It is an unforgettable story of frantic marching, extreme weather, brutal fighting and extraordinary courage of those caught up in the last great battle of horse, musket and cannon shot. –Historian, Tim Clayton

Not all over

By Roger Childs

It was March 1815 and the European great powers thought that Napoleon was no longer a threat to peace on the continent. They had endured over 20 years of war and were now in Vienna, feasting, dancing, playing up and occasionally negotiating the future map of Europe. 

However, they were jolted out of their revelry and increasing political disagreement by the news that Bonaparte had escaped from the Mediterranean island of Elba and was being welcomed back to France. It was time for the allies to get back in the saddle and unite against the common enemy.

A legacy of on-going war

From the mid 1790s France was the dominant power in Europe. Following the French revolution in 1789 which overthrew the corrupt and autocratic Bourbon dynasty, the European monarchies were terrified that the revolutionary contagion would spread. 

They decided to invade France, but ultimately, lead by a young Corsican soldier, the French turned the tables. Napoleon Bonaparte is arguably one of the greatest military strategists of all time and it was under his leadership that France came to dominate Europe. He redrew the map of the continent and helped spread revolutionary ideas from Spain to Poland.  

However, in 1812 he made his greatest mistake: invading Russia. Although he reached Moscow, Napoleon was forced to retreat in the freezing Russian winter and lost most of his army. Under the inspirational leadership of Czar Alexander I, the well organised and provisioned Russian forces drove the French back across Europe. 

The end of the Napoleonic wars?

By 1814, the Quadruple Alliance of Russia, Austria, Prussia and Britain, had defeated the French, exiled Napoleon to Elba and restored Louis XVIII to the throne of France. With the war seemingly over it was off to Vienna where a Congress was held to decide the future boundaries of Europe. 

It was no easy task and in trying to distribute the spoils among themselves and nations that had supported them, they were soon at loggerheads.  However, Napoleon’s return to France and overthrow of Louis XVIII, re-established the united front among the four powers. 

Napoleon’s gamble

When his attempts to negotiate a peace settlement with the other powers failed, Napoleon realised that he would have to defeat the coalition on the battlefield to gain recognition of his renewed rule in France. He rebuilt the French army and headed north-east to confront the Allied forces. 

His fate and the future of Europe would be decided on a small battlefield in Belgium. The epic battle was fought in an area of only 8km².

Napoleon had some early successes in minor engagements, defeating 

  • the British forces at Quatre Bras 
  • the Prussians at Ligny. 

However, both Coalition armies were able to withdraw in good order to fight another day. Surprisingly, Napoleon failed to give instructions to harass the retreating Prussians, until it was too late.

The great general or the little corporal as many called him, was suffering from stomach cancer and his usual superb strategic instincts would often elude him in the coming days. 

Wellington calls the shots

The Duke of Wellington led the main Allied army which consisted of thousands of Dutch, Belgian and Hanoverian troops as well as British divisions. Because Napoleon had to seek a battle, Wellington was able to choose the ground: near the village of Waterloo. 

So he-

  • took the high ground
  • placed most of his troops behind a ridge
  • fortified two small settlements Le Haye Sainte and Hougoumont  on the slope of the ridge to allow cross fire on the advancing French
  • forced the French to attack up the ridge.

A lethal one day battle: 18 June 1815

The battle raged all day and had many twists and turns. The weather had been dreadful in the preceding days with heavy rain turning the battlefield into a quagmire. This made it difficult for troops to advance, for cavalry to ride easily and for cannon balls to bounce.

Infantry in those days advanced in tight columns, so that once the firing began the casualties were horrific. Musket rounds always shattered bones so if you were hit in the arms or legs it was automatic amputation, that’s if you made it back to the field station.

Casualties were horrific and in the space of 12 hours 

  • the Allies lost c. 22,000 dead or wounded
  • the French lost c. 25,000 dead, wounded or captured.

The heroism of the combatants on both sides was extraordinary as they fought on in dense smoke and incredible noise. Understandably in this age before field telegraph and cellphones,  it was very difficult for the generals to communicate. Also leaders on horseback were easy targets for sharpshooters. Much depended on the intiative of local commanders.  

The outcome was in doubt until the early evening. After holding off the French infantry advances and cavalry sorties, Wellington’s forces were under pressure late in the day, especially when the French eventually captured the ferociously defended Hougoumont settlement.

Both sides were anticipating reinforcements.

  • Napoleon hoped Marshal Grouchy, who had chased after the Prussians a few days earlier, would arrive with his 30,000 strong army. 
  • Wellington was expecting the 50,000 Prussian forces under General Blucher.

Then out of the smog behind the French and on their left flank, Blucher appeared in the nick of time. Blucher greeted Wellington with Mein lieber Kamerad! Quelle affaire! Napoleon was doomed.

The Duke of Wellington would later make this judgment of the battle “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life” 

The Waterloo legacy

This time Napoleon was banished to the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic. Louis XVIII was again restored to the French throne and Russia, Austria, Britain and Prussia eventually redrew the map of Europe at Vienna. 

The map would change drastically as the 19th century progressed, but in the aftermath of Waterloo and the end of 26 years of on and off warfare, the great powers established a process of meeting to discuss major issues on the continent.

Although there were many revolutions and localised wars in Europe during the 19th century, the great powers would not engage in a continent wide conflict until the horrendous war of 1914-18.   

Our region was named after the Duke of Wellington, and naturally the city has a Waterloo Quay.

The Lion’s Mound (French: Butte du Lion, lit. “Lion’s Hillock/Knoll”; Dutch: Leeuw van Waterloo) is one of the monuments around the historical battleground area in what is now Belgium. The engineer Jean-Baptiste Vifquain conceived of it as a symbol of the Allied victory rather than as glorifying any sole individual. (Wikimedia commons)