Battle of Waterloo

From New World Encyclopedia

Battle of Waterloo
Part of the Napoleonic Wars (Seventh Coalition 1815)
Sadler, Battle of Waterloo.jpg
The Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler
Date 18 June 1815
Location Waterloo, Belgium
Result Decisive Coalition victory
First French Empire Seventh Coalition:
United Kingdom
Kingdom of Prussia
United Netherlands
Napoleon Bonaparte
Michel Ney
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
Gebhard von Blücher
73,000 67,000 Coalition
60,000 Prussian (48,000 engaged by about 18:00)
25,000 dead or wounded; 7,000 Captured; 15,000 Missing[1] 22,000 dead or wounded[2]

The Battle of Waterloo, fought on June 18, 1815, was Napoleon Bonaparte's last battle. His defeat put a final end to his rule as Emperor of France and to his imperial ambition to rule as much of the world as he could conquer. The Battle of Waterloo also marked the end of the period known as the Hundred Days, which began in March 1815 after Napoleon's return from Elba, where he had been exiled after his defeat at the battle of Leipzig in 1813.

After Napoleon returned to power, many countries which had previously resisted his rule began to assemble armies to oppose him. The principal armies of Napoleon's opponents were commanded by the United Kingdom's Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, and Prussia's Gebhard von Blücher. These armies were close to France's north east frontier, and Napoleon chose to attack them rather than wait for them to cross into France.

While the campaign hung in the balance for most of its duration, the decisive battle became the Battle of Waterloo. Allied forces, under Wellington, withstood a final French attack, and counter-attacked while the Prussians, arriving in force, broke through on Napoleon's right flank.

The battlefield is in present day Belgium, about 12 km (7.5 miles) SSE of Brussels, and 2 km (1.2 miles) from the town of Waterloo. One of the most decisive battles in history, the phrase "to meet one's Waterloo" has entered the English language signifying when someone great and prideful makes a great challenge only to suffer a final and decisive defeat—as Napoleon did. Although as Lichfield[3] points out, the victory depended as much if not more on the soldiers of the Prussians, Hanoverians, Saxons, Dutch and Belgians, it has become "a living part of" British self-identity. Never again would the French and the British meet on the battle field. British ascendancy worldwide was assured, even though it can be debated whether Napoleon would have survived much longer even had he won his Waterloo.[4]

Map of the Waterloo campaign


On March 13, 1815, six days before Napoleon reached Paris, the powers at the Congress of Vienna declared him an outlaw; four days later the United Kingdom, Russia, Austria, and Prussia bound themselves to put 150,000 men each into the field to end his rule. Napoleon knew that, once his attempts at dissuading one or more of the Seventh Coalition allies from invading France had failed, his only chance of remaining in power was to attack before the Coalition put together an overwhelming force. If he could destroy the existing Coalition forces south of Brussels before they were reinforced, he might be able to drive the British back to the sea and knock the Prussians out of the war.

Wellington expected Napoleon to try to envelop the Coalition armies, a manoeuvre that he had successfully used many times before,[5], by moving through Mons to the south-west of Brussels. The roads to Mons were paved which would have enabled a rapid flank march. This would have cut Wellington's communications with his base at Ostend, but would also have pushed his army closer to Blucher's; in fact, Napoleon planned instead to divide the two Coalition armies and defeat them separately, and encouraged Wellington's misapprehension with false intelligence. Moving up to the frontier without alerting the Coalition, Napoleon divided his army into a left wing, commanded by Marshal Michel Ney, a right wing commanded by Marshal Grouchy and a reserve, which he commanded personally (although all three elements remained close enough to support one another). Crossing the frontier at Thuin near Charleroi before dawn on June 15, the French rapidly over-ran Coalition outposts and secured Napoleon's favored "central position" - at the junction between the area where Wellington's allied army was dispersed to his north-west, and Blücher's Prussian army to the north-east. Only very late on the night of the 15th was Wellington certain that the Charleroi attack was the main French thrust, and he duly ordered his army to deploy near Nivelles and Quatre Bras. Early on the morning of the 16th, at the Duchess of Richmond's Ball, on receiving a dispatch from the Prince of Orange, he was shocked by the speed of Napoleon's advance, saw that the position at Quatre Bras was untenable, and selected the site where the battle of Waterloo would be fought. [6]

As Napoleon considered the concentrated Prussian army the greater threat, he moved against them first. Ziethen's rearguard action held up Napoleon's advance, giving Blücher the opportunity to concentrate his forces in the Sombreffe position, which had been selected earlier for its good defensive attributes. Napoleon sent Marshal Ney, in charge of the French left, to secure the crossroads of Quatre Bras, towards which Wellington was hastily gathering his dispersed army. Once Quatre Bras was secured, Ney could swing east and reinforce Napoleon.

Ney, advancing on June 16, found Quatre Bras lightly held by allied troops of Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar and the Prince of Orange who had deployed them there on their own initiative. They successfully repelled Ney's initial attacks, and as the Battle of Quatre Bras developed they were reinforced by other allied troops including Wellington who arrived in the middle of the afternoon and took over command of the Anglo-allied forces engaged in the battle. Finally, Wellington was able to counter-attack and drive the French back from the crossroads.

Napoleon, meanwhile, took the reserve and the right wing of the army and defeated the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny on the same day. The Prussian center gave way under heavy French attack, but the flanks held their ground.

