1815 Waterloo: 200 years on

Most people have heard of the Battle of Waterloo, the scenes of the battle are depicted on the walls of Hyde Park corner and it is often celebrated for the battle that defeated Napoleon.  As I am writing this, the 200th anniversary of the battle approaches, and there will likely be books celebrating the famous victory, however, how important was the battle and the events that unfolded in it?

By the time of Waterloo, Napoleon was already sick in health, in fact he died not so long after his defeat, and so if he had triumphed over the hastily put together force of Wellington and the Prussians, then it is unlikely he could have continued much further.  The defeat of his army in 1812 in Russia finished Napoleon. Losing nearly 200,000 men to Russian fire and mainly the cold and winter, and his return in 1815 was meagre in comparison to what he had before.

The victory that has often been seen as largely a British victory was in fact mainly won due to the late arrival of the Prussians led by General Blücher.  Wellington knew that if they did not arrive, or if night did not come then his army would be overrun and defeated.  Blucher had to sneak past a 30,000 strong French army that was heading for him and the remnant of his army, he did this at great success and led his men towards the flank of the French army at Waterloo, just as it seemed Napoleon might win the battle.  A clear game changer, if only the French army of 30,000 had marched to the sound of the guns, they might have cut off Blucher and won Napoleon the battle!

Interestingly the attack of the French Imperial Guard, could have won the battle for Napoleon, the coalition line was already heavily damaged, and with these elite experienced troops, who had never lost or retreated before facing the coalition troops, victory seemed possible.  However, the Old Guard (part of the Imperial Guard) which was used by Napoleon broke under extreme heavy fire, Wellington told his men to fire all they had at the guard, and finally they broke, if they had held for a few more minutes, they would have likely have reached the enemy lines.  One reason for this, was that the French marched in column formation, even when marching towards the lines of the British and Dutch troops, this was very susceptible to cannon fire and musket/riffle fire, and made it difficult to move forward when the lines in front go down.

The charge of the French cavalry is seen as another game changer in the battle, believing Wellington was retreating from the battlefield; Nay led the French cavalry forward into a charge.  It must have been quite a sight, with the horses and men under cannon fire, charged across the battlefield with the trumpet sounding the attack.  The British lines who had only retreated over the ridge line, formed into square formations, which meant that the troops in their regiments formed a square, with bayonets put in front so the horses would not charge into the men, whilst those behind fire over, which cavalry found extremely deadly, they could not penetrate it easily.  If the formation suffered casualties, they would then form into triangles or circles.  The destruction of the French cavalry was a major loss to Napoleon.

We all know of the farms at Waterloo, such as Hougoumont, fighting was fierce at these points, which both generals believed were key to deciding the battle and therefore committed many reserves to ensure that they took control of the farm houses.  Wellington’s army held and funnily enough they won the battle, maybe the farms were important on the battlefield!

The film Waterloo, is a fantastic representation of the battle, made in 1970, the film portrays it biased towards the Coalition forces, but the detail of the battle is second to none.  With the help of the Russian army, each person shown was a real soldier, and there was no CGI.  The horror of the battle is shown well, but makes you cheer for the British forces led by Wellington.

As I have said earlier, it is 200 years from the battle, so in Winchester, in the rifles museum, there is a special Waterloo section now, and in my home town of Medway, the Royal Engineers museum have the Waterloo map used by Wellington now on display!  I would think they are both worth a look!  As I come to a close, a song about Napoleon has just come on my music playlist, it’s interesting to see how Napoleon is seen in today’s society and the same goes to Wellington, since they are the focus of the battle!

The Battle of Waterloo was huge and there were many factors for French defeat and British victory, one of which was the weather, but I put a question to you the reader, that was the outcome of the battle so important, would have Napoleon reconquered Europe and do we in Britain put too much emphasis on the battle?  It has shaped British history and had an impact on life in Britain; the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819 was named after the battle and has always been remembered as a famous battle.

Well there is my short introduction on the battle, there have been books written on the subject of this one battle, so my mere 1000 words are not going to be enough to tell you everything of the battle.  Hopefully I have described some key events in the battle.  It saw a lot of death, it must have been horrid to be there at the time, one can imagine the smell of gunpowder, blood and the screams of the dying men.  Not a pleasant sight!  Nonetheless, as it has come to my attention that some historians in France have tried to portray Waterloo as a French Victory, I can tell you the reader that the victor was the coalition led by Britain which finally ended Napoleon’s reign on Europe!

2 thoughts on “1815 Waterloo: 200 years on

  1. This is a good introduction to the Battle of Waterloo covering all of the important aspects and comes to some interesting conclusions. However, I feel it glosses over some parts in order to focus on the ‘cinematic’ moments. You are right in saying that if the Imperial Guard had successfully taken the ridge then Napoleon could have won, but he could have won an awful lot soon. Earlier in the afternoon D’Erlon launched the 17000 men of his corps to attack the Allied left, causing the Dutch troops positioned there to retreat. Napoleon could have easily broken through the Allied line had it not been for the hasty reinforcement by Picton.

    Your dealing with Hougoumont I feel is too brusque. If the farm had fallen then Napoleon could have turned Wellington’s flank. After the battle Wellington commented that it was the closing of the gates of Hougoumont which won the battle.

    As I said, this is a solid introduction and I would be very interested to read any further articles on the battle from you.


    1. Thank you for your comment! And thank you for the information, I will try and write another one in the future that covers more aspects! I feel the battle had so many pivotal points and they should be covered!


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