Marching on Paris
After a year of brooding in exile over his past glories on the island of Elba. Napoleon escaped with 1,200 men and arrived once more on the shores of France. Louis’ total underestimation of the threat of Napoleon paired with his failure to purge the military of its Bonapartist troops led to mass desertions as Napoleon rapidly marched on Paris. On 19 March 1815, the army stationed outside Paris defected to Bonaparte and Louis fled the city; the army and the Marshals had flocked around the Emperor’s eagles, Napoleon had returned.
The Coalition allies quickly declared war on Napoleon, and began to marshal their troops for an invasion of France to rid Europe of the “Corsican ogre” once and for all.
Two allied armies were raised in the Netherlands to oppose any French strike against Brussels; these were the Prussian army of roughly 120,000 men, under the hot-headed old warhorse, Marshal Blucher, and the Anglo-Dutch army of 108,000 men, under the Duke of Wellington. Napoleon had managed to gather 126,000 troops to counter these armies, however, outnumbered 2-1, Bonaparte had to act decisively to prevent Blucher and Wellington joining forces.
The same day, Napoleon detached Marshal Ney to hold the Anglo-Dutch forces at the crossroads of Quatre Bras and thus drove a wedge between the two allied armies. Despite having failed to completely rout the Prussian army the French Emperor had bought time, there remained a chance of a decisive French victory, so long as Napoleon could swiftly crush the Anglo-Dutch army.
Quatre Bras was more or less a draw between allied and French but the French held field whilst the allied army retreated to their pre-prepared positions at Waterloo.
The Battle of Waterloo
The assault on Hougoumont
At around 11.50 a.m. the battle began with an assault on Hougoumont, a farmhouse that the allies had fortified during the night that sat protecting the Anglo-Dutch right flank. This was stoutly defended by the British Guards in the buildings and other allied sharpshooters and skirmishers in the woods. Attacks were launched at Hougoumont throughout the day tying up thousands of elite French troops, a fraction of the manpower was required for the British to hold the farmhouse. French troops famously managed to breach the courtyard of the farmhouse, however a counterattack from the Scots and Coldstream Guards succeeded in sealing the breach; every French soldier was slaughtered apart from the young drummer boy.
French central assault
Napoleon then assembled a Grand battery of 80 guns east of the Genappe road and began to pound the allied centre in preparation for an infantry assault on the allied front, positioned in a line along a sunken ridge overlooking the battlefield.
The French infantry divisions of generals Allix, Marcognet, Durutte and Donzelot advanced in large columns beating the pas de charge on the drums, to the cries of “Vive l’Empereur!”.
They drove back the allied skirmishers and some split off to attack the farm of La Haie Sainte, a second fortified complex located at the centre of the allied army.
The allied artillery raked the French columns with round-shot and cannister causing horrendous casualties, nonetheless, the French marched on relentlessly and crested the ridge. Heavy fighting ensued and the French infantry were briefly checked by British musket volleys. Armed with the Brown Bess musket, British infantry tended to fight in line formation, capable of firing 4 rounds a minute, a round more than most other European armies. Volley fire from a British line could devastate any attack.
It was then that the British Household cavalry and Union Brigade were launched at the French. The Household cavalry drove back supporting French Cuirassiers, whilst the Union Brigade of the 1st, 2nd and 6th Dragoons smashed into Donzelot’s division. Lord Somerset and his Household Brigade swept into Allix’s division, initially a resounding success for the British cavalry. 2 French Eagles were captured and the French infantry were driven back in disorder.
The triumph of the British cavalry charges soon turned into a nightmare. They lost their heads and charged on hacking through the French grand battery and became tired and disorganised. The French cavalry counter attacked, killing Lord Ponsonby the commander of the Union brigade. Panicked, the British cavalry was driven back in a chaotic retreat. The British had lost half of their cavalry in a single wild action.
"Our officers of cavalry have acquired a trick of galloping at everything. They never consider the situation, never think of manoeuvring before an enemy, and never keep back or provide a reserve."
Ney's cavalry charge
The French launched cavalry attacks of their own led by marshall Ney, targeting the allied centre. The first wave comprising of 5,000 men then increasing to over 10,000. Their charge was targeted by artillery cannister and musketry from the British infantry who had formed into squares. They withdrew and charged again and again with fanatical heroism but failed to break the allied squares. Nonetheless serious damage was caused to the allied infantry squares by the French artillery, capable of raking the deep formations. Some regiments were so depleted they had to join with other regiments to form a cohesive square. The carnage was horrifying.
The Prussians arrive
At 4.30 pm Guns were heard to the southeast, The Prussians had arrived! Following the Prussian defeat at the battle of Ligny two days prior, Napoleon had tasked Marshal Grouchy to follow Blucher’s force with a whole third of the French army to ensure they were unable to link with the Anglo Dutch army. Grouchy had dithered away valuable time with a slovenly march, allowing the Prussians army to make its way to Waterloo, eventually launching an attack on the French eastern flank.
Napoleons final push
The French army was split having to fight off Prussian attacks whilst attempting to break through the British line. It was imperative for Napoleon to split the Anglo-Dutch centre so he could then turn on the Prussians. He ordered an all-out attack on La Haie Sainte, finally driving out the gallant defenders and then the French launched a desperate attack on the Allied centre.
The troops in the centre were holding but only just. The Allied army had shrunk from a strength of around 82,000 men to a mere 35,000. It was now Napoleon launched his last reserve and sent in the infantry of the Imperial Guard; 7 battalions in all and supported by as many other French infantry as they could scrape together. They assaulted the Allied ridge at two points but were unable to break through. They were met by point blank musketry from front and flanks pouring volley after volley into the dense French columns, until finally the unthinkable happened, the French guard broke. The cry of ‘La Garde Recule!’- ‘The Guard is retreating!’, filtered along the French lines. With this the French army disintegrated in retreat.
The battle rumbled on for a few more hours across sections of the battlefield however the rout of Guard marked the end of any chance of French victory, the battle was over for Napoleon.
The allies lost around 15,000 men, the Prussians 7,000 and the French between 25,000 and 30,000. A terrible day of carnage and savagery over such a small battlefield.
Napoleon eventually was forced to abdicate once more and exiled to Saint Helena and so the Napoleonic wars finally came to an end.
The British artillery were heavily engaged at Waterloo and have never truly received the attention they deserve for holding the line against the repeated French attacks. They had both 6pdr and 12pdr guns that ceaselessly battered the French infantry attacks and engaged in an artillery duel with the superior French guns.
Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington
Arthur Wellesley was born in Anglo-Irish landed gentry. Initially viewed as an unpromising commander, Wellesley made a name for himself on the Indian subcontinent. On 12 July 1808 Wellesley was dispatched to the Iberian Peninsula to aid the Portuguese and Spanish against the French occupation. It is here that he became truly well known. Vastly outnumbered, he succeeded in holding back numerous French armies through ingenious defensive tactics, Napoleon would describe the Peninsula war as his “Spanish Ulcer”. In 1813, after several years of attritional war, Wellington led a new offensive campaign from Spain directly into southern France. He would finally face Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, following Bonaparte's return from Elba; emerging the victor Wellington, affectionately known as ‘nosey’ by his soldiers, would cement his place in British history alongside the likes of Nelson and Marlborough.