The Battle of Waterloo

It is well known that Napoleon's reign as the First French Emperor came to an end with his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo by an Anglo-Allied army under the Duke of Wellington and a Prussian army under Gebhard von Blücher. The battle, fought just to the south of the city of Waterloo on 18 June 1815, saw the Anglo-Allied army repel repeated attacks by the French until the Prussians arrived and broke through the French army's flank, at which poin Anglo-Allied army also attacked, routing the French and winning the battle. However, Napoleon could just as easily have won the battle, which, according to Wellington, was "the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life".

The Armies

The French army of 69,000 seasoned veterans (every man had served in at least one campaign) consisted of 48 thousand infantry, 14 thousand cavalry (a particularly formidable arm including around 5,000 armoured heavy cavalry and 2,000 lancers), and 7 thousand artillerymen with 250 guns. Another 30,000 men under the command of Marshal Grouchy were headed towards the city of Wavre, around 13 km to the west of Waterloo.

Napoleon and his army

The Anglo-Allied army of 67,000 largely inexperienced men (only 7,000 Peninsular War veterans) consisted of 50 thousand infantry, 11 thousand cavalry (with excellent mounts, though none were armoured heavy cavalry and almost none were lancers), and 6 thousand artillerymen with 150 guns. In terms of nationality, 25 thousand were British, 6 thousand were of the King's German Legion, 17 thousand were Dutch or Belgian, 11 thousand were Hannoverian, 6 thousand were from Brunswick, and 3 thousand were from Nassau. Lastly there was an additional force of 17,000 men at the city of Halle, 13 km to the west.

The Prussian army of 48,000 need only be shortly described as also consisting of largely inexperienced men led by the excellent professional commanders of the General Staff system.

Map of the battle

The Battle

Napoleon delayed the start of the battle due to the sodden ground (it had rained the night before) which would have made cavalry and artillery manoeuvers difficult. At around 11 a.m. the first French attack, meant to be diversionary and to draw in Wellington's reserves, went up against the occupied Chateau of Hougoumont, threatening the Anglo-Allied army's line of communications. Over the course of the battle Napoleon commited 14,ooo troops to attacks on Hougoumont while Wellington commited 12,000 troops keeping the way to the chateau open. Both commanders saw the position as crucial part of the battle.

Fighting for Hougoumont

At noon 80 guns of Napoleon's grande battery, drawn up in the center, opened fire, preparing the ground for the first major French infantry attack, that of d'Erlon's I Corps. At 1 p.m. Napoleon saw the first Prussian troops about 5 miles away from his right flank (none of the French generals had known about the proximity of the Prussians). The Emperor sent a message to Grouchy calling him to the battlefield, but at this point the marshal was too far away to provide any help. Shortly after 1 p.m. d'Erlon's attack began. The assault, supported on the left by cuirassiers, passed just to the right of la Haye Sainte, another fortified position. La Haye Sainte was cut off from the Anglo-Allied line and some 14,000 men of I Corps proceeded to start up the slope, at a point where 6,000 men were deployed facing them. The French attack successfully crested the ridge, forcing it's way through the first line of Dutch troops and pressing the second line of British troops hard.

British cavalry charge

At this point the Earl of Uxbridge ordered a counter-attack against I Corps by 2,000 British heavy cavalry. This large cavalry charge decimated d'Erlon's attack. However the charge quickly lost all cohesion and advanced too far, exposing the British cavalry to a devastating French cavalry counter-attack. Though the British heavy cavalry suffered heavily it had successfully repelled d'Erlon's assault. Napoleon had commited 20,000 troops to the attack, and its failure cost him valuable time as well as 3,000 casualties. He now had to commit the 15,000 men of Lobau's VI Corps to his right flank to hold off the Prussians, leaving him with no infantry reserves save the Imperial Guard and effectively making him outnumbered by the Anglo-Allied army.

