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The Battle of Waterloo

The Battle of Waterloo was fought mostly between French and British forces. Napoleon was crowned as Emperor of France in 1804. He launched many successful attacks on the other countries of Europe. France soon had an empire that stretched from Spain to the Russian border. The only country still not captured was Great Britain. The Royal Navy had many ships, so invasion was not possible. However, Great Britain was not strong enough to stop Napoleon and his army from taking over most of mainland Europe. 

Napoleon seemed unstoppable until two separate campaigns caused his empire to fall apart. He gathered a huge army to invade and conquer Russia once and for all in 1812. However, he did not think that he would have very many difficulties, it turned out he did. His army was caught by the Russian winter and destroyed by the weather and lack of food. 

Now that Napoleon was much weaker, the countries of Eastern Europe, led by Austria and Prussia, began to ally against him, forcing his troops back towards France. Meanwhile, a small British army in Portugal and Spain, led by Arthur Wellesley (later to become Duke of Wellington) began to win victories over the French armies and to push Napoleon’s troops out of Spain. 

By 1814, Napoleon faced total defeat, with the Austrians and Prussians invading from the east and the Duke of Wellington and the British army in the west. A peace treaty was arranged. Napoleon would abdicate and be exiled to a small Mediterranean island called Elba, with a small army. He was replaced as ruler of France by Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI. 

Once he was on the island of Elba, Napoleon was really not happy. He had been promised money by the new French gov- ernment, but the money did not come. His wife (an Austrian princess) and his sons were also forbidden to visit him. 

Messages from France showed that the new French King was unpopular because he was trying to ignore many events that had taken place during the revolution. The allies that had united against Napoleon were arguing in Vienna over the lands that they had recaptured. Napoleon seized this opportunity going by ship in February 1815 and landing in France again. His welcome was very mixed as many French were tired of war and the death and suffering that it led to. However, there were others who wanted a return to the power and glory of the old days and saw Napoleon as their best hope. 

His first days were tense but, by personal leadership and persuasion, Napoleon managed to gain the support of the army. When the king panicked and fled the country, there was little to stop Napoleon returning to Paris and resuming his title of Emperor. 

What Napoleon needed now was a period of time to organize himself and the French army. The allies were caught completely by surprise and their only chance to stop him lay with two small armies in Belgium: a British and Dutch army commanded by the Duke of Wellington and a Prussian (German) army commanded by Prince Blucher. 

Napoleon decided on a further gamble, he gathered an army and prepared a surprise attack on Wellington and Blucher, hoping to catch them unprepared. His plan was successful at first and he crossed the Belgian border before Wellington and Blucher could join forces. 

His first battle was at Ligny and, after a fierce day’s fighting, he defeated the Prussian army, forcing it to retreat. Thinking that Blucher would retreat back to Prussia, Napoleon turned his attention towards Wellington. There had already been a small battle at Quatre Bras, as Wellington tried to delay the French advance. This had given Wellington enough time to prepare a full defensive position across the road leading to Brussels, near the village of Waterloo. 

The French army advanced towards them and set up their camp on a ridge facing the combined British and Dutch (Anglo-Dutch) army. Heavy rain caused delays and confusion and both armies settled down for the night in the mud to await the dawn and the forthcoming battle. 

Napoleon’s army faced the Duke of Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch army near Waterloo on 18th June 1815. Wellington’s troops were deployed behind a low ridge, partially protecting them from the French massed artillery. 

The Attack on Hougoumont

At 11.00am Napoleon ordered his guns to open fire. French infantry began an attack against the Château of Hougoumont, defended by the British Foot Guards. This was intended to draw Wellington’s reserves away from the centre, where Napoleon’s main attack would fall. According to records this battle was considered to be a vital key to who will win the Battle Of Waterloo. 

The French Infantry Attacks

At 1.30pm Napoleon launched an infantry attack against Wellington’s centre. Men of the King’s German Legion resolutely defended the farm of La Haye Sainte, which disrupted the French attack. British artillery and musketry succeeded in repulsing the French assault and the British Household and Union heavy cavalry brigades charged after the retreating Frenchmen. Elated by their success, the British cavalry pursued their enemy too far and in turn suffered terrible casualties at the hands of the French lancers. 

The French Cavalry Attacks

At 3.00pm Marshal Ney, believing the Anglo-Dutch army to be retreating after the heavy bombardment they had received all day, led a massed French cavalry attack against Wellington’s centre. However, the British infantry, forming squares to defend themselves from cavalry attack, held firm. The French took terrible casualties as they circled these impregnable formations of infantrymen. The situation further deteriorated for Napoleon as Blucher's Prussian troops launched an attack at Plancenoit to his rear at 4.30pm.

The Prussians begin to increase pressure

By early evening the French attack at Hougoumont, intended as a diversion, was now having the opposite effect. The French committed more and more troops to the bitter fighting around the château, which was held by only a small force of British Guardsmen. More French reserves were being sent to meet the Prussian threat to the rear of Napoleon’s army at Plancenoit. However, the French had at last succeeded in capturing the farm of La Haye Sainte, only a short distance from Wellington’s centre.

The Attack by the Imperial Guard

At approximately 7.30pm Napoleon committed his last reserves in a final effort to obtain victory. As Prussians arrived to bolster Wellington’s flank, veterans of the French Imperial Guard advanced. The British infantry, exhausted from the continuous cannonade they had received all day, rose to meet them. The musketry of the British Guards Brigade defeated Napoleon’s finest troops. They fled, and the whole French army joined them in retreat. Wellington ordered his entire line to advance and the French were chased from the field.

Waterloo cost Wellington around 15,000 dead or wounded and Blücher some 7,000 (810 of which were suffered by just one unit: the 18th Regiment, which served in Bülow's 15th Brigade, had fought at both Frichermont and Plancenoit, and won 33 Iron Crosses). Napoleon's losses were 24,000 to 26,000 killed or wounded and included 6,000 to 7,000 captured with an additional 15,000 deserting subsequent to the battle and over the following days.

Waterloo was a decisive battle in more than one sense. It definitively ended the series of wars that had convulsed Europe — since the French Revolution of the early 1790s. It also ended the First French Empire and the political and military career of Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the greatest commanders and statesmen in history. Finally, it ushered in almost half a century of international peace in Europe; no further major conflict occurred until the Crimean War.

Napoleon announced his second abdication on 24th June 1815. The Treaty of Paris was signed on 20th November 1815. Louis XVIII was restored to the throne of France and Napoleon was exiled to Saint Helena, where he died in 1821.

The battlefield is located in Belgium, about 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) south of Brussels, and about 2 kilometres (1.2 miles) from the town of Waterloo. The site of the battlefield today is dominated by a large monument, the Lion's Mound. As this mound was constructed from earth taken from the battlefield itself, the contemporary topography of the battlefield near the mound has not been preserved.  

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