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Forces War Records Blog

ON THIS DAY: JUNE 18, BATTLE OF WATERLOO

Blogger: GemSen. On this day in 1815, rattling musketry and the sounds of shot and shell would have been bouncing across the battlefield at Waterloo, between two ridges of countryside, 11 miles south of Brussels, in Belgium.

The Battle of Waterloo, between the French, under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Allied armies commanded by the Duke of Wellington from Britain and General Blucher from Prussia, was the final battle of the Napoleonic Wars and with the entire future of Europe at stake was one of the most important battles in history. Napoleon’s Big Ambitions Driven by his desire to make France a European empire, the defiant warlord Napoleon Bonaparte established himself as ruler and First Consul in 1799 after carrying out a coup against the government of the First Republic of France (the 'Directory'). The French Republic was officially recognised and the Peace of Amiens signed and plucky Bonaparte later declared himself First Consul for life and Emperor in 1804. Of course, Napoleon wasn’t going to stop there though - he had much higher ambitions and his main desire was to make France the most powerful country in Europe by conquering other countries including Britain. In 1803, Britain declared war on France and the ensuing 'Napoleonic Wars' were fought between France and various Allied coalitions over the next 11 years. Eventually, the Allies successfully invaded in 1814 and forced Napoleon to abdicate at the Treaty of Fontainbleau. Napoleon was then banished to the Mediterranean island of Elba, and after 25 years of war the European powers began restoring peace in their individual countries. However, peace did not last long in Europe and Napoleon escaped from Elba on the 1st March 1815, making it back to France and resuming his title as Emperor. The unpopularity of Louis XVIII and the bad economic and social climate of France helped his popularity and he was able to restore his Grand Army, releasing those who had been captured during the years of fighting. Once he was back in Paris he began building up his army in preparation for an invasion of Belgium with the goal of capturing Brussels. THIS means war Leaders met at the Congress of Vienna and the 7th Coalition between Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia was formed on 25th March - the Allied powers of Europe immediately declared war on France and began to mass hundreds of thousands of troops on the borders of France. Only the armies of Wellington and  Blucher, Commander of the Prussian Army, were in place in Belgium. Napoleon once described Britain as “the most powerful and most constant of my enemies.” The Duke of Wellington, had never been beaten by the French and had a reputation as a talented coalition general. Napoleon quickly decided to attack before his enemies reached full strength and swiftly moved 125,000 troops to the Belgian border with the plan to surprise the two armies in a offensive attack on the Allied troops gathering in Belgium. He had aimed to divide the armies before defeating them separately, forcing Wellington's army to retreat back to the Belgian coast in the west and the Prussians to retreat to the east. Initially, Napoleon was partly successful and on June 16 he defeated the Prussians at Ligny. The victory was not completed though, because Marshal Ney, whose help was needed to destroy the Prussians, mismanaged a preliminary attack on British forces at Quatre Bras and arrived too late. On the morning of June 18 Napoleon went after Wellington, while Marshal Grouchy, at the head of 33,000 French troops, hunted for Blücher. This detailed rundown from BBC History explains how the battle unfolded: 11:30am The French launched their diversionary attack on Hougoumont. The Allied line hid behind the ridge. Wellington stood firm. 1:00pm The Grand Battery of heavy artillery opened fire before d'Erlon's Corps marched forward in their traditional columns across the field from the French right past La Haye Sainte. They came under fire from the garrisons at La Haye Sainte. Despite suffering heavy casualties from Allied artillery fire, the French succeeded in capturing Papelotte and surrounding La Haye Sainte. As Wellington's troops moved forward from the ridge to engage the French before they could break columns and form a line, the reserves moved up to support the left. As his centre began to give way and La Haye Sainte became vulnerable, Wellington sent in his reserve led by Picton's brigade to plug the gap. The French were beaten back from La Haye Sainte and Wellington ran home his advantage by having the cavalry brigades under Somerset and Ponsonby attack. The French infantry were surprised and easily overcome, but the Allied cavalry was badly decimated during a counter attack by a cuirassier brigade and some lancers.

