Quatre Bras between the French and the Duke of Wellington’s Allied army on the same day was a draw. Napoleon intended to outflank them the next day, but his slowness in acting allowed Wellington to pull back ‘to a ridge line south of Mont St Jean, a position that had been carefully noted by Wellington and his staff some time ago as being an excellent defensive position.’
On 18 June the two armies at Waterloo faced each other on two low ridges that were separated by a gentle valley, which was bisected by the Charleroi to Brussels road. The frontage was about 5,000 yards and the battlefield measured no more than three square miles. The small hamlet of La Belle Alliance was on the road in the centre of the French line. In front of the Allied line were the Château of Hougoumont on their right, the farm of La Haye Sainte on the road in the centre and the town of Papelotte on the left.
Wellington had 53,850 infantry, 13,350 cavalry, 5,000 artillerymen with 157 guns and 1,000 others (staff, engineers, medical, supply etc) for a total of 73,200 troops. Only 36 per cent of them were British, with 13 per cent Dutch and 9 per cent Belgian: Belgium was then part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The other 45 per cent were Germans: 10 per cent were part of the King’s German Legion, Germans serving as part of the British Army; 17 per cent were from Hannover, whose King was also King George III of the United Kingdom; 10 per cent were from Brunswick; and 8 per cent from Nassau. A further 17,000 Allied troops had been positioned at Hal to cover an alternative road to Brussels; they did not take part in the battle.
Napoleon’s army was only slightly bigger, except for a superiority in artillery: 53,400 infantry, 15,600 cavalry, 6,500 artillerymen with 246 guns and 2,000 others for a total of 77,500 men. He had sent 30,000 troops under the newly promoted Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy to cover the Prussians at Wavre.
Blücher had 100,000 men and 283 guns available for combat, but only 49,000 men, made up of 38,000 infantry, 7,000 cavalry, 2,500 artillerymen and 1,500 others, and 134 guns fought at Waterloo.
At a post breakfast meeting Napoleon’s chief of staff, Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult, said to the Emperor that he should recall at least some of Grouchy’s troops. Napoleon replied that:
‘You think because Wellington defeated you he must be a great general. I tell you he is a bad general, that the English [sic] are poor troops and that this affair will be no more serious than eating one’s breakfast.’
General Honoré Charles Reille, the commander of II Corps and like Soult a Peninsular War veteran who had fought Wellington and the British many times, argued that the British firepower meant that the French should manoeuvre rather than launch a frontal assault, but the Emperor dismissed this. He decided to postpone the attack from the original 9 am start in order to allow the wet ground to dry, which would aid manoeuvre and allow artillery rounds to ricochet off the ground. The army was also behind its timetable. The Emperor would not have delayed in the past, having once said that ‘space we can recover, but time, never.
The delay meant that the Prussians were getting closer to Waterloo. General August von Gneisenau, Blücher’s chief of staff, wanted to keep the majority of the Prussian army at Wavre until at least noon, but Blücher insisted that two corps should head to Waterloo immediately. General Friedrich von Bülow’s IV Corps, which had not been at Ligny, had set off at daybreak.
The artillery bombardment began about 11:30 am. Grouchy heard it, but declined the advice of General Étienne Gérard to march to the sound of the guns. Had he done so he would have intercepted Bülow before the Prussians reached Waterloo.
As the artillery opened fire the French 6th Infantry Division, commanded by Napoleon’s brother Jérôme, attacked Hougoumont. This was supposed to be a diversion, but Jérôme was determined to take the objective, regardless of losses. He called up another division, meaning that much of Reille’s II Corps spent most of the battle fighting a single brigade.
