Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Tuesday 12th December 2017 | Manchester, UK

Battle of the Month: Waterloo

June 19th 2015 will mark 200 years since one of the most defining battles in the history of Europe. On Sunday 19th June 1815, on a rainy morning, thousands of men awoke to take part in the Battle that would make or break Europe: Waterloo. An already once broken Napoleon had returned from exile in Elba, steadily marching through France. He reached Paris and declared himself emperor once more.

Napoleon had then to quickly confront the situation: the coalition forces of Britain, Prussia, Austria, the German states and Russia, whose combined armies amounted to over 800, 000 whilst France had a mere 198 000, were readying to invade. However, his earlier campaign of 1814 had taught him that, even though he had been defeated overall, he had won all of his own conducted engagements and the coalition leaders feared his tactical ability. Therefore, if he could move quickly before the main allied armies could link up, he could defeat each in turn. It was to be an offensive campaign that relied on Napoleon seizing the initiative before the great powers could consolidate.

The Emperor turned his attention to Belgium where an Anglo-allied army, under the command of Lord Wellington, lay alongside a Prussian army, under the command of Gebhard von Blucher. He decided to attack the Prussians first before they could link up with Wellington and on the 16th of June defeated this first army at the Battle of Ligny. He despatched one of his marshals, Grouchy, to pursue the retreating Prussians and prevent them from joining Wellington for the coming battle.

Grouchy, however, was not Napoleon’s finest choice as a commander and he failed to follow up the retreating Prussians. Wellington, meanwhile, on hearing of the Prussian defeat had moved to a more defensive position just south of the village of Waterloo. Encouraged by the news that they were hastening to join him, he chose to give battle.

On the morning of 18th June, the French forces, consisting of 72 000, formed up on the slopes of a ridge to the south of the British forces who, consisting of 68 000, had formed up on an opposite ridge, but were partly hidden from Napoleon. Wellington’s plan was to hold the larger French army off until the Prussians could arrive and help to give him the numerical advantage.

Napoleon first launched a diversionary attack on HugoumontFarm, but the British there repulsed the initial attacks. However, it did keep the allies right flank busy and Napoleon seized the opportunity to attack the allied centre. They surroundedthe nearby village of La Haye Sainte and victory was in Napoleon’s grasp as he could now attack the allied forces at close range. However, movement to the east caught his eye: it was the Prussians, though they were still far off.

Wellington only needed to hold on for a bit longer and so Lord Uxbridge charged with two brigades of cavalry at the advancing French infantry, which decimated the French line. But the allied left flank had also suffered greatly and Wellington could not afford to launch another attack.

Meanwhile, Napoleon had despatched cavalry to deal with the advancing Prussians, but they repulsed the French and he had to commit more and more troops to prevent them linking up with Wellington. The French now had to split their forces and it was costing them. Napoleon, increasingly under pressure, ordered Marshal Ney to capture Wellington’scentral stronghold and wave after wave of French cavalry charged an entrenched British position that successfully fended them off.

However, eventually the British fell back, and with La Haye Saint in their hands, the French artillery moved up and at close range devastated the British line. Napoleon knew all he needed to do was to prevent the Prussians from reinforcing the British and they would break. But just asWellington was making his last stand, the Prussians arrived and the allied army now advanced on the French who began to break. It was all over and Napoleon had been defeated.

On the 24th June Napoleon abdicated for the second time and was exiled to St. Helena where he could never again threaten Europe. Today the Waterloo battlefield is marked only by the Lion’s Mound, an artificial hill with a Lion on top. In late June this year, thousands will gather to watch or take part in a recreation of this iconic battle and mark two hundred years since Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the greatest  military tacticians of all time, was defeated.

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