The Prussian defeat at the Battle of Ligny made the Quatre Bras position untenable. Wellington spent the 17th falling back to a defensive position he had personally reconnoitred the previous year at Mont St. Jean, a low ridge south of the village of Waterloo and the Forest of Soignes.[7] Napoleon, with the reserve and the right wing of the Army of the North, made a late start and joined Ney at Quatre Bras at 13:00 to attack Wellington's army, but found the position empty. The French pursued Wellington's army, but the result was only a brief cavalry skirmish in Genappe just as torrential rain set in for the night.

Before leaving Ligny Napoleon gave Marshal Grouchy 33,000 men and orders to follow up the retreating Prussians. A late start, uncertainty about the direction the Prussians had taken and vague orders to Grouchy meant that he was too late to prevent the Prussian army reaching Wavre, from where it could march to support Wellington.



Three armies were involved in the battle: the French Armée du Nord, a multinational army under Wellington, and a Prussian army under Blücher. The French army of around 69,000 consisted of 48,000 infantry, 14,000 cavalry, and 7000 artillery with 250 guns.[8] France also had a conscript army for a number of years, and as the battle was too early for the 1815 round, all the French troops would have served at least one campaign.

Wellington called his army "an infamous army, very weak and ill equipped, and a very inexperienced Staff".[9] It consisted of 67,000 with 50,000 infantry, 11,000 cavalry, and 6000 artillery with 150 guns. Of these, 24,000 were British with another 6000 from the King's German Legion (and included 7000 Peninsular War veterans[10]), though all were regular troops. In addition, the Duke of York imposed many of his staff officers on him, including his second-in-command, the Earl of Uxbridge. Uxbridge commanded the cavalry and had a carte blanche from Wellington. In addition, there were 17,000 troops from the Netherlands, 11,000 from Hanover, 6000 from Brunswick, and 3000 from Nassau.[11] These armies had been re-established in 1813 following the earlier defeat of Napoleon. Most of the professional soldiers in these armies had spent their careers in the armies of France or Napoleonic regimes, with the exception of some from Hanover and Brunswick who had fought with the British army in Spain. The main variation in the quality of troops was between regular troops and the militia troops in the continental armies which could be very young and inexperienced. [12]

The Prussian army was in the throes of reorganization as its reserve regiments became line regiments along with many of the previous 1814 Landwehr regiments and its artillery was also reorganizing and would not give its best performance, though its militia, the Landwehr, was significantly better than other militias.[13] It was under the command of Blücher, though in fact much of its operation was directed by his chief-of-staff, Gneisenau, who greatly distrusted Wellington.[14] Two and a half Prussian army corps or 48,000 men, were engaged in the battle by about 18:00. (Two brigades under Friedrich von Bülow, commander of the IV Corps, attacked Lobau at 16:30, Georg von Pirch's II Corps and parts of Graf von Ziethen's I Corps engaged at about 18:00.)


The Waterloo position was a strong one. It consisted of a long ridge running east-west and perpendicular to the main road to Brussels. Along the crest of the ridge ran the Ohain road, a deep sunken lane. Near the crossroads was a large elm tree that served as Wellington's command post for much of the day. Wellington deployed his infantry in a line just behind the crest of the ridge following the Ohain road. Using the reverse slope, as he had many times previously, nowhere could Wellington's strength actually be seen by the French except for his skirmishers and artillery.[15] The length of front of the battlefield was also relatively short at two and a half miles, allowing Wellington to draw up his forces in depth, which he did in the center and on the right, all the way towards the village of Braine-l'Alleud, with the expectation that the Prussians would reinforce his left during the day.[16]

In front of the ridge there were three positions that could be fortified. On the extreme right was the château, garden, and orchard of Hougoumont. This was a large and well-built country house, initially hidden in trees. The house faced north along a sunken, covered lane (or hollow way) along which it could be supplied. On the extreme left there was the hamlet of Papelotte. Both Hougoumont and Papelotte were fortified and garrisoned, and thus anchored Wellington's flanks securely. Papelotte also commanded the road to Wavre that the Prussians would use to send reinforcements to Wellington's position. On the western side of the main road, and in front of the rest of Wellington's line, was the farmhouse and orchard of La Haye Sainte, which was garrisoned with 400 light infantry of the King's German Legion.[17] On the opposite side of the road was a sand quarry, where the 95th Rifles were posted as sharpshooters.

The challenge which this position presented to an attacker was formidable. Any attempt to turn Wellington's right would entail taking the entrenched Hougoumont position; any attack on his right center would mean the attackers would have to march between enfilading fire from Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. On the left, any attack would also be enfiladed by fire from La Haye Sainte and its adjoining sandpit, and any attempt at turning the left flank would entail fighting through the streets and hedgerows of Papelotte, and some very wet ground.[18]

The French army formed on the slopes of another ridge to the south where there was an inn called La Belle Alliance. Napoleon desired flexibility and could not see Wellington's positions, and so drew his forces up symmetrically about the Brussels road. On the right was I corps under d'Erlon with 16,000 infantry and 1500 cavalry and a cavalry reserve of 4700; on the left II corps under Reille with 13,000 infantry, and 1300 cavalry, and a cavalry reserve of 4600; and in the center about the road south of La Belle Alliance a reserve including Lobau's VI corps with 6000 men, the 13,000 infantry of the Imperial Guard, and a cavalry reserve of 2000.[19] On the right of the rear of the French position was the substantial village of Plancenoit, and at the extreme right, the wood Bois de Paris. Napoleon initially commanded the battle south of La Belle Alliance at Rossomme farm where he could see the entire battlefield, but moved to the inn early in the afternoon. Command on the battlefield (which was largely hidden from him) was delegated to Ney.[20]


Wellington was up very early, around 02:00 or 03:00 on the morning of June 18, and wrote letters until dawn. He had written to Blücher confirming with him that he would give battle at Mont St. Jean provided Blücher would provide him with at least a corps, otherwise he would retreat towards Brussels. At a late night council, Blücher managed to persuade Gneisenau to join Wellington's army and in the morning Wellington received dispatches promising him three corps.[21] After 06:00 Wellington was out supervising the deployment of his forces.

