Hey, guys, let’s talk about the battle of Waterloo. This is going to be rather long, but you really can’t skip the important parts. I have narrowed it down as best I can, and thanks for reading! (If you haven’t read my background on Napoleon, read that post first.)
Napoleon Bonaparte knew that he needed a quick victory to defeat the Seventh Coalition. In June 1815, with 130,000 infantry, cavalry, artillery, etc., Napoleon invaded Belgium, taking the allies by surprise and dividing the armies of Gebhard Blucher and the Duke of Wellington. He defeated both in the battles of Ligny and Quatras Bras, but his marshals didn’t follow through with the attacks, so Wellington and Blucher escaped with their armies. Napoleon then ordered 30,000 men under Marshal Grouchy (pronounced “Groo-SHE”) to pursue the Prussians while Napoleon pursued Wellington.
On the night of June 17th, Wellington positioned his 67,000 men on the ridge of Mont Saint Jean. Napoleon followed with 75,000 men. On June 18th, Wellington fortified the farmhouse of La Haye Saint and the chateau of Houguomut. This was a strategic advantage, because it prevented a full-scale assault. Basically, Napoleon couldn’t use his superior force against Wellington because the French would have to attack the farmhouses and be caught in a deadly crossfire.
It is unclear when the battle started. After extensive research, I think it started at 11:50 a.m., although some sources think it was at 12:00 or 1:00. Anyway, Napoleon ordered a division under his brother, Jerome, to take Houguomut, which was guarded by 1,500 Coldstream Guards (elite British infantry) and a few squadrons of Nassau Skirmishers. Jerome, however, is stated to have “mishandled” his division. The guards held their ground, inflicting 2,000 casualties on the French. The French attacked Houguomut all day, but the Guard continued to hold its ground.
Napoleon ordered Marshal D’Erlon’s corps to attack Wellington’s Left. Erlon attacked and was meet by General Thomas Picton’s division.
The fighting was savage, and Picton was killed and his division forced back. Wellington ordered the British cavalry to attack Erlon’s men. The Scots Greys (heavy cavalry) were held in reserve, but as the British calvary (Household Brigade) was driven back, the Scots Greys were ordered to charge. The Scottish members of the infantry saw the “Greys” and started shouting, “Go at them! The Greys! Scotland for Ever!” and rushed back with them into the fight, annihilating Erlon’s men. But the Scots rode too far and were attacked in the flank by French lancers. Although most of them managed to escape, a large portion were killed or captured.
With his attack pushed back and no signs of breakthrough at Houguomut, Napoleon decided to attack Wellington’s center, Le Haye Sainte, garrisoned by 420 King’s German Legion (KGL) rifleman. Marshal Ney was ordered to attack the farmhouse, but the Germans had a great advantage; they were equipped with rifles. The difference between a musket and a rifle is that a rifle has a greater range than a musket due to the “rifling” inside the barrel, which allows the bullet to go farther. Amazingly, the riflemen held their ground, inflicting 600 casualties.
Napoleon was worried, not about his failed attack, but about something else. The Prussian forces under Blucher had been sighted nearby approaching the village of Plancenoit. Napoleon dispatched his young guard (elite) to stall them. Ney was at the head of the line when he noticed the British were falling back. It was actually a minor adjustment Wellington was making. He mistook it for a withdrawal and launched 12,000 cavalry against Wellington’s center.
The British formed hollow squares. This tactic was all about animal psychology: a horse would not go near a row of sharp pointed bayonets. The French attacked again and again but were repulsed. However, Ney took Le Haye Sainte. Of the 420 brave riflemen (KGL), only 80 survived. Their tenacious defense bought time for Wellington to reorganize his line. But now Napoleon could bring artillery and batter Wellington’s center. But he needed troops to exploit this, and he had no line infantry. All he had was his Imperial Guard and a few battalions of middle guard (Old Guard). He gathered every soldier he could find and ordered the guard to attack the center. The guard had never been defeated, and now they were expected to win the day for Napoleon.
The 4,500 men advanced, and Wellington ordered 1,500 Coldstream Guards to lie down to protect them from the artillery. As the Old Guard approached, Wellington showed his big surprise, shouting, “Now, Maitland!” Suddenly, they rose up and delivered a murderous volley at point blank range. The guard began dropping as if by command, then Wellington ordered his men to advance. Wellington’s artillery soon started to fire canister (a hollow can full of musket balls that bursts when it fires). The guard was practically being annihilated. It was too much, and the guard broke.
Soon the word started down the line, “The guard has broken.” Only a large force of Old Guard grenadiers held their ground covering the retreat. The Prussians broke through at Plancenoit and Napoleon’s army was destroyed. The remains of the guard formed a square and were soon surrounded by Wellington’s men. Wellington offered them surrender. There are several sources as to what Pierre Cambronne, a guard general who was in the square, said. The Popular theory is that he said “merde” which is French for “crap,” while a more reliable source reports that he said, “The guard dies; it does not surrender.”
Whatever the reply was, it was clear that the guard would die defending their emperor. It soon became a heroic last stand. Cambronne was captured. The casualties were enormous: 40,000 French were killed, wounded, and captured, while Wellington suffered considerable losses–17,000 men dead wounded.
This battle wasn’t really as significant to world history as historians say it is, because, even if Napoleon had won Waterloo, it is doubtful that he could have held off the enormous Austro-Russian armies. But it’s important because it shows Napoleon’s exit from the world stage.
Next article is your choice! Request a topic in the comments, and I’ll write about that!