The sheer number of historical anniversaries and commemorations in 2015 has certainly kept me busy. Today marks the bicentenary (200 years) since the world-changing Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, which pitted the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte against the Duke of Wellington and allied forces. In terms of significance, the Battle of Waterloo decisively brought an end to Napoleon’s domination of Europe and, relatively speaking, brought peace to the continent until 1914 (World War I). It is important to also recall that by 1815, Britain and her allies (Austria, Prussia and Russia) had legitimately thought that Napoleon was paralyzed and immobilized as a threat – as he had been forced to abdicate in 1814 and was exiled to the island of Elba off Italy. In February-March of 1815 (only 4 months before Waterloo) Napoleon had escaped exile, raised an army, and had advanced on Belgium to threaten Europe again. Napoleon invaded Belgium in what was planned as a surprise preemptive attack against the Prussians at Ligny on June 16th, whilst the Duke of Wellington’s forces fought a smaller battle at Quatre Bras. The Prussians retreated but remained operational, but Napoleon had mistakenly assumed they were fleeing the battlefield and returning to Germany. The Prussians would later regroup and play a decisive role in defeating French forces.
On June 18, Napoleon led his army of some 73,000 troops against the British army, which had taken up a position south of Brussels near the village of Waterloo. In what has been claimed to be a critical blunder, Napoleon waited until midday (11:20am) to begin his assault in order to let the waterlogged ground dry. That delay gave Blucher’s Prussian army time to march to Waterloo and join the battle. Napoleon’s troops would mount a strong and powerful attack against the British until the arrival of the Prussians turned the tide of battle against the French. Napoleon had reportedly been in bad health and may have committed tactical errors which resulted in his defeat. The battle would end at 8:30pm. Ultimately, the Battle of Waterloo marked the end to Napoleon’s military and political career. Reports say he rode away from the battle in tears.
In terms of military strength, the allied armies outnumbered the French, with 118,000 soldiers. The French had only 73,000 troops. Following the battle the allied forces had suffered 17,000 dead, wounded or captured. The French suffered 25,000 dead and wounded, and up to 8,000 prisoners were taken. 10,000 horses were killed as well. The Battle of Waterloo remains one of the bloodiest battles fought at close quarters (remember that a standard muscat had a range of only 50 yards, or 150 feet).
Napoleon would flee to Paris in a vein attempt to rally and unite the French nation to rise up against the British and allied forces. He was ultimately unsuccessful. Napoleon would abdicate on June 22, but was prevented from escaping to America by the Royal Navy’s blockade. Napoleon surrendered on July 15, and was exiled to St. Helena where he died in 1821. The Battle of Waterloo came to represent France’s utter defeat as a global power, with Britain going on to build what was arguably the largest empire the world has ever seen. Win or lose, we must use this time to remember two incredible military geniuses of the 19th century: Napoleon and Wellington. In almost 12 years of continuous battle, Wellington was undefeated. Both men were 46 years of age at Waterloo and had unknowingly decided the fate of Europe. Is in also ironic that history would remember Napoleon more than Wellington. It was after-all France that lost. This bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo reminds us again that history is not a set of isolated events, but connecting narratives that shape and define both future and past. The Battle of Waterloo was a turning point not only for the 19th century, but for the centuries since.
For more information on the Battle of Waterloo please consult some of the following sources:
Waterloo 200 – Discover the battle that changed the world
Actual letters and first-hand accounts of the Battle of Waterloo from soldiers
Breaking News: Wellington defeats Napoleon at Waterloo
Battle of Waterloo memorial unveiled by Prince Charles
The Battle of Waterloo and major points of conflict marked on a Google map of the battlefied
The Battle of Waterloo: The day that decided Europe’s fate
Note: Cover image sourced from Waterloo: The First Draft of History. April 30, 2015. University of Cambridge. Retrieved from http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/waterloo-the-first-draft-of-history