Bülow's corps had not taken part at Ligny, but had been marching for two days. His corps had been posted farthest away from the battlefield and progress was very slow owing to the terrible condition of the roads because of the rain, having to pass through Wavre, and the 88 pieces of artillery they carried with them. As a result, the last part of the corps left six hours after the first part at 10:00.[22]

Napoleon breakfasted off silver at the house where he had spent the night, Le Caillou. Afterwards, when Soult suggested that Grouchy should be recalled to join the main force, Napoleon said "Just because you have all been beaten by Wellington, you think he's a good general. I tell you Wellington is a bad general, the English are bad troops, and this affair is nothing more than eating breakfast."[23] Later on, on being told by his brother, Jerome, of some gossip between British officers overheard at lunch by a waiter at the King of Spain inn in Genappe that the Prussians were to march over from Wavre, Napoleon declared that the Prussians would need at least two days to recover and would be dealt with by Grouchy.[24]

Napoleon had delayed the start of the battle owing to the sodden ground that would have made the manoeuvring of cavalry and artillery very difficult. In addition, many of his forces had bivouacked well to the south of La Belle Alliance. At 10:00, he sent a dispatch to Grouchy in answer to one he had received six hours earlier, telling him to "head for Wavre [to Grouchy's north] in order to draw near to us [to the west of Grouchy]" and then "push before him" the Prussians to arrive at Waterloo "as soon as possible".[25]

At 11:00 Napoleon drafted his general order. He made Mont-St-Jean the objective of the attack and massed the reserve artillery of I, II, and VI Corps to bombard the center of Wellington's army's position from about 13:00. A diversionary attack would be made on Hougoumont by Jerome's Corps, which Napoleon expected would draw in Wellington's reserves since its loss would threaten his communications with the sea. D'Erlon's corps then would attack Wellington's left, break through, and roll up his line from east to west. In his memoirs, Napoleon wrote that his intention was to separate Wellington's army from the Prussians and drive it back towards the sea.[26]


La bataille de Waterloo, Clément-Auguste Andrieux (1852)

Wellington recorded in his despatches "at about ten o'clock [Napoleon] commenced a furious attack upon our post at Hougoumont"[27] Other sources state that this attack was at about 11:30.[28] The historian Andrew Roberts notes that, "It is a curious fact about the battle of Waterloo that no one is absolutely certain when it actually began."[29] The house and its immediate environs were defended by four light companies of Guards and the wood and park by Hanoverian Jäger and the 1/2nd Nassau.[30] The initial attack was by Bauduin's brigade, which emptied the wood and park, but was driven back by heavy British artillery fire and cost Bauduin his life. The British guns were distracted into an artillery duel with French guns and this allowed a second attack by Soye's brigade and then by what had been Bauduin's. This succeeded in reaching the north gate of the house and some French troops managed to get into its courtyard before the gate was secured again. This attack was then repulsed by the arrival of the 2nd Coldstream Guards and 2/3rd Foot Guards.

Fighting continued around Hougoumont all afternoon with its surroundings heavily invested with French light infantry and co-ordinated cavalry attacks sent against the troops behind Hougoumont. Wellington's army defended the house and the hollow way running north from it. In the afternoon Napoleon personally ordered the shelling of the house to cause it to burn,[31] resulting in the destruction of all but the chapel. Du Plat's brigade of KGL was brought forward to defend the hollow way, which they had to do without any senior officers, who were then relieved by the 71st Foot, a Scottish infantry regiment. Adam's brigade, further reinforced by Hew Halkett's 3rd Hanoverian Brigade, successfully repulsed further infantry and cavalry attacks sent by Reille and maintained the occupation of Hougoumont until the end of the battle.

The Hougoumont battle has often been characterized as a diversionary attack to cause Wellington to move reserves to his threatened right flank to protect his communications, but this then escalated into an all-day battle which drew in more and more French troops but just a handful of Wellington's, having the exact opposite effect to that intended.[32] In fact there is a good case that both Napoleon and Wellington thought Hougoumont was a vital part of the battle. Hougoumont was a part of the battlefield that Napoleon could see clearly[33] and he continued to direct resources towards it and its surroundings all afternoon (33 battalions in all, 14,000 troops). Similarly, though the house never contained a large number of troops, Wellington devoted 21 battalions (12,000 troops) over the course of the afternoon to keeping the hollow way open to allow fresh troops and ammunition to be admitted to the house. He also moved several artillery batteries from his hard-pressed center to support Hougoumont.[34]

First French infantry attack

Map of the battle. Napoleon's units are in blue, Wellington's in red, Blücher's in gray

Napoleon had drawn up 54 of his cannon together to form a grande batterie. These opened fire between noon and 13:30.[35] The battery was too far back to aim accurately, and the only other troops they could see were part of the Dutch Division (the others were employing Wellington's characteristic "reverse slope defence";[36] in addition, the soft ground prevented the cannon balls from bouncing far, and the French gunners covered Wellington's entire deployment, so the density of hits was low. However, the idea was not to cause a large amount of physical damage, but in the words of Napoleon's orders, "to astonish the enemy and shake his morale."[36]

