Battle of Waterloo, 18 June 1815

Waterloo is one of the most famous battles in European history, even today, nearly 200 years after the battle the site is a very popular attraction for visitors from all over Europe. In April 1814 when Napoleon finally abdicated it seemed that the Napoleonic wars were finally over. By the end of the war the European armies had started to adopt French tactics and strategies and the myth of Napoleon's invincibility had been shattered. Despite this the restored French monarchy was soon in trouble and the victors were more interested in dividing the spoils than watching out for the now exiled Napoleon.

Battle of Waterloo

Landing in France on 26th Febuary 1815 with a handful of troops, Napoleon was within 23 days returned to power. The allies were alarmed and quickly united for the final campaign, a campaign which both sides knew would finally decide the future of Europe. Napoleon decided to strike quickly, for to delay would gain the Allies time to muster vast forces and Napoleon's public support would soon evaporate. Napoleon's forces crossed the border into Belgium on 15th June and despite early surprise delay and confusion slowed the French advance. His plan was simple - destroy Prussian and British forces before the Austrians and Russians could arrive. The Waterloo campaign is made up of two sets of double battles, Quatre Bras and Ligny, and Wavre and Waterloo, (only Waterloo will be dealt with here).

Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt
Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt

The Battlefield at Waterloo is small only 3 miles east/west and 1 1/2 miles deep on which massed nearly 70,000 allies and 71,000 French troops, an area which would be defended by a modern infantry company. Wellington had chosen his ground carefully since he had seen the battlefield previously. He deployed the allies on a reverse slope of a ridge to protect them from artillery fire but with a wood behind which would delay any retreat if things went badly. Two strong points would dominate the battlefield, the farm houses of Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte, these would break up the force of the French attack throughout the day. Wellington had been promised help from the Prussian Marshal Blucher and it would be the arrival of these reinforcements late in the battle which would finally turn the tide. On such a small and muddy battlefield there was little prospect of manoeuvres so the battle became a series of brutal frontal assaults by the French showing none of Napoleon's skill. By four in the afternoon, the Prussians had started to arrive and the French had made little progress but attrition was starting to tell on the Allied forces. A last attack by the Imperial guard was routed and panic started to spread through the French forces. The battle was finally over. The allies lost 55,000 men and French 60,000, a horrendous cost prompting Wellington to say "Nothing save a battle lost is so terrible as a battle won". Napoleon's last great gamble had failed and he was exiled to St Helena in the South Atlantic where he died 6 years later.

Waterloo 1815 (1) - Quatre Bras, John Franklin . First of a trilogy on the Waterloo campaign, looking at the battle at the crossroads of Quatre Bras where Napoleon suffered his first setback of the campaign. A well written, densely packed account of the battle, with two thirds of the book dedicated to the actual fighting. Can be read as a stand-alone title or as part of the trilogy. [read full review]
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Waterloo 1815 (2): Ligny, John Franklin. . Second in a trilogy on the Waterloo campaign, looking at the least familiar of the three battles to the English-language reader, the French victory over the Prussians at Ligny, fought on the same day as the successful Allied defensive battle at Quatre Bras. This is a good study of Napoleon's last battlefield victory, and the last of the many 'missed opportunities' of his later years. [read full review]
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Waterloo 1815 (3) Mont St Jean and Wavre, John Franklin . Focuses on the events of 18 June, with most of the text dedicated to the fighting at Waterloo, allowing the author to pack in a great deal of information into the limited space. An excellent account of the battle, weaving the Prussian contribution into the main narrative to give a better impression of how important their contribution actually was. [read full review]
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A Waterloo Hero: The Reminiscences of Friedrich Lindau, ed. James Bogle and Andrew Uffindell. A rare example of a memoir written by a private soldier in Wellington's army, in this case a skirmisher in the King's German Legion who fought in the last few years of the Peninsular War and at Waterloo, where he was involved in the fighting at La Haye Sainte. A valuable insight into the daily life and preoccupations of one of Wellington's men. [read full review]
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Napoleonic Home Page | Books on the Napoleonic Wars | Subject Index: Napoleonic Wars

Wellington: A Military Life, Gordon Corrigan. This in an excellent military biography of the Duke of Wellington. It focuses very heavily on Wellington the general, allows Corrigan to describe the wider campaigns in some detail, giving a good idea not only of what Wellington did, but also why he did it. [see more]
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cover Waterloo 1815 , Geoffrey Wooten, A good introduction to one of the most important battles of European history. Well illustrated but lacking the depth of some of the studies on the market, a starting point for those interested. Lacks a section on wargamming the battle.
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How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, TDP. (23 December 2000), Battle of Waterloo, 18 June 1815, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_waterloo.html

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