The Battle of Waterloo 1815
By Ismail Veli…….
There have been many battles in history that have been called ‘Turning points in history’, or at least have captured the imagination of historians. No one can dispute that the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815 was such a battle. Other battles like Gaugamela, October 1st 331 BC, which saw the final destruction of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great, the Macedonian against Darius the Persian king. Cannae, where Hannibal the Carthaginian general with less than 50,000 men destroyed 85,000 Romans on 16th August, 216 BC, in an encircling movement that is still being taught in military academies around the world. Hastings on 14 October, 1066 which pitted Alfred the English King against William the Duke of Normandy which though small in numbers changed the course of history and was the last successful invasion of England by any power. The battle of Malazgirt August 26, 1071 won by Yildirim Bayazit (Yildirim means the thunderbolt) against the Byzantines led to the eventual domination of the Turkic people in Anatolia and set the foundations of Turkish dominance in the region for hundreds of years, are just a few. Waterloo as history goes, is a much more recent battle, and irrevocably changed the course of European history. The implications are however too long for an article, so we shall briefly concentrate on Waterloo itself.
The battle took place on a Sunday near a small town in what is present-day Belgium. It finally destroyed the power of Napoleon and the French dominance in Europe. After many victories Napoleon was finally forced into exile to his birthplace on the island of Corsica, but he returned from what came to be known as ”100 days in exile”. The scene was set for an epic confrontation that involved the Prussians under the command of Gebhard von Blucher, and of course the British Duke of Wellington, supported by a few smaller countries like the Netherlands, Hanover, Brunswick and Nassau. The French were led by Napoleon and his brilliant General Michel Ney. The allies had around 68,000 troops of which about 25,000 were from the UK, and at least 50,000 Prussians which were not present at the start of the battle. The French army though much smaller at around 70,000 were all veterans of numerous campaigns, these included the elite cavalry of Cuirassiers and the hitherto unbeaten Imperial Guard. The immense range, styles and formations used at Waterloo has captivated historians for 200 hundred years.
Perhaps one mistake that Napoleon made was delaying the start of the battle due to the nights rainfall which made the terrain very wet, this reduced the effectiveness of his cavalry, and slowed down the positioning of his men and artillery. At the same time he knew that he needed to get the upper hand on Wellington before Blucher’s Prussian army arrived, as this would have the effect of outnumbering his own army. This small gamble was to have devastating consequences for Napoleon as the outcome was finally decided on circumstances that changed by the hour.
Initially the French seemed to have the upper hand with advances towards La Haye Sainte. Unrelenting cavalry attacks by the powerful Cuirassiers led by General Ney was confronted by the British squares who courageously stood their ground. As frightening as Cavalry were, the horses feared the bayonet squares, which was used to great effect. Unlike straight lines these squares formed by skilled and steadfast troops could not be outflanked and were actually designed to withstand encirclement and demoralise cavalry shock attacks. Napoleon was at that point annoyed at what he considered a premature charge by his general. At 11.30am Napoleon’s brother, with 5,000 troops advanced on Hougoumont which was at a strategic position held by no more than 1,500 British. In spite of their smaller numbers however the British were in a strongly fortified position and inflicted fearful casualties on the advancing French who were in the open. When the French broke into the courtyard. The unfortunate French who got caught in the yard were trapped. When the British succeeded in closing the farm gates the unfortunate French trapped in the yard fought to the last man. Only an 11 year old drummer boy was spared, but the fighting continued around the farm in an all day fighting between two fierce and courageous opponents. In his praise of the defence of their position, the Duke of Wellington declared that ”No troops but the British could have held Hougoumont, and only the best at that”.
Napoleon knew full well that Hougoumont was a make or break, as it protected the right flank of Wellington’s army. The French capture of Papelpotte and La Haye Sainte in the centre almost brought Napoleon within sight of victory, but at 1.pm Napoleon noticed some movement to the east of the battle which worried him. A detachment of French cavalry was sent to investigate
To his horror it turned out to be the Prussians, but they were still 5 miles away, so Napoleon began his attacks against the allies before the overwhelming forces against him came into play.
It was around 2pm and as the French advanced towards the British lines the British cavalry charged their lines, the casualties inflicted on the French infantry were truly horrific, but British losses were also rising and Wellington was very concerned with the situation on his left flank. Meanwhile the Prussians were advancing towards the small village of Plancenoit, though at a distance from the main battle, the Prussians were attacking the French troops with vigour, this forced Napoleon to commit more troops against the Prussians. Wellington realised that heavy fighting was taking place as artillery fire could be heard from a distance. The French were now stretched but Napoleon ordered massive waves of cavalry into action. Between 4pm and 6pm the French Cuirassiers mounted attack after attack in their effort to break down the British lines. The squares held firm but at a terrible cost in human lives. In fact the 27th Regiment lost almost 500 out of their 750 men, but the remaining men stood their ground. Most of the casualties were from French artillery fire against the squares.
By 6.15pm La Haye Sainte finally fell to the French and their attacks against the allies increased in ferocity. Wellington was by now under extreme pressure, and knew that the allies had to stand firm in the hope that the Prussians would finally break Napoleon’s lines and arrive with re-enforcements. With the allied centre weakened, Napoleon pushed more troops towards Wellington in an attempt to finish him off. Though the French held La Haye Sainte, the British against all the odds still held Hougoumont. By 7pm, the elite French Imperial Guard advanced breaking the allied line. At a critical moment the British began to rain heavy musket fire at very close range, and for the first time the elite French troops were being cut down in droves. At the same time the Prussians finally reached the French lines pitted against the allied flank. Napoleon looked on in horror to the east and saw the immense Prussian force attacking the French right wing. The fields were covered with tens of thousands of dead. Napoleon was finally crushed. His dreams of European domination left in tatters, he was finally captured and sent into exile to the island of St Helena until his death in 1821. Wellington went on to become a great British hero and in 1928 was elected as Britain’s Prime Minister.
For many years Napoleon had dominated mainland Europe with great victories. From the battle of Aboukir in 1799. He suffered a naval defeat at Trafalgar by Lord Nelson in 1805. His brilliant victory at Austerlitz against the Austrians in 1805 and the epic battle of Borodino in Russia in 1812 was followed by the French retreat from the Russian winter which was the start of his downfall. His enemies united in their fear of his brilliant military tactics, while his ego in taking on the whole of Europe finally led to his destruction. Sadly his quest for supremacy was to cause an immense loss of lives with various estimates from 5 to 7 million people on all sides. Europe had not seen such carnage in its previous history. Only WW1 and WW2 in the 20th century surpassed such butchery on the European continent. 200 years on, the debate and research by historians on what are described as the Napoleonic wars have not diminished one bit. In-spite of the suffering caused by this war, Napoleon is seen as a French hero. Others like Wellington, Lord Nelson and Blucher have carved a name in history that is still ingrained in the hearts of many military historians. If one thing is certain, it’s that the Napoleonic wars, Waterloo in particular, will continue to be a cause of analysis and endless debates for centuries to come, of that there is little doubt.
I am showing below some pictures of diaramas I have created at my home of the Battle of Waterloo and you can read more of my hobby of researching famous battles and history of places and people by clicking here.