Waterloo, Battle of


Waterloo, Battle of
(1815)
   The most decisive battle of the Napoleonic Wars. Waterloo brought a final end to Napoleon Bonaparte ’s reign and the military threat posed by France since 1792. Fought in Belgium between Napoleon’s army and an Anglo-Allied force under Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington, aided by elements of the Prussian army under Field Marshal Gerhard von Blücher, Waterloo demonstrated nothing of the finesse of earlier Napoleonic battles: it was a slogging match, pure and simple. On June 17, Wellington deployed his army on a low rise called Mont St. Jean, south of Brussels, with many of his troops concealed behind the reverse slope. On the following morning the French had approximately 72,000 men arrayed against 68,000 British, Hanoverians, and Dutch-Belgians under Wellington, who counted on the support of tens of thousands of Prussians engaged at the same time against Marshal Grouchy at Wavre, nine miles to the east.
   Fruitlessly waiting for the ground to dry out after the previous night’s rain, Napoleon opened the engagement around 11:30 A.M . by launching General Reille’s corps against the farm of Hougoumont, a heavily fortified position in Wellington’s center right. This was intended to serve as a mere diversion to draw in the Duke’s reserves while the main French thrust was to be made by d’Erlon’s corps. In fact, the French attack on Hougoumont unwittingly intensified, attracting more and more French infantry to the fighting with no decisive result. D’Erlon advanced at 2:00 P.M ., only to be driven off in disorder by counterattacking cavalry, which, after cutting through the infantry, advanced far behind French lines where they were largely destroyed. To the east, the Prussians began to reach the fringes of the battlefield—albeit in piece-meal fashion—thus obliging Napoleon to detach a corps under Count Lobau in the center to delay them at Plancenoit.
   Then, inexplicably, Marshal Michel Ney, the de facto commander in the field, proceeded to launch most of the reserve cavalry, unsupported by infantry and artillery, against the Allied center. Numerous attempts to break the British infantry, all safely deployed in squares, failed, with massive losses to Napoleon’s mounted arm. By 5:30 P.M . the charges had ceased, with nothing to show for their effort but gallantry on a grand scale. At the same time, although elements of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard had thus far managed to hold off the Prussians at the village of Plancenoit on the French right flank, steadily increasing numbers of Blücher’s men were beginning to bear against weakening resistance. Allied victory was by no means assured, however, for the fortified farm of La Haye Sainte, in Wellington’s center, fell to the French in the late afternoon, leaving a large gap in the Allied line. Wellington managed to shift troops to avert catastrophe, and by the time Napoleon had ordered forward the Imperial Guard around 7:30 P.M ., the opportunity to exploit his temporary success had been lost. In the event, when these elite troops were repulsed by point-blank musket and artillery fire—a catastrophe rendered still more calamitous by the knowledge that the Prussians were now on the field in strength—French morale broke all along the line, with whole formations dissolving in the ensuing rout. Napoleon fled the field, leaving behind 25,000 killed and wounded and 8,000 prisoners; Wellington lost 15,000 killed and wounded, and the Prussians suffered approximately 7,000 Casualties.
   See also <>; <>; <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Adkin, Mark. The Waterloo Companion: The Complete Guide to History’s Most Famous Land Battle . London: Aurum Press, 2001;
    Barbero, Alessandro. The Definitive History of the Battle of Waterloo . London: Atlantic Books, 2005;
    Chalfont, Lord, ed. Waterloo: Battle of Three Armies . London: Sedgwick and Jackson, 1979;
    Hibbert, Christopher. Waterloo: Napoleon’s Last Campaign . Blue Ridge Summit: Cooper Square Books, 2004;
    Howarth, David. Waterloo: A Near Run Thing . London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003;
    Roberts, Andrew. Waterloo: Napoleon’s Last Gamble . London: HarperCollins 2005;
    Wooten, Geoffrey. Waterloo 1815 . Oxford: Osprey, 1992.
   GREGORY FREMONT-BARNES

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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