Waterloo is one of the most famous battles in European history, even today, nearly 200 years after the battle the site is a very popular attraction for visitors from all over Europe. In April 1814 when Napoleon finally abdicated it seemed that the Napoleonic wars were finally over. By the end of the war the European armies had started to adopt French tactics and strategies and the myth of Napoleon’s invincibility had been shattered. Despite this the restored French monarchy was soon in trouble and the victors were more interested in dividing the spoils than watching out for the now exiled Napoleon.
Landing in France on 26th Febuary 1815 with a handful of troops, Napoleon was within 23 days returned to power. The allies were alarmed and quickly united for the final campaign, a campaign which both sides knew would finally decide the future of Europe. Napoleon decided to strike quickly, for to delay would gain the Allies time to muster vast forces and Napoleon’s public support would soon evaporate. Napoleon’s forces crossed the border into Belgium on 15th June and despite early surprise delay and confusion slowed the French advance. His plan was simple – destroy Prussian and British forces before the Austrians and Russians could arrive. The Waterloo campaign is made up of two sets of double battles, Quatre Bras and Ligny, and Wavre and Waterloo.
The Battlefield at Waterloo is small only 3 miles east/west and 1 1/2 miles deep on which massed nearly 70,000 allies and 71,000 French troops, an area which would be defended by a modern infantry company. Wellington had chosen his ground carefully since he had seen the battlefield previously. He deployed the allies on a reverse slope of a ridge to protect them from artillery fire but with a wood behind which would delay any retreat if things went badly. Two strong points would dominate the battlefield, the farm houses of Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte, these would break up the force of the French attack throughout the day. Wellington had been promised help from the Prussian General Blucher and it would be the arrival of these reinforcements late in the battle which would finally turn the tide. On such a small and muddy battlefield there was little prospect of manoeuvres so the battle became a series of brutal frontal assaults by the French showing none of Napoleon’s skill. By four in the afternoon, the Prussians had started to arrive and the French had made little progress but attrition was starting to tell on the Allied forces. A last attack by the Imperial guard was routed and panic started to spread through the French forces. The battle was finally over. The allies lost 55,000 men and French 60,000, a horrendous cost prompting Wellington to say “Nothing save a battle lost is so terrible as a battle won”. Napoleon’s last great gamble had failed and he was exiled to St Helena in the South Atlantic where he died 6 years later.