At about 13:00, Napoleon saw the first columns of Prussians around the village of Chapelle St Lambert, four or five miles (three hours' march for an army) away from his right flank.[37] Napoleon's reaction was to send a message to Grouchy telling him to come towards the battlefield and attack the arriving Prussians.[38] However, Grouchy had been following Napoleon's previous orders to follow the Prussians "with your sword against his back" towards Wavre, and was by now too far away to get to the field at Waterloo. Grouchy was advised by his subordinate, Gérard, to "march to the sound of the guns", but stuck to his orders and engaged the Prussian III Corps rear guard under the command of Lieutenant-General Baron Johann von Thielmann at the Battle of Wavre.

A little after 13:00, the infantry attack of the French I Corps began, with the advance of its first division under Donzelot on La Haye Sainte, which, with cavalry support, succeeded in isolating the farm house. At about 13:30 the corps commander, d'Erlon, started to advance his three other divisions, some 14,000 men over a front of about 1000m against Wellington's weak left wing.[39] They faced 6000 men: the first line consisted of the Dutch 2nd division and the second by British and Hanoverian troops under Sir Thomas Picton. Both lines had suffered badly at Quatre Bras; in addition, the Dutch brigade towards the center of the battlefield under Bijlandt, had been exposed to the artillery battery.[40]

D'Erlon, like Ney, had also encountered Wellington in Spain, and was aware of the British commander's favored tactic of using massed short-range musketry to drive off infantry columns; therefore, rather than the use the usual nine-deep French columns, each division advanced in four closely-spaced battalion lines behind one another, allowing them to concentrate their fire.[41]

The attack successfully pressured Wellington's troops. It was resisted at the center of Wellington's position,[42] but the left wing started to crumble. Bijlandt's brigade was withdrawn to the sunken lane, and then, with nearly all their officers dead or wounded, left the battle field with the exception of their Belgium battalion, the Seventh.[43][44] Picton had been killed and the British and Hanoverian troops were beginning to give way under the pressure of numbers.

Charge of the British heavy cavalry

At this crucial juncture, the two brigades of British heavy cavalry, formed unseen behind the ridge, were ordered by Uxbridge to charge in support of the hard-pressed infantry. After over twenty years of warfare, the British cavalry had the best horses in Europe, but were technically inferior, cavalier in attitude, unlike the infantry, had not much experience in warfare, and no tactical ability.[45] The Household Brigade (so-called as formed from the regiments of the 1st and 2nd Life Guards, the Royal Horse Guards (the Blues), and the 1st 'King's' Dragoon Guards), led by Lord Somerset, and the Union Brigade (so-called as it consisted of an English (the Royals), Scottish Scots Greys, and Irish (Inniskilling) dragoon regiments), commanded by Major-General Sir William Ponsonby, had a likely actual strength of about 2000 and charged with the 47-year-old Lord Uxbridge leading them and little reserve.[46]

The Household Brigade charged down the hill in the center of the battlefield. The French cuirassiers were still dispersed and so were swept over the deeply sunken main road[47] and then routed. Continuing, they then destroyed Aulard's Brigade; however, despite attempts to then recall them, they continued past La Haye Sainte and found themselves at the bottom of the hill on blown horses facing Shmitz's brigade formed in squares.

The Sunken Road at Waterloo, reproduction painting by Stanley Berkeley

On Wellington's left wing, the Union Brigade suddenly swept through the infantry lines (giving rise to the apocryphal legend that some of the Cameron Highland troops clung onto their stirrups and accompanied them into the charge). From the center leftwards, the Royal Dragoons destroyed Bourgeois's brigade, capturing the Eagle of the 105th Ligne. The Inniskillings routed the other brigade of Quoit's division, and the Greys destroyed the most of Nogue's brigade capturing the Eagle of the 45th Ligne.[48] On Wellington's extreme left, Durette's division had not yet committed themselves fully to the French advance and so had time to form squares and fend off groups of Greys.

As with the Household Brigade, the officers of the Royals and Inniskillings found it very difficult to rein back their troops, who lost all cohesion. The commander of the Greys, James Hamilton, (which were supposed to form a reserve) ordered a continuation of the charge to the French Grande Batterie and though they did not have the time or means to disable the cannon or carry them off, they put very many out of action as their crews fled the battlefield.[49]

Napoleon promptly responded by ordering a counter-attack from his cavalry reserves by the cuirassier brigades of Farine and Travers. In addition, the two lancer regiments in the I Corps light cavalry division under Jaquinot also counter-attacked. The result was very heavy losses for the British cavalry. All figures quoted for the losses of the cavalry brigades as a result of this charge are estimates, as casualties were only noted down after the day of the battle and were for the battle as a whole.[50] However, an alternative view is that the official rolls overestimate the number of horses in the field and the proportionate losses were much higher, with each part of the Union Brigade losing about a third killed (including its commander, Major-General William Ponsonby, and Hamilton), and a third wounded (around 600 out of less than a thousand). The first line of the Household Brigade lost around a half of its strength, though the second line, especially the Blues, had kept their cohesion and suffered significantly fewer casualties and so were able to participate later in the battle.[51] Though the two brigades lost heavily (including the commanders of the Union Brigade and the Scots Greys) records of their actions subsequent to their first charge indicate that at least some parts of the heavy brigades continued to operate as units throughout the rest of the day.

A counter-charge by British and Dutch light dragoons and Hussars[52] on the left wing and Dutch carabineers in the center repelled the French cavalry back to their positions.[53]

The activities of the British heavy cavalry following their repulse of Napoleon’s first and arguably most dangerous assault were not negligible. Far from being ineffective they provided very valuable services, they counter-charged French cavalry numerous times (both brigades),[54] halted a combined cavalry and infantry attack (Household Brigade only),[55] and were used to bolster the morale of those units in their vicinity at times of crisis and fill gaps in the Allied line caused by high casualty numbers in infantry formations (both Brigades).[56] This service was rendered at a very high cost, close combat with French cavalry, carbine fire, infantry musketry and, more deadly than all of these, artillery fire steadily eroded the number of effectives in the two brigades. At the end of the day the two brigades could only muster a few composite squadrons.

Meanwhile, the Prussians began to appear on the field. Napoleon sent his reserve, Lobau's VI corps and two cavalry divisions, some 15,000 troops, to hold them back. With this, Napoleon had committed all of his infantry reserves, except the Guard, and he now had to beat Wellington with inferior numbers.[57]

The French cavalry attack

At this point, Ney noted an apparent exodus from Wellington's center. This was simply the movement to the rear of casualties from the earlier encounters, but he mistook this for the beginnings of a retreat. Lacking an infantry reserve, as they had all been committed either to the futile Hougoumont attack or to the defence of the French right, Ney tried to break Wellington's center with his cavalry alone. Thousands of armoured heavy cavalrymen struggled up the slope to the fore of Wellington's center, where squares of allied infantry awaited them.[58] The French cavalry attacks were repeatedly repelled by the solid infantry squares (four ranks deep with fixed bayonets - vulnerable to artillery or infantry, but deadly to cavalry), the harrying fire of British artillery as the French cavalry recoiled down the slopes to regroup, and the decisive counter-charges of the allied Light Cavalry regiments, the Dutch Heavy Cavalry Brigade, and the remaining effectives of the Household Cavalry. After numerous fruitless attacks on the allied ridge, the French cavalry was exhausted. Consequently, Ney organized a combined arms (infantry, artillery and cavalry) attack on La Haye Sainte, which fell as the defending King's German Legion troops ran out of ammunition. Ney then moved artillery up to the allied center and began to pulverize the infantry squares.[58]

The arrival of the Prussians IV Corps: Plancenoit

Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher.
Battle of Waterloo Robinson

The first Prussian corp to arrive was the IV Corps and its objective was Plancenoit as a launch point into the rear of the French positions. It was Blücher's intention to secure his left upon Frichermont using the Bois de Paris road.[59] Blücher and Wellington had been exchanging communications since 10:00 and had agreed to this advance on Frichermont if Wellington's center was under attack.[60][61] General Bülow noted that Plancenoit lay open and that the time was 16:30.[59] At about this time the 15th Brigade IV Corps linked up with the Nassauers of Wellington's left flank with the brigade artillery, horse artillery deployed to the left in support.[62] Napoleon sent Lobau's Division to intercept Bülow's IV Corps Therefore Napoleon sent his ten battalion strong Young Guard to beat the Prussians back. 15th Brigade threw Lobau's troops out of Frichermont with a determined bayonet charge. The 15th proceeded up the Frichermont heights battering French Chasseurs with 12-pounder artillery fire and pushed on to Plancenoit. Napoleon had dispatched the entire eight battalions of Young Guard and two battalions of the Old Guard to reinforce Lobau's Division. Hiller's 16th Brigade had 6 battalions available and pushed forward to attempt to take Plancenoit. The Young Guard counter-attacked and after very hard fighting, the Young Guard recaptured Plancenoit but were themselves counter-attacked and driven out.[57] Napoleon sent two battalions of the Old Guard and after ferocious bayonet fighting—they did not deign to fire their muskets—they recaptured the village. The dogged Prussians were still not beaten, and approximately 30,000 troops under Bülow and Pirch attacked Plancenoit again. It was defended by 20,000 Frenchmen in and around the village.

Attack of the Imperial Guard

With Wellington's center exposed by the French taking of La Haye Sainte, and the Plancenoit front temporarily stabilized, Napoleon committed his last reserve, the hitherto-undefeated Imperial Guard. This attack is one of the most celebrated passages of arms in military history, but it is unclear which units actually participated. It appears that it was mounted by five battalions of the Middle Guard, and not by the Grenadiers or Chasseurs of the Old Guard. Three Old Guard battalions did move forward and formed the attack's second line, though they remained in reserve and did not directly assault the Allied line.[63] Marching through a hail of canister and skirmisher fire, the 3,000 or so Middle Guardsmen defeated Wellington's first line of British, Brunswick and Nassau troops. Meanwhile, elements of General von Ziethen's 1st Prussian Army Corps had finally arrived helping to relieve the pressure on Wellington's left flank, thus allowing Wellington to strengthen his shaken center.[64] The French guard battalions marched on, and the situation became critical. Chassé's Netherlands division was sent forward. Chassé brought up his artillery to halt the French advance and silence the opposing artillery. Its fire took the victorious grenadiers in the flank. This still could not stop the Guard's advance, so Chassé ordered his first brigade to charge the French.[65]

Meanwhile, to the west, 1,500 British Guards under Maitland were lying down to protect themselves from the French artillery. They rose as one, and devastated the shocked Imperial Guard with volleys of fire at point-blank range. The French chasseurs deployed to answer the fire. After ten minutes of exchanging musketry the outnumbered French began wavering. This was the sign for a bayonet charge. But then a fresh French chasseur battalion appeared on the scene. The British guard retired with the French in pursuit, but the French in their turn were halted by flanking fire from the 52nd Light Infantry of Adam's brigade.[66]

The last of the Imperial Guard retreated headlong in disarray and chaos. A ripple of panic passed through the French lines - "La garde recule. Sauve qui peut!" ("The Guard retreats. Save yourself if you can!"). Wellington, judging that the retreat by the Imperial Guard had unnerved all the French soldiers who saw it, stood up in the stirrups of Copenhagen, and waved his hat in the air, signalling a general advance. The long-suffering allied infantry rushed forward from the lines where they had been shelled all day, and threw themselves upon the retreating French.[66]

After its unsuccessful attack on Wellington's center, the French Imperial Guard rallied to their reserves of three battalions, (some sources say four) just south of La Haye Sainte for a last stand against the British. A charge from General Adam's Brigade and an element of the 5th Brigade (The Hanoverian Landwehr (Militia) Osnabruck Battalion), both in the second allied division under Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton, threw them into a state of confusion; those which were left in semi-coherent units fought and retreated towards La Belle Alliance. It was during this stand that Colonel Hugh Halkett asked the surrender of General Cambronne. It was probably during the destruction of one of the retreating semi-coherent squares from the area around La Haye Sainte towards La Belle Alliance that the famous retort to a request to surrender was made "La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas!" ("The Guard dies, it does not surrender!").[67]

Prussian advance

Throughout the late afternoon, Zieten's I Corps had been arriving in greater strength in the area just north of Le Haye. This allowed Wellington to reinforce his center in time to repulse Napoleon's attack. At the time the French Guard was being repulsed from the British center, the Prussian I Corps was breaking through the French center. By 19:30, the French position was bent into a rough horseshoe shape. The ends of the U were now based on Hougomont on the French left, Plancenoit on the French right, and the center on La Haye.[68] The French had retaken the positions of La Haye and Papelotte in a series of attacks by General Durette's Division. Oberst von Hofmann's 24th regiment led an advance towards Le Haye and Papelotte; the French forces retreated behind Smohain without contesting the advance. The 24th Regiment advanced against the new French position but was seen off after some early success. The Silesian Schützen and the F/1st Landwehr moved up in support as the 24th regiment returned to the attack.[69] The French fell back before the renewed assault without much of an attempt at defense. At this point, the French began to seriously contest ground, attempting to regain Smohain and hold on to the ridgeline along Papelotte and the last few houses of Papelotte. The 24th Regiment linked up with a Highlander battalion on its far right. Determined attacks by the 24th Regiment and the 13th Landwehr regiment with cavalry support threw the French out of these positions and further attacks by the 13th Landwehr and the 15th brigade expelled them from Fichermont. Durutte’s division was beginning to unravel under the assaults when General Zieten’s I Corps cavalry poured through the gap.[70] Durutte's division, finding itself about to be charged by massed cavalry of Ziethen's I Corps cavalry reserve, retreated quickly from the battlefield. I Corps then attained the Brussels road and the only line of retreat available to the French.

The Capture of Plancenoit

At about the same time, the Prussians were pushing through Plancenoit, in the third assault of the day upon the town. The Prussian 5th, 14th, and 16th brigades, were involved in the attack. Each Prussian brigade would be about nine battalions strong, roughly the size of a French division. The church was fully involved in a fire, with house-to-house fighting leaving bodies from both sides laying about.[70] The French Guard battalions, a Guard Chasseur and 1/2e Grenadiers were identified as holding the position. Virtually all of the Young Guard was now involved in the defence, along with remnants of Lobau's Division. The key to the position proved to be the woods to the south of Plancenoit. The 25th regiment's musketeer battalions threw the 1/2e Grenadiers (Old Guard) out of the Chantelet woods, flanking Plancenoit and forcing a retreat. The Prussians IV Corps advanced beyond Plancenoit to find masses of French retreating in a jumbled mass from pursuing British units. The Prussians were unable to fire for fear of hitting allied units. It was now seen that the French right, left, and center, were failing.[71]


The whole of the French front started to disintegrate under the general advance of Wellington's army and the Prussians following the capture of Plancenoit.[72] The last coherent French force consisted of two battalions of the Old Guard stationed around the inn called La Belle Alliance. This was a final reserve and a personal bodyguard for Napoleon. For a time, Napoleon hoped that if they held firm, the French army could rally behind them.[73] But as the retreat turned into a rout, they were forced to withdraw and form squares as protection against the leading elements of allied cavalry. They formed two squares, one on either side of La Belle Alliance. Until he was persuaded that the battle was lost and he should leave, Napoleon commanded the square which was formed on rising ground to the (French) left of the inn.[74] [75] The Prussians engaged the square to the (French) right, and General Adam's Brigade charged the square on the right, forcing it to withdraw.[76] As dusk fell, both squares retreated away from the battlefield towards France in relatively good order, but the French artillery and everything else fell into the hands of the Allies and Prussians. The retreating Guards were surrounded by thousands of fleeing Frenchmen who were no longer part of any coherent unit. Allied cavalry harried the fleeing French until about 23:00. The Prussians, led by General von Gneisenau, pursued them as far as Genappe before ordering halting. By that point, some 78 guns had been captured along with about 2,000 prisoners, including more Generals.[77] At Genappe, Napoleon's carriage was found abandoned still containing diamonds left in the rush. These became part of King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia's crown jewels, one Major Keller of the F/15th receiving the Pour le Mérite with oak leaves for the feat.[78]


Peter Hofschröer has written that Wellington and Blücher met at Genappe around 22:00 signifying the end of the battle.[78] Other sources have recorded that the meeting took place around 21:00 near Napoleon's former headquarters La Belle Alliance.[79] Waterloo cost Wellington around 15,000 dead and wounded, and Blücher some 7,000. Napoleon lost 25,000 dead and injured, with 8,000 taken prisoner.

