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Belgium > Battle of Waterloo

The battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815.

On 25 February 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba Island that he was granted in 1814 after his defeat at Leipzig in 1813 and his abdication a year later. He started then the famous campaign of Hundred Days. He quickly resumed control of the military and political power in France.

In order to face up to the coalition of the powers at the Congress of Vienna, particularly Britain, Prussia, the Netherlands, Russia and Austria, Napoleon built up a strong army. He planned to defeat separately the allied troops dispersed in Belgium before they join together. British troops camped around Brussels, Prussian troops mainly in Namur.

On 15 June 1815, the French army invaded Belgium, quickly passing through the towns of Beaumont, Thuin, Jamioulx, Marcinelle, and Charleroi. Two wings were led by marshals Ney and Grouchy. The long convoy took the direction of Quatre-Bras (a strategic crossroads located south of Brussels), Mont-Saint-Jean and Waterloo. The epic lasted four days and consisted of four battles, all in Belgium:

-- The battle of Ligny on June 16, 1815, between a part of the French troops under the leadership of Napoleon and the Prussian army commanded by Field-Marshal Blücher. The battle took place in Ligny, near Fleurus, twenty kilometers to the northeast of Charleroi. It caused heavy casualties on both sides: close to 10,000 dead or wounded among the French and a few thousand more in the Prussians who have also many desertions.

During the battle, Blücher, 72 years old, fell under his horse shot by the French. It may be captured; but he was saved by his faithful companions. During the unavailability of Blücher, Lieutenant-General August von Gneisenau took over the command of the Prussian troops.

The battle of Ligny was the first confrontation between the allies and Napoleon since his return from Elba. Napoleon's troops, yet lower in number, succeeded in piercing and breaking the center of the Prussian army. The victory was nevertheless a false victory. Blücher who retreated only to save the flanks of his army did not abandon the fight.

-- Also on June 16, 1815, the battle of Quatre-Bras opposed the Allied troops under the Duke of Wellington and the part of the French army led by Marshal Ney. It took place in Genappe, almost halfway between Charleroi and Brussels.It aimed at controlling the crossroads of Quatre Bras, which might enable the Prussians to join the army of the Duke of Wellington.

The crossroads was initially defended by the Dutch, who quickly understood the strategic importance of the place. On June 15, the Duke of Wellington and many senior British officers attended a prestigious ball in Brussels.The ball was held by the Duchess of Richmond, the wife of the Commander of the army in the city. Fresh allied troops started to arrive only two hours after the start of the battle. At night, when the fighting stopped, the French had given up all of their territorial gains.

In the meantime, Wellington heard of the defeat of Blücher at Ligny. This changed completely the situation. He then abandoned the crossroads of Quatre-Bras and retreated on Mont-Saint-Jean, another important road junction where it kept control of access to Brussels. 

-- The battle of Wavre on 18 and 19 June 1815. After controlling the crossroads of Quatre-Bras, Napoleon sent the bulk of his troops in the footsteps of those of Wellington while ordering the right wing of the French Army under Grouchy to pursue the Prussians. As a matter of fact, Blücher had gathered his troops (including those based in Liege) in Wavre. Leaving a rearguard in Wavre, Blücher marched quickly towards Waterloo where the decisive battle between Wellington and Napoleon started.

On June 18, Grouchy lost time to fight the Prussian rearguard in Wavre. When later in the afternoon, he was ordered to join Napoleon in Waterloo with its 33,000 infantrymen, he began moving his troops. But the next morning, confrontations with the Prussian rearguard continued. They turned finally to the benefit of the French. But when Grouchy heard of the defeat and retreat of Napoleon, he decided to retreat toward Paris too.

Battle of Waterloo (reenactment Waterloo 2015)
Battle of Waterloo: reenactment of the battle of 18 June, 1815 (Waterloo 2015).                                   © Waterloo 2015/ Phil Thomason

-- The battle of Waterloo on 18 June. On June 18, 1815, Napoleon's troops faced those the Duke of Wellington gathered near Mont-Saint-Jean in Waterloo and Braine-l'Alleud, about 15 km south of Brussels.
With 73,000 soldiers, the French army was, at the beginning of the battle, a little larger than that of the allies. It was overall more experienced and had a significantly bigger artillery. The army of the Duke of Wellington consisted of British as well as of troops from the Netherlands, Hanover and Brunswick. When Hanover and Brunswick, the ruler of which was that of Great Britain since 1714, had been occupied by the French at the beginning of the 19th century, many soldiers of these lands had migrated across the North Sea and there had formed the German legion of the King.