By 3 pm the French had sent 12,500 men of the 6th and 9th Divisions against 2,500 men of the 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards, 2nd Battalion, 3rd (Scots) Guards and 1st Battalion, 2nd Nassau Regiment. Light companies of Hannoverians and the 2nd and 3rd Battalions 1st Foot Guards also took part in the desperate and successful defence. The key event came at 12:30 pm, when Lieutenant Colonel James McDonnell ordered the closing of the North Gate, which had been left open to facilitate the movement of Allied troops. About 30 French troops, led by the axe wielding Sous-Lieutenant Legros, nicknamed L’enfonceur, got inside before McDonnell’s guardsmen shut and barricaded the door. Legros and his men were killed, except for a drummer boy.
At 1 pm the Comte D’Erlon’s I Corps was ready to attack when Bülow’s 30,000 men were spotted approaching the French right flank. Napoleon ordered cavalry and the 10,000 infantrymen of Comte Lobau’s VI Corps to take up a defensive position facing them.
D’Erlon’s attack began at 1:30 pm. For some reason he adopted an outdated and inflexible formation that meant that heavier casualties were suffered in the advance and that it was harder to deploy once in musket range. The attack also lacked adequate cavalry support. Papelotte was taken and the French almost reached the crest of the ridge. Sir Thomas Picton’s division then advanced to the crest and opened fire from 40 yards before charging and forcing the French back. Picton was amongst the dead.
Two British heavy cavalry brigades, the Household and Union Brigades, then charged D’Erlon’s corps, sweeping them away, inflicting 4,000 casualties and capturing two eagles. The Allied cavalry commander, the Earl of Uxbridge, led them personally. However, the British cavalry carried on instead of stopping to reform and were themselves charged by French cavalry. The British suffered 1,000 casualties and the 1,500 survivors were spent for the rest of the battle. Around 3 pm the fighting died down everywhere except Hougoumont, enabling the Allies to reinforce La Haye Sainte and recapture Papelotte.
At 3:30 pm Napoleon ordered Marshal Michel Ney to capture La Haye Sainte regardless of casualties. The first attack, by the only two brigades of D’Erlon’s corps that had rallied, failed. However, Ney mistook a column of Allied ambulances, empty ammunition wagons, wounded and a small number of cavalry heading towards Brussels for signs of a retreat. He launched a series of cavalry attacks, which the Allied infantry were able to beat off by forming square.
By 5 pm Ney had committed almost 9,000 cavalry, 6,000 of them armoured cuirassiers or carabiniers. Between 5 pm and 6 pm another 4,500 cavalry attacked after a heavy preliminary bombardment. A total of 76 guns in 12 batteries either gave preliminary fire support or, in the case of horse artillery, accompanied the cavalry. The guns inflicted heavy casualties on the squares but none broke. The Allies had 14,000 infantry in 25 squares and 65 guns.
None of the attacks were supported by infantry until 8,000 men from Reille’s II Corps attacked at 5:30 pm. By then the tired cavalry had withdrawn to regroup and Allied musket fire beat off the attack with 20 per cent casualties.
Napoleon, after observing Wellington’s position, ordered Ney to attack La Haye Sainte again. This time he made a combined arms attack using cavalry, infantry and artillery, which took the farm. The French were now able to position artillery to fire on the Allied centre. This was Wellington’s ‘great crisis of the day…his centre was wavering.’
Ney now requested that the Emperor send him reserves, but Napoleon replied ‘Some troops! Where do you expect me to get them from? Do you want me to make some?’
David Chandler argues that if Napoleon had ‘sent forward the Imperial Guard (or even half of it), the battle would almost certainly had been won.’ However, he adds that the Emperor had good reasons to reject Ney’s request: he did not know what state Wellington’s army was in; Ney’s performance so far in the battle had done nothing to make Napoleon trust him; and the Emperor was also worried about his right flank.
Bülow was threatening Napoleon’s right by 4 pm. He nearly turned back after hearing gunfire from Wavre, a town with two stone bridges across the River Dyle, where Grouchy had attacked the Prussians. However, Blücher insisted that Bülow continue. Grouchy won a tactical victory at Wavre, but it made no difference to the outcome of the campaign. He briefly renewed his attack on 19 June, taking Wavre by 10 am. However, he heard the news from Waterloo half an hour later and withdrew.