After the French defeat at Waterloo, the simultaneous Battle of Wavre (the last pitched battle of the campaign), was concluded 12 hours later. The armies of Wellington and Blucher advanced upon Paris. In the final skirmish of the Napoleonic Wars, Marshal Davout, Napoleon's minister of war, was defeated by Blücher at Issy on June 3, 1815.[80] With this defeat, all hope of holding Paris faded, and Napoleon announced his abdication June 24, 1815. Allegedly, Napoleon tried to escape to North America but HMS Bellerophon caught up to him and he promptly surrendered to her captain on July 15. There was a campaign against holdout French fortresses that ended with the capitulation of Longwy September 13, 1815. The Treaty of Paris was signed on November, 20, 1815. Louis XVIII was restored to the throne of France, and Napoleon was exiled to Saint Helena, where he died in 1821.[81]

The battlefield today

Lion's Mound at Waterloo, erected on the spot where it is believed the Prince of Orange was wounded

The current terrain of the battlefield is very different from what it would have been in 1815. In 1820, the Netherlands' King William I ordered the construction of a monument on the spot where it was believed his son, the Prince of Orange, had been wounded. The Lion's Hillock, a giant mound, was constructed here, using 300,000 cubic meters of earth taken from other parts of the battlefield, including Wellington's sunken road. Wellington, when visiting the site years later, allegedly complained "They've spoiled my battlefield!"


