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This week in history: Napoleon defeated at Waterloo

On Sunday, June 18, 1815, Napoleon fought his last battle at Waterloo in Belgium. The battle was to be the first step in the re-creation of the former French empire but ultimately saw Napoleon forced to abdicate for the second time, never to return.

After Napoleon's disastrous 1812 war in Russia, the emperor's enemies had begun to multiply. More defeats followed, and by spring 1814, British, Russian, Austrian and Prussian armies had invaded France itself. Forced to abdicate under the Treaty of Fontainebleau, Napoleon was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba and Louis XVIII, younger brother of the beheaded Louis XVI, ascended the throne.

Restless on the island and aware of discontent within France toward the restored monarchy, Napoleon sailed back to France in March 1815 and soon began marching north toward Paris. Louis sent generals south to stop his advance, not only to protect his own position but to ensure continued peace in Europe. Every military force sent to stop the returned emperor soon joined his ranks, however.

Marshal Michel Ney, who owed his dramatic rise to power to Napoleon but was now eager to prove his loyalty to the new regime, promised the king he would bring Napoleon back to Paris in an iron cage. Ney, like the others sent to stop Napoleon, was soon seduced by the emperor's promises and joined him once again.

Meanwhile, the allies that had defeated Napoleon one year earlier were conducting a peace conference in Vienna. When they heard the emperor was marching on Paris, they wasted no time in constituting their armies to defend against renewed French aggression.

The Russian army, always a slow and lumbering beast, would take its time reaching western Europe, so the Austrians deployed to protect the French approaches into Germany while the British and Prussian armies assembled in Belgium to protect the Low Countries.

On March 20, the French people and army welcomed Napoleon back to Paris and the emperor, keenly aware that his legitimacy had always depended on military victory and wartime emergency powers, delighted when his enemies now declared war on him personally — not on the nation of France.

In his book “Napoleon's Wars: An International History,” historian Charles Esdaile wrote: “With relatively few allied troops ready to take the field, the emperor could now either wait for the massive invasion that the Seventh Coalition was certain to mount as soon as it had brought up sufficient men or take the offensive and secure a dramatic victory that might win time for his regime to consolidate its hold on France or even shatter his enemies' resolve. …

"Nor did it take much time to work out that the obvious targets at which to strike were the Anglo-Dutch-German army of the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian army of Field Marshal Blücher. ...”

Napoleon crossed the frontier into Belgium on June 15 at the head of an army approximately 72,000 strong. While the allied generals theoretically commanded roughly 118,000 troops, many were Dutch and Belgian troops whose loyalty was questionable. Many of those men had fought under Napoleon as imperial troops, so perhaps they, too, could be persuaded to join their former master.

Despite the desperate situation for the British, the Duke of Wellington attended a ball thrown by the Duchess of Richmond in Brussels. Putting on an unconcerned face during the festivities so not alarm the guests, Wellington met with his officers secretly in a back room.

James Harris, the Earl of Malmesbury, recorded that fateful discussion in his diary: “The Duke shut the door and said, 'Napoleon has humbugged me, by Gad! He has gained 24 hours' march on me.' The Duke of Richmond said, 'What do you intend doing?' The Duke of Wellington replied, 'I have ordered the army to concentrate at Quatre-Bras; but we shall not stop him there, and if so, I must fight him here' (at the same time passing his thumbnail over the position of Waterloo).”

Two inconclusive engagements at Quatre-Bras and Lingy occurred the next day, June 16. Though they were tactical draws, both Wellington and Blücher retreated in order to fight under more favorable conditions, boosting the morale of Napoleon and his men.

Critically, however, Napoleon had succeeded in separating Wellington's force, which had retreated north toward his chosen battlefield of Waterloo, from Blücher's Prussian army, which retreated eastward. Dividing his forces, Napoleon ordered the Marquis de Grouchy to follow and defeat the retreating Prussians while he made plans to crush Wellington.

At Waterloo two days later, the British, Dutch and German forces under Wellington assembled on the northern hill while Napoleon deployed to the hill on the south. The British also fortified a position in the middle of the valley between, a large farmhouse on the British right called Hougoumont. As the morning dawned on Sunday, June 18, the two armies, still wet from an evening downpour the night before, prepared for battle.

Sometime between 10 and 11:30 a.m. (accounts vary), the French launched a massive attack on the farmhouse, which would be admirably held throughout the day by British, Scottish and German units.

About an hour later, after a massive artillery barrage, the French infantry attacked toward the British center, which again was rebuffed. Emboldened, the British launched a cavalry charge in order to cut down the French infantry. Napoleon, however, launched his own cavalry into the mix, inflicting severe losses on the British.

Napoleon was growing desperate for a decision, however, as his intelligence had spotted Prussian forces marching toward Waterloo, with no sign of Grouchy to reinforce his own army. The battle at Hougoumont was still raging and the main British line on the hill hadn't yet been broken.

Commanding the French left, Ney, too, was perceiving that defeat was approaching unless something was done quickly. Another infantry attack was out of the question, as most units were preparing for the Prussian blow on the French right or still engaged at Hougoumont.

Seeing movement in the middle of the British line and misinterpreting it as the beginning of a retreat, Ney on his own initiative ordered his cavalry to attack without infantry or artillery support, an incredibly dangerous maneuver that left his horsemen vulnerable.

Beginning at about 4 p.m., Ney's massed cavalry attack ultimately included nearly 10,000 horsemen. As they approached the British lines, however, Wellington's troops formed squares. This formation of tightly packed men with their bayonets extended ensured that horses would veer away rather than charge, and without accompanying infantry to break up the squares, the British troops were virtually invulnerable to the French attack.

In his book “Wellington and Napoleon: Clash of Arms, 1807-1815,” historian Robin Neillands wrote: “The British and Allied infantry came to welcome the presence of the French cavalry, which did them comparatively little harm and caused the French artillery to cease firing on the squares until the cavalry had cleared away.

"Wellington now ordered his own cavalry reserves to advance and the French troopers were driven from the plateau, but their attack was renewed again and again, until the slope of the ridge and the ground around the squares was carpeted with dead and wounded men and horses.”

Ney's failure is cited by many as the critical failure of the day and is often seen as the movement that lost the battle for Napoleon. Ney organized another attack, this time with support, but by then it was too little, too late.

The Prussians, arriving just in time, soon hit the French right, and Napoleon found himself now fighting a largely defensive struggle. And yet even now Napoleon would not give up. When an opening in the British line on the right appeared to present itself at about 7 that evening, the emperor ordered one last great attack, throwing his elite Imperial Guard into the fighting. Though initial gains were made, the British held and the Imperial Guard was forced to retreat.

After that, the entire French line began to fall apart. Napoleon would retreat from the battlefield, briefly entertaining the thought of creating another army before finally surrendering himself to the allies. He would eventually be exiled to the island of St. Helena, where he would die in 1821. Ney would be shot by the allies a few months after the battle for switching loyalties one time too many. The Duke of Wellington would go on to become prime minister and one of the most celebrated figures in British history.

Total casualties (killed, captured, wounded) amounted to roughly 51,000 for the French (more than two-thirds of their initial strength) and 24,000 for the allies. After touring the battlefield after the fighting, Wellington famously remarked, “Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Centre Theatre and Off Broadway Theater. Email: