Another post from the Napoleon Guide on the Battle of Waterloo. To learn about the author, click HERE.
By Richard Moore
One of the most decisive battles of the Napoleonic Wars, Waterloo was fought in a small area (some 10km by 4km) on the main road leading south from Brussels.
Bonaparte had brilliantly outmanouevred both the Anglo-Allied force of (77,000 approx) under Wellington and the nearby Prussian army of Field Marshal Blucher (102,000).
On 16 June, Bonaparte had beaten the Prussians at Ligny, while at the same time Wellington had held a vital set of crossroads at Quatre Bras against an inept Marshal Ney. Together the allied forces easily outnumbered France’s 72,000 men (Bonaparte) and its detached right-wing corps of 33,000 (Marshal Grouchy), so the French emperor surprised the two by getting in between them and preventing their linking.
Turning his main strength towards the British, Bonaparte detached Grouchy to keep the Prussians retreating and away from Wellington near Waterloo.
The emperor found the Anglo-Allied drawn up across a small ridge at Mont St John, just south of the village of Waterloo, and organised his troops for battle the next day as a massive storm drenched the ground.
At dawn it was decided the ground was too boggy to launch an immediate attack and so the armies faced off against each other.
The British position was linked with various strongpoints – the chateau of Hougoumont, the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte and the dwellings of La Haie and Papelotte – and while Wellington knew his troops could hold the French for a time, he was relying upon the promised arrival of Blucher on his left flank to ensure victory.
Bonaparte began the battle at about 11.30am with salvoes from his massed artillery and then sent an initial assault, intended as a diversion to draw enemy reserves away, against Hougoumont on the British right flank.
Far from sucking in Allied men, the battle for the chateau would rage all day and would tie up more than 10,000 French troops in a bitter struggle against 2000 British Guardsmen.
At 1.30, following a half-hour bombardment, D’Erlon’s I Corps moved against the central bastion of La Haye Sainte.
Already hammered by the shelling and having suffered considerable casualties while holding off the French at Quatre Bras, the Dutch-Belgians under Bylandt were ordered to withdraw as more than 18,000 French bayonets advanced towards them.
The remaining men under D’Erlon pushed on towards the small ridge the British were formed behind.The advancing blue coats then overran the orchard and garden at La Haye Sainte, forced a detachment of 95th riflemen out of a strong position in a gravel pit near the farmhouse, and then a small force separated and set to capturing the main building, which was being defended by the King’s German Legion.
As the French moved from column to line formation the British 5th Division, under General Picton, stood up and fired a devestating volley into the surprised attackers. Then, before they could recover, Picton ordered a bayonet charge but was shot through the head and killed while leading it.
Continuing to advance, the British were threatened by cuirassiers, formed square and immediately found themselves cut off and under attack from infantry as well as horsemen.
Seeing the impending disaster, the British cavalry commander Lord Uxbridge ordered his heavy cavalry into action and the famous Charge of the Scots Greys began.
Realising the importance of the position, neither side would give quarter and bloody hand-to-hand fighting tested the mettle, and resolve, of all.
To bolster his outnumbered defenders, Bonaparte sent in a division of the Young Guard and, when they too began to be forced backwards, he sent in two battalions of his elite Old Guard. In a stunning attack, the Old Guard shattered 14 Prussian battalions and by 7pm the French lines were able to regroup.
Just before 6pm, Ney seemed to regain his military prowess, and launched a combined attack with cavalry, infantry and artillery.
The British resolve, so indomitable in the years of war to date, began to weaken. Hours of absorbing huge casualties had left the army dangerously wounded and finally La Haye Sainte fell in the centre.This time the French were able to hold the British in square through the threat of cavalry attack. But this time the accompanying infantry and artillery tore great holes in the dense ranks with musket and cannon fire.
Ney immediately positioned an artillery battery there and in order to hold the centre Wellington called in all his reserves.
Despite being like a boxer staggering and awaiting the knock-out blow, the Allied troops held on only to be faced by a sight that had terrified many fresh armies – the advance of the Imperial Guard.
In one final attempt to deal with Wellington, Bonaparte threw his undefeated veterans at the recalcitrant thin red line, which buckled under the strain.
The moment of victory was at hand when upon Wellington’s command, 1500 Guardsmen stood immediately in front of their French counterparts and stopped the advance with a withering point-blank series of volleys.
The Chasseurs of the Guard finally reeled away in disorder and the sight of their retreat sent panic through Bonaparte’s ranks.
The disintegration of a once-proud army into a mass of panicking men took place almost within a blink of an eye and Bonaparte’s dreams, and reputation, lay shattered.
The British and Prussian pursuit after Waterloo was relentless and prevented any chance of French consolidation.
Waterloo ended Bonaparte’s hold on power had been a costly one. Wellington lost 17,000 men, Blucher 7000, and Bonaparte 32,000, with at least another 7000 captured.
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