By 5 pm after an hour’s fighting Bülow had forced Lobau back to the village of Plancenoit, which the Prussians soon captured. Their artillery could now threaten Napoleon’s line of retreat, so he sent a division of the Young Guard in an attempt to retake it.
The Young Guard recaptured Plancenoit, but was then thrown back. Napoleon prioritised the threat to his communications, putting 11 battalions in square on his right flank and sending two Old Guard battalions to retake Plancenoit. They succeeded, forcing 14 Prussian battalions to retreat, but then pushed on too far and had to fall back. However, Plancenoit was now occupied by the Young Guard and the right flank was stable by 6:45 pm, allowing several battalions to return to the reserve.
They failed, but two battalions of the Old Guard then recaptured it, throwing back 14 Prussian battalions from the immediate area. Both sides then stopped to regroup, allowing Napoleon to bring some of the battalions that had been sent to his right back to his central reserve by 7 pm.
The right flank was temporarily stabilised, but more Prussians were on their way. Napoleon therefore decided that now was the time to commit the Imperial Guard units from his central reserve against Wellington’s centre. He personally led them to within 600 yards of the enemy, before handing command over to Ney.
The advance began at 7:30 pm with five battalions of the Middle Guard and a battery of horse artillery in the first line and three battalions of the Old Guard in the second line. Another Middle Guard battalion was positioned as a reserve about half way between Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. The attack was intended to be a general one led by the Imperial Guard rather than one by the Guard alone. Some cuirassiers and Guard cavalry moved forward, but the main support from other units was from artillery.
The French Guard were attacking in echelon, meaning that their battalions did not arrive together. The first two, the 1/3rd and 4th Grenadiers, encountered the British 2/30th, 33rd, 2/69th and 2/73rd Foot of Major General Sir Colin Halkett’s Brigade as they approached the top of the slope. All these British units had suffered heavy casualties at Quatre Bras. Ney was now on foot after having had his fifth horse shot from under him. The two French Guard battalions were forced to retreat by the British musket fire at 40 metres range. The British were then ordered to about face and get behind the hedge at the top of the crest. However, they came under fire from Duchand’s horse artillery, which had approached to within 100 metres of the crest, as they did so, becoming ‘a mere mob.’
When the 1/3rd and 2/3rd Chasseurs à Pied, which had taken significant casualties from artillery fire, reached the crest they appeared to face no opposition. However, the 1,400 guardsmen of Major General Peregrine Maitland’s Brigade stood up 25 metres away when Wellington shouted ‘Now Maitland! Now’s your time!’, firing a volley that hit over 20 per cent of the surviving Chasseurs, with the others retreating.
The British Guards charged the retreating French with fixed bayonets. The 4th Chasseurs then appeared. Maitland ordered his two battalions to stop and reform; the 2/1 Guards on the right did so, but the 3/1 misunderstood and formed square. The 4th Chasseurs continued, but then were confronted by the largest battalion in Wellington’s army, over 1,000 men of Colonel Sir John Colborne’s 52nd Foot. The two battalions briefly exchanged fire before the French retreated.
Wellington now ordered a general advance. The discipline, courage and experience of the Old Guard allowed many, including Napoleon and his entourage, to escape.
Waterloo was a joint victory for Blücher and Wellington. Napoleon planned to defeat Wellington’s multi-national army before Blücher’s Prussians arrived. He could have beaten either of the two Coalition armies but not both together. Wellington could not have won if Blücher had not arrived, but he would not have fought had he not been sure that Blücher was coming. Blücher could not have won had Wellington not stood and fought on ground of his own choosing.
The French lost because they made many mistakes, most of which were the responsibility of Napoleon for appointing the wrong men to key jobs. Ney was unsuited to independent battlefield command, Soult had no experience of staff work and Grouchy none of infantry command. Napoleon did not supervise operations as closely as he had done previously. He would not in the past have wasted so much time in the morning, allowed so many troops to be sucked into the battle for Hougoumont or permitted Ney to make several uncoordinated attacks on Wellington’s squares.