British square

A little before 4 p.m. Ney launched an immense cavalry attack against the section of the Anglo-Allied line to the right of la Haye Sainte. Initially 4,800 sabres were commited; when these were repulsed 9,000 more were added to the assault. The infantry formed into impenetrable squares bristling with bayonettes around which the waves of cavalry swarmed, acheiving little (and not even spiking the cannons they had overrun). Eventually the futility of the assault became obvious to Ney and he organised a combined arms attack against the same section of line, employing 6,500 infantry along with the remaining cavalry. This attack was stopped by Uxbridge's cavalry.

As these events were unfolding, another assault by elements of d'Erlon's I Corps on la Haye Sainte at last managed to capture the position at 6 p.m. At this time ferocious fighting was also under way between the French and Prussians for the village of Placenoit, on Napoleon's right. Lobau had been pushed back to Placenoit from Frichermont and was hard pressed by Bülow's IV Corps. Napoleon sent all his Young Guard to help him, this force counter-attacked and recaptured Placenoit before being forced out; another counter-attack by elements of the Middle and Old Guard managed to retake the village. At the same time Zieten's I Corps, which had been arriving throughout the afternoon and reinforcing Wellington's left, forced the French out of la Haie. By 7:30 p.m. the French had also been forced out of the nearby village of Papelotte.   


With la Haye Sainte captured and the situation around Placenoit stabilised, Napoleon decided to commit his last reserve, the hitherto-undefeated Old Guard. At 7:30 p.m. the small force of 3,000 Guardsmen attacked the Anglo-Allied line to the west of la Haye Sainte. Though this attack met with some initial success, it was thrown back by heavy musket fire followed by a bayonette charge. The retreat of the Old Guard caused panic in the French army. Wellington called a general advance and his army rushed forward to attack the retreating French. At the same time Placenoit was finally captured by the Prussians; with the loss of the position that was supposed to cover the French withdrawl, the French army's retreat turned into a rout. The battle was over. The Anglo-Allies suffered 15,000 casualties, the Prussians 7,000, and the French 25,000 with another 8,000 taken prisoner.

defeat of the guard

The Reasons for Napoleon's Defeat

In hindsight Napaleon had lost the battle the moment d'Erlon's attack was repulsed; he simply did not have enough men or enough time to have even a single major attack fail. A number of factors came into play in his defeat. Firstly, the rain (clearly an uncontrolable factor) delayed the beginning of a battle which otherwise could have started in the morning. Secondly, Napoleon commited far too many men to a pointless fight for Hougoumont, which was a very strong but not crucial part of Wellington's line. Thirdly, Napoleon over estimated the importance of his victory at Ligny; he believed that he had soundly defeated the Prussians. Fourthly, he under estimated the determination of the Coallition to defeat him. This made him believe that the Prussians would retreat towards Prussia; instead they stayed within supporting distance of Wellington. Fifthly, these last two factors contributed to Napoleon's poor decision to commit 30,000 men under Grouchy to a wild pursuit that would not influence the key battle at Waterloo. Sixthly, and lastly, Napoleon was no longer the stunning general he once was. The Napoleon in command at Waterloo was not the Napoleon of Wagram, who would decide to use a part of his force to fix the Anglo-Allies and then flank them with another part. This was not the Napoleon of Friedland, who would commit the entirety of his ressources to an attack at the weakest part of his enemy's line. This was not the brilliantly inspired Napoleon of Austerlitz. Rather this was the Napoleon of Borodino, who chose to throw his force forward in a series of costly head on attacks that failed to acheive a decisive victory.

The rout

A Victory for Napoleon    

Therefore a victory for Napoleon (assuming the rain and Grouchy's absense to be constants) would have revolved around two key factors. One, the costly distraction of Hougoumont should have been avoided. Two, there should have been a single massive combined arms  attack concentrated at a crucial point so as to defeat Wellington's army quickly. This attack could have taken the form of d'Erlon and Ney attacking simultaneously at the center around la Haye Sainte or of a more inspired flanking move around the left of the Anglo-Allied line, with d'Erlon attacking from the front and Ney from the side. Victory was not out of reach for Napoleon at Waterloo, rather the Emperor let it slip from him by first focusing on the wrong area of the battlefield and then having his army conduct two large seperate assaults rather than one massive, overwhelming combined arms attack.

Napoleon triumphant

for the Top 5 Battles Napoleon Won please see