Once again Wellington withdrew behind the ridge and reinforced La Haye Sainte while Prince Bernhardt of Saxe-Weimar retook Papelotte. The left flank was now very weak but Napoleon's right flank was also badly wrecked. Wellington was unable to take advantage of this without Prussian support. Artillery continued to be fired on both sides and a battle continued at Hougoument while, at St-Lambert, Lobau stood against the Prussians.
 
3:00pm Knowing that La Haye Sainte was a key stronghold, Napoleon ordered Marshal Ney to capture it, thereby smashing the Allied centre. Possibly believing the British were retreating, he ordered his cavalry to charge across the battlefield towards the ridge. Wellington's infantry formed squares behind the ridge to receive them and the Allied artillery lined up in front of them, enabling the gunners to continue firing until the last possible moment and then to take refuge behind the squares. Wellington's formation stood firm and the French cavalry made little impact especially as Ney no fresh infantry reserves available, as they were tied down by the Prussians. The French artillery also had to cease firing because, had they continued, they would have inflicted casualties on their own side as much as on the enemy's. Wellington was short of cavalry and artillery but counter attacked by sending in his cavalry reserve to stand between the infantry squares.
Despite sending in more cavalry to attack, the French eventually had to retire. However, an infantry force did manage to capture La Haye Sainte which Wellington was unable to reinforce. This meant that French artillery were able to line up right below the ridge so making the Allied infantry sitting targets if they appeared over it. At the time Napoleon was more concerned about the Prussians who were continuing to advance and had captured Plancenoit. Desperate to stop them from joining Wellington, he decided to send his Imperial Guard to recapture Plancenoit first and then sent the remainder to fight Wellington's troops. 7:00pm The group marched in echelon across the field between Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. The troops near Hougoumont were fired upon by Allied forces and decimated, but those on the side of the French-held La Haye Sainte got through and went up and over the ridge. The Allied forces were waiting for them and, although the Guard broke through the front line, Maitland's brigade in the reserve surprised them by hiding in the corn. The Guard fled, some of them forming squares in the centre of the battlefield to block the Allied advance and screen their Emperor's retreat from the battlefield. Under orders from Wellington who had seen the Prussians advancing on his left, the Allied line swept down from the ridge and successfully defeated the Guard. The Prussians retook Plancenoit and Papelotte. 9.00pm Blücher met Wellington at La Belle Alliance. A fresh Prussian cavalry pursued the retreating French. Blücher wanted to name the battle "La Belle Alliance" but Wellington insisted upon a tradition of his, that it be called after the place where he had spent the night before the battle, Waterloo. Ending 23 years of war So, in summary, Wellington's regiments, who regrouped a few miles south of Waterloo, withstood the strong assaults and throwing back Marshal Ney and the French cavalry. Held in reserve, France's Old Guard, staked their lives in a big charge on Wellington's central line, but lost. At nightfall, Blücher's Prussians arrived on the battlefield and Wellington ordered a general charge which ended the battle. Around 33,000 Frenchmen were killed, wounded, or reported missing and about 23,000 of the allies were also missing, wounded and/or killed. After this defining battle, France was left weak and Napoleon unpopular - four days later, he abdicated. He was then exiled to the island of St. Helena, and the Congress of Vienna resumed its work. Napoleon's final defeat at the Battle ofWaterloo stopped his reign as dictator and ended 23 years of conflict beginning with the French Revolutionary wars in 1792 and continuing with the Napoleonic Wars from 1803. It also marked the end of the Emperor’s final bid for power, the so-called ’100 Days’. Source: BBC History and Howstuff works Forces War Records have a wealth of records from the early 19th century – if you are researching your ancestors from this war period then have a look at our site and fill in the missing pieces. Alternatively, for more information on the Waterloo Medal take a look at one of our documents from our library called British Battles and Medals.
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