Battle of Waterloo Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The final great military action of the long Napoleonic Wars, the Battle of Waterloo ended Napoleon’s bid to regain his throne, led to his final and permanent exile from Europe, and left Great Britain the undisputed leading power in Europe.

Summary of Event

On March 1, 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte returned to France from the island of Elba, Elba Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];escape from Elba where he had been exiled by the victorious allies after abdicating his throne. Napoleon believed correctly that the French people, especially members of the army, despised the restored Bourbon monarchy. Upon his landing, he was almost universally hailed, and thousands of troops rallied to their long-victorious standards—the imperial eagles. Even Marshal Michel Ney, who had sworn he would return with Napoleon “in an iron cage,” fell under the charismatic power of his former commander and deserted the Bourbon cause. Waterloo, Battle of (1815) Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);Battle of Waterloo Wellington, duke of [p]Wellington, duke of;Battle of Waterloo Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];Battle of Waterloo Belgium;Battle of Waterloo Blücher, Gebhard Leberecht von Ney, Michel Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];Hundred Days [kw]Battle of Waterloo (June 18, 1815) [kw]Waterloo, Battle of (June 18, 1815) Waterloo, Battle of (1815) Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);Battle of Waterloo Wellington, duke of [p]Wellington, duke of;Battle of Waterloo Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];Battle of Waterloo Belgium;Battle of Waterloo Blücher, Gebhard Leberecht von Ney, Michel Napoleon I [p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];Hundred Days [g]Belgium;June 18, 1815: Battle of Waterloo[0820] [g]France;June 18, 1815: Battle of Waterloo[0820] [g]Great Britain;June 18, 1815: Battle of Waterloo[0820] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 18, 1815: Battle of Waterloo[0820] Drouet d’Erlon, Comte Jean-Baptiste Grouchy, Emmanuel de

British troops prepare to make their final advance against the French at Waterloo.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Napoleon also hoped that emerging differences between the allies—Great Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia—would prevent them from responding effectively to his return. There was some reason for that belief, as Austria, Russia, and Prussia had come close to going to war over the issue of controlling Poland, Poland;and Russia[Russia] Russia;and Poland[Poland] while Britain adopted a generally aloof and unhelpful role. The issue of Poland had been resolved, however, and so great was their mutual hatred and fear of the French emperor that the allies were determined on his destruction.

By the time Napoleon entered Paris in triumph on March 20, the allies had already begun to respond. An Austrian army of 200,000 troops was being prepared to invade France, with a Russian force of 150,000 to follow later during the summer. To the north, an Anglo-allied army under Arthur Wellesley, the duke of Wellington, was forming in the Low Countries, supported to the east by a Prussian force commanded by General Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. After the four allied armies were ready, they would launch a coordinated attack on Napoleon, pushing him into Paris. There, he could be reduced by siege, thus denying him a chance to outwit his opponents on the battlefield, as he had so often done in the past.

Napoleon’s two main options were to adopt a delaying strategy, holding off the allies until they agreed to a negotiated peace, or to take the initiative. Typically, he chose the more active course. His decision was to strike first against the Prussians and Anglo-allied forces in Belgium, defeating them before they could unite and forcing each to retreat to its base of operations—Wellington to the Channel ports, Blücher to the Rhineland Rhineland . The destruction or even the disruption of these two armies would make the north secure, so Napoleon could swing to the south and east and face the Austro-Russian threat. Still married to the daughter of the Austrian emperor, Napoleon hoped the Habsburgs Habsburg Dynasty;and Napoleon I[Napoleon 01] might be disposed to a peace treaty that would allow him to retain his throne.

French troops retreating from Waterloo.

(R. S. Peale/J. A. Hill)

After quickly raising an army of some 100,000 troops, Napoleon moved his forces skillfully and secretly to the Franco-Belgian frontier. While the allies remained unaware of Napoleon’s location, he crossed the Sambre River on June 16 to a position that threatened both Wellington’s and Blücher’s forces. A detachment under Marshal Ney struck at the British forces in position around the village of Quatre Bras, while French troops led by Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy Grouchy, Emmanuel de fell on the Prussians at Ligny. Ney’s attack on Wellington was inconclusive, but the British withdrew during the night to take up defensive positions near the village of Waterloo. The French defeated Blücher’s troops and, although reinforcements requested from Ney were recalled before they could rout the Prussians, Napoleon believed that Blücher would continue retreating eastward and was therefore no immediate threat. As a result, he promptly turned to crush the Anglo-allied force, leaving part of his army under Grouchy to contain any Prussian countermarch.

French soldiers flocking to Napoleon’s banner after his escape from Elba.

(The S. S. McClure Company)

The bulk of Wellington’s army was made up not of British soldiers, but of German, Dutch, and Belgian units, many of them suspected by Wellington of being unreliable and perhaps pro-French. Wellington’s doubts were reflected in his disposition of his forces in taking up a defensive position on the road to Brussels: The weaker allied units were stationed on the flanks, where they could do the least harm, while the more reliable continental troops, such as the King’s German Legion, were placed among the steadier British forces in the middle. The British right flank was anchored by a strong point, the Château de Hougoumont, and the left flank by a cluster of farmhouses and cottages. Napoleon’s forces were drawn up across from Wellington’s army. After becoming aware that Blücher had not continued his retreat and therefore was a threat, Napoleon decided against a battle of maneuver and instead opted for a direct, forceful frontal attack to break Wellington’s composite army.