  1. Alessandro Barbero, The Battle: A New History of Waterloo. (Atlantic Books, 2006. ISBN 1843543109), 420.
  2. Barbero, 419. Wellington's army: 3,500 dead; 10,200 wounded; 3,300 missing.
    Blücher's army: 1,200 dead; 4,400 wounded; 1,400 missing.
  3. John Lichfield, "Waterloo's Significance to the French and the British", The Independent, November 17, 2004, Waterloo's Significance to the French and the British
  4. Litchfield, 2004.
  5. David G. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (New York: Scribner, 1973, ISBN 0025236601).
  6. Elizabeth Harman Pakenham, Countess of Longford, Wellington, the Years of the Sword (Smithmark Pub., 1996), 508.
  7. Longford, 527.
  8. Barbero, 2006, 75.
  9. Longford, 485.
  10. Longford, 484.
  11. Barbero, 75-76.
  12. An artillery captain, Mercer, thought the Brunswickers "perfect children". See A. C. Mercer, "Waterloo, June 18, 1815" Waterloo, 18 June 1815 Retrieved May 8, 2007. On June 13, the commandant a Ath requested powder and cartridges as members of a Hanoverian reserve regiment there had never yet fired a shot. Longford, 486.
  13. Barbero, 39.
  14. Barbero, 21.
  15. Barbero, 78-79.
  16. Barbero, 80.
  17. Barbero, 149.
  18. Barbero, 141, 235.
  19. Barbero, 83-85.
  20. Barbero, 91.
  21. Longford, 535-536.
  22. Barbero, 141.
  23. Longford, 547.
  24. Barbero, 73.
  25. Longford, 548.
  26. Barbero, 95-98.
  27. Arthur Wellesley, "Wellington's Dispateches, June 19, 1818" The War Times Journal Wellington's Dispatches. Retrieved May 8, 2007.
  28. Note that the British watches were kept on London time, and so the times given in some British accounts can be one hour before the true time. Barbero, 95.
  29. Roberts, 55.
  30. Barbero, 113-114.
  31. Barbero, 298. Seeing the flames, Wellington sent a note to the house's commander stating that he must hold his position whatever the cost.
  32. Longford, 552-554.
  33. Barbero, 298.
  34. Barbero, 305-306.
  35. Barbero, 131.
  36. 36.0 36.1 Barbero, 130.
  37. Barbero, 136.
  38. Barbero, 145.
  39. Barbero, 164.
  40. Barbero, 166-168.
  41. Barbero, 165.
  42. Barbero, 174.
  43. Barbero, 177.
  44. The Dutch were booed by some units as they left the battlefield, though some disagreed with this as they thought that they might be more Bonapartists than cowards. Longford, 556.
  45. Barbero, 185-187. Wellington said: "Our officers of cavalry have acquired a trick of galloping at everything. They never consider the situation, never think of maneuvering before an enemy, and never keep back or provide a reserve."
  46. Three for the Household Brigade and none for the Union out of nineteen squadrons in total. Barbero, 188.
  47. An episode famously used later by Victor Hugo in Les Miserables. Barbero, note 18, 426
  48. Barbero, 198-204.
  49. Barbero, 211.
  50. Losses from the official returns taken the day after the battle: Household Brigade, numbering 1,319. Mark Adkin. The Waterloo Companion. (London: Aurum, 2001), 217; killed - 95, wounded - 248, missing - 250, totals - 593, horses lost - 672. Union Brigade, numbering 1,332 (Adkin) killed - 264, wounded - 310, missing - 38, totals - 612, horses lost - 631. Losses from: Digby Smith. The Greenhill Napoleonic Wars Data Book. (London: 1998), 544.
  51. Barbero, 217.
  52. W. Siborne, "History of the Waterloo Campaign." (1894) (Birmingham; 4th edition; first published 1844. reprinted London: Greenhill Books, 1995. ISBN 9781853670695), 329 and 349; (composition of brigades), 422-424; (actions of brigades). Note: William Siborne was in possession of a number of eyewitness accounts from generals, such as Uxbridge, down to cavalry cornets and infantry ensigns. This makes his history particularly useful (though only from the British and KGL perspective); some of these eyewitness letters were later published by his son, a British Major General H.T. Siborne).
  53. Barbero, 219-223.
  54. H. T. Siborne, The Waterloo Letters (1891), reprinted London: Greenhill Books, 1993), letters: 18, 26, 104.
  55. Siborne, 1891/1993, 38; and W. Siborne, 463.
  56. Siborne, 1891/1993, letters 9, 18 and 36.
  57. 57.0 57.1 Hofschröer, 122.
  58. 58.0 58.1 Siborne, 1894/1995, 439.
  59. 59.0 59.1 Hofschröer, 116.
  60. Hofschröer, 95
  61. Charles C. Chesney. Waterloo Lectures: A Study Of The Campaign Of 1815. (1907) (London: Greenhill Books, Rep Sub ed. 1997. ISBN 1853672882), 165.
  62. Hofschröer, 117.
  63. Adkin, 391, the attacking battalions were 1st/3rd and 4th Grenadiers and 1st/3rd, 2nd/3rd and 4th Chasseurs of the Middle Guard, those remaining in reserve were the 2nd/2nd Grenadiers, 2nd/1st and 2nd/2nd Chasseurs of the Old Guard.
  64. David Howarth, Waterloo A near run thing (London: Phoenix Press, 2003. ISBN 1842127195), 152-154.
  65. Chesny, 178.
  66. 66.0 66.1 Chesny, 179.
  67. The retort to a request to surrender may have been "La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas!" ("The Guard dies, it does not surrender!") or the response may have been the more earthy "Merde!", but Letters published in The Times(UK) in June 1932 record that Cambronne said neither, as he was already a prisoner, but that they may have been said by General Michel who was killed at Waterloo. See John White, "Cambronne's Words", Gambronne's Words Napoleon Series. Retrieved May 8, 2007.
  68. Hofschröer, 139.
  69. Hofschröer, 140.
  70. 70.0 70.1 Hofschröer, 144.
  71. Hofschroer, 145.
  72. Hofschröer, 146.
  73. Captain J. Kincaid, "Waterloo, 18 June 1815: The Finale" Waterloo, 18 June 1815: The Finale Retrieved May 8, 2007.
  74. "Drouet's Account of Waterloo", Napoleon Bonaparte Internet Guide. Drouet's Account of Waterloo.
  75. Edward Shepherd Creasy, "Fifteen Decisive Battles: From Marathon to Waterloo" Fifteen Decisive Battles Retrieved May 8, 2007.
  76. Hofschröer, 149.
  77. Hofschröer, 150
  78. 78.0 78.1 Hofschröer, 151.
  79. British Battles: Battle of Waterloo British Battles. Retrieved May 8, 2007.
  80. Nuttall Encyclopaedia of General Knowledge, 1907, Nuttal Encyclopaedia: Issy. Retrieved May 8, 2007.
  81. Hofschröer, 274-276, 320.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Adkin, Mark. The Waterloo Companion. Aurum, 2001. ISBN 185410764X
  • Barbero, Alessandro. The Battle: A New History of Waterloo. Atlantic Books, 2006. ISBN 1843543109
  • Chandler, David G. Campaigns of Napoleon. Scribner, 1973. ISBN 0025236601
  • Chesney, Charles C. Waterloo Lectures: A Study Of The Campaign Of 1815. (1907) London: Greenhill Books, Rep Sub ed. 1997. ISBN 1853672882
  • Glover, Michael. The Napoleonic Wars: an Illustrated History, 1792-1815. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1973. ISBN 088254473X
  • Hofschröer, Peter. 1815, The Waterloo Campaign: The German Victory. London: Greenhill Books, 1999. ISBN 1853673684
  • Hofschröer, Peter. The Prussians and Wellington at Waterloo in 1815 retrieved August 19, 2019.
  • Howarth, David. Waterloo - A Near Run Thing. London: Phoenix Press, 2003. ISBN 1842127195
  • Longford, Elizabeth. Wellington the Years of the Sword. London: Panther, 1971. ISBN 0586035486
  • Roberts, Andrew. Waterloo; June 18, 1815, the Battle for Modern Europe. NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005. ISBN 0060088664
  • Siborne, H. T. The Waterloo Letters. London: Cassell, (1881); reprinted Greenhill Books; 1993. ISBN 9781853671562
  • Siborne, W. History of The Waterloo Campaign. (1894); Birmingham; 4th edition; first published 1844. reprinted London: Greenhill Books, 1995. ISBN 9781853670695
  • Smith, Digby. The Greenhill Napoleonic Wars Data Book. London: Greenhill Books, 1998. ISBN 1853672769
  • Wellesley, Arthur. "Wellington's Dispatches" June 19, 1815. Wellington's Dispatches retrieved August 19, 2019.

External Links

All links retrieved September 26, 2023.


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