Better options for key positions would have been Marshal Louis-Gabriel Suchet, who was commanding the Army of the Alps, as Chief of Staff, Soult in Ney’s job and Grouchy commanding the cavalry. Marshal Louis-Nicholas Davout, Napoleon’s best Marshal, who was left in Paris as its Governor and Minister of War should have had Grouchy’s command.
The table below gives the total casualties (dead, wounded and missing) over the campaign, including those in a Franco-Prussian engagement at Gilly on 15 June. Some men lightly wounded in the earlier battles fought at Waterloo and not every available man fought at Waterloo.
|Date and Battle
|15 June – Gilly
|16 June – Quatre Bras
|16 June – Ligny
|17 June – Allied retreat
|18-19 June – Wavre
|18 June – Waterloo / retreat
|Army at Waterloo
Source: M. Adkin, The Waterloo Companion, (London: Aurum, 2001), pp. 73-74.
All ranks suffered heavily on the three square mile battlefield of Waterloo. Six French generals were killed and 37 wounded out of 114 present. The Allies, who had relatively fewer generals, had five killed and 14 wounded out of 41 and the Prussians two killed and one wounded out of 26.
The battle did not immediately end the war, as the French were holding on elsewhere, but the large numbers of Austrian and Russian troops approaching France meant that Napoleon had little chance of victory. He abdicated on 22 June, hoping to escape to the United States of America from the port of Rochefort, where a ship had been provided for him. On 3 July he arrived there to find that it was blockaded by the British. He surrendered to them on 15 July, hoping to be allowed to live in Britain, but was exiled to St Helena in the south Atlantic.
Most of Napoleon’s senior commanders eventually regained their titles under the restored monarchy. The restored King Louis XVIII issued the Cambray Proclamation, which stated that those who had been ‘misled’ into following Napoleon would not be prosecuted but that he would not ‘pardon the instigators and authors of this horrible plot.’ Ney and the Comte de la Bédoyère, one of Napoleon’s aides, were tried and shot. This website notes that others named on King Louis XVIII’s ordinance, including D’Erlon and Grouchy escaped abroad, but Ney refused opportunities to do so.
For a discussion of why Waterloo was important see this post by Dr Huw J. Davies in Defence in Depth, the blog of the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London. For a number of articles on the British Army in this period see the latest issue of the British Journal of Military History, a free academic journal: registration is required but not payment.
The Napoleonic Wars of 1803-1815, which had closely followed on from the Revolutionary War were now over. It was also the last of a series of major European Wars that had begun with the Nine Years War of 1688-97. The opposing Coalitions had varied, but France and Britain were always on different sides. It was some time before the two became allies and British and Vichy French forces did fight during World War II, but Waterloo was the last major battle between the two countries.
 G. Wootten, Waterloo 1815: Birth of Modern Europe (London: Osprey, 1992), p. 47.
 D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 1064.
 M. Adkin, The Waterloo Companion (London: Aurum, 2001), p. 37.
 Ibid., p. 51.
 Ibid., p. 65.
 Wootten, Waterloo, p. 52.
 Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1068.
 Ibid., pp. 1071-72.
 Ibid., pp. 1072-73.
 Adkin, Waterloo, pp. 329-42.
 Chandler, Campaigns, pp. 1073-76.
 Ibid., pp. 1076-78.
 Ibid., pp. 1078-79.
 Ibid., pp. 1080-84.
 Wootten, Waterloo, pp. 356-61.
 Ibid., p. 68.
 Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1085.
 Ibid., p. 1086.
 Wootten, Waterloo, pp. 49-50.
 Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1084.
 Ibid., p. 1086.
 Ibid., p. 1087.
 Adkin, Waterloo, p. 391.
 Ibid., pp. 393-97.
 Ibid., p. 397.
 Ibid., pp. 397-98.
 Ibid., pp. 399-400.