The battle opened just before midday on June 18, with a French advance against Hougoumont to deprive the British of that stronghold. This engagement quickly degenerated into a vicious hand-to-hand exchange which lasted throughout the rest of the battle without materially affecting it. Meanwhile, Napoleon ordered an intensive bombardment of Wellington’s center by a “grand battery” of some eighty cannon. This cannonade, designed to break the morale of the allied troops, was followed by an infantry attack under General Comte Jean-Baptiste Drouet d’Erlon Drouet d’Erlon, Comte Jean-Baptiste that bent but failed to breach the allied line. Marshal Ney, mistakenly believing the allies about to break, ordered a series of cavalry charges. The British troops quickly formed squares and repulsed the cavalry with considerable losses for the French. A countercharge by the British cavalry extended too deeply into the French lines, and the British horsemen in turn experienced heavy casualties.

As the afternoon wore on, two events brought the battle to a crisis point. In the center, the French captured the strong points of La Haye Sainte, a collection of buildings and its nearby sandpit. This development placed the already battered center of Wellington’s line in great danger. To the right of the French line, Blücher’s Prussians, who had not been contained by Grouchy’s Grouchy, Emmanuel de troops, began to drive in Napoleon’s flank. Grouchy himself and the forces under his command remained out of contact with Napoleon and never appeared on the battlefield, even though Grouchy was desperately urged by his officers to “march toward the sound of the guns.”

Now desperate to force a conclusion, and believing that the British center must at last be weakened to the point of collapse, Napoleon gambled on one last move. Around seven o’clock, he committed his last, and probably his best, troops, the Imperial Guard, to a frontal attack against Wellington’s right center. Having carefully held his reserves intact throughout the day, Wellington was able to reinforce the point of impact with relatively fresh and solid units. Concentrated and deadly British volley fire caught the soldiers of the Imperial Guard on their front and flanks, breaking their charge. When the Imperial Guard turned in retreat, Wellington sensed the tide of battle had turned irreversibly. He ordered a general advance of the entire Anglo-allied line. At the same time, the Prussians broke through Napoleon’s right flank, and the French army collapsed.

During the ten-hour battle, the French lost some twenty-five thousand men killed and wounded, with nine thousand captured. Wellington’s army had approximately fifteen thousand casualties, while Blücher’s Prussians, coming late but decisively to the field, suffered about eight thousand casualties.

Significance

The defeat at Waterloo was the end for Napoleon and his dream of empire. He attempted to raise a second army, but his marshals refused to support him and his enemies in Paris conspired against him. Abdicating again on June 21, and fearing revenge from the other allies, he surrendered directly to the British. He was then exiled—more successfully this time—to the distant south Atlantic island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821.

Wellington, already a British national hero for his earlier victories in the Napoleonic Wars, rose to an even higher level in his nation’s esteem. He remained in France until 1818 as the commander of the British army of occupation. After he returned home, he entered politics and became prime minister in 1828.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Corrigan, Gordon. Wellington: A Military Life. London: Hambledon and London, 2001. A former soldier, Corrigan examines Wellington’s claims to military greatness, concluding that he was the first modern general.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gneisenau, August von. The Life and Campaigns of Field Marshal Prince Blücher of Whalstaff: From the Period of His Birth and First Appointment in the Prussian Service Down to His Second Entry into Paris in 1815. Translated by General Count Gneisenau and J. E. Marston. London: Constable, 1996. A reprint of a biography written by the chief of staff of General Blücher, the commander of the Prussian army during the Battle of Waterloo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamilton-Williams, David. Waterloo: New Perspectives. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1993. Uses archival and documentary evidence, much of it French and Prussian, to argue that Dutch, Belgian, and German forces have had their contributions eclipsed by a focus on the British army’s role.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hofschroer, Peter. 1815, The Waterloo Campaign: The German Victory: From Waterloo to the Fall of Napoleon. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1999. History of Napoleon’s last months in power from the German perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howarth, David. Waterloo: A Near Run Thing. Conshohocken, Pa.: Combined Books, 1997. A reexamination of the Battle of Waterloo by a leading authority on the campaign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Waterloo: Day of Battle. New York: Atheneum, 1968. A fast-paced overview of the battle that draws heavily on records and narratives of actual participants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keegan, John. The Face of Battle. New York: Viking Press, 1976. A classic study of warfare that gives a masterful presentation of the battle as it must have appeared to its participants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schom, Alan. One Hundred Days: Napoleon’s Road to Waterloo. New York: Atheneum, 1992. Concentrates on Napoleon’s return and the campaign prior to the battle, outlining the goals and strategy of his campaign against Wellington and Blücher.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Uffindell, Andrew. The Eagle’s Last Triumph: Napoleon’s Victory at Ligny, June 1815. London: Greenhill Books, 1994. A military history of the battle at Ligny, which occurred two days before Waterloo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weller, Jac. Wellington at Waterloo. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1967. Weller presents a novel study by restricting himself to what Wellington could have known at any given moment of the battle.

Bonaparte Is Crowned Napoleon I

Battle of Trafalgar

Battle of Austerlitz

Peninsular War in Spain

Napoleon Invades Russia

Battle of Salamanca

Battle of Borodino

Battle of Leipzig

France’s Bourbon Dynasty Is Restored

Congress of Vienna

Second Peace of Paris

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