The day before, Napoleon established his headquarters in the "Ferme du Caillou", a farmhouse located in Genappe, and he prepared his battle plans. The Duke of Wellington stayed in an inn in Waterloo.

The night was very rainy and the ground was completely wet. This slowed down the placement of the plentiful French artillery and might handicap the movements of the cavalry. Napoleon delayed the start of the battle.

The battle took place on a vast plain with gentle upward slopes and downward slopes. The area is now part of the communes of Lasne (Plancenoit), Genappe, Braine-l'Alleud and Waterloo. Before the start of the battle, the British and Dutch troops occupied three large farmhouses (the Hougoumont castle-farm, the La Haie Sainte farm and the Papelotte farm) which played a major role in the battle, since two of them could never be conquered by the French despite repeated attempts. From right to left, these walled farmhouses were strong outposts, from which the French could launch powerful attacks against the troops of Wellington if they had fallen into their hands.

The battle began a little before noon on June 18 with an attack of the Hougoumont farm by the French. This must be a maneuver of diversion on the side in order to compel Wellington to move soldiers from his center. However, the allies stood throughout the day in Hougoumont.

Around 1 p.m., the French artillery opened fire. Damages to the allies were lower than expected. The guns were placed a bit too far away from the target and many cannonballs sunk into the mud. Then, the French troops attacked, climbing to Mont-Saint-Jean.

The advance of the French infantry was impressive. Finally, they were stopped by the British who lay behind the slope of the ground and suddenly stood up and unloaded their guns on the French. At that time, the British cavalry (including the famous Scots Greys) under Lord Uxbridge launched a devastating counter-attack. However, they went too far into the heart of the French troops and were wiped out.

Around 3 p.m., after a new shot of the French artillery, the French Cavalry under the leadership of Marshal Ney vehemently attacked Wellington's infantry which ordered his regiments to form squares.

The British muskets shot 32 gr-balls (compared to 21 gr-balls of French muskets), making them more effective against horses. They were also faster (almost two shots per minute compared to one shot per minute of the French). In addition, during every French onslaught, the British gunners retreated into the squares formed by the infantry. Once the French attack were repelled, they resumed shooting with the cannons that remained intact.

Around 6:30 p.m., the La Haye Sainte farmhouse, located in the center of Wellington's troops finally fell in the hands of the French. Ney requested reinforcements from Napoleon to complete the conquest. But this was not possible since the Prussian troops of Blucher arrived gradually on the battlefield and came quickly into action. Starting at 6 p.m., the Prussians gradually took control of Plancenoit, endangering the rear of the French army.

The arrival of the Prussians turned the tide against the French. Around 7:30 p.m., Napoleon launched his Imperial Guard (elite veteran soldiers) against the center of Wellington's troops. The guard was decimated by the artillery of the allies. Facing the Prussians and Wellington's allied troops, the French retreated in chaos around 8 p.m..
Battle of Waterloo: reenactment
Battle of Waterloo: reenactment.                                                                                       © Waterloo 2015/ Philippe Debruyne


Wellington and Blücher met around 10 p.m. while Napoleon was able to escape. Wellington left Blücher to pursue the last opponents until the last hours of the day.

Although most fights occurred in the nearby areas, the battle was named after the place where the winner had his headquarters. In the night of the victory, the Duke of Wellington wrote indeed his report to the British authorities from Waterloo.

The battle of Waterloo made heavy losses in the ranks of the French troops since about 40,000 people were killed, injured, or missing while they were a bit less than 25,000 among the allies and the Prussians.

The issue of the battle, the violence of the fights and the amount of the casualties made the event mythical. Countless artists (Lord Byron, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, ..) have devoted works to the battle and its heroes .

See here an overview of museums and monuments that feature the battlefield today as well as the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the battle.

On 21 June 1815, Napoleon announced his abdication for the second time and in August he was exiled by the British to the remote island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821. By the Treaty of Paris signed on 20 November 1815, winners repudiated the French revolutionary system, brought back France to its borders of 1790 and imposed France to pay heavy (700 million francs) indemnity as well as the charges of an allied occupation army for five years.

See heremore pictures of the re-enactments of the battle on the occasion of its bicentenary.

See also: Pictures of the Waterloo Memorial and the Lion's Mound.
                Pictures from monuments  of the Battle of Waterloo.
                Pictures from historic farmhouses of Waterloo.
                Pictures from the Hougoumont farmhouse

See also

Belgium > Waterloo 2015: reenactment, museums and monuments of the battle
Belgium > Bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo

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On June 18, 1815, Napoleon's troops faced those the Duke of Wellington gathered near Waterloo in Belgium. The battle of Waterloo ends 23 years of wars between France and the other European leading countries. The final defeat of Napoleon determined the future of Europe.